April 20, 2012
When it’s going well, it’s like this. You sit down at the keyboard and write for twenty minutes. When you look up, six hours have passed and somebody has kindly added three thousand words to your novel. When it’s going well, the real world fades into the background and the book writes itself.
When it’s going badly, it’s like this. You can find 252 references to yourself on Google. Your Amazon ranking is 25,473. England are 225-4 against Australia. Rain is forecast for Tuesday. This is your fifth cup of coffee and it’s only 9.30. When it’s going badly there is nothing on the internet less interesting than the next chapter of your novel. You will make coffee for anyone. If you’d like one, I’ll bring it round to you. You’re reading this in Wisconsin? No problem. I got a Thermos.
When I write, I write in concentrated bursts. Like most authors I used to have a day job and in those days the people who paid me expected me to show up at the office from time to time. I wrote at the weekend when I could, but most of all I wrote on holiday. While the family were on the beach, I was back in the hotel room typing away. The maids would look at me pityingly when they come to do the room. When the family met up again in the evening I would be monosyllabic over dinner because I had just realised that if Mrs Maggs knew about the secret passage then Annabelle would not have risked lying to the police, which blew a massive hole in my plot. “The book’s fine,” I would say in answer to their questions. “Just fine.”
Now writing is the day job, but old habits die hard. I still tend to write in bursts between book signings and conferences and doing all the other things that my publishers ask me to do – and checking my Amazon ranking and the cricket score.
I write large chunks in my head in advance and dump it onto the computer when I can. Long car journeys are a good chance to think through plots. People sometimes ask me why my characters seem to spend so much time on the road.
When I start writing the first chapter I always know how the book will end, but I rarely make detailed written plans in advance. I have a notebook in which I record names of characters, the chronology of events, bits of dialogue and so on, but most of it I just remember. About 20,000 words into the first draft, I usually write the final chapter and then work towards the middle of the book from each end, like two teams of tunnellers, until the two halves meet. Well, it works for me.
My first drafts are usually very short – little more than novella length. Each successive draft adds ten to fifteen thousand words. To begin with, it worried me that the natural length of my stories appeared to be around 45,000 words. But after a while you develop the confidence that it will come right in the end.
Or, at least, I have that confidence up to a point. Writers, like actors, can be quite superstitious, quite insecure. If you don’t know where a gift has come from, you can never be quite sure that it won’t suddenly desert you. Above all therefore I write in gratitude that I am still writing.
(Written in my head on the A40 between London and Oxford. Dumped onto computer one Saturday afternoon.)
February 20, 2012
‘With varying vanities, from every part,
They shift the moving toyshop of their heart’
Alexander Pope, The Rape of the Lock
The above quote is also the ending of Edmund Crispin’s The Moving Toyshop. Thanks to Felony & Mayhem, I recently discovered the joy of reading Edmund Crispin’s series of mystery novels featuring Gervase Fen, Oxford Professor of English Language and Literature, and amateur sleuth. Fen often involves himself and those around him in ridiculous and dangerous situations. His life is often in peril; often by murderers, but also by his own awful driving in his beloved car “Lily Christine III”. All of the books are wonderful, but if pressed, I’d say The Moving Toyshop is my favorite (I’m in good company; P.D. James ranks it in her top 5 mysteries of all time).
Seeking shelter after arriving late at night in Oxford, the poet Richard Cadogan stumbles across the body of a dead woman in a toyshop. After fleeing the scene, he returns with the police the following morning, only to discover the toyshop is now a grocery store and there is no sign of the corpse. Cadogan joins forces with the eccentric Fen to solve the mystery, and the two alternately sneak and roar through Oxford determined to find a solution.
What sets The Moving Toyshop apart from other English ‘locked-room’ or ‘cozy’ mysteries are its inventiveness and sheer wit; Crispin cheerfully breaks the fourth wall, having Fen frequently referring to himself as the hero of a mystery novel, and suggesting titles for the novel in which he is appearing. There is an irrepressible humor behind almost every line: “Among the altos, hooting morosely like ships in a Channel fog – which is the way of altos the world over …” (Note: Crispin was actually Bruce Montgomery, a composer and music director and well-acquainted with singers.) With vanishing evidence, an impossible murder, literary references and games (“Unreadable Books” is played by Fen and Cadogan while locked away awaiting rescue), a frantic final chase involving half of Oxford, and genuine suspense, The Moving Toyshop has it all, and deserves its standing as one of the top mysteries of all time.
