The Nevermore Awards were a parody awards show presented every year at celebrated (and deeply missed) Greenwich Village mystery bookstore Partners & Crime. There were a number of songs written for the events, and we recently had the idea of recording some of these, starting with the song below. So we gathered up a bunch of friends in Maggie’s apartment and did just that. Actually, we recorded two versions: a 60 second one for the FedEx Small Business Grant competition (and hey, you can vote for us there every day until March 17!), and a complete and unabridged version for posterity. Here, to the tune of “My Favorite Things,” is “The Nevermore Song,” a celebration of the mystery genre:
Here at Felony & Mayhem, we’re all about love. Passionate love, enduring love, the love of fantasy, of glorious dreams. And when better to celebrate the mystery of love than (slightly past) Valentine’s Day? One week only, 50% off Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal (hint: not exactly a romantic story). Discover why author Karin Alvtegen has been dubbed Sweden’s “Queen of Crime.”
Lenore Glen Offord was new to me until quite recently. But once I delved into her not very large body of work – twelve novels between 1938 and 1959, eight of them mysteries – I discovered a writer of utterly delightful tales that mixed a strong sense of fair play, a wry wit, and a shrewd sense of domestic relationships that were, for their time, quite innovative, even subversive. How near-modern to trip across a mystery with a blended family in the making, where the murder-solving gets equal time with mother-daughter bonding. Here is crime fiction without airs, thunderous moralizing, or ponderous prose. The touch is light, even sprightly. It’s perhaps not surprising to learn that Offord herself wore multiple hats, as a novelist, a literary critic, a passionate theatergoer, and a mother.
Lenora Frances Glen was born on October 24, 1905 in Spokane, Washington to Katherine and Robert Glen, the latter a longtime newspaper editor in the city. She lived on the West Coast for her entire life, making ample use of Pacific Northwest and California settings in her fiction. She moved to Oakland, California for college, received a B.A. (cum laude) from Mills College in 1927, and after marrying Harold Offord in 1929, migrated to Berkeley, CA, ostensibly for graduate work at the city’s University of California outpost. They remained in and around Berkeley for nearly sixty years, with Offord giving birth to a daughter, Judith, in 1943.
For a time the Offords lived in the San Francisco neighborhood of Russian Hill, which provided the setting and title of her first novel, Murder on Russian Hill. That book introduced Coco Hastings, a voracious reader of mystery novels who, with her antiquarian husband Bill, gets embroiled in an actual murder in her own proverbial backyard. The pair returned for their second and final engagement in Clues to Burn (1942).
In between Offord ventured into more mainstream territory with Cloth of Silver (1939), about a girl reporter at a local newspaper contemplating love and marriage (she dedicated the book to her father: “To Pops, who told me so”); Angels Unaware (1940), a family drama where the arrival of unexpected guests exposes long-dormant fault lines; and the standalone thriller The Nine Dark Hours (1941) more in the classic domestic suspense mode of an ordinary young woman caught up in increasingly sinister events. (Offord’s superior standalone thriller, My True Love Lies, set in the San Francisco art world, was published in 1947.) Yet mystery/suspense was always Offord’s favorite genre, as she explained in a 1949 interview with the Oakland Tribune. “It is the first, and sometimes forgotten commandment for any novelist that he have a story to tell…I think [mystery novels] are sound discipline for the writer.”
With Skeleton Key, published in 1943 by Duell, Sloan & Pearce, Offord mixed a smart, curious heroine, her own insider’s knowledge of California, and a deft hand with the foibles of domestic conflict – and fashioned the start of her most artistically successful works. Skeleton Key introduces Georgine Wyeth, a twenty-seven-year-old widow, with a small child, whose personality emerges, fully-formed, in a descriptive paragraph early on in the novel: “one glance…left you with no more than a vaguely pleasant impression. A second proved unexpectedly rewarding; those who troubled to take it saw her eyes and thought ‘lonely,’ her mouth, and thought ‘sweet’; and then this increasingly sentimental gaze, having reached her chin, was brought up with a round turn. The set and tilt of the jaw spoke of stubbornness and humor, and more than hinted at a peppery though short-lived temper.” …
Time magazine ran an interesting series of articles marking the anniversary of JFK’s assassination, and the one I found most interesting began with the claim that every era gets the conspiracy theory it deserves. Similarly, it’s probably fair to say that every era gets the sort of mystery it deserves, or that suits it best: Think how cozy puzzle-mysteries must have helped distract and soothe a population wracked with anxieties over the social upheavals following World War I, or how the double-dipped cynicism of classic noir fiction spoke to readers racketing from the horrors of World War II to the Technicolor prosperity of the post-war years.
