Saturday, November 28, 2015

We Could Use Your Help

Yes, it seems the time has come once more to begin pulling together our longlist of nominees for The Rap Sheet’s annual Best Crime Fiction Covers competition. 2014 saw a clear winner in Jonathan Pelham’s exquisitely melodramatic façade for the British edition of The Black-Eyed Blonde (Mantle), the latest high-profile Philip Marlowe pastiche, written by Benjamin Black (aka John Banville). But as we look over the book fronts produced this year, it’s harder to spot a similarly inevitable champion. There are myriad outstanding choices--and maybe more than we realize. So we’d like to solicit your help in making sure we haven’t neglected any worthy contenders.

You’re all well read and extraordinarily sharp-eyed, right? Well, which crime, mystery, and thriller book fronts--first released in 2015, in either hardcover or paperback, from either side of the Atlantic--do you think really stood out from the crowd? Which have demonstrated remarkable use of typography, photography, and/or original illustrations? If you’d like to see the jackets that have drawn our attention in the past, click here. Then drop us an e-mail note with your best-cover picks for the present year. Be sure to include the name and author of any novel you suggest, plus--if at all possible--a link to where we might view the cover artwork online. Working from your choices as well as our own finds, we’ll collect 12 to 15 covers we think are deserving of recognition, and post them in early December, inviting everyone to vote for their favorites.

Let us know soon which covers you think merit particular appreciation.

Sampling New Blood

As part of its fifth-annual New Talent November celebration, editors with the British Web site Crime Fiction Lover have put together two posts dedicated to what they call the “unsung heroes of crime fiction,” contemporary authors who aren’t yet household names, but whose work they deem “well worth the attention of our worldwide readership.” Included among the writers touted are G.J. Minett (The Hidden Legacy), Angel Luis Colón (The Fury of Black Jaguar), M.J. Lee (Death in Shanghai), and Olly Jarvis (Death by Dangerous). You will find Part I of this coverage here, and Part II here.

To find all of the New Talent November posts, click here.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

He Likes to Watch

As California author Lee Goldberg has explained, he began writing what’s now the 828-page volume, Unsold Television Pilots: 1955-1989, “when I was nine years old.” That was long before he’d commenced penning episodes of Diagnosis: Murder and Monk, or concocted the Monk tie-in novels, and well prior to his co-creating independent publisher Brash Books or partnering up with Janet Evanovich on their Nicolas Fox/Kate O’Hare thrillers (The Scam). “By the time I finished it,” Goldberg notes of this work, “I was in my early twenties and was far enough along in my TV career that one of my filmed, unsold pilots actually became an entry in this book (If You Knew Sammy, a potential spin-off from Spenser: For Hire). I appreciated the irony. It somehow seemed fitting.”

When it was first published in the pre-Internet Revolution days of 1989, Unsold Television Pilots was pretty much the go-to resource for information about “would-be TV shows that never were.” There have been versions published since then (including a two-volume iUniverse release), but this new paperback edition is the ultimate prize--updated and corrected and made available at reasonable expense to onetime boob-tube junkies like me who are old enough to harbor fond memories of many of the prospective series mentioned. What’s equally satisfying is finding listings here for pilot films I don’t recall watching. I guess I must’ve had something else going on in my life on those nights …

Goldberg breaks his thousands of entries down a chapter per year, and within those chapters he divides his write-ups further by network (there were only three of those for most of the period under consideration here), and then again by Comedy or Drama--the latter of which interests me most. Flipping through these pages, I came across so many pilots that I’d hoped would spawn entries in my regular boyhood TV schedule. Shows such as Last Hours Before Morning (aka Delaney), a 1975 NBC film starring Ed Lauter as a cop-turned-house detective working at a Los Angeles apartment-hotel complex in the 1940s, who moonlights as a private eye. Or Hernandez (aka Hernandez: Houston P.D.), another NBC tryout--this one from 1973--which found former High Chaparral actor Henry Darrow playing a Mexican-American police detective in Houston, Texas. (The fact that Darrow was actually Puerto Rican didn’t seem to matter to anyone involved in the production.) Or ABC’s The Adventures of Nick Carter (1972), with ex-Wild Wild West leading man Robert Conrad in the role of dime-novel sleuth and “master of disguise” Nick Carter. (Sadly, that pilot was deemed overly violent.) Or The Judge and Jake Wyler, which was executive-produced by William Link and Richard Levinson of Columbo fame, and cast Bette Davis as “a retired [and hypochondriacal] judge who becomes a private eye. She is assisted in her investigations by Doug McClure, an ex-con serving his probation with her.” (This concept was retooled in 1973 as Partners in Crime, starring Lee Grant and Lou Antonio, but again failed to sell.)

My memory is less clear about such series ideas as ABC’s The Bravos (1972), which imagined future Banacek star George Peppard as a post-Civil War “U.S. Cavalry commander … trying to raise his 12-year-old son (Vincent Van Patten) in an outpost right in the heart of Indian country.” And I have no recollection whatsoever of Stone (ABC, 1973) starring Robert Hooks as “a high-priced, black private eye working in Santa Monica who is choosy about his cases”; or Dead Man on the Run, a 1975 ABC audition for a series that would’ve been called New Orleans Force, starring Mission: Impossible’s Peter Graves as the head of “an elite crime-fighting force”; or Jake’s Way, a 1980 pilot with Robert Fuller (Emergency!) portraying a sheriff in rural Texas; or Big Rose: Double Trouble, a 1973 CBS drama that featured Shelly Winters as “streetwise private eye Rose Winters,” who hires a “young, inexperienced investigator (Barry Primus) who sees humor in things she takes quite seriously--like life or death situations.” (Any resemblance to the set-up of Erle Stanley Gardner’s Bertha Cool/Donald Lam series was, I’m sure, purely coincidental.)

Some of the long-forgotten series wannabes that Goldberg mentions here--such as NBC’s The Underground Man (1974), in which Peter Graves played Ross Macdonald’s private eye, Lew Archer, and Mr. Inside/Mr. Outside (1973), which starred Tony Lo Bianco as a Manhattan police detective who loses an arm in a gunfight but keeps working (unofficially, of course) with his former cop partner, Hal Linden--I have managed to collect over the last few years, either by downloading them from YouTube or purchasing pirated DVD versions. Others, though, feel like my own Moby Dicks, films I have hunted without success. Those include Travis McGee (ABC, 1983), with Sam Elliott portraying John D. MacDonald’s famous “salvage expert,” working from a screenplay by Stirling Silliphant; The Jordan Chance (NBC, 1978), a Stephen J. Cannell-produced pilot with Raymond Burr as “an attorney who was once wrongly imprisoned and is now dedicated to helping others who are unjustly accused or punished for crimes they did not commit”; Panache (ABC, 1976), casting Rene Auberjonois in a “lighthearted adventure [that] was set in the 17th century and followed the exploits of Panache, a poet, romanticist, and the best swordsman in France, and his musketeers …”; and the aforementioned Partners in Crime. Someday, I know, I’ll manage to track down these flicks. But for now, I can do no better than to keep my spear handy.

When Goldberg brought his revised edition of Unsold Television Pilots into print a few months ago, he also brought out (thanks to the wonders of on-demand publishing) reworkings of two smaller, related books that he composed years ago. The first of those is The Best TV Shows That Never Were, which--at a comparatively anorexic 226 pages--is a “best of” culling of entries from Unsold Television Pilots. The other one, titled Television Fast Forward: Sequels & Remakes of Cancelled Series, 1955-1992 (250 pages), focuses on programs that--for better or worse--were given second shots on the air, often in the form of one-off TV films (e.g., 1988’s Bonanza: The Next Generation and 1989’s The Return of Sam McCloud), though sometimes as revival series, such as Bret Maverick (1981-1982) and the 1988-1990 revamping of Mission: Impossible.

All three of these books are copiously researched and often amusing, and they’d make excellent presents for graying TV geeks on your holiday gift list. If I found myself disappointed in any way, it’s only that I wanted to know more about many of the shows cited.

READ MORE:Hilarious Unsold Pilots” and “More Great Unsold
,” by Ken Levine.

Happy Thanksgiving, Everyone!

This won’t be a completely quiet day here at The Rap Sheet. I have a holiday gift-book review waiting to be posted within the next hour or so. But I am possessed of other responsibilities today, including cooking dressing for our family’s communal feast, and figuring out something interesting to do with the salad I’m also supposed to bring. So for now, I shall just pass along to my American readers best wishes for a peaceful and memorable Thanksgiving.

READ MORE:How the Thanksgiving Turkey Was Named After the Country Turkey,” by James Harbeck (The Week); “Are You Truly Thankful for the Good Books You Already Have?” by Danny Heitman (The Christian Science Monitor).

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Casey Brings the Heat

Jane Casey, the Dublin-born author of the Detective Constable Maeve Kerrigan series has won the 2015 Ireland AM Crime Book of the Year for her latest Kerrigan novel, After the Fire (Ebury Press). That announcement was made earlier this evening.

Also shortlisted for the prize were Even the Dead, by Benjamin Black (Viking); Freedom’s Child, by Jax Miller (HarperCollins); Are You Watching Me? by Sinéad Crowley (Quercus); Only We Know, by Karen Perry (Penguin); and The Game Changer, by Louise Phillips (Hachette).

