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“My stories always surprise me”: An interview with Annamaria Alfieri

The-Idol-of-Mombasa

Annamaria Alfieri is the author of five historical mysteries, including The Idol of Mombasa, now available from Felony & Mayhem Press. The Idol of Mombasa is the second in a series set in British East Africa, a projected ten-novel series featuring an idealistic English colonial policeman and his wife, a Scottish missionary’s daughter, who was born and raised in Africa. We asked Alfieri a few questions about this novel, the series, and her writing in general.

Felony & Mayhem: Where did the “British East Africa” mystery series begin for you? Was it an image, an idea, a character?

Annamaria Alfieri: All my stories have started with the place and its history. In a sense, British East Africa embedded itself in my imagination when I read Out of Africa as a teenager. That book gave rise to my longing to see the African wilderness for myself and fed my already pre-existing wanderlust. Once I went to Africa twelve years ago, I was completely infatuated with the experience of being there. Setting a book in British East Africa seemed a natural. Then, while I was contemplating the series and beginning some preliminary research, in an unrelated task – I was going through some memorabilia of my father’s – I came upon a leather bookmark that he had had inscribed with the Ten Commandments. BAM! There was an idea fully formed, that the series would follow the Commandments. I had already learned that the Protectorate of British East Africa became the Colony of Kenya in 1920, and it seemed only natural to begin with 1911 and count the Commandments through to 1920. So the series will end when BEA becomes the colony of Kenya.

F&M: You have now written five historical mysteries, books set in different locales and different time periods. How do you go about researching a time and place so far removed from your personal experience?

Alfieri: I have the enormous privilege of being a writer in residence at the splendid New York Public Library. What I want most, in addition to a small smattering of historians’ opinions, is memoirs of people who had feet on the ground in the place and at the time I am writing about. People who are writing about what happened to them — AND what they wore and what they ate, what they did in their free time! They also reveal their own attitudes and opinions about what they saw and experienced. This gives me such insight into the life of ordinary (or extraordinary) people, what they were feeling and thinking about the historical events that were swirling around them. Fortunately, the NYPL has an extensive collection of such books. An embarrassment of riches. With early twentieth century characters, I can also look at photos of what they saw. Sometimes I have to remind myself that their world was not sepia tinted.

F&M: What is it like to recreate the way people speak in those different time periods?

Alfieri: This is a technique that all historical novelists develop on an individual basis. For me the most important thing is to sound neither too modern nor too arcane. With the South American novels, I dropped in a Spanish word once in while, to remind the reader that she is not in twenty-first century USA, but only in a way that made its meaning obvious. And, depending on the period, I might or might not use contractions. 1945: Contractions work very well. 1650: no contractions at all. With the Africa series, I have the added issue of writing dialogue for English and Scottish people. So my goal, without being too precious about it, is to throw in a typically English expression. One character, in a moment of exasperation, shouted “Poppycock!” It worked because he’s a blowhard. Or I might have a tony upper-level administrator say, “Whilst you were away…” On the other hand, even if an expression was in common use in 1912, if it sounds too modern, I can’t use it. “Got the drop on me,” for instance, shows up in the writing of a real 1909 BEA policeman. But I can’t let Justin Tolliver say or even think that expression, or the reader will think I have used an anachronism, which would pull the reader out of the story. Nothing I do in the way of technique should ever do that. The story is the most important thing.

F&M: What are your favorite things about your characters, and what do you see as their flaws? And how, if at all, is the plot of your mystery novels connected to either their best qualities or their flaws?

Alfieri: My favorite thing about them is that they all have a foot in two worlds. Vera is African-born, so she is not really Scottish, but she is not really African either. Not 100% grounded in either culture, she can be impetuous, a bit overly self-reliant. Tolliver is an English aristocrat, but he is too in love with Africa and Vera to adopt the line of thinking of the King’s loyal empire builders. He was brought up to follow the rules of his class but is too intelligent and good-hearted not to prickle at the flaws in British attitudes towards the Africans. He is treading a thin line, and can overcompensate when he strays what feels to him to be too far in either direction. Ah, and Kwai Libazo. I love Kwai. He isn’t exactly flawless, but nearly so. His loyalties are his problem: he’s neither Maasai, nor Kikuyu. He’s also not British, but he serves the ideal of justice that he is learning from Tolliver. He follows his heart and his intelligence, but sometimes the two are in conflict, and he can paint himself into a corner on such an occasion.

F&M: You have said in the past that, when it comes to plotting, you are a “pantser,” which is to say, instead of writing from a plot outline, you construct the story as you go along. In writing The Idol of Mombasa, were you at all surprised by where the events took you? What discoveries did you make along the way?

