...A new anthology.
...A website redesign. Finally. No, really. This time I mean it.
...Another, standalone website.
Time to change things up around here. Again.
...A new anthology.
...A website redesign. Finally. No, really. This time I mean it.
...Another, standalone website.
Time to change things up around here. Again.
The post explaining it all is here, but this is the short version:
Ruth Cavin, the legendary crime fiction editor for St. Martin’s Press who was instrumental in the founding of the company’s Minotaur Books imprint, died Sunday at the age of 92. Mike Shatzkin has an amazing tribute, and I’m sure there are much more to come (and when they do, I’ll link accordingly.)
Regrettably I never met Ruth, though I suspect we literally crossed paths at conventions, book parties and the like. But there was certainly an aura around her, for several key reasons: through the various contests the imprint ran (with the PWA for a debut PI novel, with Malice Domestic for debut traditional mystery, with the Tony Hillerman foundation for debut crime novel from the Western states) she championed new writers, as well as those who might not otherwise find a home within the publishing industry. People like Steve Hamilton, Bill Crider, Robin Hathaway, Julia Spencer-Fleming, Donna Andrews, Elizabeth Zelvin, Meredith Cole, and John Maddox Roberts owe all or part of their careers to Cavin.
Cavin was also a role model for anyone who thought being of AARP age meant one’s career prospects are finished. After all, she didn’t even begin her stint as a book editor until she was in her early 60s - and St. Martin’s didn’t hire her until she was about 70! Shatzkin’s description of Cavin as “the Grandma Moses of mystery editors” could not be more apt.
Now that she has passed away, that leaves an irreplaceable hole in Minotaur Books. No doubt many of her authors will be assigned to new editors, or have already been assigned. But the institutional memory of how to edit crime fiction, directly from Cavin and also from those she followed, has dimmed a great deal, and that light will not shine as brightly ever again.
(x-posted from Off on a Tangent, which is my more reliable bloggy home of late.)
Nobody asked me to contribute a list, so I kind of forgot about it in a haze of work, but after a gentle reminder, here’s that list, not in any particular order and not including Stieg Larsson because as much as I love THE MILLENIUM TRILOGY and will defend those books to the death, there’s no need to spill more ink.
SAVAGES, Don Winslow
This more than any other book was my “shout from the rooftops” pick. I read the book 3 times and I could easily have read it another 3 more. That in a way made it hard for me to review SAVAGES, but I gave it my best shot in describing the book as “both a departure and a culmination, pyrotechnic braggadocio and deep meditation on contemporary American culture.” In other words, it’s funny and sad, very rooted in today’s culture while also a damning indictment, and oh yeah, the ending is amazing and absolutely perfect.
THE SINGER’S GUN, Emily St. John Mandel
Widespread and rapturous praise for the book, and for Mandel, is wholly justified. As I wrote in my “Dark Passages” column when THE SINGER’S GUN was first published in May, “The beauty of the novel is that its key truths are those the reader arrives at on his or her own, without the help of a straight-line narrative or a dominating perspective. Instead, Mandel feeds off of our need to make connections, even when the pattern they form doesn’t really exist. We start with anxiety and end with it, thrumming in the background for us to listen in - or ignore, at both cost and reward.”
CROOKED LETTER, CROOKED LETTER, Tom Franklin
If SAVAGES was my summer rooftop shout book, CROOKED LETTER, CROOKED LETTER occupied that same perch for the fall. I’ve been a huge Franklin admirer for years and have awaited a new novel from him for a long time. Boy, did he deliver with this standout tale of race, boyhood friendship gone wrong, past secrets exposed to the cruel light of the present, and what have you.
From my LAT column: “[Franklin’s] larger aim is to comment on how misunderstandings multiply into easily averted tragedy; how generations-old racism is a scourge that only needs a few small souls to stamp it out, whether they know it or not; how small gestures are full of loaded meaning; and how childhood thoughtlessness — the good and the bad — can be amplified with the greater context of adulthood.”
HELLO KITTY MUST DIE, Angela Choi
Nobody but Tyrus Books could have published Choi’s debut, which has one of the most memorable opening chapters I have ever read. But who cares if the majors didn’t want to touch HELLO KITTY with a hundred-foot pole, this book has its audience - and I am certainly among the enthusiasts. Again from my LAT column: “The real triumph of HELLO KITTY MUST DIE is that it refuses to apologize for Fiona’s behavior and never offers clear-cut explanations for her pole slide down into amoral adventure. As for where she ends up, let’s put it this way: I fully expect Fiona to make partner in a decade or so, and by then there will be new rabbit holes for her to explore and exploit to the fullest.”
