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  1. Today
  2. A ceramic skull, grinning at visitors from a side table in the entry hall, offers a clue to the identity of the former owner of this grand home perched above the banks of the River Dart in Devon. You don’t need Hercule Poirot’s little grey cells or the observational skills of Jane Marple to solve this mystery. Who else but the Queen of Crime would display such a macabre ornament? Welcome to Greenway, the country retreat of Agatha Christie. This compact Georgian mansion, faced in white stucco that gleams in England’s rare bursts of spring sunshine, was her refuge from the demands of being the world’s most famous and beloved crime writer. It’s secluded – accessible only by boat or via a long, narrow driveway – and set on more than thirty acres of gardens and woodland. Her dream home, she called it, “the loveliest place in the world.” Each year thousands of Christie fans make the pilgrimage to Greenway, which opened to the public fifteen years ago. The home’s austere façade is a Poirot-pleasing blend of order and method. Rows of identical windows line the two upper floors, thin columns anchor the porch roof above the central entrance, and single-story wings bookend the central block. The rooms have been restored to how they looked in the 1950s when Christie and her second husband, archeologist Max Mallowan, spent their holidays and summers here. The scattered hats, the unopened mail, the dominos set up on the drawing room floor create the impression that the occupants have stepped out for a moment. The interior looks authentic because it is. The house was handed over with its contents intact. It took two years for staff of Britain’s National Trust to catalogue and conserve some 20,000 items, from Christie’s Steinway piano – she was classically trained but too shy to play within earshot of anyone, even her family – to the collections of silverware, porcelain, pottery and other antiques she and family members amassed over the years. She accompanied Max on expeditions to archaeological sites in the Middle East and artifacts he unearthed are also on display. Christie, who grew up in nearby Torquay, bought the estate in 1938 – the year she published Appointment with Death – for the knock-down price of £6,000, less than $600,000 today. There has been a home on the site since Tudor times but today’s mansion was built in the 1790s. Christie and Mallowan had barely moved in when the property was requisitioned for the war effort. A U.S. Coast Guard officer stationed there painted a frieze that encircles the library and chronicles his unit’s Second World War service in Africa, Italy, and England. Christie left the memento intact once she returned. Click to view slideshow. Staff members circulate through the house, answering questions and offering insights and anecdotes. The doll a bored-looking, four-year-old Christie clutches in a portrait housed in the morning room? Her name is Rosie and, 130 years later, she’s propped up in a nearby chair. Ask about the cuneiform tablet embedded in an outside wall – Mallowan brought it back from Iraq in the 1930s – and a staff member hands over a printout explaining it dates from 600 BCE and is a plea to the Assyrian god Nabu. The black gown with gold trim hanging in a bedroom closet? Christie wore it to the 1952 premiere of The Mousetrap, her record-setting play that has been performed in London’s West End more than 29,000 times and is still going strong. Greenway is a monument to her personal life. While she sometimes brought along novels and stories to edit, or read from works-in-progress for family and guests, she did not write here. Most of the 5,000 volumes in the library are on subjects unrelated to poisons and murder, ranging from religious tomes and histories of Devon to reference works on antiques. Here she was a gardener, a collector, a mother and grandmother. The home was a haven of ordinary life for a writer who lived an extraordinary life, a respite from the work of devising clever mysteries for Poirot and Marple to solve. Christie the crime writer, however, is never far away. A suitcase in her closet bears a sepia-toned luggage sticker from Paddington Station, inviting thoughts that it could be a souvenir from a trip on the 4:50. In one room, more than sixty first editions of her works fill two wide shelves. And in a snippet of a recorded interview, played as visitors check out her bedroom, she describes her matter-of-fact approach to writing. “The real work to be done is thinking out the development of your story, worrying about it, ’til it comes right. That may take quite a while,” she says, offering a master’s version of Mystery Writing 101. “All that remains is trying to find time to write the thing.” One of the most popular ways to get to Greenway is to catch a steam train from the resort town of Paignton to Kingswear, on the River Dart, and a ferry from there to the estate. Is there a better way to get in the Christie mood than to feel like Poirot and Captain Hastings rushing off to investigate their latest case? Diehard fans looking for a live-like-Christie-did experience can book a stay in a four-bedroom apartment spread over two floors of the house, complete with a private garden. Farther afield, there are Christie-related sites, plaques, and walking tours in Torquay, which hosts a Christie literary festival each September that includes side trips for events at Greenway. The setting for the 1956 Poirot novel Dead Man’s Folly is an estate Christie modeled on Greenway, making it the logical location to shoot exteriors for the television version released in 2013 and starring David Suchet as the fussy French – sorry, Belgian – detective. The house features in numerous shots, the estate’s boathouse was used as a murder scene, and Suchet and actress Zoë Wanamaker, as mystery writer Ariadne Oliver, meet to plot strategy just steps away, at a centuries-old riverside gun emplacement. Between takes Suchet, in costume, posed for photos on the grounds and with Greenway staff. It’s as if Poirot came to life and returned in search of his creator. If you stop by for your own deep dive into the life of Agatha Christie, set aside time to stroll through the grounds. Trails crisscross the wooded hillside above the river and walled gardens fan out from the back of the house, showcasing a collection of exotic trees and plants. And take a closer look at that skull in the entry hall. A lid at the top lifts off to reveal its true purpose. Sorry, Hercule and Jane, this piece of vintage pottery was neither a famed crime writer’s cheeky souvenir nor inspiration for one of her stories. Mallowan used the jar to store his tobacco. *** Dean Jobb’s new book A Gentleman and a Thief: The Daring Jewel Heists of a Jazz Age Rogue, published by Algonquin Books in June, tells the incredible true story of Arthur Barry, who charmed the elite of 1920s New York while planning some of the most brazen jewel thefts in history. Find him at deanjobb.com (All photos by Dean Jobb) View the full article
  3. Another week, another batch of books for your TBR pile. Happy reading, folks. * Juliet Grames, The Lost Boy of Santa Chionia (Knopf) “As a mystery, Grames’s novel is as gripping as they come; it’s also a deeply satisfying character study of an outsider learning more about a place than she’d bargained for.” –Publishers Weekly Mark Billingham, The Wrong Hands (Atlantic Monthly) “[The] electrifying sequel to The Last Dance . . . Declan remains a dashing, sharp-witted protagonist . . . Throw in a delightfully madcap plot and breakneck pacing, and readers are left with a caper they won’t soon forget.” –​Publishers Weekly Heather Chavez, What We’ll Burn Last (Mulholland) “Another fast-paced and gripping thriller from Chavez . . . What really happened is revealed amidst the choking smoke, and it is as complicated as it is compelling. Readers will have to really pay close attention with this one, and resist the urge to jump ahead to find out just what is going on. A perfect beach read.” –Booklist John Fram, No Road Home (Atria) “By turns searing, soapy, and spine-tingling, Fram’s latest pays homage to Southern Gothic icons Michael McDowell and V.C. Andrews while also tipping its cap to modern horror great Jordan Peele…exquisitely rendered, realistically damaged characters lend credence to myriad mad twists, propelling the tale from portentous start to pulse-pounding finish. Trenchant, terrifying fun.” –Kirkus Review Michael J. Seidlinger, The Body Harvest (CLASH) “Viscerally and metaphysically repulsive — and a dangerously accurate snapshot of a society, as only Michael Seidlinger could do.” –Stephen Graham Jones Peter Houlahan, Reap the Whirlwind (Counterpoint) “In meticulous yet utterly spellbinding detail, Houlahan lays out all aspects of the case, from the backstories of the principal figures to the tragic shootings that evening and in particular, the intriguing courtroom battle between prosecution and defense.” –Booklist Mikita Brottman, Guilty Creatures: Sex, God, and Murder in Tallahassee, Florida (Atria) “Murder, a love triangle, and small-town secrets in Tallahassee, Florida…an unputdownable read.” –The New York Times Lisa Kusel, The Widow on Dwyer Court (Blackstone) “If you like domestic novels with unhinged behavior, a side of steam, and some pretty surprising twists, this was a blast.” –Novel Gossip Gregg Podolski, The Recruiter (Blackstone) “Podolski nails it on his first go-round, delivering a page-turner with sharp dialogue and a memorable protagonist. Here’s hoping readers hear more from Rick [Carter] soon.” –Publishers Weekly Minka Kent, Imaginary Strangers (Thomas & Mercer) “A pitiless probing of a heroine many readers will take to their hearts despite the absence of one of her own.” –Kirkus Reviews View the full article
  4. Out of the ashes rose the … Edgar. In 2021, Meg Gardiner’s Austin home was destroyed by a fire that spared lives while consuming nearly everything else in its path. Though the flames were eventually extinguished, the house was a complete loss, as were the majority of the things contained within it. But among what little remained in the aftermath was the Edgar Award bestowed upon her by the Mystery Writers of America. Gardiner won that accolade for her debut novel, China Lake—a book that was only published in America after Stephen King raved about it in his then Entertainment Weekly column. Prior to King’s championing, Gardiner—a lawyer and three-time Jeopardy champion—had been living in England, where her books were met with acclaim but little fanfare. That Edgar, then, could be seen as a symbol of triumph over tribulation. In the year during which her house was being rebuilt, Gardner had little time to dwell on her losses. Instead, she had deadlines that demanded her attention. Not only was she revising Shadowheart (June 18, 2024; Blackstone)—the fourth book in her UNSUB series, in which former detective-turned-FBI profiler Caitlin Hendrix must confront one serial killer in the hopes of catching another—but collaborating with famed director Michael Mann on Heat 2, the sequel novel to his classic 1995 film. And, like the proverbial phoenix—or that aforementioned Edgar Allan Poe statue—the indomitable Gardiner rose out of the ashes to reach new heights. Heat 2 hit #1 on the New York Times bestsellers list, resulting in an ongoing creative partnership with Mann, while Shadowheart once again earned the attention of King, who called it “class A entertainment.” Now, Meg Gardiner reflects on the making of those novels while keeping an eye to the future … John B. Valeri: Shadowheart presents a standalone case while also marking a progression of the series’ overall story arc. How do you endeavor to balance the two so that returning readers and new ones alike can appreciate the story without being overwhelmed by exposition? Meg Gardiner: Action first. Explanation later. I pull the ripcord on page one and parachute readers into this storyline. When the characters have time to catch their breath, I’ll quickly sketch critical details that carry over from novel to novel—but I save that information until readers need to know it. Ideally, that means I hold back until I’ve made readers thirsty for knowledge. I introduce a sense of mystery. Then I make ’em wait. And when I do fill in details, I don’t dwell on backstory. This is a new novel. I try to season fresh flavors into the continuing storyline—I drop in tidbits readers haven’t heard before, information that enriches their understanding of the characters and propels the story forward in a new light. Never bore the reader. People pick up the book for this story. JBV: Your protagonist, Caitlin Hendrix, is now a profiler with the FBI. How does her career trajectory inform your research process, both in terms of the procedural and psychological aspects of a case – and what are your thoughts on the marriage of authentic detail with creative license? (Feel free to provide an example from the book.) MG: Authentic detail can elevate a story from a stick-figure sketch to vivid 3-D. It can illuminate who the characters are—what their lives are like, what motivates them, what thrills and scares them. The trick, when writing, is to integrate authenticity into your world-building from the beginning, subtly, so it feels organic. Otherwise, when you drop in a line about firearms or psychopathy, it can sound like you’re inserting your research notes. It feels awkward and braggy. I write fiction. Drama grounded in humanity is what counts. But I do adore research. When Caitlin was recruited by the FBI I loved learning about the cases the Bureau handles, and delving into deviant psychology. Talk about fun. As for taking creative license—in Shadowheart Caitlin hopscotches from Quantico to Tennessee to NYC. I generally sent her Economy, because she’s a government employee whose boarding pass says: Cram your 5’10” self into the back row. But near the end, she must get from Nashville to Manhattan now. So I gave her an FBI plane. Do agents normally get their own aircraft? No. The FBI Director does. Agents who are extraditing dangerous international fugitives do. But when time is running out and Caitlin has only hours to stop a string of murders: Welcome aboard your private jet, miss. Strap in. Make it up but tell the truth. JBV: Caitlin has found a semblance of domestic stability in her relationship with ATF agent Sean Rawlins and his daughter, Sadie, despite the intrusion of demons that continue to haunt her. In what ways does the intersection of their personal and professional lives serve to amplify tensions – and how does this keep their evolving dynamic from becoming safe or stagnant? MG: Sean is Caitlin’s emotional home. He’s also an explosives expert with the ATF. He and Caitlin are committed and passionate about their jobs. Their work excites them. They’re twin tornados. Dramatically, of course, I give Caitlin and Sean exciting, difficult, dangerous cases to tackle. That forces them to negotiate the risks they take, as agents, lovers, parents. In Shadowheart, they talk about threat management. Both of them willingly face dangers they want the other to avoid. Tension! I love charging a happy home with static electricity. JBV: Shadowheart features two sadistic serial killers, one of whom appears to be recreating the other’s crimes. Consequently, the connections are largely obscure and intricately woven. What is your plotting process like to account for such complexities – and how much latitude do you allow yourself to stray as characters and circumstances develop? MG: My novels start with an idea—a hook that grabs me, embeds, and won’t release … which tells me it’ll grip readers, too. I brainstorm the story before I write a single word of the manuscript. Creating an intriguing mystery whose solution remains just out of the reader’s reach is a balancing act. The clues have to be embedded in plain sight. Shaded but not obscured. The story must always drive forward. This is a thriller. It’s supposed to thrill. My friend, author Jeff Abbott, has a mantra: Simple story, complex characters. If I force the people in my novel to do something so that they’ll drop a clue or set up a plot twist … bzzz, wrong answer. If I can get to the heart of who these people are, and understand why they’re doing something, that will almost always drive the story in an unanticipated direction—one that’s truer, more suspenseful, and satisfying. JBV: In a narrative that boasts an abundance of memorable, sharply developed characters, young Finch Winter – who believes her birth mother was a victim of Efrem Judah Goode – still manages to stand out. What about Finch captures Caitlin’s interest specifically – and how does this personal investment serve to heighten the stakes as Finch becomes increasingly vulnerable? MG: You just answered your own question. Readers initially turn the pages of a book because they’re curious to find out what happens next. If they come to care about the characters, the story becomes memorable. Finch is eighteen, a bright, feisty kid who has a hole in her life where her birth mother should be. She loves her adoptive mom, but desperately wonders where she came from. In Shadowheart, that ache turns ominous when she becomes convinced that a killer took her mother from her. She wants justice. She wants truth. She is desperate to shine a light on her own past and find out who she is. She’s also a kid. She thinks she’s bulletproof, and that she can do what the FBI is unwilling to. And that’s just what Caitlin admires, and fears, and doesn’t need: a teenager trying to run her own investigation. It’s more than a distraction. Two killers are playing a fatal game. Caitlin doesn’t want Finch to become a piece on their chessboard. JBV: You and your family (blessedly) survived a fire that destroyed your home during the writing of this book. How did you manage to remain creative and productive throughout the process of rebuilding/replacing – and what, if any, catharsis or escape did writing provide? MG: Deadlines, baby. They force you to shake it off and submerge yourself in the work. Honestly, the first week after the fire was a total loss (pun intended). My husband and I were overwhelmed. The house was a catastrophe. Almost everything we owned was ruined. Every time we waded in to salvage belongings, we came out reeking of gasoline-soaked soot. (What survived: musical instruments, my father’s book on The Canterbury Tales, and my Edgar. Fire cannot kill Edgar Allan Poe!) We needed a car. We needed someplace to live for a year while our home was demolished and rebuilt. If Paul hadn’t shouldered the load of organizing and overseeing all that, I could not have revised Shadowheart. And I would not have been able to work with Michael Mann to finish Heat 2 in time for it to meet its publication schedule. Those first weeks, I was exhausted and shaken. Turning my mind to Caitlin (and the indelible characters in Heat 2) took effort. But once I dived back in with them, I did find refuge and escape. Murder, gun battles, car chases, heists, bank jobs… what a relief! JBV: You had a hugely successful collaboration with Michael Mann on Heat 2 (with another book on the way). How did you find the collaborative process to compare to your more solitary writing – and what of that experience has influenced your approach to craft moving forward? MG: Working on Heat 2 was thrilling and daunting; a brilliant challenge that forced me to bring my A-Game every day. I felt a deep sense of responsibility to honor the iconic characters whose stories we were writing. Compared to writing a novel solo, collaborating on Heat 2 meant constant discussion, outlining, drafting … and sitting down across a table from each other to rassle such an ambitious, sprawling book into shape. Michael is a brilliant writer and was a generous co-author, giving me room to run, creatively. Going forward? I will integrate Michael’s deep devotion to research into my work. I’ve always researched extensively, but from here on I won’t hesitate to be bold about contacting sources and asking every possible question you can think of. Michael immerses himself into the culture of his characters—their attitudes, work, family life—to find an authenticity that brings audiences into the story. In the case of Heat 2, that meant we rode along with the LAPD, and talked about tunneling into vaults with a bank robber. Don’t be shy. I’ll take that forward. And I will hear, down to my bones, Michael drilling home: Know the characters. Hear their voices. Don’t get it done; get it right. Trust your writing. And remember what drives a story forward, into propulsive, memorable drama: character. JBV: Leave us with a teaser: What comes next for Caitlin – and for you? MG: The UNSUB novels have an unresolved thread that weaves through them—a cagy UNSUB who keeps eyes on (and sends flowers to) Caitlin, and has told her he will find her. That clock is ticking. Right now I’m writing the new novel with Michael Mann—an international manhunt thriller. I can’t wait for everyone to read it. View the full article
  5. Last week
  6. Historical mystery with its portrayal of life in another time and place has long been one of the most popular subgenres of crime fiction. From ancient Rome and medieval monasteries to the pre-Civil War South, the foggy streets of Victorian London, and the trenches of WW1, readers like me relish the sense of time travel. But is it the glimpse of lost worlds that captures our imaginations, or is there something more meaningful at work? Is history only for historicals? I don’t believe it is. I’d like to suggest five ways to use the past in plotting your contemporary crime fiction: Construct Characters with Complex Personal Histories All stories begin in medias res because every character has a personal history, and that personal history influences how he or she will behave in the current crisis. What are her irrational fears, and how were they formed? What past traumas impact his outlook on life and therefore affect his behavior today? What secrets must she hide? What internal conflict will hinder your protagonist and cause him to make mistakes? And speaking of mistakes, what past failures must your main character overcome in order to succeed this time? All this is called backstory, and it’s a brilliant way to add psychological depth to your characters. Readers want to know what makes a character tick. I’m not talking about the dreaded info dump. I am talking about creating three-dimensional characters with fears, flaws, foibles, and failings like real people. You, the author, give readers just enough backstory, parceled out bit by bit, to help them connect the dots. Ann Cleeve’s beloved DCI Vera Stanhope, a loner who eats and drinks too much, is the survivor of a bleak and unloving childhood. Tana French’s retired Chicago cop, Cal Hooper, fresh from a divorce and a traumatic shooting incident, hopes to find peace in a remote Irish village. Good luck with that. Matt Coyle’s private investigator Rick Cayhill battles CTE, a potentially fatal brain disorder that causes moments of confusion and uncontrolled rage. Your characters don’t have to be irretrievably broken, damaged, or morally corrupt (although that kind of protagonist is increasingly popular, especially in thrillers), but their past histories should inform the way they operate and therefore drive your plots. Create Drama and Emotion with the Power of Our Collective Past Backstory affects individuals. History, our collective past, affects everyone. Donald Maass explains it this way: “Backstory has shaped a character. The past has shaped all of society…. Backstory has a cure. The past has none. Backstory can be overcome. The past cannot be corrected, one can only—eventually—learn to endure or transcend its effects.” (Unboxed, “Back Story Versus the Past, Feb 2, 2022) Writers of historicals have the advantage of using history’s inherent drama by setting their novels in the middle of conflict—the burning of Rome, the Crusades, the Black Death that claimed at least thirty percent of Europe’s population, the French Revolution, the Opium Wars, Nazi Germany. Writers of contemporary crime fiction (with notable exceptions—Nine Eleven, COVID, Ukraine) don’t have similar options. But we do have the power of our shared history to draw upon—the after-effects of the Viet Nam War, for example, or the lingering shadow of the Jim Crow South. Writers of contemporary crime fiction can use the power of our collective past by building stories set against a backdrop of social change, injustice and oppression, racism and sexism, generational family secrets, former attitudes towards mental illness and disabilities, natural disasters, wars, and terrorism. A character doesn’t need to have personally experienced a traumatic or life-changing event to be impacted by it. Gillian Flynn’s debut novel, Sharp Objects, sets an investigation into the murder of a teen-age girl against attitudes toward mental illness. In Kellye Garrett’s Like A Sister, the murder of a reality-TV star reveals society’s perceptions of Black women. In these books and others, the memories of our collective past are an integral element of the plot and a rich source of themes such as good versus evil, the power of love, betrayal and redemption, the search for justice, jealousy and revenge, heroism, hope, the search for God or a higher purpose, coming of age, the circle of life. Craft a Dazzling Prologue Prologues have been called “superfluous,” “tedious info-dumps,” and “a bait-and-switch technique.” Agents and editors, we’re told, hate them. But when done well, a prologue ushers the reader into the story, setting the stage for subsequent events. And that happens most effectively in my opinion when the prologue takes place in the past, whether distant or recent. Chapter one of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is a cleverly disguised prologue, showing a pivotal event in the past. Without it, readers would miss the context of the story. Police procedurals like Elizabeth George’s Lynley novels often begin with a prologue showing the discovery of a body by characters only tangentially connected to the main plot. We don’t see them again and usually don’t need to. Prologues such as the one in Into the Woods by Tana French dramatize upfront a pivotal moment in the past rather than interrupting the flow of the story later with a flashback or memory. In the prologue to A Running Grave by Robert Galbraith, excerpts from letters, emails, and interviews over a five-year period foreshadow the main story, create suspense, and establish the stakes. A well-written prologue raises questions that propel the plot forward because what happened before chapter one lies simmering beneath the surface of things. “The past,” as William Faulkner famously said, “is never dead. It isn’t even past.” Connect Past and Present with Intriguing Dual Timelines Telling a story through dual timelines is a narrative device well suited to crimes with long tails in the past. Unless you’re writing about random killings or motiveless crimes—and where’s the fun in that?