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Sunday, December 20, 2009

What About Christmas Mysteries?

Our Mystery Book Club just finished discussing A Christmas Guest by Anne Perry. A few years ago we read Tied Up in Tinsel by Roderick Alleyn. You can find a good selection of Christmas themed mysteries from Stop You're Killing Me. But the question we considered was, should our mystery reading include a "Christmas mystery" every December? I'd love to hear your comments - please add them to this post!

Some in our group said, "Yes! Great fun!" Other expressed thoughts like, "They can be boring or fluffy or overly contrived." Such were the very kinds of comments that were heard during our discussion of A Christmas Guest.

Using our group's rating sheet, members gave the book scores of: 65, 69, 72, 79, 85, 85, 85, 90, 90 - all averaging to 80.

On the one hand, Perry does a beautiful job utilizing Grandmama - Mariah Ellison, a side character from her Thomas Pitt mysteries, as the central character. Here is a bitter woman who does not live in gratitude, whose every remark to her family is caustic, who so easily imagines offenses; yet somehow we can identify with her and are drawn to her. I think that takes some artistry on the part of the author.

The story is set in Victorian England, on a marshy overlook of the English Channel. It is cold, blustery, and bleak. Grandmama has been "sent" to spend the Christmas holiday with daughter-in-law Caroline that she never liked who married Joshua, an actor (Disgusting!), upon the death of Edward, Grandmama's son. When Joshua's long lost Aunt Maude is "sent" by her sisters (who live but 5 miles away) to stay at this home, Grandmama is outraged at the "imposition." The mystery begins when Maude is found dead in bed of an apparent heart attack just a few days after she arrived.

Note: Following Perry's description of the family relationships in this book is challenging. Yet it is necessary to make sense of the plot's conclusion. It is so confusing that the book's publisher makes an apparent error in describing the relationships on the book jacket. I had to make a family relationships diagram while rereading parts of the book, in order to be sure of the facts.

Grandmama's curiosity about Maude's death motivates her to investigate. To do so, she must take a horse and buggy ride to the home of Maude's sisters, where she stays overnight. By the evening of the second day, in the midst of a confining snow storm, she meets with the family in the parlor and makes her accusation. A true "cozy."

During the process of the albeit brief investigation, Grandmama's character transforms from one of bitterness to one of freedom from bitterness. That is the Christmas "message" part of the book. But is the message contrived? Is it conceivable that such people can have such a change at that stage in their lives?

Well, that is the big question embedded in THE Christmas story, isn't it? The Christian message is that people can change. (Or "are changed" depending on your theology.) That's why Christmas is seen as a season of hope. Some of us may feel that sugarcoats reality; by extension, "Christmas mysteries" are fluffy.

So - what do you think? Please click here to leave your comment!

Image above:

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Cynthia Riggs Shares Her Thoughts on Westlake

I decided to ask Cynthia Riggs about Westlake. I am delighted that she took time to respond. So first comes my letter to her, followed by her reply.
Hi Cynthia,

I'm still puzzling over your Crimebake panel comment about Donald Westlake.

Last week, our mystery book club in Manchester-by-the-sea discussed Richard Stark's Dirty Money.

--Stark's central characters are losers
--Your book's central character is a good "guy" (apologies to Victoria)

--Stark's central character (Parker) has no appeal and seems flat, devoid of depth and feeling
--Victoria is appealing and there is plenty of depth - information about the character that creates the interest and appeal

--Stark's story has no ending; it's like the end of a chapter. It's like a puzzle piece.
--Your stories have resolution.

--While the Dortmunder series has a kind of humor, Stark's series are grim to the core with no real humor (at least to us)
--While Victoria encounters many murders, she is a good sport and there are lighter moments in the stories.

So -

At the risk of sounding really really dumb, and knowing that a fellow panel member happened to agree with the Westlake choice quite independently, still -

What exactly was it or is it about Westlake's writing that you admire?

Dear Richard:

I'm honored that the mystery book club compares my writing with Donald Westlake's. He's one of my favorite not-exactly-mystery writers. And, of course, I like hearing that you think Victoria Trumbull is appealing, has depth, and is a good sport and a good guy.

Westlake's caper books are quite different from his Stark books, which I like, but they're not among my favorites.

Dortmunder appeals to me because I love the concept of a failed burglar concocting yet another elaborate scheme that, yet again, fails. For some reason, I find that comical. I guess reading about losers makes me feel better about my own failed ventures, and thinking that an occasional venture of mine may succeed, unlike Dortmunder's.

Westlake has remarkable control over his writing. I'm sure he intended his losers to seem flat, which they are. Much like the characters in the works of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. His writing boils the story down to its essence. I'd say like poetry, but that's not exactly right. Doggerel, maybe, in its kindest definition. Westlake's settings are sketchy, his dialogue is a mere suggestion of the way people talk. The plot's the thing, leaving all else to the imagination, a carefully crafted, intricately engineered structure with cartoon people moving through. His spare dialogue and the absurd situations he sets up make me laugh. I'm not amused by much of today's over-written, in-your-face humor -- Seinfeld and Janet Evanovich, for instance, treat me as if my reading comprehension is at the third grade level. Reading Westlake I sometimes feel as though I'm the only reader who's ever seen through and around and beyond what he's put on paper, and believe I've discovered new territory. I suspect that's the way his other fans feel.

I consciously imitate some of Westlake's style, and find myself laughing aloud as I write.

Thanks for writing to me.