Our preferred protagonists change as well. You’d have a hard time these days selling even one novel about an independently wealthy aristocrat who solves crimes as an intellectual exercise, but Lord Hoo-Ha and the Honorable Whatsit were all the rage in the early 20th century. The loner with a chip on his shoulder, an alcohol problem and a secret sorrow may appear to be a more enduring type, but in truth he’s changed so much that – with some exceptions – I don’t know that Mr. Chandler would recognize him any more. And the same scenario holds true for the ladies. The damsel in distress was once the most popular girl protagonist: Her sole aim was to escape from the baddies’ intent on doing her in. But over time, she developed a desire not just to evade the baddies, but to hit them where they lived. And this desire was accompanied by the ability to throw her own punches, thank you very much.
All of which leads me to Skeleton Key, the first mystery we’re publishing by the estimable Lenore Glen Offord, who wrote several novels, eight of them mysteries, in the 1940s and 50s. (In her spare time, she served as the mystery reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle…for more than 30 years.) What interested me about the books, from the first one I picked up, was the combo of somewhat old-fashioned puzzle-based storytelling and a heroine – war-widow Georgine Wyeth, in Skeleton Key – who feels astonishingly modern. I had many go-rounds with the artist who designed the book’s (ultimately wonderful) cover; I didn’t think he was capturing the look of a woman of 1943. But the truth is, whenever I think of Georgine, the image that comes to my mind is of “Charlie” girl Shelley Hack, striding across the TV screen in a perfect evocation of 1970s-style women’s-lib independence. Georgine doesn’t have a man in her life, and she doesn’t need one: She’s supporting herself and her young daughter just fine. And when the time comes to strap on a sleuthing-hat, she handles that as well. Don’t get me wrong: There’s nothing remotely man-hating about either Georgine or Offord’s books in general. But they serve as a dandy reminder that the 1970s did not invent empowered women.
We were so intrigued by that juxtaposition – gutsy babe + old-school clues and puzzles – that we commissioned Sarah Weinman, who has written knowledgeably about the evolution of women in mystery fiction, to write a foreword for Skeleton Key. I don’t mean to suggest that the book is any kind of academic exercise; it’s all about a swell read. But to my mind, thinking about Georgine in the context of the (fictional) women who both preceded her and came after only adds to the enjoyment. We hope you’ll agree, and we’d love to hear from you. In fact, we’d love it so much that right now Skeleton Key is selling for a bony (bonny?) 50% off!
We’re getting ready to publish The Death Chamber, by Sarah Rayne. Like all of her books, The Death Chamber takes in a number of different time periods and is enormously rich in detail – I’ve compared the experience of reading one of Sarah’s novels to entering a room with elaborately figured carpets on the floor, patterned wallpaper, paintings in intricately carved frames, paneling, needlepoint pillows…just a riot of beautiful, sensuous STUFF that could be messy, a recipe for instant migraine, but thanks to Sarah’s skill is instead a sort of fantastic fever dream that never for an instant loses track of the plot.
In the past we have hired an extraordinary Brazilian artist, Eduardo Recife, to create covers for Sarah’s books, but this time around, Eduardo was not available. Time for Plan B.
Plan B started out with a very talented artist named Lars. We had never worked with Lars before, but both Anthony – our art director – and I liked his portfolio a lot. Unfortunately, the working relationship fell apart quickly, and we wound up paying Lars a “kill fee” (a portion of the contracted price, with the additional proviso that he can now sell the work to someone else). That’s a pretty drastic step: In more than 200 covers we’ve created for F&M books, we have only had to offer a kill fee in one other instance. But we didn’t feel we had a choice. I was depressed and starting to get nervous. (more…)
Book-collectors love first novels. The first appeal is their relative scarcity. For example, in 1989, when A Time to Kill was published, John Grisham was an obscure Mississippi lawyer. The book had been rejected by nearly 30 agents and publishers, and tiny Wynwood Press, in upstate New York, had no reason to have high expectations: It printed just 5,000 copies.
