Nancy Atherton didn't intend to start a mystery series when she wrote her first book, Aunt Dimity's Death, and she certainly didn't intend to forever change cozy mysteries by creating the original paranormal detective. But she did! And with the publication of Aunt Dimity and the Summer King, Atherton marks the 20th book in her beloved series.
Twenty books? I’ve written 20 books? Are you serious? I guess you are, because Aunt Dimity and the Summer King is indeed the 20th title in a mystery series I began writing more than 20 years ago.
Aunt Dimity has been around longer than Netflix, Google, Facebook and some of you. The fact that she’s still alive and kicking (so to speak) in a brand-new story is nothing short of miraculous. Not in a million years could I have predicted that my first book would lead to my 20th.
When I wrote my first book, Aunt Dimity's Death, I didn’t think it had a snowball’s chance of being published. At the time, there was no known market for a nonviolent, non-vulgar novel that was sort of a mystery and sort of a love story, with a supernatural element, some gardening, a bit of military history, a pink flannel bunny and a recipe thrown in because, what the heck, why not? The plot couldn’t be summarized in a simple catchphrase, and the story didn’t fit neatly into an established genre. It was a very strange little book—a marketing nightmare!—and I was absolutely convinced that it would remain forever in a box on a shelf in my closet, unseen by any eyes but mine.
And I was OK with that. I hadn’t written Aunt Dimity's Death in order to see my name in print. I wrote it because the first two lines of the story popped into my head one evening, and I simply had to find out what they meant. If there’s one trait I share with my characters, it’s a burning desire to get to the bottom of things.
I didn’t stop to write an outline, and it never occurred to me to do market research. I just hopped, skipped and jumped my way through the book like a kid on a treasure hunt. I never knew what would happen next, and I loved the excitement of not knowing. I wrote to please no one but my characters and myself, and when I finished the first draft, I knew for certain that it would never be read by anyone but me.
I’ve seldom been so happy to be wrong. To my utter astonishment, Aunt Dimity's Death found a great publisher as well as a loyal and highly enthusiastic family of fans. Best of all, it contained a snippet of dialogue that inspired me to write my second book. I hadn’t intended to write a series, but my characters insisted that I stick around to tell more of their tales, and I’m exceedingly glad they did. It has been a privilege to watch them grow and change over time. It has been a pleasure to share in their continuing adventures.
Not in a million years could I have foreseen the long and joyful journey that would spring from the opening lines of Aunt Dimity's Death. I never dreamed that my strange little book would lead to a series that’s still going strong two decades after its most unlikely birth. I hope you’ll join me in a toast to my 20th title. And I hope you enjoy Aunt Dimity and the Summer King. As for me, I'm off to work on number 21. I can’t wait to find out what happens next!
Nancy Atherton is the best-selling author of 20 Aunt Dimity mysteries, including the latest installment, Aunt Dimity and the Summer King (Viking; on sale April 14, 2015). The first book in the series, Aunt Dimity’s Death, was voted “One of the Century’s 100 Favorite Mysteries” by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association. Atherton lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Author photo credit Grey Taylor.
Maybe we're excited about baseball season because opening day feels like a better beginning of spring than the actual equinox on March 20 (I mean, it was snowing in NYC). Maybe it's because our local minor-league team, the Nashville Sounds, is getting a brand-new stadium. Whatever the reason, we're excited. Our April issue includes a selection of stellar nonfiction baseball books, but every year we also enjoy a steady stream of baseball novels.
Leslie Dana Kirby has just published her debut novel, The Perfect Game, a psychological suspense that explores the murder of the wife of a professional baseball superstar. In this guest blog post, she digs into baseball as an interesting background for books:
Ahhh, spring. Longer days, warmer weather for reading good books poolside . . . and opening day of baseball season.
As a resident of Phoenix, I have already been enjoying a month of baseball as rabid fans stream in from all over the country to attend spring training games. And as the official opening date of the professional baseball season was April 5, this is a great time of year to crack open some books with baseball themes.
As a kid, I really enjoyed In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson by Bette Bao Lord, a charming book about Shirley Temple Wong, a young girl who immigrates to Brooklyn from China. As she struggles to assimilate, she finds herself inspired by Brooklyn Dodger Jackie Robinson, who is proving that minorities can live their dreams in the United States.