The Ireland AM Crime Book of the Year was only one of several categories in the 2015 Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards competition. You will find the full roster of recipients by clicking here.

READ MORE:Jane Casey’s After the Fire Wins the Irish Crime Novel of the Year,” by Declan Burke (Crime Always Pays).

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Talents Show

Just over a week ago, Kirkus Reviews announced the names of its regular critics’ 18 favorite crime, mystery, and thriller novels published during 2015. I wasn’t part of that selection process, but today I get my say, too. I’ve devoted my new Kirkus column to the 10 works of crime fiction I “found to be the most memorable” over the last year. These include works by David Morrell, Paula Hawkins, Philip Kerr, Lori Rader-Day, Max Allan Collins, and…well, you’ll just have to click here to peruse the full list of my picks.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Pierce’s Picks

A weekly alert for followers of crime, mystery, and thriller fiction.

American Blood, by Ben Sanders (Minotaur), pitches us into the company of Marshall Grade, a former New York City cop who--thanks to an undercover operation gone wrong--is now in the federal Witness Security Program (WITSEC) and living out in Santa Fe, New Mexico. His chief task is to stay low and clear of the headlines. Grade’s interpretation of those instructions leads him to sublet the safe house provided for his use, have minimal contact with his WITSEC handler, and avoid leaving a paper trail. However, Grade still feels guilty for the mess he left behind in New York, and that leads him to make a serious error: he goes looking for Alyce Ray, a young woman who’s disappeared and who reminds him of somebody else he once knew. In the course of his search, Grade manages to piss off a couple of felons and draw exactly the sort of attention that could leave him dead at the hands of a hit man on his trail. This is pretty much a modern-day Western, written by a young New Zealander whose fiction I encountered initially while helping to judge the 2014 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel (his tale Only the Dead was among the eight longlisted nominees for that year’s prize). American Blood is so cinematic in its styling, it’s no wonder that Hollywood has already acquired film writes to Sanders’ yarn. Meanwhile, The Yellow Diamond (Faber and Faber UK) finds novelist Andrew Martin, familiar for his books about early 20th-century British railway sleuth Jim Stringer (Night Train to Jamalpur), launching what could become a second series. This one stars Detective Inspector Blake Reynolds, who has assumed command of a special unit of the Metropolitan Police set up to keep tabs on the super-rich. That unit’s creator, Detective Superintendent George Quinn, comes from a privileged background that has left him comfortable rubbing elbows with the champagne-and-Lambourghinis set; Reynolds, who grew up on a northern housing estate, is considerably less at ease. But Quinn has been shot and left in a coma, and Reynolds will have to polish his shoes and his lifestyle, in general, if he’s to hobnob with the Russian oligarchs and others he must question in order to solve the attack on DS Quinn. Fortunately--even if it doesn’t seem so right off the bat--Reynolds has the help of Quinn’s personal assistant, Victoria Clifford. Might she, though, be concealing information he needs to do his job?

Click here to see more of this season’s most-wanted books.

Acknowledging Mosley as a Master

The Mystery Writers of America (MWA) has announced that Walter Mosley, author of the Easy Rawlins and Leonid McGill detective novels, will be the recipient of its 2016 Grand Master Award. That prize, which “represents the pinnacle of achievement in mystery writing and was established to acknowledge important contributions to this genre,” is set to be presented to Mosley during the Edgar Awards banquet, scheduled for Thursday, April 28, in New York City.

Mosley responded to the news this way: “Receiving the Grand Master Award is the apex of my career as a crime writer; as a writer. It is, joyfully, one of the seminal events of my life.” Previous MWA Grand Master winners include Lois Duncan and James Ellroy, Robert Crais and Carolyn Hart, and Ken Follett and Margaret Maron.

Two other varieties of commendations are also to be handed out during the April Edgars event: a couple of Raven Awards (“recognize[ing] outstanding achievement in the mystery field outside the realm of creative writing”) will go to Margaret Kinsman, the former executive editor of Clues: A Journal of Detection, as well as to the organization Sisters in Crime; and Janet Rudolph, director of the fan-based Mystery Readers International, editor of Mystery Readers Journal, and creator of the Mystery Fanfare blog, will be given the 2016 Ellery Queen Award, honoring “outstanding writing teams and outstanding people in the mystery-publishing industry.”

Congratulations to all of these prize beneficiaries!

(Hat tip to The Gumshoe Site.)

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Let Your Opinion Be Known

Only three days remain in the final round of Goodreads’ online process to select the “best books of 2015.” After two qualifying cycles, 10 novels are left in the mystery and thriller category:

Pretty Girls, by Karin Slaughter (Morrow)
Die Again, by Tess Gerritsen (Ballantine)
Marrow, by Tarryn Fisher (CreateSpace)
Obsession in Death, by J.D. Robb (Putnam)
The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins (Riverhead)
The English Spy, by Daniel Silva (Harper)
The Nature of the Beast, by Louise Penny (Minotaur)
Career of Evil, by Robert Galbraith (Mulholland)
The Stranger, by Harlan Coben (Dutton)
Finders Keepers, by Stephen King (Scribner)

Vote here for your favorite. Polling will conclude this coming Monday, November 23. If you’d like to make your preferences known in other Goodreads Choice Awards categories, click here.

The winners will be announced on December. 1

Friday, November 20, 2015

Bullet Points: Completely Hate-Free Edition

• Megan Abbott talks with Entertainment Weekly about the inspiration for her next novel, You Will Know Me (due out in July 2016) “and why the worlds of adolescent girls keep pulling her back.”

• I should make a poster of this quote and hang it above my favorite reading chair. The statement comes from 19th-century Scottish philosopher-essayist Thomas Carlyle: “If time is precious, no book that will not improve by repeated readings deserves to be read at all.”

• This is most welcome news: TV Obscurities reports that Visual Entertainment Inc. (VEI) has licensed 11 older American TV dramas for future DVD release. They include two of my personal favorites, Bill Bixby’s The Magician (NBC, 1973-1974) and James Franciscus’ Longstreet (ABC, 1971-1972), together with Christopher George’s The Immortal (ABC, 1970-1971), William Conrad’s Nero Wolfe (NBC, 1981), and others. “No release dates or details are available,” explains TV Obscurities. All of these shows appear on VEI’s Coming Soon page alongside others such as Barry Newman’s Petrocelli (NBC, 1974-1976) and Lee Horsley’s Matt Houston (ABC, 1982–1985). All are programs that have languished far too long in limbo, while a variety of second-rate series were moved to the head of the DVD line. Thank goodness VEI is finally stepping up to correct this injustice.

The opening title sequence from Longstreet.

• Let me offer a toast to Martin Edwards, who this month became president of Britain’s esteemed Detection Club. “The high point of my crime writing life” is how he describes the honor in this blog post.

• Linwood Barclay fans, take note. Bookreporter is hosting a contest to promote his latest novel, Broken Promise (NAL). Twenty-three “personalized signed” copies of Barclay’s thriller are set to be given away. The idea is to nominate somebody from your holiday gift list who you think would like to receive Broken Promise. You’ll find the entry form here. This contest is open only to U.S. residents, and entries will be accepted from now through Monday, December 7.

• In my Killer Covers blog today, I look back at the wonderful, mid-20th-century paperback artistry of Robert Foster.

• Janet Rudolph has spent years putting together lists of holiday-appropriate reading material for her blog, Mystery Fanfare. Finally, she has created a separate page dedicated to those sometimes lengthy lists. Click here to find her rundowns of Thanksgiving mysteries, Chanukah mysteries, Christmas mysteries, and more.

• Canadian broadcaster CTV “is getting into the serialized drama game, beginning with Giles Blunt’s award-winning John Cardinal mysteries,” reports TV, Eh? “Bell Media announced the ordering of the six-part Cardinal (working title) from Toronto-based Sienna Films and Entertainment One. Adapted from Forty Words for Sorrow [2000], the upcoming project--set to bow as part of CTV’s 2016-17 broadcast schedule--follows detective John Cardinal and his new partner, Lise Delorme, as they investigate the death of Katie Pine, a 13-year-old discovered in an abandoned mine. Production on Cardinal is scheduled to begin in February 2016 in Northern Ontario ...”

• Shotsmag Confidential offers a wrap-up of book-to-broadcast bits, including this item about one of my favorite Len Deighton novels:
A new period drama for the BBC is SS-GB from the pen of Len Deighton. The drama is likely to end up being a five-part limited series. Kate Bosworth will star in the role [of American reporter] Barbara Barga alongside Sam Riley, who is set [to] play the role of [Detective Superintendent Douglas] Archer. Adapted by screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, the story takes place in London 1941 and [follows] a ‘what-would-have-happened-if’ scenario. The novel, published in 1978, was a popular book and has become an iconic alternate history tome.
• Literary Hub has posted this fine piece about the ways in which Raymond Chandler’s divided life--he was born in Chicago, but educated in Britain before returning to the States--affected his storytelling.

• If you haven’t been checking in regularly on Nancie Clare’s Speaking of Mysteries podcast series, you have missed out on some fun. In her latest interview--found here--she talks with Robert Crais, author of the new Elvis Cole/Joe Pike/Jon Stone/Scott James and Maggie the LAPD K-9 novel, The Promise (Putnam).

