Saturday, April 18, 2015

“Dry Bones” Kills in L.A.

Pennsylvania author Tom Bouman has been awarded the 2015 Los Angeles Times Book Prize in the Mystery/Thriller category for his novel, Dry Bones in the Valley (Norton). His was one of several commendations handed out this evening during the Times Festival of Books, held on the University of Southern California campus.

This year’s other Mystery/Thriller nominees were: The Painter, by Peter Heller (Knopf); After I’m Gone, by Laura Lippman (Morrow); Sins of Our Fathers, by Shawn Lawrence Otto (Milkweed); and The Girl with a Clock for a Heart, by Peter Swanson (Morrow).

You’ll find the complete list of tonight’s prize winners here.

READ: MORE:L.A. Times Festival of Books 2015,” by Jeri Westerson (Getting Medieval).

Friday, April 17, 2015

Bullet Points: Something for Everyone Edition

Every Secret Thing, the film based on Laura Lippman’s 2004 standalone novel of that same name, debuted at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival and is being prepared for a nationwide release on May 15. But until today, I hadn’t spotted a trailer for this picture starring Elizabeth Banks, Dakota Fanning, and Diane Lane. Click here to see the preview in Janet Rudolph’s Mystery Fanfare blog.

• The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books begins tomorrow on the University of Southern California campus and continues through Sunday. If I lived in L.A., I’d be present for all the festivities, especially since they’re free to the public. But at least I can report on the 2015 Times Book Prize competition, the winners of which will be announced on Saturday night. Here are the five contestants in the Mystery/Thriller category; a list of all the nominees is here.

• Earlier this week I was paging through The Seattle Times, when I happened onto this front-page story about Roy Price, the 47-year-old vice president of Amazon Studios, which you’ll know is behind the Michael Connelly-created crime drama Bosch (covered here and here). What most interested me, though, was this sentence: “His grandfather, Roy Huggins, was a legendary television writer who created such classic series as Maverick, The Fugitive, and The Rockford Files.” Holy crap! I’ve long been a fan of Huggins’ work, both his television projects and his early endeavors as a novelist. I didn’t know I was living in the same city--Seattle--where his grandson can often be found laboring over a desk. I might have to come up with some way to interview Price in the very near future …

• I need the first volume mentioned in this Bookgasm review!

• Bouchercon organizers announced on their Facebook page that they’ve chosen a “brand-new logo for Bouchercon National! Each year--including 2015 in Raleigh--will still have their own logo, but this one will cover the organization as a whole.” I’ve embedded that new artwork on the left.

• As somebody who was very fond of British author Paul Johnston’s series of near-future-set thrillers starring Edinburgh senior cop-turned-private eye Quintilian Dalrymple (last seen in 2001’s The House of Dust), it’s pretty exciting to know the author is returning with a new, sixth installment of that series, Head or Hearts, out this month in the UK from Severn House and due in U.S. stores come July. Euro Crime has posted a synopsis of the new yarn.

• By the way, if you haven’t read Ali Karim’s 2003 interview with Paul Johnston, in which they talk about the Quint books, do so now.

• I never owned a Pet Rock, but I do remember when those low-commitment companions first rolled onto the market in the mid-1970s. So I was saddened to hear that Gary Dahl, the creator of the Pet Rock fad (which Newsweek called “one of the most ridiculously successful marketing schemes ever”) died recently at age 78.

• Over in the Killer Covers blog, we have posted a look back at the “sexpionage” novels of Ted Mark, published mostly during the 1960s and ’70s, as well as the latest entry in our still-new “Friday Finds” series, which highlights “context-free covers we love.” Today’s pick: The Flesh and Mr. Rawlie (1963).

• Back in February, I mentioned that the blog Criminal Element was launching a regular short-story competition called “The M.O.” The initial deadline for tales was March 6 and the theme for all submissions was “Long Gone.” Readers of Criminal Element were asked to vote for their favorite entries. Today the blog has posted the winner of its first “M.O.” contest, “Fix Me,” by Los Angeles “writer and drummer” S.W. Lauden. According to its schedule, Criminal Element will announce its next short-story contest--with a new theme--on May 1.

Honey West star Anne Francis melted hearts looking like this.

• MSNBC-TV host Rachel Maddow did an excellent interview last night with Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada), during which they talked about Reid’s long political history, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s “historic candidacy” for president of the United States in 2016, and the current Republican leadership in Congress (“I think they’ve been absolute failures”). You can now watch it all here.

These are some of the most spectacular aerial shots ever! They come from a Web site called AirPano, where you can find still more breathtaking photos. Copy them to your computer now!

• California author J. Sydney Jones has made an excellent reputation for himself over the last half-dozen years penning mystery novels set in early 20th-century Vienna. However his new release, Basic Law (Severn House)--the first entry in a trilogy--is a more contemporary thriller featuring “expat American journalist Sam Kramer.” To better acquaint readers with Kramer, he’s just posted “Body Blows,” a short story featuring the same protagonist.

• Author Declan Burke recently introduced me to a new blog called Crime Fiction Ireland, which he says “pretty much does exactly what it says on the tin. Edited by Lucy Dalton, the blog covers crime and mystery fiction of all hues, TV and film, provides author profiles and a ‘What’s On’ slot, and also offers a Short Fiction selection.” I’ve added Crime Fiction Ireland to The Rap Sheet’s selection of links.

• I haven’t yet seen any notices about PBS-TV’s Masterpiece Mystery! umbrella series picking up the concluding three-episode season of Foyle’s War, the wonderful Michael Kitchen/Honeysuckle Weeks period drama from British broadcaster ITV that debuted in 2002. That last season began showing in the UK back in January, and is available to people who subscribe to the online viewing service Acorn Media. (You’ll find all Foyle’s War episodes here.) National Public Radio’s John Powers posted a fine wrap-up of Foyle’s final run here, and you can purchase a DVD set of the series’ last three eps here. But for Americans like me who prefer to watch Kitchen’s show on Masterpiece for free, all of this just adds up to a painful reminder of what we’re missing. C’mon, PBS, step up and add this one last Foyle’s War run to your summer 2015 schedule!

Here’s one reason why you can’t trust amateur online reviews.

