Ngaio Marsh’s Colour Scheme (review), & 6 Things to Know Before 2017

You’re invited! Join San Francisco writers & readers at the Mechanics’ Institute, 57 Post (nr Montgomery BART), at noon on Friday, Dec. 16 for drinks, snacks, & a Writers’ Lunch panel: “Indie or Traditional Publishing: Six Things You Need to Know Before 2017.”

Colour Scheme (Roderick Alleyn, #12)Colour Scheme by Ngaio Marsh
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A fascinating armchair journey to wartime (1943) New Zealand. The setting is a low-end spa on the north island, surrounded by sulfurous bubbling mud and just over the hill from a Maori village. The proprietors might have wandered in from an Agatha Christie — or did Britain actually produce a whole class of hapless, feckless expats wandering from colony to colony in search of post-military careers? Most of the characters are a bit miffed to be so far from the action in Europe, & eager to believe that Britain’s enemies are poising to attack, or at least infiltrate, the Antipodes. Marsh stokes this mood of sulky suspense with two arrivals who clearly are not what they seem: a slick, tacky self-styled entrepreneur who’s planning to take over & modernize the spa, & a reserved, perceptive last-minute guest. As usual, the cast is diverse & colorful, including the local drunk, a famous actor & his small entourage, one of whom is ambivalently drawn to the clumsy daughter of the house, & her chip-on-shoulder brother. The story boils up as slowly as the mud baths, erupting at a Maori entertainment which would be worth the trip even without the mystery. Marsh’s theatrical expertise makes this a compelling book, although I got a little tired of the nastier characters — sometimes the brother felt more like a dialect showcase than a real young man — & one or 2 plot devices seemed rather contrived. Both those cavils relate to mystery conventions that were very popular in the day but stick out now. Another plot device — introducing Superintendent Alleyn of the Yard far outside of his usual police-procedural context — I enjoyed & admired. Enfin, I’m glad I reread Colour Scheme, & I recommend it to anyone who likes New Zealand, non-twee cosies, &/or Golden Age mysteries.

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Faint Promise of Rain (review): Dancing in 16th-century India

Faint Promise of RainFaint Promise of Rain by Anjali Mitter Duva
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a luminous journey into a long-ago time, faraway place, & little-known vocation I was fascinated to learn about. Congratulations to Anjali Mitter Duva for leaping — bravely & lovingly — into the 16th-century Rajasthan dance world, & also to SheWrites Press for publishing this unique story. It’s quite an achievement to paint a convincing picture of a scene so thoroughly foreign to the 21st-century West. The Indian desert, temple buildings, & characters’ homes all emerge into sensuous 3-D plausibility. Especially poignant are the transitory aspects: the sacred dance tradition to which the narrator’s father has given his life & family is is a world — sites, people, values — is about to pass into history. With a new ruler, political & social changes filter out from the capital, & the main characters can see their long-held assumptions about their lives eroding. Duva adeptly brings out the parallels with our own cultural dissolution in the 21st-century: we can’t help feeling for these people.

Yet I never felt completely enveloped by Duva’s Rajasthan. Partly that’s my own unfamiliarity with the area & its customs; partly it’s her choice to give her narrator a sort of second sight which lets her write in the first person while jumping from one character’s point of view to another — to me, not quite believable. Also, although there’s plenty of conflict & incident, the dramatic arc isn’t as strong or the dynamics as varied as I’d have expected (& wished).

I did enjoy this book, & I recommend it.

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Leonard Cohen is dead; Gwen Ifill has vanished; San Francisco’s DPW has brazenly flouted its own rules, local protests, and city law to OK a Verizon antenna right outside my and my neighbors’ windows. Last and worst, an unabashed bigot, liar, and crook is poised to assume the presidency of the United States.

waiting-for-godot11The Internet’s abuzz with recriminations (mostly pointless) and questions (infinite). Given that, like Beckett’s characters, we have no choice but to go on, here are the best answers I can offer to two of the most immediate questions about the travesty-in-chief:

Q: What can I tell my children/students?

A: See “Teaching Trump” by Daniel J. Kevles, an insightful, realistic, constructive response by an experienced historian and teacher.

Q: What practical information have we learned from this national upheaval?