I’D KNOW YOU ANYWHERE, Laura Lippman
Laura and I have been friends for almost a decade (!) and I am honor-bound to disclose this, but even if I had never met her once in my life I would still say this is her best book, a feat that still leaves much room for further growth and improvement, which is quite rare and amazing. The way in which she reveals and exposes layer after layer of her characters so that “good” and “evil” really operate on multiple sides of the same empathy coin (Walter, in particular, is a creation Patricia Highsmith would have loved to make her own) is incredibly difficult to pull off, but did she ever - and in the process show that people can experience terrible things and not just survive them, but move on and live full lives as a result.
THE MANY DEATHS OF THE FIREFLY BROTHERS, Thomas Mullen
I am counting this as a crime novel even though it’s more accurately described (at least by me) as a “literary gangster zombie novel.” And did I have such a fabulous time reading it at the beginning of the year. Don’t forget about it, and buy zillions of copies when it’s out in paperback so that Mullen can find his crossover audience, which will no doubt increase even further when his dystopian novel is published by Mulholland next fall. He is a wonderful andd assured writer and we will be hearing tons and tons more from him, I bet.
IF THE DEAD RISE NOT, Philip Kerr
How much longer can Bernie Gunther go on? I almost hope Kerr doesn’t answer that question, because the way he’s extended his urbane, sardonic Berlin-born sleuth’s life has been masterful, again (as in A QUIET FLAME) contrasting a 1930s-era case - and the ramifications of one quick decision - with the pre-Castro Havana of the mid-1950s. Kerr has a complicated story to tell, but his juggling is expert and culminates in one of the best ending confessions I’ve read in ages.
WINTERLAND, Alan Glynn
A decade or so from now, when serious history books recount the hazy crazy days of the Celtic Tiger, its unstoppable boom and calamitous bust, those who seek those books out will also know that WINTERLAND got there first. Through a kaledescopic lens that only fiction - and especially crime fiction - can provide, Alan Glynn shows the depth of greed, the slow slide into corruption, the brutality of murder, and the bonds of family that glue a city, a country, and scores of people together. Is it a masterpiece? I won’t say that now, not yet. But ask me again in ten years.
HAILEY’S WAR, Jodi Compton
You want to talk of comeback kids? Compton, whose first two novels were published a zillion years ago (okay, 2005 and 2006) seemed to have disappeared…before HAILEY’S WAR was published by a different Random House imprint. Thank god. It’s fantastic, or as I said a little more floridly in the LAT, “HAILEY’S WAR serves as a metaphor for dreams so close to realization but for a fault line or two. Weaker hearts would flinch, then crack. But Hailey, instead, summons her inner soldier, the one that tells her, no matter what perilous situation she’s in, to paraphrase Bob Marley, she has to get up, stand up, stand up for her life — a better and truer test of heroism.”
IN FREE FALL, Juli Zeh
Give me a novel of ideas and if the story is good and the characters are believable and entertain me, I am there. Give me a crime novel of ideas, where two physics professors, friends and rivals, opposites but startlingly similar, do emotional battle on an intellectual canvas, raise the stakes through betrayal, the possible kidnapping of a child, and embroil a romantic-leaning police detective in the complicated machinations of quantum theory, and holy hell, this really did end up one of my favorite books of the year. Even if I suspect few others would agree but who needs ‘em?
OTHER GOOD BOOKS I LOVED THAT I READ IN 2010
Eventually I’ll tally up exactly how many I read all year. It will be a lot. Hopefully, not as many as in 2008. Or in 2009.
As has been widely reported, Otto Penzler and his well-traveled imprint is on the move again, after being domiciled at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for the past six years. As of Fall 2011, he'll publish 10-12 titles a year with Grove/Atlantic, but the books will be branded with a very familiar name: yes, The Mysterious Press is returning, as Penzler re-acquired the rights to the name from Hachette Book Group, which (as Warner Books) bought the original name (and press) back in 1989.
