BookPage contributing writer Alden Mudge was excited to have the opportunity to interview Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Rick Atkinson for our June issue. Mudge had read and admired the first two books in Atkinson’s acclaimed WWII trilogy and couldn’t wait to devour the third. In a guest post, he details Atkinson’s methods for keeping track of the huge volume of material he assembled to tell this complex and riveting story.
Several of my friends are as avid fans of Rick Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy as I am. And like me, they marvel at his command of the thousands of details large and small that make his history of World War II in Western Europe such a riveting read. “Ask him how he kept track of all that stuff,” they’d say to me. And so I did.
“When I’m researching, I try to be fairly systematic,” Atkinson told me when I finally got the chance to ask him. “Everything that I find, whether it’s in a book, or at the National Archives, or the Imperial War Museum or wherever, goes into a computer file.”
Atkinson, who calls himself an archive rat and who seems to also be something of a numbers guy, keeps a log about his research and writing. According to his log, for the final volume of the trilogy, The Guns at Last Light, he amassed 1,363 computer files, which amounted to 5,725 pages of notes, not including relevant notes he gathered while researching the previous two volumes of the trilogy.
“You can wander into the woods on a subject like this and never wander out,” Atkinson said, after telling me that the U.S. Army records for World War II—records from just one service branch from one country—weigh 17,000 tons. Being done with the research phase “is part of the art. I set a mark on the wall, usually with strong encouragement from the publisher, long in advance and say OK if I don’t know it by that date, I’m never going to know it and I stop. I stop going to archives. I just stop.”
Then the hard work begins. “I start putting together an outline, and I do that by going through each one of the 5,725 pages line by line thinking OK where does this tidbit go, where does that fact go. It’s excruciating. It starts from nothing but you do it day after day, working your way through all these pages and the next thing you know, you’ve got the whole outline. It’s very tedious but when I get through, everything has been organized.”
The outline for The Guns at Last Light is twice as long as the finished narrative, which Atkinson wrote chronologically, from prologue through to epilogue. The narrative is 641 pages long. Notes and selected sources for this amazing effort occupy another 200 pages.
“Some people think it’s lunatic, but I’ve used this particular system for four books now. It works for me.”
With his debut novel, Hour of the Red God, Richard Crompton introduces a new, wholly unique mystery hero to the scene: a Maasai cop, Detective Mollel. Whodunit columnist Bruce Tierney calls Mollel "outwardly ritually scarred, inwardly emotionally scarred and always a bit at odds with fellow cops (especially the higher-ups) and his own family."
In Little Mombasa in Nairobi, the mutilated body of a Maasai woman has been found. Detective Mollel knows this is more than just a dead prostitute, so set against the backdrop of Kenya’s turbulent 2007 presidential elections, he seeks the truth.
We chatted with debut author Crompton about the gritty Nairobi setting and his warrior protagonist in a 7 questions interview.
Read on for an excerpt from the first chapter of Hour of the Red God (via):
Mollel is vaguely aware of a display of bicycles inside, but he is watching the reflection suspended upon the glass. A group of teenage girls, all gossip and gum, mobile phones wafting like fans, handbags slung over shoulders like bandoliers. And from the shadows, other eyes—hungry now—emerging. Watching without watching, getting closer without moving in, the men nonchalant yet purposeful, disparate yet unified, circling their prey: hunting dogs.
—Go inside the shop, Mollel tells Adam. Stay there till I come back for you.
—Can I choose a bike, Dad? Really?
—Just stay there, says Mollel, and he pushes the boy through the store’s open door. He turns: it’s happened already. The group of men are melting away: the girls are still oblivious to what has just taken place. He clocks one of the guys walking swiftly from the scene, stuffing a gold vinyl clutch bag—so not his style—under his shirt.
Mollel takes off, matching the hunting dog’s pace but keeping his distance, eager not to spook him. No point in letting him bolt into a back street now. Pace up a beat, narrow the gap. Quit Biashara Street. Cross Muindi Mbingu. Weave through traffic—ignore the car horns. Busier here.
The hunting dog is in his late teens or early twenties, judges Mollel. Athletic. His shirt has the sleeves cut off at the shoulders, not to expose his well-developed arms, but to ease its removal. The buttons at the front will be fake, Mollel knows, replaced with a strip of Velcro or poppers to confound any attempt to grab the bag-snatcher’s collar, leaving the pursuer holding nothing more than a raggedy shirt like a slipped snake skin.