—the discovery of a body isn’t really the inciting event. Yes, it kicks off the investigation, but a murder with malice aforethought is the aftermath of a story that began much earlier. Christopher Fowler’s Full Dark House is the story of the first and last cases of Arthur Bryant and John May, two cranky, elderly detectives recruited during the Blitz for London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit. When Bryant is killed in a present-day bombing, May finds clues to the identity of his killer in his old partner’s notes of their first case. The Moonflower Murders by Anthony Horowitz is a “murder mystery within a murder mystery,” as former editor Susan Ryeland investigates the disappearance of a young woman possibly related to an eight-year-old murder dramatized in a novel Ryeland herself edited. In my own debut novel, A Dream of Death, a murder on a small Hebridean island recreates an infamous murder in island history. American antiques expert Kate Hamilton finds clues in a novel written in the form of a diary. Both timelines must be equally compelling or the reader will skim through one to get back to the other. But whether told in “real time” or by using the device of written notes, a book, a diary, or a memory related by one of the characters, the power of a dual timeline lies in the gradually revealed connections between the two. “What you reveal in one timeline shows [the reader] a truth in the other…. Cause and effect.” (“Writing Dual Timelines with Katie Khan,” The Novelry). The connections become increasingly enlightening until at the end, they intersect and the reader understands they’ve been in on the secret all along. Captivate Readers with a Breathtaking Plot Twist Plots twists, something the reader believes that turns out to be false, are the bread and butter of crime fiction. Readers love having their expectations overturned, and including a bit of history in a contemporary crime novel is a great way to tee up a twist. People aren’t always who and what they purport to be. Today, in the age of computers and databases, getting away with fraud and deception long-term is all but impossible. Everything about us in documented on some computer database somewhere. Not so in the past. Without easy ways of checking, people could tell lies and get away with it. My own grandmother shaved a couple of years off her age every time the census-taker came around. She’d be appalled to know I found the online census records. She’d be even more appalled to know I discovered a marriage she’d kept hidden for decades—and another marriage that never legally existed. Yup—she was a character. Innocent Blood by P.D. James is the story of an adopted woman determined to trace her biological parents. The words little does she know come to mind here. Even so, the twist halfway through the book made international best-selling crime writer Sophie Hannah, “leap up” from her sun-lounger “and yell at random holiday makers that they needed to read this book urgently.” In Kate Morton’s The Secret Keeper, a young girl witnesses her mother murdering a stranger. Years later, the slow unravelling of the truth includes a masterful double twist on false perceptions about truth and identity. Secrets from the past, like my grandmother’s, have a way of resurfacing, and when they do, watch out for a plot twist. Historian David McCullough said, “History is who we are and why we are the way we are.” We live on the topmost layer of a long and complicated past that informs our lives both personally and collectively, so why not draw upon that personal and shared history to add depth and intrigue to a contemporary crime novel? *** View the full article
  7. America’s serial killer obsession is bottomless, a seedy fixation with inexplicable horror. It often glorifies murderers in its attempts to psychologize those who kill without any discernable motive, and to draw comfortingly clear lines between good and evil. This obsession was a perfect target for the provocative director John Waters, who takes such joy in exposing the dark side of American culture. Waters’ film Serial Mom, a box office bomb that became a cult classic, perfectly satirizes serial killer mania. His parody of true crime stories, and the media circus they attract, reveals the perverse desires and anxieties of American life. Serial Mom is not as delightfully obscene as other Waters films (like Polyester and Desperate Living), that tear down the façade of picture-perfect suburban life. But its cultural criticism of true crime sleaze is pleasingly cynical and sharp. The film is dead on when it skewers the craven media circus that always follows sensational crimes. And Waters goes for the jugular parodies of the moral panics of the 1990s, some of which are cropping up again today. With his perverse tale of Beverly Sutphin, a happy homemaker who starts bumping off her friends and neighbors, Waters satirizes the format of true crime miniseries and “movies of the week” that were ratings gold in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. (These are often dismissed as retro trash, but they’re a clear influence on much of the prestige true crime adaptations we’re bombarded with today.) Serial Mom opens with title cards that mimic the typical true crime disclaimers: the film was based on interviews and witness testimony. And then, there’s the kicker: “Some of the innocent characters’ names have been changed in the interest of a larger truth.” True crime fiction often puts quotation marks around itself like this, both to protect themselves from liability, and to make a case for its own cultural legitimacy. Waters, mimicking this, makes his satire reveal larger truths about American values and obsessions. * This is not to say that Waters does not believe that true crime can’t get at bigger ideas. Serial Mom illustrates how true crime’s thirst is slaked by the sordid, but also the unlikely—crimes that shake the social order. The improbability that a sweet-as-pie housewife could be overtaken by bloodthirsty urges was catnip for the true crime genre. Waters’ serial mom, Beverly, was almost certainly influenced by the real-life murderer Betty Broderick. Broderick, a wealthy suburban mother, killed her ex-husband and his new wife after an acrimonious divorce. Her case fascinated the nation. If Broderick, a picture-perfect Super Mom, could suddenly “snap” and become a killer, what were other seemingly-contended housewives capable of? Real-life crimes rise to the level of true crime obsessions when they touch on the “larger truths” of contemporary cultural anxieties. The Broderick saga was aired on Court TV, and it inspired not one, but two, beloved Lifetime movies of the week. Broderick became a kind of folk hero to women who got had gotten shafted in their divorces because the courts dismissed the value of their unpaid labor of housekeeping and child care. Serial Mom’s Beverly (played with deceptively sunny pep by Kathleen Turner) shares Betty Broderick’s station wagon, toothpaste grin and perky demeanor. If Betty was a Super Mom, Beverly is the Uber Mom—a domestic goddess perfectly attuned to her families’ need, but quick to chide them when they stray from propriety. We see Beverly’s cartoony maternal perfection right from the start of the film. In the sunny-gold light of her kitchen, Beverly deals out eggs and fruit salad with a smile. Beverly’s family is a vision of blissful suburban harmony. Her teenage children, Chip and Misty, are chipper and polite, giving each other only mild ribbings. Her husband Eugene, is teasing and avuncular. (He’s played by Sam Waterston, who was literally the embodiment of upright morality in his role as DA Jack McCoy on America’s then-most popular crime procedural, Law and Order.) But the tightly-wound Beverly lasers in on the one imperfection in the domestic scene: a fly that’s buzzing around her breakfast table. Beverly silently twitches, her eyes growing wilder until she can swat it dead. When Beverly turns to murder, she targets those who, like the fly, threaten her perfect family life. She goes after the math teacher who threatens to fail her son and the heartthrob who rejects her daughter. Later, she goes after neighbors who violate the norms of suburban community: people who don’t recycle or don’t rewind their video store rentals. Turner plays a wonderful murderous mama. She switches seamlessly between naughty and nice. She’s blonde and rosy and shiny enough to be that unflappable Supermom, but Turner has an underlying earthy sensuality that really heightens Beverly’s heady lust for violence. The genuine relish with which Beverly goes in for the kill—whether spearing a teenage boy with a poker or going after her neighbor with a leg of lamb—is shocking, and also uncomfortably infectious. Waters hits on an insightful tension: while Beverly kills to protect her family and maintain suburban etiquette, her killing is a pressure valve that frees her from the strictures of her life. Beverly’s crimes, and then her trial, mocks America’s serial killer obsession. After the FBI coined the term “serial killer,” decades of research tried to develop a “profile” of this type of murderer. By the time Serial Mom hit the theaters, the American public was already familiar with the concept of profiling from the hit film The Silence of the Lambs, where a psychological profile helped catch a serial killer. Mark Seltzer saw the public’s obsession with serial killers in the ‘90s as an effect of the growth of pop psychology. Seltzer called this phenomenon a “trauma culture,” where Americans grew to believe in the “abnormal normality of psychic pain.” In this environment, a serial killer provided the opportunity to psychologize. There were two sides to this: on the one hand, serial killers supposedly possessed a compelling assortment of abnormalities and symptoms that were ripe for analysis. On the other hand, if psychological traumas were so widespread, it was possible that serial killers could be close to home, hiding in plain sight. Beverly, the happy homemaker next door, confirms the public’s worst fears. As she remains unflappably chipper in public, in private, she marks of the serial killer. Profilers found that serial killers could be copycats who took inspiration from each other. Beverly has a serial killer scrapbook, and corresponds with Ted Bundy. She keeps books about other killers covered in the book jackets of birding books. The fixation with serial killers was bound up with developments in mass media. The ‘90s saw an intensification in the media’s attention on crime: Court TV provided wall-to-wall coverage of trials like Broderick, and basic cable news stations like CNN turned to salacious cases to boost ratings. Serial Mom touches on the craven media coverage of crimes. After her arrest, Beverly’s son Chip becomes her manager, fielding requests for interviews and holding out for the biggest payday. There’s a stir when sitcom actress and exercise guru Suzanne Somers comes to the trial. She hopes to play Beverly in a made-for-TV movie portraying her as a “feminist heroine.” Waters is perhaps most insightful when he ties America’s anxieties about serial killers to the moral panics that periodically grip the nation, sparking terror that pop culture was dangerous, especially to impressionable young people. Waters’ own films were often accused of having a corrosive influence on youths. In the decade before Serial Mom’s release, the Parents Music Resource Center, co-founded by future Second Lady Tipper Gore, stirred up fears about the violent and sexually explicit content in popular music. (They successfully lobbied the music industry to label music with explicit lyrics.) By the time of Serial Mom’s release, new anxieties had gained traction: there was panic about violence in video games, and, more disturbingly, thinly-sourced tales of Satanic cults corrupting, if not blatantly abusing, young people. Waters has fun thumbing his nose at these seemingly endless overreactions to the pleasures of youth culture. Beverly’s son Chip works at a video store, and he and his friends love gore and splatter movies. They eagerly watch ‘60s camp horror films like Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Blood Feast, and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The kids’ fixation disturbs their quiet suburban community: Chip’s math teacher attributes Chip’s poor grades to the horror movies he watches. But supposedly toxic pop culture, is, of course, a red herring: the real danger lies not in the son, but in his mother. (The poor math teacher will learn this the hard way when Beverly mows him down with her station wagon.) Apart from the films they watch, Chip and his friends are surprisingly wholesome; it is his seemingly wholesome mother who is the real danger. It’s Waters’ winking way of mocking and critiquing American mores, as well as the true crime tropes that so handily reflect the dark pleasures that put the lie to them. View the full article
  8. In the world famous test of visual attention designed by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris, an off-camera voice instructs participants to watch a short video of a group of students playing basketball, during which they must count the number of times the players in the white shirts pass the ball between themselves. Then, at the end of the game, the voice, without any further fanfare, simply reveals that the correct answer is fifteen. After concentrating so hard, the payoff feels a bit like a let-down. But then the voice asks: but did you see the gorilla? The what? Yup, the gorilla. Because, sure enough, during the video a man wearing a gorilla suit very clearly enters from the right, walks slowly through all the players, stops to beat his chest a little, and then continues out of the shot. And yet only fifty percent of test subjects will notice him. Fifty percent. For the rest of us, our attention is elsewhere. It’s known as inattentional blindness, the idea being that people who are focused on one thing can so easily overlook something else. We’d all like to believe that we are reliable witnesses, and that our recall of events is credible and true, but memory and perception are slippery things, and become all the more so when filtered back through the limitations of language. All storytelling is necessarily subjective for that fact alone: two words may have an almost identical meaning, but our choice of one over another can lend a completely different weight to what is being described. Then other factors come into play: state of mind, wish-fulfilment, embarrassment, guilt, and, not forgetting, as my character Liv points out in Things Don’t Break On Their Own, ‘We all have that one story that gets slightly embellished in the retelling and, over time, the exaggerated story becomes the version we actually believe, indistinguishable from the original in our own minds.’ In storytelling, the subjectivity of perception by recollection is known as The Rashomon Effect, the name being taken from Akira Kurosawa’s iconic film Rashomon. Released in August 1950, Rashomon is a Jidaigeki (period) drama whose ideas and structure have proven so influential that The Rashomon Effect has even been quoted in court cases. The film itself was based on a short story called In A Grove by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, and concerns the murder of a samurai and rape of his bride, critical events that are described by its four key witnesses, one of which – as told through a medium – is the testimony of the dead man himself. But it turns out that each of these separate accounts is contradictory to the others. Evidently, for each witness – the samurai, his wife, a woodcutter, and a bandit – the stakes are high, whether that be in terms of their accountability, honour, reputation, pride or fear of retribution, meaning that each has a compelling reason to lie. As each character describes in turn a version of the events that puts their own self in the best possible light, we begin to understand what an observer means when he says, ‘It’s human to lie. Most of the time we can’t even be honest with ourselves.’ So: four different stories, four different perspectives and four different endings, but when we, the audience, have no way of knowing which one is true, whose version is to be believed? Many stories I’ve admired have a ‘gorilla’ in their midst, that unnoticed thing that was there all along but which I’ve only managed to spot in retrospect. In thrillers particularly, as readers we expect there to be a reveal that produces an edifying moment of truth, and we all enjoy that big hit of dopamine when it comes. We want to fully understand what has occurred, have the mystery solved and the satisfaction of certitude. But what if we get to the end and still can’t find the gorilla? What if there isn’t one to find? In Rashomon, there are no easy answers. Scenes are replayed from different points of view with major differences and, as the story switches from one character to the next, the actual ‘truth’, far from being revealed, becomes distinctly more blurred. Things Don’t Break On Their Own has several scenes that are repeated from different points of view, a dinner party in particular, and one of my biggest concerns in writing the novel was in making sure that each repeat of that scene felt fresh. That made the dinner party both the most challenging and equally the most enjoyable part of the book to write; I often had three or even four tabs open so that I could refer back to what had happened in previous versions. Usefully, first person narrators are always going to be somewhat unreliable—they can hardly be anything else—and making use of the Rashomon Effect allowed me to have the same people see and say different things in each repeated scene. I loved playing with the idea that the evening’s events could be perceived, interpreted, and remembered by key characters in alternative ways. A significant part of the story is told through the tricky lens of memory, and my character Liv alludes to the Rashomon Effect when she says, ‘Even on a simple level, we can have wildly differing memories of a single event, where you’d be right in thinking that everyone experienced the exact same thing. Take this supper party, for instance. If in six months’ time, I asked you individually to recall tonight in as much detail as possible, it’s more than likely that you’d each give me a slightly, perhaps even a wildly different account—with variations in everything from what everyone was wearing and the order in which people arrived, to what we ate, what we discussed and who said what.’ What characters know and what they choose to reveal, what lies they tell, and what they choose to leave out—either by accident or design—is always going to be a fascinating process for a writer. This is especially true when their statements conflict with those of others, and in a story like Rashomon where such varying testimonies are left unresolved, a reader may question why a writer has chosen not to reveal which version is ultimately to be believed. But consider this: perhaps, getting to a certain truth was never the point. Rather, in writing multiple subjective viewpoints, an author may be inviting a reader not so much to seek out a factual reality, as to come to an empathetic understanding of the world view experienced by each individual character. After all, isn’t the entire point of fiction about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes? I certainly think there’s good evidence that Akira Kurosawa would like Rashomon’s audience to come to an empathic understanding of each of his character’s testimonies, as the film ends on a hopeful note, with the rescue of an abandoned baby, rain stopping, clouds parting and the sun breaking through. In a world where the term ‘fake news’ proliferates, I think this type of storytelling has never been more relevant. It’s a plot device that creates a powerful framework for exploring events that are thorny and problematical, and especially those where the outcome is set to exact a high price from those involved. It is demanding on an audience, forcing us to address how we think about complex, ambiguous situations. It expects us to become active participants in a story rather than passive consumers of the action. We need to go away, to think, to debate, to question, to reread and rewatch. The very format turns us, the audience, into additional witnesses, and such storytelling encourages us not only to address our own bias, but to explore baseline philosophical questions, such as how can we ever really know a thing, and even whether a single truth can ever be said to exist. No wonder Rashomon is considered to be one of the most important films ever made, and its legacy galvanising. As a template for storytelling, Rashomon rejects ambivalence and forces us to think. *** View the full article
  9. Not since Allan Sherman first sang “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah” have tales of summer camp woes been quite so entertaining. While regular summer camp can be annoying—heat rashes, ant piles, wild pigs, impossible beauty standards, line dancing, and whatever nastiness lies at the bottom of the lake—these recent and upcoming novels take the summer camp setup into true nightmare territory. The following books are evenly divided into three categories of awfulness: conversion camps, wilderness reform schools, and camps for the cancelled (the latter category is more about terrible people in nice-ish settings, rather than particularly terrible camps). I briefly considered including sanatoriums and writing retreats, but those should each be their own list, given how many standout examples have been published in the last few years. Wilderness Reform Schools: Matt Query and Harrison Query, Wilderness Reform (Atria) The Query brothers takes us into the harrowing conditions—both man-made and supernatural—of a wilderness survival camp, as tween Ben and his bunkmates try to uncover the dark secrets of their remote prison. Wilderness Reform is a social justice thriller with plenty to say about the troubled teen industry and its promises to save children even as it exploited them, and, often enough, killed them. Ariel Delgado Dixon, Don’t Say We Didn’t Warn You (Random House Trade) The two sisters at the center of Ariel Delgado Dixon’s debut are born survivors, first abandoned by their laissez-faire parents in a former art commune, then rounded up by authorities and sent to a wilderness reform school. Graduated into an uncaring world, the sisters work hard and hustle harder, hoping to find their way back to each other. Conversion Camps: Chuck Tingle, Bury Your Gays (Tor Nightfire) Chuck Tingle may have made his name in steamy-yet-absurdist erotica, but Bury Your Gays, along with last year’s Camp Damascus, cements Tingle’s place as one of the best new novelists around, horror or otherwise. Showrunner Misha is giving a harsh directive from his studio overlords: either kill off his queer characters, or make them straight. When he refuses to do either, monstrous beings from Misha’s previous cinematic endeavors start confronting him in the flesh, and even worse: they’re threatening his loved ones. This is quite possibly the best spoof of Hollywood since Get Smart. And three cheers for a book with ace representation! Gretchen Felker-Martin, Cuckoo (Tor Nightfire) Gretchen Felker-Martin forever won my heart with her splattterpunk horror novel Manhunt, and now she’s done it again with a queer conversion camp thriller that is truly terrifying to read. Felker-Martin writes with sensitivity and righteous fury about the many torments the teenage characters are forced to endure in the name of heteronormativity, and the stakes are ever higher as the kids begin to realize that even those who leave the camp are no longer themselves—and many will not leave at all. Felker-Martin excels at creeping out readers with her off-kilter descriptions and gory details, and I wouldn’t open this one up while eating. Camp Cancellation: Josh Winning, Heads Will Roll (Putnam, July 30) Josh Winning’s new novel follows former TV star Willow after she tweets herself into a cancellation and heads to the digital detox of Camp Castaway, full of other refugees from social media and their own behavior. Of course, the campers soon enough begin disappearing and turning up dead, in ways that follow the modus operandi of “Knock Knock Nancy”, the camp’s very own legendary ghost. Tova Reich, Camp Jeff (Seven Stories, October 29) In this erudite satire, the “creme-de-la-creme” of the cancelled at a former resort in the Catskills to take part in a rehabilitation effort that promises to cure them, punish them, and restore them them to society. The retreat is sponsored by the “good” Jeffrey Epstein (a wealthy benefactor who shares the same moniker as the bad one, but insists he does not share any of the same predilections), and run by three women, his assistants and enablers, as they attempt to gain control over an unruly group of their first ten attendees. I guess it’s not really a crime novel, but hey, all the characters certainly deserve to be dead! Traditional Summer Camps (with Murder, or at least, Missing Persons) Sami Ellis, Dead Girls Walking (Amulet Books) Sapphic romance and serial killers at summer camp! Sami Ellis seems to have included every trope I have on my checklist, and they all work together seamlessly for an irrepressibly entertaining horror experience. Liz Moore, The God of the Woods (Riverhead) Liz Moore’s Long Bright River was a spectacular pivot to crime for Liz Moore and her new one should cement her reputation. It’s a great summer read about missing children at a summer camp, with a tinge of “all of this has happened before” looming around the edges. Reading this felt like discovering Tana French’s In the Woods—and not just because of the “child disappeared in the woods” angle, but because it’s unputdownable and thrillingly constructed. –Drew Broussard, Podcasts Editor View the full article