Alfieri: My stories aways surprise me as they unfold. I did not know the murderer in Idol of Mombasa would even be in the story until that person showed up unexpectedly. Just last month, at dinner with the organizer of a famous British Mystery/Thriller conference, I got into a friendly debate about this. (He is not a writer of fiction, by the way.) He insisted that the writer must always know what’s going to happen, otherwise he or she would never be able to write the story. I could not convince him. But there are many like me. My friend Charles Salzberg, a fine mystery/thriller writer and teacher of fiction writing described his and my attitude best: “If I knew what was going to happen, I’d be bored with the story.” My sentiments exactly. And If I get bored, what chance would the reader have of staying intrigued? For pantsers like me, once the characters take on a life of their own, we know they are “alive” enough to seem real to the reader. Then I let the characters tell me the story. I will do here what I did at that dinner table. I refer any doubters to Chapter 13 of The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles. He describes the experience of writing a novel better than I ever could. The great E. L. Doctorow said, “It’s like driving a car at night in a heavy fog with the headlights on. You can’t see very far ahead, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Also by Annamaria Alfieri: Strange Gods and City of Silver

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Singing in the Shrouds printing error

Singing-in-the-Shrouds

It has come to our attention that the paperback edition of Ngaio Marsh’s Singing in the Shrouds contains a serious printing error: namely, toward the end of the book, pages from Death of a Fool, another Ngaio Marsh title, replace pages from Singing in the Shrouds. We are very sorry for this error, which occurred during the printing of the book (a press error caused by using the wrong plates during printing) and which our printer assures us they have never had before. When we heard from irate readers with defective copies, we combed through our existing inventory, opening every single copy of the book, and found 261 misprinted copies. We destroyed all of these copies, and everything that has left our warehouse since January has been error-free. Unfortunately, an unknown number of erroneous copies were shipped to book sellers, and then sold, and we have no way to identify these copies and recall them (though we did indeed try to find one). So instead, by way of apology, we are offering every one of you who has purchased a misprinted copy of Singing in the Shrouds a replacement copy of that book (verified by an actual human as correctly printed) shipped to you at no charge, as well as a free copy of a Felony & Mayhem book of your choice. Email us at mail@felonyandmayhem.com to get started.

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Behind the Music: Felony & Mayhem’s First 10 Years (part 2)

One of Us is Wrong, by Donald Westlake

Second part of an interview with Felony & Mayhem publisher Maggie Topkis (you can read the first part here). And, if you’re curious about some of the books mentioned below, you can read the Donald Westlake “Sam Holt” books at a discount this week.

Tell me more about the early covers.

So much of what we did in the early days was defined by having no money and no contacts, and needing to make something work. For the Ganja Coast cover, Margaret, our cover designer, found a great image online. She emailed the photographer, and he sent back this snooty email, saying he only licensed his work to non-profits. So I emailed him and said, look, I promise, we have never made a profit. He agreed to let us use the image.

One of my favorite stories: We published a book by William Marshall called Yellowthread Street. The book is set in Hong Kong, while it was still under British control, and it’s about cops. I knew I wanted a police badge on the cover, but it had to be a badge from the British days, a pre-handover police badge. Margaret found this guy in Norway who was obsessed with police forces. He had a collection of police ephemera from around the world, including several Hong Kong badges from the right period. And yes, he’d be happy to send us a high-resolution image for our cover. What did he want in exchange? Well, it seems there is a book that lists the address of every police station in the United States, a book that is not allowed to be sold outside the U.S. This frustrated him enormously. So we bought a copy of the book, and sent it to him, and he sent us our badge.

Quite a few of our books have covers that feature illustrations, rather than photographs. Donald Westlake’s books, the four he wrote under the name Sam Holt, were among the earliest titles we illustrated. And I know there’s a good story there.

Actually, there are a couple stories about those books. I really wanted Don’s “Dortmunder” series, but Don’s agent, Larry Kirshbaum, wanted to go with a bigger publisher (that was understandable; Felony & Mayhem was roughly the size of a lemonade stand). In the hope that we might begin a relationship (that would go on to embrace the Dortmunders), I wrote to Don, asking if we could publish the Sam Holt books. He said yes. And then I asked if we could publish them under the name Donald Westlake, and he said absolutely not. Hunh? Don explained that he had essentially written the books to win a bet with himself. He had become very successful, as a writer, getting wonderful reviews, and he wanted to know if he could sell books and get good reviews without trading on his name. So he brought the books out as written by “Samuel Holt,” swearing his agent and his initial publisher to secrecy. Ultimately he decided that enough time had gone by that he could allow the secret to come out.