A: Lots and lots. As yet, much of it is still amorphous, ambiguous, and/or contentious. Here’s one point that strikes me as significant, which I posted on Facebook the morning after the election:

twee-of-knowledgeOne key revelation from Trump’s victory is that we live in a post-literate era. What does it mean that American schools literally don’t teach writing anymore? The high-school student working at my local polling station yesterday couldn’t find most people’s names in the roster unless they showed her an ID; yet she’s college-bound, & spent her breaks thumb-typing on her phone. People who rely chiefly on audio & video info, who rarely read or write anything longer than a social-media post, don’t expect or seek or value the kinds of logically constructed arguments, or even sequences of cause & effect, that we book-&-newspaper types rely on. How can Trump’s fans not care if he promises all things to all people and fails to back up any of his promises with plans? The answer lies (in both senses) in the very structure of what we might call disposable vs. durable thought.

This is an observation, not a value judgment, except in the sense that I value an awareness of cause-and-effect sequences and an appreciation of logic, along with critical thinking, as essential tools for living which should not be shunted aside as passe in the Internet age. Quite the contrary: they underpin the Net and all the other technology that saturates 21st-century existence.

I hope my country can find more and more ways to encourage more and more young people to take pride in utilizing their individual talents, intelligence, and skills as part of the socioeconomic web. We ARE stronger together! I fear the encroachment of neo-feudalism, in which work is a stick, bread-and-circuses a carrot, and status lies in attachment to celebrity = authority = security. Reopening coal mines and assembly lines is not only unrealistic in the present economy, but patronizing. The U.S. doesn’t need more jobs for human robots; we need more paths to success for makers and shakers.

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There is no Frigate like a Book

Last night, while my noisy next-door neighbor was out, I enjoyed the rare luxury of a peaceful evening. Instead of insulating myself from his TV (explosions, gunfire, car crashes, fistfights, screaming) with work, music, or my own TV, I lounged on the sofa and read a book.

rajasthan-dancer-camelEmily Dickinson was right: There is no frigate like a book to take us lands away. Anjali Mitter Duva’s Faint Promise of Rain carried me around the globe and back 5 centuries with a Rajasthan temple dancer and her family. Once I got used to the desert landscape, the unfamiliar sights and sounds and smells of Adhira’s world, I had to struggle to re-emerge into 21st-century San Francisco.

San Francisco’s urban landscape is thick with tech and social-media companies. On a field trip to Goodreads a few years ago, I learned that today’s model reader is a multitasker who’d rather travel through a book (like any other journey) in the company of friends, sharing passages as s/he goes. Presumably that’s why my e-books from the library are dotted with distracting snail-trails. For my age cadre, reading was a solo activity, and marking up someone else’s book was a rude desecration. Was it when publishers began redefining readers as consumers that they encouraged them to add their own input to the author’s, so as to make books more disposable and increase sales? Instead, apparently they’ve made reading more social.

I’m focusing on the social side of reading this month as I launch my new book Zapped: an Edgar Rowdey Cape Cod Mystery. For an author, as for a reader, there is no frigate like a book! Writing it is a harrowing but addictive odyssey through treacherous waters, past seductive islands, slithering between Scylla andsailing_home_book_sculpture_by_wetcanvas-d6s607s Charybdis. When you finally get home, you may not even recognize the place. And what’s this? Your long, arduous 4-D adventure has compacted into a small rectangular 2-D object. Now you must think up a log line, an elevator pitch, a Tweet-length summary which you’ll toss like a hawser in the hope someone will catch it. What passage can you read aloud to a sea of preoccupied faces that will call up the music (already fading in your own ears) of the mermaids singing?

Yet among those faces are old friends you haven’t seen in years, and recent friends who never knew you wrote but are happy to celebrate with you, and soon-to-be friends who discovered the book first and now are eager to meet its author. This too is an adventure — for me, as for many other writers, a voyage outside my comfort zone, and all the more rewarding for stretching familiar boundaries.

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The Black Mountain (Nero Wolfe, #24)The Black Mountain by Rex Stout
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Kudos to Rex Stout for grappling with the Poirot Problem: What do you do when your series detective, to whom you whimsically gave an exotic foreign background, becomes so popular that fans demand to know about his past? Agatha Christie created Ariadne Oliver to vent. Stout tops her by killing off Nero Wolfe’s oldest friend, forcing the sedentary sleuth not just out of his house but onto a plane to Montenegro.

This has to be the oddest book in the Wolfe/Goodwin series. Nero Wolfe, the legendary couch potato, transformed to a mountain goat? Archie — posing as his son — carries the luggage along with the narrative, which he’s reconstructed after the fact from Wolfe’s translations. I learned more than I could absorb about the geography and politics of that volatile region, which would soon explode into larger wars than the one our sleuths must navigate. The story is action-packed, full of disguises, deceptions, betrayals, and violence, suspenseful all the way back to New York.