  10. Over the Christmas season in 1938, as the world glumly slouched toward war, Welsh author Howard Spring, book reviewer for the London Evening Standard, decided that he would relax by reading a couple of English crime novels. Heartily disliking both of the books—a detective story by Agatha Christie and a thriller by Sydney Horler—he wrote a column, which was published in the Standard on December 22nd, explaining why he reacted so negatively to them. His assessment of the Horler thriller, that it was dreadfully cliched, trite and predictable, did not create a stir—surely no semi-sophisticated reader ever expected anything otherwise by that time from the likes of Edgar Wallace wannabe Sydney Horler—and it need not concern us here. Spring’s scathing review of Agatha Christie’s detective novel, however, engendered a furious four-day flurry at the Standard, as the paper over four days in the first week of January published a series of letters both supportive and dismissive of the critic, along with his own provocative response. Among the chiding letters was a trio of missives from members of the Detection Club, Britain’s prestigious assemblage of many of the most notable detective writers in the country, including such luminaries as Dorothy L. Sayers, John Dickson Carr (an American then living in England) and Agatha Christie herself, who if not yet deemed the “Queen of Crime,” was about at the point where she needed to be thinking of getting a coronation robe fitted. Sydney Horler This flap between the critic and the crime writers about just what constituted acceptable criticism of a detective novel opens an interesting window on contemporary attitudes about detective fiction and whether it really merited respect as a literary form. Anticipating American novelist and critic Edmund Wilson’s more extended attack on detective fiction in his essay “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?,” Spring’s diatribe shows how some intellectuals held in utter contempt the detective fiction form, at least as it existed in the Thirties and Forties. (Both Wilson and Spring professed admiration for the late Arthur Concan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tales.) Yet the vigorous response to his attack from detective writers and their supporters reveals that devotees of detective fiction were unabashed when it came to defending themselves and their reading matter of choice. Here in 1939, at the peak of the so-called Golden Age of detective fiction, fans felt no need to cower in corners when mystery writing came under criticism from lofty, lip-curling detractors. Born in Cardiff, Wales in 1889, the son of a jobbing gardener (a frequent character in classic English mysteries), Howard Spring never felt the touch of a silver spoon in his childish mouth. With his mother having to take in washing to support the family after the death of his father, Spring left school at the age of twelve to supplement the family’s meager finances by working as an errand boy. After snagging a job in a newspaper office, he slowly worked his way up to the position of reporter, all the while taking evening classes at Cardiff University to improve his neglected education. In 1931, when he was forty-two years old, Spring was hired as book reviewer at the Evening Standard, a post which provided him with a regular stipend while he tried to launch a career as a serious novelist. In 1937, when he was nearing the age of fifty, he achieved success with My Son, My Son!, a novel later filmed in the United States. Three years later Spring published his best-known novel, Fame is the Spur, which was filmed in 1947 and 1982. So, when Spring composed his crime fiction review column in late 1938, he finally had, after nearly five decades of life, some proud consciousness of his own tangible literary accomplishment. Morland Spring, a working-class writer who has been described as “an influential middlebrow novelist and literary panjandrum,” believed in the artistic validity of the popular novel, accessible to broader swathes of readers, and he criticized remote, opaque, highbrow poets like T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden. Both of the latter men, ironically, were keen fans of detective fiction, a hugely popular literary form, even writing theoretical articles about the stuff and, in the case of Eliot, devising rules for its writing; yet Spring, who considered himself more of a man of the people, had no use for the frippery fiction produced by crime scribblers. In the Evening Standard in 1936, he had scathingly reviewed a Nigel Morland “Mrs. Pym” crime thriller, The Street of the Leopard, a fetid farrago about the diabolical machinations of a pair of race gangs (Japanese and African) right in the very streets of London. He condemned the novel as utter hokum and “a first-rate example of those books which cause a reader with a grain of intelligence to distrust and dislike the whole class to which they belong.” Hatred of Nigel Morland’s crime writing was one thing on which Spring and Auden actually agreed (though Eliot was more indulgent of thrillers). Indeed, the Detection Club had been founded in 1930 to a great extent in order to distinguish writers of rarefied, puzzle-oriented detective fiction, which appealed to the intellect, from thriller writers, mere purveyors of sensation who appealed, it was believed, strictly to the lower emotions, depicting the disgusting bowels of life, as it were. To be sure a number of detective fiction writers trafficked in thrills too, such as Agatha Christie, who, particularly in the Twenties alternated Hercule Poirot detective novels like The Murder of Roger Ackroyd with thrillers like The Secret Adversary and The Secret of Chimneys. (She even sacrificed Poirot’s dignity by marooning him, with his faithful, dim sidekick Hastings, into a conspiratorial crime shocker, The Big Four.) However, in the Thirties the gulf between detective fiction and thrillers widened, as detective writers sought to win greater literary prestige for their work. In class terms it was often asserted that detective fiction was read by notables like cabinet ministers and clerics, professors and prime ministers, while lowly thrillers merely kept housemaids and shop clerks up at night and drowsy in the morning. it was often asserted that detective fiction was read by notables like cabinet ministers and clerics, professors and prime ministers, while lowly thrillers merely kept housemaids and shop clerks up at night and drowsy in the morning. In his uncheerful 1938 Christmas review column for the Evening Standard, Howard ruthlessly sprang his trap, righteously calling down a pox on both houses of crime fiction, detection and thrills. He made this clear with his wholesale dismissal of Agatha Christie’s detective novel along with Sydney Horler’s thriller. For Spring so casually to bracket Christie with Horler, who among writers of shockers made the late Edgar Wallace look like Leo Tolstoy, was a mark of contempt indeed, a proverbial coal in the Christmas stocking. Apropos of this image, the Christie novel which Spring panned was her latest Hercule Poirot opus, Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, a Christie for Christmas which actually concerned Christmas—and murder, of course. Spring condemned Christie’s novel for having “a clumsy crime, a clumsy solution and an overladen narrative,” adding darkly that the book confirmed “my darkest suspicions about these detective novels.” He declared that if ever he felt the urge to commit murder, “I should try to make a neater, sweeter and somehow less farcical job of it” than had Christie’s careless killer. Fair enough, one might say. Spring was hardly the first person to give a bad review to a detective novel, even one by Agatha Christie. (There had even been people who had not liked The Murder of Rogert Ackroyd.) But where Spring engendered controversy was when, at the very beginning of the review and continuing for a dozen paragraphs, he systematically detailed the solution to the murder, including both the identity of the murderer and the means of the murder (one of the author’s rare stabs at a locked room). This, in the view of the scandalized members of the Detection Club, went utterly beyond the pale, constituting a dagger to the heart of their very profession. If reviewers began willy nilly spoiling the plots of detective novels, who would actually read the things? For the fun of a whodunit, at least the first time out, is in trying to determine, well, whodunit. (For this reason, obviously I cannot go into detail concerning Spring’s substantive criticism of the plot of Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, though I will say that, despite the fact that the reviewer seems to me to land some logical blows on the technical soundness of Christie’s locked room gambit, I, like the late modern crime writer Robert Barnard, still consider the novel one of the Queen of Crime’s cleverest mysteries.) First to pepper Spring’s line of defense was John Dickson Carr, then the corresponding secretary of the Detection Club and himself the undisputed master of the locked room mystery. In his letter Carr complained: “[In his review] Mr. Spring has carefully removed every element of mystery [from Christie’s novel]. He discloses (a) the identity of the murderer (b) the murderer’s motive (c) nearly every detail of the trick by which the murder was committed and (d) how the detective knew it. After this massacre it is safe to say that little more harm to the book could possibly have been done.” While Carr allowed that a “critic is at liberty to say what he likes about the merits of the book,” he insisted that it emphatically was not playing fair for that critic “deliberately to give away every secret of a detective novel, whose whole effect depends on keeping back those secrets until the end.” To this protest Spring responded unapologetically, in a column the text of which ran under a picture of the critic impudently sitting astride the arm of a chair, that it was a critic’s duty to go into detail explaining why he did not like a book, detective novel or otherwise. If this rule were set aside for detective fiction, Spring riposted, “it is tantamount to an admission that these books have no relation to the art of writing and therefore cannot be dealt with by the normal methods of criticism.” Then he proceeded to concede that in his view crime fiction indeed had no relation to the art of writing. “[T]he cheap titillating tale of mystery or detection,” he declared loftily, offered nothing worthwhile to readers, but rather insidiously enticed, like an addictive drug, an “increasingly illiterate” British public away from the mentally wholesome and “lovely regions of true imagination where the great novelists and the great poets dwell.” How obscene it was to waste time on Edgar Wallace or Agatha Christie, he pronounced, when one can read “Dickens and Thackeray, Flaubert and Hawthorne, Arnold Bennett and Somerset Maugham.” (Arnold Bennett actually wrote indulgently of Edgar Wallace’s thrillers, while Somerset Maugham was an avid reader of both detective fiction and thrillers, but it appears that Spring knew this not.) Of Edgar Wallace, who had had a street plaque erected in his memory, Spring wrote witheringly that “it is time it was said that [Wallace’s] output was of trash redeemed by hardly a vital spark.” Both thrillers and detective fiction were “injurious and mentally devitalizing to those who read them, because more often than not those who read them read nothing else.” Letters from Dorothy L. Sayers and Helen Simpson, the latter of whom was a mainstream novelist like Spring who had occasionally dabbled in detection and was also a founding member of the Detection Club, followed Carr’s epistle a few days later. Simpson briefly explained the exact nature of Spring’s “offence”: “A detection story is primarily a puzzle, which the reader likes to put together for himself. What Mr. Spring did was to assemble the puzzle in public, thereby spoiling a good many people’s pleasure.” Simpson compared Spring to “that nuisance who at a theatre tells his neighbors just what is coming next, or who explains the tricks during a conjuring show.” For her part Sayers, a former crime fiction for the Sunday Times and a leading exponent of the more novelistic detective novel, as it were, the so-called detective novel of manners, methodically explained to Spring how one can properly review a detective novel. She provided a review of an imaginary mystery called The Blood-boltered Pincushion, wherein “nothing has been given away to spoil such pleasure as the book may be capable of affording”: The Blood-boltered Pincushion is an exceptionally feeble specimen even of the detective novelist’s alleged art. It is about a stockbroker found dead in a rabbit hutch, and the “great detective” is an analytical chemist who, on p. 59, shows himself unable to distinguish between a sulphate and a sulphite. The criminals’ motive is psychologically improbable, and the murder-method a physical impossibility. The trial scene is disfigured, not only by the usual travesty of legal procedure, but by frequent lapses into bad taste and worse English. Indeed, the wooden characters use throughout such dialogue as was never yet heard on human lips. (Here insert brief specimen.) Those who will swallow such defects all for the sake of a good “guessing game” will be shocked to find that no fewer than three clues have been deliberately concealed from the reader. What of Evening Standard readers? With whom did they side, the critic or the crime writers? Among the letters the paper published, there was a fairly even divide of opinion, though the majority supported Spring, praising his daring in speaking out against the ghastly existence of crime fiction. Mostly lost by these letter writers was Spring’s original offense of gratuitously spoiling most of Christie’s mystery. “Sincere congratulations on the denunciation of the detective dope pedlars and addicts,” cheered Sydney Jones Fabricius Maiden, an artist residing at Greystones, Chipstead, Seven Oaks, Kent, while Hugh Joseph Goolden, a barrister-at-law residing at The Bailey’s Hotel in Kensington (a great many Standard readers appear to have dwelt in Kensington and Chelsea) avowed: “Mr. Howard Spring has performed a public service in his denunciation of the detective ‘novel’ [note scare marks].” An evident wag by the name of Frank Acheson, who lived at Chesterfield House, an art deco block flats in Mayfair which had recently replaced a razed Georgian mansion, declared: “The trouble with those readers who are so terribly hurt by Howard Spring’s forthrightness in blowing the gaff (at last, thank Heaven!) on the high priests and priestesses of detective fiction is that they place too much importance on esprit de corpse.” Asserted Ian Monroe of The High, a block of flats on Streatham High Road in London: “Intelligent fiction readers will thank Howard Spring for his long overdue exposure of so-called detective fiction.” Others defended the crime novel and condemned the critic, like Elise Murrell of Greenford, Middlesex, who wrote: “May I say to Howard Spring, ‘Tripe.’ In my opinion he is terribly doped by his ‘cleverness’ because education and time have made him unsporting and smug.” F. B. Hooper of 49 Wellington Street, Covent Garden accused Spring of “a gross breach of literary etiquette in his criticism of ‘Hercule Poirot’s Christmas’…equalled only, as an example of thoroughly bad manners, by his sulky apologia.” John Dickson Carr’s “admirably stated indictment,” he added, “errs only on the side of leniency.” An infuriated John Emanuel of 6 Eaton Rise expressed his doubt that “that great majority, for whom Mr. Howard Spring has such an overwhelming contempt, who read nothing else but detective novels and ‘thrillers’ have ever read anything so smug and complacent as Mr. Spring’s defence of himself and his theories.” Lionel Ellis Gilman of Snargate, Kent and Purley, Croydon, an unmarried retired banker and ARP warden who was the elder brother of artist Harold Gilman (dubbed England’s Van Gogh), deemed John Dickson Carr’s “protest” against Spring’s review “moderate and justifiable,” while Spring’s “retort…has only made bad worse.” He tartly urged Spring, if he thought Edgar Wallace’s fiction was such facile trash, to try writing a thriller himself, and so “absolve himself of the necessity of any parasitic work.” Another Spring opponent, Peter Weissenberg of 2b Bickenhall Mansions, a Victorian block of flats in Marylebone, reminded the critic that the fine author J. B. Priestley had recently published a thriller called The Doomsday Men. “Think it over, Mr. Spring,” he advised. (Unfortunately, Spring had reviewed Priestley’s book earlier in 1938 and panned it, urging him to get back to writing something worthwhile.) Who won the January 1939 correspondence battle between the forces of the critic and those of the crime writers? Ultimately, it was the crime writers, I would say, for crime fiction was here to stay, no matter how furiously its naysayers said nay to it. Today, eighty-five years later, Agatha Christie is as hugely popular as ever, while I imagine rather more people know of Dorothy L. Sayers than Howard Spring, though the latter’s two most famous books—massive, wordy, earnest tomes—are still in print. Edgar Wallace has made something of a comeback and there is even a wretched Sydney Horler volume available, courtesy of the British Library. Fans of Golden Age crime fiction realized something that the Edmund Wilsons and Howard Springs of the world did not (and even they admitted they liked the Sherlock Holmes stories): that it was fun and, taken in moderation, a harmless escape from the tedium and unpleasantness of everyday humdrum existence. Wilson and Spring and all the rest of their pious ilk really need not have concerned themselves unnecessarily with that. View the full article
  11. The CrimeReads editors make their selections for the best debut novels in crime, mystery, and thrillers. * Donyae Coles, Midnight Rooms (Amistad) Never. Eat. What. The. Fairies. Give. You. Especially if it’s as disgusting as what’s consumed at the wedding feast in this atmospheric gothic (complete with strong folk horror elements). Donyae Coles’ plucky heroine is surprised to receive a later-in-life proposal from a mysterious gentleman. Their connection is genuine, but his family is off-putting, his manor house is crumbling, and for some reason, he keeps getting her drunk on honey wine while feeding her bloody meat and little cakes. What does he want, and what will she have to sacrifice to give it to him? –MO Jenna Satterthwaite, Made For You (Mira) Jenna Satterthwaite’s novel is a cutting and creative take on reality television and artificial personhood. Her heroine is the first “synth” to compete on a reality dating show, and only the third to exist publicly in the world. Her romance is fairy-tale perfection, but her marriage is decidedly less so, and when the husband she worked so hard to win goes missing, suspicion falls immediately on his robotic partner. Will she be able to prove her own innocence, and will the world finally accept her autonomy and sense of self? –MO Sarah Brooks, The Cautious Traveller’s Guide to the Wastelands (Flatiron) This book is steampunk perfection! The Cautious Traveller’s Guide to the Wastelands takes place on an enormous train barreling through a landscape known as the “Wastelands” on its way from Beijing to Moscow at the turn of the 20th century. Outside the train, strange creatures with knowing eyes and too many mouths regard the iron beast and its fearful passengers. Inside the train, a powerful company tries to preserve order and cover up past mistakes as various travelers try to discover the truth behind what happened on the disastrous previous journey. Brooks brings a Mieville-esque mentality to her novel, with some terrifying creepy-crawlies and an even more terrifying capitalist conglomerate. –MO Emily Dunlay, Teddy (Harper) In this madcap tale of espionage and adventure, a Dallas debutante marries a foreign service worker and heads to mid-1960s Italy, determined to put her wild days behind her and finally Behave. Events conspire to foil her goals of proper deportment, and soon enough, she’s involved in a blackmail scheme, embassy hijinks, and the most daunting task of all: finding a couture dress that can fit her without needing to be tailored. Teddy is not just a fabulous historical novel—it’s a manifesto against the patriarchy, and a liberating experience of watching a woman free herself. –MO Carinn Jade, The Astrology House (Atria B00ks) Carinn Jade takes on the locked-room mystery and makes it her own in this psychological-thriller-cum-comedy-of-manners. A wealthy group of friends decamps to a remote house for an astrology-oriented getaway only to find their host has her own agenda for the weekend. This book will have you wondering about your own charts—and whether that house in Mercury Retrograde just might make you a murderer. –MO View the full article