While he weighs his strategy—a dive to the legs rather than a clutch at the torso—Mollel realises the thief is heading for the City Market. Got to close the gap now. Lose him in there, he’s gone for good.
Taking up an entire city block, and with more ways in and out than a hyrax burrow, on a day like this the market’s dark interior is thronged with shoppers escaping the sun. Mollel considers yelling Stop, Mwezi! or Police!—but calculates this would lose him precious time. The thief leaps up the steps and deftly vaults a pile of fish guts, pauses a moment to look back—showing, Mollel thinks, signs of tiring—and dives into the dark interior. Mollel’s gaunt frame is just a few seconds behind, heart pounding, gulping lungfuls of air with relish, even as his stomach rebels at the powerful reek of fish. He hasn’t done this for a while. And he is enjoying it.
It takes his eyes a moment to adjust. At first all he can see are tall windows high overhead, shafts of light like columns. Noise fills in what eyes cannot see: the hubbub of negotiation and exchange, the squawking of chickens, the multitudinous laughter and chatter and
singing and hustle and bustle of life.
And amongst that hustle and bustle—a bustle, a hustle, that should not be there. He sees it now, as well as hears it, just a few stalls ahead. Figures tumbling, voices raised in protest.
Through a gap in the crowd, Mollel sees the thief. He’s scattering people and produce behind him in an attempt to obstruct his pursuer. No point going down that aisle. He looks left and right, plumps for right, rounds a stall and starts to run down a parallel row. Although he’s keeping up with his prey, Mollel’s not going to catch him this way. Ahead, he sees sacks of millet stacked loosely against one of the stalls. It’s his chance. He bounds up, one, two, and is atop the stall, balancing on the boards which bound the millet.
A howl of protest rises from the woman behind the stall, swiping at his legs with her scoop. —Get down from there! But he is already gone, leaping to the next stall, hoping the rickety wood will take his weight—it does—and run, leap, again—it does.
A better view from here, and clearer run—despite the efforts of stallholders to push him, grab him, drag him to earth. He rises above the hands, above the stalls, intent only on the pursuit.
The fresh, clean smell of peppers and onions cuts through the dusty dryness of millet. Easier to negotiate. He bounds across the stacked vegetables, skipping, skimming, recalling chasing goats across mountain scree when he was a child. Momentum is everything. Each footstep expects you to fall: cheat it. Be gone.
Outraged yells fill his ears but he feels like the great hall has fallen silent: there is no-one in it but him and the fleeing man. Distance between them measured in heartbeats: arm’s reach; finger’s grasp.
And then he is out of the door.
Mollel suddenly finds himself standing on the final stall, surrounded by furious faces. They barrack him and block him; hands reach for his ankles. He sees the back of the thief’s head about to melt into the crowd outside the market. He sweeps his arm down; feels hair and hardness—coconuts—beneath his feet. Another goat-herding trick: if the animal is out of reach, throw something at it.
The coconut is out of his hand before he even thinks about it. It describes a shallow parabola, over the heads of the stallholders, through the square, bright doorway. He even hears the crack, and relaxes. He has time now to produce his card and clear the way to the
doorway, where a circle has formed.
The crowd is now eager, anticipatory. The rear doorway of the city market is inhabited by butchers’ stalls, and the metallic smell of blood is in the air.
They part before him, and Mollel steps into the ring. The thief is on his knees, gold handbag dropped to the ground, one hand dazedly rubbing the back of his head. The smashed coconut has already been snatched by a pair of children, front of the circle, who suck on the sweet flesh and grin at Mollel. Free food and a floorshow. What more
could you want?
—You’re coming with me, says Mollel. The thief does not respond. But he staggers groggily to his feet.