• Finally, my old friend Matthew, who has spent years talking up Sinbad and Me, the 1966 adventure/mystery novel for children by Kin Platt (author of the Max Roper detective series), reports that the book is back in print this month after being commercially unavailable for decades. Sinbad and Me captured the 1967 Edgar Award for Best Juvenile Mystery Fiction. The new edition is available from Amazon in both hardcover and paperback, but Matthew--who shares my adoration for books--asked me to “encourage your readers to order from their local independent bookseller.” I can’t but endorse that suggestion. Amazon, for all the purchasing advantages it offers, has proved to be a killer of small neighborhood stores, whether they sell books or other goods. I provide links from The Rap Sheet to Amazon pages, but that’s simply for the convenience of my readers. I always try to buy from independent bookstores. And you should too.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

An Artistic Star Fades Out

Rudy Nappi, a New York-born illustrator renowned for his pulpish paperback fronts of the mid- to late-20th century, died last month in his early 90s. I’ve posted a piece--complete with examples of Nappi’s work and links to many more--in the Killer Covers blog.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Brady’s Path from Newsie to Novelist

Irish former newspaper editor Conor Brady’s story of getting his first novel into print is pretty much guaranteed to stir jealousy among other writers who’ve spent long years arduously toiling over their manuscripts, fighting uncooperative scenes down to the mat and polishing their prose to a blinding sheen before they could convince an editor to so much as notice their work--and not promptly reject it.

“I really put it together over a period of, I suppose, two or three years, maybe,” Brady told the Irish online magazine Writing.ie. “I didn’t sit down at nine o’clock every morning and say, ‘I’m going to do this now until lunchtime,’ or something. What I did was, I did it weekends, take your laptop on an airplane with you, do a bit on holidays. And before I knew it, I had a story and I had a plot and I had characters. And I didn’t quite know what to do with them.” A friend pointed him at Dublin publisher New Island, which quickly agreed to take on Brady’s yarn, and then after several months of reshaping and editing the work (“because it was a first draft, and rather scrappy and rather untidy in many ways”), it was finally fed into the pipeline for release. That novel, a densely composed and captivating mystery set in 1887 Dublin, titled A June of Ordinary Murders--the first installment in a new series starring Detective Sergeant Joseph Swallow of the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP)--reached bookstores in Ireland back in 2012. But only now is it set to be published in America by Minotaur Books.

Brady had an advantage on most first-time novelists: he’d spent a decade and a half as editor of The Irish Times in Dublin, and was well known for his knowledge of Ireland’s policing history. Nonetheless, A June of Ordinary Murders ultimately had to win over readers and critics alike, as it seems to have done. Declan Burke, writing in Brady’s old broadsheet, opined that this author “weaves a police procedural that does full justice to the complex nature of the social, political, and criminal labyrinth that was Dublin in the summer of 1887. He paints a vivid picture of the city as it bakes beneath the unrelenting sun, employing Joe Swallow’s sharp eye and the character’s ambitions as an amateur painter to deftly sketch both its landmarks and its less salubrious corners.” Kirkus Reviews adds, “Brady’s powerful first mystery novel is evocative of the period. The many aspects of life in 19th-century Dublin are cleverly woven through a baffling mystery.”

With today’s posting of my latest column for Kirkus, I add my voice to this mix. Here’s my brief sketch of Ordinary Murders’ opening:
… Brady summons members of the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) to Phoenix Park, an expansive walled reserve west of the town center, to look into a discovery of two corpses. The deceased appear to be a slightly built man wearing attire of “indifferent quality,” and a boy “perhaps 8 or 9 years old.” Neither victim bears any sort of identification, but both have been shot, and the elder casualty’s face is horribly mutilated, which will make it still more difficult to put a name to him. This isn’t exactly a favorable beginning for a murder inquiry, but Det. Sgt. Joseph Swallow--who, at 42, has already spent more than two decades with the city’s constabulary--figures he can get a decent launch on things with help from Dr. Henry Lafeyre, Dublin’s forensic examiner and a former medical officer who served with a mounted police unit in South Africa. (Lafeyre calls himself “a copper with a stethoscope.”)
After consuming A June of Ordinary Murders at a rather breakneck pace, I contacted Conor Brady’s publisher and requested an interview with him. Some of the author’s thoughtful responses to my e-mailed questions managed to find homes in today’s Kirkus column, but, sadly, most didn’t fit. So I am presenting our complete exchange below, which covers Brady’s journalism career, his family’s law-enforcement connections, his research into Dublin’s Victorian era, and what challenges he next has in store for Joe Swallow.

J. Kingston Pierce: Where were you born?

Conor Brady: In Dublin, in 1949. But that was a technicality. My parents were living in Tullamore, a county town in the Irish midlands. It’s famous as the home of Tullamore Dew, the mellow whiskey beloved of Joe Swallow. My mother wasn’t a young mum. She was 43. I had two older sisters, but they had left home by the time I was born. So it was decided she should go to the National Maternity Hospital in the capital to see me into the world. My father was the superintendent of police in the midlands area.

(Left) Author Conor Brady. Photo by Bryan Meade.

JKP: And what were your growing-up years like? What are your fondest and most horrifying memories of boyhood?

CB: Contrary to many Irish childhood memories, mine are the happiest. I grew up secure in a loving home. My memories are of warm summer days with my friends at the town swimming pool, of walking country fields with my Irish Terrier, “Rusty,” and of playing golf with my mother, Amy.

My most horrifying memory is the death of my father when I was 13. He had had a number of small strokes, but I never thought he would die. I remember the screaming of my mother in the garden that night when her friend, our local doctor, came to tell her that her beloved husband was gone.

JKP: So how did you wind up in journalism?

CB: After my father’s death I went to boarding school at Roscrea College [in County Tipperary]. It was run by the monks of the Cistercian order, or Trappists. It was a very positive experience and I was very happy there. It’s still operating with 180 students. It’s set in beautiful farmland and there are still 15 monks in the community. There was a student newspaper in the school and I got involved and I loved the buzz of it all. Later at University College Dublin, I got involved with the student newspaper, Campus UCD News, and was editor in my second year. These were exciting times for student journalism. We’re talking the 1960s with student power on the move in the U.S., in Europe, and even in Ireland.

JKP: Am I correct that you later went on to spend more than a decade and a half as editor of The Irish Times?