That already sounds like a mouthful, but the story is a lot more complicated from a publishing standpoint. That's because Penzler has often tied his publishing fortunes to longtime friend Anthony Cheetham, who is close to the nine life professional limit in the UK. Cheetham and Penzler first started working together around 30 years ago, when Cheetham, who was then with Random House UK, licensed the UK rights to the Mysterious Press list. Then Cheetham nearly set the venture up again at Century/Arrow before things worked out at Quercus, and when Cheetham moved on to Corvus (part of Atlantic Books) so did Penzler.
The longstanding UK connection thus explains the Grove/Atlantic piece of the pie. But Entrekin, years ago, expressed to me that he was looking to acquire more crime fiction, adding to a stable that already includes Mo Hayder, Deon Meyer, Mike Lawson, Donna Leon, and John Lawton. (A stable, I might add, that is primarily edited by Jamison Stoltz.) Adding Penzler and his 10-12 books a year will certainly do that. The trick will be whether the revamped Mysterious Press can freshen up with some new blood, or if current and longtime Penzler amigos like Thomas H. Cook, Andrew Klavan, Thomas Perry, and John Harvey will follow him to Grove/Atlantic.
It also remains to be seen what will happen at HMH. The deal for Penzler's imprint was done on the Harcourt side, pre-merger; joining Houghton Mifflin and Harcourt together also brought the imprint under the same auspices as the "Best American" anthology series, for which Penzler oversees the Best American Mystery Stories on an annual basis. Now that HMH doesn't have 6-8 slots a year going to Penzler's titles, that frees the publisher to diversify their own crime fiction list, if they choose (and my understanding is that this will be the case.) At the moment, non-Penzler crime writers include Inger Ash Wolfe, Elly Griffiths, Karin Fossum, and Sara Gran. Further titles will likely reflect the sensibility of these books.
In other words, Penzler's peripatetic state (to steal the headline from Publishers Lunch) appears to benefit both HMH and Grove/Atlantic, but it may well benefit crime fiction readers the most. That, however, depends on all the books being published well - no matter the format, no matter who's responsible.
My newest Q&A at Currency is with Adam Levin, whose debut novel THE INSTRUCTIONS has been receiving a ridiculous amount of buzz. A lot of it has to do with the sheer length of the book (it clocks just over 1000 pages) but even more owes to its tackling of Jewish questions, past and present, and attempting to be the ne plus ultra of contemporary Jewish humor (Philip Roth is a supporting player; Seinfeld and Woody Allen get mentioned quite a bit, and so on.) For the purposes of this piece, what fascinated me was how Levin survived financially while writing such an epic over almost a decade, and (even though it was cut for space purposes) how McSweeney's ended up with the book. I'll post that part tonight, but for now, an excerpt of the published piece:
How long did The Instructions take to write? What were your financial considerations? It took me nine years. I started at the end of 2001, a couple of months after I got to the University of Syracuse to start my MFA. About four or five years in, I realized this was going to be a pretty long book. I didn't think it would break a thousand pages, but I knew it would be over 300 pages.
I was never under the impression I'd make much money. I was teaching, and I continue to teach. I was living hand-to-mouth.
How so? Well, it's what you'd imagine. I had really crappy emergency health insurance: a $5,000 deductible, and I paid $185 a month. And I used to be a heavy smoker—between two and four packs a day—although I quit 10 weeks ago. If a terrible thing had happened, my parents couldn't exactly have sold their house to pay for my treatment. I didn't have any real savings yet.
Read on for the rest. For futher reading, see:
In Saturday's Wall Street Journal, I wrote about one of my all-time favorite books: BY GRAND CENTRAL STATION I SAT DOWN AND WEPT, Elizabeth Smart's prose poem published in 1945. It is vivid and stirring and miraculously captures what it is like to be in the throes of passion and in the thick of a love affair, even one as complicated and troubling as the one Smart found herself in with fellow poet George Barker, father of her four children, never her husband, and frankly, always kind of an asshole.
But BY GRAND CENTRAL STATION is Exhibit A for the uncomfortable nexus point between art and life, when a writer's behavior and actions aren't necessarily palatable for the reader. People are absolutely right to equate Smart's behavior with respect to Barker - essentially orchestrating his and his wife's visit to California under false pretenses, and then instigating the long-running affair based more on words on the page than real-life bearing - with stalking; uncharitable interpretations of their union would conclude they deserved each other.
