The iconography of Valentine’s Day tends to be pretty limited in scope. Absent some Very Special Episode, we’re almost always talking about young lovers, attractive and able-bodied, heterosexual and of the Caucasian persuasion.
Well, boo to that. Everyone deserves a valentine, and love takes many forms. We’re therefore offering a sale on a hatful that have some splendid sleuthing, of course, but also some true love. Sometimes the lovers are young and lovely, and sometimes they’ve got the soft bodies of folks well into middle age. And sometimes they’re not lovers at all, but the friends that can mean even more.
So give a little bookish joy this Valentine’s Day to someone you love. And if you can’t be with a one you love, honey, love the one you’re with – even if that’s the one you see in the mirror.
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
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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Companies love to celebrate significant anniversaries by bringing back, for a limited time only, some of the favorites of yesteryear. Hey, nostalgia sells! So this month we’d like to offer a sweet, sweet discount on some of the 12 titles with which we launched Felony & Mayhem, a cool ten years ago.
Only some? Yeah. The truth is, a few of the books on that original list are no longer available. One sold very well – so well that the author’s agent was able to interest a larger publisher, once our license had expired. A few just didn’t sell well enough to stick around. And one is so good that I hope to bring it back to life, and help it once again to find a new audience.
So what IS available? Some real goodies (what can I say? We picked well). Let’s start with The Killings at Badger’s Drift, the first in Caroline Graham’s deliciously witty “Inspector Barnaby” series, and the origin of the hugely popular “Midsomer Murders” series on Brit TV. You love murder in the little English village? Badger’s Drift will make you incredibly happy.
I’m sorry, did you say you liked delicious wit? Allow me to introduce you to the master. Nobody, nobody was wittier (or more delicious) than Edmund Crispin. And if you don’t believe me, ask the New York Times, which called The Case of the Gilded Fly “immensely witty and literate” when it was first published, in 1944. I’d say the only reason you might not want to read Crispin is if you are a writer yourself with an ugly competitive streak. Learning that Crispin wrote Fly, his debut novel, while he was still an undergraduate at Oxford may make you want to throw things.
For some reason, you have chosen not to pick up a copy of Gilded Fly. We understand: You’re a smart person (hey, you’re a Felony reader!), so you probably have the entire Crispin oeuvre in pristine 1970s (reissued) hardcover. But we’re still here to help you get your fix of deliciously witty: It’s Robert Barnard to the rescue. How I loved Barnard! He was one of the most happily malicious writers I’ve ever encountered. Like Crispin, he was particularly drawn to themes involving the performing arts, and Death On the High C’s is no exception; it’s a delightful evisceration of a provincial opera company and the yowling soprano who gets it in the neck. Expect to snort coffee out your nose.
Looking at this line-up, it’s clear that our fondness for funny was already well established. But even in infancy, we had more strings to our bow. Great espionage, for example, was an early favorite, as exemplified by The Cambridge Theorem, an absolute stunner. “Few can rival this extraordinary novel,” said the West Coast Review of Books, and we agree: the combo of a British cop obsessed with Willie Nelson, and a twisty spy-world puzzle that is long dead but won’t stay buried…it all makes for an irresistible read. In fact, I’m not going to resist: I’m gonna reread Theorem this weekend.
And ooh, ooh, something else I need to reread? Reginald Hill’s terrific Who Guards a Prince. Hill, of course, was best known for his “Dalziel and Pascoe” series, about a splendidly mismatched pair of Yorkshire cops. And though we publish a number of titles in that series, my Hill-ish heart in fact belongs to his standalones, which have all the irony, complex plots and singingly individual characters that “Dalziel” fans expect…but which wrap those marvelous characteristics in a mesh of conspiracy-theory that, to my taste, is the bacon of the literary world: It may be a cheap thrill, but it makes almost anything vastly more delicious. If you’re already a fan of Fat Andy, you owe it to yourself to discover the music that Hill was able to make in an entirely different context. (You’ve never met Fat Andy Dalziel? Run, don’t walk, and start with An Advancement of Learning. You’re welcome.) You’ll never look at Freemasons the same way again.
