Thursday, February 11, 2016

Pierce’s Picks

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



Shaft’s Revenge, by David F. Walker (Dynamite Entertainment). The last year has been a red-letter time for fans of Ernest Tidyman’s 1970s New York City private eye, John Shaft. November brought the publication of Steve Aldous’ The World of Shaft, a comprehensive study of the character as he’s appeared in various media. And David F. Walker, who in late 2014 began delivering a new series of Shaft comic books (more recently collected as Shaft Volume 1: A Complicated Man), has now debuted a second series of adventures for that “cat who won’t cop out,” Shaft: Imitation of Life. Walker is also offering Shaft’s Revenge, the first new Shaft novel brought to market since Tidyman’s The Last Shaft in 1975. I haven’t yet received a copy of this 288-page work, but Walker—in an interview with Comic Vine—explains that its story “takes place shortly after Shaft’s Big Score [1972], which was the third book by Tidyman,” and that it finds the gumshoe being “hired by Knocks Persons, the godfather of Harlem, who appeared in the first novel [Shaft, 1970]. Knocks knows he is about to be killed, and he basically hires Shaft to find his killer. As he works the case, Shaft is caught up in the middle of a conflict between corrupt cops and the killer of Knocks.” Walker adds that this book gave him the chance to “explore some of what makes Shaft tick, including aspects of his youth. We learn stuff about Shaft in this book that has never been revealed before, stuff that even he didn’t know about, which serves as something of a second mystery within the story.”

Another familiar face turns up in The Sign of Fear (Simon & Schuster UK), Robert Ryan’s fourth outing for Sherlock Holmes’ aging but faithful companion, Doctor (or, more recently, Major) John H. Watson, following last year’s A Study in Murder. It’s now 1917, and London is under assault by German bombers, a barrage that seriously unnerves the local citizenry. Watson, already grieving after the loss of one friend, is struck again by news that another warfront ally has been lost during a torpedo attack on the English Channel. Then his concert-going comrade, Sir Gilbert Hardy, is snatched, along with four others, and a ransom demand follows, telling of the ghastly events destined to take place if those demands are not satisfied. Anxious for help, Watson accepts it from a most unlikely source: ruthless German spy Miss Pillbody, aka the “She Wolf.” Although their aims are ultimately different, their investigative efforts prove fruitful, exposing a dastardly, high-level plot. Ryan’s portrayal of Watson as compassionate, intelligent, and surprisingly brave for an old gent is most satisfying, and his careful suspense-building makes this series well worth the reading time.

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

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Listen to This

There are 25 categories of nominees for this year’s Audie Awards, given out by the Audio Publishers Association and celebrating “distinction in audiobooks and spoken word entertainment.” But only two are of obvious interest to Rap Sheet readers.

Mystery:
All the Old Knives, by Olen Steinhauer,
narrated by Ari Fliakos and Juliana Francis Kelly (Macmillan Audio)
Career of Evil, by Robert Galbraith,
narrated by Robert Glenister (Hachette Audio)
Corrupted, by Lisa Scottoline,
narrated by Kate Burton (Macmillan Audio)
Gun Street Girl, by Adrian McKinty,
narrated by Gerard Doyle (Blackstone Audio)
Malice at the Palace, by Rhys Bowen,
narrated by Katherine Kellgren (Audible Studios)
The Nature of the Beast, by Louise Penny,
narrated by Robert Bathurst (Macmillan Audio)

Thriller/Suspense:
Blue Labyrinth, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child,
narrated by Rene Auberjonois (Hachette Audio)
The Patriot Threat, by Steve Berry,
narrated by Scott Brick (Macmillan Audio)
The President’s Shadow, by Brad Meltzer,
narrated by Scott Brick (Hachette Audio)
Season of Fear, by Brian Freeman,
narrated by Joe Barrett (Blackstone Audio)
Signal, by Patrick Lee, narrated by Ari Fliakos (Macmillan Audio)

Winners will be announced during the Audies Gala on May 11, to be held at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago.

(Hat tip to Mystery Fanfare.)

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Genre Bender

(Editor’s note: Over the last few years, Scottish author Peter May has become a favored concocter of fiction for at least several Rap Sheet contributors. We’ve interviewed him and hosted his essays about previous books. Today, we give space over to May once more, this time in order that he can remark on how his novel Runaway—which is being released this week in the States by publisher Quercus—like  other of his most recent works, stretches the boundaries of crime fiction.)

Police procedural, whodunit, hard-boiled, cozy, thriller—the list goes on. As “genres” go, the loose coverall of “crime” or “mystery” must be the most varied and all-encompassing there is. Is it really possible to push against the boundaries and extend the limits further?

We are now reading more non-English writers in translation, the swathe of Scandinavian authors, French writers like Pierre Lemaitre, or the Italian Roberto Costantini. And we are embracing the cultural differences they bring. The boundaries of the genre often vary from country to country.

The French definition of crime writing also includes the roman noir or “dark novel,” a fact that changed my life when I unwittingly banged up against London editors’ preconceived limits of what was “acceptable” as a crime book a few years ago.

The Blackhouse (2011) involved a policeman investigating a crime on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. This remote archipelago was a place I knew very well, and I wanted to take readers to explore its unique culture and atmosphere. As I began to inhabit the being of a recently bereaved policeman returning to his birthplace with a lifetime of emotional baggage and regrets, his personal journey became even more important to me than the crime he was investigating. I believed his story was a strong one, and I felt sure readers would be engaged and moved by it. However, readers in Britain were not to get the chance to find out. The editors of all the London publishing houses turned the book down. They sent effusively complimentary rejection letters praising the quality of the writing and the strong atmosphere and characters, but they felt that they would have difficulty selling the book to their marketing departments and ultimately to readers.

I was devastated. I put the book away and was forced to pursue other ideas and stories. It wasn’t until a few years later that my French editor asked to read The Blackhouse. She loved it and bought world rights. When the book was translated and published in France it was declared a “masterpiece” by the French daily newspaper L’Humanité.

It went on to win several awards in France in the genre of crime writing as well as a major national literature award, the Prix Cezam Litteraire. And that’s the difference in France … there is no difference. The French don’t separate crime and mystery writing from “literature.” They believe a good book is a good book whether it belongs to a “genre” or not. They judge the book on the quality of its writing.

The Blackhouse went on to be published all over Europe, with editors falling over themselves to snap it up at the Frankfurt Book Fair, including a young publishing house in the UK that hadn’t been around when the book was first presented to those London editors. The managing editor at Quercus strongly believed in The Blackhouse and took it on without hesitation. Looking back, it was perhaps not such a difficult decision for him. Quercus was the publisher that had brought Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series to the English-speaking world. And in those years that followed the Larsson phenomenon all those Scandinavian authors, with their psychological stories set in cold northern climates, had actually expanded the boundaries of the crime genre for the British reading public. Now The Blackhouse was squeezing its way into the publishing world as a Scottish cousin in the subgenre of “Nordic Noir.”

Those editors who initially turned the book down need not have worried about readers’ reactions, The Blackhouse was selected for the UK’s Richard and Judy Book Club (like Oprah’s book club in the USA) and was voted the “best read” by readers. When The Blackhouse was eventually published in the USA, it won the Barry Award for best crime novel.

The Outer Hebrides, with its very low crime rate, was never destined to become a setting for a long-running series of crime books, but I was persuaded to follow The Blackhouse up with two more novels, creating what became known as the Lewis Trilogy. The Lewis Man (2012) and The Chessmen (2013) followed in the same style. Each book involves a crime and an investigation, but the main part of story concentrates on the history of the characters and their relationships.

More than two million copies of the Lewis Trilogy have been sold in the UK alone. I am inundated with requests to continue the stories and write more books involving Fin Macleod, but I spent many years as a young television scriptwriter, writing for soap operas and I won’t be returning to that!

I followed up the trilogy with the standalone Entry Island (2014). Pushing boundaries again, I suppose, this story is set half on the Magdalen Islands in Quebec, Canada, and half in 19th-century Outer Hebrides. It’s part crime story and part historical fiction, with a love story, too! That might sound like an odd mix, but Entry Island won the Deanston Scottish Crime Novel of the Year, UK ITV Crime Book Club Dagger for Best Read of the Year, and the French Revue 813 Award for Best Foreign Crime Book of the Year.