Anthony Kosner had by that point become our art director, and I told him that I wanted pictures of a guy who looked like Magnum P.I. These were 1970s books, the guy should be sexy and happy; he’s got a convertible and a gun and a couple of babes, life is good. Remember, we had no money. So Anthony found an illustrator in Poland who worked cheap. Unfortunately, he kept sending us images of this guy with really hollowed-out cheeks, deep-set eyes, and a pencil mustache. He looked like a Latvian pimp who hadn’t eaten in a long time. I kept sending back emails saying “No, no, happy, happy,” and enclosing images of a grinning Tom Selleck. But we kept getting the guy who looked like he was saying “I will not smile again until my people are free.”

Were you still tiny at this point?

Yes, but tiny is relative. We launched in June 1995, and in October I went to Bouchercon, in Chicago. By the time we registered, all the publishers’ tables were gone, but I was told that a company called Ramble House might be willing to share its table with me. At the time, Ramble House published the work of only one writer, Harry Stephen Keeler, who wrote sort of wacky, hard-boiled stuff in the 30s and 40s, and apparently has a small but passionately devoted audience. We were brand new, we had a grand total of six books to sell, but Ramble House made us look like Simon & Schuster. The publisher, Fender, and I had a lot of time to talk, sitting at this table doing nothing. So I asked him, Who’s your printer? (This is classic publisher small-talk, the equivalent of “What’s your sign?”)

Well, Fender didn’t use a printer. He had a copy machine at home, and a paper cutter, and he wound run off copies of the books on the copy machine, use the paper cutter to trim them, and then (he was very proud of this), he had developed his own recipe for glue, which he would boil up in one of his wife’s saucepans. His wife had gotten very annoyed at this, so he had finally bought his own saucepan. Anyway, he would glue the pages together, and iron on the cover, using his wife’s iron, but she got tired of this, too, since glue always got on the iron, so she made him buy his own book-ironing iron.

We were not exactly boiling up our own glue. We did in fact have an actual printer – Sterling Pierce, which I had found through the small-press book fair. But the pre-print process was not exactly high-tech. Xerox had come out with a new machine, a souped-up copier that had a footprint the size of two shoeboxes. That was good, because my office was the size of four shoeboxes. With just a click of a button, you could scan a page and copy it, and turn it into a Word or PDF document. This was revolutionary. I would pull apart an old edition of a book, turn it into a badly OCR’d Word document. Someone would proofread that document, we would typeset the proofread copy, someone else would proofread the typeset version, and then we would send that proof to a fellow named Dan Smullyan, an old friend of Donna Miller’s who has for years acted as our final set of eyes.

Astonishingly, the process has remained similar to this day, except that we don’t do our own scanning anymore, and we’ve switched from Quark to InDesign. But still, because we are dealing with reprints of, often, fairly old books, OCR is the only method we’ve come up with for extracting the text. As a technique, it’s clunky and almost comically old-school, but…it’s what we’ve got. And as dopey as it may be, it’s a technique we’ve used to put out more than 300 books.

To be continued

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Behind the Music: Felony & Mayhem’s first 10 years (part 1)

satans lambs

On our 10th anniversary, we have been talking a lot about our early days. Here is the first part of an interview with Felonious publisher Maggie Topkis:

You started Felony & Mayhem in 1995. What did the publishing world look like then?

The early 90s were a really interesting period. Publishing was making a transition from a really inefficiently run industry of passionate amateurs (in the best sense) to a professionally run corporate industry. There was massive consolidation, and when companies consolidated and (often) went public, they jettisoned their midlists, which meant that hundreds of thousands of books were taken out of print. And that, of course, was where I saw an opportunity for Felony & Mayhem – well, sort of. Mostly I was just pissed that I couldn’t get these books for my customers as the bookstore.

When we did the launch party for Felony (and we did it at the bookstore, natch), a surprising number of people turned out. I mean, I had been kind of thinking my mom would come, you know, and maybe bring a friend. But in fact there were all these people from the world of publishing, all of them passionately wishing us good luck. I remember saying to somebody at the party, “Why are all these people so excited about this?” And she said, “Don’t you get it? You’re doing what they all want to do. They got into publishing to publish books they love, and now they find themselves working for another faceless corporation, putting out books like Ten Days to a Tighter Tummy.”

Felony books have a pretty distinctive look. How did you come up with that?