So, more of a thriller than a Golden Age mystery. No women, except for the occasional glimpsed-from-afar wife or daughter. I enjoyed The Black Mountain, and I’d love to ask Rex Stout how he came to write it, but I’ll be happy to rejoin Wolfe and Goodwin in Manhattan.

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Happy Halloween! It’s Party Time for ZAPPED & You’re Invited!

What better publication date for Zapped: an Edgar Rowdey Cape Cod Mystery than October 31? Before it hits bookstores, please come help me toast this too-long-awaited sequel to Croaked. And thanks again to the many friends and experts who helped it along the way — I couldn’t have done it without you.

NEW ENGLAND:eghlaunch-invit-s

EdwardGoreyHouse@verizon.net / 508-362-3909


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2 Mystery Reviews: Spencer-Fleming in Snowy NY, Siger in Sunny Mykonos

In the Bleak Midwinter (Rev. Clare Fergusson & Russ Van Alstyne Mysteries, #1)In the Bleak Midwinter by Julia Spencer-Fleming
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In my quest for contemporary mystery writers as enjoyable as the Golden Age greats (Christie, Marsh, Allingham, Stout, Tey….), I was referred to Julia Spencer-Fleming. This first book in her series starts with an appealing title — a lovely old Christmas carol — & follows up with that most promising of openings, a baby left on a doorstep in the snow. Although the ambience is classic English village, this particular snowy doorstep is in upstate NY & belongs to a newly hired female priest. Rev. Fergusson’s natural proprietary interest in the abandoned baby boy is sharpened by a loving note from his unknown mother asking for Cody to be adopted by a wealthy couple in her congregation.

What helps this maximum outsider (woman, priest, newcomer) connect with local police chief Van Alstyne, & the other local men she must deal with, is her past military service. Clare Fergusson makes an excellent amateur sleuth: she’s both feminine & tough, a lone stranger who’s deeply involved in this semi-rural town, & an unabashed Christian who practices what she preaches, i.e., Jesus’s teachings about compassion, courage, & generosity. Alstyne is married (happily, as far as we can tell), but as this story unfolds into a murder case he & Fergusson are committed to solving, the adrenaline rush of danger + collaboration crackles with sexual tension.

For me, the resolution of the mystery didn’t reach the same level of authenticity or inevitability as the characters’ adventures in getting there, but I enjoyed the book (recalling my own years of slogging through snowdrifts in upstate NY from the satisfying comfort of California); nothing about it was annoying (rare in these days when publishers don’t require writers to be literate); & I look forward to Fergusson & Van Alstyne’s next case.

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Murder in Mykonos (Andreas Kaldis, #1)Murder in Mykonos by Jeffrey Siger
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Siger doesn’t invite us into a picture postcard of Mykonos so much as blast a hole in it. This fast-paced thriller spotlights the Greek island’s all-night party side — bars, boats, beaches, blondes. Our first point-of-view character quickly becomes a murder victim. As the island’s new police chief hunts the killer, and rocks the political & social boat by digging into various nudge-nudge wink-wink local scams, he discovers this body is just one in what may be a long-running series. Meanwhile, the frantic parents of another tourist matching the same description report that their daughter has disappeared.

Siger’s edge-of-your-seat plot is as full of twists and turns as the old mining tunnels burrowed under Mykonos’s picturesque landscape. I couldn’t put it down. There’s enough sex and violence to ratchet up the stakes without pandering to porno fans, enough scenery to please armchair tourists, & enough action to leave a reader breathless.

The writing isn’t inspired, but it’s not that kind of book. My main quibble is that it doesn’t matter to the author who turns out to be the killer. Although we spend a fair amount of time inside that tormented head, which we know must belong to one of 4 suspects, none of them are characterized enough from the outside for any realistic “whodunnit” guess to be possible. Even when the cops catch up with their quarry, they don’t let the reader know who it is. That secret the author keeps until the book’s last line — in my opinion, a cheesy trick.