Runaway, the standalone which followed Entry Island, also ventures into untrodden territory. There is a crime and a mystery, but the story alternates between two time frames, 1965 and 2015. One story line follows a musical group of teenage boys who run away from home in Glasgow, Scotland, to the bright lights of London in the Swinging ’60s in search of fame and fortune. In parallel, the second story line follows three of them retracing the steps of their youthful journey now as infirm, elderly men on a quest to right a wrong from their past.

Am I stretching the limits of the mystery genre? I’m not setting out with that intent. I simply have stories to tell, and plotting and resolving a mystery is one of the most satisfying ways to do it. After all, nothing hooks a reader and engages his or her imagination faster than a mystery.

Perhaps there are purists who believe that there are formats and rules that should be adhered to, but I think that the crime and mystery genre is a broad enough church to accommodate us all.

Chesterton’s “Defense” of Detective Fiction

“There is, however, between a good detective story and a bad detective story as much, or, rather more, difference than there is between a good epic and a bad one. Not only is a detective story a perfectly legitimate form of art, but it has certain definite and real advantages as an agent of the public weal.”—G.K. Chesterton, the “father” of cleric-cum-sleuth Father Brown, defines the multiple values of detective fiction in this 1901 essay.

Monday, February 08, 2016

Bullet Points: First 2016 Edition — Finally!

This has been an extraordinarily busy time for me, which should explain why there have been fewer than normal postings in The Rap Sheet during the last month. Following the most recent holiday madness, I took on the task of helping to remodel two rooms in my house—both of which I’d passed on redoing when I first moved into this now 110-year-old Seattle residence back in the late 1990s. Tearing off wallpaper and removing baseboards, mudding and sanding walls, painting everything again, and then building new bookcases has caused a serious strain on my writing hours. I’m burning candles at more than their two ends. I apologize to readers for not being more active on The Rap Sheet and Killer Covers than I have been lately, but with any luck, this test of my construction skills should end soon. I hope ...

Meanwhile, let me pass along a passel of news items that should be of some interest to crime-fiction readers.

• With the centennial of author John D. MacDonald’s birth coming up in July (on July 24, to be exact) Florida’s Sarasota Herald-Tribune newspaper has initiated a series of remembrances it calls “John D. and Me.” Installment number one came from writer John Jakes, while Stephen King provided the initial follow-up. Other contributors have been Tim Dorsey, Jeffery Deaver, Don Bruns, and Heather Graham. Unless things go awry, you should be able to keep up with the series entries here.

• And if that isn’t enough …: Robert Fulford from Canada’s National Post looks at how MacDonald invented the subgenre of Florida crime fiction, and how it has grown and evolved since his death in 1986.

• This should be especially welcome news for fans of Erle Stanley Gardner’s clever, sometimes comical Bertha Cool and Donald Lam detective series, which he wrote under the pseudonym A.A. Fair. In December 2016, Hard Case Crime will publish an unexpected and forgotten 30th installment of that series, titled The Knife Slipped. “Lost for more than 75 years,” HCC explains on its Web site, “The Knife Slipped was meant to be the second book in the series but got shelved when Gardner’s publisher objected to (among other things) Bertha Cool’s tendency to ‘talk tough, swear, smoke cigarettes, and try to gyp people.’ But this tale of adultery and corruption, of double-crosses and triple identities—however shocking for 1939—shines today as a glorious present from the past, a return to the heyday of private eyes and shady dames, of powerful criminals, crooked cops, blazing dialogue, and delicious plot twists.” Oh, and the cover of this novel was painted by the legendary Robert McGinnis. I can’t wait to get my hands on The Knife Slipped!

From In Reference to Murder: Sherlock fans may be disappointed to hear that the fourth season of the show probably won’t air until sometime in 2017, according to PBS president Paula Kerger. Although the show will begin production early this year, the busy schedules of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman add up to a delay in Sherlock’s timeline.” Well, darn it all!

• Oh no, say it isn’t so: The much-maligned 1990 ABC-TV series Cop Rock, a “musical police drama” co-created by Steven Bochco (of Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue), is finally due out in DVD format. Television Obscurities reports that the full series will be released by Shout! Factory this coming May 17. “The 3-disc set will include the 11 episodes plus new interviews with creator Steven Bochco, co-star Anne Bobby, and others,” the blog explains. “Shout! calls the release a ‘cause for both celebration and a long-overdue reappraisal of a series that has been called one of the most unusual programs of all time.’” Unusual isn’t the same thing as saying it was good.

• Editor Janet Rudolph will focus the next edition of her magazine, Mystery Readers Journal, on New York mysteries, and she’s now in the market for reviews (50-250 words), articles (250-1,000 words), and Author! Author! essays (500-1,500 words) to fill out the contents. If you’d like to make a submission, contact Rudolph at janet@mysteryreaders.org. The deadline for copy is February 20.

Alcatraz Island in 1880, long before that hump in San Francisco Bay hosted one of America’s most notorious penitentiaries.

• To celebrate the half-century anniversary of their small-screen debut in 1966, The Monkees—“the greatest fake band ever assembled for a madcap TV show”—will release a new album, titled Good Times!, and engage in “a lengthy North American tour kicking off May 18 in Fort Myers, Florida,” reports Mashable.

• The Booksteve Channel has early publicity clips for The Monkees.

• The Thrill Begins, a blog presented under the auspices of the International Thriller Writers, spent all of this last week interviewing crime and mystery fiction critics, sometimes with humorous results. The reviewers being grilled were Peter Rozovsky of Detectives Beyond Borders, Kristopher Zgorski of BOLO Books, Katrina Niidas Holm of the late, great Life Sentence, Carole Barrowman from Wisconsin’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and Benoit Lievre of Dead End Follies.

• I was very sorry to hear about the passing, at age 73, of fiction anthologist and cinema historian Jon Tuska, who wrote—among many other works—1978’s The Detective in Hollywood: The Movie Careers of the Great Fictional Private Eyes and Their Creators, which I have long considered a must-have resource book. According to his obituary, Tuska breathed his last on Monday, January 18, “after a brief battle with cancer.” That note goes on to explain:
He graduated from Marquette University in Milwaukee in 1966. He was a renaissance man, known worldwide for his expertise on Western films and fiction. He wrote or edited over 30 books, consulted on television projects, taught and lectured, and between 1983 and 1991, he was associated with Oregon Public Broadcasting as the host of several classical music programs. In 1991, with his wife, Vicki Piekarski, he founded Golden West Literary Agency, which represented many of the authors of classic Western fiction.
A list of Tuska’s books can be found here.

I was fortunate to meet and interview Tuska in the early 1980s for a Portland, Oregon-based arts magazine called Stepping Out, and I’m sure I still have that particular issue someplace in my files, though I can’t seem to lay my hands on it right now. If and when I do locate that edition, though, I shall certainly post my interview with Tuska on this page. (Hat tip to Bill Crider’s Pop Culture Magazine.)

• The first part of David F. Walker’s new John Shaft comic-book series, Imitation of Life, is due out this week, and though I don’t see a print edition available yet, Amazon has the Kindle version for sale here. Steve Aldous, author of The World of Shaft, offers a sampling of the interior art here. He has also posted the covers from Part II and Part III of this story, along with this link to a new interview with Walker in Bleeding Cool.

This is rather unexpected. It turns out that the book “Britons are most likely to have lied about reading” is … Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll. I’d have expected it to be Leo Tolstoy’s mammoth War and Peace, or Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, or maybe even David Foster Wallace’s self-indulgent but nonetheless oft-lauded Infinite Jest. But no. Britain’s Telegraph lists 20 works of fiction (more than that, if you count the Harry Potter series installments separately) that residents of Great Britain claim to have read, when in fact they have not. Of those, I’m pleased to say I have actually, truly digested all but a couple (including Fifty Shades of Gray—no thanks), and that while I haven’t read Alice’s Adventures myself, my mother did read it to me as a small boy.

• I, for one, would be interested to know how this list compares with an equivalent study of American reading accomplishments.

Crime Watch blogger Craig Sisterson writes on Facebook that New Zealand novelist Paul Cleave—whose Five Minutes Alone won the 2015 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel—“has reportedly been made an Honorary Literary Fellow in the New Zealand Society of Authors Waitangi Day Honours (for those outside New Zealand, Waitangi Day is New Zealand's national day). Very well deserved, and great to see Paul get some recognition among the local literary world.”