• I am ridiculously far behind in watching NBC-TV’s new crime drama Blindspot, about “a beautiful woman (Jaimie Alexander) with no memories of her past, [who] is found naked in Times Square with her body fully covered in intricate tattoos. Her discovery sets off a vast and complex mystery that immediately ignites the attention of the FBI, which begins to follow the road map on her body to reveal a larger conspiracy of crime while bringing her closer to discovering the truth about her identity.” But news that the program has been renewed for a second season is impetus for me to catch up.

• Meanwhile, Double O Section has word that Agent Carter, Marvel’s kick-ass period spy drama starring Hayley Atwell and James D’Arcy, will return to the ABC-TV schedule on January 5 with a two-hour episode. “This season,” writes Matthew Bradford (aka Tanner), “Peggy Carter relocates to Los Angeles and finds 1949 Tinseltown teeming with noirish plots and conspiracies in the early days of the Cold War.” Click over to Double O Section to watch a Season 2 trailer.

• Another interesting item, this from In Reference to Murder:
Brenda Starr, the glamorous, feisty redheaded reporter created by Dale Messick, captivated newspaper readers from 1940 through the comic’s demise in 2011. But Brenda Starr is staging a comeback to headline a mystery novel series created by USA Today bestselling author J.J. Salem, with the first title, Black Orchid Murders, set for publication in Spring 2016. The 21st-century version finds the character in her early 40s working as a TV pundit and visiting college professor. But she returns to hard news at a digital start-up when a series of murders targeting Chicago’s elite hits too close to home, “all while navigating the complexities of modern life with a younger lover, a tycoon ex-husband and a head-strong, college-aged daughter showing signs of becoming Brenda Starr 2.0.”
Naturally, there’s a Facebook page set up for these new Brenda Starr Mysteries. It includes illustrations of the rebooted reporter that make her look like a woman in her 20s, not one who’s pushing 50.

Steve Aldous, an expert on the exploits of 1970s New York private eye John Shaft, provides a brief synopsis in his blog of Shaft: Imitation of Life #1, the first of four entries in a new graphic novel series composed by David F. Walker, “due for publication in February 2016 alongside Walker’s novel, Shaft’s Revenge.”

On the right is a great present idea for fans (yours truly included) of the old Perry Mason TV series. I’d like the dark blue version, please.

• Browsing through these century-old postcards of the sites involved in last week’s Paris terrorist attacks reminds us that “there is something essential to the experience of living in Paris that involves spending time outside on its streets, whether to shop, observe, drink, eat, dance, talk or listen,” writes Alex Toledano in The New York Times Magazine. Paris’ “architecture invites people to continue to explore, to take wrong turns, to fall in love, to protest and simply to have a drink in the same places, streets and buildings that countless others have in the past.”

• Musing on Paris reminds me of some favorite old paperback book covers featuring France and that nation’s capital, specifically.

• David Cranmer is rewatching Breaking Bad for Criminal Element, and writing about each installment along the way. Here are his comments about the show’s 2008 pilot. Cranmer is up to episode five already--only 57 more to go. Follow his whole series of posts here.

Was best-selling thriller writer Robert Ludlum murdered?

• Brash Books, the independent publishing house created by Lee Goldberg and Joel Goldman, wins valuable notice on the Mystery Scene Web site, thanks to its three most recent releases, one of which I wrote about recently, The Last Good Place, by Robin Burcell.

• As part of its fifth-anniversary celebration earlier this month, Mystery People--a mystery-fiction seller located within Austin, Texas’ largest independent bookstore, Book People--posted a list of its “Top 100 Crime & Suspense Novels.” The complete list, which you will find here, includes such durable favorites as Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress, Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, George V. Higgins’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Ross Macdonald’s The Way Some People Die, Chester Himes’ Cotton Comes to Harlem, Ellis Peters’ A Morbid Taste for Bones, Jim Thompson’s Pop. 1280, Megan Abbott’s Dare Me, and … hey, there are 100 of the damn things. Do you expect me to list them all?

• Congratulations to Brian Abbott for his five years of blogging at The Poisoned Martini. “It hardly seems like it’s been that long,” he observes. Boy, can I sympathize! The Rap Sheet is coming up on its 10th anniversary in May, but it seems like only yesterday that I was wondering whether I might have a future in blogging.

• Speaking of 10th anniversaries, editor Elizabeth Foxwell noted earlier this month that she’s also spent the last decade blogging about mystery and crime fiction at The Bunburyist. Excellent work!

• Included in its new selection of “15 Great and Bookish Gift Ideas for the Holidays,” Pornokitsch mentions editor Sarah Weinman’s Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & ’50s (Library of America) as well as one of my favorite volumes from last year, The Art of Robert E. McGinnis (Titan).

• Here’s something I didn’t know until reading about it on cop-turned-author Paul Bishop’s Facebook page:
In 1970, Leave It to Beaver’s Ken Osmond [“Eddie Haskell”] joined the Los Angeles Police Department after typecasting curtailed his acting career. He grew a mustache in an effort to secure his anonymity. He worked in vice and narcotics and as a motorcycle officer.

On September 20, 1980, Osmond was hit by three bullets while in a foot chase with a suspected car thief. He was protected from two of the bullets by his bulletproof vest. The third bullet ricocheting off of his belt buckle. Osmond was placed on disability and eventually retired from the force in 1988. The shooting was later dramatized in a November 1992 episode of the CBS series
Top Cops.
Once Upon a Spy--the James Bond film you’ll never see, penned by Frost/Nixon screenwriter Peter Morgan and featuring a plot that “began during the Cold War with Judi Dench’s M an MI6 agent stationed in Berlin.” Although Morgan’s story was eventually rejected, it had an affect on the new Skyfall.

• I’ve never read Kingsley Amis’ 1968 James Bond novel, Colonel Sun, but David B. Hobbs’ remarks about the book in Hazlitt certainly make me want to track down a copy.

The mystery of 003½: The Adventures of James Bond Junior.

• Novelist Ian Rankin (Even Dogs in the Wild) “shares some of the secrets to his success” in this short piece published by Canada’s Globe and Mail. Rankin also takes part in the latest Crime Vault Live podcast, hosted by Michael Carlson and Mark Billingham. Listen to that and previous episodes by clicking here.

• Frederick Forsyth’s new autobiography, The Outsider: My Life in Intrigue, hasn’t yet found a place in my to-be-read pile. But Irish author-critic Declan Burke’s declaration that it’s “an enthralling account of a life that would make for a thrilling, if delightfully implausible, novel” makes me curious to learn more.

• Some interviews worth checking out: Pulp Curry’s Andrew Nette talks with film noir expert Eddie Muller; Sons of Spade’s Jochem van der Steen fires questions at S.W. Lauden, the author of Bad Citizen Corporation; and Crimespree Magazine’s Elise Cooper chats up Frederick Forsyth about the aforementioned The Outsider, which he says is his final book (“I hope I am going out on top.”).

R.I.P., P.F. Sloan, co-writer of the song “Secret Agent Man,” which The Spy Command calls “an anthem for the 1960s spy craze.” That song figured into the opening titles of at least two TV shows, the 1960-1968 UK series Secret Agent Man (aka Danger Man) and UPN’s somewhat sexier 2000 drama, Secret Agent Man.

Oh no, not another theory of Jack the Ripper’s identity!

• And I could swear that the last time I passed through North Bend, Washington--where the 1990-1991 ABC-TV series Twin Peaks was partially filmed--the former Mar-T Café, which became that show’s “Double R Diner” and was later rechristened Twede’s Café, had lost its tourist appeal, thanks to arson and a subsequent rebuilding. However, the Atlas Obscura Web site reports that the old diner has recouped its classic character: “As part of the production of the new season of Twin Peaks (and on the production company’s dime), the interior of Twede’s Café has been fully restored to the moody, campy diner of our fondest Lynchian memories. The restaurant will once again serve as the shooting location for the Double R Diner. The renovations are reportedly permanent and will stay in place after shooting wraps.”

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The “Post” Posts Its Preferences

This is turning out to be a big week for publications announcing their favorite books published in 2015. The latest one to broadcast its reading preferences is The Washington Post, which has selected only five “Best Mystery Books and Thrillers” of the year:

A Banquet of Consequences, by Elizabeth George (Viking)
Brush Back, by Sara Paretsky (Putnam)
Dark Corners, by Ruth Rendell (Scribner)
Rogue Lawyer, by John Grisham (Doubleday)
The Whites, by Richard Price as Harry Brandt (Henry Holt)

Meanwhile, a few novels that could just have well have been categorized under crime fiction instead show up in the Post’s list of general fiction:

Delicious Foods, by James Hannaham (Little, Brown)
Eileen, by Ottessa Moshfegh (Penguin Press)
Finders Keepers, by Stephen King (Scribner)
GBH, by Ted Lewis (Soho Crime)
Girl Waits with Gun, by Amy Stewart (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
The Strangler Vine, by M.J. Carter (Putnam)

Monday, November 16, 2015

“Kirkus” Singles Out Its Stars

Not to be left behind when it comes to choosing the “best mysteries and thrillers of 2015,” Kirkus Reviews has assembled a list of its critics’ favorite 18 works published during the last 11 months. Among the picks are Derek Haas’ A Different Lie, Sue Grafton’s X, Louise Penny’s The Nature of the Beast, John Connolly’s A Song of Shadows, Emily Schultz’s The Blondes, and David Mark’s Taking Pity.

