Friday, January 22, 2016

To Suffer the Slings and Arrows of Outrageous Fortune...or Misfortune...of Having Gotten This Question

Is there a well-regarded classic mystery that you’ve read and didn’t see what all the fuss was about? Why not?

by Paul D. Marks

I want to thank Cathy Ace for citing Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd as a classic mystery she had issues with. As every graph of this post except this one was written prior to her piece you’ll see why I owe her a debt of gratitude to be the first to publicly take the Christie heat. Though I guess my not seeing the fuss in Christie goes way deeper than hers. So I’m ready to start shaking in my hobnail boots.

As Susan said on Monday “This week’s question is perfectly designed to get us all on the wrong foot with readers, writers, and obsessive fans.” Well, I like a good fight as much as the next person. And I like a classic mystery as much as the next person. And I’m going to assume that when we say “classic” here we’re talking dead writers. ’Cause we sure don’t want to piss off anyone who’s still living, do we?

And instead of focusing on one book, how about one author, so get your slings and arrows ready: I don’t like reading Agatha Christie. Now, it’s been a long time since I have but I clearly don’t feel the need to go back to her. It’s not that I don’t like her stories, I do. But the style of writing is not one that I enjoy reading.

I hate to be like the person who won’t watch black and white movies because they’re old and look dated or funny to them. I love black and white movies as a whole. But there’s something about Christie’s style of writing that I just don’t spark to though, as I say, I do love her stories. And I like the movie versions of many of her stories, especially And Then There Were None (1945 and despite some changes from the novel), based on Ten Little Indians and its earlier title, which I won’t repeat here.

But, instead of dwelling on the negative and turning an army of Christie fans into haters who will then have to feel horribly guilty, go to a shrink, spend tons of money, and still feel guilty, how about I mention some classic books that I do like and end the week on a more positive note. The style I prefer is more hardboiled, gritty and urban. There are exceptions, of course, but that’s where I’d go first.

Here are some choices, all of which have been turned into movies for good or ill. And even though you might have seen the movies, maybe check out the books too or vice versa. My purpose here isn’t to analyze each novel, just to give a shout out to some I like, so if you haven’t read them you might want to give them a shot, since I know you have nothing but time on your hands and no TBR pile next to your bed:

Down There (a.k.a. Shoot the Piano Player) (1956), David Goodis’ magnum opus. I’m a huge Goodis fan. Came to him through the movies, the Bogart-Bacall film, Dark Passage, based on Goodis’ book of the same name. Geoffrey O’Brien said of him, “David Goodis is the mystery man of hardboiled fiction. ... He wrote of winos and barroom piano players and smalltime thieves in a vein of tortured lyricism all his own. ... He was a poet of the losers. ... If Jack Kerouac had written crime novels, they might have sounded a bit like this.” And I would agree. So if you’re just feeling too bubbly and happy one day, read a Goodis book. That’ll bring you down a notch. On the other hand, it might also make you appreciate all the good things in your life more. And by-the-by, I think the novel of Down There/Shoot the Piano Player is much better than the Truffaut movie based on it.

Black Money (1966). Ross MacDonald is one of my favorite mystery writers. And Black Money is one of my favorite books of his. Right now it appears that the Coen Brothers (of Blood Simple and Fargo fame) are set to write and direct an adaptation of the book. I’m not sure if I love or hate this idea, but it’ll be interesting to see the final result. You betcha. 

The Grifters (1963) by Jim Thompson. Thompson wrote a series of hard-assed noir novels and even a handful of screenplays, including The Killing and Paths of Glory for Stanley Kubrick—there’s a match made in someone’s idea of heaven. And he led one hell of an interesting life. This one’s a nice mother and son story, just the kind of family story that warms the heart and the barrel of a gun.

Double Indemnity (1936). James M. Cain practically invents noir with this book and the film that followed. Unfaithful femme fatale, shady insurance guy, trains, crutches, murder and anklets. What more could you ask for?