• Author Max Allan Collins has recently been writing quite a bit in his blog about his repeatedly delayed heart surgery (fingers crossed for Collins’ swift recovery—whenever the procedure is done!), but in last week’s post he added this good news:
[M]y complete novel version of Road to Perdition the movie is due to be published along with reprints of Road to Purgatory and Road to Paradise. You may recall that my Perdition novelization was reduced to a pale shadow of itself back in the day—a 40,000-word condensation of the 70,000-word novel is what was foisted upon the public (it even made the New York Times best-seller list). As a great man once said, “Pfui.” But we appear to be on the verge of vindication.

In addition, new editions of
Black Hats and Red Sky in Morning are in the works, to be published under my own name for the first time (R.I.P., Patrick Culhane).

All five of these books will be published by Brash Books, which is in part the brainchild of my buddy Lee Goldberg.
• From Crimespree Magazine comes news that “The Friends of the St. Paul Public Library [have] announced the nominees for the 28th annual Minnesota Book Awards.” The category of Genre Fiction contains four novels: The Devereaux Decision, by Steve McEllistrem (Calumet Editions); The Grave Soul, by Ellen Hart (Minotaur); He’s Either Dead or in St. Paul, by D.B. Moon (Three Waters); and Season of Fear, by Brian Freeman (Quercus). The winner in this and seven additional categories will be declared on April 16.

• It seems that distinguished essayist and poet T.S. Eliot was a fan of Golden Age detective stories, at one point describing Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone (1868) as “the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels.”

• Critic Mike Ripley’s “Getting Away with Murder” column for February contains observations on the annual Hodder and John Murray Crime Party, a new edition of James Crumley’s 1978 classic yarn, The Last Good Kiss (due out in April from UK publisher Black Swan), new releases by Robert Crais, Susan Moody, and others, and a Golden Age of Crime Weekend event scheduled as part of the Essex Book Festival (March 1-31). Read all of Ripley’s piece on the Shots Web site.

• No surprise here: Raymond Chandler’s 1953 novel, The Long Goodbye, is Benjamin Black’s favorite outing for Los Angeles private eye Philip Marlowe. “Chandler never wrote with such passionate conviction as he does in this long and darkly tormented work,” opines Black, the alter-ego behind which Irish author John Banville produces his own works of crime fiction—including The Black-Eyed Blonde (2014), a sort-of-sequel to The Long Goobye. “In the figure of the best-selling but self-hating author Roger Wade, we glimpse an exaggerated version of Chandler himself, who throughout his writing life chafed under the label of ‘mere’ thriller-writer.” You’ll find all of Black/Banville’s thoughts on this matter in The Independent.

• Here’s something I didn’t know before: Allen Dulles, the first civilian director of America’s Central Intelligence Agency, was a friend of Ian Fleming and a follower of his James Bond spy adventures.

• Nancie Clare is back with another year of novelist interviews for the Speaking of Mysteries podcast, beginning 2016 with Joe R. Lansdale, author of the new Hap and Leonard tale, Honky Tonk Samurai. Her other recent respondents include Denise Mina (Blood Salt Water), Joe Clifford (Lamentation), and Robert Crais (The Promise).

• S.W. Lauden talks with Rob Hart, author of the brand-new Portland-based Ash McKenna novel, City of Rose.

• You might recognize Joseph Goodrich as the editor of Blood Relations: The Selected Letters of Ellery Queen, 1947-1950 (2012), but he’s also a playwright. And his adaptation of Queen’s 1942 novel, Calamity Town, had its “world premiere” in Calgary, Alberta, at the end of last month. The Calgary Herald called it “an example of economical and polished crime fiction that is as theatrical as it is intriguing.” Goodrich tells me that he’s already “been commissioned to do a second Nero Wolfe play for Park Square Theater in St. Paul [Minnesota]. It goes up in June/July of 2017.”

• I never cease to be amazed by the lengths some businesses—both respectable and dubious—will go to in order to obtain free advertising. Among the worst abusers are folks who fake comments on blogs such as this one (comments often rife with typos or so mangled that it’s obvious they come from non-English speaking countries), and incorporate into them their Web site URLs. An example was this response to a piece I wrote about this year’s Agatha Award nominees: “I want to thank you for the superb post!! I surely liked every bit of it. I’ve bookmarked your internet site so I can take a appear at the latest articles you post later on.” At the end was a link to a “commode chair manufacturer.” Needless to say, I deleted that comment.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

“Super Bowl Sunday, Diane. The Only Reason
for Living … Not Found in a Mug”

With Super Bowl 50 being played today, pitting the Carolina Panthers against the Denver Broncos, screenwriter-producer Ken Levine revisits a “lost” scene from the classic NBC-TV series Cheers that promoted the then-new barroom comedy as part of the 1983 Super Bowl Pre-game show. The text of that scene is here.

READ MORE:Murder at the Super Bowl and Other Football Crime Fiction,” by Janet Rudolph (Mystery Fanfare).

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Happy Birthday, Robert McGinnis!



Today brings the 90th birthday of acclaimed American artist Robert McGinnis, who for decades now has been producing eye-catching, frequently sexy paperback cover illustrations—often for works of crime and mystery fiction—as well as iconic film posters. To celebrate, our sister blog Killer Covers will present nine of McGinnis’ most appealing book fronts, one per hour, in recognition of his first nine decades of life. You’ll find the completed set of those offerings here.

(The artwork topping this post comes from the 1972 Signet edition of Carter Brown’s The Aseptic Murders, one of many Brown paperbacks graced by McGinnis’ paintings over the years.)

Malice Toward All

Organizers of the annual Malice Domestic conference (to be held this year from April 29 to May 1) are out this morning with their nominees for the 2016 Agatha Awards. Those commendations honor “traditional mysteries,” meaning “books best typified by the works of Agatha Christie as well as others.” This year’s contenders are:

Best Contemporary Novel:
Burned Bridges, by Annette Dashofy (Henery Press)
Long Upon the Land, by Margaret Maron (Grand Central)
The Child Garden, by Catriona McPherson (Midnight Ink)
Nature of the Beast, by Louise Penny (Minotaur)
What You See, by Hank Phillipi Ryan (Forge)

Best Historical Novel:
Malice at the Palace, by Rhys Bowen (Berkley)
The Masque of a Murderer, by Susanna Calkins (Minotaur)
Dreaming Spies, by Laurie R. King (Bantam)
Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante, by Susan Elia Macneal (Bantam)
Murder on Amsterdam Avenue, by Victoria Thompson (Berkley)

Best First Novel:
Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman, by Tessa Arlen (Minotaur)
Macdeath, by Cindy Brown (Henery Press)
Plantation Shudders, by Ellen Byron (Crooked Lane)
Just Killing Time, by Julianne Holmes (Berkley)
On the Road with Del & Louise, by Art Taylor (Henery Press)

Best Non-fiction:
The Great Detective: The Amazing Rise and Immortal Life of Sherlock Holmes, by Zack Dundas (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
The Golden Age of Murder: The Mystery of the Writers Who Invented the Modern Detective Story, by Martin Edwards (HarperCollins)
A Is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie, by Kathryn Harkup (Bloomsbury USA)
Unsolved Murders and Disappearances in Northeast Ohio,
by Jane Ann Turzillo (Arcadia)
The Mystery Writers of America Cookbook: Wickedly Good Meals and Desserts to Die For, edited by Kate White (Quirk)

Best Short Story:
“A Year Without Santa Claus?” by Barb Goffman (Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine [AHMM], January/February 2015)
“A Questionable Death,” by Edith Maxwell (from History and
Mystery, Oh My!
, edited by Sarah E. Glenn; Mystery & Horror, LLC)
“A Killing at the Beausoleil,” by Terri Farley Moran (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, November 2015)
“Suffer the Poor,” by Harriette Sackler (from History and Mystery, Oh My!)
“A Joy Forever,” by B.K. Stevens (AHMM, March, 2015)

Best Children’s/Young Adult:
Pieces and Players, by Blue Balliett (Scholastic Press)
Need, by Joelle Charbonneau (HMH Books for Young Readers)
Andi Unstoppable, by Amanda Flower (Zonderkidz)
Woof, by Spencer Quinn (Scholastic Press)
Fighting Chance, by B.K. Stevens (Poisoned Pen Press)

Congratulations to all of the authors included here!

(Hat tip to Mystery Fanfare.)