I knew from my experience at the bookstore that readers had very little sense of publishers’ identities, of publishers’ brands. With one exception: Soho Crime. Many times a customer would come up to the cash register with a pile of Soho Crime books. I’d ask he chose these books, had he read reviews? Did he recognize the authors’ names? No. Inevitably he’d say he had read other books from this publisher, had liked them, and knew from the design of the covers that these books were from the same publisher. I decided to steal that idea: I wanted our books to be recognizable as Felony books from halfway across the room.

So we needed a design. I spent hours and hours at the bookstore, looking at covers, trying to find covers where I liked the architecture. I finally found a good designer, Jose, and I told him that we wanted a design that would feature the author’s name more prominently than the title; I knew we had authors, like Edmund Crispin and Reginald Hill, whose names people would recognize. Jose initially gave us a sort of wedge running across the middle of the cover, and this didn’t work for me. I knew that the majority of our readers were likely to be women, and I didn’t want angular shapes; I wanted something more sensuous, which I thought would be more appealing to our audience. And so the Felony “swoosh” was born, that weird curving band where the author’s name is displayed.

As much as I might like the idea of designing each book’s interior, specifically for that book, I knew we couldn’t afford that approach. Jose knew a woman named Donna Miller who had designed the interiors of a number of books, so we hired her to create our templates. Actually, we hired her for more than that. One of our early books was Satan’s Lambs, by Lynn Hightower (which is currently out of print, but we really should reissue it, because it’s wonderful). A pivotal scene in the book is set in an all-but empty house. Our heroine is sitting in the house, waiting for nightfall, waiting for the man she knows is coming to kill her. She has deliberately stripped away everything – every side-table, every throw-rug, every piece of furniture – that could impede movement. The house is like a theater of war. And that was the scene I wanted to illustrate on the cover. My friends Fred and Maureen had just moved to Hong Kong, leaving behind their empty apartment, so I had an empty space. Now I needed a wiry, tensely muscled woman with short hair, to approximate the book’s protagonist. Well, that’s what Donna looked like. So we shot a roll of film starring Donna, sitting in Fred and Maureen’s empty apartment, clutching a rifle.

Read part 2 of this interview

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Felony of the Week: Traitor’s Purse, by Margery Allingham

Traitor's Purse, by Margery Allingham

The Folio Society, in England, has issued some very gorgeous new editions of Margery Allingham’s eternally great “Albert Campion” books. They’re priced for collectors (whereas our editions, ahem, are priced for readers), but Traitor’s Purse, for example, comes complete with a typically insightful, well written appreciation by A.S. Byatt. We recommend the best of both worlds: Read the Byatt essay and then read the book in paperback – this week, at a very tasty discount. Think you might already have read it? Well, even Albert Campion has the occasional memory problem. You can remind yourself of how he does – or doesn’t – solve it.

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Inspector Barnaby on Screen and on the Page

MidsomerMurders

BY AODAOIN HATHAWAY

I make it a point never to watch a movie or TV show that is based on a book without having read the book first. It’s just one of my things. I’m a reader. And a stubborn one. I live in my imagination, and I don’t like to have a book I love sullied by someone else’s (lesser) interpretation of a character. I have also been known to avoid watching a show based on a favorite book in case it somehow does not live up to my inner imaginings, no matter the cajoling of friends or family.

So one evening last winter, when I was home alone and—shock, horror—with nothing new to read, I was flipping through Netflix looking for a replacement for good old Inspector Lewis. Because the current season was over, and I was in need of a murder-mystery fix. I love a good old-fashioned British crime solver. I always have. Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes started it, and it continued with any and all Agatha Christies and Margery Allinghams and later some P.D. James, with a smattering of Colin Dexter and Ruth Redford thrown in. I’d read the “Morse” novels, which lead me to the Morse TV series, and to the spin-off, Lewis. So now, here I was, in search of something similar. And I stumbled across Midsomer Murders. I had a vague recollection of watching an episode or two with my parents at some point, and I recognized John Nettles, so I selected an episode and hit “start.” An hour and half later, I was hooked. Inspector Barnaby, his sidekick Sergeant Troy, Barnaby’s wife Joyce and their daughter Cully—I had already fallen for them and their world of idyllic English villages, scattered around an idyllic English countryside, marred only by the regular murder of two or three of its inhabitants. So began a binge-watch that lasted weeks. Midsomer Murders is one of the longest-running murder mystery shows on British television, and Netflix has most of the episodes. I got my husband involved, and together we spent hours with Barnaby as he tracked down murderers, suffered through his wife’s cooking, his daughter’s choice of career, and his sergeant’s driving, all with a good-humored commitment. When Sergeant Troy left the show, we were appalled, we could never grow to love Sergeant Scott. But we did, and when his replacement Sergeant Jones took over, well, it was an adjustment but one we made happily. Because we were part of Inspector Barnaby’s world, and if he said Sergeant Jones made the cut, we’d agree.