While I was reading about Shirley Temple Wong, my older brother fell in love with Ball Four, an expose by pitcher Jim Bouton, which peeled back the curtain on professional baseball. When it was first published in 1970, it created a firestorm of controversy and was banned by some libraries. By 1999, it was being hailed by the New York Public Library and Time magazine as one of the most important works of nonfiction of the 20th century.
My first novel, The Perfect Game, is set against the backdrop of professional baseball. My protagonist, Lauren Rose, is devastated when her older sister and only sibling, Liz, is murdered. It’s a tragedy that is compounded by the fact that Liz was married to professional baseball pitcher Jake Wakefield. Jake’s fame quickly attracts a national spotlight to the murder and the ensuing investigation.
Why does baseball create an interesting setting for books? Perhaps it is because the topic takes many of us back to lazy summer days of enjoying peanuts and cracker jacks. Others relish the opportunity to get a glimpse into the glitzy and glamorous lives of professional baseball players. And the truly hardcore fans might be looking for a way to combine their love of the game with the joy of reading.
The slow pace of baseball play also allows time for reflection between plays. For baseball fans, that allows times for thinking about the possible implications of a hit or a fly ball. For authors, this allows time to discuss the reaction of the players or the spectators in between the action.
Additionally, baseball allows for reflection on individual performance more than most sports. For example, in my book, Jake pitches a perfect game, a tremendous achievement for a baseball pitcher. While other athletes might excel in a game, it isn’t really feasible for players in other sports, such as quarterbacks or basketball point guards, to accomplish a “perfect” outing.
Overall, I think for most of us, baseball represents the quintessential experience of long, relaxing days spent rooting on our favorite teams. So in between pitches in the next game of your favorite MLB team, consider reading some of these other popular books that feature the all-American sport:
I hope that one of these, or some other baseball book that you pick up this summer, might be a grand slam for you!
Thanks, Leslie! Readers, The Perfect Game is now available from Poisoned Pen Press.
Here's something that's definitely not normal: a serial killer as a sort of bumbling hero. Maybe "hero" is too strong, but the unnamed protagonist in British author Cameron's debut is, outside of kidnapping and murdering girls, darkly funny and even likable. His lifelong killing spree kicked off when he took out his bad dad, and now he's moved on to prostitutes and other girls, sometimes killing them and burying them in the woods, sometimes keeping them in a cage on his property. Add in some real, non-sociopathic feelings about a few of his victims, plus cops circling about a disappeared hooker, and you've got one strange story on your hands.
Erica regarded her new cellmate with a mixture of elation and disdain. Whilst a problem shared is a problem halved, she clearly wasn't overjoyed at the prospect of sharing hers with a bleeding, screeching harridan.
The hooker had told me that her name was Kerry. Then again, she'd told me that she was clean in every respect, where both her profession and her trackmarks suggested otherwise.
I'd picked her up a mile from Jeremy's house on a foolish and immediately regrettable impulse fueled by raw adrenaline and the sheer bloody-minded need to catch something, so to speak. She'd directed me to a remote riverside picnic area on the south side of the city, and had been only too eager to jump into the back of the van, the false promise of mattresses and pillows offering a welcome relief from the repeated prod of a gearlever in the sternum.
Until that point, this, in a nutshell, was the reason I never interfere with ladies of the night: it's just too damn easy. It's a game for impotents and bed-wetters. These women queue up to get in the car with you, for Christ's sake. They actually expect you to take them somewhere dark. That they exercise free will in putting themselves in harm's way only makes obligingly slaughtering them all the more cowardly.
What are you reading?
Fans of best-selling author C.J. Box expect a lot of action and suspense, delivered in clear prose and paced expertly. The author has won a number of awards for his satisfying high-country thrillers, including the Edgar for Best Novel (Blue Heaven, 2009), but his 15th Joe Pickett novel, Endangered, is a cut above. It's darker, tighter and proof that even though Box's a seasoned thriller writer, he's still a writer to watch.