Although I serve as Kirkus’ lead crime-fiction blogger, I was not involved in this selection process. My own (quite different) rundown of preferred reads from the genre will be posted next week.

Kirkus’ choices in other categories of fiction are available here.

Pierce’s Picks

A weekly alert for followers of crime, mystery, and thriller fiction.

We have a couple of really cold cases here. First up: The Girl in the Ice (Bloomsbury USA), by Danish sister and brother Lotte and Søren Hammer. This sequel to 2013’s The Hanging reacquaints us with Detective Chief Superintendent Konrad Simonsen of the Copenhagen Homicide Division, who is flown--together with fellow cop Arne Pedersen--to Greenland, where the half-naked body of a young Danish woman has been found kneeling in a shallow grave carved into the ice. (Denmark, which historically held sovereignty over Greenland, granted it home rule in 1979, but apparently the Greenlanders still summon help from the Danish police when confronted with extraordinary crimes.) The corpse is located far from any traces of civilization on the world’s largest island, and has been there for a quarter-century. Only ice melt in our age of global warming has finally exposed it. As Simonson and his squad get busy trying to suss out the victim’s identity, they also unearth facts that could prove most inconvenient to certain powerful individuals, making their job even more trying. Most worrisome is that this isn’t an isolated murder; there have been previous victims, all of whom bear a remarkable resemblance, with perhaps more to come. The Girl in the Ice is a meticulously wrought police procedural with a complicated but credible resolution. Meanwhile, Michael Genelin’s For the Dignified Dead (Brash) brings back Commander Jana Matinova of the Slovak Criminal Police (Siren of the Waters, Dark Dreams), who in these pages must untangle the circumstances behind the dumping of an anonymous woman’s remains in the frozen Danube at Bratislava. The deceased was slain with an ice pick, much like another victim recently recovered in Vienna, Austria. It’s a murderous but familiar methodology that makes Matinova, a fallible judge’s daughter turned cop, believe she could again be on the trail of an abhorrent adversary from her past, one she has no intention of letting get away again--even if it means chasing across Europe, unraveling a big-money scheme and making herself a target for hired guns. Lawyer-author Genelin once served with the U.S. Department of Justice in Central Europe, so he knows his turf well. Fans of Olen Steinhauer’s early Eastern Bloc thrillers (The Bridge of Sighs, etc.) should find similar delights in the Commander Matinova books.

Click here to see more of this season’s most-wanted books.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Wait, That’s Not 10

Earlier it was Amazon’s picks. Now, via its Facebook page, comes The Strand Magazine’s list of its “Top Ten Books of 2015.”

1. The Killing Kind, by Chris Holm (Mulholland)
2. Solitude Creek, by Jeffery Deaver (Grand Central)
3. The Fixer, by Joseph Finder (Dutton)
4. Broken Promise, by Linwood Barclay (NAL)
5. Dark Places, by Reavis Z. Wortham (Poisoned Pen Press)
6. A Pattern of Lies, by Charles Todd (Morrow)
7. Constant Fear, by Daniel Palmer (Kensington)
8. The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins (Riverhead)
9. All the Old Knives, by Olen Steinhauer (Minotaur)
10. The Stranger, by Harlan Coben (Dutton)
11. The Hot Countries, by Tim Hallinan (Soho Crime)
12. The Dead Student, by John Katzenbach (Mysterious Press)

Top Reads, Top Buys

We’re definitely into “best books of 2015” season now.

Just in time for present buying, online retailer Amazon has released its editors’ picks of this year’s top crime, mystery, and thriller novels. The 20 selections include works by David Lagercrantz, Don Winslow, Lee Child, Sue Grafton, and Robert Galbraith. The site gives top honors in this category to Paula Hawkins’ suspenseful The Girl on the Train (Riverhead). The only surprise on the list might be T.C. Boyle’s The Harder They Come (Ecco), which I missed reading, having not thought of it as crime fiction.

You’ll find Amazon’s “best books” choices in all categories here.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Hello Again, Mr. Shaft

2016 will mark 45 years since the premiere of Shaft, the 1971 motion-picture adaptation of Ernest Tidyman’s novel of that same name, which had introduced a cool, black, kick-ass New York City private eye named John Shaft. The book was succeeded by half a dozen sequels and has had an enduring, popular influence on crime and thriller fiction. The film, starring college football player-turned-fashion model Richard Roundtree, helped give rise to the lower-budget blaxploitation genre, which spawned movies such as Super Fly and Trouble Man. It also spun off a 1973-1974 CBS-TV series that, despite its disappointingly tame action sequences and producers’ ardent efforts to shave all the rough and randy spots off Roundtree’s street-smart shamus, still managed to stand out in an entertainment medium that had by then seen few African-American leading men.

In anticipation of the nostalgic press likely to surround Shaft’s 45th anniversary, publisher McFarland & Company has released The World of Shaft: A Complete Guide to the Novels, Comic Strip, Films, and Television Series. Written by Steve Aldous, a 54-year-old employee of Britain’s banking industry (and an occasional Rap Sheet contributor), this handsome paperback is a Shaft fan’s dream. As I explain in my latest Kirkus Reviews column:
The World of Shaft delves into the plots and development of those seven novels, and their lasting impact on thriller fiction. (It’s not at all hard, for instance, to find Shaft’s DNA coursing through the veins of characters such as Jack Reacher.) It offers similarly meticulous examinations of the original Shaft films, as well as Samuel L. Jackson’s cringe-worthy 2000 “sequel,” Shaft. Beyond that, Aldous looks back at what New York City was like in the early 1970s (“a very different city from today with a high crime rate, corruption within the police force and a growing level of social disorder”), provides the most thorough biography possible of John Shaft (and lesser portraits of his supporting players), recounts the unraveling of plans to launch a Shaft newspaper comic strip and, of course, revisits the short-lived TV drama that first brought Shaft to his attention.
I jumped at the chance recently to ask Aldous, via e-mail, a number of questions about subjects ranging from his boyhood introduction to John Shaft and the extensive research he did for this book, to author Ernest Tidyman’s disappointment in how Shaft was portrayed on-screen and his employment of ghostwriters, to the much-anticipated new novella, Shaft’s Revenge, by David F. Walker, that’s been slated for publication next February. I was only able to fit a few small chunks of our exchange into my new Kirkus piece, so I’m going to roll the whole thing out for you below. Sit back, crank up the volume on Isaac Hayes’ Oscar-winning Shaft theme (or perhaps this delightful ukelele version of that theme), and enjoy our lengthy conversation. You might even learn a thing or two.

J. Kingston Pierce: I understand that in your “real life,” you “work with the banking industry in the UK”? What exactly is your job?

Steve Aldous: I’ve been in banking all my working life. I currently manage an insight and analysis team reviewing business performance across the branch network. Through my career I have undertaken many different roles. I started straight from school as a cashier in branch and worked my way up to manager. I later went into project work before moving on to forecast modeling and analytics. I have also had lots of interest outside of work, including the cinema and crime fiction. I also played sport throughout my 20s--football and cricket; I played in a rock band throughout my 30s and 40s, and then finally started writing about four or five years ago.

(Left) Author Steve Aldous, photographed by David Aldous

JKP: When and how did you first become interested in Shaft?

SA: It was through hearing Isaac Hayes’ theme music, which was a hit on the UK singles charts in 1971, that I became aware of Shaft initially, but I became hooked via the TV series. I was only 13 at the time it was broadcast in the UK and it seemed to me that even the TV version of Shaft was different from the other detective heroes of the time--not just because of his color, but also his attitude and his swagger. Even in this watered-down version something shone through in Richard Roundtree’s portrayal that hooked me in. Then on a visit to a local bookstore, W.H. Smith’s in Bolton, I saw a copy of Shaft Has a Ball on the paperback shelves and bought it. I found the book to be much more adult than the TV series and the character to be more abrasive. In those days, if you were too young to get in to see the film you bought the book or the novelization as there were no age restrictions on literature. I loved the book and this led to me buying up the previous releases (Shaft, Shaft Among the Jews, and Shaft’s Big Score!)--which were even better. I also loved Tidyman’s writing style, which I found witty and sometimes off-the-wall, as well as the New York setting. I was still too young to see the film, and as it wasn’t aired on [British] TV until around the late 1970s this meant I became more familiar with the John Shaft portrayed in the novels. When later I caught up with the film I noted that Roundtree’s performance was much closer to the Shaft of the books than had been seen on TV and this completed the circle for me.

JKP: At what point did your interest in Shaft and Ernest Tidyman turn into the obsession necessary to write The World of Shaft? And to what lengths did you go to glean the information presented here?