—I said, says Mollel, you’re coming with me. He steps forward and takes the thief by his upper arm. It is wider than Mollel can grasp and as hard as rock. He hopes the guy’s going to remain concussed long enough to drag him downtown. If only he had cuffs—
—and then the arm wheels away from his, Mollel just having time to step back to take a little force out of the blow which lands on the side of his head. No concussion—the faintness feigned—the thief now alert and springing on his heels. A lunge—missed—at Mollel. The crowd cheers. He is strong but top-heavy, this fighter, and the policeman
judges that a swift shoulder-ram would push him once more to the ground. Mollel seizes his chance, head down, body thrown at his opponent’s chest, but he misjudges the timing, and the thief parries him easily. Mollel feels a sharp, agonising pain in his head—everywhere—stabbing and yanking, the pain of capture, and of submission.
His opponent laughs, and a roar of approval comes from the crowd. No partisans, these. Mollel feels his head jerked from side to side, up and down. There is nothing he can do.
—I have you now, Maasai, laughs the thief.
He has put his thumbs through Mollel’s earlobes.
Finland’s best-selling international crime writer isn't actually Finnish. While he has lived in Finland for 15 years, James Thompson is actually a Kentucky native—but that hasn't stopped him from becoming a Nordic noir favorite.
The newest book in his Inspector Vaara series is Helsinki Blood (featured in our April Whodunit column). When an Estonian woman finds down-and-out Vaara and tells him that her daughter with Down syndrome has gone missing and is perhaps now in the clutches of sex slavers, he sees it as a chance for redemption.
Helsinki Blood is actually the final book in a trilogy (including Lucifer's Tears and Helsinki White) set within the Inspector Vaara series. So while this book is the finale of a storyline, fans have plenty more Vaara books to look forward to.
Check out our 7 questions interview with James Thompson, who shared insight into dark, gritty thrillers:
"Dark stories are for those who want to re-examine the world and themselves, to hold up a mirror to the world and themselves and ask themselves what they see. For those who want to question the truth of themselves and the world around them."
July eleventh. A hot summer Sunday. All I want is some goddamned peace and quiet. Now my house is under siege, I have an infant to both care for and protect, and I’m forced to do the last thing I wanted to do: call Sweetness and Milo, my colleagues and subordinates, or accomplices—the definition of their role in my life depends on one’s worldview—and ask them for help.
I’m shot to pieces. Bullets to my knee and jaw—places I’ve been shot before—have left me a wreck. Only cortisone shots and dope for pain enable me to get around with a cane, speak and eat without wanting to scream. I’m still recovering from a brain tumor removal six months ago. The operation was a success but had a serious side effect that left me flat, emotionless.
My feelings are returning as the empty space where once a tumor existed fills in with new tissue, but I only feel love for my wife and child, and intermittent like for one or two others. My normal state and reaction toward others is now irritability. My wife, Kate, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and has run away from home, out of control of her own emotions, and abandoned me.
These combined problems, any one of which would drive a person to distraction under the best of circumstances, cloud my judgment and affect my behavior. My judgment and behavior were already clouded. I feel so certain it will all end badly that it seems more a portent than an emotion. Auguries and omens of catastrophe seem all around me, just out of sight, but every time I turn to face them, they disappear like apparitions.
Have you checked out James Thompson's Inspector Vaara series?
Miss Daphne Dale responds to a newspaper advertisement looking for a “sensible lady of good breeding for correspondence, and in due consideration, matrimony." Writing as “Miss Spooner," she strikes up a practical correspondence with “Mr. Dishforth." However, when she meets charming bad boy Lord Henry Seldon, she finds herself torn between the two men.
Writes romance columnist Christie Ridgway, "What transpires is an engaging comedy in which words and deeds sometimes confuse minds and hearts, and the happily-ever-after seems just out of reach. A charmer."
In a 7 questions interview, we chatted with author Elizabeth Boyle about all the fun she has while writing historical romances:
"Truly, who wouldn’t want to spend their days wrangling dukes? But I love the writing process—the nuts and bolts of a discovering a story idea/characters, pondering the what-ifs and weighing the story potential, and then exploring those characters by telling their story. Adding the historical elements is like the frosting on cupcakes—so many choices and always the chance to toss in some sprinkles."
And tonight, Daphne carried high expectations she would be . . . would be . . . She glanced over at her dear friend, and whispered a secret prayer that when she found her true love, she might be as happy.
And how could she not with Mr. Dishforth somewhere in this room?
Yes, Mr. Dishforth. She, Daphne Dale, the most sensible of all the ladies of Kempton was engaged in torrid correspondence with a complete stranger.