Joe is out surveying a field of massacred, engangered sage grouse when he gets a call about a woman found in a ditch. She's alive, but badly beaten. The victim is Joe's adopted daughter, April, who ran off with a rodeo rider in Stone Cold. Joe's ready to hunt down the rider—until an anonymous tip points Joe toward survivalist Tilden Cudmore as April’s abductor. All this is going down when Joe's old pal Nate Romanowski, who has just been released from prison, is found dead. And the twists just keep coming.
Blunt force trauma.
The very words were brutal in and of themselves, Joe thought as he and Marybeth trailed April's gurney down the hallway. He could hear the helicopter approaching outside, hovering over the helipad on the roof of the hospital.
April was bundled up and he couldn't see her face. He wasn't sure he wanted to. Joe was grateful Marybeth had positively identified her earlier.
He was unnerved by the number of suspended plastic packets that dripped fluids into tubes that snaked beneath the sheets. An orderly rolled a monitor on wheels alongside the gurney. Her body looked small and frail beneath the covers, and she didn't respond when the orderlies secured her to the gurney with straps.
Joe reached down and squeezed her hand through the blankets. It was supple, but there was no pressure back.
"Let me know how it goes," Joe said to Marybeth, raising his voice so as to be heard over the wash of the rotors.
"Of course," she said, pulling him close one last time before she left. Her eyes glistened with tears.
Joe watched as the gurney was hoisted into the helicopter. A crew member reached down from the hatch and helped Marybeth step up inside. Seconds, later, the door was secured and the helicopter lifted.
Joe clamped his hat tight on his head with his right hand and silently asked God to save April, because she'd suffered enough in her short life, and to give Marybeth the strength to carry on.
What are you reading?
Till now, Judith Flanders has confined herself solely to nonfiction as one of the foremost social historians of the Victorian era and the best-selling author of The Invention of Murder and The Victorian City. With her debut crime novel, Flanders takes on the cutthroat publishing industry and spices it up with a bit of that Victorian-style macabre.
Chosen by librarians for the February 2015 Library Reads list, A Murder of Magpies is a darkly funny romp that takes readers between London and Paris in pursuit of a potentially libelous manuscript.
But how did Flanders make the leap from Victorian crime to contemporary crime fiction? As she reveals in a guest blog post, it's just more fun. (And now we know never to get on Flanders' bad side . . .)
Fiction has some definite advantages over nonfiction. I’ve been writing nonfiction for nearly 20 years now, specializing in Victorian Britain. I truly can’t complain: It’s a great job. As with every job, though, there are some days that are just a slog. At one point I was writing about a fire along the river Thames in 1861, and I wanted to incorporate an eyewitness’ description of seeing the fire from a train. To do that, I needed to say where his train was heading. It took me nearly a week in the library to find that out. Even though it was one of those boring little details that nobody reading my book would care about, still, I had to get it right.
If I had been writing a novel, I grumped to myself, I could have just made it up. And then I bumped into an ex-colleague in the library, someone I’d worked with years before. And I remembered how much I disliked her. (The feeling, I believe, is mutual.) So, to relieve the boredom of researching trains, I began to imagine ways of killing her. From making up train stations, to making up murder methods, I moved on to just making things up.
And before I knew it, I’d started to write a crime novel. Sam Clair is an editor in a publishing house. I worked in publishing for 17 years, and publishing is full of people that belong in a novel. The 20-something editor who thinks he knows everything? Check. The last remaining Goth in Britain, who loves commercial women’s fiction? Double-check. And of course then there’s the general murder and mayhem. After all, there isn’t an author alive who hasn’t wanted to murder her editor, and vice-versa.
With my nonfiction hat on, I wrote a book on 19th-century murder and how real-life crimes were used for entertainment purposes: Where today we have films about the Boston strangler or whatever, they had plays and novels and even puppet shows. What struck me was that real-life murder was, on the whole, not very interesting. Thug A hits Thug B over the head, fighting over a few pounds. Thug B dies. That was the pattern, over and over.
Crime was dull. Crime fiction, however, now that was fabulous. From Dickens to Dracula, authors everywhere found themselves invigorated by these very ordinary, very ugly events. They took the dull stuff—Thug A, a railway station, a fire—and turned it into magic.