  12. If asked to pitch my debut contemporary fiction novel, The Confidence Games, I usually say something like: “Think Ocean’s 8 meets a modern day Thelma and Louise”. In the book, best friends Emma and Nellie, who adhere to only two rules—they will only swindle men, and only ones who deserve it—are secure in their reputation as the most trustworthy swindlers on the European black market. But when the women are blackmailed into stealing a priceless bracelet from a famous London exhibition, they must pull out all the stops (and their smartest tricks) to get out alive. When I set out to write the book, I knew I wanted it to be effervescent and escapist, yet profound, with elements of found family and friendship. Because I seldom worry too much about genre boundaries and rules, it wasn’t until much later—during the editing stage—that I realised what I’d actually written was a feminist caper. A sub-category of the crime fiction genre, caper stories are light in tone, often feature beguiling protagonists and generally centre around an elaborate heist or grand con. Perhaps as a result of our tumultuous times, capers—especially the feminist variety—have seen a boost in popularity in past years. In fact, this is part of the reason my agent strongly encouraged me to fast-track my drafting process after I pitched the idea for The Confidence Games in 2022. We knew then that the caper trend was heating up, and there’d likely be a surge in similar stories hitting shelves in the coming years. As you’ll see from the following list, we were right. Here are five of my favorite feisty feminist caper stories. The Heist by Janet Evanovich & Lee Goldberg Although Janet Evanovich started out writing romance, she is, in my opinion, the Queen of contemporary crime fiction. The Heist, which is co-written by bestselling author and television writer, Lee Goldberg, is the first in her long running and tremendously popular Fox and O’Hare series. The Heist introduces us to FBI Special Agent Kate O’Hare as she sets out on the trail of the world’s greatest con man: the charming Nicholas Fox. But when Fox is eventually captured, he pulls off his finest con yet by cajoling the FBI into releasing him on the condition that he joins forces with Kate and works alongside her to hunt down other criminals. This book has all the dazzling action and sharp wit Evanovich is known for, plus a dash of romantic tension. What more could anyone want? Stolen Pieces by SK Golden SK, best known for her fabulous The Pinnacle Historical Mystery Series, shows off her sly side with this fast-paced, snappy contemporary caper. In Stolen Pieces, we meet ex con artist Bee Cardello, who—after a life of trickery and hijinks—decides to hang up her gloves and hit the straight and narrow. However, things go pear-shaped when her mafia boss ex-husband lands himself (and their son) in serious trouble and it’s up to Bee to save the day. SK has a knack for writing humorous, cozy stories that pack a punch with thrills and heart-pounding action, and this book is no exception. Counterfeit by Kirstin Chen This Reese’s Bookclub pick follows the exploits of Ava Wong—the well-to-do, law-abiding Chinese American lawyer. On the surface, Ava appears to have it all: the perfect life, a handsome, successful husband, a beautiful home and a young son she adores. But hidden beneath this polished exterior, Ava’s life and marriage are at breaking point. So, when Ava’s charming and long lost college roommate, Winnie Fang, shows up with an offer to join her counterfeit luxury handbag business, Ava must cast aside her old, do-gooder self and join the dark side. But at what cost? This was one of the first books I read on my search for comp titles after I’d finished writing The Confidence Games. I love how smart and sassy it is—something I certainly feel is mirrored in my own book. And although it has darker undertones and a slower-burn narration than The Confidence Games, its feminist vibes, led by a strong female duo, are right up my alley. The Housekeepers by Alex Hay Set in 1905, London, this is the only historical caper I’ve come across recently and its unique setting really gives it a stand-out edge. With humour, gutsy characters and twists galore, this book is a gem. Historical fiction has always been my favourite genre to read (followed closely by thrillers and contemporary crime), and when done well—as in The Housekeepers—these stories offer insight and perspective into the ways humanity has changed (for better or worse) over the past decades and centuries. The Housekeepers tells the tale of Mrs King, who, after being fired from her position as head housekeeper at Mayfair’s finest home, recruits a ragtag group of women to help her pull off a grand heist in the name of revenge. Cover Story by Susan Rigetti Possibly inspired by the true-life tale of Anna Sorokin, Cover Story explores the life of aspiring writer, Lora Ricci. When Lora lands a summer internship at ELLE Magazine she forms a fast friendship with the glamorous editor, Cat Wolff, who convinces Lora to become a ghost writer. For a while, Lora lives the dream—attending swanky parties and living with Cat at the Plaza hotel. But soon Lora starts to see the darker side of Cat’s “perfect” life and realises that nothing is quite what it appears to be. Told through Instagram posts, text messages and diary entries, this is a wild ride full of glamour, action and twists (seriously…the TWISTS!). Although less lighthearted than the others on this list, Cover Story is just so gripping and brilliantly written that I had to include it. *** View the full article
  13. I’ve always been obsessed with houses: their different shapes and colors; layouts that couldn’t be seen from the curb. Maybe this curiosity started because I grew up in a boxy two bedroom apartment in Queens, NYC. Or because the very first chapter book I read was Nancy Drew’s The Hidden Staircase. Whatever the source, my fascination never wavered. My debut novel, The Astrology House, is set in a giant Victorian home where every room has sweeping water views and suites named for the signs of the zodiac. I wanted the house to feel like a character in its own right, and that meant the house had to have secrets too. The real life inspiration was the 1800s farmhouse my grandmother brought us to every summer of my childhood. You could feel the history in the air as soon as you stepped inside the house, and as a kid, adventure awaited around every corner. It had an intercom system riddled with static, hidden passageways for dumbwaiters, and a towering defunct lighthouse. There was a small three room cement bunker built into the ground separate from the main house where my cousins and I would escape the hot summer sun. Each of these features were an absolute delight during the day, but tucked in my bed I wondered who was crawling around those passageways, who slept in that bunker and what ghosts might haunt that lighthouse, sending out signals we couldn’t see. That toggle between the fright and delight of an inanimate home is exactly what I wanted to capture in The Astrology House. I’m not the first author obsessed with houses, nor will I be the last. Here are some of my favorite books with houses that hold as many secrets as the people in them, from classics to contemporary: Flowers in the Attic by VC Andrews I re-read this novel in the pandemic and its darkness left a mark on me. The Dollanganger family—father Christopher, mother Corrine, 14-year-old Chris,12-year-old Cathy, and 5-year-old twins Carrie and Cory—endure a tragedy that sends them to the safety of Foxworth Hall, Corinne’s childhood estate. But they are not welcome there, and the children are locked away. Beauty and depravity co-existed in both the mansion and the people, and those dualities feed off of each other in this shocking and twisted story. Bonus: sharing a name with a character was rare for me, and my namesake Corrine might be the origin story for my deep affinity towards messy women trying to break cycles of trauma. The Shining by Stephen King If you haven’t read Steven King’s 1977 novel, The Shining, it’s not too late. (And no, the movie doesn’t count for this one.) While not technically a house, The Overlook Hotel was the home to the Torrance family during the off-season. The opportunities to write and spend more time with his wife and son in this idyllic location are too good to pass up, but it’s not just the isolation that gets to Jack, there are supernatural forces gathering around five-year-old Danny. This suspenseful novel was concerned with domestic matters and intergenerational trauma before we had terms to describe what now fills an entire subgenre of thrillers. When No One Is Watching by Alyssa Cole Not only do these Brooklyn brownstones hold secrets, but the whole neighborhood has history that newcomers willfully ignore. Thankfully we follow Sydney as she clues ignorant tour groups in on the scientific and musical geniuses who graced these homes, not that they appreciate her expertise. As the novel progresses, the forces against Sydney move from ignorant individuals to something much more sinister and organized. Sydney’s insider knowledge of the neighborhood and its homes puts her way out ahead of those who want to silence her, but she’ll need to learn who she can trust before it’s too late. This New York Times bestseller and Edgar Award winner is a must read. Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia I fell in love with the outspoken protagonist, Noemi, from page one. She presents as all glitz and glamor when Noemi parades around every fashionable cocktail party in town, but we get the sense that she’s got depth of spirit and resolve that hasn’t been put to good use in her sheltered life. That all changes when Noemi receives a frantic letter from her cousin saying that her husband is trying to kill her. Noemi storms off to High Place, her cousin’s newlywed home in the Mexican countryside. She isn’t there long before the house monopolizes her dreams, and she sees the warped practices of the inhabitants of High Place — but can she distinguish between what is real and what is not? With its secret rooms and creepy atmosphere, Noemi wants to escape the isolated mansion, but she cannot leave without the sickly cousin whom she came to rescue. This novel is a pitch-perfect Gothic adventure. Nightwatching by Tracy Sierra In a reversal of the norm, the house in Nightwatching represents comfort and safety while the danger and darkness comes from outside. The secrets of this New England antique colonial home are a godsend to the unnamed owner, a mother of two hiding from a cruel intruder looking to torment the family. Every creak, thump, and available crevice gives her an advantage, but as is so often the case in the battle of the genders, the deck is stacked against her. This Jimmy Fallon book club winner is the feminist thriller I had no idea I needed. I cannot recommend this read enough. The Only One Left by Riley Sager In this absolutely bonkers novel, we are offered the (fictional) story behind the unsolved (true) crime of the massacre of Lizzie Borden’s family. In Sager’s version, Lenora Hope was never convicted of a crime, but Lenora has been punished in other ways. She’s been confined to her home, aptly named Hope’s End, alone, with no family, for her entire life. She’s also a prisoner of her body after a series of strokes leaves her bedridden. When a new home health care worker enters the picture, Lenora is ready to reveal the truth about everything that went down in that house—all the while the structure precariously sits on a crumbling bluff, buckling under the weight of its secrets. Related tidbit: you can actually stay in the historic Lizzie Borden house in Massachusetts. Night of the Storm by Nishita Parekh The seed of the idea for Night of the Storm came to Parekh when she was trapped with her extended family at home in Houston during Hurricane Harvey. No one in her family ended up dead, but I can’t say the same for the fictional one in this locked-room mystery. We follow Jia Shah as she hunkers down at her sister’s fancy estate in Sugarland with her son and several generations of family. This novel delivers the mysterious dead body and rising tensions, but it is also a thriller with heart, including the challenges of divorce and single motherhood, as well as patriarchal issues and complicated family dynamics. *** View the full article
  14. Atmosphere is a hugely important part of crafting suspense fiction, conjuring mood and emotion for a reader and contributing to the reading experience in so many ways. The right atmosphere can fully immerse a reader in the world you’ve created, both toying with their emotions and helping them to feel exactly what your characters are experiencing—which in my novels, is usually trepidation or fear! For me, setting can play a key part in that immersion process. Vivid description and leaning into the sensory detail of a location can really make a reader feel the atmosphere on a visceral level, especially if the setting or landscape you are describing is something that is innately creepy. I like to focus on a few key elements and describe how my characters might feel about seeing them and bringing that experience alive to the reader. To effectively evoke an intense sense of atmosphere, I need to have spent a lot of time in the setting myself, absorbing the sights and the sounds, even the smells of the landscape. With every one of my novels, that immersion process has been key to creating the right atmosphere within my work. In my debut novel, The Sanatorium, I utilized not only the naturally atmospheric landscape of the Alps, but also the hotel in which the characters are staying in, a building that has been converted from an old, abandoned sanatorium. I lived in Switzerland, and still spend holidays there, so I really leant on my memories and experiences of being in the mountains, such as the brooding, often sinister feeling of the towering peaks themselves, and what it felt like to be caught in the midst of a ferocious snowstorm. To get the atmosphere right for the sanatorium building itself, I spent a lot of time studying the exterior of old sanatoriums— not just the cold, clinical, modernist architecture of the exterior, but the interiors too. I watched a lot of urban explorer videos, which gave me a sense of what it would be like to wander the abandoned corridors, see first-hand the discarded clinical ephemera. In writing the book, I drew on these videos and also on my scrapbooks. Scrapbooking is a key part of my writing process; an effortless way for me to refer back to important photographs and texts that have inspired my work. When I’m back at my desk, the scrapbook helps me instantly visualize the world I’m trying to conjure, a short-cut way to inhabit it almost as fully as if I were there. My second novel, The Retreat, is based in Devon, where I was born and brought up, and while it is a naturally atmospheric place, it’s also a beautiful one, which made the idea of creating a creepy atmosphere quite hard, but it was a challenge that I loved. I really like the idea of subverting what seems to be on the surface a beautiful place and creating a sense of darkness simmering away beneath the surface. I really lent on the atmosphere the coast has when the weather is wild and stormy, spending time near the island where the book is based, listening to the sound of the waves crashing against the rock, the seagulls screaming overhead and imagining the characters there and how they might feel. Again, this immersion brought some key aspects of the coast alive, particularly the overwhelming sense that the sea itself is so vast and unpredictable. I reflected this sense of chaos in not only the description and mood, but in the characters themselves, to create what I hope is a tense and unpredictable atmosphere. The Wilds, my new thriller, is set in a Portuguese National Park, and I spent several holidays there, losing myself in the vast wilderness of the park and imagining what it would be like to stay in a camper van, with only a thin wall separating you from might lurk be lurking outside. I wanted The Wilds to capture not only how wild and remote the park feels, but also the innate claustrophobia of living there from the confines of a camper van. I visited the park several times whilst writing the novel and each time, I came away with something new that helped me conjure the setting more evocatively in the novel, particularly the sensory detail of what it felt like to walk the deserted trails, how the trees and flora and fauna smelt, the slippery sensation of water covered rocks beneath my feet. To really capture those kind of details in my descriptions, I think carefully about using the right language to create a heightened sensation of awareness in the reader, as if they too, were walking alongside me in the landscape—what would they hear, see, smell? The words on the page themselves are so important in creating atmosphere and as I start to write, I think about the language in a more granular way, not only about the choice of words I use, but about varying the length of sentences and paragraphs, all of which can have a role in deciding the pace of the story and the sense of tension I’m trying to create. Simile and metaphor can also be powerful here; a way to dial up an image, help a reader make a quick association, particularly when I want to maintain pace in a scene. Characters themselves are also vital in creating a strong sense of atmosphere, their reactions and thoughts driving all kinds of emotions within readers, taking them along every part of the protagonist’s internal journey—whether the character is experiencing joy, anger, or even sheer terror. In all my novels, Detective Elin Warner describes clearly how she is feeling both directly to the reader and to other characters, something I hope that readers feel only adds to the atmosphere of a chapter or scene. In summary, I think atmosphere is an integral part of any thriller, but it can’t be created by pulling just one lever, it is something that needs to be considered at every stage of the writing process—from the planning stages when you are brainstorming settings, right through to line level edits when you are making choices on which would be the best word to describe something effectively. I want the reader to feel the atmosphere as something they know is there, but something that never feels awkward or forced, simply suffused into the very DNA of the book itself. *** View the full article
  15. “I am sorry that people are so brutal to one another when it takes so little to love one another.” –model Bani Yelverton On January 6th, 1970 electronics engineer Jack Froelich returned home to New York City after a two week vacation in Haiti. Coming from that sweltering country to the chill of Manhattan, where it was 20 degrees, must’ve been a shock to the system. At least soon he’d be in the warmth of his apartment. While away Froelich had lent the place to his friend Bani Yelverton, a 35-year-old trail-blazing Black model and jewelry maker who he’d known for six years. As a passing car blasted Diana Ross & the Supremes singing “Someday We’ll Be Together,” the last number one song of the sixties, overhead pigeons soared. Greeted by the uniformed doorman, Froelich boarded the elevator that soon moved him swiftly to the 11th floor. After opening the front door, a chill hit him. Perhaps there was a window open, he thought, but soon realized that someone had left the balcony door ajar. A few feet away, lying face down in the middle of the living-room floor was Yelverton’s corpse. With the exception of a pair of sheer panties pulled down to her ankles, she was nude. It was determined that her body had been there for nine days. According to the Amsterdam News, “Her throat had been slashed and there were blood stains on furniture, floors and walls had dried.” Doctor Elliot Gross, associated medical examiner who performed the autopsy, said Yelverton was stabbed in the neck several times before her throat was cut. The murder weapon was also found near the body. “A formidable blood stained knife with a 6-inch blade.” She was also raped, which the tabloids referred to as a “sex crime.” Court papers stated, “She had also been stabbed in four other places about her neck and head. Red ceramic particles were removed by the police from her scalp and clothing; in the apartment were found two ceramic flower pots, one broken in four pieces.” Lieutenant Walter Stone and Detective Charles Zambri questioned Froelich. “This is terrible,” he muttered. “She was such a wonderful woman.” 2017, forty-eight years after Bani Yelverton’s brutal murder, was the first time I’d heard about her when I was going through the online archives of my late godfather Hans Wolfgang Schwerin. I discovered he had saved various clippings about Yelverton, and I wanted to know more. I asked my mother Frances Gonzales, who had been friends with Uncle Hans, as I called him, from the late 1950s until his death in 1987. “Bani was his friend,” mom replied. “Hans was having a New Years Eve party that year and Bani was supposed to bring the deviled eggs, but she never showed-up. He was upset, but it wasn’t until the following week that he found out what happened.” Reading the yellowing clips brought to mind other notorious New York City homicides from the 1960s including the Career Girl Murders (1963) and Kitty Genovese (1964). Additionally, I was surprised that I’d never heard of Bani Yelverton before then. Not just because of the ghastly way her life ended, but for the strides she made in her career. At a time when being a “Negro” model meant segregation and less lucrative assignments, Yelverton was a sensation. At a time when even “Negro” magazines and newspapers used mostly light-skinned women, Yelverton’s brown skin shone through the hypocrisy. However, while the world knows about Black model triumphs made by Donyale Luna, Naomi Sims, Bethann Hardison, Pat Cleveland, Beverly Johnson and Iman, the name Bani Yelverton is practically unknown except by her family, old friends and brittle newspaper articles from fifty-four years ago. *** Born on March 11, 1932 Barbara Yelverton was a teenager living in Philadelphia in the early 1950s when she decided to leave home and head to New York City. Originally from Savannah, Georgia, her parents Beatrice and Aaron Yelverton moved east to be followers of Father Divine. The minister was the leader of the International Peace Missions and his devotees believed him to be a deity. Daddy Yelverton later became one of the preachers in Divine’s ministry. “Father Divine created a philosophy that merged elements of Catholicism, Pentecostalism, Methodism, and positive thinking,” stated a PBS article. “Father Divine’s followers believed that he embodied the Second Coming of Jesus Christ…but many in black America thought he was crazy like a fox.” Surely Yelverton’s folks tried to persuade her to stay, but Barbara’s mind was made up. Somewhere between the city of brotherly love and the wormy Big Apple, she changed her name to Bani and decided to become a model. Two hours later, with nothing but a few dollars and lots of ambition, she arrived in Manhattan. Maybe she stayed with friends, relatives or one of those hotels that catered to single women in the city, but eventually she found her way to Grace Del Marco Agency in Harlem. Founded and owned by glam entrepreneur Ophelia DeVore the agency/charm school was located at 271 West 125th Street and was well-known as a place for young Black women who wanted to model to get their start. Actresses Diahann Carroll and Cicely Tyson, began their careers and later taught there, and that was enough advertisement to get plenty of pretty customers through the door. Standing 5’6 in her bare feet, Yelverton had a distinctive brown skinned beauty, “svelte body” and haunting eyes that would later get her inside a few doors. Though mainstream fashion magazines such as Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Mademoiselle pretended as though white women were their only customers and consumers, Del Marco models were often featured in Ebony and Jet as well as local fashion shows in Harlem. In 1957 Yelverton appeared on the album cover New Orleans Blues recorded by Wilbur De Paris and Jimmy Witherspoon. Outside the walls of Del Marco, with the civil rights movement beginning to be publicized, it was only a matter of time before there was a better tomorrow for those women. It was the star fashion photographers who were the forward thinkers and wanted to work with Black models. Some might’ve thought that Black women would contribute eroticism to their shoots though others simply believed it was the right thing to do. Photographer Erwin Blumenfeld, though not as well known today as contemporaries Richard Avedon and Irving Penn, was one of those guys. A German-Jew who moved to New York City in 1941, Blumenfeld shot for Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, but it was his stunning shoot “Rage for Color” for Look magazine in October 15, 1958 that rocked the industry. Much like Life magazine, Look was a publication that relied mostly on photographs and eye-popping graphics. In Icons of Style: A Century of Fashion Photography by Paul Martineau, he wrote about the spread. “In 1958 Erwin Blumenfeld shot five models standing side by side in rainbow colors for a three-page foldout in Look magazine. The only nonwhite model in the group, Bani Yelverton, was positioned on the far right of the foldout, perhaps so that she could be easily removed by readers who disapproved.” Holding her head high, you could see the intensity and strength in Yelverton’s face that Blumenfeld captured perfectly. Photo book editor and journalist Sara Rosen says, “For Blumenfeld, commercial photography was a means, not an ends, to continue to experiment, explore, and expand the language of photography beyond the capitalist enterprise that subjugated it in the service of sales and marketing. He was uniquely poised to perceive the radical changes taking place in the United States during the 1950s as the political tides turned from the Red Scare to the Civil Right Movement. Recognizing the conceptual, aesthetic, and political limitations of the mainstream/state media, he continuously pushed the boundaries and reinvented the form, perhaps knowing how we see the world shapes how we think about it.” The Estate of Erwin Blumenfeld The brief bio of the “nonwhite model,” who was clad in a lavender Trigère dress, read: “Bani Yelverton is a minister’s daughter who models, sells jewelry in Greenwich Village and studies voice.” This was the era before models made millions, but there was speculation that Bani earned $40.00 an hour for that shoot, big money in those days. “Bani’s looks and personality embody the charms, sadness, compassion of a blues singer,” Erwin Blumenfeld said in 1958. Though he continued to work, on July, 1969 Blumenfeld died by apparent suicide. “In searing heat, the celebrated fashion photographer Erwin Blumenfeld ran up and down the Spanish Steps in Rome in a successful bid—so his family believes—to kill himself,” the Daily Beast reported in 2014. “The 71-year-old had not taken his heart medication, and he suffered a heart attack. He thought he had prostate problems, possibly cancer. By this time Blumenfeld’s career was also in free fall—astonishing, because during the 1940s and ‘50s he was one of the