Donald Harstad worked for 26 years as deputy sheriff and chief investigator for the police department of Clayton County, Iowa. Harstad transforms those experiences into thrilling mysteries with his popular Carl Houseman series. The sixth in the series, November Rain, finds Houseman far from his usual heartland setting, as he travels to the UK to consult on a kidnapping case—and to protect his own daughter.
In a guest post, Harstad shares a bit of the real-life inspiration behind November Rain.
I’ve written six novels about a fictional deputy sheriff named Carl Houseman, set in a fictional county in northeast Iowa. Since I was a deputy sheriff for 23 years—in a not-so-fictional county in northeast Iowa—much of the research for my novels involves nothing more complex than sitting at the Sheriff’s Department and talking about the good old days with some of the officers and dispatchers I used to work with.
I certainly never thought I would write a book until I actually wrote my first. One day, as I was working on that book, Eleven Days, I spread some evidence photos out to bring back the ambience of a killing, and it suddenly came to me. Looking at the forlorn little farm house where the body was discovered, I began remembering the enormously long hours, all of them at night, when I was the only officer working in a county of 760 square miles, 1,300 miles of roads, over 2,000 farms and 19 little towns.
Scenarios. That was the key. We were required to patrol and respond to calls. Simple enough, except one did not want to be in Postville when a call came in of a serious crime in North Buena Vista: The distance between them via the best route was more than 60 miles, and a half hour response time was out of the question. Because of such circumstances, I would drive around doing my patrol thing and continuously imagine scenarios and plan response routes and times to other areas in the county, the proximity of ambulance, fire and other police services, and under what circumstances I’d request another officer be called out to assist. The night shift hated to call somebody out on their night off, and then discover it hadn’t been necessary. Shots fired? Who called this one in? Him? He’s always doing something like that, don’t really need another officer. Yet.
On the other hand, shots fired, one man down, another being threatened with a gun, concerned farm wife is watching events unfold through her kitchen window—that one actually happened about 1 A.M., and when I arrived, there was one dead man on the ground, another potential victim had fled into a tall corn field, and the suspect had headed for the barn. I’d called for an ambulance, and two other officers as I responded to the scene.
The first officer arrived 19 minutes after I called. The ambulance came in at 23, and the second officer at 34 minutes after. They hurried. Distance is a real killer, so to speak. I secured the woman witness in my car. The only other car on the place was parked very near the corpse, and she said that was the car that both the suspect and the dead man had come in. So I lit up the barn with my spotlights, and I sat on the hood of my patrol car with my AR-15 until the next cop arrived. It was a long 19 minutes. (We did go in and get him, and the man hiding in the corn emerged just as we were handcuffing the suspect.)
That’s where Eleven Days, my first novel, had originated. Although the plot was much different, the spooky feeling stayed the same, and the old scenarios bore fruit as plots and situations. In my subsequent books, although I used fictitious characters and locations, recalling and re-imagining real-life scenarios always came in very handy. We did have a gaming boat in our county, so when I wrote The Big Thaw, I drew heavily on scenarios regarding possible armed robberies on a river boat casino.
For my latest, November Rain (Crooked Lane Books), I send Carl to London for an assist in a homicide investigation. The whole London scenario is based on one of my trips there, when I discovered that then-President George W. Bush was also in London. Coincidental though it was, the disruption of the London Police Force caused by his visit, and some of the events occurring in London at the time, allowed me to justify Carl going to London in the first place.
Our daughter’s impressions, and some wistful speculation on her part about how she’d like to stay there for a few months, provided more inspiration—not so coincidentally, Carl also has a daughter. That, combined with the fact that you just cannot look anywhere in the greater London area and not find a perfect location for a fine homicide or really cool crime, gave me all I needed to start writing. Mixing that beginning with my personal experiences in law enforcement and several discussions with members of the Metropolitan Police Force became the foundation for fictional officers and conversations. Then, again by coincidence, returning to Elkader, Iowa, and bumping into a person who had personal experience with the U.K.’s MI5 and MI6 intelligence services just put the icing on the cake.
Even today, as I write, it’s memories of the multitude of unique circumstances that I draw upon for many fictional incidents, and the real world responses that would have been generated. Characters’ reactions to events are also authentic, based on people I know and the responses I saw in hugely stressful situations. And, to be fair, actual responses I observed over coffee and donuts.
When I do public appearances I always try to include stories about what really happened, to impart a little additional flavor to whichever novel we’re discussing. Then, sometimes, as I drive back home at night, I find myself running scenarios all over again . . .
Since his retirement, Donald has written six best-selling, critically acclaimed novels featuring Carl Houseman. For more, visit: http://donaldharstadauthor.com
Ted Kosmatka's latest novel, The Flicker Men, touches on the role that genetics plays in the age-old argument of free will vs. fate. In this gripping sci-fi thriller, disgraced scientist Eric Argus begins to explore the paradoxical double-slit experiment, and his explorations lead him to the conclusion that only humans possess souls—but not all humans. In a guest post, Kosmatka details how quantum physics inspired The Flicker Men.