Build My Gallows High (1946) by Geoffrey Homes (a.k.a. Daniel Mainwaring) is the basis for one of the all-time great film noirs, Out of the Past, with Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas and Jane Greer as the most alluring of all femme fatales. The screenplay had an uncredited assist from one James M. Cain, among others—something I know oh so much about...

And just about everything by Raymond Chandler and Hammett.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Free me before I lose the Will to live and run away to live on a Croft

Did you crack the code?

I'm sorry and I know we all owe respect to the writers who formed our genre and carved out a home for it in the literary landscape. I especially owe a debt to golden-age authors who give readers an appetite for exactly the kind of puzzle-plot books I write (some of the time).


The works of Freeman Wills Croft make me want to weep. He never researched a train (or a timetable for a train) that he didn't share with his readers. To be fair, he was a railway engineer. He also loved a code. And he truly is the man who put the procedure into police procedurals.

It's hard to describe to US readers why it's funny that he lived in Guildford and then retired to Worthing. But it's a bit like saying someone lived in Chesapeake for a while until they fled the razzamatazz.

Long story short: he's not that gonzo. However, if you enjoy a meticulous depiction of the method an inspector would use to prove beyond doubt that the most likely suspect is indeed guilty, then he might be just your cup of tea.

There is another golden-age writer who has also used timetable alibis, secret codes, and painstaking detail and yet I adore her. But she's Dorothy L Sayers so, as well as the procedure, she has wit, passion, lovable/loathable characters, and a twist to everything she writes. When it comes to twists, I suspect FWC employs a plumb-line.

And when DLS gets the bug for a particular subject  - landscape painting, campanology, the advertising business - as the backdrop to a story, she brings it alive in a way that FWC never has (for me).

But then I've had conversations about DLS with friends who rend their garments and gnash their teeth about "all the bell-ringing", and "a hundred and fifty thousand colours of oil-paint" and "seventeen pages of decrypting a substitution code".

They were both members of the Detection Club Cathy talked about yesterday. In my imagination, FWC was in charge of the pencils and had a protocol to ensure regular sharperning. DLS was in charge of whisky and pranks.

I'll close by apologising to any FWC fans who might read this. And I'll offer up my devotion to O.Douglas - John Buchan's sister - who wrote novels with all the quiet calm of an FWC book and no plots to speak of at all. There's truly no accounting for taste.

Cue angry fans...? by Cathy Ace

Is there a well-regarded classic mystery that you’ve read and didn’t see what all the fuss was about?

I’ve struggled with this question for several reasons…most of which I’m sure you can deduce. Being disappointed by a book isn’t necessarily the fault of the author: maybe it’s just not my cup of tea; maybe the hype would have been impossible to live up to; maybe I just wasn’t in the right mood for that book, that day/week/month. Many factors can contribute. But I’m going to answer this week’s question in any case, and my answer might shock you. It shocked me!

The classic I read and didn’t understand what all the fuss was about was The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoyed the book enormously at first reading, and still do now (though the nature of the twist in the tale makes for less impactful, though nonetheless informative, subsequent readings) but I wasn’t as blown away by the ending as my Christie-mad mother had hoped I would be.

I couldn’t understand why Mum kept asking me – it seemed like every two minutes – how I was enjoying the book. It was clear this specific book was special to her. For a while she’d encouraged me to wait before reading it; I’d merrily chomped my way through most of her Marsh and Christie collection before my teens. Then, when I finally picked it off the shelf, she couldn’t wait to find out what I thought of it. When I finished it, I told her I’d found it satisfying and I’d really enjoyed it. We talked about how clever (and annoying) I thought it was, but I could tell she was disappointed that I hadn’t liked it more.

The problem? Not the book – me. You see, I didn’t know about “The Rules”. The rules Christie helped write when she belonged to The Detection Club. The rules she went on to break. (That must have been such fun!) Maybe if I’d known what they were, I would have been more impressed by the spectacular way in which Christie used them, and broke them, to make the book work. Mum knew about the rules and was thrilled by the unexpected reveal. Christie cheated, and it worked. So, yes, while I loved the book then, and can still learn from it now, it certainly didn’t deliver the knock-out punch it could have done for me if only I’d known what “wasn’t allowed”. Christie broke a rule and did it well, drawing down upon herself the ire of many fans who’d never been tricked that way before. A triumph for the mold-maker and -breaker, Christie, and a book I still love, in spite of Mum’s initial disappointment.
Here comes the plug: The second of the WISE Enquiries Agency Mystery series, THE CASE OF THE MISSING MORRIS DANCER, is published in the US and Canada on February 1st. Pre-ordering at libraries and bookstores everywhere NOW!