And yet, BY GRAND CENTRAL STATION is all about those contradictions. It interweaves the mundane and the grandiose, the blase attitude about adultery with flashes of empathy for the wronged wife, the biblical allusions with contemporary concerns about immigration and housework. And as much as Smart's prose poem depended on the complicated cauldron of events swirling around her at the time, it isn't weighed down by them. In the end, it's about emotion; the thrill of falling, the torture of longing, the sense of giving, unconditionally, love that is greater than yourself. That, above all, is why it endures.
The book spoke and continues to speak to me for a number of reasons, some of them a bit spooky. Smart was born and raised in Ottawa, my hometown; I first read BY GRAND CENTRAL STATION in the summer of 2003, while in London, specifically at a friend's place on a weekend stay, with little to read. It was short. The title caught my eye. The backstory was intriguing. And oh, did it move me, even as my 24-year-old self recognized the impracticality of such feelings while also reveling in them, just a little.
Much to my relief, the book held up and then some on this most recent read, and I hope many more people seek out a copy. So what's the spooky part, then? Well, consider Smart's accidental namesake, born a year after her 1986 death. They even resemble each other, a little. I suppose it makes a weird sort of sense that the name would be revived again, in circumstances awful and redemptive, and I wonder if the current Elizabeth, now 23, has read the work of the previous one - and what the first Ms. Smart would have made of the strange coincidence.
Further reading: Ingrid Norton's essay on BY GRAND CENTRAL STATION in the October 2010 issue of Open Letters Monthly.
My newest column for the Los Angeles Times travels through the Appalachian region, looking specifically at recent novels published by Sharyn McCrumb and Vicki Lane. Here's now the piece opens:
Say the word "Appalachia" in some variant or another and the probability is pretty high that someone will come back with a humorous remark — or one he or she thinks is funny, but isn't. It's a region that stretches as far north as the state of New York and as far south as the mid-point of Mississippi, with more than 23 million strong living within boundaries that first began to be recognized as a distinct entity in the 19th century. And yet, the snickers emitted when South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford claimed, in 2009, that he was "hiking the Appalachian Trail" — rather than own up to an extramarital affair — had as much to do with the culturally backward connotations of his excuse as the scandal itself.
It's easier to make fun of something one doesn't understand, and Appalachia's mix of strong religious ties, farming, crop cultivation and Cherokee Indian folklore produces a brew that might be even more potent than the moonshine the region was long famous for. As a result, the crime fiction that originates from Appalachia teems with pungent smells and sounds and is steeped in the roots of generations of families — and, of course, in blood, especially of past sins coming due in the present....
Read on for the rest.
For many years crime fiction fans have clamored for the return of Patrick Kenzie & Angela Gennaro, Dennis Lehane's private-eye duo first introduced in 1994's A DRINK BEFORE THE WAR and stars of four subsequent novels. But Lehane, understandably, had bigger things on his mind, and based on the success and critical reception of MYSTIC RIVER (2001) SHUTTER ISLAND (2003) and his 700-plus page historical epic, THE GIVEN DAY (2008), it didn't appear Patrick & Angie would be coming back. There are several interviews that explain why, but here's a sample answer he gave to the Drood Review in 2002 on the question of when, if ever, they would reappear:
I think Spade and Marlowe remain icons because they didn?t wear out their welcome. Would Chandler be Chandler if he'd written 18 Marlowe books? I don?t know, but I wonder. Maybe Chandler could have sustained the level of quality, but the issue is more whether I can. And I have my doubts about that. The only artsy, metaphysical aspect of my approach to writing is that I can only write about characters when they come knocking on the door and tell me to. Patrick and Angie stopped knocking after Prayers for Rain. If they come knocking again, I?ll open the door and welcome them in with open arms because, well, they paid for my house and I?m exceedingly grateful. But if they don;t, then I'll be content to let them live happily ever after without my dropping another case-from-hell in their laps. They deserve that.
As of today, that line of thinking has reversed itself with the publication of MOONLIGHT MILE. Patrick and Angie are, indeed, back. They've grown older, not always wiser, with a child to raise and way too much debt. But as I explain in the Los Angeles Times, going back to them poses something of a double-edged sword for Lehane. There's forward progression, but there's also nostalgia. There are parts of the book that are wonderful and other parts less so. And since 700 words wasn't really enough to do my feelings proper justice, a little more explanation may be in order - admittedly, a dangerous exercise for a reviewer.