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Cash and Carried Away

This is amazing to learn, I know, but I’d never gotten around to reading Elliott Chaze’s 1953 heist novel, Black Wings Has My Angel, until New York Review Books Classics re-released it last month. What a striking and finely composed yarn Chaze unrolls in that slim work! It bowled me over so much that I decided to devote my latest Kirkus Reviews column to Black Wings. As I explain:
From the outset, we’re propelled into a noir-ish world—bleak, desperate, and haunting. There we encounter our antihero protagonist, a mid-20s prison escapee and car thief who calls himself Tim Sunblade (not his real name, of course). After four months of “roughnecking” on an oil rig that punctuates Louisiana’s Atchafalaya River, he’s more than ready for a “hot-water bath” and some fragrant female companionship. So he takes a room at a forgettable little hotel in a forgettable little town, and before he soaps up, he asks an obliging bellhop to find him a hooker for the evening. He’s more than a bit surprised when the porter returns with Virginia, an intriguingly well-spoken “ten-dollar tramp” boasting lavender-gray eyes, hair of a “light creamy gold,” and legs that go all the way down to the ground and then some. Sunblade had figured to exhaust one night of booze and sex with this woman, but that isn’t quite what happens.
Click here to enjoy the full critique.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

“Finger Trap” Finds Its Next Readers

It’s been just over a week since we proclaimed the start of The Rap Sheet’s second book-giveaway contest of 2016, and we now have the names of our four winners, all of them selected at random. Each of these lucky readers can look forward to receiving in the mail a free copy of Johnny Worthen’s latest mystery, The Finger Trap, sent directly to them by his publisher, Jolly Fish Press:

Rick Ollerman of Littleton, New Hampshire
Fiona Woods of Auburn, Washington
Jeremy Tennenbaum of Wynnewood, Pennsylvania
Paul McMurray of Milton, Wisconsin

We’re grateful to everyone who participated in this drawing. And those many of you who didn’t win this time around shouldn’t take it too hard, as we will have more opportunities for everyone to pick up free new crime and mystery novels in the near future.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Who Will Win the Hammett?

This morning also brings an announcement by the North American Branch of the International Association of Crime Writers of its nominees for the 2015 Hammett Prize. That commendation is given annually for “a work of literary excellence in the field of crime writing by a U.S. or Canadian author.” The five nominees are as follows:

The Stranger, by Harlan Coben (Dutton)
Sorrow Lake, by Michael J. McCann (Plaid Raccoon Press)
The Whites, by Richard Price, writing as Harry Brandt (Henry Holt)
The Do-Right, by Lisa Sandlin (Cinco Puntos Press)
The Organ Broker, by Stu Strumwasser (Arcade)

I’m particularly pleased to see Price’s The Whites on this list, as it is one of my own favorite crime novels from last year.

The recipient of this award will be announced during the NoirCon literary conference to be held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, from October 26 to 30. Congratulations to all of the contenders!

(Hat tip to Mystery Fanfare.)

A Quick Contest Reminder

Don’t forget that today marks your last chance to enter The Rap Sheet’s drawing for four free copies of Johnny Worthen’s The Finger Trap. To have a shot at winning one of these, all you need to do is e-mail your name and postal address to jpwrites@wordcuts.org. And be sure to type “Finger Trap Contest” in the subject line. Entries will be accepted between now and midnight tonight, January 29. The winners will be chosen completely at random, and their names listed on this page sometime tomorrow.

Sorry, but this particular giveaway competition is open only residents of the United States.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

My Ellrovian Journey

(Editor’s note: Steven Powell is a British scholar and the co-editor of The Venetian Vase, a crime fiction-oriented blog. He wrote Conversations with James Ellroy and edited the encyclopedic work 100 American Crime Writers, both released in 2012. In the essay below, Powell recalls the lengths he went to in order to produce his latest book, James Ellroy: Demon Dog of Crime Fiction.)

It was a blurred image of President John F. Kennedy’s motorcade which first brought my attention to the work of James Ellroy. I was in my mid-teens, on holiday with my parents on the south coast of England, when a leisurely detour through a local bookshop led me to spot a striking book cover that looked like it had been adapted from the Zapruder film: it was James Ellroy’s 1995, novel American Tabloid. I had never read Ellroy before, but a novel about the 1963 Kennedy assassination seemed interesting. Sure enough, a few pages in and I was gripped. Ellroy portrayed the assassination conspiracy from an Underworld perspective. His characters were brutal but sympathetic, the prose seemed both telegraphic and poetic. But what stood out more than anything else was Ellroy’s unapologetic determination to make the reader empathize with the characters who ultimately conspire to kill Kennedy. As he put it in the prologue, “America was never innocent. We popped our cherry on the boat over and looked back with no regrets.”

Of course back then I had no idea that I would one day write a book about Ellroy, but it was that chance discovery in a bookshop that was the genesis of what I like to call my “Ellrovian Journey,” a journey that culminated in the release last September of James Ellroy: Demon Dog of Crime Fiction, the latest addition in Palgrave Macmillan’s Crime Files series. Previous entries have included Barry Forshaw’s Death in a Cold Climate (2012) and Lee Horsley’s The Noir Thriller (2001). With this study of Ellroy, I have considered all of the author’s major works, examining how his writing style has changed between novels. I have also analyzed the role Ellroy’s “Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction” persona has played in his literary career.

The book was adapted from my thesis. It was my better half who persuaded me that I should take my fascination with Ellroy’s work and direct it toward scholarly research, which is why the dedication of the book reads “For Diana—who started the journey.” During the course of my Ph.D. study, I had to decide what angle I would take in exploring Ellroy’s work. The novelist Craig McDonald has written, “Read five biographies of the same man, say, of Ernest Hemingway, and you’ll close each book feeling like you’ve read about five different people.” There seemed to be many different sides to James Ellroy and many aspects of his life and work I could focus on—the potential autobiographical connections in his fiction stemming from his often horrific early life, the unsolved murder of his mother, Ellroy’s descent into alcohol and drug abuse, and his various stints in the L.A. County Jail—which have all, to varying degrees, had an influence on his fiction. There is also the development of Ellroy’s idiosyncratic prose style. Read his debut, Brown’s Requiem (1981), a private-eye novel, and compare it to a later work such as the epic historical fiction of The Cold Six Thousand (2001), and you can see the remarkable evolution of both plotting and prose in Ellroy’s writing. Then again, a classic work such as The Black Dahlia (1987) could easily justify a Ph.D. in itself. In the end, I opted for a comprehensive study, examining all of the key issues in Ellroy’s work but paying special attention to his literary persona (against the advice of some academics who thought the Demon Dog role was just playacting on Ellroy’s part). Well, I was soon to learn that Ellroy is a very different man in private than his more outrageous media appearances would suggest.

Ellroy kindly consented to three telephone interviews, and when I visited his archive at the Thomas Cooper Library, University of South Carolina, I was able to travel to L.A. directly afterwards and interview Ellroy in person and at length. I had been studying his interviews for a long time, and when speaking to him, I was able to avoid subjects he had already exhausted in writing and conversation (such as his mother’s murder) and focus instead on his unfinished projects (“L.A. Death Trip” and “The Confessions of Bugsy Siegel”) and lesser-known works like the Lloyd Hopkins novels. So, following this research trip I began editing the anthology of interviews Conversations with James Ellroy for University Press of Mississippi. You never truly know when you’ll see a breakthrough while working on a project such as this, and curiously enough it was during a routine copyright request that I was afforded a glimpse into the role and purpose of the Demon Dog persona. One of the earliest interviews of Ellroy’s career was conducted by Duane Tucker and published in 1984 in the now-defunct but fondly remembered Armchair Detective magazine. When I contacted Tucker, he denied conducting the interview and suggested Ellroy used his name to write the interview himself. The more I looked at the interview, the more I became convinced that it is not a two-way conversation, but rather the young Ellroy’s written manifesto for what he wanted to achieve as a novelist. Of course, there were other possibilities: was Tucker winding me up? Had he simply forgotten the interview took place (as former Armchair Detective editor Otto Penzler suggested to me)? In the end, I was unable to elicit a confession from Ellroy, and the anthology states that the authorship of that 1984 interview is disputed, although my personal belief is that Ellroy wrote the interview out of a nascent literary ambition to craft his Demon Dog persona.

