Sunday, November 20, 2011

First of Three British Police Novels: James Craig, LONDON CALLING

After 30+ years as a journalist, James Craig talked Soho Crime into a three-book contract, starting with the just-released LONDON CALLING. Inspector John Carlyle is a mildly out of shape but loyal husband and father with a sensible sidekick (Joe Szyskowksi) and a rather distant female boss. He's human enough to be likable, and most if not all of his problems are due to not calling people back or not answering his cell phone. I like him.

LONDON CALLING does show its "debut" status, though, with some confused metaphors, contradictory adjectives, and, for my taste, a bit too much emphasis on the British class structure and the graphic consequences of anal sex. That said, though, the plot is quick and polished, the characters are highly believable, and I'll read the next one, in anticipation of a quick learning curve.

A sample of this police procedural:
Carlyle saw several hours of time wasting ahead of him and felt his body sag. He gritted his teeth to keep hold of his anger.

'This,' he said, pointing a finger at Brolin, 'had better not be one of your f***ed-up guests pissing about.' Aching with tiredness, Carlyle could feel himself starting to go off on one, but he was saved by Prentice putting a hand on his arm, gently telling him to give it a rest. It was a timely intervention, and Carlyle acknowledge it with a nod. He understood the sergeant's point: don't shoot the messenger -- even if he does appear to be a moron.
At the moment, the author's website isn't complete. Keep an eye on it; good things are likely.

Lawrence Block, Megan Abbott, Dwayne Swierczynski, Nancy Pickard, Barry Eisler

Barry Eisler

Nancy Pickard
All at once? Well, almost -- Dave and I spent an unreal number of days on the road this month, with absurd numbers of hours in the car. But it was worth it.

We headed first to New York City, to visit The Mysterious Bookshop, Otto Penzler's reliably wonderful shop "way downtown" -- for a presentation by three authors, MC'd by Lawrence Block. What can I say: It was worth every mile, and every swerve of the final taxi, to meet this author of so many lively and entertaining mysteries. Block stuck with the role of master of ceremonies, declining to talk about his current work or what's up ahead ("It's a secret") but giving some lively patter to introduce the three relatively younger authors lined up at the table. Megan Abbott brought out The End of Everything earlier in 2011, and I enjoyed it -- at first I thought it was a YA (young adult), but quickly realized its dark reflections were much better suited to an adult, especially one a bit nostalgic for the 1980s, when the story takes place. Abbott described it as "like a Grimm's fairy tale in the suburbs ... the results are fairly perilous and the wolf does indeed appear." Her next book "is about the dark heart of cheerleaders." Gulp.

Also on hand was Dwayne Swierczynski, whose name needs to become trained into the typing fingers for all the good books ahead from this author. He pitched his crime fiction Hell and Gone as a stand-alone, and the publisher requested a trilogy instead. Yes! He commented, "I like to give myself a pair of creative handcuffs," like putting all the action within a prison, or insisting that a book contain no swearing, and see what the pressure brings about, creatively. [Lawrence Block reckoned the same thing applies to his own Drop of the Hard Stuff.]

The third young author, whose initials that evening were Q.M., has since landed in such a swimming pool of fecal matter that we won't even go there. But darn it, he seemed such a nice person ...
Lawrence Block, at right, at The Mysterious Bookshop, NYC

Our next stop was outside Boston for the 10th eruption of the New England Crime Bake, with guests of honor Nancy Pickard and Barrry Eisler. Based on observation for three days, I can completely confirm that Pickard brings out the best in the people around her in every panel or conversation. How? By being both insightful and generous. She never tried (or needed) to push her own books forward -- instead, she pointed out the skilled work in the books of others, and drew out ideas about how to write well. I especially liked seeing her encourage Jennifer MacMahon and Brunonia Barry to "dish" about secrets and how they propel the plot forward, leading to depth and intensity. An example of her grace: "I'm a thirty-year overnight success. I just live long enough." Truth is, she pushes each of her novels beyond the predecessors, and The Scent of Rain and Lightning is already a classic of fine writing and immaculately paced suspense.

Seconding Pickard's recommendations about perseverance as a writer, flying star Barry Eisler (in the news a lot lately for his decision to have Amazon publish his next book, a sure-fire winner in his John Rain ex-CIA rebel sequence) confessed, "My attitude at the beginning was, 'If somebody has to be published, it might as well be me,' and I recommend that attitude." Simply, he added, "Write the best book you can possibly write." That's why we'll keep purchasing his.

Final result of all that running around: Dave added another 45 signed mysteries to our shelves. Some are quite scarce indeed ... and all of them, worth reading.

On the other hand, please, partner, can we spend next November just staying home and stuffing the turkey? And reading good books?

Friday, November 11, 2011

Catching Up With Maine Crime Writers Gerry Boyle, Lea Wait, Barb Ross ...

Gerry Boyle

Lea Wait
At the New England Crime Bake, it's great to catch up with authors you haven't seen in a while. Today I especially caught up with some Maine mystery authors, so here's a bit of news:

Gerry Boyle is working on his next Jack McMorrow book, savoring the differences between this investigator and the more wounded personality featured Boyle's other series, that of Brandon Blake, whose appearance in Port City Black and White gave us such a good read this season.

And Lea Wait reminded us that the Maine Crime Writers blog is featuring ... ta-da! ... the New England Crime Bake this week! Check it out here.

Had a great discussion with Barb Ross about reader involvement in the New England chapter of Sisters in Crime, and saw Kate Flora in passing. And meeting Donald Bain and Renée Paley-Bain, creators of the "Murder, She Wrote" series (set in Maine; the authors don't live there) was also a treat.