Friday, November 27, 2009

Dirty Money - Grim

Eight of us met last week to discuss Dirty Money by Richard Stark (Donald Westlake) 2008.

We all agreed: Stark gave us excellent and enjoyable descriptions of setting, wrote like the professional and mature writer that he is, and provided believable dialog. But to one degree or another, we also all agreeds that we did not enjoy the book and most likely would not read another by Stark.

OK, frankly our group prefers the "good guy" type of central character. At the very least, we want someone we can like. But in Parker, we felt there was little or nothing to like. He was not a "bumbler" like Dortmunder; Parker is a self-centered, remoreseless killer. In fact, Stark keeps Parker very flat and one-dimensional. We are quite frankly puzzled by the awards that Stark has received for Parker. Perhaps "less is more"?

We thought that the side characters were more interesting; they seemed to be real people with real feelings, more multi-dimensional. This observation includes the B&B owner, the two-timing bounty-hunter woman, and the doctor trapped by his own weaknesses.

Since we had no one in our group who had read the series opener, The Hunter (1962 !), we have no way of knowing whether Stark wrote differently in that book or provided more to like about him. One or two of us thought we might check it out, but that would be primarily a matter of curiosity.

We agreed there is good pacing and enough tension to keep us moving through the book. It's just that we regretted getting to the end. For the ending has no resolution; it just stops. One of our members had read the previous book instead of Dirty Money, and she confirmed that that book also just stopped. It is as though Dirty Money is the next chapter, but "so what."

Coincidentally, as I mentioned in a previous post, Cynthia Riggs and Mark Arsenault both mentioned Westlake as a most admired writer at a New England Crimebake panel two weeks ago. Our mystery book club gave a higher average score to Riggs (for Deadly Nightshade) than we did Stark.

Obviously Parker was an enduring character that lasted throughout Westlake's long writing career. But we would love to hear from some folks that "loved" Dirty Money and tell us why!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Factors in Murdering your Murder Book Career

Can a budding mystery writer ruin his career by badmouthing his publisher? Well? What do you think?

Can a guy get fired by slamming his employer in the press?

"I'd never do that."

I didn't mean deliberately. Like writing a letter to the editor. I meant by complaining to a "friend" who tells the boss. Or by mentioning something to a reviewer "off the record."

Mark Pepper wrote two published novels in the horror/thriller genre which, he says, received excellent reviews. In two guest posts Pepper describes a series of events that he believes destroyed his relationship with his publisher and consequently damaged his chances of pursuing a career as a novelist. He also adds that there was a lot more to his decision to give up on writing novels than that one event.

Apparently Pepper's publisher failed to mail out copies of his book, Man on a Murder Cycle, to six magazines he thought would provide additional good reviews. One might see that as a misunderstanding, but Pepper vented a bit of his frustration to a "journalist" that was interviewing him for the book. Pepper admits it was a "gaff" but naively believed that his request to the journalist to consider his remarks "off the record" would be honored.

Of course, the reviewer wrote a great book review, but finished with a comment about Pepper's frustration with the publisher. This was followed by a call from the editor expressing disappointment and the swift rejection of the submission of his next book.

Of course there is no way of really knowing what prevented the publication of the third book. Were any of the following significant by themselves in ending his novelist career? Or was it some strategic combination?

  • Badmouthing the publisher in public. Pepper's posts place more venom or bitterness on the journalist than on himself, but either way, the result was the same.
  • The book submitted was in a genre no longer of interest. Pepper suggests that the Horror genre, fueled by Stephen King, had lost its steam. I do not know about that, but I suspect some would debate the point.
  • The book submitted was in fact poorly written. Of course, we have no way of knowing that.
  • The book's value was lost on the publisher's editor because she was so Canadian. Huh? Yes that is in Pepper's self-absorbed account.
  • His agent gave up trying to find another publisher because Pepper's reputation was tarnished. Pepper claims that his agent was loyal but that they parted ways after a while.
  • His agent was ineffective.
  • Pepper himself gave up interest in getting the third book published. I recently heard a panel of agents (at Crimebake 2009) say that a certain percentage of their clients lose interest. In fact, Pepper identifies a variety of personal reasons for moving on to other things.
None of these speculations take away from Pepper's lesson. Take your pick:

  • If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all.
  • Don't bit the hand that feeds you (as the editor commented to him afterward).
  • Don't shoot your novel in the back.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Crimebake 2009: Awesome Again!

Just returned from Crimebake, the New England mystery conference for writers and readers. Wow! What fun.

It's hard to pass on a chance to brag, so here it is. I submitted a Flash Fiction piece to the conference contest and was one of three winners! You can read my winning entry and more about the contest here.