(Right) James Ellroy, photographed by Guillaume Paumier

Once I completed my Ph.D., Palgrave awarded me a contract to adapt it into a monograph. During the redrafting stages of the book, I kept myself busy by organizing the “James Ellroy: Visions of Noir” conference at the University of Liverpool. It was a deeply rewarding experience. Not only did we have noir expert Woody Haut as our keynote speaker and novelist Martin Edwards as the special guest, but it was interesting to see through the work of the delegates who came from as far afield as Brazil, Germany, and Australia how critical interest in Ellroy has developed rapidly in the past few years. Although not every critic holds Ellroy in high esteem. Ellroy’s always been a risk taker, and a consequence of this is that some experiments may alienate the reader. Mike Davis described Ellroy’s work as “at times an almost unendurable wordstorm of perversity and gore.” In the book, I examine how Ellroy has developed his idiosyncratic prose and plotting style, which has won him legions of fans, but also some severe critics like Davis. Two of the key novels in the development of this style were the L.A. Quartet entries L.A. Confidential (1990) and White Jazz (1992). As I state in the book:
The sparse, distinct style Ellroy had achieved with L.A. Confidential, which was partly reliant on the removal of what he deemed unnecessary words, such as adverbs, adjectives and conjunctions, would become an issue in the first draft of White Jazz. According to [writer and digital marketer] Martin Kihn, Ellroy had taken this redacted style so far with White Jazz that words needed to be added back into the manuscript:
The first draft of Jazz, for instance, was even more clipped and opaque than the version about to be published. Working first with [literary agent Nat] Sobel, then Knopf editor Sonny Mehta, Ellroy painstakingly added words to the manuscript. “The first draft was extremely challenging,” says Mehta. “What James was doing was extremely ambitious. But I think you have to engage people and draw them into the story. And I thought essentially we had to make it a little easier for them.” (Kihn 1992: 34)
Ellroy, however, has offered a different account, claiming he only returned to the clipped style after finding the initial draft of the novel unsatisfactory: “I started writing White Jazz, in a normally discursive, first-person style, but the book felt flabby to me, so I started cutting words” (Powell 2008a: 159). Ellroy’s and Mehta’s accounts of the drafting process, taken together, indicate that the manuscript underwent a laborious process in which thousands of words were cut and then many were subsequently restored.
The immense levels of concentration and determination Ellroy had developed in outlining and writing his original L.A. Quartet ensured that those novels would become defining works in the crime genre. The dizzying, spellbinding style of his later novels American Tabloid and the recent Perfidia (2014) seamlessly flow from what he achieved in L.A. Confidential and White Jazz.

Ellroy’s journey from being a homeless alcoholic, periodically locked up in jail, to becoming one of the most acclaimed contemporary novelists is, in its own grueling fashion, a remarkable vindication of the American dream. As for my own Ellrovian journey—it goes on.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

James Nabs the Diamond

Peter James, 67-year-old author of a Brighton, England-based series starring Detective Superintendent Roy Grace (You Are Dead, Love You Dead), has been selected by the British Crime Writers’ Association (CWA) as the winner of its 2016 Diamond Dagger award.

In a press release announcing this prize, CWA chair L.C. “Len” Tyler called James “King of the Police Procedural. His books combine up-to-the-minute accuracy with tight plotting and a fast pace. Over the past 30 years or so, Peter has established himself as one of the best-known and best-loved thriller writers in the country. He is immensely supportive of other authors and his wide-ranging work inside and outside the genre has been recognized both by Brighton University and Sussex Police. I know this will be a popular choice both amongst readers and other crime writers.”

Previous recipients of the Diamond Dagger, which is given annually to “a writer who has a career marked by sustained excellence,” include Frederick Forsyth, Lee Child, Simon Brett, and Catherine Aird.

Friday, January 22, 2016

A Lounger-Sleuth and a Book Giveaway

Well, what do you know. It’s only the third week of January, and we’re already announcing our second book-giveaway contest of 2016. We surely won’t be able to keep up such a regular pace, but for now, Rap Sheet readers benefit. Any time you have the chance to score some free books has to be deemed an excellent opportunity.

This time, we have on offer four copies of The Finger Trap (Jolly Fish Press), by Salt Lake City author Johnny Worthen. The novel has been variously described as a modern noir yarn, a social satire, and just “a fun, fun read.” Here’s a plot synopsis, stolen blatantly from Worthen’s Web site:
When the only way out is deeper in …

Tony Flaner is a malingering part-time comedian, full-time sarcastic, who’s never had it hard, and never finished a thing in his life. He’s had 12 years to prepare for his divorce and didn’t. He had his entire life to choose a career and hasn’t. Now time’s up, and he’s in a world of trouble. But it gets worse. A first date and a drunken party ends with Tony facing prison for the murder of a girl he hardly knew.

Other than that, it was a pretty great party.


To save himself, wise-cracking Tony must discover who the mysterious girl was, what she was involved in, and what the hell she saw in him in the first place. Their lives are linked together at the ends of a Chinese finger trap, like life and death, friends and enemies, arugula quiche and pigs knuckles.
If you’d like to enter the drawing for one of these free four copies of The Finger Trap, simply e-mail your name and postal address to jpwrites@wordcuts.org. And be sure to type “Finger Trap Contest” in the subject line. Entries will be accepted between now and midnight next Friday, January 29. The winners will be chosen completely at random, and their names listed on this page the following day.

Sorry, but this particular giveaway competition is open only residents of the United States.

* * *

Author Worthen—who has previously penned such works as Eleanor: The Unseen (2014) and The Brand Demand (2015), a mystery that won a Silver Quill Award from the League of Utah Writers—was kind enough to answer our invitation to write a “Story Behind the Story” essay about The Finger Trap. His piece on composing that novel and what he learned in the process is embedded below.

I write to theme. Yeah, I’m that guy. I can’t help it. I came into the writing thing from college. Not from an MFA program or creative-writing classes, but from criticism. I’m a Deconstructionist. I speak Lacan and Derrida. I see buried symbols and political posturings in toilet-paper ads. I learned my craft by dissection and not nurturing.

Of course when I began writing I didn’t think that I wrote this way, I just wrote. It was in later analysis that I found all the clues to give me a reading that made sense, and I realized what it was I trying to do all along. As time went by, the clues showed themselves to me beforehand and I put them in when I wrote. Sometimes they just appeared, because that’s how my synapses were wired. Sometimes I planned them carefully, planted symbols like treasure buried in the prose. I consciously put in subplots of parallel thematic resonances and contrasts. I wrote down what questions I was pursuing before I would begin and when I ever got lost, I’d use them as distant lighthouses to get me back on course.

It’s therapy. Writing this way, I explore ideas and see where they take me. I can delve into new emotional depths and discover things about myself by living through my characters. I always come out the other end different than I went in.

And then there’s Tony Flaner.

Tony Flaner is the protagonist in my new mystery, The Finger Trap. Although it’s my latest novel in print, The Finger Trap was among the first ones I wrote and is for me, without a doubt, my most important book.

(Right) Author Johnny Worthen

Tony is a malingering part-time comedian, full-time sarcastic, who’s never had it hard, and never finished a thing in his life. He is the recipient of white privilege, easy comfort, and a short attention span. He jumps from job to job and hobby to hobby like a bee lighting on spring flowers. He stays only as long as things are amusing, fun, and easy. Once they turn challenging, he’s gone, off to new adventures.

The model for the character was of course Charles Baudelaire’s 19th-century concept of the “flaneur,” or wanderer. A lounger. In modern ears, where we’re told to think of ourselves as consumers instead of citizens, this is a terrible-sounding thing. “Lounger” equates to deadbeat. There is something of that in Tony, to be sure, but Baudelaire didn’t mean it as a insult. He was trying to describe the human equivalent of carpe diem—seized the day. He saw the flaneur as one who, while going places, took time to enjoy the walk. If you’ve ever been to a park, and go to cross it, and find the path you’re on is full of meandering curves that take you past this gazebo, that pond, a rosebush, and an arboretum before landing you on the other side, thank Baudelaire’s flaneur. His concept of the wandering gentleman influenced architectural and civic planning. The flaneur is a noble creature, a sponge of life. This is also Tony Flaner.

And this is my aspiration.

When I wrote Tony, the question I was asking myself was what I want to be. You see, like Tony, I’ve had many jobs. My résumé is a long list of adventures and job titles. It reads to me like a comprehensive list of things I don’t want to do anymore. This is, however, how one finds another job, and that’s depressing. After my last stint with the corporate world, a front-line posting in the “war of drugs” no less, I gave myself a little unemployment time and a financial cushion to explore my swiftly diminishing lifespan and start doing something I wanted to do while I still had good days ahead.