Perhaps you’ve got a taste for the exotic? Mysteries with foreign settings got very hot in the 1990s, and at the bookstore, one of our favorites to sell was Season of the Monsoon. Set amid the Technicolor chaos of Bollywood, Monsoon centers on George Sansi, a half-English, half-Indian cop who struggles with his own identity even as he tries to nail down the identity of a serial killer. Essentially, Monsoon is a straightforward, well-written noir tale, but the Bombay setting and Sansi’s half-caste, outsider status give the book a nuanced richness that goes well beyond the genre.
Last up: A book I didn’t think would go anywhere at all. My partner (at the bookstore) Jon Teta had been a great fan of Elizabeth Daly, and I thought there might be some other readers who shared his taste for this Agatha Christie-esque series set in the impossibly glamorous New York of the 1940s and 50s. I knew, though, that Daly’s name was not well known, and I didn’t really expect the books to sell very well. I published them, essentially, as an homage to Jon. (Indeed, Murders in Volume 2, which we started with, opens with a “publisher’s dedication.”)
Volume 2 is in fact the third in the series; we didn’t publish the first two titles for several years. Why did we open with Number 3? A couple of reasons. First is that the earlier books had in fact been in print until relatively recently, and we thought that fans of the series might already have bought copies. But more importantly, Miss Daly herself believed that the series properly began with Volume 2, that the first two books were by way of a rehearsal. Volume 2, by contrast, is opening night, with the curtain going up on the perfect gentleman-sleuth, the ideal book-related plot, and a city more glitteringly inviting than anywhere else in the world.
I think sometimes there are two kinds of readers: Those who want to be captivated by a story, and those who want to spend time with a great storyteller. My mother, for instance, was firmly in the first camp. She could never understand why I often reread books, and particularly mysteries. “But you know who did it!” she would exclaim, and I would have to explain again that I just loved the way the author told it – loved his language, loved her jokes, loved his/her sense of pace, the quirky characters, the vivid settings, the larger questions brought to bear.
Orchestrated Death is very much a book for lovers of language. The plot…is dandy. A middle-aged, straight-arrow London cop investigates the murder of a young violinist, and finds himself forced to question a lot of the aspects of his life that he thought had long since been settled. But in truth, the great pleasure of this book – and it is a great pleasure – lies in the telling. Cynthia Harrod-Eagles writes like a wicked angel, and it’s her puns in particular that I love. I know, puns – groan, right? Not these. For starters, they only work if you hear them in an English accent. So channel your best “Downton Abbey” vowels, and get ready to giggle. Start with the kitty named Oedipus. Why? ‘Cause ee-da-puss-wot-lives-‘ere.
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Classic detective fiction is so tedious. It’s all the same formula, over and over again, and then the Bad Guy gets captured, the world returns to Sunny Delight, and it’s all crumpets and plum jam for tea.
Not so fast. In the first place, O Beloved Hard-Boiled Fan, your own corner of the mystery world is rich in its own formulas, from the man of honor forced to walk the mean streets to the faithless broad and the bottle of Scotch in the drawer. And in the second place, ladies and gentlemen, I present to you The Poisoned Chocolates Case.
First published in 1929, it came out during the heyday of the Golden Age, when that formula – the erudite, upper-class sleuth who views murder as a game, the comical members of the lower orders, the over-arching assumption that all will be returned to blissful order as soon as the one bad actor has been apprehended – did indeed dominate the genre. But Anthony Berkeley Cox (who also wrote as Francis Iles) was a smart fella, and with Poisoned Chocolates he both bows to the formula and sticks a (very polite) thumb in its eye.