Too many thoughts to give a coherent "report" but here are random experiences mixed with a few of the many factoids I picked up:
  • An authors' panel called "T is for Traditional" was asked to share the name of the author that they most admired. Interestingly, two authors (Mark Arsenault and Cynthia Riggs) named Donald Westlake (aka Richard Stark) - the author that our Book Club is currently reading. See a subsequent comment to me from Cynthia Riggs.
  • Criminalists (in the past) did not have the ability to make absolute ID's from hair analysis. All they could do was narrow it down. Now, DNA analysis from a hair root can be, potentially, absolute. And also - DNA from fingerprints can sometimes be more significant than the fingerprint left behind! Great presentation from Mary Kate McGilvray, former acting director of the Massachusetts State Police Crime Lab.
  • Speaking of stuff related to CSI - in real life, what is portrayed by a single crime scene technician is frequently the work of many, many specialists.
  • Want to be a writer? Can you put up with 50 "rejections" before getting an acceptance - or maybe never getting an acceptance for a book. Chocolate brownies was mentioned a few times! (I can relate!) Several panels addressed this but none more bluntly than "P is for Persistance." Several spoke of turning to different projects: short stories, other novels, true crime, or just personal activities as distractions. Keeping stories in "inventory" was mentioned; often, a request for a particular type of book/story could come up several years later.
  • What creates tension or fear in a book? One panel of authors totally agrees that it is not violence or blood. Among other things it is pacing. One insight - humor accentuates tension; tension accentuates humor. I have to agree with comments of one of my favorite authors (and favorite persons), Michael Palmer - it is understanding the emotion of fear, in other words, successfully conveying the experience of the character, from being in the character's shoes. A helpless character contributes to that, and no one is more helpless than a hospital patient. Dr. Palmer has a lot of insight into that and brings it out well in his medical thrillers. That's Michael Palmer on the right (with me) - below.

  • Sue Grafton gives credit to her attendance at a Jack Canfield workshop for helping her to get onto the Best Seller list. (Just a tiny nugget from an extensive list of tidbits from her interesting luncheon speech.)
  • Highly published short story author Stephen Rogers has managed to get 13 stories published by Women's Day. That magazine pays well at about $500 per story. On the other hand, he has had some 200 other stories published many of which pay poorly. It's too bad - short stories is a great art form in itself. I had a very enjoyable time chatting with Stephen on Friday evening as well as receiving some helpful tips on a short story manuscript.
  • The best way to remove the serial number from a handgun is to use a power drill and take out the metallic ridges. Of course that wouldn't work if the imprint is inside the gun barrel. That from a ballistics expert.
  • Solving a mystery-game-crime with clues scattered on 30 tables and 250+ participants must be "impossible" given that none of us solved the crime exactly! LOL - maybe it was the script?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Two Authors have Cameo on Castle

Castle is a light police detective show now in its second season on ABC television. The premise is that of a crime writer that has such good detecting instincts (remember Murder She Wrote?) that he has teamed up with a police detective looking for help in solving real crimes. In the pilot show (March 9, 2009) for the first season the crime writer Rick Castle is seen playing poker with, as it turns out, real mystery writers James Patterson and Stephen J. Cannell.

In the recent season opener on September 21, Castle again goes to the poker game for help, with Stephen J. Cannell again playing himself but now with writer Michael Connelly at the table.

Castle is currently playing on ABC, Monday nights at 10 pm.

You can see that September 21st show on Hulu here.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Love that Raymond Chandler

Finished my fourth Raymond Chandler novel this month. He so clearly owns the title of the father of hard-boiled mystery writers. The plotting, character, and superb description of the setting is so well done. Nothing is irrelevant.

The dialog, the turn of a phrase all set the pace for Robert Parker, Lee Child, Sara Paretsky and all the rest of the great mystery writers of the last fifty years.

Here is just one fine little quote.

Degarmo was there by the counter talking to the desk sergeant. He turned his metallic blue eyes on me and said: "How are you doing?"


"Like our jail?"

"I like your jail fine."

"Captain Webber wants to talk to you."

"That's fine," I said.

"Don't you know any words but fine?"

"Not right now," I said. "Not in here."

"You're limping a little," he said. "You trip over something?"

"Yeah," I said. "I tripped over a blackjack. It jumped up and bit me behind the left knee."

"That's too bad," Degarmo said blank-eyed. "Get your stuff from the property clerk."

"I've got it," I said. "It wasn't taken away from me."

"Well, that's fine," he said.

"It sure is," I said. "It's fine."

---- that's Philip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler's The Lady in the Lake

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The awesome "Book vs Kindle" Contest!!

I am pretty shocked by two recent articles talking about the demise of the library, so I got a laugh from these videos. Hopefully you do too!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Scarpetta and the Challenge of Series Books

I read two of Patricia Cornwell's books featuring Kay Scarpetta, forensic pathologist, but it was quite a few years ago. The first in the series was written in 1990! Time flies when our heads are buried in mysteries! I digress already.

Why did I stop reading the series; why did it take so long to return? I'm not sure exactly, but my best memory is that the second book that I read (I don't know which book title this was) contained the re-appearance of the "bad guy" from the previous book I had read. That bugged me. When the book is finished, I want the mystery to be solved, and the killer to have been "finished." Perhaps that is unfair, because I have maintained an interest in other series where that has happened. But still, how many series can a person read where you begin to lose track of what happens in which series?

No matter which Hardy Boy book you read in which order, you are not going to be confused by the series because the main characters are always the same. Frank and Joe remain more or less perpetual high school juniors and seniors through over 50 summer and winter vacations. In the Perry Mason series by Erle Stanley Gardner, no matter which book you read in the 80 book series, nothing has happened in the personal life of Perry, Della, or Paul to make you wish you had read 32 other books first. And so on.

Nowadays, this is not the case. The main character gets married in one book, divorced in the next book, raped in the next book, and provides legal aid to her rapist in the tenth book while trying to help the grown child of her former husband's second marriage alluded to briefly in the fifth book. Try reading that series out of order. Who wants to read the Harry Potter series in backwards order? (Confession, I have not read even one of the books.)