CB: I did 16 years as editor and a previous 14 years in a variety of roles, from reporter on the streets of Belfast, to covering the war in Rhodesia, to night editor, to features editor, to deputy editor. I was exposed to every aspect of newspaper journalism, plus a couple of stints on radio and TV.

JKP: Before you went to the Times, what sorts of other post-college journalism jobs did you hold?

CB: I did four years at The Irish Times after graduating from college. Then I left to edit the Garda Review, the monthly magazine of the Irish police. I went from there to RTÉ, Ireland’s national broadcaster, where I worked on a prime-time news program as a reporter/presenter. Then I edited a broadsheet Sunday newspaper, the Sunday Tribune.

JKP: What would you say now was your principal accomplishment as editor of The Irish Times?

CB: Undoubtedly, our support for the peace process in Northern Ireland. We committed the paper to the search for a solution that would eschew violence. Some Irish media were very skeptical of the peace process to the point of hostility. I put the weight of The Irish Times behind the peacemakers. I’ll always be glad I did.

JKP: It sounds as if your later years at the Times were fraught with financial problems and staff layoffs. Were those the cause of your departure from the paper, or were there additional factors involved?

CB: Not really. I had stayed longer than I intended anyway. I had already told my senior staff that my editorship was coming to an end. And I stayed to see a restructuring in place that involved quite a few voluntary redundancies and so on. I thought it best that I should do those things, leaving my successor as editor to make a fresh, clean start. The problem was top-fold. The organization had become rather bloated, and not just the editorial departments. Too many time-servers and too much feather-bedding. Then the mini-recession of post-9/11 struck and revenues dropped.

JKP: Had you been thinking about becoming a fiction writer before you left the newspaper, or did you only decide upon that future after you were out of work?

CB: I didn’t start writing the Joe Swallow stories until I was perhaps 10, 12 years out of The Irish Times. I did a few things in the interim, including two years as a visiting professor at John Jay College [of Criminal Justice], City University of New York. But the challenge of creative writing was always there, lurking under the surface of a dull, stilted newsman’s prose.

JKP: So tell me: What was the hardest thing about transitioning from writing non-fiction to penning fiction?

CB: That’s a really penetrating question. News journalists are conditioned to being factual, detailed, and detached. Or at least they should be. Creative writing requires quite different impulses and talents. And I found that the former skills-set militated against the latter. I had tried to put too much detail in and I found that I simply had to pull most of it out again in order to achieve the free-flowing narrative one needs for a novel.

JKP: It sounds, though, as if your research talents came in handy.

CB: Researching this period of Irish history and Irish society is relatively easy. This was the new era of the newspaper industry, with big circulation numbers. Reporters covered everything from the police courts to society weddings. So the raw material is all there in the newspaper archives.

JKP: What was it that made you choose 1887 as your time-frame for A June of Ordinary Murders? Were you attracted primarily by Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee?

CB: The Jubilee became the focus for extraordinary political tension in Ireland. Those loyal to Britain wanted to celebrate, while those who believed in Irish nationalism opposed any acknowledgment of Victoria's long reign. She had sat on the throne while the Great Famine ravaged the country. A million died and two million were driven out by hunger to America, Britain, Australia, and elsewhere.

Detective Joe Swallow’s usual haunt: Dublin Castle’s Lower Yard, as it appeared in the late 19th century.

JKP: While conducting your research for Ordinary Murders, what was the most unusual thing you learned about life in Dublin or Ireland during the 1880s?

CB: Probably the extent to which alcohol played a part in the lives of working people. There were very few comforts other than drink, so when anybody had a few shillings to spare they generally invested in the oblivion of alcohol.

JKP: You make it sound in your book as if the Dublin Metropolitan Police force was rampant with divisions between the Catholic Irish officers and their Protestant English superiors. I kept expecting there to be more fireworks as a result of those differences. But was 1887 still too early for such disparities to become a problem?

CB: The tensions were there. But as in any disciplined force they were generally kept in check. The rank-and-file Catholic members did feel themselves cut off from the higher ranks. John Mallon, Swallow’s boss, was a real-life character. He was the exception that proved the rule. The son of a Catholic farmer from County Armagh, he went on to head the detective division—G Division—and attained the rank of assistant commissioner.

JKP: You published a book in 2000 titled Guardians of the Peace, a history of Irish policing from the 1920s onward. How did law enforcement in Ireland change from Swallow’s time to the Jazz Age?

CB: The changes were significant at one level, but minimal at another. Regime change is often accompanied by changes in visible, outward symbols of authority such as policing arrangements. So the government of the new Irish state in 1922 decided to disband the old Royal Irish Constabulary [RIC] and replace it with a new force, the Garda Síochána or “Guardians of the Peace.” It operated as an unarmed force. Dublin’s separate police force, the Dublin Metropolitan Police, continued until 1925 but was then amalgamated with the Garda. Outwardly, this was all new. But it was essentially the same administrative model as before, with a police chief appointed by government and accountable to central authority. This was quite different to the system in Britain where police forces were locally accountable.

JKP: What’s this I hear about your grandfather having been a copper? Is that how your interest in the history of Irish policing began?

CB: My grandfather, William Brady, was in the RIC. But he died 35 years before I was born, so I know very little about him. His record shows he was a fairly typical “ranker.” A Catholic, his family operated a small public house in Cavan. He achieved no promotion, no distinctions, and no reprimands.

My father had a more successful police career. He had been a teacher of English and French before the 1919-1921 War of Independence. He took neither side in the civil war that followed, so he was well placed for a senior rank when the new state established its own police. He was appointed a superintendent at 24 years of age.

JKP: Let’s talk a little about Sergeant Swallow. He’s a rather extraordinary figure, a 42-year-old Catholic man with an unfortunate fondness for drink, whose family has operated a public house in County Kildare for generations. Yet he chose to make a living keeping the peace in Dublin. Why did you settle on him as your ideal protagonist?

CB: Like most fictional characters, I suspect, Swallow is an amalgam of various individuals a writer will have encountered. He is a conflicted man, both personally and politically. I think he would have been fairly typical of his generation and class. He has become a policeman by default, having drunk his way out of medical school. But paradoxically, it turns out, he’s quite good at sleuthing.