Halfway through college in the late 1990s was when I became a serious crime fiction reader. I'd read haphazardly before then, of both contemporary and classic writers, but only around late 1998/early 1999 did I discover the writers who meant the most to me and who were really on the leading edge of where the genre was supposed to be, people like Robert Crais, Lee Child, Harlan Coben, Michael Connelly, Laura Lippman, the Tart Noir gang (Lauren Henderson, Katy Munger, Stella Duffy, Sparkle Hayter, et al.) and Dennis Lehane.
But as good as those authors were at the time, it's been wonderful to watch them all evolve, both critically and commercially. How many people had a real sense that the Laura Lippman who wrote IN BIG TROUBLE would later produce psychologically acute standalone novels like EVERY SECRET THING, WHAT THE DEAD KNOW and I'D KNOW YOU ANYWHERE? Harlan Coben hadn't even written his breakout book, TELL NO ONE, yet, let alone carved out his own niche of domestic-tinged suspense thrillers. Child, Connelly and Crais were bestsellers of varying degrees, but nowhere close to being the perennial inhabitants of the top spots as they are now. Tart Noir is a faded memory now, but I would make the argument for their influence on what types of crime novels women can, do and should produce.
The same goes for Lehane. It was very clear he was destined to write greater things, based in large part on what he had produced with GONE, BABY GONE. PRAYERS FOR RAIN was fun, but also very much the work of, as he's described it often, someone needing to "crank out a book." And then came MYSTIC RIVER, the same month that both Michael Connelly and George Pelecanos published books (A DARKNESS MORE THAN NIGHT and RIGHT AS RAIN, respectively) and the new century in the genre really started to take shape.
So reading MOONLIGHT MILE was like time-travel. And it was nice, in a way, to revisit my early 20s, the promise and seemingly unlimited opportunities that those years represent, with so much latitude for trial and error. But obviously, I'm not in my 20s, and have happily moved on, learned from some mistakes and am doomed to repeat others in perpetuity.It's fine to look back; but I'd rather look forward.
And when it comes to my favorite writers, I am always asking, at the end of a new book, if there's a way for them to evolve further. THE GIVEN DAY, on top of SHUTTER ISLAND AND MYSTIC RIVER, was all about forward motion. MOONLIGHT MILE, while not exactly a step backwards, doesn't quite fit with the upwards trending line, even as it acknowledges changes in Patrick & Angie and Lehane himself, who's now put down more roots in Florida and has a child of his own.
So that underlying thinking is why I closed my review like this: "MOONLIGHT MILE is akin to that 10th-anniversary school reunion: old acquaintances to catch up with, old enemies to ignore or reevaluate, and lots of alcohol served up at the cash bar across the room. After the festivities end, it's time to get on with the business of day-to-day adulthood — and for Lehane to continue the forward motion promised by his most recent, more ambitious works."
I am, however, looking forward to what commentary will be generated within the crime fiction community. There's already plenty of coverage of MOONLIGHT MILE, including:
And no doubt there will be much more to come.
I admit I arrived at Bouchercon with a faraway look in my eye. A day late, with family obligations past and nostalgia trips and unexpected meetings with old friends to come, this year's convention wasn't going to be the immersive experience that BCons past have been for me. But as I've long believed and witnessed again and again, Bouchercon is what you make of it, and this year, it gladdened my heart to see so many fans, authors and book people experience the convention for the first time, or catch up with friends old and new, or share their experiences, photos and thoughts on blogs, Twitter and Facebook, and just generally remind why this community is so freaking great. So all thanks to Rae Helmsworth especially, who had a vision, worked hard to make it happen, and pulled things off in spades.
And I have to say, it was pretty damn cool to interview Kate Atkinson. She read the opening chapter of STARTED EARLY, TOOK MY DOG - out since August in the UK but not available till late March in the US - and the audience clearly wanted more. Kate was funny, charming, and delightfully contradictory, and my job was basically to feed questions and let her entertain the crowd, which she did to great effect (based on the signing line afterwards.)
So onwards to St. Louis. But for those in the Tri-State Area, I'll be at NoirCon in Philadelphia, which takes place between November 4 and 7. There are a lot of folks who were in SF and are migrating to Philly and, being a smaller convention, I expect the pace won't be as frenetic and the five minute conversations will expand accordingly.