The way that authors approach the development of their central characters is spread along a continuum of "No Change" (like Frank and Joe or Perry and Della) on the one extreme and the "Every Book is a New Chapter" (like Harry Potter and pals) on the other extreme. I'm fine with the middle of the continuum. V I Warshawski (in the series by Sara Paretsky) and Kinsey Milhone (Sue Grafton) do make some life changes over the course of the series, but not enough to confuse the reader who might join the series in the middle.

Patricia Cornwell's Scarpetta series is (for me) annoyingly not in the middle of that continuum, but veers toward the "Many Changes" end of the line. Cornwell's 2008 novel was given to me by a good mystery reader pal and I decided to give it a go.

The plot and characters were great! No problem -- enjoyable. The author played fair with the ending, letting you in on the clues ever so gradually.

But the book was annoying! So much reference to events of the past. I wouldn't be surprised if the total of all such paragraphs might equal 20% of the 500 page book. Since Scarpetta's past (15 books in all) is referred to at length, and since I had not read those books (not all of them, and none recently) it was hard to make sense of all the allusions. These references included previous cases, previous jobs in her career, previous locales in which she had lived, people close to her in previous books who are no longer living, and on and on. I suggest that a huge amount of that material could be deleted -- yep, edited right out of the book. That way, previous readers in the series can pick right up and new readers are not left feeling like the out duck out at the class reunion. Knowledge of every preceding event is NOT necessary to understanding the present case. So why burden me and confuse me.

There you have it. My own take.

Happy reading!

Friday, July 31, 2009

William Tapply - Will be Missed

William G. Tapply died July 28, 2009 at his home in Hancock, NH, after a courageous battle with leukemia. Please check back to this website over the coming weeks for thoughts and memories from loved ones, as well as information about his upcoming publications. Obituaries have been published in The Boston Globe and Boston Herald.

Our Mystery Book Club was honored with a visit from Bill Tapply last year. And his books are extremely well regarded by our members.

Highest Rated in Our Group This Year

Our Mystery Book Club -the one that meets in the town Library- uses a score sheet to "rate" or "grade" the books we read each month. You can download a copy from the link on the right. Anyway, this month's selection was Run Before the Wind by Stuart Woods. The book was placed on the schedule because we had such a collectively high regard for Chiefs, Woods' first book, when we read it last year (my review). Like last year, this book was rated very high by everyone - the average score was 94 ! Eight of nine people rated it 90 or above.

Run Before the Wind picks up in the early 1970s with the next generation of the Lee family in Georgia. Young Will Lee is an unfocused law school student who finds himself forced to take a year off. He sets out to travel around Europe, but a chance act of daring in which he rescues a yacht adrift in a harbor, changes everything. He accepts a proposal to help build a competitive sailing yacht in a small Irish village alongside a former British marine and his wife. It happens that the Brit is targeted by IRA extremists, and Will finds himself caught up in the cross hairs.

Many in our group loved the nautical scenes and descriptions: boat building, sailing, harborside activities, and so on.

Others were fascinated by the issues of ideological extremists in general and Irish nationalists in particular: how can people get so caught up in their view of life that they would kill the people they are defending ... to defend them?

We all felt the book was a page turner aided by extremely good writing: new elements of plot, lots of foreshadowing, excellent characterizations throughout the book.

Quite a few said it was the best book they had read all year. NOTE: see our list at bottom of this post. But two of us like Chiefs better than this second book.

I was the only one giving an under-90 rating, namely 87. Still nothing to sneeze at. (My avergae of 11 books was 81.)

My problems with the book: 1) Some unrealistic scenes / or scenes that didn't really make sense: **SPOILER** Example, when the "Bishop" tries to kill the "Nun" in the trailer, why did he wait until then? It made no sense, especially since he opposed the Nun's desire to kill Lee all along anyway. 2) A lot of questions about characters left up in the air, especially the millionaire Thresher. 3) A central character (Lee) with whom I did not identify as well as I did two of the chiefs in Chiefs.

Interesting observation though, several participants who do not like the Stone Barrington character (a PI featured in a number of Woods' later books), felt drawn to Will Lee as someone who learned and matured. Well, I hope so. In the continuing Lee family saga, Will runs for President of the US.


Books read during the last 11 months listed in the order of how I personally rated them:

Hold Tight - Coben - 95
Undue Influence - Martini - 93
Brass Verdict - Connelly - 90
Winter Prey - Sandford - 89
Indemnity Only - Paretsky - 88
Run Before the Wind - Woods - 87
The Shape Shifter - Hillerman - 87
Power Play - Finder - 85
Christine Falls - Black - 76
Skin Deep - Braver - 54
Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders - Mortimer - 45
NPR is doing a series on crime novelists using various "urban" locales. (Not sure I'd call P-Town urban.) Anyway it's a great introduction to a few authors that I am not familiar with.

Have to say I enjoyed the interview with John Camp aka John Sandford. Our book club read a Sandford book this past year - Winter Prey. I believe I've read about 90% of the Sandford books.

Listen to the interview here:

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

I noticed this on Michael Connelly's site:

September 21, 2009. ABC TV Show Appearance
"Castle" is a 1 hour witty drama about a famous crime and horror novelist, Rick Castle, who helps the NYPD homicide department solve crimes. Michael Connelly will appear as himself in the season premiere, which airs September 21st at 10pm (EST). Check your local listings for time in your area.

I wonder if the show can maintain the same success that "Murder She Wrote" did years ago. Imagine, an author as detective! Jessica Fletcher, revived? I wonder.