most celebrated and highly paid fashion photographers in the world, creating magazine covers and spreads that were works of art.” Twenty years later a power move like the Look shoot would’ve been the beginning of bigger things for model Bani Yelverton, but in 1958 the mainstream fashion world was still a hostile environment that imposed its own version of Jim Crow on their industry. The following year Yelverton appeared on the album cover of Gold Coast Saturday Night by Saka Acquaye & His African Ensemble as well as a modeling in the window of a Harlem department store. Under the heading “Most Daring Model of the Month,” New York Age columnist Clyde Reid wrote, “For three days one of the nation’s top sepia models adorned Blumstein’s window on West 125th Street in night demonstrations for a mattress. Incidentally, she looks lovely in bedroom slippers.” *** Like many young people who came to the big city of dreams with arty intentions, Yelverton had a few other jobs in addition to modeling. Some days she worked as a waitress at the Village Itch located at 518 Hudson Street and other times she was with jeweler/friend Phyllis Sklar, who owned the shop Phyllis Handwrought Jewelry located at 175 West 4th Street. Under Sklar’s guidance she learned how to craft custom jewelry and made a few pieces for friends. Though she lived in Brooklyn for a while, Yelverton liked to hang-out in Harlem, where she frequented Jock’s and the Red Rooster, and Greenwich Village, where she was a regular at the Rivera, Lion’s Head and Casey’s Bar at 142 West 10th Street. Casey’s bartender Henry Yee considered her a friend and also took Yelverton’s phone messages. I can imagine her sitting in a bar stool digging the music blasting from the jukebox while talking to people of all races, saying things like, “There is nothing that anyone has to make me envy that person,” or, “I live my life as I please and I harm no one.” Downtown and uptown, Yelverton had a chic clique of friends that included La Ma Ma founder Ellen Stewart, fellow model Dee Simmons, lawyer David Dinkins and comedian-actor Godfrey Cambridge. Some called her a “Black Holly Golightly,” and much like that fierce character from Truman Capote’s novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s, she had come to New York to reinvent herself and be fabulous. “Bani always said she loved beautiful things and beautiful people,” journalist Cathy Aldridge wrote in the Amsterdam News. Later she described Yelverton as “self motivated, knowing, but always searching.” Yet, she wasn’t always very revealing about herself and never brought anyone to her apartment. As one acquaintance noted, “She left people where she found them.” Maybe Yelverton didn’t invite people over, because she was ashamed of her neighborhood, the smallness of her apartment or the perception of danger she felt every time she was there. Yelverton was afraid to go to her own East Village building at 89 East 3rd Street where she had lived on the fourth floor since 1956 and paid $55.00 a month. The community was once a bohemian paradise where many artists, writers, jazz musicians and other oddballs lived. The Lower East Side neighborhood started changing in the mid-1960s when narcotics and menace took residence. Writer Eric Trules, who was a regular at the infamous jazz club Slugs’ down the street from Yelverton’s building, described the neighborhood as a “dangerous no man’s land of abandoned syringes and skulking, drug-lit dealers and desperados.” In December, 1970 New York Post reporter Rita Delfiner described Yelverton’s tenement: “The green entrance (wood) door has no handle. Some of the five story walk-ups (on the block) are deserted. Others are gated and the windows are smashed.” The journalist also interviewed friend and neighbor Virginia Thornburg, who was also the building’s super. “Bani would usually come home only during the day—by taxi,” Thornburg said. “She’d stay long enough to get some clothes, then walk to 1st Avenue and get another cab. There were gangs around here who took dope and they knocked the door down and made noise and she was afraid they’d go up to her apartment.” Thornburg also stated that Yelverton was having work done on her apartment and was hoping to return soon. Though Yelverton’s fear was rational, it’s still ironic that she was afraid inside the tenement, but would be killed in a luxury building. “Who killed her?” asked one newspaper columnist. “Who dared to break the chain of friendship which bound her to so many diverse people in this city? Was it a man who did it? A woman? A friend or stranger perhaps?” Two weeks before the alleged killer was arrested, there was a memorial service for Bani Yelverton at Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village. Days before the young woman’s body was cremated, but that didn’t stop hundreds of people from turning out for a last chance to say goodbye to that vibrant woman they loved so much. *** While Yelverton was house-sitting for Jack Froelich over the Christmas holiday, she allowed friend Robert W. Johnson to stay at her two-room flat. Johnson was the 46-year-old owner of the Village Itch, the restaurant where Yelverton occasionally worked. Johnson had recently separated from his from his wife and had no place to live. In addition, according to police, he was also the last person to see Yelverton alive. “She had worked at the restaurant on Saturday, December 27 and they left together early in the morning on December 28,” court papers documented. “They shared a cab as far as Sixth Avenue and he continued on to the East Third Street apartment alone; and that, he claimed, was the last time he saw her.” On January, 16, 1970 Johnson was arrested and arraigned for the murder. “Plaintiff identified a pair of shoes taken from Miss Yelverton’s East Third Street apartment as his,” the court papers continued. “The Medical Examiner had previously examined those shoes and found red ceramic particles in their soles. The Examiner determined that those particles were similar to the particles removed from the scalp of the victim and also similar to the particles removed from the bathroom at the scene of the crime in Washington Square Village.” Johnson also failed a lie detector test. “We add that plaintiff’s testimony at trial was weak, shabby and totally unconvincing.” A month later the grand jury did not indict him, and on February 17, 1970, the charges against Johnson were dismissed and he was released. He subsequently sued the city. No one else was ever arrested for the murder of Bani Yelverton. ___________________________________ Thanks to my friends Roger Chesley and Keith Roysdon for their help with research. View the full article
  16. With her first two novels, Margot Douaihy has created one of the most memorable characters in contemporary crime fiction. In Scorched Grace and Blessed Water, her tattooed, punk rock nun/private investigator, Sister Holiday, solves crimes while following her vocation in the troubled, magnolia-scented streets of New Orleans. One of the things I love most about her novels is the way they draw on the tropes of classic crime fiction while creating something that is inarguably new. Recently I had a chance to talk to her about another crime fiction original, Patricia Highsmith, and one of her lesser-known novels, Edith’s Diary. To fans of the Ripley novels and Strangers on a Train, Edith’s Diary may seem like an anomaly: an understated story of a woman who moves from New York to small-town Pennsylvania and gradually finds herself split between two lives—her real one and the one she’s created in her increasingly fictional diary entries. As Douiahy and I discussed, the quietness on the surface of this novel slowly reveals itself to be a cover for the violence that close family members can enact upon each other. Is Edith’s Diary your favorite of Highsmith’s novels? I’d say Edith’s Diary and Strangers on a Train are neck and neck, but if I had to choose, I’d choose Edith’s Diary for the disturbing and riveting qualities that I keep coming back to. We feel so much empathy for the characters here—not that we don’t have empathy for Bruno and Guy in Strangers on a Train. But what I’m totally mesmerized by in this novel is what Highsmith can do with the inner ecology of Edith’s character, and how she layers it structurally with the first person and third person. We experience it along with her as she becomes gradually more unmoored from reality and retreats into this completely distorted and contorted world. Something about it has the materiality of real life. I could see it happening, even though in a sense it’s so wild and extreme. And we have the experience of being completely unsettled, not knowing what’s going to happen next, which I think is the very definition of suspense. When we were emailing earlier, you said that you saw this novel as a precursor to modern domestic suspense. I thought that was so interesting, because I don’t think Highsmith is often mentioned as one of the precursors in that genre. I think when people think of Highsmith, they think of Strangers on the Train or the plot twists of the Ripley novels, which are endlessly ripe for adaptation. There’s a new Ripley adaptation on Netflix, which is fascinating and has a lot of fidelity to the original texts. Of course a lot of people have also seen Carol, which is an adaptation of Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, beautifully directed by Todd Haynes. But I think Highsmith should get so much more credit for laying the groundwork for the explosion of domestic noir, because she really was one of the forerunners. In Edith’s Diary, she’s showing us that the crime in this crime story is domestic life. It’s marriage and the pressures of the patriarchy. It’s pleasing her husband, taking care of Uncle George, and then the car wreck of Cliffie and his completely unhinged, somewhat monstrously unpredictable behavior. The domestic space is the crime scene. The novel was published in 1977, so she’s looking at some of these questions about societal change, the roles of women, what’s expected of a mom and of a caretaker. Then with the diaries, she’s giving space to these intimate and distorted narrative spaces. Edith can’t even be honest with herself in those spaces, and it shows the level of malady and hurt and pain that she can’t even face. The elements of what we love about domestic thrillers and domestic noir are prefigured in this book. I’m always trying to promote it, because I think it’s a groundbreaking text. I’d never thought about it as a psychological thiller, but of course Highsmith wasn’t beholden to any of the genre expectations we have now. I think that’s one of the reasons why the novel still feels so fresh. I think that’s such an incisive point. I mean, what’s the inciting incident of the of this book? Is it when Edith is born? Is it her marriage? Is it Cliffie’s birth? It really keeps so much room open for reader collusion, reader inference, and asking questions about why we tell ourselves the stories that we do. I’m embarrassed to admit that this is the first novel I’ve ever read by Highsmith. (One reason I started this series was because I realized that I was woefully underread in the crime fiction classics.) Based on what I know of her work, however, this novel seems atypical. Do you know much about the composition of this novel or what led her to this character? I don’t. I’m such a Highsmith stan that I’ve stayed away from her biographies, because I’d rather not know too much about an author I really love. I’ve read a few of her diary entries, which was interesting in terms of the context of this novel. She was a bit of a thorny personality, and there are certainly problematic areas, but I admit that I don’t actually know much about her as a person. Her work has been such a refuge for me that I just kind of try to keep it pure. However, some readers might see echoes of Highsmith’s own extremist views in the novel. As Edith’s mental health declines, she expresses some strange opinions, and it’s not entirely clear whether the reader is supposed to take them seriously. The characters in this novel very much have a political consciousness, especially Edith and her best friend Gert, who run a progressive newspaper together called The Bugle. When her friends and family begin telling her that she’s acting strangely, Edith often says something like, “Why are you worrying about me when such terrible things are happening in the world?” It’s interesting how that state of mind has lasted, even when so much else has changed. Absolutely. There are different schools of thought about whether crime fiction is or should be a space for polemics, or whether it’s just a story of a crime. I think that debate is important, because it gives us a lot of aesthetic variation and diversity of content. I personally think that crime stories are ideal places to examine questions of power. Edith struggles with the question of whether to look for meaning in her experience or to bury her head in the sand, and that tension ripples through this book. Edith’s exploitation at the hands of her husband and son is arguably a crime, but the only violent crime comes late in the story and is somewhat ambiguous, to both Edith and the reader. There’s almost a network of crime within the novel. There’s the death of Uncle George, but I think the more interesting part of it is the investigation of marriage and motherhood. We don’t have some of the classic signifiers that we have, for instance, with Strangers on a Train. The crime is Edith not having a sense of agency, not being able to speak up and have full ownership of her own life. When we see her drinking too much, and the lies and the duplicity, I think they’re all interconnected with the broken system that she’s a part of it. It’s broken on the macro level, and she’s broken on the micro level. Earlier you characterized Edith’s son Cliffie as “monstrous.” He’s definitely the least likeable character in the book, but even he has his moments of humanity in the final moments of the novel, when he finds his dead mother’s diary and vows to “carry it around with him, hidden” for the rest of his life. What did you think of Cliffie as a character? I think Cliffie goes to show that in these rigid systems, everybody pays a price. There are so many moments when the reader can invest very deeply in Cliffie. What Highsmith does across her texts is create characters with so much nuance, and so much so many contours and crevasses, that we get to access the deep dark recesses of the brain. And then we can also see sometimes why characters are set upon a path of either destruction or self-destruction, or both. And I think we could see that within Cliffie. Giving him that space at the end is really strategic, and quite gutting. It’s interesting what you say about how this system hurts everyone. The reader has a feeling that this toxic suburban environment has pushed him as well as his mother into a role that he doesn’t really fit. There’s this one moment where he walks into Edith’s sculpture studio, where she’s been working on a bust of him that makes him look very handsome, and he thinks, “Maybe his mother liked him after all.” Yes, and for me that bust really underscores the power of symbolism. Highsmith is known for the austerity of her prose on the line level, and she’s certainly not one for a flourish. But you can see the thematic development and the symbolic weight of that bust. She’s created this false idol, and then it contributes to her demise. I hardly ever talk about endings in this series, because I don’t want to spoil them for people who might pick up the book, but I think it’s justified here. When I got to Edith’s death, I thought, “Oh, Highsmith didn’t know how to end it. She didn’t know what to do with Edith, so she just had her break her neck falling down the stairs.” But what you’re saying about the symbolism makes so much sense. Yes, it’s a literal and a metaphorical descent, and that’s so typical of noir. When I think of noir, I think that all the characters are fallen—sometimes literally, as in this case. And everyone’s compromised. You don’t know who to trust, and suspicion keeps turning. Labels aren’t always important, but to me this is so clearly a domestic noir. All the signs right there, especially with the end and the actual descent into the abyss. How would you define noir? It can be so agile as a category. With something like Strangers on a Train, there’s an investigator, but it’s more about the texture of descent, as well as the psychological question of why people make these bad choices. Noir to me is all about humans giving in to their worst impulses and why. I could say so much more about it, but those are my favorite signatures. You mentioned the drinking, which definitely stood out to me as well. The characters almost always have a drink in their hand, and I guess I read it as being typical of texts set in the Sixties or early Seventies, but did you see it playing a more significant role in terms of plot or theme? I do. There is a lot of drinking, and it seems to serve as both a release valve and a coping mechanism, but then it’s also a trap. The characters are a little foggy and confused a lot of the time, and you can see that as part of the disorientation and destabilization that progresses throughout the novel. Of course it’s there as part of the culture as well, but that’s typical of so many things in this novel. They’re personal on one level, and societal on another. I don’t think I’d recognized how deeply skillful and thought-out a lot of these elements are. She’s critiquing her own period in a way that I don’t see in a lot of mid-century American writers. Can you talk at all about whether this novel influenced your work? And if so, in what way? On the craft level, it’s really inspired me. It’s very subtle, and even though that’s not my style, I’ve studied it very closely for how she managed to achieve those effects. I was just reading the back jacket again, and it’s interesting that the New Yorker called it “Highsmith’s strongest, her most imaginative, and by far her most substantial novel.” If we think of stories as these linear temporal phenomena, where we have to read one line in order to read the next line, I think this book is a fascinating case study in how subtlety and a slow burn can build to a devastating effect through very subtle choices. There’s ambiguity, room for inference, room for haunting, and it’s also just kind of a ripper. I don’t think you can read this book and not feel something. I think it’s quite an achievement on various levels. As you were saying, your style is very different. I think of your work as much more maximalist. But I love aesthetic variation. And I love when people do their thing and then double-down or triple-down on it. If it’s going to be a slow burn psychological thriller, make it the slowest, burniest, most psychological thriller it can be, and plant your flag there. The commitment of this book is just incredible to me. Also I think there’s a lot of beauty and generative power in the shadowy places, as paradoxical as that sounds. That’s what I love about crime fiction. View the full article
  17. Forget quaint cottage gardens and picturesque trails—sometimes, Mother Nature has murder on her mind. Growing up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Pennsylvania, I learned firsthand that the great outdoors isn’t just something to admire from afar. When you spend as much time as I did nibbling on sassafras leaves, watching out for copperheads, and dodging poison ivy, you realize nature has its own agenda. In my novel, Smothermoss, I explore how an Appalachian mountain becomes both the collateral damage of a crime and ultimately an instrument of justice. This got me thinking about other works that juxtapose their examination of human wrongdoing with the raw power of nature. One thing I love about many crime and mystery stories is how setting often plays a crucial role in creating atmosphere. But the books on this list go beyond using nature as mere scenery. Here, forests conceal bodies, the sea lures and mesmerizes, and violence enacted on the land is echoed in its people. As you dive into these stories, you’ll find yourself questioning whether nature is ever truly neutral, or if it can be bent to serve the will of those with malicious intent—or even opt in on the side of justice. These five novels showcase how the natural world can become entangled in human crimes, blurring the lines between victim, accomplice, and perpetrator. The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex Based on the real-life Eilean Mor lighthouse mystery, this novel transforms a lonely rock in the sea into the stage for a locked-room puzzle. When a relief boat arrives at a lighthouse in the North Atlantic after a prolonged storm, all three keepers have vanished—leaving the door barred, an uneaten meal prepared on the table, and all the clocks stopped at a quarter to nine. The harsh conditions of lighthouse life mingle with hints of the supernatural, immersing readers in a world of freezing water, squelching seaweed, hurricane winds and “nothing for miles except sea and sea and sea.” Were the men driven mad by isolation and the relentless pounding of the waves? Did they kill each other or commit mutual suicide? Were they murdered by pirates, kidnapped by smugglers, or seduced by the sea itself into throwing themselves into her watery embrace? The Night Flowers by Sara Herchenroether Just before a lost hiker stumbles upon the remains of three murder victims stuffed into barrels and hidden in a remote brush-covered canyon in New Mexico’s Gila National Forest, he “had the distinct impression of being pulled from below. That invisible hands gripped him, dragging him into the canyon.” He wonders, too, if it was only coincidence that one half of this mountain was a charred wasteland, while the other remained “dark, tangled, and wild.” At night, as he and his twisted ankle wait for rescue, the smell of absent flowers fill the air. Thirty years later, Laura begins to research the cold case as a distraction from her cancer treatment. What is cancer if not biology run amok? Laura’s struggle to escape her own body’s betrayal unexpectedly mirrors the killer’s need to control nature (which we glimpse in his meticulous gardening.) A great read for considering how human attempts to tame the world around us—and within us—can lead to both salvation and destruction. Blood Sisters by Vanessa Lillie Syd Walker, a Cherokee archaeologist for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, is suddenly pulled back to her rural Oklahoma roots when a chilling discovery is made in a tree near her childhood home: a skull with Syd’s badge stuffed in its mouth. Returning to Picher, a town ravaged by decades of unchecked lead and zinc mining and now one of America’s most toxic sites, Syd finds herself entangled in a web of personal and environmental tragedy as she learns her sister has vanished. Syd soon unearths a sinister trail of addiction, smuggling, and exploitation. Accompanied by the ghost of her murdered childhood friend whispering in her ear, Syd peels back layers of lawlessness and land grabs, exposing the brutal legacy of crimes committed against both the land and its Native American owners. As the epigraph puts it: “What happens to the land happens to the women.” A Spectral Hue by Craig Gidney Set in the enigmatic town of Shimmer, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, this slim novel blends art, nature, and magic into a tapestry as vibrant as the “ugly” quilt stitched by the town’s most famous resident, Hazel Whitby, weaving a hypnotic tale where the very landscape is alive with secrets. At the heart of the story is a mysterious pinkish-purple hue that pulses through the natural world, infusing the marsh grasses, the sunset-stained clouds, and the artwork of generations of Black artists. Though not a mystery in the traditional sense, there is crime here, and grave wrongs perpetrated over generations. A mix of ghost story, folklore, and magical realism, the mystery at the heart of Shimmer delves into complexities of identity, history, and artistic expression. Who or what is the mysterious presence in the marsh? Is she a force for creative inspiration or the cause of madness and suffering? Is she gift or curse? This one I can’t fully explain. You’ll just have to read it for yourself. Shutter by Ramona Emerson Rita Todacheene is a crime scene photographer with a unique gift – she can see ghosts. As she navigates the freezing winter streets of Albuquerque and the wind-scoured mesas of the Navajo Nation, the spirits of the dead are as much a part of the scenery for her as the wild horses running in the wash below her grandmother’s house. While the ghosts harass Rita into following-up on a series of crimes that eventually puts her in the crosshairs of a dirty cop who’s on the take from a powerful drug cartel, alternate chapters showcase Rita’s connection to her childhood home on the reservation, picking Navajo tea or collecting piñon seeds in the Chuska Mountains with her grandmother, balancing the violence she documents and the unhappy ghosts that clamor for her attention. Shutter isn’t just a crime novel, it’s an exploration of how nature, tradition, and the unseen world intersect. *** Alisa Alering is the author of the debut novel Smothermoss (Tin House). View the full article
