Like many readers I know, I’m typically in the middle of approximately a jillion books. Actually, for me it tends to be a jillion times two – one jillion being books and manuscripts I’m reading with an eye to possible publication, and the second jillion being books I’m reading for pleasure. The latter category features a lot of non-fiction, but don’t get me wrong: I’m a novel-reader from way back. It’s just that after all the time I spend in fictional worlds, I start to need a break.
As I mentioned earlier, Martin Booth’s wonderful memoir, Goldenboy, is currently at the top of my pile. The No. 2 spot, though, goes to One Summer: America, 1927, by Bill Bryson; I’m about three-quarters of the way through. I am a shameless Bryson junkie. Every few years I reread both In a Sunburned Country and A Walk in the Woods (about, respectively, his trips to Australia and his experience of hiking the Appalachian Trail as a middle-aged fat guy), just for the pleasure of hanging out with such a funny, smart, dyspeptic fella, and every single time I find myself wheezing with laughter at the same scenes.
One Summer is neither as funny nor as peevish as some of his other books, and it features rather more about both aviation and baseball than I really want to wade through. (In fairness, by choosing 1927, Bryson bought himself a year that essentially starred Charles Lindbergh, Lou Gehrig, and Babe Ruth: Aviation and baseball were pretty much a given.) There are, however, some fascinating supporting players, including Sacco and Vanzetti, the extremely odd Calvin Coolidge (he liked to dress up in a cowboy outfit at every possible opportunity), and – the reason for this post – Ruth Snyder, who with her lover was convicted of perpetrating what newspapers called the “Crime of the Century.” (more…)
Whooo-EEE, talk about damage! I just finished reading That Woman, by Anne Sebba, a biography of Wallis Simpson, also known as the Duchess of Windsor. Total wack-job, and that’s the technical term.
I don’t really recommend the book, if only because it’s rather long on innuendo and short on actual facts. (Exactly what kind of sexual weirdness are we talking about here? I mean…did she have a penis? Also, did she or did she not learn certain fabulous Oriental Secrets of Love during her years in China, secrets that would later allow her to hold the Duke – known, apparently with good reason, as the “Little Man” – in more than just the palm of her hand?) But for someone like me who reads nonfiction the way other people read novels (I read novels for work), this was cheap thrills on steroids. MAN but these people were awful. The Duke – that’s the King of England as was, you understand – was so lacking in any moral sense, so entirely self-absorbed, that more than one senior official thought he was certifiably insane and should be in a locked ward. The two of them together made “profoundly stupid” into an art form; it was noted by a number of guests that neither of their houses in France contained a single book. And then there’s the famous photo of the two of them beaming happily at Hitler. It’s like “The Real Housewives of New Jersey” with better accents. (more…)
I was thinking about last week’s post on damage, and how damaged characters tend to make for an interesting read. And it suddenly occurred to me that the emotionally maimed protagonist may be the most absolute dividing line…not between cozy mysteries and hard-boiled, but between cozies and everything else. That line is firmer than the Amateur Sleuth requirement, firmer even than the rule that cozies should involve a minimum of on-stage violence. I’m sure there are fancier-pants ways to describe it, but here’s mine: Nobody in a cozy mystery shall be seriously messed up.
I’m not talking wacky. Cozies are all about the wacky neighbor, the goofy best friend. I’m talking substance-abuse, flashbacks-to-Nam, history–of-psychotic-breaks mess-up. Jane Marple does not have a tortured relationship with vodka. Agatha Raisin is not a secret cutter. Jessica Fletcher does not cruise rough-trade bars and then embark on week-long spirals of self-loathing.
That kind of damage is not confined to the realm of the hard-boiled. Missing, for example, is by no means classic HB (where’s the nihilism? Where’s the professional sleuth?) but Sybilla – homeless by choice, haunted by her past – is certainly a gal with more than a few little problems. The sisters – all the sisters – in The Past and Other Lies provide a kind of walking paradigm of Messed-Up Through the Ages, but the book is a generational saga that encompasses most of the 20th century and involves a single crime that occurs on something like Page 347. Not exactly HB as it’s known and loved. (more…)
It’s “tough chick” week at F&M, and therefore the perfect moment to give you this video interview with author Zoe Sharp (whom, sadly, we don’t publish), recorded at last year’s Bouchercon. We asked Zoe about her books, the “Charlie Fox” series, and her standalone title, The Blood Whisperer, which introduces a different, and different kind of, female protagonist, Kelly Jacks. Sadly, Zoe’s voice gave out before we could ask her which fictional detective she might call, should she find herself in trouble, but the story of Charlie’s genesis in a way answers that question.