Michael, Warehouse Manager
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A list of Felony & Mayhem titles which have been nominated for, or won, literary awards.
The Edgar Allan Poe Awards (“Edgars”)
The Suspect (Best Novel, 1986)
The Faces of Angels (Best Paperback Original, 2012)
Ten Little Herrings (Best Paperback Original, 2011)
The Herring-Seller’s Apprentice (Best Paperback Original, 2010)
Missing (Best Novel, 2009)
Black Knight in Red Square (Best Paperback Original, 1985)
By Frequent Anguish (Best First Novel, 1983)
The Spy’s Wife (Best Novel, 1981)
CWA (UK Crime Writers Association) Award Winners:
CWA Gold Dagger Award for Best Novel:
The Old English Peep Show (aka, A Pride of Heroes), 1969
Skin Deep (aka, The Glass-Sided Ants’ Nest), 1968
CWA John Creasy Award for Best First Novel:
A Very Private Enterprise, 1984
CWA Ellis Peters Award for Best Historical Novel:
The Innocent Spy (aka, Stratton’s War), 2008
CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger for lifetime achievement:
Macavity Award for Best First Novel:
The Killings at Badger’s Drift, 1989
February 17, 2012
I was taught as a child that it’s tacky to brag, so somewhere my mother is looking down at me with her lips pursed, because I’m about to brag something serious. Felony & Mayhem Press has been nominated for its fourth consecutive Edgar award.
This is a big deal on several fronts. First, the Edgars—named, of course, for Mr. Poe—are essentially the Oscars of the mystery world; it actually is an honor just to be nominated. And did I mention that we’ve been honored four times in a row? We’re the first small press in the history of the awards to be honored like that. That’s just….buckets of honor.
Then there are the odds. One of my favorite lines in theater history comes from the Tennessee Williams play Sweet Bird of Youth. We’re in a crummy Florida hotel room, where the Princess Kosmonopolis, an aging movie star, is sleeping off a night of excess. She wakes to find Chance Wayne, a young gigolo, preening at the dressing table. Her arm over her eyes, the Princess asks who the hell he is, and Chance replies “Well, M’am, I used to be the best-looking boy in this town.”
The Princess considers this. And then she asks, “How big is the town?”
January 13, 2012
It’s with real sadness that I learned this afternoon of the death of Reginald Hill, author of the splendid “Dalziel and Pascoe” series about a pair of magnificently mismatched Yorkshire cops, of some of my all-time favorite espionage titles (Who Guards a Prince was on the very first list of titles published by Felony & Mayhem), and of an astonishing 47 novels overall, plus several short-story collections.
I met Reg Hill only once, and remember him as a very tall, very sloshed, and very charming man, with a wickedly glinting eye. There was something of the roguish Southern gentleman about him, though he was deeply English. Much more important than that brief meeting, though, was my relationship with his books, which has been both long and heartfelt. In a genre that is all too often correctly criticized for specializing in cardboard characters, Hill created some of the most nuanced and individual (and funniest) characters ever to bestride a page, Fat Andy Dalziel being, of course, first among them. Would I want Andy in my life? Probably not. He’d hurt my feelings, he’d insult my friends, he’d embarrass me in public. But he’d have my back so solidly that it would be like leaning against a stone wall, and that’s worth a lot. And once in a while he would make me absolutely bark with laughter. And I can’t think of many writers, certainly not many mystery writers, who have created a character of such glorious and realistic complexity.
January 10, 2012
I am fortunate enough to spend my Christmases with some friends who live in a small town in Pennsylvania. Their location is so rural that deer occasionally wander up to stare at me as I sit on the deck with my morning coffee, and that snow actually stays on the ground, deep and crisp and even, rather than turning in minutes to citified slush. A lifelong New Yorker, I am charmed to the bone.