  18. We all know the primary focus of a novel is the main protagonist(s), but sometimes the most memorable personalities in the book are the scene-stealing sidekicks. Some of the funniest characters are the secondary ones who sometimes shine brighter and make more of a lasting mark than the hero or heroine. My favorite books are Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series. And as much as I love Stephanie, the bungling bounty hunter who keeps her gun in her cookie jar, and Joe Morelli and Ranger, her scorching hot love interests, it’s Lula and Grandma Mazur, with their madcap hijinks and deadpan one-liners, who usually make me laugh the hardest. This is true in film as well. Think of how much we love Donkey in Shrek, how some of the best lines in Guardians of the Galaxy are delivered by Drax and Rocket, and Melissa McCarthy absolutely stole the show in Bridesmaids. I almost died laughing when she took home all those puppies. The role of secondary characters is not always to make us laugh. Samwise Gamgee showed us the value of friendship, and Luna Lovegood’s warmth and charm taught us about accepting others, and ourselves, for we are. And where would Sherlock be without his steadfast and loyal Dr. Watson? Secondary characters are often critical to the story. They can play a key role in the main character’s growth. They often support the main character but can also add conflict if they disagree with the protagonist’s choices or decisions. And the secondary characters are also the ones who can convey critical information about the story to the reader. As a writer, I try to create my secondary characters from real people I know or from actual experiences I’ve had. I was very close to both my grandmothers, and they were both funny women full of spit and vinegar with huge hearts and witty charm. So, some of my favorite side characters to write are sassy, spunky little old ladies. In my Page Turners cozy mystery series, Edna Allen is the eighty-something member of the mystery-solving book club, and she is often the one who comes up with the most harebrained schemes and crazy plans, like when she convinces the book club to go undercover at a biker bar to investigate some counterfeiters in Tangled Up in Tuesday or when they dress in costume to infiltrate Comic Con in Easy Like Sunday Mourning. I believe in the value of friendship and treasure my female friends. They are the ones who support us, listen to us, cry with us, and make us laugh until our cheeks hurt. So, I always try to show the importance of friendship, especially among women, in my books. But my characters also get into some of their stickiest and most hilarious situations with those friends. In my newest Bee Keeping cozy mystery, Kill or Bee Killed, mystery writer, Bailey Briggs finds herself trying to solve a murder after her best friend, Evie, becomes the prime suspect. But Evie is also the one who she finds herself in the goofiest situations with. And there is no shortage of spunky old ladies in this series either, from Bailey’s grandmother, Granny Bee, to her great aunts, Aster and Marigold, and the rest of The Hive, Granny Bee’s book club and posse. And I put them all in the funniest circumstances. During the local bee festival, Evie is participating in a restaurant bake-off, the great aunts have entered the beauty pageant, and half the town shows up wearing bear suits to take part in the annual 3K Bear Run. Scene-stealing sidekicks can also come in the form of furry friends, like the lovable and loyal golden retriever, Cooper, who is introduced in Take the Honey and Run, the first book in my Bee Keeping mystery series. Or Chewy, the furniture-eating hairy beast of a dog in Easy Like Sunday Mourning. And if you like romance, you have to meet Otis, Tiny, and Shamus, the ornery goat, fashion-conscious pig, and mini horse who steal every scene they’re in, in my Creedence Horse Rescue series. Sidekicks can steal a scene through witty one-liners or wacky predicaments. They are special and interesting and can surprise the reader and make a story hard to put down. They can be a friend, a sibling, a love interest, an assistant, or even someone in the community. One of my favorite side characters in the Bee Keeping series is Dr. Leon Foster, the local medical examiner, who has a rare and witty sense of humor when it comes to his job, as evidenced by the first time he meets my heroine, Bailey, and he invites her to come down to the morgue to talk shop while they ‘crack open a cold one’. I absolutely love creating scene-stealing sidekicks, and I hope readers love meeting the characters and the community of Humble Hills in my new book, Kill or Bee Killed. I want readers to feel like visiting Bailey and Granny Bee and the Hive is like visiting old friends, and I want them to feel part of the love and friendship these women have for each other. I hope readers fall in love with some of my other scene-stealing sidekicks, like the handsome sheriff, Sawyer Dunn, who was Bailey’s first love, Leon Foster, the kooky coroner, and Spike Larson, the burly biker bar owner who has a heart of gold and loves making cupcakes with his grandma. *** View the full article
  19. What is it that draws us to destinations unknown? That compels us to explore and discover new places? There’s something so alluring about taking that leap out of our comfort zone, about traveling to unfamiliar locations far and wide, even if only within the pages of a book. There’s a reason why destination thrillers are becoming increasingly popular. Perhaps it’s the escapism they offer— allowing readers to experience the new and different from the comfort and safety of their favorite reading nooks. Or perhaps, it’s the added element of suspense that layers these far-flung mysteries. Here, the setting is more than just a backdrop to the plot line. It can sometimes feel as though it takes on a life of its own, becoming a character in its own right, so prevalent is it in the outcome of the story as we watch our main character grapple not only with the conflict that centers the plot, but also with the element of the unknown. But maybe our love for jet-setting thrillers derives from something darker. After all, these stories bring us to some of the most idyllic places in the world, and we wait with baited breath to watch them burn. There’s something about the imagining of wanderlust turned on its head— a dream transformed into a nightmare— that draws us in like a moth to the flame. The intriguing, and inherently unsettling, juxtaposition of a white sandy beach soaked in blood, an ethereal seaside mansion concealing a violent death. Perhaps the thrill in these thrillers is rooted in the suggestion that no where is safe. That danger can find us even in the most beautiful of places. In writing my latest thriller, The Perfect Sister, this was something I wanted to explore as Alex Walker journeys to the glittering and exclusive shores of the Hamptons in search of her missing sister. But Alex soon finds that a life of luxury isn’t always what it seems as she uncovers a wealth of secrets worth killing for. Ready to dive into your next destination thriller? Here are some of my personal favorites: The Guest List Lucy Foley The Guest List is perhaps my favorite destination thriller of all time. This delectable story takes us to a remote island off the coast of Ireland, accessible only by boat, for the wedding of two affluent guests. What could possibly go wrong, right? Foley’s vivid descriptions of the wild and untamed natural island will make you feel like you’ve earned a coveted spot on the guest list. But best of luck to you when the tides start to turn. . . One Perfect Couple Ruth Ware In this story, Ware takes us to a remote, luxury island, a twenty-hour boat ride off the coast of Indonesia, with Lyla and her actor boyfriend as they compete in a new reality dating show aimed at determining who is the most compatible couple on the island. But when a bad storm turns the would-be-paradise into the travelers’ worst nightmare, the stakes suddenly become much higher than deciding who will make the perfect couple— now, they’re fighting for their lives. I could so easily picture the storm strewn island, the fallen palm trees, the gorgeous five-star resort turned to ruin. It was the ideal setting for Ware’s latest thriller. The Villa Rachel Hawkins Join best friends, Emily and Chess, on a girls trip to Italy. You’ll be staying in Villa Aestas in Orvieto, a high-end vacation home with a deadly legacy. I loved the gorgeous, dreamy setting in this one, which clashed perfectly against sinister secrets of the house’s past. Something in the Water Catherine Steadman Erin and Mark are on their dream honeymoon in Bora Bora. Picture private villas, crystal-clear waters, scuba diving excursions to exotic reefs. Until they find something floating in the water that will change their lives forever. Only, there’s no way to tell if that will be for better or worse. *** View the full article
  20. Who doesn’t love Ian Fleming’s James Bond? Most professional intelligent officers, as it turns out. Oh, we don’t hate him, but I’d say that, at best, we have a love-hate relationship with him. It tickles us that the public thinks we could be that suave and charming, that physically competent (running for miles without vomiting! Swinging from construction girders like a chimpanzee!) and mentally focused. We know that the truth is nothing like what you see on the big screen. My view is doubly tainted because in addition to working my entire adult life for the likes of CIA and NSA, I also write spy stories. I’ll admit that after I wrote my first spy novel in 2021, Red Widow, it was hard not to be resentful or jealous of the James Bond character’s great popularity. Which is why I wrote The Spy Who Vanished. Yuri Kozlov is Russia’s top spy, their James Bond. So, when he decides to defect to the CIA after Putin invades Ukraine, it’s too good for the Agency to pass up, even though the offer has “danger” written all over it. As it turns out, they were right to worry because—spoiler alert—Kozlov is a double agent, a ploy dreamed up by Putin after being embarrassed by the numbers of Russian agents turning to the West. But even as Kozlov is executing his mission at a CIA safehouse in the Virginia countryside, he has doubts. He doesn’t trust that Russia really has his back—if it ever did. Writing The Spy Who Vanished allowed me to work out my confliction from inside the mind of a Bond doppelganger, and it was an enlightening experience. I was able to explore what makes Bond iconic. What was it like to be him, especially in the twilight of his career. What would be more important to him, his regrets or his triumphs? Ultimately, the story examines the profession of espionage as a whole. What is it that makes it different from all other professions? What sacrifices does it demand of its practitioners? How does it change you as a person? What does it do to your soul after so many years and so many kills? How does James Bond rate as a spy? Well, in my opinion, what you see on the screen is often the antithesis of good intelligence work. The main job for real life operations officers is persuading foreigners with access to the secrets you need to part with those secrets, usually for money or because of ideology. The average case officer is not an assassin or saboteur, sent out into the world with a license to kill. An assassination, however, is easy for film audiences to grasp and retain amid the whirlwind of travel, romancing, and chase scenes on the screen. The real job is a team sport, though you wouldn’t know it from Bond movies. While there is often a leggy female sidekick and Q providing a few gadgets, Bond operates more or less on his own. This is not the case in real life, where the work increasingly relies on a mix of skills, particularly technical specialties. It is less and less about the lone wolf. To be brutally honest, it’s hard not to see James Bond as fantasy fulfillment. A life with no messy connections or commitments, where you’re simply given a pile of cash, a gun, and a plane ticket. A life where there are few if any consequences (the Daniel Craig Bond movies aside). Fantasy is fine, but it has its place. You can’t claim to be an advocate for, or interested in, the intelligence business if you ignore its reality. I’m not alone in my reservations: even MI6 acknowledged the double-edged nature of England’s most famous spy in a 2021 Twitter campaign #ForgetJamesBond. While former chiefs of MI6 have acknowledged that Bond is “a great recruiting tool” and a “powerful brand”, it’s also been a diversity-killer, particularly when it comes to convincing women to join the service. A one-time head of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service cited Bond’s ego and narcissism that would make him difficult to work with. One of the greater dangers, however, is that the public will mistake what is seen on the screen for what intelligence agencies can do in real life, and yet this happens. In Amy Zegart’s excellent book, “Spies, Lies, and Algorithms”, the Stanford professor cites examples of congressional aides and military commanders admitting that they looked to “spytainment” like the show 24 to design operational missions. As a matter of fact, she got the idea for her book when she saw how little her own students knew about real intelligence work. Zegart’s shock is something intelligence professionals deal with every day, whether from neighbors reacting to newspaper headlines or people gushing over the latest streaming spy show. That’s not how it works, we mutter to ourselves through gritted teeth. Let’s hear it for real-life intelligence professionals. We may not look as good in a tuxedo or swimsuit but, on the whole, we’re more thoughtful, law-abiding, and professional than James Bond any day. *** Alma Katsu’s latest espionage story, The Spy Who Vanished, is an Amazon Original Story available on Kindle and Audible. Note on terminology: While the term “spy” is commonly used to mean someone working in this field, technically it refers to the person, usually a foreigner, who has been recruited by an intelligence service, also known as an asset. Intelligence professionals—those employed by a national intelligence service—are typically referred to as “officers”. View the full article
  21. Down on the East Side, far from the Broadway of Arnold Rothstein’s New York, Lillian Lieben and Antonia Rolnick lived on “Jewish Broadway,” or Grand Street. Back in 1900, the New York Tribune wrote that “Grand Street is Broadway plus Fifth Avenue, only very much more so. Its wide sidewalks show more fashion to the square foot on a Sunday than any other part of the city.” By 1910 the population had multiplied and the neighborhood was more seedy. The clothing shops shared the thoroughfare with casinos, saloons, and “coaling stations” where nafkes, prostitutes, could refuel with coffee and cake at three a.m. Lillian and Antonia were both Russian-Jewish immigrants from the Pale of Settlement, but Lily, with her blond ringlets and peach complexion, looked more French than Russian. Antonia, who went by Tony, was traditional: full crimson lips framed by masses of black hair. Whereas Lily arrived from the Pale in 1897, at the age of three, with her family intact, Tony came over in 1906, at thirteen, with only her father, after narrowly surviving that year’s pogrom in Bialystok. In New York, Tony spoke English haltingly, unable to pronounce sounds like th or ing. Cloth came out as clot, singing as sin-gin. Struggling to adapt, she compensated with grit. At P.S. 20, when gang girls bullied them and pulled Lily’s flaxen curls, Tony attacked, never hesitating to strengthen an argument with a blow. This brassiness earned her a nickname: “Tony the Tough.” In the afternoons they begged pennies from Lily’s mother, a dressmaker, and hung out in one of the many candy stores, or “cheap charlies,” that dotted the East Side. Over frozen tortonis served in fluted cups, the girls traded dreams. Lily wanted a family. Tony wanted to dance like Isadora Duncan and act in movies. Soon, however, these ambitions gave way to reality. Both girls dropped out of P.S. 20 in 8th grade and joined New York’s garment industry, whose workforce was more than 70% female and comprised mostly of teenagers. Lily worked in a millinery factory, making artificial flowers and fashioning feathers for one of the prewar era’s more emblematic accessories, its gigantic hats. For her part Tony labored in a laundry, working the foot-operated iron presses, a job akin to climbing steep stairs all day while holding a pipe above your head. Her legs rippled with muscle. Her arms were always covered in burns. * During the first decade of the 20th century the city’s Jewish garment industry matured. As “skyscrapers” went up each week to create new factory space and house the increasing number of corporations headquartered in lower Manhattan, the old tenement sweatshops moved into street-level storefronts and large lofts. This transformation created efficiencies, and by 1910 New York manufacturers produced 80% of all clothing worn in the U.S. But even as the infrastructure of the business evolved, labor law didn’t catch up, and working conditions remained much the same as they’d been in the late nineteenth century, or worse: More immigrants meant more competition for jobs, and this dynamic helped strengthen a conviction among employers that labor should be cheap and disposable, per the law of the marketplace. Employees worked eighty-hour weeks without a minimum wage or safety regulations. And garment work was still seasonal, which meant that there was no guarantee of steady employment in the “slack season,” the cold winter months. As a result, the Russian-Jewish girls who supplied most of the industry’s workforce perceived prostitution as a pit that always loomed, a fate they were constantly trying to avoid. “The danger of corruption,” as one female researcher of the era wrote, “is more intimately connected with Jewish girls than with Irish or Italian. The Jewish girl, while perhaps not personally so proud as the Irish, is in many ways more ambitious and purposive. She desires to have all that the world offers. This purposive characteristic, so noble if devoted to high ends, and so dangerous if directed to pleasure alone, is seen more evidently in the Jewish girl than in any other.” Of the nobler kind, several East Side daughters became famous for their visionary leadership. In 1908, the New York Times called Pauline Newman “the East Side Joan of Arc ” when the nineteen- year- old led the largest rent strike the city had ever seen, leading to the establishment of rent controls. The following year, Newman joined fellow activists Clara Lemlich and Rose Schneiderman to help inspire the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike. Among the 30,000 who joined that strike, many were of the sort who supported themselves on five dollars a week, wearing spring jackets through winter and renewing old hats with a bit of ribbon. Many lived alone and rented a “half sheet,” a shared bed, in someone else’s apartment. Whether battered by thugs whom manufacturers hired to break up picket lines, or arrested and sent to the workhouse, their enthusiasm for striking only grew with their hardship. The Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike was a cause célèbre, the first garment strike to win broad public support. The Russian-Jewish girls galvanized both the wealthy suffragettes uptown, who looked at the strikers and found their own movement wanting, as well as their native-born working-class colleagues. “It’s a good thing, this strike is; it makes you feel like a real grownup person,” wrote a Russian-Jewish immigrant named Theresa Malkiel in The Diary of a Shirtwaist Striker, a novel that Malkiel wrote from the perspective of a native-born garment worker who is inspired by her immigrant colleagues to join the fight for labor rights. “But I wish I’d feel about it like them Jew girls do. Why, their eyes flash fire as soon as they commence to talk about the strike — and the lot of talk they can put up…” One could only speculate as to what made “them Jew girls” special, particularly given that Eastern European immigrants were not a physically advantaged race. The shortest and skinniest of all European arrivals, they were cursed with anemia and poor musculature. But they also came with advantages. Their leadership in New York’s labor movement could be attributed to a background of labor fights in Russia. Their durability derived from a culture in which daughters did double duty as wage earners and mother’s helpers so that their brothers could study. Certainly, they were motivated by the opportunity that America offered. In this new ghetto, they might have labored to stand upright (spinal curvature) or to breathe through inflamed pathways (rhinitis, bronchitis). They might have scratched themselves raw from ringworm and dust-induced skin ailments (“baker’s itch”). They might have choked down their vegetable-free diet of bread and herring with defective teeth, and endured the dull misery of chronic constipation. But here, in a place they called “Dollar Land,” at least no one was literally trying to murder them, and this freed them up to take their own elevation in hand. East Side girls of this generation could hardly hope to go to college, as their brothers were now doing, but that didn’t stop them from putting aside something of their meager earnings for theatergoing and membership in the Jewish Girls’ Self-Education Society, where, for a fee of one dollar a month, they read Gorky, Hugo, and Tolstoy. At night, in Manhattan, dark desertion characterized the Upper West Side, where Irish girls worked as domestic servants and feared going out, as well as the Lower West Side and Little Italy, where, per custom, unmarried Italian daughters were kept at home. “On the East Side, below 14th Street and beyond Broadway, in contrast, the streets at night are ablaze with light and gay activity,” wrote Mary Van Kleeck in Working Girls in Evening Schools, a survey of the city’s burgeoning night school scene for young women seeking to advance. “We seem here to be in another city. Open shops line the way; noisy voices of push-cart peddlers cry their wares; and men, women, and babies crowd the sidewalk. In this neighborhood the evening schools flourish,” observed Van Kleeck, who found that more Jewish girls, those eighteen or younger, attended night school than all of the city’s native-born females combined. And yet: Despite the presence of such girls in the East Side immigrant population, the ones kept straight by a higher purpose or some positive force, there were others, perhaps most, who were too normal not to seek respite from the monotony of the factory, too vital and spirited to pass up the seductive pleasures of Dollar Land. While their brothers lit bonfires, rolled dice, and played cards, the girls gathered around street organs, stepping and swaying to the music, and thronged East Side dance halls. Some of these places were branded as dance schools. Some were open during the lunch hour to lure pale-faced factory girls, who, once inside, were invited into the bathroom by older girls and treated to free makeovers and dresses. Other dance venues were rentable arenas where underworld figures arranged “rackets,” or dances, advertising: Dollar Admission! Dames for nothing! In Jews Without Money, his fictionalized autobiography, Michael Gold recalled this seamy dance-hall culture: “The pimps were hunters. A pretty girl growing up on the East Side was marked by them. They watched her fill out, grow tall, take on the sex bloom. When she was fifteen, they schemed to trap her. Pimps infested the dance halls. Here they picked up the romantic factory girls who came after the day’s work. They were smooth storytellers. They seduced girls the way a child is helped to fall asleep, with tales of magic happiness. No wonder East Side parents wouldn’t let their daughters go to dance halls. But girls need to dance.” * One Saturday night in late 1910, Tony proposed that she and Lily attend their first racket. Lily was reluctant, but Tony argued that if they could take care of themselves at work, then they were equally able to do so at play. At the dance, waltzes and two-steps pounded on the piano, accompanied by a drum flow. The girls danced together in a block as men watched from the sidelines. The foot-operated presses had thickened Tony’s lower half, leaving her with the kind of figure that East Siders referred to, not unfavorably, as a “battleship.” Her figure was accentuated by the S-curve silhouette, the popular look of 1910. The shirtwaist, tucked closely in front, bloused loosely over the back of the new “short skirts,” which grazed the top of ankle boots. These skirts, gathered at the center back, fit closely around the hips and flared toward the hem, creating a swaybacked posture that resembled, in profile, the letter S. Someone cried out, “Take partners for a dance!” Two men at a time stepped out, broke the block, asked a girl to “step up for a turn,” and away they gyrated in the turkey trot or the grizzly bear. Other men circulated among the girls, saying they had sample shoes and dresses in the back. If they fit they’re yours. Lily dodged these pezevenks, lowly pimps, but Tony spent her attentions