JKP: He’s also carrying on a relationship with a younger public-house proprietress named Maria Walsh, despite the DMP frowning on such relationships. How do you see Maria Walsh’s role in this story?

CB: Again, I think Maria would be fairly typical of women of her generation and class. Most women had no career options. They could marry or become a nun. Most clerical or secretarial work was still done by men. The licensed trade was one of the few areas in which a woman could make a business career. So Maria is quite a strong character, if a little dull and unexciting. She’s a grounded woman and a realist. Her role, among other things, is to keep Swallow grounded too.

JKP: There’s a great deal of early forensic science employed in Ordinary Murders, thanks to your inclusion of the character Dr. Henry Lafeyre, the Dublin medical examiner. Can I presume that you did considerable research into the subject before you sat down to write your first novel? And was that research conducted in books or among modern experts in the field?

CB: I went no further than the definitive Manual of Forensic Jurisprudence, by Professor A.S. [Alfred Swaine] Taylor of Edinburgh (1893 edition). Taylor has it all. The symptoms of poisoning, drowning, asphyxiation, etc. Henry Lafeyre has, of course, studied under Taylor at Edinburgh.

JKP: Although it’s comfortably rolled into your story, you offer a considerable amount of Irish history and culture in this novel--much of which would not be familiar to the majority of American readers. Did you have to do some editing of your novel after Minotaur Books bought it, to make it easier for readers in the States to understand?

CB: No, happily not. I guess the editors at Minotaur took the view that if readers were going to go through this story they’d simply have to make an effort to take in the historical context. And it’s not that complicated, really. Moreover, I think a great many Americans would have a basic understanding of the historic difficulties in the relation between Ireland and Britain.

JKP: A June of Ordinary Murders was originally published in Ireland back in 2012. A year later saw the release of a sequel, The Eloquence of the Dead. I am delighted to hear that Eloquence will also be released in the States, probably in early 2016. Can you tell us something about the story you offer in that second Swallow yarn?

CB: The second story opens with the murder of a pawnbroker in his shop at Lamb Alley, near Dublin Castle. When Swallow investigates he uncovers a massive fraud on Her Majesty’s exchequer, organized around the purchase scheme through which tenant farmers are buying out their holdings from the big landlords. The story brings him to London where he gets an attractive job offer from Scotland Yard. And a possible rival to Maria comes on the scene.

The third story, A Hunt in Winter, brings us into 1888, which was the year that Jack the Ripper did his bloody work in the east end of London. Also in that year, a commission of inquiry in London examined alleged links between the great Irish parliamentary leader, [Charles Stewart]_Parnell, and political violence. The two themes intertwine in what I think is a good yarn.

JKP: When you’re not writing crime and mystery fiction, which other authors in the genre do you enjoy reading?

CB: My favorite is the Brother Cadfael series, set in the 13th century in the Benedictine Abbey of Shrewsbury, in England. The author, Ellis Peters, is now deceased. She wrote, I think, some 20 stories about Cadfael. He’s a monk of Shrewsbury but also a man of action, having been a crusader who has known military action.

JKP: Are you surprised by the rapid and fairly recent growth of Irish crime fiction as a subgenre?

CB: Not really. The Irish are an imaginative people. And many celebrated Irish writers have touched on criminal themes in the past. Some of what’s coming out is really good. But some is also merely imitative and predictable.

JKP: If you could have written any book--fiction or non-fiction--that doesn’t currently carry your byline, what would it have been?

CB: I’d like to have written The Day of the Jackal [1971], by Frederick Forsyth. It's the perfect thriller, pacy, tightly written, and wonderfully evocative of the atmosphere of France in the troubled 1950s and 1960s. Besides, I’d also be very rich!

JKP: Finally, since you are a newspaper veteran, let me ask you this: We now live in an era of marked newspaper decline, perhaps also a period of decline for journalism in general. What do you think the costs are to society of such declines, and do you see the news media finding firmer roles for themselves in the near future?

CB: I’ve been very pessimistic for traditional news media, watching the collapse of the various business models that sustained them. But I’m starting to be a little more hopeful now. I think good journalism is reasserting itself. There’s an absolute torrent of drivel and posturing on the Internet, but I think people are starting to be a lot more discerning.

“A Downward Spiral ... They Cannot Escape”

Thanks to author-blogger Bill Crider for pointing me toward this definition of noir fiction, offered by editor and bookseller Otto Penzler in a 2010 column for The Huffington Post:
Noir fiction has attracted some of the best writers in the United States (mostly) and many of its aficionados are among the most sophisticated readers in the crime genre. Having said that, I am constantly baffled by the fact that a huge number of those readers don't seem to know what noir fiction is. When they begin to speak of their favorite titles in the category, they invariably include a preponderance of books and short stories that are about as noir as strawberry shortcake.

Look, noir is about losers. The characters in these existential, nihilistic tales are doomed. They may not die, but they probably should, as the life that awaits them is certain to be so ugly, so lost and lonely, that they'd be better off just curling up and getting it over with. And, let's face it, they deserve it.

Pretty much everyone in a noir story (or film) is driven by greed, lust, jealousy or alienation, a path that inevitably sucks them into a downward spiral from which they cannot escape. They couldn't find the exit from their personal highway to hell if flashing neon lights pointed to a town named Hope. It is their own lack of morality that blindly drives them to ruin.
Penzler’s full piece can be found here.

Friday, April 10, 2015

The Story Behind The Story:
“Murder Boy,” by Bryon Quertermous

(Editor’s note: This 56th entry in our “Story Behind the Story” series brings to The Rap Sheet Bryon Quertermous, who I first encountered back when he was editing an e-zine called Demolition--long since demolished itself. Born and reared in Michigan, and now living outside of Detroit, Quertermous has penned short stories for Plots With Guns, ThugLit, and Crime Factory. In 2003 he was shortlisted for the Debut Dagger Award from the UK Crime Writers’ Association. His first novel, Murder Boy--about which he writes here--was released last month by Polis Books.)

I remember exactly where I was when the idea for Murder Boy popped into my head. I was driving along State Street, in downtown Ann Arbor, and passed by Angell Hall where the Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program for the University of Michigan is housed. I was a student down the road at Eastern Michigan University in its less-prestigious writing program, and was struggling between a desire to attend a high-profile program like Michigan’s and go on to write boring, high-profile literary short stories, and be a famed writing teacher, or go all in with my pulp influences and take whatever job I could find while writing fun and crazy books and stories as quickly as I could.