And tonight she would come face to face with him.
Oh, she would have stared down an entire regiment of Seldons tonight if only to attend this ball. To find her dear Mr. Dishforth.
“Who looks a bit pink?” Miss Harriet Hathaway asked, having just arrived from the dance floor, looking altogether pink and flushed.
Meanwhile, Lady Essex was growing impatient. “Miss Manx, how many times do I have to remind you how imperative it is to keep one’s vinaigrette close at hand?”
Harriet cringed and asked in an aside, “Who is the intended victim?”
Tabitha pointed at Daphne, who in turn mouthed two simple words.
And being the dearest friend alive, Harriet did. “It is just Daphne’s gown, Lady Essex. The pink satin is giving her a definite glow. A becoming one, don’t you think?”
Bless Harriet right down to her slippers, she’d tried.
“She’s flushed, I say,” Lady Essex averred. Then again, Lady Essex also like any opportunity to bring out her vinaigrette, and had even now taken the reticule from Miss Manx and was searching its depths herself. “I won’t have you fainting, Daphne Dale. It is nigh on impossible to maintain a lady-like demeanor when one is passed out on the floor.”
Tabitha shrugged. It was hard to argue that fact.
Yet Harriet was ever the intrepid soul and refused to give up. “I’ve always found, Lady Essex, that a turn about the room is a much better means of restoring one’s vitality.” She paused and slanted a wink at Daphne and Tabitha while the lady was still engrossed in her search. “Besides, while I was dancing with Lord Fieldgate, I swore I saw Lady Jersey on the other side of the room.”
“Lady Jersey, you say?” Lady Essex perked up, immediately diverted. Better still, she failed to remember that she should probably be chastising Harriet for dancing with the roguish viscount in the first place.
“Yes, I am quite certain of it.” Then Harriet did one better and looped her arm into the spinster’s, handed the hated reticule back to Miss Manx and steered the old girl into the crowd. “Weren’t you saying earlier today that if you could but have a word with her, you’d have our vouchers for next Season?”
Just like that, the hated vinaigrette was utterly forgotten and so was Daphne’s flushed countenance.
A Lady Jersey sighting trumped all.
With Harriet and Lady Essex sailing ahead, Daphne and Tabitha followed, albeit at a safe distance so they could talk.
“You are taking a terrible risk,“ Tabitha whispered to Daphne. “If Lady Essex were to find out--“
“Sssh!“ Daphne tapped her finger to her lips. “Don't even utter it aloud. She can hear everything.“
It was a miracle as it was that the old girl hadn't discovered Daphne's deepest, darkest secret—that she’d answered an advertisement in the paper from a gentleman seeking a wife.
There it was. And the gentleman had answered her. And then she had replied in kind. And so the exchange had gone on for the last month, all anonymous and mysterious and most likely beyond the pale and ruinous if anyone discovered the truth.
Certainly, if Lady Essex found out that such a scandalous correspondence had been carried out right under her nose, then the only notes Daphne would be composing would answering the messages of condolences for Lady Essex’s fatal heart ailment.
“Do you think he’s here yet?” Tabitha asked, looking around the room.
Daphne shook her head, glancing as well at the crush of guests. “I have no idea. But he’s here, I just know it.”
Her own Mr. Dishforth. Daphne felt that telltale heat of a blush rising in her cheeks. At first their letters had been tentative and skeptical, but now their correspondence, which was carried out in a daily flurry of letters and notes, had suddenly taken a very intimate turn.
I would write more but I have obligations this evening at an engagement party. Dare I hope my plans might intersect with yours?
Daphne pressed her fingers to her lips. An engagement party. Which could only mean, he was here.
Each month, our Book Clubs column highlights three excellent paperback books that would make ideal fodder for provocative book club discussions. Our April 2013 Book Clubs column is particularly fruitful, as three of our favorite books from 2012 are now out in paperback: The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman, Wild by Cheryl Strayed and Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple.
We found this story of profound loss and the healing power of a brutal long-distance hike to be painfully funny and honest. We caught up with Strayed to see how the immense success of her harrowing, best-selling memoir is treating her. Read our Q&A with Strayed here.