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2 Crime Fiction Reviews: Ryan’s Truth Be Told, Randisi’s East of the Arch

Ryan TruthBToldHank Phillippi Ryan: Truth Be Told

It took me 2 tries to read this #3 in Ryan’s Jane Ryland series. Truth Be Told is half police procedural, from the POV of preppy Boston detective Jake Brogan, & half mystery, from the POV of mostly-TV journalist Jane Ryland. I hadn’t read Book 1 or 2, but it’s obvious that Jake & Jane are entangled in a conflicted, passionate affair — very distracting to them, & also to me. I shy away from series that center on the characters’ personal problems, particularly doomed romances & maddening bosses. Unfortunately, this book overflows with both. Fortunately, the plot ratchets up fast to a gripping, compelling pace, while the POV jumps from the star-crossed lovers to several intriguing secondary characters. Within 25 pages, I was hooked.

What first drew me to Truth Be Told was the good things I’d heard about its author, Hank Phillippi Ryan (who I didn’t realize is a woman). What made me give it a second try was Ryan’s focus on the heartbreaking mass (and MA) evictions that followed the late-2000s recession. Just as horrifying as the book’s multiple murders are the multiple lives ruined by greedy, deceitful banking practices. A hardworking homeowner thrown out on the street for no fault of his/her own is a desperate person, & Ryan does a fine job of depicting the murky borderland between greed, desperation & violence.

Randisi East of ArchRobert J. Randisi: East of the Arch

When I learned I was going to be on a panel with Robert Randisi at Killer Nashville, I grabbed the first non-Western, non-RatPack novel of his I could find. This one, a police procedural, hooked me right away. The man (an expression he uses a lot) has written 500 books — published at least 1 a month since 1982. Like a good TV-series writer, he knows how to get the job done.

East of the Arch gives us the right ingredients in the right order: a young woman’s mutilated body spewed up by the Mississippi River; an inexperienced but hardworking local detective (often referred to as “the black detective,” which I found jarring); more bodies; a serial-killer expert from a larger police force brought in to take over the case (Joe Keogh, a recurring series character transferred to St. Louis from Brooklyn); a resentful sergeant, an egocentric mayor, & all the high-stakes pressure & infighting that set-up enables. We first meet Joe getting out of bed with a woman, which also sets up his perennial conflict between work & any kind of private life.

Interestingly, Randisi starts stepping in & out of the killer’s point of view fairly early in the book. Given that a serial killer is by nature difficult or impossible to empathize with, this helps make the story a plausible duel rather than a good-vs-evil cliche.

East of the Arch is very much in the “guy” noir tradition: men battle in the arena (police stations, bars, cars); women flutter around the edges helping or interfering. It’s gripping while you’re in it — the prose, characters, & plot all workmanlike & sometimes witty, but unpolished — & forgettable afterwards.


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Killer Nashville, Part 1: Music City

We picked Killer Nashville because Pat and I — fellow Sisters in Crime — each had a finished mystery novel which was ready for the quantum jump off the computer screen into the arena of agents, editors, and marketing. Pat’s living in Georgia for the summer, near the Tennessee border; I’d never seen Nashville, and my next book centers on rock-&-roll. Although I’d been up since 3 AM, and this hot afternoon was so damp it drizzled, the lure of live music trumped a nap. So I dropped off my luggage, donned my new cargo shorts and walking sandals, and started over the bridge.

NashvilleFromBridge-MAs soon as I caught sight of it across the muddy Cumberland River, Nashville filled me with exhilaration. AT&T might build a Bat-Tower looming over the skyline;  the Disneyesque entertainment center calling itself Opryland might lure tourists out to the suburbs; but my map promised that beyond this mass of green trees and shrieking cicadas lay Music City.

OldSpagFact-MLike New Orleans, Nashville is a moveable feast for music-lovers. Stroll down Second Street and — eureka! There’s BB King’s Blues Lounge, with a skinny hunched old flute and harp player outside serenading passers-by. In the foyer of the George Jones Museum, a band played “I’m proud to be an Okie from Muskogee.” I cut up past the Johnny Cash Museum to Schermerhorn Symphony Center, where I’d heard Lyle Lovett & his Large Band were performing. Wrong night . . . but how wrong can you go, drifting with a cowboy-booted soul-patched whiskey-drinking big-haired babydoll-bloused crowd up and down Broadway? On this corner is Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville, Margaritaville-Mwhere the kid manning the gift shop confirms he’s got the world’s best job, pasting labels on T-shirts and listening to live music. Over there is a virtuoso fiddler, and next door a lightning-speed banjo picker. I stepped inside the Crossroads bar to listen to an outstanding band, and paused across the street to place the oddly familiar non-Bluegrass tune coming from behind a punk-pompadoured drummer: Tom Petty’s “American Girl.”