That was my mindset as I drove by that hallowed hall, when a snotty voice popped into my head and said, “The great American novel can’t be about murder.”

I spent the rest of the day thinking about that line and the person who was saying it. The story sprung almost completely formed in my mind about a disgruntled creative-writing student who wanted to write crime fiction and the professor who was making his life hell because of it. I fiddled around with it in my head for a while, trying to figure out the best way to tell that story, before writing a long and messy novella version of it. Eventually I cut that down to a manageable length and it found a home in the Webzine ThugLit, and then it found a more permanent home in the ThugLit print anthology Hardcore Hardboiled (2008). But I wasn’t done with those characters. I knew there was a novel there--I just had no idea how to write it yet. The struggle to figure that out would consume me for more than six years, almost ruin my honeymoon, and lead me to such a debilitating case of anxiety that I quit writing for a year.

But before you can fully understand how I got to that point, we need to go back a ways to the moment I knew I was meant to be the next great private-eye fiction writer.

My earliest reading and writing was in science fiction and fantasy. I spend most of junior high reading Star Trek and Star Wars novels, plus the occasional epic fantasy. I wrote a few stories here and there that conformed to all of the worst stereotypes of beginning science-fiction writing. There was nothing to indicate any sort of talent or originality in my voice. But around high school I discovered crime fiction. This was the early ’90s and crime fiction was in the midst of a private detective novel renaissance. I would spend most of that decade reading nothing but P.I. fiction: Robert Crais, Sue Grafton, Laura Lippman, Harlan Coben, Sara Paretsky, Dennis Lehane, S.J. Rozan, and so many others. These were the writers who formed the core of my influence. It started, though, with Robert B. Parker and his 1988 Spenser novel, Crimson Joy.

That novel itself is rather mediocre, but it was the first time I’d read a novel and immediately wanted to go out and write my own version. It was also my first exposure to series fiction and the idea that I could work out my fantasies and my struggles and my life influences through fiction. I promptly set about writing some of the worst Parker knockoffs in history. And I loved it. The more I read, and the more I wrote, the more I began to develop my own voice. Parker’s fiction was so important to me that, in 2008 when my first kid was born, I named him Spenser. Shortly after he was born, I finished the first draft of my third P.I. novel, Ruins of Detroit. It was the best book I’d written so far, but it still didn’t work. It didn’t have a very good ending and I hated how much it had taken out of me without giving me back a book I could be proud of. I knew deep down that I had reached the ceiling on what I could do with that form and I’d need to write something different going forward. Unfortunately, I had too much invested in the P.I. novel form to let it go that easily.

I tried to write another P.I. novel, but it was just awful. I tried to write a P.I. novel version of Murder Boy that was even worse. I tried to write a mixed third-person/first-person thriller P.I. novel that was the worst of them all. I even wrote a draft of a Murder Boy novel that wasn’t bad, it just didn’t have any soul. I also wrote two more version of Ruins that got closer to being good, but not totally. The draw of Murder Boy was strong, and everyone I told about it said that was the book I needed to be working on, but I’d banked my identity on being the next great P.I. writer and I had a very, very hard time letting go of that. At this same time, my life changed drastically in a short period of time. I changed jobs, I bought a house, I got married and had two kids back-to-back. My life was exciting and these changes were good, but it was very disorienting. To balance that out, I tried to find solace in the familiarity of a form I knew rather than try and figure out how to write this weird literary/pulp hybrid novel I couldn’t stop thinking about. So for five years, I went back and forth like that, trying to bang a doomed P.I. novel into shape, or trying to write an Elmore Leonard knockoff that I couldn’t manage to tap into emotionally at all. Eventually it just got to be too much and I stopped writing.

After another year or so and some other failed experiments (the less I say about the screenplay adaptation the better), I finally switched Murder Boy to first-person and realized that point of view had been as much of the draw to P.I. fiction as anything. I set about pouring every bit of struggle and triumph and fear and inspiration into that book and that character. I blitzed it with autobiography and then kicked it up to an absurd level. It was cathartic and freeing, and the effort resulted in a book that has been praised as much for it’s emotion as for its over-the-top plotting.

I can’t bask long in that relief, though. Now I have to write a sequel.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Teasing “True Detective” 2

Over the last several months we’ve received dribs and drabs of information regarding the cast and story lined up for Season 2 of the HBO-TV crime drama True Detective, but haven’t really learned much about what to expect. Until today. HBO has released a teaser video for Season 2, which comes with this brief story description:
A bizarre murder brings together three law-enforcement officers and a career criminal, each of whom must navigate a web of conspiracy and betrayal in the scorched landscapes of California. Colin Farrell is Ray Velcoro, a compromised detective in the all-industrial City of Vinci, L.A. County. Vince Vaughn plays Frank Semyon, a criminal and entrepreneur in danger of losing his life’s work, while his wife and closest ally (Kelly Reilly) struggles with his choices and her own. Rachel McAdams is Ani Bezzerides, a Ventura County Sheriff’s detective often at odds with the system she serves, while Taylor Kitsch plays Paul Woodrugh, a war veteran and motorcycle cop for the California Highway Patrol who discovers a crime scene which triggers an investigation involving three law-enforcement groups, multiple criminal collusions, and billions of dollars.
We also hear that the first two of this coming season’s episodes will be directed by Justin Lin, who’s known for his work on The Fast and the Furious 3–6 and the TV series Community.

True Detective is set to return to HBO on Sunday, June 21.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Show Your “Cards”

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If, in this second decade of the 21st century, the popularity of a TV series can be judged by the number of folks who want to try their hands at refashioning its opening title sequence, then Netflix’s often-cutthroat American political drama, House of Cards--now in its third season--is very popular indeed.

The fan-made videos below were found on YouTube. They all employ the same sort of time-lapse photography used in the original House of Cards introduction (embedded above), and every one of them features Jeff Beal’s theme music. However, the first nine imagine the series’ action being moved to other cities than Washington, D.C. (a real treat for someone like me, who enjoys traveling). Clips 10 and 11 provide an identical style of opening, but adapt it to other familiar TV programs, while the final clip reworks the House of Cards introduction in imitation of another admired political drama.