SA: I’ve retained a love for the Shaft books ever since I read my first one back in 1974. I’ve re-read them all many times over the years. The Internet was the key to opening up the possibilities of finding out more. However, 15 years or so ago I found very little information out there on the Shaft books, but did come across a site run by a guy called Karl Reinsch. I got in touch with him and provided cover scans of my UK paperbacks and provided details of the TV series, which I had obtained from an edition of the magazine Epi-Log. I later started to come across more sites on crime fiction such as your own, The Rap Sheet, and Kevin Burton Smith’s Thrilling Detective Web Site. Through these sites I saw rumors that some of the Shaft books had been ghostwritten. This spurred me on to find out more. I could find no books or studies of the Shaft novels or films in print, so I thought I may as well have a go myself. Through research I discovered that Ernest Tidyman’s papers are held at the University of Wyoming and obtained an inventory of more than 140 boxes of material. The problem was then one of geography as I am UK based. I managed to hire a researcher to help me sort through the content and I was excited and fascinated to see there was so much material there--letters, documents, contracts, screenplays, manuscripts, character outlines, comic-strip test panels, newspaper clippings, promotional material, photographs, etc. Through this I could immediately answer the question regarding ghostwriters, but more importantly I could build up a history of Shaft through the eyes of his creator and combine that with a guide to the books and films. The result being The World of Shaft. Now that I’ve done this I’m tempted to go back at some point in the future and research the records further with the aim of writing a biography of Tidyman, whom I found to be a talented, witty, uncompromising, and engaging individual and his life story would be a fascinating one to research and tell.

JKP: Ernest Tidyman’s John Shaft wasn’t the first black private investigator to appear in American fiction. John E. Bruce’s Sadipe Okukenu (The Black Sleuth), Octavus Roy Cohen’s more comical Florian Slappey (Florian Slappey Goes Abroad), and Ed Lacy’s Toussaint Moore (Room to Swing) had all preceded him. Yet Shaft was the first to really make it big. Was that because of the era in which he appeared as much as who he was as a character?

SA: I think so, yes. When Ernest Tidyman was encouraged by Macmillan’s mystery editor, Alan Rinzler, to create a black detective hero he really tapped into the social unrest and changing attitudes in society at that time. Both Tidyman and Rinzler were experienced and keen observers. Tidyman had worked as a journalist in New York through the 1960s and written articles covering the plight of black Americans as a freelance journalist. In John Shaft, Tidyman created a character whose uncompromising attitude became the embodiment of the dreams of many young black Americans. Shaft had come through a tough foster-home environment and Harlem street-gang culture. Via a tour of Vietnam, he forged his own career path on his own terms. This is what I think made Shaft stand out from the rest.

(Right) The original, 1970 Macmillan (U.S.) edition of Shaft, with cover art by Mozelle Thompson.

JKP: You note in the book that, while headlines were made during the late 1960s and early ’70s by struggles to enhance the respect and opportunities available to African Americans, racial tensions and “black power” politics went mostly unaddressed in the Shaft novels. Is that because Tidyman, being white, didn’t know how best to address them? Or because he didn’t wish to alienate potential readers?

SA: I don’t think Tidyman was incapable of presenting them. As I say, he was a seasoned journalist who had seen the issues first-hand. There were references in the novels. Ben Buford’s militant gang in Shaft and Shaft Has a Ball was a symbol for the Black Power movement. Senator Stovall was a prophetic blueprint for [Barack] Obama in Shaft Has a Ball and Goodbye, Mr. Shaft--the latter book also saw a racially motivated kidnapping plot. But Tidyman always insisted that his books were, first and foremost, detective fiction and were not intended to be political statements. The racial and political themes merely provided a backdrop from which to create traditional crime-fiction scenarios concerning warring rival gangs, kidnapping and assassination plots, heists and financial greed. The film adaptation of Shaft pushed the political agenda forward more than the book, mainly due to [director] Gordon Parks’ input, and of course this led to the blaxploitation explosion that followed.

JKP: Reading The World of Shaft, I get the impression that Tidyman didn’t care much for his character beyond Shaft’s ability to make him money. That he had no heartfelt devotion to his P.I. Is that true?

SA: I think Tidyman cared a lot for the John Shaft he created, but quickly became disillusioned at how his creation was being portrayed and used by others. He bowed out of the film series before Shaft in Africa and had no involvement in the development of the TV series. He had committed to seven books with movie adaptation options in an agreement with MGM. Adaptations of his work would be more lucrative financially, but the studio wanted to commission original screenplays. Tidyman also didn’t think he could do any more with Shaft as a character creatively beyond the planned seven books.

JKP: You portray Ernest Tidyman as being rapidly overwhelmed by the success of Shaft, both onscreen and off, and by the renown he subsequently gained composing the screenplay for The French Connection. You write that he had trouble turning down big-money movie projects that were offered him, but in his struggle to do everything he had to hire other writers, who produced inferior products and spoiled his own reputation in Hollywood. Was Tidyman really that money-hungry? Is his story a cautionary tale against being too greedy, or is it much more complicated than that?

SA: I think it is more complicated. We have to remember Tidyman was 40 years old and near broke in 1968 when he was commissioned to write Shaft. I believe he was determined to build on the level of success he achieved in 1971/1972 and the resultant reputation for his name it created. Tidyman became a very canny businessman and wanted to expand his interests into film production and his writing into more personal areas. But he also pitched a lot of ideas around the studios, and in Hollywood the vast majority of ideas fall by the wayside, so he began to look further afield--to Europe. Sources suggest he had other writers assist with the workload and that the quality of the output suffered as a result of the quantity. There was an element, therefore, of looking to capitalize on the Ernest Tidyman brand name but the approach struggled to gain significant interest. He would go on to have more critical successes--notably on more personal projects like Dummy and Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones--but none would match that of the year or so that produced Shaft and The French Connection. He hit his golden period right at the start.

A TV preview of Dummy, the Emmy Award-nominated 1979 film written by Ernest Tidyman, starring Paul Sorvino and LeVar Burton. A clip from that film can be watched here.

JKP: What also suffered from Tidyman spreading himself too thin were the Shaft novels. If I remember correctly, Tidyman was solely responsible for penning only the first three installments in that series. Later, he hired ghostwriters to do most of the work. How much attention did Tidyman really give to the last four books?

SA: The need to hire writers to assist with the Shaft books was born out of Tidyman’s increasing interests outside of the series, which were making significant demands on his time. Tidyman wrote the outlines for each of the last four books and the hired writers developed them into structured drafts under close guidance from him. Tidyman then heavily edited and often re-wrote passages, as well as shaped the manuscripts to his writing style. As a result Tidyman’s hand can be seen through each of these last four books, and he did seriously apply himself to the task. Despite this, there were elements of these last four books that were less satisfactory than the first three. For instance, Shaft became more of a killing machine, mirroring many men’s adventure novel heroes of the time, and the stories were more outlandish and not helped by some lazy plotting, continuity inconsistencies, and a decreasing page count. That said, I still really enjoy reading these books despite their faults.

JKP: Had Tidyman always planned to develop seven Shaft novels, or had he originally been open to continuing the series further? What was it that ultimately convinced him to kill off his gumshoe, in The Last Shaft? And did he ever regret that decision?

SA: Tidyman had initially signed a contract for the first two novels (Shaft and Shaft Among the Jews) and a third that was to become Goodbye, Mr. Shaft. He then added the novelization of Shaft’s Big Score! to the pot. With the success of the film and MGM on board to consider adaptations, he negotiated an extension to the contact to bring in the last three books. He was clear in his mind in 1972 that the series would be seven books in total. There were no plans to extend the book series at any stage beyond this and he planned to kill Shaft off to add a literary full stop. He hadn’t liked the treatment of the Shaft character on screen in Shaft in Africa or on TV. He basically wanted to move on from Shaft but have a legacy there for future filming concerns should interest be shown. Indeed, he did try to gain interest in relaunching the film series in the late 1970s when MGM’s options on his books expired. But as far as the literary John Shaft was concerned, he was dead.

JKP: I have to ask: Which is your favorite Shaft novel, and why is it your favorite?

SA: My personal favorite is Shaft Among the Jews. There is more depth to Shaft’s character in this novel, particularly in his feelings for the vulnerable Cara Herzel. It also contains the best Shaft/[Lieutenant Vic] Anderozzi exchanges, an engaging plot, colorful characters, one particularly explosive action sequence, and a satisfying conclusion. I also love the original Shaft and think Goodbye, Mr. Shaft is comfortably the best of the last four.

JKP: I was interested to read that Tidyman didn’t want Richard Roundtree to play Shaft, that he thought Roundtree was too handsome. Furthermore, he didn’t like Roundtree’s mustache; he thought Shaft should be more round-faced and clean-shaven. How is it that Roundtree wound up turning Shaft into a film icon, anyway?

SA: Tidyman was tied to his vision of Shaft, whilst Gordon Parks was tied to his own. Roundtree was an ex-male-model and Tidyman’s description was more of a rough diamond but clean-shaven. Parks very much molded Roundtree in his own image and Roundtree generously acknowledges the amount of direction Parks gave him on the first movie. Roundtree produces a superb performance in his first lead film role. He carried all the swagger and self-confidence of Tidyman’s Shaft and moved athletically. The opening sequence is one of the most memorable character introductions in screen history. The marriage of Roundtree’s movement and attitude with Hayes’ funky theme and Parks’ framing is perfect. It captured the imagination of the public--both black and white. Roundtree managed to convey the essence of Tidyman’s creation, if not a physical resemblance. Of course, the film version of Shaft reached many, many, more people than the book version, and with the success of the movie and Roundtree’s portrayal John Shaft and Richard Roundtree became synonymous.