But as the night life cranked up, I caught a cab back for some sleep. Tomorrow I’d wander around Nashville in daylight, and then meet Pat to head south for Franklin and our reason for coming here: Killer Nashville.


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Killer Nashville, Part 2: Insights for Crime Writers

KNLogoStarted in 2006 by Clay Stafford as a charitable project of his media company American Blackguard, Killer Nashville is a terrific meeting place for authors, agents, and fans. Its website calls it an “International Thriller, Mystery, Crime Literature Writers Conference held annually in downtown Nashville, TN.” The actual location is Franklin, 15 miles south of Nashville, in the frigidly air-conditioned Embassy Suites Hotel. We occupied most of the hotel’s 9 floors.

I’m not good at estimating crowd size, and I never discovered any official stats, but I’d guess we numbered about 300. That meant you could strike up a conversation with anybody wearing a nametag, and easily find them again (or not) later.

Clay Stafford interviews Robert J. Randisi

Clay Stafford interviews Robert J. Randisi, who’s published at least 1 book every month since 1982.

Clay Stafford’s opening speech reminded us that we were all there for the same reasons, starting with making contacts. So this was a notably friendly conference. I enjoyed chatting with my fellow Point of View panelists Kathleen Cosgrove, Charley Pearson, and the staggeringly prolific guest of honor Robert J. Randisi, as well as dozens of agents, authors, and fans who’d come from New York, San Diego, and points in between.

Evanovich-panelRandisi, who wrote a book set in Nashville called The Honky Tonk Big Hoss Boogie, received a Fender acoustic guitar as a farewell gift. So did guests of honor Janet Evanovich (left) and Kevin O’Brien (who was heard to mutter, “What am I supposed to do with this?”) Some 30 or 40 presentations were made at the gala closing buffet dinner, culminating in the Claymore Award for Best 50 Pages of a New Book. The spirit of fun and generosity that infused this conference also included a comic video, fabulous homemade cookies, spectacular chocolate cake, wonderfully dizzying glass elevators, and a mind-boggling array of panels, agent-author roundtables and evaluations, breakout sessions, and a daily breakfast and booze-&-schmooze so we could bookend each day by exchanging information and maybe even relaxing.

Among the useful tidbits I picked up:

  • Literally millions of new books are published each year. In bookstack2016, Amazon alone has been launching 5,000 books a day.
  • “Cozy” is out; identify your genre as “mystery” or “amateur sleuth” instead.
  • Agents currently tend to rank voice ahead of plot. Your query letter as well as your manuscript should display your voice. A fresh unique story also is key.
  • Along with an introduction, synopsis, and bio, your query packet should include comps (other books in the same market niche as yours), identify your genre, and confirm that your ms. length matches what’s expected in that genre (i.e., what publishers’ marketing & manufacturing departments have determined is their ideal price point).
  • All crime novels should fall between 65,000-120,000 words, preferably around 80,000. Amateur sleuth mysteries in particular should be under 100,000 words.detective-flashlight
  • Suspense should escalate from the first sentence, with a dead body or crime or highly alarming threat within the first chapter.
  • Prologues are frowned upon. Italicized sections are out. Flashbacks are frowned upon, especially in the first few chapters. Short chapters are preferred.
  • Agents try to respond to queries they want to follow up within a month or two. Those they don’t want to follow up, they may just ignore. Once they’ve received a requested full or partial ms., they’ll usually get back to you within 1-6 weeks.
  • An agent may offer a ms. to a dozen or more publishers, all at once or in rounds. An editor should respond in about 6 weeks.
  • It’s very hard for an agent to sell Book 2 in a series if Book 1 was indie published. If you want representation, you’re better off starting over with a new series.
  • Your agent wants to see a ms. that’s as perfect as you can make it. Then she’s likely to edit it (often heavily) before sending it out to editors. If an editor accepts it, she’ll edit it again. That’s one reason the commercial publishing book-editor-officeprocess takes so much longer than indie publishing.
  • The other main reason is marketing. Your publisher expects to push your book for about 3 months. Preparation — e.g., sending out ARCs (advance review copies) — starts 4-8 months before your pub date. You may want to hire your own publicist to work with your publisher, to take full advantage of those 3 months in the spotlight.

Armed with all this, it’s back to the grindstone, AKA keyboard, and onward into the arena. Best wishes to everyone who took part!

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