Publishing can be dull, too. Like a lot of glamorous jobs, on a day-to-day level it’s often just paperwork: admin and schedules and budgets. But if you make things up, you can liberate the routine, turn it into magic, too.
So I decided that I’d give myself a break from researching train stations, or even Thugs A and B. Instead I would take the ridiculousness that is publishing, and the magic that is making things up, and see what happened.
Thank you so much, Judith! Readers, A Murder of Magpies goes on sale tomorrow!
Judith Flanders author photo by Clive Barda.
Paula Hawkins has something to smile about. Her novel, The Girl on the Train, will top this week's New York Times bestseller list. That's quite a feat for any author, let alone an unknown: This is the first time that a debut novel* has made the #1 spot in its first week on sale since Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian was published in 2005. According to the publishers, Riverhead, more than 300,000 copies are in print, and the book is being sold at unconventional retail outlets, including Urban Outfitters.
We weren't surprised to hear that the unexpected twists and turns of The Girl on the Train got readers buzzing—they definitely had our editors intrigued. In her BookPage interview, Hawkins talked about the difficulty of surprising readers with twists that still manage to function as an "ah-ha" moment.
“It’s all about feeding tiny pieces of information, but hopefully keeping them slightly ambivalent. You have to have different people see different things in different ways, and hold back particular pieces of information,” she explains.
Hawkins is hard at work on another book, although it is quite likely that touring for The Girl on the Train will be keeping her busy for the next several weeks—she'll be appearing at Nashville's own Parnassus Books on February 8.
Have you picked up The Girl on the Train yet?
*Hawkins has published other novels under a pseudonym—we're betting they are on the way to the printers as we speak.
Right off the bat, this debut from British writer Seskis displays impressive control and pacing. Hints are doled out at just the right time, with Seskis' excellent prose keeping her reader's attention.
Emily has run away from her husband and children and started a new life as "Cat." But Seskis isn't so careless as to allow the reader to pass judgement on this abandonment; rather, she jumps back and forth in Emily/Cat's story, as well as in the story of her parents', to reveal what's really going on. One of the first elements of the mystery that readers learn is that Emily/Cat has (had?) a twin, named Caroline, who was wholly unexpected to her pregnant mother:
The doctor tried again. "Congratulations, Mrs. Brown, you're soon to be the mother of twins. You have a second baby to deliver."
"What d'you mean?" she'd screamed. "I've had my bloody baby."
Now she lay there in shock and all she could think was that she didn't want two babies, she only wanted one, she only had one crib, one pram, one set of baby clothes, one life prepared.
Frances was a planner by nature. She didn't like surprises, certainly not ones this momentous, and apart from anything else she felt far too exhausted to give birth again—the first birth may have been quick, but it had been fierce and traumatic and nearly three weeks ahead of schedule. She shut her eyes and wondered when Andrew would arrive. She hadn't been able to get him at his office, he'd been out at a meeting apparently, and once the contractions had quicked to every minute and a half she'd known her only option was to call an ambulance.
So her first baby arrived in a gush of red and a gash of loneliness—and now she was being told to deliver a second and still her husband was absent. Andrew hadn't seemed too keen on having one baby, so God knows what he'd think of this development. She started sobbing, noisy snot-filled gulps that rang through the little hospital.
"Mrs. Brown, will you control yourself!" the midwife said. Frances loathed her, with her mean features and squeaky, grating voice—what was she even doing in this job, she thought bitterly, she'd suck the air out of any situation, even the beauty of birth, like a malevolent pair of bellows.
"Can I see my baby?" Frances said. "I haven't even seen her yet."
"She's being checked. Just concentrate on this one."
"I don't want to concentrate on this one. I want my real baby. Give me my real baby." She was screeching now. The midwife got the gas and air and held it over Frances's face, pressing hard. Frances gagged and finally stopped screaming, and as she quieted the fight went out of her and something in her died, there on that hospital bed.
One Step Too Far goes on sale in a few weeks. Think you'll check it out?
It's not often that the wife of a Mormon bishop acts as an amateur sleuth in contemporary crime fiction, but Linda Wallheim finds herself wrapped up in a woman's disappearance in The Bishop's Wife, which was inspired by an actual crime and written by practicing Mormon Mette Ivie Harrison. Linda's search leads her to question her church's troubling patriarchal structure and secrecy, and themes such as gender roles, the pressures and expectations of motherhood and the limitations of faith and religion surround the central mystery.