Monday, January 18, 2016

In Which the Author Courts Bookish Scandal

Is there a well-regarded classic mystery that you’ve read and didn’t see what all the fuss was about? Why not?

-from Susan

This week’s question is perfectly designed to get us all on the wrong foot with readers, writers, and obsessive fans. Thank you, questionmeisters.

I’ll wade in as Monday’s victim, and it isn’t hard because I recently had the experience of not getting what all the fuss was about when an online reading group I lurk in chose a book to discuss by the late Margery Allingham.

The Case of the Late Pig (I can hear you crying out now:  “Oh, I loved that book, it’s an all-time favorite, how can she say she didn’t adore it?”) falls into the brilliant-witty-snobbish-rich-amateur-sleuth-and-his-snobbier-still-manservent category. I could not attach myself to Allingham’s sleuth, Campion, his butler-manservant Lugg, or any of the harrumphing or pouty paper dolls that were positioned here and there among the pastoral scenery, country homes, or sleek old cars. The scenes felt to me like dioramas into which Campion and/or Lugg and/or the perky young women who were after Campion were carefully positioned for a scene, then swiftly, unceremoniously snatched up. The plot was tricky, but hinged on a couple of clues dropped like bricks into two early scenes then carefully ignored until the very end.

Maybe it was my mood at the time. Maybe it was my digestive system, or that I had read too many classic mysteries in the past few months. I have had that reaction to the Hercules Poirot TV shows on occasion, when I just want David Suchet to take one big stride or Hugh Fraser to wipe that startled deer expression off his face and actually figure something – anything – out.

All I can say is, in spite of the fact that Margery Allingham has devoted fans everywhere, that her books have sold billions and billions of copies and are still in print, and that I will be verbally stoned for saying it, The Case of the Late Pig was my first and probably last taste of her humorous series.

(Equal time: The Margery Allingham Society thrives. There’s a Facebook page for it and they give a big cash award to a writer whose work conveys Ms. Allingham’s spirit. She is widely loved, admired, honored.)

(Worry: Will the members of the Society now savage my books on Amazon as punishment for my candor? This is especially worrisome because the third Dani O'Rourke Mystery, Mixed Up with Murder, comes out February 2.)

Friday, January 8, 2016

We Don't Need No Stinkin' Resolutions

Happy New Year! What are some of your New Year’s resolutions, writing or otherwise?

by Paul D. Marks

Resolutions, we don’t need no stinkin’ resolutions, say I, echoing Gold Hat in the movie classic The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

And, aside from that I also echo Calvin’s sentiments in the cartoon shown here.

Just kidding about that one – I ain’t perfect. Just ask my wife.

But on the serious side, I didn’t make any resolutions this year because, as they say, resolutions are made to be broken. So why make them? That said, I do have goals, both personal and professional.

But whether goals or resolutions sometimes we don’t achieve them. I’d like to win an Academy Award, live in Malibu, go to the moon, but I don’t think I’ll ever achieve any of those things. But there are other things that are more reachable. And my attitude has always been to shoot for the moon, then you might reach the top of a mountain, but if all you do is shoot for a mole hill, even if you achieve it you haven’t achieved much.

The worst thing in the world, to me at least, is not to try. It’s like the saying “It’s better to have loved and lost than not to have loved at all.” I feel that way about working on goals. It’s better to try and lose than not to try at all.