Here for example is the upper-class milieu: A meeting of the ultra-exclusive Crime Circle, a group of (never more than) six toffs united in their belief that murder is the jolliest puzzle of all. And at their center is their newest member, Roger Sheringham, who has persuaded his friend Chief Inspector Moresby to present the Circle with the outline of an unsolved case. In a week’s time, Sheringham suggests, they will reconvene, and each member will explain how he or she would solve the case in question.
A week later, and all the members have indeed solved the case. The only problem: Each of them has fingered a different killer. The great fun in this novel lies in allowing oneself to be persuaded by a given theory, only to see that theory comprehensively demolished, and another set in its place. While The Poisoned Chocolates Case would indeed be a clever diversion for any reader, it will perhaps best be appreciated by fans of classic crime fiction, who know – and love – the books that Berkeley was so deftly satirizing.
Clearly, I have pulled on my curmudgeon pants today. I say this because my brain has been offering up a near-ceaseless litany of “things were better in the old days” – better when people drank COFFEE rather than “coffee drinks,” better when restaurants weren’t so noisy, better when a ticket to a Broadway show didn’t cost the equivalent of six months’ rent. (Ah yes, the old days. When black people couldn’t vote, single women couldn’t get bank loans, and gay people were routinely arrested. Let’s definitely go back there!)
Aside from coffee and affordable tickets, what else was better in those golden good old days? Espionage. Or rather, espionage fiction. Don’t get me wrong: Spook books have long had a trashy side (what, you thought James Bond was high literature?). And you know, I loves me some good trash. But over the past couple of decades, espionage has tilted so far toward the action end of things that, as a genre, it has become, mostly, hard-boiled with international settings. Take a snarky 35-year-old guy who knows how to shoot, put him in Istanbul, and hey presto.
I say “as a genre,” because of course there are exceptions to the rule (waving to Olen Steinhauer). And the truth is, I can enjoy one of those plot-driven, pedal-to-the-metal yarns as much as anyone. But my heart is really with somewhat slower-paced, more intricate stories, with more complicated characters and, often, a sense of the past extending its sticky fingers into the current chess-game. And those stories…I don’t see a lot of them being published.
Which is why I’m so happy to have reissued Michael David Anthony’s quiet, quirky trilogy, beginning with The Becket Factor. The books are quiet because, well, they’re set in and around Canterbury Cathedral, where folks tend to talk in hushed, reverent tones. And also because the gent at the heart of the story is well past his shouting years: After a long career in the Secret Service, Colonel Richard Harrison has retired to Canterbury to work a cushy Cathedral job and take care of his disabled wife.
If the wish for a peaceful retirement were ever to be granted, we’d be out of mystery fiction. Harrison is soon co-opted by his former boss into some freelance sleuthing, picking apart the web of intrigue that ties together a Bishop’s scandalous diaries, a murdered Canon, the highly contentious election of a new Archbishop, and the bones – dug up by a crew of construction workers – of Thomas Becket, the 12th-century martyr and onetime Archbishop of Canterbury.
“Echoes of Le Carré abound in this elegantly written first novel,” said Kirkus. And we say that for one week only, it’s on sale.
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I dropped the ball. In early 2010 we published Close-Up, a sly, unusual thriller translated from the original Dutch. In the ordinary course of things, I would have jumped on it months earlier – having review copies printed up, sending those copies out to reviewers and influential bookstores, trying to drum up some buzz (and isn’t that a mixed metaphor!). But my mom had died five months earlier, my father had made an abrupt descent into dementia, and I was…distracted. So Close-Up never got the Felonious attention it deserves.
And make no mistake, it does deserve attention. Margot, the character at its center is a textbook example of depression. And as you follow her story, you, the reader, begin to see in yourself the textbook responses. There’s pity, certainly. Irritation at her bull-headed passivity. And slowly, an edgy concern, as Margot seems drawn into a scenario that grows more menacing by the minute. “DON’T GO THERE!” you want to holler, like the audience at a horror-movie. But she does go there. And what she finds…will confound your expectations and knock your socks off. This week, a 50% discount (doubling down on our usual discount as apology for dropping that ball).
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