I'll be watching, if for no other reason than to see the Connelly cameo. Hopefully for the series it can suck me in. I don't watch TV anymore, so it would be a hard sell.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

My Verdict on the Brass Verdict

The Mystery Book Club read The Brass Verdict for June.  I'm sorry I will miss the meeting this Friday, but I hope that some of the members may leave comments of their own about the book here.

Last year, the club read The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly and it was so well received that the group decided to read the "sequel" this year.  I was not as enthusiastic about The Lincoln Lawyer as other members of the club; I gave it an 84 - a solid B, so not too bad. However, I really enjoyed The Brass Verdict (BV), yes, more so than The Lincoln Lawyer (LL). (I gave the BV an 90.)

======Spoiler Comments Follow=======

Part of it is that I like Mickey Haller more in this book. He is cast as a real human, that is, flawed, in both books, but he seems less cynical in the BV.  This leads to the frustration I feel about the book's ending.  The lies of all parties involved in the complex case(s) in the BV leaves Mickey so emotionally exhausted by the end of the book that he is ready to quit, to leave the practice of law - again. This really frustrates me because Connelly really drew me into Mickey's character and the support team around him including Lorna (his ex-wife and administrator) and Patrick Henson (his newly hired chauffeur).  I am interested in the whole team, and now it appears the Haller is not going to be a candidate for another book.

Yet despite the frustration of the apparently imminent closure of his briefly established law practice, Mickey's reaction makes perfect sense and enhances his character.  He has changed a lot over the two books, to the point where the lies of his client, his deceased and murdered co-counsel, the chief judge, and even the lead detective (who turns out to be his brother) completely knocks the wind out of his sails.  As well these things should. He has been manipulated and "used" by so many characters in the story.

It's too bad.  After a well accomplished recovery from prescription medications (the LL plot left him severely wounded - the physical recovery led to dependence on pain medications), Haller jumps enthusiastically into the challenge of "inheriting" two dozen active cases from his murdered co-counsel.  Haller does some really nice things, like helping out the accused jewel thief by hiring him as a chauffeur; Connelly has me rooting for him.  But the dismaying events of the corruption of justice and bragging client steals his love affair for the practice of law. Even his own native cynicism is not enough to shield him from all these cynical people: he wants to quit.

My problem is this: if he quits and the Haller series ends, I'm am going to be unhappy; yet if he doesn't quit, I will have a tough time relating to him. Hopefully Connelly will find a work-around to bring him back.

There was  just about the right amount of tension throughout the book. A few times I thought something bad would happen when it didn't (I thought Henson would get murdered by mistake by the unknown murderer going for Haller). I had no doubt, early on, that chief judge Holder would end up as a chief suspect.  But that thought did not dim my interest in the plot.  There were plenty of other surprises built into the ending.

Bringing Connelly's Bosch into this narrative was a welcome and creative idea.  However, weaving in the clues that lead us to discover the family connection was just a little bit too far-- it was the one thing that did not resonate with me at all.

All in all - a most enjoyable read.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Any character influence you?

Great question over on the Nathan Bransford blog. He reminds us that "fictional characters possess all of the power of real people when it comes to influencing and changing lives. So the question: what fictional characters have most affected you? Who has changed your personality, worldview, and/or ethics."

I wonder what would happen if we narrowed this down to the mystery / thriller genres - can anyone honestly say they were influenced, even in any part of their lives, by a fictional detective or other character from these genres?

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Camping with Holmes and Watson

Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson were going camping. They pitched their tent under the stars and went to sleep. Sometime in the middle of the night Holmes woke Watson up and said: “Watson, look up at the stars, and tell me what you see.”

Watson replied: “I see millions and millions of stars.”

Holmes said: “and what do you deduce from that?”

Watson replied: “Well, if there are millions of stars, and if even a few of those have planets, it’s quite likely there are some planets like earth out there. And if there are a few planets like earth out there, there might also be life.”

And Holmes said: “Watson, you idiot, it means that somebody stole our tent.”

OK- I know its been going around but couldn't resist posting it.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Skin Deep by Gary Braver is Annoying

In Skin Deep we are thrown immediately into the investigation of a killing that is made to look a bit like a suicide - "autoerotica gone bad." Lieutenant Detective Steve Markarian, in charge of the investigation, counters the assessment of his partner Sargent Neill French by pointing out the clues that make clear that it is a homicide. This is just the beginning of differences of opinion that lead to friction between the two investigators throughout the book. It isn't long before it's clear that a serial killer is at work and the present case is only the most recent of a many. In each, the victim has a similar appearance and the method used to kill the victims is the same. But the investigators struggle to find the link that will break the case.

Complicating the case is the fact that both Markarian and French knew the victim, although both in different circumstances. In reality, shouldn't they both have been removed from the case? Yes, but both choose not to do so and do not report this to their superior officer. Further complicating the case: Markarian, a heavy drinker and long time user of the medication Ativan, had suffered a blackout during the time of the victim's death. Circumstantial evidence that he uncovers makes him think he is in fact the murderer. Yet he hopes fervently that it's not true and keeps investigating without a word to anyone.

I really loved Braver's Flashback, so I was truly looking forward to this story. But while the book was well written, and contained excellent pacing, I felt it was just plain annoying. To explain why I felt this way, I will have to continue with the assumption that you have read the book.


It was annoying because the author deliberately sets about to mislead the reader as to the killer's identity. Hey! I know, that's what mystery authors are supposed to do. Well, there are ways that make sense and there are ways the are... well, annoying and... unfair.