At the top of the list was writing. Writing is the thread that connects every job and every aspiration I’ve ever had. I’ve always written, be it journals, games, blogs, newsletters, suicide notes, what have you—it’s always been part of my life. But I’ve never taken it seriously. Writing had only ever been a hobby for me.

Like Tony, I have many hobbies. Lots and lots. And to all these distractions I give only what time and energy I feel I can, and when they’re not fun anymore (like paintball) or get too hard (like programming), I drop them like a hot rock and find something else to take my time and money.

I know the odds. I knew them then. In what will surely be nominated as the understatement of the year, let me say that becoming a successful writer is a challenge. To have any kind of chance, it behooves one (yes, I said behooves) to treat it as more than a hobby. Writing is rough. It is floods of rejection for every gulp of encouragement. It’s damning and personal and hard. Yes, hard. Every aspect of it is hard, from ideas to editing, marketing, placing, promoting—it’s all hard and it pays less than begging under an off-ramp. Significantly less, if I’m to believe the Internet.

Sure, there’s some fun. The act of creation is wonderful, but for me, at every hard moment, I was tempted to follow my usual path of least resistance and quit. Like Tony.

Analyze The Finger Trap and you will see that it is meta on multiple levels. First, the book is indulgent, wandering, amusing, and long. Flaneur. The theme is in the presentation as much as the protagonist’s attitude. Life is short. That’s a free one for you. Enjoy it while you can. As I faced the questions of new careers and choices and lifestyles, that was the one solid bit of truth I knew to keep. Enjoy life. Take it easy. It’s the journey, not the destination. Flaneur.

On another meta level though, The Finger Trap is the physical manifestation of Tony’s quest echoed in the author’s achievement. I gave the book my all. Putting off immediate gratification, approaching the hard parts as lessons to learn for my new career, determined to see something through to the end, I persevered until I took it from cool idea to awesome physical reality. It is a magical artifact. It is more than any of my other books, a totem.

When I teach writing classes now, I always lead with Tony’s lesson to me about success: finish what you start. It’s a simple thing, but for me, it’s a mantra of meaning that I didn’t understand before The Finger Trap, at least not all the way. From Tony’s lead, I have a new stubbornness. I have seven novels in print, a plethora (yes, I said plethora) of published short stories, and I’m in demand to mentor. I am now on my way to becoming what I wanted to be: a successful writer. And also from Tony, I’m trying to remember to not take anything too seriously, to find the ridiculous in everything, and finally to enjoy the ride.

The Finger Trap is a story of one man’s amusing journey of self discovery and social satire. It’s a story of murder and mystery, mid-life crisis, and adult film stars. It’s a story of life in America in the 21st century. It’s a story of completion. It’s a story of redemption. With quiche. And a puppet.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Battling Crime in War’s Aftermath

Reading John A. Connell’s novels—2015’s Ruins of War and its soon-to-be released sequel, Spoils of Victory—you get a pretty clear picture of the mess Germany was left in after Allied forces defeated its military in May 1945, ending World War II in Europe. Repeated bombings had left cities in rubble. Hundreds of thousands of inhabitants were homeless, hungry, in despair, having lost touch with family and friends. The country’s industrial sector was in shambles, and there were plans to dismantle it further as a safeguard against future German aggression. Theft was rampant. People who had once endorsed Adolf Hitler’s rise were anxious to take advantage of “denazification” procedures that would make it easier for them to do business again. The country had been divided up into zones dominated by the victorious Allied forces—the Americans, the British, the French, and the Soviets. But the good intentions of military commanders in those areas couldn’t prevent greed and corruption from undermining order and fragile hope.

In Ruins of War, Connell imagined a serial killer running rampant in bomb-ravaged postwar Munich, Germany, pursued with persistent resolve by Mason Collins, a half-German former Chicago homicide detective and ex-prisoner of war, who currently serves as a criminal investigator with the U.S. Army. He may not be much for following rules and regulations, but like Bernie GuntherPhilip Kerr’s lead in a succession of novels set during and after World War II (the newest being this March’s release, The Other Side of Silence)—Collins can rely on his sleuthing skills, no matter where he’s asked to practice them.

As I write in my latest Kirkus Reviews column—posted this morning—Spoils of Victory demands that Collins demonstrate those skills in a case involving both murder and illicit trade in stolen goods:
[It] finds Collins transferred to the quaint Bavarian resort town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, on the German-Austrian border, where a curiously well-off Counter Intelligence Corps agent, John Winstone, meets a grisly end along with his German mistress, Hilda. Collins’ superiors would prefer those tragedies be listed as murder-suicide, but Connell’s protagonist becomes convinced that Winstone was slain before he could expose an extensive black-market operation involving former Nazis and, in all likelihood, advantageously positioned U.S. Army personnel. Aided by Hilda’s damaged sister, a Jewish informant with everything to lose, and a new partner all too willing to tackle tenuous leads, Collins pursues Winstone’s missing evidence of black-market shenanigans, in the process turning up more corpses as well as the trail of a Nazi torturer from his past.
Earlier this month I conducted a multi-part e-mail interview with Georgia-born author Connell, who now lives in Spain. I only had room in my new Kirkus column, though, for a modest portion of our exchange, which covered subjects ranging from his boyhood reading experiences and earlier career as a cameraman for films and TV series, to his fondness for music and history, postwar Europe’s thriving black markets, and his foremost writing challenges. What didn’t fit in Kirkus—which was quite a lot—I have embedded below.

J. Kingston Pierce: Let’s begin by collecting some biographical data. Where were you born? And who were your parents?

John A. Connell: I was born in Atlanta, Georgia. My father is retired, but he was an architect and professor of architecture and city planning. My mother was a registered nurse in the Navy during and shortly after World War II, but by the time my brother and I came along, she was a mother and housewife.

JKP: Were you a big reader when you were young?

JAC: When I was very young, my parents read to us kids every night, and my mother had signed up my older brother and I for a children’s book club, which came to a book a week. It wasn’t until I was in my early teens that I began reading voraciously. I read everything by H.G. Wells, including his The Outline of History [1920]. I also devoured Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs, and a little later I became a Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle devotee. I guess, aside from Burroughs, I was an Anglophile reader, especially works of England during the second half of the 19th century.

JKP: As you were growing up, were there people in your life who encouraged you to read or to write? Who were those folks?

JAC: My parents had shelves loaded with books, and even at an early age I was fascinated with them. My mother was an avid reader and took us to the library every weekend to check out books. Also, my brother, who is four years older than me, introduced me to books about World War I and II—I remember one about World War I flying aces being a particular favorite. And when my brother was out, I would sneak into his room to read his collection of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, because my mother thought they were too risqué for a boy my age. No one encouraged me to write—that came on its own.

JKP: So when did you first know that you wanted to become a writer someday?

JAC: I wrote short stories starting in my teens, but only for myself. The first story anyone read was my history teacher in the 10th grade. I wrote quite a gory account of the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre [of 1572]. After reading it he suggested that I should become a novelist, but at that time I had dreams of being a rock ’n’ roll star. The rest of my stories were hybrid versions of H.G. Wells’ short stories, and I wrote in a very Victorian manner, with page-long passages. But for all of my teenage and young adult life, I never thought I would be good enough, and music in my teens and 20s, then camerawork, occupied my creative life. Still, that bug to write was always with me, and then, around the age of 40, I expressed my dream of writing to a screenwriter friend, and he said, “Shut up, sit down, and write.” I did, and the writing “disease” immediately took hold. I started with screenplays, which seemed like the natural thing to do, since I worked in the film business. But I became frustrated with the confinement of the screenplay form. I wanted to go deeper into my characters and the world that surrounded them. That’s when I tried my hand at novels and never looked back.

JKP: Where did you go to school? Were you a good student?

JAC: I went to Georgia State University in Atlanta. I was bored in high school, but college opened my eyes to learning, and I wanted to learn everything. I bounced around, trying out several majors, even physics for about two quarters. I concentrated on psychology, and almost completed the course work required for a degree, but then finally switched to Anthropology and got my B.A. in that field. I wasn’t at all what you call distinguished. All the time I was in college, I thought I was going to be a musician and music composer (though, ironically, I never pursued a music degree in college).

JKP: What had inspired your interest in music?