One of the few criticisms we've heard from readers about Wild is irritation for how utterly unprepared she was for her 1,100 mile hike along the Pacific Coast Trail. These readers are often avid hikers themselves, and this drives them a little crazy. So of course, we asked Strayed what she would like to say to those readers. Here's a little of her response:
"Wouldn’t life be miserable if we never learned anything the hard way? Were none of these infuriated readers ever young?
I think the world would be a rather sad place if we only did things we were entirely prepared for. All the best things I’ve ever done were things I learned how to do along the way. Becoming a parent is a prime example. Most parents have very little idea about what to do with a baby before the baby’s in hand. You learn fast."
M.L. Stedman's debut novel, The Light Between Oceans, was #10 on BookPage's Best Books of 2012 list and #2 on the Readers' Choice: Best Books of 2012 list. On an island off the coast of Australia, a couple discovers a boat washed up on shore. Inside, they find a dead man and a living baby. The moral questions posed in this stunning debut are perfect for book club discussions.
Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple is our April Top Pick for Book Clubs, was #3 on BookPage's Best Books of 2012 list and #19 on the Readers' Choice: Best Books of 2012 list. Unraveling the mystery of a mother's disappearance through a wonderfully original narrative will make this one a fun read for any reading group.
Will your book club add one of these 2012 favorites to their list? Which will make for the best discussion?
Our Top Pick in Romance for March is historical romance The Last Debutante by Julia London, the fourth book in her Secrets of Hadley Green series.
Daria Bobcock, the last debutante of Hadley Green, plans to travel from England to Scotland to visit her grandmother. When she gets there, she encounters a naked, unconscious Scottish laird named Jamie Campbell in her grandmother's cottage. When he wakes up, he kidnaps Daria as ransom for money owed to his clan. Sparks fly, hearts are torn between desire and duty, a scandal is revealed—and you've got yourself a charming new romance.
If London's answer to my question, "What is it about those Scottish men, anyway?" doesn't make you want to read The Last Debutante, I don't know what will:
"They are the ultimate historical romance fantasy: Sexy and strong, they take what they want and discard what they don't. They are dismissive of rules and propriety when it comes to true love, and if one claims you and makes you his own, he is yours for life."
Will you check this one out? Romance fans: Where/when are your favorite historical romances set?
March's Top Pick in Mystery, Leighton Gage's Perfect Hatred, is "hands down the first 'do not miss' mystery of 2013!"
In Brazil-set Perfect Hatred, Chief Inspector Mario Silva faces a daunting assassination investigation immediately after a "particularly nasty" suicide bombing. Things get even more intense when a criminal seeking revenge against Silva is released from prison.
The Mario Silva series is "a perennial personal favorite" for Whodunit columnist Bruce Tierney, so we chatted with Gage in a 7 questions interview about Silva's "dogged persistence," the Brazilian setting and much more. His answer to my question, "Would you make a good cop?" is proof that Gage is a born storyteller, as he shares a story to illustrate the emotional toll of being a cop:
By way of illustration, here’s a story I got from one detective’s wife:
Her husband was assigned to investigate a double murder. A 17-year-old girl claimed she’d returned home from a date to find her parents bludgeoned to death in their bed. But the cop’s instincts told him the girl was lying. Ultimately, she confessed that she and her boyfriend had committed the crime. Not because she’d hated her parents, not because they’d abused her, but because they’d objected to her continuing relationship with the thug who helped kill them. She showed no remorse for what she’d done. She didn’t shed a single tear during the entire interrogation. Her only concern was that she’d been caught.
But the cop was so shocked that he went home, sank into a chair, wrapped his 7-year-old daughter in his arms and bawled like a baby. “Seventeen years old,” he kept saying, over and over again. “Seventeen years old.”
His wife felt helpless. She couldn’t find a way to comfort him.
Looking for a great new thriller series? Lachlan Smith's debut thriller Bear Is Broken was one of our Top 10 books for February! (Don't know what I'm talking about? Sign up here for our Top 10 e-newsletter to receive a list of the 10 notable books for each month, all recommended by the editors of BookPage!)
In Bear Is Broken, young San Francisco attorney Lee Maxwell must track down the man who shot his older brother Teddy, an attorney with some questionable ethics. Whodunit columnist Bruce Tierney calls Maxwell "a good egg," as he seems pretty far out of his element but nevertheless determined to see his first case through.