New Orleans, Louisiana
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Vienna, Austria
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Budapest, Hungary
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Paris, France
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Amsterdam, The Netherlands
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The Hague, The Netherlands
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Pisa, Italy
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Brasília, Brazil
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Beijing, China
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Breaking Bad TV opening, House of Cards-style
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Sherlock TV opening, House of Cards-style
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House of Cards TV opening, The West Wing-style
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Psst! Take a Gander Over There

I don’t usually spend a great deal of time in this blog touting The Rap Sheet’s affiliated sites, but perhaps I should do more such promotion, for there’s much else to see on those other pages.

Killer Covers, for instance, is now well into its crowd-pleasing accumulation of “two-fer” match-ups, “pairing … book covers that just seem to go together.” The newest entry in that series looks at vintage novels focusing on desire and death in the psychiatrist's office, while the previous one showcased temptresses on nearly identical spy novels. Killer Covers has also debuted a new regular feature about reused cover art. The opening installment cites Peter Cheyney’s The Sweetheart of the Razors (1962) as an example.

Meanwhile, The Rap Sheet’s YouTube collection of intros from crime-related TV shows and films has added the openings from the small-screen programs Missing, Profiler, In Plain Sight, The Girl from U.N.C.L.E., and Crazy Like a Fox, along with the introduction to that cringe-worthy 1979 Bert Convy teleflick, Ebony, Ivory and Jade. Once you finish watching those, the page offers literally hundreds of other videos to enjoy. Get your popcorn ready!

Monday, April 06, 2015

The Story Behind the Story:
“A Scourge of Vipers,” by Bruce DeSilva

(Editor’s note: This is the second piece The Rap Sheet has posted by novelist Bruce DeSilva, following a 2014 backgrounder on his previous yarn, Providence Rag. DeSilva’s crime fiction has won the Edgar and Macavity awards, and he’s been listed as a finalist for the Shamus, Anthony, and Barry awards. His short stories have appeared in Akashic Press’ well-respected noir anthologies. DeSilva has reviewed books for The New York Times Book Review, Publishers Weekly, and The Associated Press. Prior to his novel-writing success, he spent 40 years as a journalist, and most recently served as worldwide writing coach for the AP. His fourth book, A Scourge of Vipers [Forge], is just out this week in hardcover and e-book editions.)

One morning a couple of years ago, I poured myself a cup of coffee, opened my New York Times, and spotted a story about sports gambling. It wasn’t about the odds on the New England Patriots winning the Super Bowl, or an exposé on point-shaving, or a breathless account of a raid on a bookie joint. Instead, it was a dry-as-dust bit of government reporting on a bill Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey was planning to introduce.

Republican Christie, eager for ways to balance the state budget without raising taxes, wanted to legalize sports gambling so he could tax the profits. I could see right off that the idea was bound to generate some heat.

For one thing, it meant Christie would have to take on the U.S. government, because federal law outlaws sports gambling everywhere but in Nevada and three other states where it was grandfathered in.

For another thing, it pitted the governor against the men who ran the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and the professional sports leagues, all of whom had long opposed legalization, claiming it would threaten the integrity of their games.

Sure enough, the NCAA was especially apoplectic, threatening to blackball New Jersey arenas from the annual March Madness basketball tournament unless Christie backed down.

And the way I saw it, organized crime figures, aghast at the prospect of seeing their bookmaking profits disappear, wouldn’t much like Christie’s plan, either.

But the governor’s proposal also had powerful supporters. Some public employee unions saw it as a way to protect their threatened pensions. And the Atlantic City gambling kingpins were eager to tap this new source of revenue. Once, they had run the only games east of the Mississippi; but they’d seen their profits cut in half by the explosion of casino gambling in nearby states over the last couple of decades, and they were growing desperate.

What all this portended was conflict--not such a good thing for the legislative process, perhaps, but solid gold for a crime novelist.

I clipped the story from the paper and started keeping a file on developments. As soon as I finished writing Providence Rag, the third book in my Edgar Award-winning series of crime novels set in Providence, Rhode Island, I started researching sports gambling in earnest. I thought I already knew quite a bit about the subject, but I was startled by some of what I learned.

I knew a lot of Americans liked to bet on sports, but I had no idea how many. According to surveys, 85 percent of us gamble on sporting events at least once in a while.

I also knew a lot of money was changing hands, but I had no idea how much. It turns out that the total amount Americans gamble on sports, most of it bet illegally, is estimated at three hundred and eighty billion dollars a year. To put that figure in perspective, it’s six times greater than the annual budget of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Clearly, both the proponents and opponents of Christie’s plan had deep pockets, millions at their disposal to try to influence the outcome. And before long, a number of other governors with hard-pressed state budgets started thinking about following Christie’s lead.

So I asked myself, “what if”--the question that has launched every novel I’ve written.

What if the colorful fictional governor I’d introduced in my previous novels proposed legalizing sports gambling in Rhode Island? Fiona McNerney, a former religious sister nicknamed Attila the Nun for her take-no-prisoners style of politics, wasn’t much like Christie, but she did resemble him in one respect. She wasn’t one to back down in the face of pressure.

With that, my new novel, A Scourge of Vipers, began to take shape.

The action begins when powerful organizations that have a lot to lose--or gain--if gambling is made legal, flood Rhode Island with millions of dollars to buy the votes of state legislators. All that money in a little state where the average campaign for a seat in the state legislature normally costs just $10,000.

Naturally, all hell breaks loose. First, a powerful state legislator turns up dead. Then a mobbed-up bagman gets shot down, and his briefcase full of cash goes missing.

My protagonist, Liam Mulligan, an investigative reporter for the fictional Providence Dispatch, wants to investigate, but the bottom-feeding conglomerate that recently purchased the struggling newspaper has no interest in serious public-interest reporting. So Mulligan goes rogue, digging into the story on his own. Soon, shadowy forces try to derail his investigation by destroying his career, his reputation, and perhaps his life.

The result is at once a suspenseful murder mystery and a serious exploration of the hypocrisy surrounding sports betting and the corrupting influence of big money on politics.