JAC: My mother had a spinet piano in the dining room, and when I was 4 or 5, I started to improvise simple tunes and musical phrases. No Mozart by any stretch of the imagination, but it was enough to convince my mother to drag me to piano lessons until I was 13. I displayed some talent, but lacked discipline and preferred to make up my own music rather than learn the classics. I sang and played the organ in rock ’n’ roll bands in high school, then jazz piano in college, all the while thinking I would one day become a composer.

JKP: So what finally ended that career dream?

JAC: I had a gift for performance and composing, but I lacked the passion and discipline to master the craft. And at that young age, if whatever I wrote didn’t come out as instantly brilliant then I abandoned it, which was all too often. When I finally walked away from music, I was crushed, and as a consequence I haven’t returned to keyboard since.

Looking back, I realize that music was my outlet for a driving urge to create, and camerawork served that same purpose until I discovered my true passion, writing.

JKP: Was it as a student, or sometime later, that you developed an interest in history? And what made you interested in that subject, when so many other people are not?

JAC: I’d always been fascinated with history, ever since I was a child. My parents had a four-volume set of books, History of the World, published in 1880. I read through those books time and again, and studied the illustrations for hours. And, certainly, from the books I read as a teenager, I had a fascination with 19th-century England. But it was my 10th-grade history teacher who really instilled in me my passion for history. He explained moments in history, not through tedious rote memorization, but through the eyes of those who lived it, and how the world around them impacted their decisions—good and bad. That was a real eye-opener for me. Anything, books and film, that allowed me to peer into this magical looking glass of the past, I devoured, especially stories involving the common man and woman caught up in tumultuous events of their time and called upon to do extraordinary things.

JKP: I understand you took a job as a printing-press operator after college. How did that fit into your life’s goals? And was there anything you learned in that occupation which proved useful later on?

JAC: Right after college, I was living on my own and planning on getting married. I needed an income, and fast. I was pretty nonconformist at that time, and had long hair and a beard—which didn’t go over very well in Georgia in the ’70s—so my choices boiled down to being a veterinarian’s assistant or a printing-press operator. I chose the latter because it paid more. I hated the job, but I decided to stick with it until I knew what I wanted to do with my life. If there was anything I learned from that occupation, it is that I never wanted to do that again.

JKP: You subsequently studied up enough to win jobs as a cameraman on films and TV programs. The Internet Movie Database (IMDb) offers up a long list of your credits behind the camera, including your work on Thelma & Louise and Jurassic Park, and on TV series such as David E. Kelley’s The Practice and David Milch’s NYPD Blue. What are you best and worst memories of being behind the camera?

JAC: I have quite a few of both. The worst being some of the politics or over-inflated egos on a particular shoot, those [people] who considered their endeavors on the same level as life-saving brain surgery or [thought] their movie was destined to save the world. The best being the opportunity to work with some great artists, directors, and cinematographers, and watching a story unfold through the camera’s viewfinder.

JKP: What’s the most important lesson you took away from filmmaking that has helped you as a fiction writer?

JAC: I’ve learned a lot from film and television, but, if I had to pick the most important, it would be dialogue. I’m not about to say that I’ve reached the heights of talent that I’ve experienced working on or watching a great film, but I have learned how important it is. The best dialogue can tell a great deal in a few succinct lines. It also has subtext—what people say and what they mean can be two different things, and often convey meaning and emotion on several levels. And dialogue is more memorable and impactful when it’s taken out of the ordinary, out of the banal speech of everyday life, and twisted or flipped on its head.

JKP: So which films and filmmakers taught you the most valuable lessons about writing dialogue?

JAC: My first influences for dialogue came from films made in the 1930s and ’40s, films like Casablanca, To Have and Have Not, His Girl Friday, or The Women. Some of my all-time favorites were adapted from the stage, like Inherit the Wind and The Lion in Winter. Anything Aaron Sorkin [has done], particularly The West Wing, The Newsroom, and A Few Good Men. Then there’s David Milch again, with Deadwood. Remarkable. I loved it when he would have a scene with two characters talking about completely different things to each other, neither listening to what the other one was saying, but their dueling dialogue conveyed so much in a brief span of time.

JKP: Do any other film or TV folk stand out in your memory?

JAC: Other than David Milch, who I mentioned from NYPD Blue, there was also executive producer Bill Clark. He was a retired NYPD police detective and often talked to the actors about his time on the force, what really happened behind the closed doors in interrogation rooms, or the peculiar symbiotic relationships that could develop between cop and criminal. I learned a lot about that world just listening to Mr. Clark’s candid remarks. I loved watching Ridley Scott build a scene like a mad conductor with an orchestra, or how he worked with the actors to pull out the best of their characters. David E. Kelley also comes to mind, with his quirky characters, snappy dialogue, and his willingness to push the envelope when telling a story.

JKP: As a cameraman, you were living and working mostly in Los Angeles. So how and when did you wind up moving to Paris?

JAC: I fell in love with Paris after my first visit in the ’80s, and Europe in general. My wife and I met and married in Los Angeles, then about a year later, and right after buying our dream house—at least as much of a dream house as we could afford—my wife, who is French, was offered a very good job in Paris. I had dreamed of devoting my full time to writing and living in Europe, Paris in particular, so I said yes with little hesitation.

My wife, Janine, took the position of deputy general director of SACD, or Société des Auteurs et Compositeurs Dramatiques. It is a French society, started in 1777, that manages, promotes, and protects the performance rights of theatrical, audiovisual, or photographic works for their creators by collecting royalties and authorizing performances. She held that position for 12 years, before taking on the same position for the Spanish equivalent of SACD, called Sociedad General de Autores y Editores, or SGAE, in Madrid, Spain. So, as of the end of last October, we’ve been living in Madrid.

JKP: Was it before you moved to Europe, or after, that you came up with the idea for a series set in the aftermath of World War II and starring a criminal investigator in Germany?

JAC: I came up with the idea for the Mason Collins series after I moved to Paris, and I think that my expat experiences, that notion of being a foreigner in a foreign land, has had an influence on how I developed Mason as a character. As I was writing Mason’s story, his expat wanderlust came out of seemingly nowhere—until I realized that, unconsciously, it had come from me.

JKP: Had you tried writing novels before Ruins of War? Are there piles of unpublished John Connell books moldering someplace in a basement corner or desk drawer?

JAC: I wrote four other unpublished novels before completing Ruins of War. Perhaps, one day, I may try to resurrect one or more of the more promising stories sequestered in the “cyber drawer” on my hard drive.

JKP: Were you most interested, originally, in fictionalizing Germany after World War II or in writing a detective novel?

JAC: Of the four novels before Ruins of War, three are historical crime fiction, but none are detective novels. Though I’ve read and loved many detective novels, I hadn’t considered writing in that specific subgenre. It was Mason Collins’ back story, as a U.S. Army CID [Criminal Investigation Division] investigator, that dictated I go there, and I’ve enjoyed it immensely.

JKP: Had you long been a reader of crime fiction? Who were your favorite authors in the genre when you started Ruins of War?

JAC: Aside from [reading] most all of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories as a teenager, I also turned to Agatha Christie, then Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, and Raymond Chandler. I have so many favorite authors, crime fiction and otherwise, and scores of great writers have influenced my writing. I can say that some of the authors who had an influence on my approach to Ruins of War and Spoils of Victory were James Ellroy, Martin Cruz Smith, Nelson DeMille, Dennis Lehane, and a dash of Graham Greene.

JKP: Two facets of Collins’ history interest me in particular. First, that he’d broken “the blue code of silence” while a member of the Chicago Police Department and been subsequently booted from the CPD, “and blackballed from every big-city police force” in the States. Second, that he’d been a prisoner of war and resident of German concentration camps, including horrific Buchenwald. How important were those elements in your creation of Collins as a character, and how do they influence his behavior?

JAC: Early in his detective career at the CPD, Mason tries to bust a ring of corrupt cops who murdered his partner. He broke the blue code of silence by going to the district attorney, but the system turned on him, framing him for selling drugs and booting him off the force. That unjust treatment fosters Mason’s distrust and lack of respect for authority. And being blackballed from every big-city police force is another facet of the masterless samurai ethos, leaving Mason with no ties to home. Except for his grandmother, he has no family to go back to, nothing to anchor him, little to create a sense of identity except through his own convictions. And the experience of being a POW and interned for a short time in Buchenwald has left him bitter and disillusioned with humanity. Yet, despite those deep scars, he manages to maintain his need to right wrongs, even if it means putting himself in harm’s way.