And then it was over. We’d watched all the episodes. The show continues, but without Barnaby, he’s retired. And I have no interest in watching it without him, Inspector Barnaby was the show for me. But towards the end of our viewing, I discovered that Barnaby did not spring forth fully formed from ITV. Inspector Barnaby had been a book first! Several books in fact. Some of the early episodes are based on these novels by Caroline Graham. And now I was faced with the flip side of my usual dilemma. How could I read the books when the actors and writers of Midsomer had so fixed these characters in my mind? But when I was given an opportunity to read them, I decided to go ahead with it. After all, I’d sat through movies of beloved books. I would do the same with this. I would want to like them, but I was fully prepared not to.

But I loved them. Graham’s Barnaby is not John Nettles’ Barnaby, but I think the two men would find a lot in common. Midsomer’s Sergeant Troy is not Graham’s Troy, but both will win you over in spite of being intensely annoying. Graham’s Cully is a tougher, less accessible version of TV Cully, while Joyce on screen remains the closest to Graham’s vision, but Barnaby’s family unit shines through as a beacon of stability to him on the roads he travels during his workday in both mediums.

Graham is a wonderful writer, and her Inspector Barnaby lives on the page in the tradition of the many great detectives who have gone before him. He’s a man you would want around if someone decided to whack a loved one on the head with a blunt instrument. I may even be more open to the possibility of watching a movie or show without having read the book because of Caroline Graham. And for that, my friends and family are extremely grateful.

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Happy Birthday, Margery Allingham!

Cargo of Eagles, by Margery Allingham

Today is Margery Allingham’s birthday.

Allingham, best known for the “Albert Campion” series, is the “queen of crime” critic Sarah Weinman has called “the most resistant to classification.” Indeed, Allingham’s writing, which began with frothy capers like The Crime at Black Dudley and Sweet Danger, grew quite dark in the post-war period. That something-for-everyone quality of her books got us thinking about our favorite Allinghams.

Maggie’s favorite is Hide My Eyes, a “chilling yarn about a psychopath and the aging woman who loves him.” Together with The Tiger in the Smoke, widely-regarded as Allingham’s best, Hide My Eyes resembles less classic golden era mysteries than the psychologically inflected writing of authors like PD James and Ruth Rendell.

Julia’s favorite is Traitor’s Purse, an earlier book with an arresting premise English novelist A S Byatt (who also counts this as her favorite Allingham) describes as “the single best idea I’ve met in detective fiction”:

During the phony war, Campion is knocked on the head and wakes with almost complete amnesia in a hospital. He spends the whole, taut novel not knowing who he is – nor who Amanda is, nor who Lugg is.
It becomes clear that he alone is in possession of a dreadful secret that threatens his country. He has to foil a plot at the same time that he has to discover who he is.
Because he is vacant he forgets to look vacant – “almost intelligent”, Amanda says he looks. Because he forgets to act a part he becomes a man of action. Because he forgets Amanda he realises he loves her. And of course he foils the plot. If I had to vote for the single best detective story, this would be it.

British writer H.R.F. Keating, in a 2004 article for Mystery Scene, declared More Work for the Undertaker, the first of the postwar Campions, to be his favorite (he listed it as one of the 100 best crime and mystery books in 1987). What Keating appreciates most is that novel’s impressive “galaxy” of characters, all of whom come across as “altogether lifelike, if a bit skewed by the chance oddness of their circumstances.”

We would love to know what your favorite Allingham is. And if you have yet to get started, now would be a good time to do so: All of our Margery Allingham titles are on sale.

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Recollections of Ngaio Marsh

Ngaio_Marsh_by_Henry_Herbert_Clifford_ca_1935

BY SARAH WILLIAMS

Even as a small child, I found something incongruous in the friendship between the tall and imposing Ngaio Marsh, with her resoundingly deep voice and wide, dramatic gestures, and my much-loved fluffy pink marshmallow of a godmother, Joanie Pullen.
Ngaio, a cousin on my father’s side of our extensive New Zealand family, appeared and disappeared from our London life with comet-like regularity and drama, as she met with publishers, received awards, gave talks and went, as often as she possibly could, to the theatre.
Art, writing and the theatre were Ngaio’s driving passions, and, much as she adored New Zealand, she also loved coming to England as often as she could, to meet with colleagues, family and friends, and to see new plays, new productions, new paintings. Read More…

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