JKP: How much influence, if any, did the Shaft movies exercise over the direction of the book series?

SA: I don’t think the films had much influence on the books at all--barring Shaft’s Big Score! being an adaptation of Tidyman’s own screenplay. Even here Tidyman played true to his vision of the character and the story. The two formats continued to tread their own paths. The movies became more expansive--particularly with Shaft in Africa. That film also moved Shaft out of his Greenwich Village home to Midtown Manhattan, a lead followed by the TV series. But whilst Goodbye, Mr. Shaft and Shaft’s Carnival of Killers also saw Shaft operate outside of his urban New York base, Tidyman had planned to make this move beforehand. Tidyman would also have preferred for the studio to adapt his novels rather than commission new screenplays, so he stuck pretty much to his own template in the novels.

JKP: The Shaft films were what really brought Tidyman’s character to prominence. Three pictures were made, and Roundtree mentioned in a 1973 newspaper interview that discussions were underway for production of a fourth film, to be titled Shaft in China. Yet the series came to a screeching halt after Shaft in Africa. What went wrong?

SA: Basically, Shaft in Africa saw disappointing box-office returns. It seemed to get lost in the proliferation of blaxploitation releases. The change of setting--taking Shaft away from his urban roots--was also deemed by many to be a mistake in retrospect. MGM’s decision to move the series to TV was taken before Shaft in Africa was filmed, so it is unlikely a fourth film was ever anything more than a passing thought and would only really be seriously considered had Shaft in Africa been a hit. Roundtree had referenced the possibility of a Shaft in China in August 1973, which was just before the TV series aired and only a couple of months after Shaft in Africa was released. The failure of both sealed the fate for both big and small screen versions of Shaft.

JKP: While the Shaft films enjoyed their run of popularity in theaters, Tidyman tried to launch a syndicated comic strip featuring the character. But nobody seemed interested in picking it up. Why not?

SA: The response Tidyman got from the big syndicates in both New York and L.A. was that newspaper comic strips had moved on from the serial-style strip to standalone dailies. Having seen the 28 test panels produced with Don Rico that were ultimately circulated, I don’t think the quality was that good either. An earlier artist considered was David Russell (now a storyboard artist on major Hollywood movies) and his artwork was more interesting. David kindly restored some of his test panels for inclusion in my book and there are samples of Rico’s work, too.

JKP: You make clear that by 1973, when Roundtree starred as John Shaft in a series of TV movies, Tidyman had all but lost interest in him, and the character’s influence was waning. Yet you suggest that the CBS series offered Shaft comeback potential. What might the producers have done to make Shaft a small-screen success?

SA: My feelings on the Shaft TV series, which incidentally I do have a soft spot for as it was really my introduction to the character, is that they hired the wrong producers--William Read Woodfield and Allan Balter were largely schooled in fantasy series. TV was also not able to show the levels of sex and violence seen on the big screen, and the story lines and characters had to be managed within the confines of what TV executives deemed was respectable. But rather than challenge this and push at the boundaries (like series such as Kojak had done to create some authenticity), the producers took the decision to make Shaft family friendly. The result was Roundtree trying to get elements of his big-screen portrayal out, but being serviced by scripts that gave him little opportunity to do so. CBS could have looked to engage Tidyman as a consultant, hired a producer who was more sympathetic to the character and writers who could more accurately portray Shaft’s world. Yes, you would still have to tone down elements, but the key would be being true to what made the character popular in the first place.

JKP: Samuel L. Jackson tried unsuccessfully to reinvigorate the Shaft franchise in his 2000 film Shaft, and now there’s talk of studio New Line making another Shaft film--only this time with “comedic elements.” David F. Walker, who’s recently been writing Shaft graphic novels, says the studio is “more interested in shitting the bed than making a good Shaft movie” and warns that “It won’t make money. And in doing so, it will ruin the chances of there ever being a decent Shaft movie in the remainder of my lifetime.” What’s your take on all of this?

SA: I hate the thought of anyone messing with the essence of what Shaft is. It is not a comedy and should never be treated that way. If you change the essence of your character then the character becomes someone else. An impostor. David is right. The public will not buy into that. The reason Daniel Craig and Casino Royale were such a success was because the producers returned to what was the essence of James Bond as Fleming had written it but updating it for the modern audience. For me, the new Shaft film should go one of two ways. Either a nostalgic period piece set in the early 1970s with a gritty action-based plot or a re-working of Tidyman’s original novel in a modern-day setting with a backdrop of the social issues of today.

JKP: Do you think Shaft can still be relevant in the 21st century?

SA: Yes, I do. First and foremost, Shaft is a detective hero and the crime genre is as popular today as it has ever been. Black heroes on screen are more prevalent now than when Shaft was first released, but there is still an attitude and self-assurance in the nature of Shaft’s character that would resonate today. Unfortunately, there are also some similarities in the issues encountered by young black people today with those seen back in the early 1970s.

JKP: How well do you think Walker has done in resurrecting Shaft for his Dynamite Entertainment series? Has he expanded our understanding of that P.I.?

SA: I think his comic-book series was excellent and added some further depth to the character. David basically created an “origins” story by filling in the time between Shaft’s discharge from the army and his becoming a P.I. The story provided an emotional drive for Shaft and helped to establish the character traits we see in Tidyman’s books. David was insistent on staying true to Tidyman’s vision--even down to the visual depiction of Shaft--and he totally succeeds in conveying Shaft as Tidyman would have intended.

JKP: And I can’t tell by reading your new book’s epilogue: Have you actually read Walker’s novella, Shaft’s Revenge, which is due out early next year? If you have, what’s your opinion of it?

SA: I haven’t read the full book yet. I read a sample of it that was posted on the Internet when it was included as a QR download. I don’t have a smartphone so couldn’t follow-up on it. The book is set to be released in paperback in February 2016 and I have it pre-ordered and am looking forward immensely to reading the first Shaft novel in 40 years. I know David is pleased with what he has written and I hope he goes on to do more. He is very busy on numerous projects, but he kindly found the time to write the Foreword to my book. I hope he continues to find time to add further to the Shaft world, too. New Line should be calling him now to get involved in their production.

(Editor’s postscript: If you think that the cover of Aldous’ The World of Shaft looks familiar, that’s because the artwork comes from posters promoting the 1972 film Shaft’s Big Score!)

In Pursuit of Rising Stars

As part of its New Talent November series, the UK blog Crime Fiction Lover picks “Seven New Stars of American Crime,” including Amy Stewart (Girl Waits with Gun), Laura McHugh (The Weight of Blood), and Glen Erik Hamilton (Past Crimes). I hate to admit that I have not yet read the works of all seven authors cited in this post, but maybe I can make up for that in 2016. Let’s hope …

Monday, November 09, 2015

Pierce’s Picks

A weekly alert for followers of crime, mystery, and thriller fiction.

Crucifixion Creek (Minotaur), is the first book in a trilogy from Scotland-born Australian author Barry Maitland, a Ned Kelly Award winner (for 1996’s The Malcontenta). It introduces a new protagonist, Sydney Detective Sergeant Harry Belltree, who here must confront suburban transgressions aplenty. Bankstown, west of Sydney, has recently seen a woman shot by a meth-addled biker, an elderly couple commit suicide outside their favorite beachside café, and a builder, Greg March, fatally stabbed in a thoroughfare. None of those incidents might have attracted Belltree’s notice, were it not for the fact that March was his brother-in-law, and the man’s passing makes little sense. By the time a journalist approaches the DS with the out-there theory that these crimes are linked to a dodgy businessman and the resurgence of a local biker gang, Belltree is primed to test the hypothesis, especially since it could supply answers to the car “accident” that killed his parents and blinded his wife three years ago. Silence (Head of Zeus UK) is the third installment in Irish novelist Anthony J. Quinn’s series featuring Inspector Celcius Daly (Disappeared, Border Angels). It finds Daly mixed up in the case of Father Aloysius Walsh, who devoted his final years to amassing evidence of an extended homicide spree that, during the 1970s, took place along the bog-and-blackthorn-filled border separating the Republic of Ireland from Daly’s homeland, Northern Ireland. So what provoked Father Walsh to speed through a police blockade and off the road to his death? Why, when Daly arrives at the scene, does he find members of Special Branch having preceded him there? And why is the name of Daly’s mother, who perished three decades ago, on the priest’s map of the border land killings? A U.S. edition of Silence is due out next May from Mysterious Press/Open Road.

Click here to see more of this season’s most-wanted books.

Friday, November 06, 2015

Primed for Darkness

(Editor’s note: The following piece comes from Ali Karim, our resident expert on the more hair-raising side of modern fiction.)