What is it about damage, neuroses, emotional baggage that makes for such interesting reading? Is it that happy people, like happy families, are all alike? Does their alike-ness consist, as in “Annie Hall,” of being “very shallow and empty, [with] no ideas and nothing interesting to say”? As an angst-ridden teenager, I was very pleased to believe this hypothesis (“You’re just happy because you’re too stupid to be miserable!”), but in truth, it doesn’t really hold up. My friend Liz, for example, isn’t remotely shallow and empty, and yet she appears to be a pretty happy person, though maybe she has pots of rage that I don’t know about, boiling away inside and ruining her psychic manicure.
If Detective Sgt. Stella Mooney ever had a manicure, it’s long since shredded – ragged cuticles, polish peeling off in jagged strips. You could blame the vodka (though Stella would swear it’s the only thing holding her nails on at all), but give a nod as well to her sordid, limping love-life, to her lack of anything like a friend, and to The Case, The Case, The Case. The one about the three old geezers found dead and not of natural causes, with a young thug joining them in their trip to the Hereafter. Stella’s boss would love for her to solve the bloody thing. Alternatively, he’d love to kick her back to traffic duty. Stella, mostly, would love another drink.
Think seriously about joining her to knock back a few. The author, David Harsent (“David Lawrence” is in fact a pseudonym) is a much-lauded poet, and the novel’s unabashedly dark theme, combined with his lovely writing, makes for an unusually wonderful read. And this week only, it’s going cheap: The Dead Sit Round in a Ring, 25% off.
This week is all about our upcoming books. We opened with The Wrong Man, third in Laura Wilson’s terrific “Ted Stratton” series, set during and just after World War II, and inspired by real cases. It’s tough to peg these books: Stratton is a cop, so they’re “police procedurals,” but the cases often involve fairly grisly doings, putting the series into “thriller” territory. The historical detail and the sense of being immersed in wartime (and then Austerity) Britain are spectacular, which makes the books some of the very best “historicals.” And finally, what elevates them well above many other titles with which they might be shelved – whatever shelf that might be – is Wilson’s clear, unflinching eye for characterization: These are real people, struggling with increasing desperation, and that would place the books in the realm of “psychological suspense,” snuggled up next to Ruth Rendell. However you want to categorize them, they are more than worth a read. And although the series does progress from one story to the next, the books also work just fine as stand-alones. With The Wrong Man, we’ll have three “Strattons” available, with another two to come. Dive in.
And when you come up for air, you’ll want to take a look at In the Spider’s House, by Sarah Diamond. This one is firmly in the psycho-suspense camp – not quite as shivery as Sarah Rayne’s chillers, but certainly a little….discomfiting. Like some of our favorite suspense, Spider’s House starts out sunlit and ordinary, and slowly wraps its sticky web of spookitude around the reader. The wrapping is so delicate, the suspense so carefully hiked, that you’re entirely captured, unable to stop reading, before you realize the full magnitude of the tension that Diamond has created. (more…)
We haven’t even had a serious scorcher yet, and yet do I say unto you, Fall is just around the corner, and with it, the new season’s books. There are a number of titles we’re excited about, and perhaps chief among them is The Wrong Man, by Laura Wilson. The third in her “Ted Stratton” series, about a London cop during and after World War II, this was published in England as A Capital Crime. We had a couple reasons for retitling it. First, we found “A Capital Crime” to be a bit of a snooze, as titles go, offering not a hint of the fact that the book is absolutely riveting. And second, “capital” has more than one meaning in the UK – the title thus refers not only to a crime committed in London but also to something of a splendid crime, really quite top-notch. We thought that second meaning would be lost on a lot of American readers, leaving us with nothing but the snooze. Nope, “Capital” had to go. (more…)