Tomorrow will be more geographically diverse, as the day starts with a talk from the Bains, Michael Palmer, Barry Eisler, and Nancy Pickard, moderated by Roberta Isleib. So ... how come you're not here? Three cheers for Sisters In Crime, which collaborates with Mystery Writers of America to pull this off each year. My kinda scene.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Deer Hunting Season, Vermont and Maine, and an Author to Watch: Paul Doiron, TRESPASSER and THE POACHER'S SON

Paul Doiron
Kingdom Books welcomes award-winning author Paul Doiron on Saturday Nov. 19 at 11 a.m., with a focus on Doiron's second book of crime fiction, TRESPASSER.

As we're getting ready (stacking up books, unfolding chairs, baking autumn treats), we're also firmly embedded in November's biggest calendar call for northern Vermont: deer season, or, more specifically, rifle hunting season for deer. It opens this Saturday, lasts for two weeks, and was preceded last weekend by a great state tradition, Youth Hunting Weekend.

Paul Doiron is a Registered Maine Guide (as well as editor-in-chief of Down East  -- the magazine, the book publisher, the website), and for him, "deer season" began a week and a half ago, as Maine's calendar works differently from Vermont's. But the issues are much the same: How much room is there for traditional live-off-the-land activities as the region becomes more heavily populated with people whose goals revolve more closely around high-speed Internet access or rescue of vulnerable species than around tracking wildlife? (Me, I like best the way some people are able to combine all of these into a range of personal passions. Reminder, no matter what your interest: Wear orange in the woods during deer season. It's only fair, and wise.)

Doiron's blog this week includes commentary on the hunting-related injuries and death in Maine this season, and the effect of news coverage and images related to those. It's worth reading.

And Dave and I hope you'll mark your own calendar to come meet this author on the 19th. Not only do the books -- TRESPASSER and THE POACHER'S SON -- draw on Doiron's life in and around the Maine woods, but they tap deep emotional conflicts between father and son ... and spin a taut, tense narrative of crime and consequences.


My mother used the memory device of "M, I, crooked letter crooked letter I, crooked letter crooked letter I, humpback humpback I" to spell Mississippi, so as soon as I saw the title of Tom Franklin's 2010 mystery, I knew something about it. And I waited until I wouldn't be rushed in reading it, remembering the slow relentless power of the Mississippi landscape, weather, and people. Most recently, the book won the CWA (Crime Writers Association) Gold Dagger Award in October.

CROOKED LETTER, CROOKED LETTER captures all of that. Although it's tucked into the mystery shelves for the crimes that open the book -- abductions, presumed murders, of two local girls, and a local constable hoping to find clues toward solving them -- count this as a deep and resonant novel, well outside the usual heart of the genre. And yet it's comparable to John Hart's Down River, which Dave and I have shelved among our mysteries. But it's also close in some ways to that great classic, Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy.

Take a look at the author's page provided by HarperCollins; and here's a good review by the Washington Post. Enough said. Well worth reading.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

THE BOY IN THE SUITCASE: Available Nov. 8, Scandinavian Noir

Thank goodness for the pressure to translate the top Scandinavian crime fiction -- which brings us, this week, the first dark and intense translated book in the series featuring Nina Borg, a Danish Red Cross nurse.

Written by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis, and deftly translated to English by Kaaberbøl herself, THE BOY IN THE SUITCASE stakes out new ground in modern noir. Borg herself is a determined, dedicated professional, working at a known sanctuary for battered women. She's no savior figure or superhero -- just one of those people who witnesses and tries to assist the painful one-step-forward, two-steps-back process of women attempting to take back their lives. Brutality, compulsion, power. She knows them. But she doesn't live at home with them, where she has a husband and two children of her own.

But her friends, even her long estranged friend Karin, know Nina's abilities and dedication. So when Karin entraps Nina in a situation where Nina collects a suitcase from a Copenhagen train station, and the suitcase contains a three-year-old child, naked, drugged, but thank goodness, very much alive and grieving, Nina takes on the responsibility of saving the child and searching for his home.

Danger and risk -- in today's most frightening forms of child trafficking, moneyed criminals, and mob connections -- follow the child and Nina. Yet there are no dramatic kick-boxing or firearms scenes, no made-for-TV car chases, no wise mentors or rescuers drifting into the scenes. Instead, Kaaberbøl and Friis powerfully present the horror of everyday challenges in escaping evil: the moment you've lost your cell phone in the woods while hearing danger behind you, and you've got to take care of a small child:
Her heart gave a wild leap and raced even faster under her sweat-soaked T-shirt. She stumbled to her feet, still with the boy locked in her arms.

And then she ran.

The boy's body was tense with resistance and difficult to manage, and she felt the extra weight now in her knees and ankles. She was getting older, she thought, too old to be fleeing with a child in her arms.

Seconds later, she reached the Fiat and yanked open the door to the driver's seat.
The very ordinariness of the characters and scenes in THE BOY IN THE SUITCASE push its powerful dramatic pace and make it at times quite terrifying. I found myself taking breaks from the emotions that every parent or grandparent knows: anguish at the dangers that life sends flying toward our children, terror at what could happen to them, clenched fists and heart as we become their defenders, at any cost.

Here's the ultimate opposite of the era's already noted Scandinavian thriller, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, for the committed women in Kaaberbøl and Friis's narrative aren't twisted by abuse, aren't crippled by their pasts -- they take hold of what they must, and they race for safety, carrying a toddler if necessary, screaming internally but running as fast as they can.

It's a great new addition to the shelf, whether on the Scandinavian side, the thriller side, the darkly driven crime fiction side, or as an investigation of how the ordinary can rise to compelling significance. Pre-order a copy online or reserve it at your local shop; the first printings (brought to us by the talent spotters at Soho Crime) are likely to fly into buyers' hands, and collectors in particular should grab them while they're available.