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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.

MidsomerMurders

July 16, 2015

Inspector Barnaby on Screen and on the Page

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.

FM-catalog-spring-05-1

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.

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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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The Poisonerd Chocolates Case, by Anthony Berkeley

June 1, 2015

Felony of the Week: The Poisoned Chocolates Case, by Anthony Berkeley

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.

Cargo of Eagles, by Margery Allingham

May 20, 2015

Happy Birthday, 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.

The Becket Factor, by Michael David Anthony

May 18, 2015

Felony of the Week: The Becket Factor, by Michael David Anthony

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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