How did Felony & Mayhem start?
Books are pretty much in my blood. My mom was the senior editor at Yale University Press, and my stepmother was the editor-in-chief at Delacorte; I sold my first book when I was 12 (don’t ask), and had my first copy-editing job when I was 14. I worked at a bookstore in college, worked for a time at a now-defunct mystery bookstore in New York, and then, in 1994, four partners and I opened Partners & Crime, a mystery bookstore in Greenwich Village. Over the next decade there was an enormous amount of consolidation in the publishing industry, and one of the results was that many—and I mean many—books were taken out of print. At Partners & Crime, we made a lot of recommendations, and it was increasingly frustrating to say to customers “Oh, I have the perfect book for you….oh. It’s not available any more.” Drove me crazy. At the time, I was working as a journalist, and in 2003, my magazine shut down, and I was given a nice severance package. I decided I had been fighting my destiny long enough, and that it was time to come home to books, full-time. Felony & Mayhem was launched in the spring of 2005.
What’s with the name?
The original idea was to re-issue books that had gone out of print, and I was going to call the company Lazarus Press. I ran this idea by a former boyfriend, who said, “Hunh. So you’re bringing these books back to life. Like they’re Lazarus. So that would make you…Jesus. There’s a certain arrogance there, dontcha think?” Time for Plan B. Sometime in the 90s, for reasons I can’t remember, I had written a brief parody of Victorian gothic fiction. The protagonist was beautiful Felony Mayhem, who lived in a crumbling and sinister mansion on the moors with her younger sister, Dyptheria, and the maid, Larceny. I stole the name. Since then, however, beautiful Felony Mayhem has morphed—in my mind—into two characters, who together own the business: Felony is a teetotal Edinburgh spinster of a certain age, with steely posture and a tart tongue; and Mayhem is the spitting image of Robert Morley circa 1950—portly, usually a bit loaded, with a taste for life’s little luxuries. The two have nothing in common, but they inherited the company from their fathers, and are thus yoked together.
How do you pick books?
Many of our reissues are books that customers at Partners & Crime had been looking for. Others—Bonnie Jones Reynolds’ The Truth About Unicorns, The Romeo Flag, by Carolyn Hougan—are books that I just loved, and that I thought deserved another chance to find an audience. Then there are books—Elizabeth Ironside’s novels, LC Tyler’s, Karin Alvtegen’s—that I had been lucky enough to stumble across, and thought might appeal to some American readers. (The editor-in-chief of a major U.S. publisher told me that he had been offered Ironside’s Death in the Garden when it was first published in England, in 1995. I asked why he had turned it down, and he said, “Too intelligent, too English.” And I thought, Hunh, you’ve pretty much just described our entire line.) I am also shameless when it comes to picking other people’s brains. An Australian customer at Partners & Crime mentioned that she worked in publishing back home. I asked if she could think of any mysteries she had loved. The result is The Second-Last Woman in England, by Maggie Joel.
Some time ago, Lawrence Block wrote an article for, I think, American Heritage, in which he talked about this very question. He noted that many of his friends who read mysteries also read children’s books (this is true of me as well), and he thought that the shared appeal is that with both genres, you are guaranteed a story, a plot. SOMETHING will happen. I don’t know that that’s the only answer (the Israeli novelist Batya Gur once delivered, at Partners & Crime, a stunning and complex lecture devoted to the same question), but it works for me.
Hard-boiled/neo-noir is really cool, so how come you don’t publish it?
Mostly because it’s not what I really love to read. As a result, I’m not much use when it comes to finding really terrific books in the genre. Also, there are lots of people doing a very good job with the tough guys, everyone from Black Lizard to Charles Ardai at Hard Case Crime. “Too intelligent, too English” is where both my taste and my skills lie.
How big is Felony & Mayhem?
(Falling off my chair laughing) Not. Not big. We have a grand total of three employees, and no office (we work entirely online and on the phone). We also work with an army of extraordinarily talented freelancers (proofreaders, typesetters, designers) around the country and around the world.
Who designs your covers?
I hope you’re asking because you like them; we kill ourselves on the covers, and are in fact very proud of them. We have well over 100 titles in print, and all the covers have been masterminded by two people: Anthony Kosner (based in Oakland, CA), and Margaret Frank (based outside of Chicago). Margaret and Anthony are both old friends of mine, but neither of them had ever designed the cover of a single novel before we launched Felony, and I think they have done an amazing job. Additionally, we are increasingly turning to outside artists. Some of my favorite covers have been designed by Eduardo Recife, in Brazil (A Dark Dividing, and The Second-Last Woman in England); Anja Kaiser (Inspector Singh Investigates: A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder), in Stuttgart, Germany; Johnathan Cook, in Portland, ME (The Herring in the Library – the author told us that this was the first of his books to depict the characters as he thought they should look); and Malgorzata Maj, in Glewice, Poland, whose stunningly atmospheric photograph appears on the cover of The Faces of Angels.
Now you’ll ask how we find our designers, and I have to tell you, it’s exactly like finding books: It’s a combination of an extant knowledge-base, digging around, and pure dumb luck.
You say you use outside designers, and I’m an outside designer! How can I persuade you to hire me?
As with authors submitting manuscripts, we promise to look at anything you send, but you’ll save your time and ours if you spend a little time looking at our books to make sure that your work is roughly in line with what we publish. That said, you’re welcome to send a link to an online gallery or portfolio to firstname.lastname@example.org. If we have a project for which we think you might be well suited, we’ll get in touch.
I read one of the Ngaio Marsh books you’ve published, and your edition was different from the one on my bookshelf. What happened?
Did you know that the original British and American editions of Ngaio Marsh's books often differed substantially? We didn't, until we started publishing the "Inspector Alleyn" series. Then we found out that entire passages were added or taken out when the books were published in the U.S. We typically stick with the British edition, but not always. Sometimes we use the American editions and, rarely, we actually combine the two. If you think our edition is missing something important, let us know, and we'll review.
Do you publish original books?
We published our first original mystery, The Idol of Mombasa, by Annamaria Alfieri, in the fall of 2016, and we are eager to find the next.
Do you publish e-books?
Yes! We have quite a few digital titles currently out. The process of adding digital rights can be long and involved, but we are working to bring out as many of our titles as we possibly can in digital format. Look for these books at your favorite ebook retailer as well as this website.
Do you publish audio-books?
That’s something we expect to go into, but we haven’t as yet. As you may see (above), we’re a very small company, and we just don’t have the resources to roll out everything all at once.
Who are your favorite mystery writers?
Oh boy, that’s like trying to pick among my children. How about I tell you some of my favorite writers that I wish I could publish, but somebody else got there first? Many – though not all – of them are English, and Robert Goddard would top the list. On this side of the Atlantic, Michael Gruber would probably be my first pick. Given the kind of books we publish, Charlie Houston’s splatter-fests would never be right for us, but I love’em, I do. Charlie’s books, along with Larry Block’s “Burglar” series, do a great job for me of dispelling the blues.
Of course, if you ask me next week, the list will be completely different.