The press conference with the Westons appeared on local television (on Mormon church-owned KSL, of all stations) at noon the next day. The two parents stood together in a picture of marital harmony in front of their local church, which looked much the same as ours. Aaron Weston did most of the speaking, as he had at our house. Kurt was at work, and I was sure he was fielding plenty of calls there, but within minutes of the end of the conference, I had to deal with the frightened women of the ward who suddenly thought Jared Helm was a danger to them.
The truth was, Jared Helm wasn't a danger to anyone, except perhaps his own daughter. The real danger to the women in the ward was the same danger they had faced yesterday and the day before that, and ever since they were married: their own husbands.
What are you reading today?
Anthony Horowitz earned the first official endorsement ever from the Arthur Conan Doyle estate, which makes his 2011 thriller The House of Silk the first new Holmes novel in more than a century. In short, he's the real deal, not just for fans of Cumberbatch and RDJ but also readers who loved the original books.
If you placed his new mystery, Moriarty, on the Doyle timeline, it would fall during "The Great Hiatus," when the world believed Holmes was dead. Holmes and Moriarty are gone, vanished together over the Reichenbach Falls—which presents an opening for any successors. Scotland Yard Detective Athelney Jones and his sidekick (and our narrator) Pinkerton Agent Frederick Chase are on the case to catch the newest criminals in the London underworld—in particular, up-and-coming criminal mastermind Clarence Devereaux—and to answer the impossible question: What really happened when Holmes and Moriarty tumbled over the falls?
Speaking of successors, Horowitz seems to have mastered that tricky balance between respecting the original and keeping things fresh. Disguises, fakes, twists, red herrings and violence—the game is afoot!
HoLmES WaS CeRtAiNLY NOt A DIFFiCulT mAn to LiVe WItH. He wAs QuIeT iN HiS WAYs and his hABiTS wErE REgulAr. iT wAs RARE fOR HIm To BE up AfTeR TEN at nighT aND hE hAD INVariABLY breAKfasteD AND GoNE OUT BeFOrE i RoSe in The morNINg. SOMEtImEs He SPeNt hiS DAy At ThE ChEmiCal lABoRatORY, SoMeTimes IN THE dIsSeCting ROoms And oCcAsionaLly iN lOnG WALKs whiCH ApPeAREd TO taKE HIM INtO THE LOwEsT PORTioNs OF thE CITy. nothINg COuld exCEed HiS ENErgY WHeN tHE wORkING FiT WAs upOn HiM.
'Do you really believe,' I said, 'That there is some sort of secret message contained on this page?'
'I not only believe it. I know it to be the case.'
I took the paper and held it up to the light. 'Could it be written in some sort of invisible ink?'
Jones smiled. He took the page back again and laid it between us on the white tablecloth. For the moment, all thoughts of our dinner had been forgotten. 'You may be aware that Mr Sherlock Holmes wrote a monograph on the subject of codes and secret writings,' he began.
'I was not,' I said.
'I have read it, as I have read everything that he has, generously, allowed to come to the public attention. The monograph examines no fewer than one hundred and sixty forms of concealed communication and, more importantly, the methods by which he was able to bring them to light.'
'You will forgive me, Inspector,' I interrupted. 'Whatever the relevance of this letter, it cannot be in code. We both recognize the contents. You said as much yourself. It was written, word for word, by Dr John Watson.'
'That is indeed the case. But there is of course one peculiarity. Why do you think it has been copied in this way? Why has the writer taken such care with his presentation of the text?
What are you reading today?
The year's best mysteries and thrillers took us from 1970s Atlanta to 1880s London, strung us along with flawed detectives and impenetrable cold cases and left us hungry for more. We picked our Top 10 of the year, but we'd love to hear yours! Browse all our Mystery and Suspense coverage here, and share your 2014 favorite in the comments below.