While I gravitate toward crime and thriller novels in general, I have a particular interest in the border where mystery fiction meets “horror and the weird.” Much of my early reading was within the horror genre--not only classic works but also Gothic and contemporary. And some narratives that are commonly shelved in bookstores under Crime & Mystery might just as well be placed in the Horror & Science Fiction section. Edgar Allan Poe’s tales, for instances, traverse the two genres, as do some of Arthur Conan Doyle’s more Gothic yarns. Like a number of teenage boys, I went through (and survived) my obsession with H.P. Lovecraft; in fact, the celebrated novelist Ramsey Campbell (whose early work was highly Lovecraftian in theme) was the first author I ever interviewed (together with my friend John Parker) back in the ’80s on behalf of David Anthony Craft’s Comics Interview magazine.

More recently I became rather fanatical about Nic Pizzolatto’s True Detective TV series (at least Season 1; let’s not even bring up the subject of Season 2). Fusing the police procedural with cosmic horror, and spiked with a liberal dose of philosophy (in particular, antinatalism), it introduced me to the contemporary horror fiction of Thomas Ligotti, whose books I began collecting in out-of-print editions until I had them all.

And then earlier this year, before I had to turn so much attention to my programming duties for Bouchercon 2015, I attended the latest CrimeFest convention in Bristol, England. While there, I was drawn to one event that I eventually mentioned in my report for The Rap Sheet:
There was also a very interesting Spotlight Session featuring horror writer-turned-crime fictionist Conrad Williams (Dust and Desire), who talked about the line that separates--or binds--those two literary genres. Not surprisingly, Nic Pizzolatto’s TV series, True Detective, merited a mention, as many of us are awaiting the start of its Season 2 with impatience and expectation.
I was already then planning a panel discussion for Bouchercon in Raleigh titled “Where Crime & Mystery Meet Horror & the Weird,” to be moderated by my dear friend Nanci Kalanta, so I had a professional interest in hearing what Williams had to say. Well, this bloke knew his mustard, as the saying goes. He was erudite and well-read, and his analysis of the subject flowed down the same pathways as my own. After the event, I went up to thank Williams for his part in the presentation and said that I would pick up one of his novels in the convention book room. (I was embarrassed to admit to a complete unfamiliarity with his work, which I later learned has a distinct cult following). He smiled at my enthusiasm, and then said, “You’re Ali, aren’t you?” In response to my nod he continued, “You probably don’t remember, but I e-mailed you several months ago--via a mutual friend--that I was wondering if you’d be interested in reading my first crime novel.” And then the penny dropped.

Like most people who are reading this, I receive a large quantity of e-mail every day, and I can only do my best in trying to weed through it all. And I have to be ruthless in managing my reading time and accepting review copies of books. I remembered that I’d turned down Williams’ novel, as a consequence of my heavy workload judging the contenders for this years’ Goldsboro Gold Dagger award. He expressed sympathy and added that if I’d still like a copy of his new book, Dust and Desire (Titan), he would get one into my hands. I agreed.

It wasn’t until after last month’s Bouchercon, though, that I finally picked up Williams’ story--and polished it off in two sittings.

I concur with the Publishers Weekly review, which called it a “highly effective series launch” and went on to explain that it’s “a serial killer thriller set in and around London.”
[T]he mysterious Kara Geenan hires P.I. Joel Sorrell to locate her 18-year-old brother, Jason Pythian. “She was crazier than a purse full of whelks,” Sorrell observes, illustrating his pithy Chandlerisms, which require a command of British slang to fully decode. Sorrell, an ex-cop whose only companion is his cat, is tormented both by the vicious murder of his wife, Rebecca, three years earlier and the subsequent disappearance of his 13-year-old daughter, Sarah. After Sorrell endures a frightful beating, he tries to untangle an array of corpses that somehow are connected to the case of the missing Jason. Williams (The Unblemished) expertly limns Sorrell’s self-destructive tendencies in his bitter asides, but the book’s greatest strength is its portrait of Wire, the young serial killer whose horrible childhood ultimately sets him on his monstrous path.
(Kirkus Reviews offers its own take on the novel here.)

One of the factors that most appealed to me about Williams’ debut work of crime fiction was its unsettling atmosphere. The narrative is hypnotic but in equal measure tense, leaving the reader with a foreboding that lingers like a London fog. It reminded me of Derek Raymond’s bleak Factory novels, though Williams’ tale is also sprinkled with the sardonic humor and clever turns of phrase more common among American private eyes such as Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, and Robert B. Parker’s Spenser.

After enjoying Dust and Desire, I went looking for more information about its author. There’s an excellent interview with him at the Web site maintained by Scotland’s University of Stirling. From that I gleaned some basic information: “Conrad Williams [born in 1969] is the author of seven novels: Head Injuries, London Revenant, The Unblemished, One, Decay Inevitable, Blonde on a Stick and Loss of Separation; four novellas: Nearly People, Game, Rain and The Scalding Rooms, and around 80 short stories (a number of which appeared in his collection, Use Once Then Destroy). He has won the International Horror Guild Award (2007, Best Novel--The Unblemished) and several British Fantasy Awards (1993, Best Newcomer; 2008, Best Novella--The Scalding Rooms; 2010, Best Novel--One). He lives in Manchester [England] with his wife and three sons.”

(Left) Conrad Williams (photo supplied by the author)

However, I still had some questions of my own. So though his UK-based publisher, Titan, I tracked Williams down for a bit of a chat. In the course of that we discussed his history and his interest in subjects ranging from horror fiction, the prizes his writing has won, and the aforementioned Derek Raymond to True Detective and the marked change of direction his fiction has taken with Dust and Desire.

Ali Karim: Conrad, you are new writer to me, and perhaps to many others who enjoy the crime and mystery genre. So tell us a little about your upbringing and what (or who) motivated you to become a reader.

Conrad Williams: Both of my parents were police officers. It’s how they met. I grew up in Warrington [in North West England] during the 1970s and became very aware of--either through my parents’ professional interest in, or my own heightened sensitivity towards--the activities of the Yorkshire Ripper. I was 8 years old when he crossed the Pennines and killed in Manchester for the first time. I remember fearing for my mother’s safety--by that time she was working in a pub 10 minutes down the road--and I wouldn’t be able to rest until I heard her key in the lock each night. So I think I was primed for this kind of darkness from quite a young age.

There were always books in our house. Mainly non-fiction titles to do with my dad’s passions: travel, the Second World War, and true crime. When I became interested in books, I remember picking through these shelves and so, from an early age, I was aware of such disparate horrors as Mary Bell, the Holocaust, the work of Bernard Spilsbury. But there were also novels. Dad liked a fat thriller, and he read Joseph Wambaugh. But there was also [John] le Carré and [Len] Deighton and James Jones. Some of the covers of the books he read stick in my mind, too. There was Tattoo, by Earl Thompson (a thick, red paperback with a tattooed hand on the cover, ostensibly flipping the reader the bird), Amok (“more terrifying than Jaws!”), by George Fox: a white cover and a Samurai sword cutting a red swathe through the title. Kinflicks, by Lisa Alther: another white cover with a young, scantily dressed woman wearing an orgasmic expression. I was a member of a nationwide school book club called Bookworm. There was some kind of catalogue and you could buy books at a discount. I was drawn to an Armada paperback anthology edited by Peter Haining called The Restless Bones and Other True Mysteries. It had a striking cover, a skeleton wearing a Roman centurion’s helmet. I guess I was hooked on grim pages from those early days.

AK: Tell us about your earliest reading experiences, and were there any special books that perhaps steered you toward picking up a pen or keyboard and giving your imagination a workout?

CW: I read quite a bit of children’s literature when I was young, mainly borrowed from the library--Ian Serraillier, David Line, C.S. Lewis. But Dad’s selections always seemed much more interesting. I started reading horror novels when I was around 12--mainly Stephen King and James Herbert (pretty much all that was available in the local W.H. Smith’s). Later, I discovered Ramsey Campbell and M. John Harrison and Christopher Priest, writers with a peculiarly British slant to their work. I was hugely influenced by them, and many of my early attempts at fiction were shaped by their work. I’d always enjoyed writing short stories at school, and was encouraged by my teachers (although I did tend towards the bleaker end of the spectrum even then … so much so that my headmaster took me to one side--I was 9 or 10 at the time--to suggest that it was OK, sometimes, for good things to happen in fiction too).

AK: What was it about the horror-fiction genre that attracted you?

CW: Probably the atmosphere, and the building of tension, the thrill of that. It was fiction to get your heart pounding. I was drawn to the quirky British stuff. Horror gets a bad press because of the flooding of the genre that occurred during the 1970s and ’80s on the heels of Stephen King’s phenomenal success. Quality control was not as stringent as it might have been. But there was some great writing, weird and original: Ramsey Campbell’s The Face that Must Die, Thomas Tessier’s Finishing Touches (Tessier is an American, but this book is set in London), M. John Harrison’s The Ice Monkey, Christopher Priest’s The Glamour, Joel Lane’s short stories.

AK: I read that you started out composing short stories, and then novellas, before ever embarking on a novel. Is that because the horror genre lends itself to the short form more than lengthier works, or am I generalizing overmuch?

CW: I started with short stories only because I didn’t feel I had a novel in me. And yes, horror has a great short-story tradition. Writing short stories gave me a sense of achievement, and didn’t take as long as a novel. Now, of course, having racked up a number of longer works, I wouldn’t say it’s easier to write a short story. The novel is more forgiving in many ways. With a short story, you’re much more exposed as a writer. You have to be on the ball.

