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January 8, 2015

Past and Future: The Year in Felony & Mayhem and 2015 Preview

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.



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