Like most industries, publishing is all about what’s new. What’s the hot book this week, this month, what are the big books for the summer, for the holiday season? And we’re hardly bucking this trend; we send our new books out for review just like everybody else in the business. But the truth is, Felony wasn’t founded on the new; it was founded on yesterday’s news. Or, more precisely, on books that were too good to be allowed to slip-slide away into history.
This section is where we showcase them. These books deserve a new audience, and to sweeten the deal, we’re offering a special, for-one-week-only price of $10.95. And if you like what you read, we hope you’ll shout it out.
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.
So here I am, still in the hospital, and still wedded to my habit of reading only books I have read (and loved) before. But for the moment, I have strayed from the F&M line-up, and am happily wallowing in A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson’s marvelous tale of his attempts – successful and otherwise – to hike the Appalachian Trail. I’m a city girl, born and bred, so the Nature Stuff is, frankly, of limited interest to me. What I love about this book, what keeps me reading it again and again, is the relationship between Bryson – middle-aged, with a gut and a wheeze and a taste for niceties like flush toilets, and his pal Katz, who makes Bryson look svelte and fit and low-maintenance. Katz, whose idea of how to pack for an epic journey in the wildness involves many cartons of Little Debbie snack cakes. Katz, who essentially defines the term “pain in the butt.” Katz, who has known Bryson since the two of them represented the entire teenage Bad Element of the state of Iowa, and who therefore represents both a kind and a degree of friendship that cannot be gainsaid by any amount of stupid packing, irritating behavior, or flatulence. I love many things about this book, but most of all I love its hymn to friendship – a relationship that fiction too often overlooks, I think, in favor of the glamor of romance and the meatiness of the parent-child bond.
Sadly, we can’t offer a discount on Mr. Bryon’s work, but the thought did send me looking through our list, to see what we have to say about friendship. I thought first about Anna Blundy’s sharp punch of a story, The Bad News Bible, in that the death of one friend sends another on a quest. It’s a wonderful book – and in fact, I can’t wait to reread it – but in honor of Katz, I wanted something where the friendship is a living thing. So the Valentine and Lovelace series it is, because as many of your female friends will tell you, great friendships don’t get a whole lot greater than those between straight women and their gay best friends. Michael McDowell, who wrote the series with his friend Dennis Schuetz, very consciously based it on the “Thin Man” moves starring Myrna Loy and William Powell. The books are set in Boston and environs in the early 1980s, but they nevertheless do a tremendous job of channeling that glorious “Thin Man” ethos where the wit sparkles as deliciously as the champagne, the martinis are cold, the music is hot, and one solves crimes because really, darling, one can only drive around in fabulous cars so many hours of the day. True, the protagonists of “The Thin Man” are married, but it’s a very swanky, sexless sort of marriage – and very much like the swanky, sexless friendship between Daniel Valentine and Clarisse Lovelace, both of whom would look great in satin piped pajamas. It’s a massive stretch, I know, from Clarisse and Valentine (much less from Powell and Loy) to Bryson and Katz…but it isn’t really. Because the thing about friendship is, it may take many different shapes, may be giddy or reserved or centered around burping contests, but at bottom, if it’s there…it’s there. Robert Frost famously said that home is where, when you go there, they have take you in. I’d suggest that a friend is who, when you call them, they come out – in a snowstorm, at 4 in the morning, kvetching all the way – and drive you there. This week only, 25% off on all four of the delightful Valentine and Lovelace books, and in the hope that you all have at least one such good friend. And if I may, it comes complete with a shout-out to the wonderful friends of mine who kept me such good company while I’ve been laid up. I’m a lucky woman.
In The Haunted Bookshop, Christopher Morley’s indelibly delightful salute to both bookselling and Brooklyn, the proprietor of the shop in question offers some thoughts as to how his customers might best be served. Posted on the wall of the shop is a sign, in a neat, un-showy hand, reading:
If your mind needs phosphorus, try “Trivia,” by Logan Pearsall Smith.
If your mind needs a whiff of strong air, blue and cleansing, from hilltops and primrose valleys, try “The Story of My Heart,” by Richard Jefferies.
If your mind needs a tonic of iron and wine, and a thorough rough-and-tumbling, try Samuel Butler’s “Notebooks” or “The Man Who Was Thursday,” by Chesterton.