You have to keep in mind that the hype about the book rather sets the stage:
  • The title is Skin Deep.
  • Picture on the cover: a scalpel (or something like that) preparing to cut skin.
  • Testimonial on book #1: "An outstanding medical thriller..."
  • Testimonial on book #2: "medical terror...that will make you question your own reflection in the mirror"
  • Testimonial on book #3: "Put off that tummy tuck until you read Gary Braver's new chiller Skin Deep. ...the latest from this medical mystery master..."
See what I mean? Now if you read Braver's other books, you have already encountered wacko scientists and members of the medical community that want to make you smarter and others that want to keep you young forever, or at least stop senility. So, when I picked up this book, I already knew it would revolve around plastic surgery, and most likely, but not necessarily, a doctor, a plastic surgeon, would be at the root of the thriller.

Side Note: The other Braver books, where there was murder, it was pragmatic - in the name of research, or ooops! sorry, didn't know that would happen. There was a bit of a message, something to think about in terms of the science. On the other hand, this book is a straight serial killer book. There was a message intended, but it is weakly delivered.

OK, so I am already expecting there will be an evil plastic surgeon, which does in fact take place, although this is not confirmed until chapter 76 (out of 96). Now there are only a handful of characters that get much attention as suspects. But the author goes out of his way to make us think the suspect is in fact Lt Markarian. This is done by a series of chapters that flashback to the life of a boy who lives in a very dysfunctional home. The boy is sexually seduced by the step-mother, ignored by the father who is often away from home travelling for his job, and the victim of his mothers neurotic narcissistic behaviors. All the while, there are clues and situations that are deliberately meant to show us that the adult Markmarian and the unknown male child in the flashbacks are one and the same.

The idea that Markarian's wife was seriously considering plastic surgery arises in chapter 4 and then 8; he and she first meet the plastic surgeon in chapter 15. But the first of the series of flashbacks happen prior to even hearing about the surgeon, in chapter 5. The common bond between the Markarian and the unknown abused boy is headaches. Each time a flashback chapter arises, it immediate follows a chapter where the focus is on Markarian. The tie between the two is strengthened when the author causes Markarian to have a running dialog with himself, almost making it appeare as though Markarian is mentally disturbed.

Nevertheless, the whole time I am saying - What is all this about?... I know that the bad guy is going to be this doctor that is slowly becoming important to the story as Markarian's wife schedules plastic surgery with him.

I guess what I am saying is that as red herrings go, this was just to convoluted. Confusing me? Yes. Putting me off the track about the real threat in the book? Not at all.

No, there was none of the subtlety that made Flashback, and to a slightly lesser degree the other Braver medical thrillers, such great stories. Gary, even though I was annoyed, I'm still a fan.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Win a Kindle?

It's a "win a FREE Kindle contest!" Check out Rod Lott's blog, Bookgasm, and learn all about it. He says, "We’ve partnered with HarperCollins — publisher of Andrew Gross’ new thriller DON’T LOOK TWICE — to give away an Amazon Kindle 2. Retail price: $359. Cost to the winner: $0.

"One really, really lucky person will win the Kindle 2, plus DON’T LOOK TWICE, which we said “scores high on suspense,” autographed by Gross. Five not-as-lucky-but-still-rather-fortunate people will received a Gross-inscribed copy of the book."

I suggest you check out the blog and sign up!

What's a Kindle? An electronic reader designed and sold by Amazon.

Want to follow mystery authors on Twitter?

Thanks to the librarian blogger at "Librarian D.O.A." you can have at a list of mystery /thriller writers who have been tweeting. Yep you can officially stalk -- I mean follow a variety of authors. Check her list here.

If you want to follow me, be it known that I had to change my alias from Frank Hardy (there already was one) to Franklin W Dixon - close enough.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Who will play the lead in The Lincoln Lawyer?

Just heard that Matthew McConaughey will be playing the role of Mickey Haller in a film adaptation of The Lincoln Lawyer. The Mystery Book Club read The Lincoln Lawyer last year and it was so well received that it was decided to read The Brass Verdict later this year.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Benjamin Black's "Dark" Introduction to Quirke Series

Christine Falls was written by John Banville under the pen name of Benjamin Black and was both a Finalist for the 2007 Macavity Award for Best Novel and the 2008 Edgar Award for Best Mystery Novel. In the book, we are introduced to an alcoholic pathologist working during the 1950s in Dublin by name of Quirke Griffin. The multi-layered plot revolves around Griffin's family which over many years, it turns out, have quietly forced hapless young women to give up their children to an "adoption" scheme intended to be a pipeline to support the growth of the clergy in America.

The pen name "Black" accurately, in my view, conveys the dark nature of the book. There is first of all the grim/dreary tone, the dank atmosphere, created by Banville's incredibly skillful use of words. Even the name given to Quirke's step brother is Malachy, Mal for short. The second contributor is the nature of sin and evil that lies heavy across the pages and contributes to the dark feel of the book. For example, a casual reference to a 50's song by The Ink Spots, "It's a Sin to Tell a Lie," is not so casual an inclusion by the author; Quirke and his family are filled with lies. In fact, by the end of the book it is hard to be sure the whole truth about the family has been revealed.