Slaughter's first standalone novel takes readers to 1970s Atlanta, an era she first explored in 2012's Criminal. Veteran patrol officer Maggie Lawson and her new rookie partner Kate Murphy face harassement, sexism and racism from the boys' club police force—all while searching for a serial killer who is targeting cops. Complex characters, the realistic and retro setting and a gripping plot make Cop Town one of Slaughter's best ever.
Read our interview with Slaughter for Cop Town.
"He-said, she-said" thrillers are so popular these days, but Smith left us spinning with this conspiracy-laden tale. When Daniel visits his aging parents in rural Sweden, he discovers a web of distrust that could upend everything he knows about his own life. We love the fantastic, award-winning historical thrillers of Smith's Child 44 series, but this first-person psychological thriller has taken our admiration to the next level.
Read our review of The Farm.
The Salem witch trials continues to fascinate us hundreds of years later—but it's extra creepy to realize people can still fall prey to hysteria. Inspired by the real-life “mass hysteria” outbreak in Le Roy, New York, in 2012, the new novel from Abbott (Dare Me) got under our skin, especially with those disturbing, slightly erotic depictions of the girls' creepy seizures.
Read an essay by Abbott about the story behind The Fever.
Former Chief Inspector Gamache has retired to Three Pines—but there's no such thing as rest for beloved fictional investigators, is there? He steps in to help his neighbor Clara Morrow, whose husband has disappeared after a year away. His quest takes him far from Three Pines and deep into the mind of the missing husband, a tortured artist who may have gone to extreme lengths to recover who he once was. As always, Penny's brilliantly drawn characters are the book's greatest delight.
Little did we know how badly we wanted a new sleuthing team! Kasasian’s debut mystery delivered while walking a fine line between charming, cozy fun and gruesome, gory crime scenes. Set in 1882 London, the first in a new series introduces 21-year-old March Middleton and her guardian, the celebrated and curmudgeonly P.I. Sidney Grice. It's sharp, witty and packed with unforgettable secondary characters.
Read our review of The Mangle Street Murders.
After a five-year hiatus following a near-fatal car accident that resulted in the amputation of part of his right leg, Iles is back, and he brought Penn Cage back, too. Natchez Burning kicked off a new trilogy starring the Southern lawyer and former prosecutor. It's pure Southern noir gold: a little "Breaking Bad," a little "True Detective" and a whole lotta Faulkner. So good.
Ellroy kicks off his second L.A. Quartet—which is actually sort of a prequel to the first Quartet—with this ambitious historical thriller, set on the American homefront of World War II. The plot itself is pretty straightforward—L.A. cops investigate a Japanese-American family's murder that occurred the night before the bombing of Pearl Harbor—but this subversive novel goes beyond its central whodunit. Emotions are running high on the precipice of war, and it's all conveyed brilliantly through alternating character perspectives and Ellroy's classic, punched-up writing style.
Read our review of Perfidia.
Mosley’s impressive 13th Easy Rawlins mystery is packed with all those goodies you'd want in a story set in L.A. during the height of the Vietnam War: hippies, drugs, radical politics, revolutionaries, etc. Because Rawlins is black, L.A. cops think he'll be able to deal with black ex-boxer Uhuru Nolica, who has kidnapped the daughter of a weapons manufacturer. With equal parts social commentary and suspenseful entertainment, Rose Gold stands out as one of the best installments in this excellent series.
Read our review of Rose Gold.
You could call it a classic police procedural, but that wouldn't quite cut it. Sure, you've got your down-and-out detective Frank Parrish, recovering from his partner’s death, wrestling with his father’s legacy and investigating the murders of some petty criminals—but that's just the beginning. Frank's personal demons run bottom-of-the-ocean deep, and the crimes he's investigating are worse than you can imagine. The history of Mob corruption in 1980s NYC is alone worth the price of admission.
The secrets of teenage girls have never been as disturbing as in the newest Dublin Murder Squad mystery. Sixteen-year-old Holly Mackey, a student at a posh girls' school in Ireland, finds a note that reads "I know who killed him," referring to the cold-case murder of a former student at the boys' school next door. Alternating between the voices of the present-day detectives and the teenage schoolgirls pre-murder, this novel is nearly impossible to put down—a cliche, sure, but still true.
Readers, what were your favorite mysteries of 2014? Share in the comments, or vote in our survey for the chance to win 10 great books.