Those two elements relentlessly weigh on Mason’s psyche, threatening to push him over the line, creating a constant clash against his values of right and wrong, his sense of justice. Mason fights the temptation to give in to his negative impulses, taking on life one step at a time, all the while knowing that one or two steps in the wrong direction could lead him on a very dark path. One thing I would like to explore is having him turn dark at some point in the journey, [find] something that pushes him to abandon his strict moral code, and see if he can ever get back again.


Garmisch-Partenkirchen in southern Germany.

JKP: The action in Ruins of War took place in Munich, but Spoils of Victory finds Mason Collins hard at work in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, a Bavarian mountain resort town that was barely touched by World War II. Why did that town become such a hotbed of postwar criminality, and when was it finally cleaned up?

JAC: As the Third Reich collapsed, and the Allied armies were pushing in from the west and east, Garmisch-Partenkirchen became the stem of the funnel for fleeing wealthy Germans, Nazi government officials and war criminals, retreating SS, and former French Vichy and Mussolini officials. For the same reason it also became the final destination for Nazi-stolen art masterpieces, vast reserves of the Third Reich gold, currencies, precious gems, penicillin, diamonds, and uranium from the failed atomic bomb experiments. After the war, all that became available for purchase on the black market. With millions of dollars to be made, murder, extortion, bribes, and corruption became the norm. The promise of fortunes also brought in a multitude of scoundrels, scam artists, and gangsters. Add to this tens of thousands of bored U.S. Army soldiers ripe for temptation. The black market thrived, and gangs of deserted allied soldiers, former POWs, and corrupt displaced persons roamed the countryside. With the U.S. officials looking the other way or profiting from the activity, some gangs were so successful they even had their own logos and printed stationary.

The clean-up started just about the time of Spoils of Victory, the spring of 1946. But it would be at least another year and a half before things settled down. I say, “settled down,” because the transition happened quietly, with much of it swept under the carpet. There was too much at stake, with the growing tensions with the Russians, for a damaging U.S. Army scandal to come out to the public. A few of the more egregious players were convicted, while others received a slap on the wrist, and some just disappeared or blithely returned home after their tour had ended. Also, in the ensuing two years, the army and military government had gotten their act together, with better top-down organization, tighter supervision, and a centralized military police force with the formation of the U.S. Constabulary Force.

JKP: Your man Collins isn’t big on obeying rules or kowtowing to Army brass hats. Is a great part of his credibility as a character linked to the fact that he is operating in an environment susceptible to confusion, and where there has to be some flexibility in how things are done? On a big-city police force, he might not have as much leeway to address matters in his own blunt-force fashion.

JAC: During those first two years [after World War II], the conquering armies struggled with the enormous task of transforming into an occupational force in a country that had been bombed back to the Middle Ages. Those problems were exacerbated by the lack of top-down organization, lateral cohesion, and rivalries between army agencies, army commanders, and military government officials. There was no central policing structure (that would come later with the establishment of the U.S. Constabulary Force), and when the war ended, a large majority of experienced CID officers and MPs were sent home for time served and army downsizing for budgetary reasons. That left the MP and CID short-handed, with units in a state of disorganization. And many soldiers, untrained in law enforcement, were pulled from other fighting units to fill the gaps. Many times the CID officers were left to fend for themselves, lacking personnel and resources, in a chaotic situation. So, it’s not hard to imagine that Mason was given a good bit of leeway when conducting an investigation, and for him to conduct a successful investigation, he had to do things that, under normal circumstances, would be considered over the line—not to mention Mason’s preference for doing things on his own.

And just to add a little cherry on top: The MP commander in Spoils of Victory is loosely based on an actual MP commander in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, who is believed to have suffered a stroke, leaving him in a confused mental state, but because the army needed commanders, they gave him this command position because of his war record.

JKP: In many respects, the tales you tell in these two books could have been set, instead, in Chicago or Los Angeles or any large U.S. city. How conscious are you of inserting elements into your plots that ground the stories necessarily in postwar Europe?

JAC: I was quite conscious of inserting elements of post-WWII Germany into my plot precisely because history inspired the stories. The circumstances, the characters, and settings dictated where I should go, and, conversely, where I should not tread. In Ruins of War it was the destroyed city, where a killer like Jeffery Dahmer or Ted Bundy is loose in the ruins with a half-million easy prey. The elements of chaos and confusion of the occupying army, and the distrust and resentment on both the American and German sides [enhance the plot].

In Spoils of Victory, the scale of the black market, the peculiar partnership of mortal enemies now united in crime, and, again, the general chaos in Germany, the disorganization of the law-enforcement agencies, all came together in this unique time and place. Then throw in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, a fairy-tale town in a picturesque setting being the home to organized crime on a grand scale.

JKP: There’s obviously a serious tone to Spoils of Victory, but there are also a number of funny moments. How important do you think humor is in crime and mystery fiction?

JAC: I don’t think it’s vital, but I enjoy novels that introduce some humor in otherwise dark stories. Humor provides relief from the serious tones, and gives characters an additional dimension. I liken it to when police officers or soldiers use humor to break the stress of their jobs.

JKP: I’m impressed that you took on the writing of a detective series set around the tumult of the Second World War. After all, there’s stiff competition for readers of such stories, including from Philip Kerr and J. Robert Janes. What can you bring to our understanding of that era and the people who survived it that others might not?

JAC: I’ve read countless non-fiction and fiction books about the lead-up to World War II and during the war itself, but very few in its immediate aftermath, especially through the eyes of an American soldier. I had assumed that, while there was destruction and deprivation, post-WWII was relatively peaceful and the transition to democratic Germany went smoothly. But I was blown away by what I discovered about that era.

The Germans called the time just after the war Die Stunde Null, “The Zero Hour.” Germany had been bombed back to the Middle Ages. Death by famine, disease, and murder had replaced the bullets and bombs. Over 10 million people brought into Germany as slaves, along with the tens of thousands of POW and concentration camp survivors, were all suddenly freed and making the trek home or wandering the countryside. Then came the millions of ethnic Germans expelled from Poland and the former Czechoslovakia, streaming into Germany with nothing but what they could carry on their backs.

I wanted to explore the madness and chaos, the struggle by the Americans and British to forge a democracy out of a population that had only known dictatorship for 13 years, all while the threat of a new war with Russia brewed on the horizon. I wanted to show that, while the vast majority of the U.S. military personnel strove to do their best, there was a surprising amount of corruption and crime. The conquering armies—the Americans, British, French and Russians—wielded ultimate power over a desperate population, and a typical soldier could barter for almost anything with a single pack of cigarettes. And that power led some to ruthlessly exploit a broken country and its people.

I then imagined a war veteran in that backdrop of chaos and deprivation. U.S. Army criminal investigator Mason Collins not only experienced the brutal fighting on the front lines, but also suffered as a prisoner of war at the hands of the Nazis. He is of German birth and bitter towards the German people for supporting an evil regime. But he, like many American soldiers, finds he must resolve his anger and prejudices after witnessing so much destruction and suffering.

JKP: How long would you like to keep the Mason Collins series going? And now that you’ve demonstrated success as a novelist, do you have other sorts of books in mind to tackle someday?

JAC: I would like to continue with Mason Collins for as long as I feel I can keep him and his journey fresh. I have a few vague ideas for other books, and they all fall in the historical crime-fiction category. But for now, I have my hands full with Mason.

JKP: What’s the most important thing you still need to learn to really succeed as a fiction writer?

JAC: I believe a writer should always strive to improve and learn. Having said that, I wish I could learn to do a complete outline, while keeping it fresh and surprising. Right now, I’m a hybrid writer—somewhere between a “pantser” and an outliner. When I start, I know the beginning, the end, and a few plot points in between. Then I sit down and start writing. I like discovering things along the way, seeing situations or sudden turns I might miss if I adhered to a rigid outline. But I’d certainly be a more efficient writer if I could master creating a more complete outline.

I’m also a lousy typist. I definitely see some need for improvement there.

JKP: Finally, if you could have penned any novel that doesn’t currently carry your byline, which would it be?

JAC: Is that a clever way of asking what is my favorite novel? I have too many favorites to choose just one. However, if I was forced to choose, and this is somewhat off the top of my head, it would be The Name of the Rose.

(Author photograph by Pictange.)