I’m also a passionate cat-lover, but I am delighted to spend time with my friends’ big, boisterous dogs. My Jewish soul is thrilled by the decorated tree, piled with presents wrapped cack-handedly in Walmart’s shiniest. (And my Jewish soul was profoundly ticked off this year, when the tree proved “too much of a bother,” and was replaced with a listing jade plant hung with a handful of ornaments. BRING BACK THE DAMN TREE!) All in all, my few days in Pennsylvania offer, every year, the most wonderful vacation from my life.
This year, though, it wasn’t the tree or the dogs that provided the most profound reminder that I was not in Kansas anymore: It was my friends’ twenty-three-year-old son. Or, more specifically, his unrelentingly sunny disposish. (“He’s always been like that,” says his mother. “When he was little, he’d come running into the kitchen and say ‘I had THE BEST DAY!!!’ I’d ask what had happened and the answer was always something like he had found a pretty pebble.”) New Yorkers, we’re not like that. We regard cynicism as our birthright, and tend to think of happy people as being too dumb to have discovered self-loathing.
December 17, 2011
Let me introduce you to Sandro Cellini, a not-quite-voluntarily retired policeman reluctantly trying a midlife stab at becoming a private investigator in his native Florence. His diffidence almost causes him to miss his first client: a refined older woman whose husband, Claudio Gentileschi—an artist who has experienced some of the rigors endured by the Italian Jewish community during World War II—has just walked into the Arno River and is thus declared a suicide by the police. His widow just wants to know why, setting Cellini on a path that will entwine his investigation with that conducted by Iris March, a young English student, whose friend from art school has just gone missing. When the two investigators finally chance to meet, their collaboration allows them to solve the puzzle of the death of the old man and the disappearance of the young woman. The author leads us quickly to the finely wrought conclusion of the book, a conclusion made all the more dramatic by steadily growing bad weather as rain swells the Arno and it threatens to flood its banks, echoing the historic nightmare of the destructive flood in 1966.
The story is gripping, but the real pleasure of The Drowning River is twofold—the character of Florence itself and the character of Sandro Cellini and his wife Luisa: We are treated not to the Florence that the tourists see, but rather to a far more nuanced view into the locales and lives of ordinary Florentines. The author is spot-on in terms of both the geography of Florence and, more intriguingly, its sociology. The working poor are described sympathetically, although the author is somewhat more critical of the artistic poseurs and dubiously titled owners of threadbare palazzos broken up and rented to long-term visitors. And among those visitors is a sad cadre of young persons, exiled to art school in Florence by narcissistic and beleaguered parents. The character of Sandro Cellini is finely limned: He is a ruminator: melancholy, uxorious, and highly attuned to mortality—an existential hero, if you will. His wife Luisa is practical and steady, and although the word love is never said, it is palpable in every human detail of their marriage.
The Drowning River is in the European realist tradition and, as such, has the slight timbre of a piece of music written in a minor key—pleasurable, but with a twist.
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November 7, 2011
I am what you might call very attuned to names, because my own surname is weird and almost always spelled wrong. (The worst version I got was a result of registering at a Welsh bed-and-breakfast over the phone; when I got there they had me listed as Maggie Hopeless.) I “collect” peculiar names, often from the “society” pages of the New York Times (my longstanding favorite is a couple named Boykin and Celerie; I’m not allowed to make a lot of fun of them because they donate heavily to political causes of which I approve). And many years ago, for reasons I’ve long forgotten, I wrote the beginning of a gothic parody, several paragraphs of deeply purple prose about beautiful Felony Mayhem and her younger sister, Dyptheria. They lived in a crumbling mansion on the moors, attended by a maid named Larceny. Felony was being courted by the cousins Arson and Ague, one of whom was evil but I can’t remember which. And that, aside from much smug snickering on my part, was as far as it went.
Flash forward to 2004, when I was setting up this odd little publishing…well, custom would call it a publishing house, but I tend to think of it more as a publishing shack. I wanted a name for it that would echo some of the great, double-barreled English firms (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, for example) only…bent. I wanted something that would sound a bit flowery, but with (as the great S.J. Perelman would put it) somewhere a roscoe. Felony & Mayhem was born.