As I was working on the novel, Governor Christie pressed forward with his plan, pushing his legalization bill through the state legislature in defiance of the federal law. He declared that the sports betting would be launched at the Monmouth Park racetrack, and that it would soon spread to the Atlantic City casinos.

The professional sports leagues sued to stop him, and last fall a federal judge blocked Christie’s plan. Now, the issue is headed to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia--and quite likely, eventually to the U.S. Supreme Court.

READ MORE:A Scourge of Vipers: New Excerpt,” by Bruce DeSilva (Criminal Element).

Don’t Forget That Anthony Awards Ballot!

I’m as guilty of occasional procrastinating as anyone, so I can understand why some people who plan to attend Bouchercon in Raleigh, North Carolina, this coming October might be holding onto their Anthony Awards ballots a wee bit too long. It is hard to make decisions sometimes, right? And you certainly don’t want to act in haste, only to be left later with regrets. Deliberative thinking about something as important as this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

However, there is a looming deadline: Thursday, April 30.

Anyone who signed up to attend Bouchercon 2014 in Long Beach, or who has registered for Bouchercon 2015 should by now have received--via e-mail--a personal link to an online ballot, inviting you to nominate books and stories in six Anthony Awards categories. If you’re eligible to vote, but have not yet received your ballot, please e-mail B.G. Ritts with your name and the information of whether you were at Long Beach or are registered for the Raleigh convention.

Again, these ballots must be returned electronically in just over three weeks, by the end of April. The top five candidates in each category will be announced after May 1, and the Anthonys will be presented during a ceremony in Raleigh on Saturday, October 10.

Tube Talk

• So can we look forward to a Twin Peaks revival, or not? Fans of that ABC-TV cult series were quite excited when news broke last fall that Peaks’ co-creator, director David Lynch, would be resurrecting the 1990-1991 drama for a nine-episode run on cable channel Showtime in early 2016. But now, Business Insider says Lynch has exited the project, and the director is trying to tamp down talk that Showtime has cancelled the revival altogether. If you’re still craving “a damn fine coffee and a piece of cherry pie” from the Double R Diner, your appetite might not be satisfied at any time soon.

• Meanwhile, Tipping My Fedora reports that Season 3 of the acclaimed Inspector Morse prequel, Endeavour, starring Shaun Evans, is currently in production, with this latest run of episodes to be set in 1967. “Our next quartet of mysteries,” explains creator-writer Russell Lewis, “will take the audience on a psychedelic Summer of Love fairground ride, filled with twists and turns, shrieks and scares.”

• Author Lee Goldberg turned me on to the nostalgic TV Web site Modcinema--and I may never forgive him, because it promises to blow a big ol’ hole in my budget. In addition to offering myriad forgotten theatrical films, the site has for sale many (and I do mean many) made-for-TV movies from the last half of the 20th century. I haven’t located everything on my wishlist yet, but I did find The Judge and Jake Wyler, a 1972 pilot starring Bette Davis and Doug McClure, and written by Columbo creators Richard Levinson and William Link; another Levinson and Link pilot, Charlie Cobb: Nice Night for a Hanging, with Clu Gulager playing a private detective in the Old West; Beg, Borrow or Steal, a 1973 crime drama featuring familiar series stars Mike Connors, Michael Cole, and Kent McCord as “three ex-cops, disabled while on duty,” who “team up to steal a valuable statue from a museum”; and The Crime Club (1975), the second and last pilot of that name, both about elite crime-solving organizations, this one starring Scott Thomas, Eugene Roche, and Robert Lansing. (The previous Crime Club pilot was broadcast in 1973.) I used to love teleflicks, and I’m sorry that the networks no longer invest their time and money in making them, so Modcinema is a site destined to receive many of my hard-earned dollars, a place where I can finally see those small-screen pictures I failed to watch the first time around.

• If you’ve missed William Petersen, formerly the star of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, this is excellent news: The Los Angeles Times reports that “he’ll be part of the main cast of WGN America’s Manhattan in the drama’s second season. Petersen will play Col. Emmett Darrow, described as an ‘enigmatic new ranking military officer at Los Alamos’ [New Mexico] who is also ‘a deeply religious and patriotic man’ who sees himself as anointed by God to bring America’s nuclear power across the planet. Sounds like exactly the wrong person to be anywhere near nuclear weapons.”

• Did you know that William J. “Bill” Koenig, managing editor of The Spy Command, also maintains a couple of fine online TV episode guides? The first looks back at The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964-1968) and its one-season spin-off, The Girl from U.N.C.L.E., while the second focuses on The F.B.I., the 1965-1974 Quinn Martin crime drama. Both are worth exploring.

• Finally, the third season of Ripper Street--the British crime drama set in London in the wake of Jack the Ripper’s 1888 killing spree--is scheduled to return to BBC America with eight new episodes, beginning on Wednesday, April 29. You may recall that Ripper Street, starring Matthew Macfadyen, was cancelled in late 2013 as a result of “low viewing figures.” Soon after that, Amazon Prime Instant Video agreed to take the show on, and a completed Season 3 was made available last November--but only in the UK. Responding to widespread viewer support, and now without having to foot all the bills for its production, BBC America has decided to bring back this historical-thriller standout. You can watch a trailer for the coming new season here, and learn more about what else the show has in store, by clicking here.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

The Story Behind the Story:
“Cry Wolf,” by Michael Gregorio

(Editor’s note: With this 54th entry in our “Story Behind the Story” series, we once more give center stage to the husband-and-wife team of Daniela De Gregorio and Michael G. Jacob, who write under the byline “Michael Gregorio.” After penning four historical mysteries featuring early 19th-century Prussian magistrate-cum-detective Hanno Stiffeniis, the most recent of which was Unholy Awakening, these two have taken off in a very different direction, publishing Cry Wolf [Severn House], a new mafia thriller set in central Italy’s Umbria region, where the couple live. Below, they tell why they’ve chosen this new literary path.)

Why kick good fortune in the teeth?

This is a dilemma that many writers have to face at some time.

You sold your first novel as part of a two-book deal. Those two books sold well enough for your publisher to ask for two more, featuring the same protagonist and setting. Before you know it, you have become a brand, and you’ve been pigeon-holed. You are now a relatively well-known writer of “historical thrillers” in the UK, or “historical mysteries” in the USA, and your novels have been translated into more than 20 languages. Your publisher is smiling, your agent is pleased, you have a growing band of faithful readers, and no one feels the need to ask you what you think about it.