Quirke's sister-in-law asks: "Aren't people always supposed to turn to God in desperation?" Again, this early comment proves to be prophetic of part of the motivation for the protagonists of the book. For at the end, we hear one of the protagonists say, "The only thing good about old age is that it gives you the opportunity to even up the balance. Between the bad and the good, I mean." Yet the means is misguided so that the good is drowned by the bad: "We decide!" the other protagonist declares. "It's God's work we're doing!" to which Quirke replies, "So you're the judge and jury... you're God himself."

Another contribution to what I have called "dark" is the constant sense of foreboding. It is contained in the warnings that Quirke receives from seemingly everyone as he tries to sort out the reason for the death of a young woman, Christine Falls, who appeared on the slab of his pathologists' table, and whose file is at first mysteriously altered and then stolen. The warnings are cryptic like this from a young nun: "Watch out for yourself. There are people--there are people who are not what they seem, who are more than they seem."

I find it difficult to say whether I "liked" this book. I had a little trouble following the story at first. My first impression, that the prologue occurred years before the events in chapter one were completely wrong, but I missed the clues. OK, but I feel this error was exacerbated by the author's frequently reference in the beginning to events that occurred 25 years prior. However, once passed the first few chapters, I found that I was truly drawn into it. It was the dark sense of foreboding that pulled me along, and not any special admiration for the protagonist.

Chapter One ends with a series of questions about a photograph on Quirke's mantle. Where was it? Where? And who had been behind the camera? Questions like this pulled me along, but honestly, I don't think the answer to the last question is ever answered.

I just came back from the discussion of this book with others who made up this morning's gathering of The Mystery Book Club. I took a poll to see how everyone rated the book on a scale of 1 to 100. (See rating sheet.) Here were the results: 23, 45, 50, 57, 75, 72, 82, 81, 85. My own rating came to 76. In general these tend to be low scores for the group. It was also a much wider spread of feeling, showing less consensus than normal.

I think this is one of those books where a second reading can help to bring out a lot of subtle clues, things that make the book's coherence a lot plainer. The problem is, for me, the overload of cynicism and fatalism in the book does not really invite a re-read. I guess I can tolerate the clear-cut evil of the manical villains conceived by Deaver or Territsen or Sandford because they are too over-the-top to be real, than I can tolerate the plausible evil that pervades the world of the everyday seen through the eyes of a cynic.

However, if the sense of cynicism and foreboding grips you, there is always the next in the Quirke series, The Silver Swan.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Power Play Played Well for a Thriller TSS

Joseph Finder has written a number of thrillers, with the most recent focused on corporate settings. In Power Play, a group of top executives of an aerospace company are at an secluded lodge for an off site meeting to build team playing when they find themselves under attack by hunters with a criminal intention. Of course, all is not what it seems. This is especially true of the central character whose background is gradually revealed throughout the book.

Is it a gripping read? Well, I guess so! On Saturday night I picked up at around page 70 and could *not* stop reading until I finished at about 3:30 am Sunday morning. So it sure held my interest.

But I felt that there were a few loose threads that did not get resolved as well as I would have liked. And what held my attention so well? It was more the mini-plots - the constant minor new developments that causes one to say - "oh-oh - now what?" The big picture was the weak part; that did not contribute to the gripping feel of the book. I feel that there was room for editorial comment here, a development on a theme, yet little to none was offered. The overall plot was fairly predictable; it was easy to see, in general where this was going. But probably Paranoia, another Finder book, spoiled me as that was much stronger on surprise twist and ending. So I guess I kept waiting for the twist and never got one.

I recently read and commented on Finder's The Zero Hour. I feel Power Play is a much better book. It is way more plausible and the characters largely more believable than the Zero Hour. I still like Paranoia best.

I'll be reading a Michael Palmer book next.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Mysteries, Racism, and MLK Day

Do any mysteries revolve around a theme suitable for MLK Day? I'm not sure.

Chiefs (Stuart Woods) traces a crime through 3 generations of police chiefs in a small Georgia town. One factor is the evolving race relations. By the end of the book, An African-American chief solves the series of murders that goes back some forty years.

I have always enjoyed the Easy Rawlins character created by Walter Moseley. There are many things that come together to make the Moseley books a great series: plot, characterization, great dialog. But it's hard to find a lot of books that provide insight into the challenges of urban African Americans in the Civil Rights era (1945-1970ish) as you get from following the life of Rawlins and his friends.

Like many, I never read John Ball's In the Heat of the Night (1965) but remember the movie. The book one an Edgar for first mystery, and was strong on theme of racial tension.

A ten year old article describes "a crowded list of black protagonists who solve crimes in detective stories and novels penned by African-American writers." I am not familiar with these books. This should be a good start into some new and different writers.

As usual, the "Stop You're Killing Me" site is great for lists: For example all of the African-American sleuths featured in mystery fiction.

I found an interesting study of both positive and negative stereotyping in mysteries of the 1940s and earlier.

I do not believe that every black author necessarily will result in a book with insights into the issues of racism and civil rights in our society; however I'm not well read enough to say for sure. In looking up various books, I found one for my "must read" list: A Rage in Harlem, (1957) by Chester Himes. You can get the idea from Amazon readers and others.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Zero Hour Quite Predictable

Imagine - a terrorist will set off a bomb in New York City, disrupting banking communications around the world. Imagine - the hero is single Mom and Boston based FBI agent who is put in charge of a task force to find the terrorist and stop him before the bomb goes off. The thing is, it is easy to imagine mainly because the plot line is so familiar. It just seemed all too predictable. I'm not sure whether the The Zero Hour (Joseph Finder, 1996) failed - or whether I'm starting to fail to appreciate such stories.