If you need “all manner of Irish,” and a relapse into irresponsible freakishness, try “The Demi-Gods,” by James Stephens. It is a better book than one deserves or expects.
It’s a good thing to turn your mind upside down now and then, like an hour-glass, to let the particles run the other way.
One who loves the English tongue can have a lot of fun with a Latin dictionary.
I often thought of that sign and its prescriptions when I worked at the bookstore. I used to say that I felt sometimes like the village pharmacist: People would come in with one ailment or another, and my job was to figure out what book would answer their needs. Sometimes they would ask me the titles of my favorite books, and I would always explain that that didn’t really matter, that I wanted to find the right book for them.
And what that book might be could change from one day to the next. Just as a pharmacist’s client may have a sore throat on one day, and the jitters the next, a given customer of mine might need a chuckle on Monday, something calming on Tuesday, and a book to take on a plane, so absorbing as to make him forget the cramped seat and the lousy meal, for the weekend.
I’m thinking about book-prescriptions right now because I’m headed into the hospital on Wednesday, and I’m planning what books I’ll take with me. I won’t want anything really complicated – no Cold War espionage with back-room betrayals and Russian names to keep straight, and certainly nothing hugely violent or upsetting. I will need to be both soothed and absorbed, and a giggle or two would not go amiss.
For soothing, I will almost certainly turn to books I’ve already read and know I love. I know there are people who don’t reread – my mother never did – but for me, a well loved book is like a blanket with a comforting, familiar smell. The giggles are tough: In my experience, there are a lot more writers who think they’re funny than there are actually funny books. But happily, F&M publishes some dandy ones. Finally, “absorbing”…I’d like a book that has enough of a plot to keep me interested, to help block out the bleeping machines and the sharp smells of antiseptic and the ghastly Jello they always want you to eat. I’m going to have to bring a whole bunch of books of course – because if you want to see my vital signs go wacky in a hurry, lock me in a hospital room with AN INSUFFICIENT AMOUNT OF READING MATTER – but what am I going to start with? What’s the book that will see me through that first day, when I’ll be snappish with nerves and peevish at the forms and needle-jabs?
Got it: The wonderful Elephants in the Distance, by Daniel Stashower. Dan has by this point won so many Edgar awards that he could field a (somewhat static) baseball team, but this was one of his early novels. It may not be backed by the extraordinary research that underpins the biography and non-fiction he specializes in, but it has two very powerful hallmarks: A deep familiarity with the history of magic, and a great love for the old geezers with the arthritic rabbits and the moth-eaten top hats. The first scene in the book, in which an elderly, once celebrated magician is making balloon-animals at a toddler’s birthday party, reflecting with some grief – but little sourness – on the fact that he used to perform for princes…it’s a killer. I read it, and I keep reading even though I know the book, because I want so badly to see justice done for the nice old fellow.
Want to read along with me? It would give me enormous pleasure to know that I had some company in Stashower’s world. So this week, we’re offering 25% off the wry, clever, gentle and altogether lovely Elephants in the Distance.
It’s probably a good thing I’m not a physicist. Well, given how lousy I am at math, it’s a very good thing. But what I was thinking of was the tendency for physicists to slide down intellectual rabbit-holes, increasingly in thrall to the lure of the ToE – in science-land, that refers to the holy grail, the ultimate prize, the Theory of Everything.
I have never had quite the arrogance to imagine that I could discover the Big Toe, but I do love the hunt for patterns, the sense of stumbling, almost by accident, through the gates of a larger game than I knew was being played. I’ve mentioned before that as a mystery reader, my secret trashy passion is for conspiracy thrillers, yarns in which characters discover, sometimes too late, that they have merely been disposable pawns in someone else’s chess match, and that what they have viewed as simple coincidence has, all too often, been determined and laid down long ago.
I’m thinking of this because of one name that has of late cropped up – more than once – on my radar screen: George Orwell. The folks at Amazon are no doubt painfully familiar with Mr. Orwell’s name by now: They sought to invoke it to bolster their position in their ongoing dispute with Hachette, only to learn that, in fact, Orwell was saying exactly the opposite of what they had believed.
Taking a break from the news about Amazonian doings, I have been re-reading an old Robert Goddard novel set in part during the Spanish Civil War. And whose name should jump off the page but Mr. Orwell’s: His Homage to Catalonia is referenced, in the novel, in a ransom demand.