Get your hands on one of those copies and, assuming it’s in glorious condition (and that’s a big assumption), you can sell it for well over $4,000. There were only 5,000 to begin with, and after 25 years, the odds of finding one in collectible condition…are very narrow indeed. And those odds drive up the price and make collectors salivate.
Striking a slightly less mercenary note, collectors also prize first novels for their surprise factor. Before Interview With the Vampire was published, Anne Rice was just a depressed grad student, and nobody since Bram Stoker had had a real hit with the undead. Surprise! There’s something very appealing – to some collectors – about owning a book that changed the game, that created a genuine sense of excitement where none had existed before. Interview With the Vampire is the literary equivalent of watching Marilyn Monroe’s teeny tiny turn in “All About Eve”: One suddenly realizes that Golly Moley, there’s something…there’s really something here. (more…)
Publishing mysteries which have already been out in multiple editions often puts us in the position of having to choose between text variances, especially for books, like those in Ngaio Marsh’s “Inspector Alleyn” series, which have been published in both British and American editions. Here is an example: In Ngaio Marsh’s Clutch of Constables (the “Constable” in question being not the policeman you might expect in a mystery novel, but British painter John Constable), Agatha Troy, Inspector Alleyn’s painter wife says:
‘For pity’s sake,’ Troy said, ‘don’t take my word for anything. I’m not an expert. I can’t tell, for instance, how old the actual canvas may be though I do know it’s not contemporary and I do know it’s the way he signed his major works. “John Constable. R.A.f” and the date, 1830, which, I think, was soon after he became an R.A.”
In the British edition, the paragraph continues with Troy’s thoughts on whether the painting under discussion is a copy of an original Constable. The American edition, however, has one of Troy’s interlocutors, an American tourist, interrupt Troy with a question about the significance of the “R.A.f.,” adding a bit of dialogue, including a joke at the expense of the Americans (and how lucky that that most hapless of Brit fiction characters, the American tourist, happened to be present!):
“R.A.?” asked Miss Hewson.
“Hear that, Earl? What’s the ‘f’ signify, Mrs. Alleyn?”
There was a considerable pause.
“Fake it!” Miss Hewson said in a strangulated voice. “Did you say ‘fake?’”
Dr. Natouche made a curious little sound in his throat. Mr. Lazenby seemed to choke back some furious ejaculation. Troy, with Caley’s devilish eye upon her, explained. There was a further silence.
Clearly this was written by Ngaio Marsh, probably at the request of American editors who assumed that their audiences wouldn’t know, offhand, what “R.A.f.” stood for (and they couldn’t google it either, in 1969). We had to decide which variant to use and, when it turned out that the staff of Felony & Mayhem, including our Anglophile publisher, were as ignorant of the significance of the Constable signature as poor Miss Hewson, we decided to go with the Little, Brown edition.
Tell us, dear reader, did you know what Troy meant? And would you have gone American, or British?
When I was in my 20s, I lived for a while in England, a country known for the fact that its motorists insist on driving on the wrong side. Ok, it’s known for other things too, but when it was time to cross the street, the driving-on-the-left thing loomed much larger in my mind than, say, Shakespeare or Jane Austen or the London Blitz. I would stand at the curb (ahem, the “kerb”), frozen in a parody of indecisiveness, my head frantically tacking one way and now the other, as if I were watching a very fascinating ping-pong match. In fact, I was trying to remember which way the cars would be coming from.
It only got worse when I moved back to the U.S., and worse still when I got hit by a car. Looking both ways was apparently a matter of life and death.
Which is not, in fact, why I’m doing it now. (Though I could make an extremely tortured case for the fact that we publish books about, uh, death, and that glancing over those books is therefore a matter of life and…oh, never mind.) I’m doing it because the turn of the year offers the ideal vantage point from which to look at both past and future, ideally with less of the weird pecking motion that I used to employ when crossing streets.
Oddly, the street-crossing metaphor isn’t quite so terrible as it first might seem. If one were looking down at the street – down from, say, a fourth-floor window – the traffic patterns would be clear as day, but down at street-level, they’re tougher to see. Similarly, when we’re in the thick of making the doughnuts, it gets very easy to focus on one task and then another – send out the contract, write the press release, craft the blog post, pick the image for the cover. It becomes almost impossible to maintain a sense of the line-up of books overall.