freely. She danced with a young man who said he ran a photography studio, and passed on photos of beautiful girls like Tony to a casting agency for moving pictures. Tony’s eyes lit up. When he asked why she kept touching her jaw, she said she had a toothache. He called over a friend, an older man who happened to be a dentist. The East Side was full of dental offices — on some blocks they seemed as common as tailoring shops and bathhouses — but this dentist looked a bit odd. He wore a pinstripe suit and blue-tinted glasses that obscured a glass eye. His hands were heavy with rings and his necktie glimmered with a diamond horseshoe pin. * In 1896, a one-eyed Jewish soldier in the Russian army abandoned his garrison in Warsaw and decided to become a pimp. Pimping wasn’t a random career choice for Motche Goldberg. In the Russian Empire, prostitution was a regulated and stratified occupation, extending from famous Jewish courtesans down to the “wolf girls” who slept in public parks. Jews comprised four percent of the population of Russia, where legal restrictions confined them to the Pale of Settlement, but they dominated the sex trade. At the Congress Against the Trade in Women, held in London in 1910, a Russian representative said that the participation of Jews in prostitution was “inversely proportional to their legal and social position.” In Sonia’s Daughters: Prostitutes and Their Regulation in Imperial Russia, Laurie Bernstein writes: “To anti- Semites in Russia, such activities only confirmed their impression of Jews as clever exploiters of the trusting Russian people.” It was about structural oppression, not race, and the laws made Jews into what the oppressors reviled. No one in Russia was surprised to discover that a strashnyi yid, “a dreadful Jew,” ran a brothel in this or that city, writes Bernstein, or that a Russian-Jewish gang known as the Maccabees tricked women into prostitution by running fake ads for maids and nannies, or that Jewish men sold their wives abroad and returned to Russia with a passport stamped “Divorced” in order to find new victims. In Yama, a best-selling novel about Russian prostitution, a pious Jew known as “Horizon” supports his elderly mother and observes the Sabbath while he marries girl after girl and sells them all into brothels. When Horizon meets a military general on a train, he presents himself as part traveling salesman, part broker, and says, “Nu, what can a poor Jew do in times like these?” After Motche Goldberg escaped the army, he seduced a fifteen-year old girl and took her to London, where he joined a group of Jewish pimps known as the Stamford Road Gang. When a reform association closed in on them, the pimps pulled up stakes and fled, prostitutes in tow, to new frontiers of the global sex trade: the diamond mines of South Africa, then on to Argentina and Brazil and the cities of America, to Seattle and St. Louis, to Philadelphia and Boston, and at last to New York, where, after so many years of wandering, Motche Goldberg finally felt at home. On the East Side, Motche joined a fraternity of pimps, a kind of union called the Independent Benevolent Association. The IBA, incorporated under state law, supplied its members with employment insurance and burial plots, since Jewish cemeteries refused to accept pimps. Over the years, reform ebbed and flowed and the IBA adapted. During a reform administration, the IBA pimps kept out of sight. When the city was “open,” they invested in real estate and posed as movie agents and fashion designers, dentists and doctors. They trolled dance halls and department stores, candy shops and employment agencies, on the hunt for poorly-paid working girls, what they called “chickens” or frisch’ schore, fresh goods. After the dance, Tony visited Motche at what appeared to be a dental office on Fourth Street. He “cocainized” her gums and examined her teeth. When Motche, who must’ve been in his mid-thirties, told the sixteen- year- old that he would like to take her out, she demurred. “I am not a girl keeping company yet,” she said. “Then maybe it is time,” Motche said. They ate dinner at a restaurant. Motche explained how he lost his eye. He said that his mother, confronted with the grisly dilemma that many parents faced in the Pale of Settlement — maim your son or risk losing him to the forced recruitment of the czar’s army — had removed Motche’s eye, but to no avail. The czar’s army recruited him anyway. Tony knew this story well. Back in Bialystok, prior to the pogrom that took her mother’s life, her brother had been sacrificed to the czar’s army too. She assessed Motche. A peculiar figure, she thought. But they shared a culture and a past, and that meant something in the anonymous city. A few days later, Motche presented Tony with a diamond ring and proposed marriage. It was moving so quickly, Tony thought, but perhaps decisiveness defined success in Dollar Land, lest one work in a steam laundry forever. She accepted Motche’s offer, agreed to premarital sex, and from there Tony’s world fell apart in a series of nightmarish episodes. ___________________________________ Excerpted from THE INCORRUPTIBLES by Dan Slater. Copyright © 2024 by Dan Slater. Used with permission of Little, Brown and Company. New York, NY. All rights reserved. * In Prostitution & Prejudice: The Jewish Fight Against White Slavery, Edward Bristow calls “white slavery” — a phrase coined by a London doctor in 1839, with explicit reference to Jewish involvement — “the sexualization of blood libel.” Just as as many gentiles believed that the Jew needed the blood of Christian boys to make his matzoh, they now thought he also required the purity of Christian virgins to keep his flesh mills running. There were all kinds of crazy theories. One Russian author posited that circumcision made sex more pleasurable, and this amplified sensitivity explained the Jew’s enormous vitality, his tireless struggle for existence, etc. – Featured image: East Side girls inspired the country with their protests and garment-industry labor strikes. Below, garment workers are inducted into strike culture, learning what they called the old Hebrew oath: “If I turn traitor to the cause I now pledge, may my hand wither from the arm I now raise.” View the full article
  22. Gore Vidal was intellectual culture’s reigning champion of social liberalism and secular advocacy for decades. His famous wit indicates that he would appreciate the irony of someone awarding him the title of “prophet,” but it was well-earned. His series of novels chronicling American history act as a telescope into the past that, somehow, allows for clarity in the present, while his essays, perhaps the best in American letters, remain profound, amusing, and instructive. Despite all of his literary and polemical accomplishments, none of his works matched the futuristic gaze of the satirical, postmodern novel, Myra Breckinridge. Fifty years ahead of its time, the story of a man who transitions into a woman, dedicating herself to the demolition of patriarchal, homophobic gender norms, is a rollicking ride of entertainment, humor, and incisive social commentary. Published in 1968, it reads as if it could be published in 2028. Countering the cliché that a prophet is “unknown in his time and country,” it quickly sold two million copies, and became the subject of endless discussion, debate, praise, and pejoratives. “I never quite had that experience, an otherworldly voice, one that took me over. I felt like a medium,” Gore Vidal said when telling an interviewer how he wrote Myra Breckinridge. He recalled sitting down, first thing in the morning, in his Roman apartment, and hearing Myra say, “I am Myra Breckinridge, whom no man will ever possess.” Vidal’s first communiqué with the otherworldly voice doubles as the opening line of the novel. With those words, Myra leads Vidal, who acting as the medium, leads the reader through a surreal exploration of Hollywood, Western sexual mores, the campaign against them, and the foibles of American masculinity. The transgendered anti-heroine announces a mission to remake men, especially heterosexuals who occupy the center of society. Vidal was two weeks into writing the novel when he realized that Myra was a trans woman, and the depiction of her desire to destroy traditional masculinity is, at once, revolutionary and satirical. The latter gives plenty of opportunities for amusement, because Myra’s acts of villainy read like the fevered nightmares of the religious right, whereas the former emerges in the philosophical sections. Vidal intersperses the action with dialogue and disquisitions in which Myra provides her theory of gender. It was a theory that no political camp in the 1960s or ‘70s could fully comprehend – not even the fledgling gay rights movement – but has now become vogue. Myra even uses the keyword of our times. “The fluidity which I demand of the sexes is diametrically opposed to Mosaic solidity,” she declares, “…For it is demonstrably true that desire can take as many shapes as there are containers. Yet what one pours into those containers is always the same inchoate human passion, entirely lacking in definition until what holds it shapes it. So let us break the world’s pots, and allow the stuff of desire to flow and intermingle in one great vicious sea…” Myra’s (and Vidal’s) manifesto functions as motivation for her calling in life. A serious film afficionado, she secures employment at an elite Hollywood academy for aspiring actors. She teaches courses in “Posture and Empathy,” and off the books, “Female Dominance.” Because she wants to demolish traditional, patriarchal masculinity, she goes straight to the source of macho propaganda, the lingua franca of American culture – the film industry. If she can help breed a new leading man, who can then project and propagate a new, fluid sexuality, she will have triumphed at cultural transformation. Early in the novel, she meets her target – Rusty, a charismatic and handsome young man in the mold of Marlon Brando, James Dean, or Robert Redford. He wears “faded jeans and desert boots,” which Myra calls a “costume.” “It is costumes that young men now wear as they act out their simple-minded roles,” Myra elaborates, “Constructing a fantasy world in order to avoid confronting the fact that to be a man in a society of machines is to be an expendable, soft auxiliary to what is useful and hard. Today there is nothing left for the old-fashioned male to do, no ritual testing of his manhood through initiation or personal contest, no physical struggle to survive or mate. Nothing is left for him but to put on clothes reminiscent of a different time; only in travesty can he act out the classic hero who was a law unto himself, moving at ease through a landscape of admiring women. Mercifully, that age is finished.” In one paragraph, Vidal, as Myra, manages to capture the metamorphosis of masculinity – the consequence of economic, cultural, technological, and political changes – that continues to trouble the psyches of reactionary men, and manifest in the political backlashes of laws against women’s medical autonomy, biases against women in power ranging, such as Hillary Clinton and vice president, Kamala Harris, obsessions with guns, and hateful campaigns against LGBTQ youth, most especially book bans targeting stories exactly like Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge (I hope this essay doesn’t give a would-be book confiscator any ideas). Myra posits that the age of machismo is finished, and she dedicates herself to eliminating its last cultural remnants. While almost never thought of as a “crime novel,” Myra Breckinridge hinges on the crime of identity theft. Myra has transitioned from Myron, a revered film critic, and forged documentation of her past to secure her position at the academy. Myron, everyone believes, is missing – a misperception that Myra is more than willing to encourage. The novel climaxes in a far worse crime, which Vidal plays as a farcical absurdity. As part of her campaign to alter the masculinity of Rusty, and thereby the sexual culture of America, Myra, who claims to have previously worked as a nurse, insists on examining the aspiring actor. She subjects him to a series of sexual humiliations that culminates in a violation using a strap-on (Myra insists it is a medical instrument). Following the assault, Rusty turns brutish and violent in an act of obvious compensation. His girlfriend leaves him, allowing for Myra to then seduce her, test her sexuality, and eventually, live happily ever after, following her transition back to Myron. The second transition is the result of a traumatic car accident. She must have her breast implants removed, and can no longer obtain the hormones necessary to remain Myra. The novel ends happily for the hard-to-categorize couple, and yet lingering questions remain for the United States – questions that now excite, fascinate, and frustrate millions of Americans: What is gender? Is it malleable? Is fluidity the future? Vidal was on the receiving end of many attacks following the publication of Myra Breckinridge. No stranger to controversy, he had already endured temporary banishment from the New York Times Book Review for his novel, The City and the Pillar – arguably the first American novel to depict same sex attraction as normal and healthy. Many right wing critics rebuked Myra Breckinridge as “pornography,” most infamously William F. Buckley during their 1968 television debates during the Democratic and Republican Conventions. The debate exploded when Buckley called Vidal a “queer” (then, an anti-gay slur) and threatened to “sock him in the goddamn face.” Vidal wrote that causing Buckley to reveal his true nature, which he likened to Buckley’s forehead opening and a cuckoo bird flying out, was one of his great achievements. Buckley would later write that the federal government should force men with HIV/AIDS to get tattoos identifying their positive status on their buttocks. It is good to keep these stories in mind considering that Buckley is one of the figures that media commentators evoke when discussing a supposedly enlightened, kinder American right in comparison to the contemporary monstrosity. Although Buckley was old money, upper class, Myra has a line in the novel that applies to him, and most of the book banners: “Like most members of the lower classes, they are reactionary in the truest sense: the unfamiliar alarms them and since they have had no experience outside…their ‘peer group,’ they are, consequently, in a state of near-panic most of the time, reacting against almost everything.” In the same passage, Myra forecasts the election and cult-like popularity of Donald Trump, saying of her male students “drawn to violence” and “totalitarian minded,” “I am convinced that any attractive television personality who wanted to become our dictator would have their full support.” Vidal wrote a decent sequel to Myra Breckinridge, called Myron, and Hollywood made a dreadful film adaption of the first novel, starring Raquel Welch. The author called the film an “awful joke,” even though he never saw it. After reading a copy of the script, he refused to ever watch the crucifixion of his brilliant book. The US had made remarkable progress since the novel’s publication. The then-incomprehensible sexual analysis has gone mainstream, gay marriage is legal, every state has prohibitions against employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gays can openly serve in the military, and transgenderism is no longer taboo. Moving into a consequential election, American culture is still battling with the “totalitarian minded” and those “drawn to violence.” There is no better time to revisit Gore Vidal’s prophecy. View the full article
  23. Earlier
  24. Another week, another batch of books for your TBR pile. Happy reading, folks. * Alisa Alering, Smothermoss (Tin House) “Surreal, thrilling. . . . Moody, potent, and tinged with the occult, Smothermoss is unlike anything I’ve read in a long time.” –Bustle Carinn Jade, The Astrology House (Atria) “You won’t be able to look away as the guests at The Astrology House tempt fate and toy with freewill—this is one to devour, a page-turning story of redemption, secrets, and seeking the answers we need in the space between right and wrong. Carinn Jade’s debut is a true pleasure to read.” —Ashley Audrain Eliza Jane Brazier, It Had to Be You (Berkley) “As with her previous novels, Brazier demonstrates she isn’t afraid to flirt with the darker side of the thriller, and here gives romantic suspense a hard-edged makeover. Expertly switching the narrative between her two protagonists, the author fashions a high-adrenaline, twisty plot.” –Library Journal Jesse Katz, The Rent Collectors: Exploitation, Murder, and Redemption in Immigrant LA (Astra) “A searing account of gang violence and its consequences…Macedo’s grim story, expertly documented by Katz, cries for a documentary series to follow his fortunes as, after years in prison, he strives for redemption. A masterful work of true crime—and, to be sure, true punishment.” –Kirkus Reviews Tom Mead, Cabaret Macabre (Mysterious Press) “Ingenious . . . Mead hides all the clues in plain sight, constructing a fair-play puzzle that will delight and challenge readers who love pitting their own wits against the author’s. It’s another crackerjack entry in an exceptional series.” –Publishers Weekly Stephen Graham Jones, I Was a Teenage Slasher (Simon and Schuster/Saga) “A playful, self-aware and remarkably gory horror novel.” –The New York Times Sarah Pearse, The Wilds (Pamela Dorman) “Pearse has written another intriguing page-turner.” –Los Angeles Times Rio Youers, The Bang Bang Sisters (William Morrow) “If you’re looking for a fun, thrilling read, look no further. The Bang-Bang Sisters is a rip-roaring delight of a novel – pulpy, fast-paced, and absolutely unputdownable.” –Roxane Gay Joe R. Lansdale, Sugar on the Bones (Mulholland) “Edgar winner Lansdale excels in his savagely funny 13th case for East Texas PIs Hap Collins and Leonard Pine…Blood-splattered action and a welcome spoonful of irreverent humor make this a surefire hit. It’s a high-water mark for the series.” –Publishers Weekly Bruce Borgos, Shades of Mercy (Minotaur) “Borgos’s vivid local color calls to mind Craig Johnson’s Longmire series, but his clever plotting and well-rounded characters stand firmly on their own. This series deserves a long life.” –Publishers Weekly View the full article
  25. The first book I can remember reading is Where The Wild Things Are. I have clear memories of being equal parts enthralled and frightened by Max’s journey across the ocean to the land of wild things. I was also horrified that Max had been sent to bed without dinner. As a greedy child I could think of no worse punishment. I don’t know what made me a reader back then, and it’s certainly something I’ve considered as I try and get my own children to pick up a book instead of a television remote. ‘But we can just watch the movie adaptation,’ my youngest son likes to offer as his author father dies a little inside. I try and tell him that to build your own world is often more exciting than watching a world constructed for you. He takes that to mean I want to play Minecraft with him. It’s a constant battle, but one I know I’ll persevere with because, whilst I know for certain that it was writing that has saved my life, it was reading that turned me into a writer. I was once asked If you could look back over your life what would be the theme of your story? It’s a question that likely has multiple answers at differing times, from childhood through to coming-of age, family saga to, hopefully (and only because I’m a romantic) at least one, defining love story. I take comfort in the fact that my answer to this question will likely change the next time I’m asked it, and that something new will alter the way I see the world. It’s the thing I love most about books. They open your world, no matter how closed off it might seem. IT – Stephen King I was around ten years old when I first picked up Stephen King’s terrifying tale of nightmares and coming-of-age. Until then I didn’t realise that books could be so visceral, so consuming, and so utterly frightening. I was a big reader from a very young age and would spend each weekend in the library, where my dad would leave me to discover the works of Roald Dahl, Dr. Seuss and Enid Blyton. But it wasn’t until he pointed to a shelf, filled with King books, and told me it was off limits, that I began to wonder what kind of stories adults read. He told me they were too scary. Naturally, I grabbed a copy as soon as I could, burying it in the children’s section when it was time to leave. I was likely responsible for the great London children’s nightmare pandemic of 1991. I still remember the fear, the utter dread at meeting Pennywise, reading through my fingers when Georgie stares into the storm drain. Until then I’d begged my dad to let me watch fifteen rated movies, but now I’d found something far more thrilling. I was addicted. Self Help PTSD – Unknown When I was mugged and stabbed at nineteen, I know that I could have easily given the guy my cell phone. But I chose to keep fighting, even when he pulled out a knife. Even when he stabbed me three times. I used to wonder why that was, it certainly wasn’t bravery. It felt innate, like I hadn’t made a conscious choice, I’d simply reacted to something that was out of my control. And I think it was that same loss of control that kept me awake at night, and every night for months after it happened. I had stitches and scars, and a group of friends who were quick to slap me on the back in that way men often do. A move that warmly means get on with it. Only I found that I couldn’t. I couldn’t sleep, eat, read a book, watch television. I’d look into the mirror and no longer recognise the person staring back at me. I was lost. Hopelessly, terrifyingly lost. I turned to drink, and drugs, and contemplated suicide. Had I not walked into a library and borrowed a self-help book I know I wouldn’t be here now, certainly not writing this. There was a safety in turning to a book for help, not having to talk to someone, to outwardly acknowledge how much I was failing. The technique it taught seemed impossibly simple. Write it down. Read it back. Change it. So I wrote about the trauma. And then I turned the people involved into fictional characters. I changed the location, the ending. I don’t know if it was way of taking back control, or simply unloading the way I was feeling in a way that I could never have spoken aloud, but it got me through those dark nights when the future seemed far beyond my reach. I’ve searched for that book for two decades. I worked at a library and used all of their resources but still haven’t managed to track it down. I think of it often, and I hope that it’s helped others as much as it helped me. The Last Child – John Hart I spent a decade working in finance as a trader, and though I got myself into, and out of, more trouble than I could cope with, by my late twenties I was on a career path that made my parents proud, that offered my family the kind of secure future I’d always longed for. Yet I was deeply unhappy. I felt I didn’t fit, like I was watching life through a wide lens, distant and detached. And when I looked back it had always been writing that I turned to when life was tough. Shortly before turning thirty, I read a crime novel called The Last Child by John Hart. It’s a beautifully written missing person mystery. I’d never read anything so gripping, that so commanded my attention, and made me ache for the resolution. I subsequently read an interview with John where he spoke of turning his back on a successful law career in order to focus on writing, to do something he loved. I was so inspired that the next day I quit my job, returned home to my heavily pregnant wife and said ‘Surprise, I’m unemployed and I’m going to be a writer.’ She was a student at the time so we had no other income. Overnight our lives changed, and the future suddenly didn’t look so certain. We struggled for money as I worked three jobs and wrote my debut novel. But although I earned less, I smiled more. Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone – J.K. Rowling I have three children, and it’s my eldest, Charlie, that struggles most with reading, but also has the biggest love of books. It hadn’t started that way, and I was facing a losing battle until the day I brought the audiobook of J.K. Rowling’s debut home from the library. We listened to it together over weeks, Charlie totally enthralled, transported to a world where the underdog becomes the hero, his imagination soaring with each chapter. He listened to the audiobooks on loop for years. It wasn’t until he was around ten that he was diagnosed with dyslexia. It was a revelation when he explained how the letters seemed to float from the page, and often appeared in the wrong order. We took him to the optician who tried him with various coloured lenses, and it was at green that he went from barely being able to recognise letters on the eye chart to being able to clearly identify them all. The first time I came home from work and saw him curled up with a paperback of The Philosopher’s Stone is a memory I’ll never forget. We Begin At The End – Me My first two books had done well critically, but awards don’t pay bills, and whilst I was working three jobs and just about getting by, I felt I was missing my children growing up. I was rarely there for school events, only took a few hours off for birthdays and Christmas, and was plagued by this feeling that I’d been selfish in changing career, that I should have stuck with my city job and safeguarded my family’s future, no matter the toll it was taking on me. My third book changed things at a time when I needed it most. The day before lockdown we began a building project and removed the roof from our house. The next day the country shut down, and shortly after that my daughter was born. I discovered that babies don’t like being rained on any more than they like to sleep. Due to the time difference I was doing US Zoom events in the middle of the night before getting up for my library job in the morning. I was so tired I missed the call from my editor telling me that We Begin At The End was a New York Times Bestseller. I’m a full-time author now, and not a day goes by when I don’t consider just how lucky I am to tell stories for a living, and just how much books have impacted my life. And I dream of the day my own children reach for one of my books, although if I’m honest I’d settle for them watching the movie adaption instead. *** View the full article