A Tale of Two Friends

Friend 1: John Doe wanted to be a writer. We started out at the same time. Went through a lot of the same trials and tribulations of trying to make it in Hollywood. His wife wanted him to give it up, get a real job. Make money. And he did all of those things. But he wasn’t happy. He took it out on me, not his wife. Why? Because I stuck it out. He resented that. He got snippy with me to be polite about it. I was doing what he wanted to be doing and even though he was making more money than me and more consistently, early on, he had given up his dream. And I represented what he reluctantly gave up. I was more stubborn and I suppose more willing to make sacrifices to pursue that dream. And eventually I started having some success here and there. For some time John and I barely talked. But over time we became civil towards each other if not the good friends we had been. But giving up on his dream made him bitter, though sometimes one does have to give in to reality.

Friend 2: Joe Doakes wanted to be a doctor and a rock star – not that there’s anything wrong with that. And the two might not be totally incompatible, but not easy to achieve at the same time I would think. When neither of those happened for different reasons, he settled on a safe job with the government, doing the rock thing on the side. I think it satisfies part of that dream for him, but I also think he feels a loss and a longing for what might have been.

Are they happy now? To one degree or another. Both have families. Some sort of stability. But neither has the “artistic” wild ride they’d wanted. But there’s always tradeoffs and compromises. I think both have made peace to a large degree with their decisions. Would they have been happier sticking to their original goals? I don’t know. Would my relationship with both have been better through the years if they hadn’t given up their dreams and watched me pursue mine, probably.

I guess the moral of this story is we all have to make choices and what works for one person doesn’t always work for another. Whatever choices we do make, we have to be true to ourselves and respect other people’s choices to live their lives the way they choose.

I’m not saying John and Joe didn’t try. And they certainly had more job security than I did. Nor have I achieved all of my goals, whether losing a certain amount of weight or achieving the New York Times bestseller list. But I’ve done what I’ve wanted to do. To quote Frank Sinatra, “I’ve done it my way,” for good or bad, but I did it on my own terms. It hasn’t been easy, but whose life is? We all make choices and we all make compromises. I’m not always happy with my lot in life. But I do have a lot of good things to be thankful for, as my wife reminds me, and I need to focus more on that and on having gratitude for the good things.
So I suppose if I have one resolution it’s to be more grateful.

Oh, and one more resolution is not to do much BSP in the coming year: But wait, like I said, resolutions are made to be please check out Vortex, my noir-thriller novella (which means it’s short – you can finish it quickly!). And if you’re eligible to vote for the Lefty Awards from Left Coast Crime, I hope you’ll consider it for – here it comes and it’s a mouthful: “Best mystery novel set in the Left Coast Crime Geographic Region (Mountain Time Zone and all time zones westward to Hawaii)”. Vortex definitely fits the bill. Set in L.A., Venice, CA, Hollywood, the Salton Sea and on/at the Shakespeare Bridge in Los Feliz/L.A. Ballots are due by January 15th. And right now the book is still on sale at Amazon/Kindle for a mere 99 cents. Cheap!

And Happy New Year to all ye merry Criminal Minds and our esteemed readers.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

La Vie en Beige

I'm writing this yesterday (6th Jan) on my least favourite day of the entire year. Twelfth Night is on January the fifth and so it's this morning that Christmas ends. The decorations come down, the shortbread tin goes away, non-glittery life resumes.

Since everyone in this little household either works (Neil and me) or is a cat (work-shy wasters), the decorations don't *actually* come down till tonight, but I don't light the fairylights today. And so, since I work at home, I spend the day with a dark Christmas tree looming in the corner like Hamlet's father.

I've washed my Santa pyjamas and the robin tea towels, ready to pack away for the year. I've had coffee in a mug with no snowmen on it. I've weighed myself and then breakfasted off a whiff of smelling salts. And now it's time to face the music and make some resolutions:

1. Last year I resolved for the second time to read some Dickens. Third time lucky.

2. Also, (fifth time lucky) I'm going to shed the immigration weight. It's a real thing.

3. And I'm going to carve out three different kinds of protected time. I'm going to have a summer holiday - two weeks on a beach with a pile of books; I'm going to go to a mid-week concert, play or film at least twice a month; I'm going to have an afternoon and evening every weekend or one whole day every other weekend away from chores and cares. Like a housemaid at Downton.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

NEEDED: Perspective and patience by Cathy Ace

What are some of your New Year’s resolutions, writing or otherwise?