Which is too bad, because in looking back from this January vantage-point, I think last year’s line-up was pretty swell. We opened with Blotto, Twinks and the Bootlegger’s Moll, the most recent in Simon Brett’s terrifically funny series about a terrifically stupid Duke in the 1920s, sleuthing around with his brilliant sis. It’s PG Wodehouse with clues. Simon Brett has been making me laugh for – good lord – 40 years, since I first discovered his great “Charles Paris” series, and it’s both a delight and a true honor to be his publisher.
Still chuckling, we brought out electronic editions of the four novels in the “Valentine and Lovelace” series by Nathan Aldyne. Many of my favorite mysteries (see, for example, Sarah Rayne, Elizabeth Ironside) straddle time periods, and these do as well…sort of. They are in fact set in a very specific time and place – Boston and environs, in the disco-fabulous early 80s. But they also refer, deliberately and divinely, to the screwball comedies of the 1930s (think “Bringing Up Baby”) and most of all to the “Thin Man” movies starring William Powell and Myrna Low. The cocktails are cold, the quips are flying…it’s a dandy ride.
Funny mysteries have been a feature of our list since the very beginning, but a girl cannot live by snark alone. Sometimes she wants something with a little meat, something to chew on, and The Wrong Man, by Laura Wilson, does the trick and more. I have been proud to publish all the books in this series, in part because it has been such a pleasure watching Ms. Wilson become a better and better writer with each entry. All the books in the “Ted Stratton” series are based on real crimes of the 1940s and 50s, and some of the characters – most notably the brittle society beauty Diana Calthrop – have roots in reality as well; it all serves to provide the series with an unusual weight and complexity. These are NOT guilty pleasures. Read one of these books, and you know you’ve read something. Plus you’ll come away profoundly grateful that you’re not a gorgeous rich blonde in London just after World War II.
Sarah Rayne’s books ARE guilty pleasures, in the best possible way. We are right now working on the cover for the upcoming Death Chamber, and in critiquing our illustrator’s first pass, I realize that the things missing from her design are exactly the things I love best about Sarah’s books: They are incredibly rich, like a room with one carpet lying on top of another, piles of variously patterned cushions, flowered wallpaper, carved panels. And while, in the hands of a less skillful writer, this mélange might suggest self-indulgent sloppiness, Sarah’s writing is in fact exquisitely controlled: Every element has a purpose and a particular meaning. Her books are sensuous and truly scary, but also impeccable. As a reader, you can give yourself over to her storytelling, an increasingly rare luxury.
Of course, one of the F&M hallmarks has, since the git-go, been our focus on reissuing the best of the past. We publish Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham and Edmund Crispin, and also some lesser-known but still loved writers like Elizabeth Daly, whose series is set in the eternally glamorous New York of the 40s and 50s. We’re about to start bringing out another series, set in the same period, but this time on the West Coast: The author, Lenore Glen Offord, was in fact the mystery reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle for 30 years. What I like best about her books is the extent to which they are simultaneously deeply old fashioned and very modern. On the one hand, she wrote very traditionally structured puzzlers, harkening back to a style of storytelling that had been most powerfully in fashion in her mother’s day. But at the same time, her heroines would not have been out of place in the “Charlie-girl” 1970s, striding across the landscape with confidence and self-reliance. In Skeleton Key, we meet Georgine, a widow with a young daughter and a fairly miserable – but desperately needed – job as a typist for an odd professor. She stumbles over the body of the local air-raid warden during a blackout (there’s a war on, remember), and so a series begins. We’re pleased to have a foreword by Sarah Weinman, a writer who specializes in female mystery writers of the 40s and 50s. And we are hugely pleased with the very cool cover, inspired by the covers of the original “Nancy Drew” books from the 1930s.
To wrap things up, let’s come back to funny, if only because we’ve got such a treat coming out in late spring. Crooked Herring is, no question, the wittiest book yet in the Edgar-nominated “Herring” series, about a hapless mystery writer and his superbly awful agent, Elsie. I am ordinarily a dainty and elegant person, but at one point while reading Crooked Herring I snorted so hard with laughter that a small bubble of coffee exited my nose. Did I mention that, in fact, the “Herring” series has been shortlisted for TWO Edgar awards?
There are more books, of course – more books that we published last year, and more to come. Many of them are in long-running series (by Elizabeth Daly, Ngaio Marsh) with which our readers are generally familiar. I think all of them are pretty swell. And I would love, dearly love, to know what you think.