Here are some of the things that bothered me. The terrorist is a former member of the South Africa's spy agency. He was so successful that he was given the designation "zero" -- remind you of "007" at all? Anyway, at the start of the book, he cleverly escapes from a South African prison, killing two people with his bare hands. Very cold. Yet somehow the tension is not there. He is just not believable. Telling me that he is known in the trade as the Prince of Darkness doesn't build the character, it makes a joke of the character. Tension evolves in a thriller like this when the reader is brought to a state of sustained belief, even if the plot is incredible. But that does not happen with this character. Baumann, the real name of the terrorist, is master of everything. He seems to be able to be in more than one place at a time as the plot evolves from Washington DC to New York City. He seems to know many details about American culture, specific places in Washington and New York, and yet there seems no basis for his ability to know these things. He is portrayed as a convincing actor, able to take on accents and personae at whim. He can actually cause Sarah Cronin -the Terrorist Task Force leader- to let down her guard and believe that he is a benign architect. No - it's way too much. Either that or Finder cannot make me believe it.

In the midst of great personal stress, Sarah is relieved when a stranger saves her son from nasty hoodlums in NY Central Park. For several chapters, Finder has this architect insinuate himself into the life of Sarah and her son. There was absolutely not the slightest surprise when the reader is told that the nice guy is actually the Prince of Darkness. Come on! So predictable.

Then there is the whole idea that Sarah would receive the kind of career treatment granted to her by the FBI in the book. The FBI seems way too accommodating to her personal requirement to live in Boston, since her divorce decree required her to live near her ex-husband. Then, she is suddenly brought to Washington and made Task Force leader! Just, not believable.

Finally, Finder goes out of his way to introduce and then explain high tech stuff. But it just gets in the way. Do mystery readers really need to get so much information about the well-known fingerprint classification system? Does anyone not know what a local area network (LAN) is? Well Finder takes a few paragraphs to explain the way the computer network is set up in the Task Force office in New York. But it has no bearing on the story, the characters, or really even the setting.

I read it all the way (but I rarely give up on a book). But it was largely a forgettable story. The Zero Hour by Joseph Finder is not at all up to the quality of some of Finder's more recent books, such as Paranoia. Maybe Finder is stronger with these more recent stories because they are largely new ground - there are not so many "corporate thrillers" as international bomb and terrorist stories. But it's really more than that. I was much more completely drawn into the characters in Paranoia. And the ending of Paranoia is anything BUT predictable.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Michael Palmer's New Book

Michael Palmer is one of my favorite authors - not only can he deliver an awesome medical thriller plot, but he does so with concern and often a bit of a message.

He announced today that his newest book, The Second Opinion, is out in mid-February. A conspiracy surrounds the hit and run accident that puts Dr Thea Sperelakis' father into a coma. But beyond the tension and plot, there is the character of Thea. She has Asperger syndrome, which gives her an obsession with details, a near-encyclopedic memory, and a rather charming awkwardness in social settings. The novel is not merely a thriller but also an exploration of its central character’s unique gifts and her determination to communicate with her comatose father despite overwhelming odds. I am looking forward to reading this one!

He will launch his new book at a fundraiser for the Asperger’s Association of New England. Palmer writes: Wednesday, February 18, 2009 from 7-9:30 we will be having a party to celebrate the book and to raise money to benefit the Aspergers Association of New England (AANE). Venue will be the utterly funky Scout House; 74 Walden Street, Concord, MA. Admission of $20 will go entirely to AANE, as well as a portion of all booksales. There will be music, piles of pastries and some great guests including New York Times best selling authors Tess Gerritsen, Joe Finder, and Mark Vonnegut, who will be signing their books. Featured speaker will be John Elder Robison, author of the best selling Asperger memoir, LOOK ME IN THE EYE.

To Reserve a spot or just make a donation to AANE, send a check to: Asperger’s Association of New England; 85 Main Street; Suite 101; Watertown, MA 02472-4409. You are welcome to come even if you haven't reserved a spot, but reservations will be admitted first, and if the Scout House fills up, you will have to wait until there is room. So register early!

Saturday, January 3, 2009

The mother of all mystery fans

I was thinking today, "I'm just a mystery groupie, a wannabee, and a fair-weather fan of thrillers and mystery." WAIT! There's got to be somebody at the top, a sort of "mother of all mystery fans." Sure enough there is. This is someone recognized as Fan Guest of Honor at Malice Domestic in Washington, D.C. She was given an Athony Award in 2006 for "Special Service to the Field" of mystery fiction. For crying out loud - she's scheduled to be the fan guest of honor in 2010 at the "Left Coast Crime, Booked in LA" Conference! Who can compete when she's got the fan field booked two years ahead?

First of all, Janet A. Rudolph probably has one of the best blogs on mystery writing in existence. She is director of Mystery Readers International - the premier mystery books fan organization, editor of the Mystery Readers Journal - the premier mystery books fan publication.

She has more memberships in crime groups than Parker has books: She is a member of Mystery Writers of America, the International Association of Crime Writers, the British Crime Writers Association, Sisters in Crime, and the American Crime Writers League. She has been on panels at Bouchercon (the World Mystery Convention), Left Coast Crime, and several other mystery conventions. I was invited to a birthday party last year - does that count?

I suppose I should delete my blog right now.

Hah! I don't think so!

2009 POLL #2--Do Mystery Stories and Political Bias Mix? What is closest to your view?