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January 25, 2016

Nancy, We Hardly Knew Ye: Nancy Drew revised

Generalizations are the hobgoblins of little minds, but nevertheless, I’ll make one: The vast majority of mystery readers cut their sleuthing-teeth on either Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes or the Nancy Drew series, the first volume of which – The Secret of the Old Clock – was published in 1930 (making Nancy – with her roadster and her neat bob – the very model of the Golden Age heroine). True Nancy-ites (Drew-ids?) know that, beginning in about 1959, the series was rewritten, ostensibly to get rid of racist language and bring the books “up to date.” Unfortunately, “up to date” went hand in hand with “dumbed down”; the language of the rewritten books is noticeably more simplistic and less nuanced.

Nor do the changes stop there. As Cara Nicoletti notes in her irresistible new collection of essays Voracious: A Hungry Reader Cooks Her Way Through Great Books, the Nancy of the early editions is much less compulsively perfect, and considerably more approachable. But the weirdest change has to do with Nancy’s pal Bess, who makes her debut in Book 5 of the series, The Secret at Shadow Ranch. In the rewritten edition, Bess is introduced as “slightly plump,” and this description “precedes her name in nearly every sentence for the remainder of the book,” according to Nicoletti. Furthermore, she is forever being taunted about her weight, mostly by her skinny cousin George, who has morphed from a goofy tomboy in the original version into a bona-fide Mean Girl. George is “always drawing attention to how much Bess has eaten,” says Nicoletti, “while Nancy giggles demurely in the background.” “Eating is really a very fattening hobby, dear cousin,” smirks George, smugly sipping a soft drink while Bess prepares to dive into a chocolate sundae with nuts.

But, says Nicoletti, “in the original Secret at Shadow Ranch, there is no mention of Bess’s weight.” In fact, she is described as being “noted for always doing the correct thing” and for being prettier and better dressed than George. Nicoletti’s literary analysis, throughout the essays, is clever and engaging, but she doesn’t offer any theories as to why a virulent vein of fat-shaming should have been inserted into a book that is otherwise about three teenage girls solving crimes. On the other hand, she does offer a swell-looking recipe for a double-chocolate sundae with nuts, and many readers will regard that as more than a fair trade-off.


December 18, 2015

The Best Present is Books: The Felonious Christmas Sale

“The best appetizer is herring,” goes one famous Russian aphorism. Maybe yes, maybe no, but we’re quite certain of this: The best present is books. Always in style, never the wrong size, they comfort the melancholy, inspire the despairing, provide a chuckle, a diversion, a window onto another time, another place, another life, another mind.

We’re so certain that books are where it’s at (baby!) that we’ve come up with a holiday offer: Give some Felony books to a friend, and we’ll give one to you. That’s a fancy way of saying we’re running a buy-three-get-one-free offer, good through the end of the year. And of course, if you want to keep all four for yourself, we won’t tell. At the same time, though, we are kinda serious about the “give them as presents” thing. The conversation that begins with a book – “Do you think he knew? Should she have sent that letter? Why did she leave so quickly? I can’t believe he was stupid enough to marry her” – makes that book the gift that keeps on giving. So at this season of good will, we hope you’ll consider giving one.

Need help deciding? Shoot us an email, twit us a tweet, or drop us a line on Facebook: WE LOVE TO MAKE SUGGESTIONS.

(Enter coupon code HOLIDAY443 to take advantage of the Christmas sale.)


Elephants in thye Distance, by Daniel Stashtower

December 14, 2015

Last day of our Hanukkah special

Miracles come with time-limits, right? Or they wouldn’t be miracles, they’d just be the New Normal. So our Miraculous Hanukkah Sale must, sadly, come to an end. The sale-candles will continue to burn until 5pm Eastern time, after which they go POOF! blown out for another year. (To get in on all that miraculous fun, check the slider above.)

But but but, you may say, I don’t CELEBRATE Hanukkah! (You have something against crispylicious fried potatoes?) Where, O where, is the miracle for the Rest Of Us?

Patience, grasshopper. Have we ever let you down? In the meantime, have some of that mulled wine. You know, for quality-control purposes.


December 6, 2015

A Felonious Hanukkah: Eight Days of Light (Reading)

Tonight is the first night of Hanukkah, an eight-day commemoration of a miracle that, according to tradition, occurred in about 160 B.C. Enemies vanquished (for the moment), the Israelites turned their attention to the Temple, which had been defiled by the bad guys. An important element of the Temple was the “eternal light,” a lamp that burned sacred oil and was never permitted to go out. The baddies, of course, had put it out, and when the Jews re-lit the lamp, they discovered they had only one day’s worth of oil. Sanctification doesn’t happen overnight, and acquiring a fresh supply of sacred oil would require eight days. Miraculously, that single day’s supply of oil lasted for the necessary eight, and today Jews around the world celebrate the “festival of lights” by lighting special candles (because: eternal light) and eating fried things (because: oil) (also because: delicious).

From a religious standpoint, Hanukkah is actually a fairly minor holiday, but its association with both glittering lights and special foods, combined with its tendency to be celebrated in December, has framed it, in the popular imagination, as the “Jewish Christmas.” As a result, for the past 100 years or so, the Hanukkah celebration (in the USA at least) has featured not only sparkly candles and delicious fried things, but also presents, making it pretty much a trifecta of terrific. And just to gild the lily (and give Jewish kids something to brag about to their gentile friends), custom dictates that presents are given on every single one of the celebratory eight days.

Eight days of presents AND potato pancakes! It’s difficult to imagine a better combination. And yet, for me, the most important part of Hanukkah is the candles. It’s not because I’m particularly religious – though hey, thumbs up for the eternal light of faith, mercy, truth, whatever you’d like it to embody – but because I need light to read. The one-day lamp that burned for eight days? I’m all for the rededication of the Temple, but the really critical part? EIGHT DAYS’ WORTH OF READING.

Of course, reading has two requirements. We’ve already covered light; here are the books. For the eight days of Hanukkah, we’ll be running some especially tasty discounts on some of our favorite books. Get with tradition (albeit a fairly recent one) and give the books as presents, or give’em to your own self. Just don’t dribble them up with pancake greasies. Check in daily to see the featured title.

Ok, and about those pancakes. First of all, if you are the Pancake Maker, then ABSOLUTELY get the books for yourself: He or she who grates the potatoes and stands over a skillet full of hot fat is more than entitled to some righteous reading matter. And second, if you are craving some latkes and have no family tradition in that department? I’d recommend any recipe (and they’re widely available online) by Joan Nathan: She’s never steered me wrong.

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.