Author Lachlan Smith is a practicing attorney with a promising writing career ahead of him, and his debut belongs next to other masters such as Grisham and Turow. We chatted with Smith in a 7 questions interview, where he may have earned some sort of award for the most efficient use of a single sentence to describe his book. Read it here.
Will you check this one out? Have you discovered any new thriller series lately?
Mary Burton's new romantic suspense The Seventh Victim is our Top Pick in Romance for February! Romance columnist Christie Ridgway promises it "will keep readers up all night."
Lara Church was the only surviving victim of a Seattle serial killer. Now, the killer is back, and it looks like he's found her in Texas—and Texas Ranger James Beck is determined to keep her safe. If you love books that turn up the sexual tension with plenty of danger, this one's for you.
Read our 7 questions interview with Burton, where we talked about the romantic suspense genre, sexy scenes, her career and more.
Also, read on for an excerpt from The Seventh Victim, when Lara Church and Texas Ranger James Beck meet for the first time (read more here):
In the distance he heard a dog bark. Judging by the animal’s deep timbre, it was big and running in Beck’s direction. Absently, he moved his hand to the gun on his hip. Nice places like this could turn nasty or even deadly in the blink of an eye.
The dog’s barking grew louder. Tightening his hand on the gun’s grip, he scanned the wooded area around the cabin until his gaze settled on a path that cut into the woods. In a flash, a large black and tan shepherd emerged from the woods, its hair standing on end. The animal glared at Beck, barking and growling. The animal was a beauty, but he’d shoot if it attacked.
Seconds later a woman emerged from the woods. She carried a shotgun in her hands and the instant she saw Beck she raised the barrel.
Beck didn’t hesitate. He drew his gun and pointed it directly at the women. “Texas Ranger. Drop the gun now!”
The woman stared at him, her gaze a blend of surprise and wariness.
“Put. The. Gun. Down.” Each word was sharpened to a fine point.
She lowered the tip of the barrel a fraction but didn’t release the gun. “How do I know you’re a Texas Ranger?”
The Texas Ranger uniform was easily recognizable to anyone who’d been in Texas more than five minutes. But that discussion came after she released the weapon. “Put the gun down, now.” He all but shouted the command over the dog’s barking. “Now!”
Carefully, she laid the barrel down and took a step back as if she was ready to bolt into the woods. The dog bared its teeth, but she made no move to calm the animal. She might have surrendered the gun, but the dog remained a threat.
He braced his feet. “If your dog lunges at me, I will shoot him.”
Her gaze flickered quickly between the dog and his gun. She understood he’d meant it. “Okay.” She looped her fingers through the dog’s collar and ordered him to heel close at her side.
“You and the dog step back.”
“Do it!” He glanced at the shotgun, knowing he’d not breathe a sigh of relief until he had it in hand.
“I am not turning around.” Her raspy voice stutter- stepped with panic. “I want to see your badge.”
He studied her. If this was Lara Church and she’d survived the Strangler, fear would be a logical response. “Step away from the gun.”
She drew in a breath and moved back with the dog. He picked up the shotgun and holstered his gun. Slowly, he pulled his badge from his breast pocket and held it up to her.
“Sergeant James Beck,” he said.
He opened the break-action shotgun and found two shells in the double-barreled chamber. The safety was off. He removed the shells. “You always greet people with a shotgun?” He glanced from her to the growling dog.
“When I’m alone, yes. And it is registered, and I am on my land, so I’m well within my rights to carry a weapon.”
As he held her rifle, he glared at her and the barking shepherd. “You know how to shoot it?”
Blue eyes held his. “I sure do.”
Will you check this one out?
The January Top Pick in Romance is the newest in Jayne Ann Krentz's Dark Legacy series, the "imaginative and exciting" psychic romance Dream Eyes.
This sizzling paranormal adventure stars psychic counselor Gwen Frazier, who heads to a small town in Oregon when her slain mentor starts communicating. Psychic investigator Judson Coppersmith joins to help, and sparks fly.
We chatted with author Krentz in a 7 questions interview about favorite scenes, writing and psychic powers. We love her spunk, but maybe she could put her hypothetical psychic powers to better use. . . .
Are you a Krentz fan? She also writes under the names Amanda Quick and Jayne Castle. Do you have a favorite?