Of course I’m going to eat more vegetables, use the elliptical more often (not just for hanging up the ironing), walk the dogs instead of using the slingy-thingy to throw balls they bring back to me and generally get off my butt more often. Same resolutions I make (and break) every year.

On the writing front? That’s easy: keep enjoying it, work to get better at it and realize how incredibly fortunate I am to have the chance to do what I dreamed of doing when I was eighteen – have my books published.

Like Janus, I allow myself some time to look in both directions at the turn of the year. And I don’t focus on just the past twelve months. As a workaholic I need perspective. And patience. I’m not good at either. January’s the time I force myself to employ both.

My first Cait Morgan Mystery was published in March 2012, and I promised myself then that I’d review how the whole “writing thing” was going after five years. Until that time, I told myself, I would put 100% into it – because any less effort on my part would mean I’d never know how it might have gone if I’d tried my hardest. By April 2016 I’ll have had nine books published (the WISE Enquiries Agency Mystery #2, The Case of the Missing Morris Dancer, comes out in Canada and the USA on February 1st, and Cait Morgan Mystery #7, The Corpse with the Garnet Face, comes out on April 5th) and I am thrilled about that. I’m enjoying writing two series – one largely plot-driven, one more character-driven – and the plan is to continue with that this year.

My 2016 calendar - views of places my soul knows and loves
In 2015 I was blown away by the fact I won the Bony Blithe Award for Best Canadian Light Mystery (not something I ever dreamed of) but writing award-winning books isn’t something one can really “resolve” to do. However, I can put my ALL into writing the best books I can. I also plan to take a more organized approach to promoting my work: my publishers are helpful, but I know I have a responsibility to represent my work the best way I can.

And that’s about it, really. I honestly reckon I am the most fortunate person – I love my life, and not just the work aspects. I’m delighted that I don’t know what’s around the next corner, and I hope I have within me whatever is required to make the best of it…or cope with it. For 2016 I’ll keep the resolutions to a minimum, count my blessings, work hard
and remain as flexible as possible so I can spot and take opportunities. Oh yes, and I’ll try to eat more green things. That’s all folks!

Monday, January 4, 2016

Make 'Em and Break 'Em

New Year’s Resolutions?

-from Susan

Happy New Year, Minds and Friends!

It’s a common enough question, but one I usually duck. I do better with Second Week in February To-Do Lists than with something that has the sweep of 365 days. Alcoholics Anonymous has it right when they suggest to people trying to quit that they eliminate booze just for one day…and then just for the next day. Build up some small triumphs before looking so far over the horizon.

That’s not to say some people who are looking out for my professional or personal interests don't have resolutions for me: daily cardiac and weight-bearing exercise, limit salt and caffeine, write enough words a day to complete a manuscript partway through the year, buy your agent a Michelin-star lunch (no, that’s me saying it – she’s much too polite), etc.

There was a time when I was pretty computer smart - never a programmer, but I understood the overall structure and purpose and how to follow instructions for new hardware and software. I am slipping. In 2016, I must start an online newsletter, which means converting Mac address files to Mail Chimp, which a friend’s 12-year old does in his sleep. I’m losing sleep just contemplating how hard it will be.
I must quit playing game apps, the simple ones scorned by young children. I’m slowly but obsessively building out a cute little city while the 6-year old in the family is glued to her iPad, virtually running, leaping, moving at 50 miles an hour through a blurring landscape trying to pile up pineapples and unicorns. She is processing, processing and I fall farther behind. But what I’m most afraid of is getting hooked on her app and sitting like a zombie, ignoring cat hair sagebrush and incoming mail. I. Will. Not.

But I will write the second book in my French village mystery series while the first is polished and made ready for its debut. That is a happy promise I make to my editor at Minotaur and to myself. Having worked so hard to get to this point, that’s one resolution whose horizon looks better than pineapples and unicorns from here!


(Pineapple photo: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos; Unicorn tapestry photo, public domain)