  26. If there’s an all-business town in Italy then it’s Turin. Capital of Piedmont, northern Italy, it sits impressively on the Po River. Just under two million inhabitants in the wider urban area. Like everywhere in Italy there’s a lot of history – the capital of the Duchy of Savoy before the Risorgimento, and first capital of the Kingdom of Italy in the 1860s. But what’s it really know for these days – a capital of industry and trade and a major centre of the resistance to Mussolini’s fascism back in the day. And, of course all of that means some good crime writing too. But first – time for a little moan. Gialli is the slang for Italian crime fiction books. The name comes from the covers of a popular Italian series of crime stories launched by publisher Mondadori in 1929, which were yellow (in Italian: giallo). Annoyingly far fewer Italian gialli writers seem to get translated into English than other European languages – say, French or German and certainly the Scandinavians. So we don’t have English translations of some serious Turin classics. For instance, one of the most famous and popular amateur sleuths in Italy is the secondary school teacher Camilla Baudino, created by the former teacher Margherita Oggero (born in Turin in 1940). Camilla lives in Turin, is fairly happily married, and quotes John Donne while becoming embroiled in the deadly secrets of the Turin bourgeoisie. The first of her five clever and witty novels (unfortunately none of which have been translated into English) was made into a movie, and the others have been the inspiration for a seven season TV series. So, come on publishers!!! Anyway, rant over – here’s what you can read in English, set in Turin…. There are some Turin authors in translation. You can read the work of the popular crime writing duo Carlo Fruttero and Frnaco Lucentini (the former originally from Turin). Their novels in English encompass many Italian cities – The Lover of No Fixed Abode (1986) is set in Venice, The D Case Or The Truth About The Mystery Of Edwin Drood (1989) in Rome, and An Enigma by the Sea (1991) on the Tuscan Coast. But perhaps their best novel – now hard to find but available in English – is set in Turin, was one of their first collaborations, and is called The Sunday Women (1972). The Sunday Women follows an investigation by commissioner Santamaria concerning the murder of an architect of dubious fame, Garrone. Among the protagonists are Anna Carla Dosio, a beautiful and rich woman, and her friend Massimo Campi, a rich gay man. Later in the novel, Campi’s boyfriend, Lello, a municipal clerk who was investigating by himself on the murder, is also killed. In the end of the novel, suspicions against the two are raised when Santamaria discovers that Garrone had been killed for his blackmailing, related to a project for a new quarter of buildings, against an old woman. Academics consider The Sunday Women as one of the first examples of modern Italian crime novels and Torinese consider it one of the best dissections of the city’s bourgeoisie in literature. The author Valerio Varesi was also born in Turin. He has worked as a journalist with La Repubblica and is the author of 16 bestselling crime novels starring Commissario Soneri. Of the total six have so far been translated into English. The order is a bit confusing, and not overly important, but the six in English are River of Shadows, The Dark Valley, Gold, Frankincense and Dust, A Woman Much Missed, The Lizard Strategy and The Unseen. Commissario Soneri is from Parma and investigates crimes throughout Parma (a couple of hundred miles from Turin) and the Po River Valley. The valley between Parma and Turin is a foggy, misty place, usually rainy, flooding – a place where bad deeds often go unseen. Soneri is prone to despondency (while also being a cigar-smoking gourmand), though always dogged in his pursuit of the truth. His investigation often uncover corruption and a raft of ghosts from Italy’s divisive past. Diana Bretherick’s Lombroso series are all set in Turin in the late 1880s and feature the world’s first criminologist, Cesare Lombroso and his assistant James Murray, a young Scottish doctor. Lombroso was apparently a real person who was known as the ‘father of modern criminology’. The first book in the series is City of Devils (2013). It’s 1887, Murraytravels to the vibrant city of Turin to study with Cesare Lombroso. But just hours after his introduction to the unconventional Lombroso, the discovery of a horrifically mutilated body in the nearby Piazza Statuto, and a note that appears to implicate the celebrated criminologist himself, changes everything. Lombroso and Murray return in The Devil’s Daughter (2016). It’s a year later, 1888, and Murray receives a letter from Sofia Esposito, a woman he once loved and lost. Sofia’s fifteen-year-old cousin has vanished but, because of her lower-class status, the police are unwilling to investigate. Lombroso and Murray uncover a series of mysterious disappearances of young women and rumours of a haunted abbey on the outskirts of Turin. Giorgio De Maria’s The Twenty Days of Turin (1975) recaptures the era of 1970s Italian domestic terror that swept the nation, including Turin. Part crime, part fantasy, part cult novel, De Maria reveals the city of Turin suffering a twenty-day “phenomenon of collective psychosis” culminating in nightly massacres that hundreds of witnesses cannot explain. The answer seems to lie in Turin’s occult netherworld. The book is an allegory inspired by the horrific neo-fascist campaigns of the time, the so-called “Years of Lead”. De Maria is a musician and author. The Twenty Days of Turin was first published in 1975 – the height of the terror period – and not translated into English until 2017 (when it became a NPR Best Book of the Year). In Turin, and across Italy, it has remained a cult book for over 40 years now and is regularly nominated as one of the best dystopian novels in history. And finally, Turin is home to one of the weirdest stories about crime writing and crime writers. The bizarre and macabre tragedy happened back in February 2012 when the Turin Police discovered the dead body of 19-year-old Nigerian immigrant Anthonia Egbuna in the River Po. The Carabinieri reported she had been stabbed to death, but it took several months to establish her identity. Eventually searching her apartment they found among her belongings a nine-page story entitled The Rose and the Lion. This led to the arrest of aspiring author 34-year-old Daniele Ughetto Piampaschet. Police discovered that Piampaschet had had a relationship with Egbuna. Police claimed he stabbed her after she refused to stop working as a prostitute. In Piampaschet’s short crime story the murderer strangles a Nigerian prostitute and then commits suicide. But Piampaschet didn’t commit suicide. Instead, after killing Anthonia Egbuna and dumping her body in the Po he went home and wrote his crime story. Then, suspecting the police were on to him, he went on the run and attempted to flee Italy for Tunisia. Eventually after a long hunt, followed by an investigation, his denials, and repeated appeals, the Italian Supreme Court sentenced Piampaschet to 25 year and six months in Turin jail in 2019. He remains a failed crime writer. View the full article
  27. Twice Round the Clock is a long-forgotten mystery by a woman whose life encompassed professional fame and personal tragedy. Although she was once extremely well-known, it was not as a crime writer. When the book was first published by Hutchinson (a company of considerable renown) in 1935, the dust jacket blurb explained: Billie Houston, as one of the Houston Sisters, is already famous, for she and her sister Renée form what is probably the best known and most successful vaudeville sister act within living memory, and there must be few indeed who, through the music-hall and newspapers and wireless, are not acquainted with the smiling, fair-haired “boy.” And now Billie Houston has turned novelist and here is her first novel. It is a thriller and a gripping one too. A man is murdered at a dinner party held in honour of his daughter at his lonely house. The telephone wires have been damaged, cars tampered with, and for long hours the guests are cooped together, each aware that his neighbour may be the murderer. A dramatic, exciting situation which Billie Houston develops to the full. How this novel came to be written is in itself a story which tells of many dressing-rooms all over the country in which between appearances on the stage, pages were planned and scribbled and often torn up. It tells, too, of a life-long ambition and an absorbing interest in criminology, and its success may mean to its author more than thunderous applause from a packed theatre. The dust jacket was adorned with pictures of Billie Houston (and her sister Renée) on the front cover as well as the back, making it clear that her celebrity status—or “platform,” in the jargon of the modern publishing world—was seen as a crucial marketing advantage. I must admit, however, that when I acquired a copy (inscribed by Billie to Nancy Maitland in the year of publication) from the estate of the late Bob Adey, a true bibliophile, I had never heard of either Billie or her novel. Research uncovered a great deal of material about the Houston Sisters, but the book itself has seldom been discussed. The undeniable truth is that sometimes forgotten books have been forgotten for a very good reason. When I started reading the novel, I was prepared to be disappointed. To my delight, however, the storyline proved to be lively and unpretentious. The real disappointment was that Billie Houston never followed up her debut in the genre. A keen and intelligent reader of mysteries, she made the excellent decision to create a sense of pace and suspense by emphasizing the rapid passage of time. The title reflects this approach, and so do the chapter headings. This is a country house mystery, and Billie—whose second husband came from an aristocratic family—had rather more extensive personal experience of life in country houses than many writers of Golden Age detection. In a prologue, a body is discovered, but we then have a long flashback scene in which the tension mounts as it becomes evident that numerous people have good cause to commit a murder. The structure anticipates, in some respects, that of a later—and otherwise very different—novel that has justifiably earned acclaim from aficionados of detective fiction: Lonely Magdalen by Henry Wade. Billie Houston was the stage name of Sarah McMahon Gribbin, born in Shettleston, Glasgow, in 1906. Her parents, James Gribbin and Elizabeth Houston, were music hall performers who had a song and dance act. Her older sister Renée (Caterina Rita Murphy Gribbin, 1902–80) began a stage career in 1912. Four years later, with their parents suffering from ill-health, the two girls began working together as the Houston Sisters. In the 1920s, the pair enjoyed sustained popularity, topping the bill in venues around Britain and filling the London Palladium on numerous occasions. They appeared at a Royal Variety Command performance in the days when performers really did take part as a result of a command, or request, from the King. Typically, they pretended to be children, with Billie playing a boy. According to Frances Gray’s essay in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, the secret of their success lay in meticulous attention to detail: their sets sometimes included furniture that was scaled-up in size so as to make them look like small children. Gray describes the sisters as “both sharply observational about working-class Scottish life and childhood, and sexually magnetic.” Billie became highly skilled as a male impersonator. The sisters appeared together in a handful of films, including Happy Days are Here Again (1936), but the act broke up. As Renée explained in her autobiography Don’t Fence Me In (1974), this was due to Billie’s poor health. Renée went on to enjoy a long screen career, with film credits as varied as Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and Cul-de-Sac as well as A Town Like Alice and Carry on at Your Convenience. A very informative website devoted to Renée may be found at renéehoustonsite.wordpress.com. Billie’s first marriage (to Bobby Wilton, son of the well-known comedian Rob Wilton) ended in divorce, and in 1938 her second husband, the actor Richard Cowper, died. By melancholy coincidence, he and her first husband both took their own lives. In 1939, she married again, to Paul Wills-Eve, and this marriage lasted until her death from emphysema in 1972. They had two children, Carole and Anton, and I’m indebted to Carole for providing me with fascinating background information about her mother. One favourite anecdote concerns Billie, as a very small girl, interrupting a performance of the stage version of East Lynne. When her mother declaimed those famously melodramatic lines: “Gone! Gone! And never called me mother!”, Billie cried out to reassure her that she was very much alive and kicking. After the Second World War, Billie was much less visible in public than her sister. This was due in part to the fact that she found contentment in the domestic life but also due to continuing health problems. During one performance she fell from the stage into the orchestra pit and damaged her back severely, necessitating a major operation. Her husband Paul was a journalist who spent several years as bureau chief of United Press International; as a result, the family was based in Paris, a city Billie loved. Carole, who worked in publishing, and Anton, a journalist, both inherited their parents’ literary leanings. From the early 1950s onwards, Billie was a semi-invalid, but she showed considerable courage in coping with her physical limitations and continued to travel extensively. Always a voracious reader of detective fiction, she was a devotee of female authors such as Sayers, Marsh, and Allingham. She also developed into a formidable chess player, reaching regional championship standard. At one point, Billie thought about writing another crime novel, tentatively titled Whatever Happened to Aunt Jane?, but she never got beyond the stage of writing notes for an outline. Nevertheless, Twice Round the Clock evidences a genuine talent for storytelling. To this day, debates persist about whether celebrities who publish fiction have some sort of unfair advantage over fellow authors. The reality, however, is that plenty of celebrities write good novels, and even though some of them produce work that is less impressive, it is folly to underestimate an author simply because he or she is well-known in some other walk of life. I don’t claim that Twice Round the Clock is a literary masterpiece, but I’m glad that at long last others have a chance to read the story and form their own views about it. Seven years have passed since I wrote about the book on my blog “Do You Write Under Your Own Name?” but at the time of writing, I’d never come across anyone who had read it, and until now it has remained in the shadows. A new edition as a British Library Crime Classic will change that, and I hope that others will share my view that this is a book deserving of better than total obscurity. Billie Houston was a modest woman who once said to her daughter that the novel was only published because she was a celebrity. I like to think that she would be thrilled to see it enjoying a new life, more than half a century after her death, solely on its own merits. _______________________ From Martin Edwards’ introduction to the newly reissued Twice Round the Clock, by Billie Houston. Introduction copyright © 2024 by Martin Edwards. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, British Library Crime Classics. All rights reserved. View the full article
  28. Much has been written about the origin of characters in fiction, and the inspiration that presses a writer to embark upon a story—perhaps a novel or short fiction, or returning to the character time and again in a series. Sometimes characters are inspired by a writer’s past—perhaps the teacher who encouraged a love of reading, or the professor who bored everyone stiff and knocked back tots of whiskey when he thought no one was looking. There are people we pass on the street or in the media who capture our imagination. The world is full of characters for the curious writer—and of course, curiosity is an element underpinning our work, whether our chosen literary form is fiction or non-fiction, essays, journalism or fairy tales. Writing a series with an ongoing cast means I have something of a “relationship” with each one them. One character became so strong, so forceful, I had to kill him off and only allowed him back in as a memory held by his protégé, Maisie Dobbs, the psychologist and investigator whose life I have created across eighteen novels. The moment she walked into my mind is seared into my memory. I was in my car, stuck at a red light in San Rafael, California, nothing but tail lights ahead and grey skies above. I was miles away, humming that old 1970’s song about the rain pouring in my adopted US state, when Maisie Dobbs lay claim to my imagination. She would go on to inhabit that place for over twenty years. I missed the lights changing and traffic moving, so it was only when another driver shouted, “Hey, lady—you waiting for any particular shade of green?” that I stopped listening to Miss Dobbs and hit the accelerator, the only red now blooming across my cheeks. But this woman, dressed in the garb of my grandmother’s era, seemed bound and determined to press me to tell her story. [T]his woman, dressed in the garb of my grandmother’s era, seemed bound and determined to press me to tell her story. I thought her nagging—sometimes gentle, sometimes authoritarian—would stop, but no, she wasn’t satisfied with leaning over my shoulder, dictating as I wrote every word. She woke me up in the middle of the night, crashing into my dreams and peppering them with a cast of from her world, not mine. It was as if this character, along with others, was making it clear that at this point in my life, theirs was more important. I would get up in the early hours, bleary eyed, and I would write. Sometimes she exhausted me. But where did she come from? In terms of her personality, I had never known anyone quite like her in my life, though in a way I had known many of her kind, so it’s no surprise that we found one another—or, if truth be told, perhaps I was searching for her. I had always admired the wise women elders of my childhood, ladies of a certain age and era who lived alone in our Weald of Kent hamlet, and whose lives had been altered forever by the Great War. Over the years the process of getting to know Maisie Dobbs has led me to places I might otherwise never have visited. I could almost feel her at my side in France and Belgium when I walked fields where the battles of the Somme and Ypres had been fought. Together we tramped across land where the remains of men and horses had settled below the soil; at Passchendaele they had drowned in mud fifteen feet deep, it was said, and we both felt their ghosts on that windy day underneath a graphite sky. With her in my mind’s eye, I read name after name at memorials to the missing at Tyne Cot and Vimy, and as I walked along a preserved trench in Newfoundland Park, named to honor men from the island who were slaughtered in those far away trenches. A giant caribou statue overlooks the place where they fell, as if it might remind their lost spirits of home. Then we went to a tiny cemetery where a casualty clearing station was once located. It could have been the place where she had toiled as a nurse, and where her innocence was lost—the innocence that evaporates when a young person sees death of a most terrible kind. I could feel her presence as I wondered aloud, “How would I feel if that had happened to me?” And I fell to my knees, the ache so deep I could hardly find my balance again. Sometimes those research expeditions felt almost otherworldly, as if there was something else at play in this partnership between writer and story. There was often a sense that I instinctively knew my way around in a location new to me that I was visiting to enhance my knowledge, so I could craft part of the story I was working on. It was in Munich—a city I had never visited, that I felt uneasy with my instant understanding of where to go. It had happened to me once before in my life, years earlier. The company I was working for sent me on a business trip to the Netherlands, and after our meetings one day, I went with my coworkers to a festival commemorating the liberation of Amsterdam by Canadian soldiers at the end of the Second World War. As people began to disperse, one of our group suggested going to a restaurant he had heard about, but no one knew quite how to get there, though he had the name of the street. “Oh I know the way,” I said, and without thinking, I led them to the restaurant. I put the experience out of my mind and made excuses as to how I had garnered such local knowledge. Then it happened again in Munich, when I found the correct train from Marienplatz to Dachau without consulting a person, a sign or a schedule, and despite the station being under reconstruction. While waiting for the train to return to Munich, someone asked me how to get to a certain place, and I told them which train they needed to board. Perhaps it was just luck. One of my friends, Barbara—who I met while on a course in connection with my work; the work that came before I fell deep into writing about Maisie Dobbs—had an opinion about what might have happened to bring her into my life. Barbara told me about an old school friend who asked her if she would read the manuscript for a novel she had written. It transpired the woman had a stash of unpublished stories tucked away. Barbara agreed to dip into the pages and let her friend know what she thought. Now, here’s the interesting thing about Barbara—she is a psychic and registered medium, and not one of those people you might see at a fun fair peering into a crystal ball. Barbara works with police departments to assist in difficult cases where there is a missing person or, dare I say it, a missing body. But when she began reading the raw manuscripts, Barbara discovered something that shocked her. “I realized,” she recounted, “that in becoming a character in a novel, a spirit is experiencing a form of reincarnation—it’s another means of being alive.” It’s true what they say, ghosts really can make the hair on the back of your neck stand on end. “Okay,” I said. “That’s quite enough for me—no more about spirits.” I tried to put that image out of my mind, endeavoring to ignore the fact that a woman named Maisie Dobbs who had hitched a ride into my life on a rainy day in California, might be more than a character in a series of novels. I have read accounts by other writers of fiction—particularly those who write a series—of the day the character entered their imagination. One writer talked about walking along a street and “seeing” this man making his way toward her. Then she realized she had imagined him, though he became the protagonist in a best-selling series. According a number of writers, dreams seem to be another place where characters show up time and again, as if pushing and pushing until they are incarnated on the page. It was when the novel bearing the name “Maisie Dobbs” in golden cursive was sent to the printer, soon to be a book with a haunting image on the cover, that my editor shared an experience with me, as if I might provide an explanation, “You know, Jackie, it’s a funny thing, but I’ve received three different manuscripts this week, from different authors in different states, and each one seems to be about the same character.” I said something about it being an interesting coincidence, though I didn’t breathe a word about my pal Barbara, and that there might be an entrepreneurial spirit amid those pages, tripling their chances of being seen and heard. *** View the full article
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