AK: I see that you have recognition from your peers in the form of awards. What have those commendations meant to you as a writer?

CW: To win the [1993] British Fantasy Award for Best Newcomer, aged 23, in a room filled with writers I admired was overwhelming. It’s great to win an award, even to be nominated. I find it an extraordinary boost to confidence and a great inspiration (because, let’s face it, all writers are convinced they’re shit from time to time).

AK: I noticed you have a soft spot for Derek Raymond’s Factory series, a very dark collection of novels--and favorites for many of us. How did you first find his work, and which of his books do you particular relish?

CW: It was probably a discussion with Joel Lane, who wrote horror stories predominantly, but also had a foot in the crime camp. When I read my first Factory novel, The Devil’s Home on Leave (1985), I was blown away. I’m not saying that I had any preconceived ideas about crime fiction, that it was all cozy, bloodless, cut and dried--I came to Raymond post Red Dragon and Cracker--but nothing had prepared me for this. It was profane, shocking, disturbing and, in places, very funny. I scooted through all five in a couple of weeks. And then I read his autobiography and hunted down a second-hand copy of his last novel, Not Till the Red Fog Rises [1994]. [The Devil’s Home on Leave] and I Was Dora Suarez are the standouts, bleak beyond words, but all five have a special place in my heart. Here, in the unnamed Detective Sergeant, is a man who has been wrecked domestically, really put through the mill, and who carries a nasty tongue in his head, but who is driven to empathize and defend--to an obsessive degree--the innocents of the world who are caught up in atrocities. I suppose I realized there was very little difference between what I was trying to write and what some of the darker voices in crime were doing. Crime is horror, isn’t it? Which is what my talk at CrimeFest was about.

AK: I found your presentation at this year’s CrimeFest (titled “The Shadow Line Between Crime and Horror Fiction”) to be most interesting. It made me pick up Dust and Desire, which is a departure from your previous work. So tell us a little about your writing of this London-based crime novel, which finds a damaged ex-cop hunting for a missing brother in the shadow of a serial killer.

CW: Well, a departure only in terms of where you’ll find the book in the shops! I wrote Joel Sorrell off the back of reading those black novels by Raymond. It gave me license, I suppose. I was living in London at the time I conceived of the book, so it made sense to set it there. I wanted to write about a P.I. rather than somebody directly involved with the police. I was drawn to the idea of a maverick, a lone wolf, someone who operates sometimes on the wrong side of the law. I wanted him to have a weakness for missing persons--Sarah, his teenage daughter ran away when she was 13, after the murder of her mother, Sorrell’s wife--which is how he gets drawn into the story in Dust and Desire. And no matter what he’s doing, he’s always hunting for his child.

AK: I must concur that Sorrell’s worldview echoes that of the American hard-boiled private eyes. Have you read the novels of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, and other authors who made the P.I. genre what it is today?

CW: Yes, I went through a Chandler phase when I was in my teens, and read all the novels. I’ve dipped into Hammett. I also read some of James M. Cain’s work. Some of Philip Marlowe’s observations are beautiful … I’m also inspired by novels that might be firmly entrenched in, or merely flirt with the crime genre but have an existential edge. (I’m thinking of Russell Celyn Jones’ The Eros Hunter, pretty much anything by James Sallis, Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, Scott Phillips’ The Ice Harvest, David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet, Jim Crace’s Being Dead).

AK: Publishers Weekly has compared Joe Sorrell’s dialogue favorably with Philip Marlowe’s, but with a British Spin. I, though, think of Sorrell as being more like Parker’s Spenser or Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer. How do you feel about critics making such comparisons?

CW: I’m deeply flattered, obviously. It’s fun to tease out character through dialogue, but you have to be careful. You don’t want what is said to have the look of a script about it. It has to sound off-the-cuff, naturalistic. I just wanted to create a potty-mouthed smartarse who disdains any form of authority: he’s me, basically, making up for a youth in which I was too shy, too quiet, and far too polite.

AK: You fill Dust and Desire with some very unsavory characters and disturbing events. Even your man Sorrell has his moments, giving the novel an unsettling atmosphere, revealing a London that’s far from the Expedia guide to our capital. Did you plot this tale heavily, or did you just have a sketch or outline to follow in writing it?

CW: Thanks, I’m glad you think so. I like to see a location treated with the same care as any character in fiction. It’s not just a backdrop. Done right, a strong sense of place gives you something extra. The city becomes another character almost. I think this comes from a grounding in the urban horror I started writing in Thatcher’s Britain of the 1980s, influenced by Campbell and Lane, where even drifts of litter on a cold, unlit street seem to possess agency. My protagonist is just as cruel and damaged as the people he’s trying to put behind bars. But, like Raymond’s Detective Sergeant, his heart is in the right place.

I didn’t plan the book out in too much depth. I had a hero and I had what I hoped was an unusual, compelling bad guy. I had an end point. And Sorrell’s back story shadowed everything. It was really a voyage of discovery for me, putting this new character up against different people and different situations, seeing how he reacted, how driven he was, how low he might go in order to get traction on the case.

AK: Although Dust and Desire starts in conventional P.I. territory with a (perhaps) untrustworthy femme fatale asking Sorrell to search for her missing brother, it soon leaves that well-worn path, offering some insights into not just our damaged P.I. protagonist, but also the damaged mind of a serial killer. This makes me wonder about the human attraction to noir yarns and other dark fiction. Why, as writers and readers, do you think we’re drawn to such stories?

CW: I really enjoyed writing that middle section about the killer, The Four Year Old. I liked his edge, his conviction. He’s influenced to some degree by William Goldman’s Scylla (a legendary assassin hobbled by self-doubt), who appears in the novels Marathon Man and Brothers. I wanted to create someone who is so determined on a course of action that he lives an almost monastic life. He knows that in order to achieve his goal he must work his body to its athletic best. He’s focused and committed, but there are deep fault lines of insecurity running through him. He’s on that shadowline between childhood and becoming an adult, and both sides have their claws in him.

I think part of the reason we enjoy this stuff is because it skates so close to reality while remaining entrenched in a fantasy world. We’ve all been affected by crime in some way, either directly or indirectly. But the serial killers in fiction, though fascinating, tend in real life to be dull as ditchwater. And they’re pretty rare. I suppose we all crave that good-versus-bad tale. There’s something vicarious in it, but at the same time it echoes what we really do go through from day to day.

AK: Do you plan to write more than one book, or perhaps a series, about Joel Sorrell? Or was that not part of the publishing deal you made with Titan Books?

CW: I always wanted to write a five-book series (another nod to Derek Raymond). Joel would clash with various monsters while getting ever closer to finding out what happened to his daughter. I was thrilled when Titan offered me a three-book deal, and it made sense to turn this pursuit of Sarah into a trilogy. Sonata of the Dead, the sequel to Dust and Desire, is written, and I’ve started work on the third book, Hell Is Empty. But I have plans to write more after that.

AK: How supportive have the folks at Titan--which is usually associated with science/horror fiction and graphic novels--folks been about your foray into crime fiction?

CW: Titan are great champions of genre fiction. You only have to look at what they’re doing with [Charles Ardai’s] Hard Case Crime imprint to know that here is a publisher whose heart is invested in the material they publish. Producing their own original crime list seems a natural progression. I’m very lucky to be with them.

AK: Can you tell us about what books, films, and television programs you have most enjoyed recently?

CW: I loved the first season of True Detective. Matthew McConaughy is a brilliant actor, as is Woody Harrelson. Great casting, and a great story, although the compelling weirdness of the first two-thirds seemed to be sacrificed for a fairly conventional (albeit gripping) confrontation at the end. I read Nic Pizzolatto’s novel Galveston afterwards and was deeply impressed, although it would appear we’ve lost a brilliant prose voice to television. But I hope that’s not the case. I also watched the first season of Fargo, which was great fun. Martin Freeman is a cracking actor, but he was eclipsed by Billy Bob Thornton’s balls-out psycho.

I’ve been working steadily through James Lee Burke’s Robicheaux novels. Just a gorgeous writer. And I recently read [Stephen] King’s Mr. Mercedes.

AK: Did you get as obsessed as I did with True Detective? And did you pick up on the Thomas Ligotti connection?

CW: I watch less and less scheduled TV these days; I tend to hoover it up in big chunks when the boxed [DVD] sets become available, or I can work through a few episodes at a time on the various streaming players. So I came to True Detective some time after the palaver regarding alleged plagiarism of Ligotti’s work, and the links to Robert W. Chambers’ The Yellow King. Of course, I’d like to think I’d have noticed it, but it probably would have sailed over my head. I’m currently scooting through House of Cards and Homeland, and catching up with River on the BBC. There’s some stunning TV around at the moment. There just aren’t enough hours in the day to take it all in.

AK: And what about the car crash that was True Detective Season 2?

CW: I’ve yet to watch it, although your pejorative Facebook references have been giving me second thoughts!

READ MORE:Will the Real Conrad Williams Please Stand Up,” by Shaun Hamilton (The Horrifically Horrifying Horror Blog); Why I Write: Conrad Williams (Publishers Weekly); “A Conversation with Conrad Williams,” by Jeff VanderMeer (SF Site).