As any lover of conspiracy theories could tell you, that much Orwell is beyond coincidence; it is clearly some sort of message, some kind of coded instruction. And who am I to disobey? It was obvious to me that I was intended to offer a discount this week on something having to do with Orwell.
Orwell’s books themselves were clearly out of the question: If we had the rights to publish them and sell them, I’d be a richer and happier woman. But we do have a book – a wonderful conspiracy thriller, as it happens – in which Mr. Orwell makes an appearance of sorts. Death of a Dormouse, by Reginald Hill, is probably one of the maestro’s lesser-known titles. It’s not part of the “Pascoe and Dalziel” series, for which he was justly famous, and its protagonist is a depressed middle-aged woman – about as far from glamorous or buzz-worthy as it’s possible for a character to get. But Hill happens to have been astonishingly good at female characters, perhaps particularly good at those who for one reason or another are not considered shag-worthy. He doesn’t pity them or condescend to them or sneer at them or put them on pedestals, but renders them with an absolutely awesome clarity. And in that clear, cold light, Trudi Adamson – the dormouse – is revealed as a true heroine. If the universe is indeed sending a message, I will be very happy to be directed to spend more time – and to encourage you to spend time – with Trudi. She’s a good reminder of the fierceness that lurks within us all, waiting for circumstance to force us to find it. And this week only, that reminder’s going cheap: 25% off on Death of a Dormouse.
I was visiting some friends over Labor Day weekend, and they have a marvelous set-up that allows them to stream music from their computers over speakers in various rooms of the house. Offered for our listening pleasure was the “Harry Belafonte” station on Pandora, which didn’t seem to have a massive amount to do with Mr. Belafonte, but was a line-up of pretty much everything I want to hear. We segued from “Mambo Italiano” to “The Way You Look Tonight” to “Sing Sing Sing” to “The Sloop John B” to “Jamaica Farewell,” and my but I was a happy woman.
I feel almost as sorry for people who don’t love music as I do for people who don’t love books. What an enormous amount of joy they’re missing out on! A natural-born glutton, I like as much pleasure on my plate as possible, so though I don’t like to read while music’s playing – the two experiences cancel each other out – I love to play music in my head as I read, bopping along to the soundtrack that, in my imagination, animates the plot. Readers of our blog know that we often create “playlists” for our books, offering our take on the music that the characters might hear on the radio or sing around the piano.
We’re hardly alone in this endeavor: George Pelecanos, for instance, has gone so far as to include CDs with some of his mystery novels. And F&M’s own Sarah Rayne has talked at length about the extent to which music is a silent player in many of her gorgeously spooky reads: Ghost Song, which revolves around an abandoned London music hall, is practically hummable.
The book of ours that is most thickly laced with music, though, is Arabesk, the third in Barbara Nadel’s atmospheric series set in contemporary Istanbul. In a musical context, “Arabesk” refers to a genre that is passionate, massively popular, massively overwrought and somewhat déclassé: It’s like an entire radio station that plays nothing but Mariah Carey. One of the main characters is obsessed with Arabesk’s throbbing chords and aching melodies; they make him feel alive to his own feelings in a way that gives him great pity (and contempt) for the higher-class Inspector Suleyman, with his elite musical tastes.
You may not love Arabesk music – I don’t – but I do love the book, and the music enriches it to an extraordinary extent. Trust me, if you’re a music lover, take a chance on Arabesk, on sale this week at 25% off. And before you dive in, give a listen to Ibrahim Tatlises, one of the giants of the genre:
There’s an aphorism I once heard, something to the effect that “They deny it, but in their hearts men love fat women, sweet wine, and the music of Tchaikovsky.” I suspect that the Turkish version would substitute Arabesk. Spend a little while with Ibrahim – or with Ferdi Tayfur
or Sibel Can
and see if you don’t find yourself yearning, just a little, for an ice-cold bottle of Blue Nun.
Readers who’ve been around for a while may remember the original movie of “Miracle on 34th Street,” a sticky little Christmas story (though not nearly as ickily sticky as some of the treacle that Hollywood would go on to shovel out). One of the key roles is Santa Claus, Auld Beardie hisself, played by the British actor Edmund Gwenn (who won an Oscar for it). Gwenn in fact had a wide-ranging career, playing everything from Chekhov (with Katherine Cornell and Judith Anderson) to Hitchcock films, but he is best remembered as a fairly classy comedian. Gwenn died in 1959, and there’s a story – probably apocryphal, but it’s a swell story – that a friend came to see him in the hospital. Gwenn was lying there, festooned with tubes, surrounded by beeping monitors, and the friend was overcome. “Oh Ed,” said Friend, “Gosh, this is…I’m so sorry. Dying must be so hard.”