That was pretty much the position Daniela and I were in when the following remarks, delivered by critic Barry Forshaw, appeared in The Independent in 2010:
The publishers tout Unholy Awakening as a “dark, gothic, vampiric mystery set in 19th-century Prussia,” and it’s hard to argue with this summary. With their first book, Critique of Criminal Reason, the husband-and-wife team who are Michael Gregorio managed to shoehorn references to the philosopher Kant into a thriller scenario. That book was a sweeping piece set in the Age of Enlightenment, with Prussian magistrate Hanno Stiffeniis enlisting Kant to aid him in investigating a series of violent deaths in Königsberg. It was clear that attention had to be paid to a major new talent in the period-crime field. Subsequent books (Days of Atonement and A Visible Darkness) have added lustre to the Gregorio brand. The reader of Unholy Awakening will notice fewer philosophical underpinnings in this gruesome narrative, but the powerful sense of time and place--and the minatory atmosphere--are in place.
Who wouldn’t be happy with such a write-up?

Obviously, we were very happy, but after four books featuring Hanno Stiffeniis, we felt that it was time for us to take a step back and decide whether we really wanted to be the next C.J. Sansom or Hilary Mantel.

Doesn’t that sound logical, measured, and cool?

It sure does, but that is not what happened.

What really happened was this: our lives were turned upside-down by something over which we had no control. One day, our next-door neighbor was arrested. Just 20 years old, he and four young friends were accused of being terrorists. We knew them well. Daniela and I live in a lovely old town in central Italy, and we had taken part with the five boys and hundreds of other people in protest meetings, sit-ins, and marches against building speculation that threatened to spoil the town, in our opinion. We’d appeared on television, and enlisted the help of prominent Italian environmentalists, art historians, and politicians. Questions were asked about the local clash in the Italian parliament. And just when everything was slipping into place, the police pounced at dawn one morning and arrested the five most defenseless kids in the protest movement. OK, so they had written slogans on walls, but what else had they done? The local authorities accused them of plotting acts of violence, hiding weapons and explosives. They had, according to the police, sent an envelope containing unexploded bullets to a regional political bigwig.

We put aside our plans to write another Hanno Stiffeniis mystery set in a fictional town in 19th-century Prussia, and we discussed what was going on in our own back yard. Right or wrong, what we came up with was this: the boys had been set up. Could we sit down and write another fancy tale for lovers of cute historical crime fiction while those poor kids were languishing, innocent, in jail? Of course, we couldn’t. So we helped to organize protest marches, spoke at public meetings, testified in court in their defense, wrote to national newspapers and appeared on local TV saying that they were innocent, and that it was a major miscarriage of justice.

And then, one day, we received an e-mail message …

An Italian publisher with a strong interest in environmental questions had launched a series of novels with crime and the environment as their central themes. Would we be interested in writing a novel about what had occurred in our town to kids that we knew?

We jumped at the opportunity, with one small reservation. We agreed to write a fictionalized account of what had happened, but we refused to sell the foreign rights. Boschi & Bossoli was published as a standalone in Italy in 2012. It wasn’t an immense success--it was too political, too vindictive, too Italian, let’s say--but it was something that we had to write. And while we were writing it, we came up with a theory that we couldn’t use in the Italian book, precisely because it was so political, so vindictive, so simple, and so Italian, too.

Who was behind the conspiracy that took five young people to a maximum-security prison, where one of them celebrated his 21st birthday alone in an isolation cell?

It sounds phony when you suggest such a conspiracy, but we believe that it was true. The mafia was behind it. Not the mafia of The Godfather or Gomorra, but another kind of mafia, an evil coalition of local business interests, greedy politicians, ambitious policemen, all with the desire to crush a protest movement convinced that there are more important things in this world than money, power, and a disregard for the beauty of a fragile eco-culture which the small country town of Spoleto represented.

We knew the book would not be a commercial success. That was why we held back the world rights. Daniela and I had decided that we were no longer exclusively interested in Immanuel Kant, Prussia, and Hanno Stiffeniis. Indeed, we wanted to write a new and different version of the Italian story, a fictionalized and damning portrayal of all the smaller mafias that make life in Italy such a hassle.

We re-used some of the original material we had gathered, and invented a great deal more. We took away the central role in the story from the kids, and we spoke through the mouths of the real protagonists, the crooked politicians, cynical cops, and professional criminals who had been behind the conspiracy to ruin Spoleto for their own selfish interests. We did “a James Ellroy,” let’s say--very different, but very exciting for us. We had to invent a new central character who would bring all these elements into focus, a park ranger named Sebastiano Cangio, who sees signs of the Calabrian mafia--the ’Ndrangheta--invading tranquil Umbria, and in Cry Wolf, we feel that we have achieved exactly what we set out to achieve. This novel was released in the UK in December, and goes on sale in America this month. It has garnered reviews from Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Kirkus Reviews which go beyond our wildest dreams:
Outstanding writing, a suspenseful and terrifying plot, and enough twists to keep even the most seasoned reader guessing, this is a terrific read that belongs in all mystery collections. (Booklist Starred Review)
But there’s an even better end to the real story.

The five kids were found innocent of the terrorism charges, the political bigwig who received the letter containing bullets will go on trial for corruption in the near future, and the crooked policeman who arrested the boys was condemned to 14 years in jail for running arms and drugs, and for his “limitless ambition” (in the words of the judge). Even better, after what amounts to seven of the busiest years of our lives, the ugly modern building which started the whole thing off has been scheduled for demolition!

Did we do the right thing to kick good fortune in the teeth?

We feel that we did the only thing possible under the circumstances. We also feel that we have been well rewarded for it. We have opened a new series of “Sebastiano Cangio mysteries” with a new publisher, and we still have magistrate Hanno Stiffeniis in the wings, if any enterprising publisher feels like asking us to pick up the Prussian historical mystery series again.

Like German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibnitz, we feel that we are living in “the best of all possible worlds.”

Voltaire, the pragmatist, on the other hand, just laughed at fools like us and Leibnitz!