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One of Us is Wrong, by Donald Westlake

August 27, 2015

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

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

satans lambs

August 18, 2015

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

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

Traitor's Purse, by Margery Allingham

August 12, 2015

Felony of the Week: 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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July 23, 2015

Love and Death: The Heart-Pounding Suspense of Romance Novels

I had an interesting conversation yesterday afternoon with a Swedish agent who has, somewhat to her surprise, become a big fan of romance novels. She’s in town for a Romance convention, and is particularly looking forward to the panels on writing; she says she hopes to learn how to help non-romance writers achieve in their books what good romance writers do – with such apparent ease – in theirs. And what’s that?

High stakes. The sense that THIS person is the only person in the world for you, that without THIS person you will be miserable forever or at least condemned to live a life that is thinner and emptier than the true life for which you are destined. And the further understanding that if you miss THIS train, if THAT letter is delivered, if Benjamin cannot stop the wedding, if Sam doesn’t play “As Time Goes By,” if Bridget doesn’t stumble out into the snow in her sneakers and terrible sweater, all will be lost. Those stakes create suspense; they make the reader care, sometimes care terribly, about the outcome of each event: They keep the reader reading.

In theory, mystery writers should have no trouble creating this kind of reader engagement. After all, the genre deals with life and death, with freedom and imprisonment — how much higher can the stakes get? And yet, when I’m reading manuscripts, what I find myself scribbling in the margin, so often, is “Make it more important!!!” It’s as though having decided to deal with the big, suspenseful issues – will the character live or die? – the writer figures the suspense is taken care of, and none of the plot-points along the way need to carry any of the burden.

Not true. I don’t mean to ding mystery in particular for this – we certainly don’t have a monopoly on the problem – but it’s the genre I know best. And I know that the agent is right: We could indeed benefit from taking a leaf from Romance. Make EVERY choice count. Modulate the mattering, of course – outside of a heavy-metal concert, there’s nothing duller than relentless top volume. But it might be useful to start by ratcheting it up. I suspect that suspense is the opposite of salt: It’s a lot easier to dial it back, if you’ve got too much going on, than it is to add savor and excitement to something that was bland from the git-go.


July 16, 2015

Inspector Barnaby on Screen and on the Page


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.


July 1, 2015

Felonies of the Month: Felony & Mayhem’s First Catalog

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.


June 29, 2015

You Say It’s Your Birthday

It’s my birthday too, yeah! Ok, no, it’s not: My birthday’s in February. But it is F&M’s birthday. Ten years ago, at a gratifyingly well-attended party in Greenwich Village, mere Felony was loosed upon the world. Our first “list,” the first season for which we were selling books, was Spring/Summer 2005. So we’re viewing this entire summer as our Tenth Anniversary. You can expect to see some special sales (we’d “roll back prices,” like they do in stores, but we haven’t actually raised our prices in ten years, so…..). And you can also expect blog posts just chock-a-block with witty, amusing, heartrending stories of Felony & Mayhem: The First Ten Years.

Orchestrated Death, by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

June 9, 2015

Felony of the Week: Orchestrated Death, by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

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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