Gwenn thought about this for a moment. “Dying is hard,” he said. “Comedy is harder.”
There are many versions of that line – and, indeed, many versions of the story, some of which do away with Gwenn altogether and substitute actors from Edmund Kean to Groucho Marx. But the underlying point never changes: Funny is really hard work.
I’m thinking of this because I’ve been musing for some time now on why certain genres of fiction get more and less respect. Over the weekend I read a piece in the Guardian, which I’ll be posting shortly, on historical fiction – a genre that tends to get sniffed at a fair amount. The widespread belief, says Hillary Mantel, is that it’s essentially “chick-lit in wimples.”
Leaving aside the jaw-dropping…leaving aside the distressing aspect of a woman referring disdainfully to “chick-lit” (you don’t want to know what I think of women who call themselves and other women “bitches”), here’s my question: “Chick-lit” is assumed to deal with “light” themes (you know, the stuff that preoccupies the little ladies). And it’s often funny, or tries to be. Why does it get dissed so badly? I’ll repeat: FUNNY IS REALLY HARD WORK. And GOOD funny…is right up there on the list of the world’s blessings, alongside baby kitties and cheeseburgers and naps. Funny deserves some respect.
And the wimples? You know that famous line about Ginger Rogers doing everything that Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels? Well you try being funny while wearing a wimple. Or a corset and eight-button kid gloves. Lightweight requires heavy lifting, and triple that if you’ve grafted a historical theme on top of the hee-hee-hees.
In honor thereof, let us present two Felonies of the Week: Peter Lovesey’s deliciously silly (and lightweight. And funny) “Bertie” mysteries, in which the longtime Prince of Wales (would Queen Victoria ever pop her clogs???) plays sleuth. Villains everywhere were quaking in their boots. Not.
This week only, 25% off Bertie and the Crime of Passion and . Cheapest giggles in town.
THESE TITLES ARE CURRENTLY OUT OF PRINT AND NO LONGER AVAILABLE FROM FELONY & MAYHEM
I’ve been writing about sinisterly crumbling houses for a blog post coming up later in the week, and it occurred to me that for this week’s special, I wanted to feature a crumbling house that isn’t sinister at all. Back in the day (that would be the middle of the 18th century), the Countess Ashby de la Zouche – she of the magnificent bustline — lived in a splendid mansion with the Count, scads of servants, and aristocratic lovers hiding in the shrubberies. But the Count is gone, as are the servants, the bustline, and even the shrubberies, hocked alongside anything else that might fetch the price of a beer. These days the Countess lives in the kitchen of her former estate (the one room where the roof doesn’t leak), with her former maid (whose bustline is still holding up) and a single, decrepit manservant who is less deferential than one might like. There’s a murder – of course there’s a murder! – but mostly there are giggles galore. We adore Unnatural Fire, the first in an absolutely scrumptious series. If historical fiction has seemed to you to treat the past with a certain reverence, the Countess is the corrective you’re looking for. Let her be your tour-guide to The 1700s: Just the Dirty Parts. And for this week only, she’ll do it cheap.
Raise a glass, if you would, in bittersweet birthday wishes to Kate Ross, author of the lovely “Julian Kestrel” series. On the Saturday just past, Ross would have been 58 years old, but – as she knew too well – “Whom the gods love, die young.” Ross succumbed to cancer sixteen years ago. We are delighted to say that we will soon be making an exciting announcement about the Kestrel series, but for the moment, please take this chance to introduce yourself to the books, if you don’t know them. Ross’s genius notion was to transpose all the hallmarks of the classic “gentleman sleuth” mystery to England’s Regency era, so it’s like being given the chance to read the exploits of Peter Wimsey’s great-grandfather, as picky about the starch in his cravat as he is about solving crimes. This week, a discount on Whom the Gods Love, the third (and my favorite) in the series, about a young man given every gift imaginable except a long life in which to enjoy them. And don’t you just love the painting on the cover, of a fellow almost drunk on self-adoration?