Weird doesn’t even begin to cover it.
I remember the first time I heard about the two-slit experiment—that classic illustration found in many science textbooks that delineates so clearly the boundary between that which makes sense in the world of physics and that which does not.
The experiment was originally designed to answer whether light was a wave or a particle, but instead proved it was both. I recall first reading about it in high school—photons changing from waves, to particles, then back to waves—and thinking that it couldn’t possibly really work that way. How could the mere act of observation change the outcome?
The seeds for my novel The Flicker Men were probably sown in my first brush with this strange line of research, but over the years I’ve come to suspect that quantum mechanics isn’t just strange; there’s something fundamentally transcendental about it. To look deeply into quantum mechanics is to look beyond the bounds of ordinary experience. You’re treading on territory where even scientists throw up their hands. Not because they don’t know the answers anymore, but because they do. You can’t argue against quantum mechanics. To be a physicist arguing against quantum mechanics would be like a geneticist arguing against an observable phenotype. It just is. You have to deal with it, make sense of it somehow, even if it can’t possibly be right. And in the end, it all circles back around again to the observer. But what is an observer, exactly?
The Flicker Men began as a way for me to explore this question and was a challenge to write precisely because the answer hinges so clearly on results which have been tested and retested, but which lack an intuitive base from which to extrapolate. Quantum mechanics, to some extent, is a descriptive science. It can be used to predict phenomena, and yet at its core, what it says about the macro world remains unclear. This is perhaps why there are so many different interpretations, so many different theories about what is really going on behind the curtain. In its own way, this book is another one of those theories, though with a healthy dose of storytelling and artistic license tossed in for good measure.
One of the major themes of the book is the revelation of hidden knowledge. There are certain truths that can be explained in different words, and with different frames of reference, and yet still produce a spark of recognition among people as diverse as quantum physicists and gnostic philosophers.
The more I’ve learned over the years, the more I’ve come to realize that different systems of thought behave like the golden ratio found in nautilus shells. Once you see the pattern, you begin to see it other places, too, as if there was some hidden structure to the world all along—and it’s only gradually being revealed to you. The world is a jeweled box. Quantum mechanics is one of its stranger keys.
Sometimes real-life experiences can lead to some truly unforgettable books. This is certainly the case for thriller writer Ed Kovacs, who has studied martial arts, holds many weapons-related licenses, certifications and permits, and is a certified medical First Responder. He now works as an "international security contractor," and here he shares a fascinating—even alarming—peek into some of the hairy situations he's gotten himself into around the world.
As a young boy I recall watching reruns of the TV show “Dangerous Assignment.” The fictionalized intrigue that played out in exotic locations every week struck a chord in me. Little did I know that I'd eventually spend years of my life on the road or overseas living through my own intrigues. Nor did I realize that I'd become a writer whose real life experiences on the edge would provide me with such good material for my thriller novels.
When I flew into New Orleans in a private jet with eleven other heavily armed security operators after Hurricane Katrina struck, writing a novel wasn't on my mind. I worked in dangerous environments and horrible conditions, and while doing so, learned about the last murder in New Orleans just before the hurricane struck. A murder with a missing corpse, no forensic evidence, and a destroyed crime scene sounded like a good premise to me, and ultimately resulted in my Cliff St. James crime novel trilogy, beginning with Storm Damage.
While researching my first novel, Unseen Forces, I traveled to Southeast Asia's Golden Triangle and crossed illegally into Burma (now Myanmar) to meet with a rebel group fighting the military dictatorship. When I got back to Mae Hong Song, Thailand, an employee of my hotel warned me there was a contract on my head from a local drug lord who suspected me of being an undercover DEA agent.
I was once taken into custody in Mongolia and accused (falsely) of antiquities smuggling. In Russia, I was detained at the airport in Irkutsk and not allowed to leave because my papers weren't in order. I came way too close to falling to my death in a cave in Belize, and once got lost in the jungle and accidentally crossed the border into Guatemala while trying to find a Mayan ruin.
I travel for research, adventure or to work on security contracts. I've had guns pointed at me many times. One of the most dangerous places I worked, believe it or not, was the U.S.-Mexico border. Gunfights are common. I had weapons aimed at me by cartel lookouts, soldiers and Mexican police. Due to our rules of engagement at the time, I knew I was simply in God's hands.
Beheadings and “stewings” are common down there. The bad guys will take a person and put them into a 55-gallon steel barrel, then add gasoline and lye flakes and seal the lid. An acid is created that dissolves a human being down to teeth and bones. The stewing thing made it into my novel, Burnt Black.
I've been to Russia many times. I worked with Russian military and intelligence people, and that helped me with material for my latest book, The Russian Bride. The villain is physically based on an acquaintance of mine, Viktor Kubetkin, a former KGB agent who operated undercover in London.
I've been to the Middle East, Africa, South and Central America, all over Asia and have had many close calls. Not that I go looking for trouble. I go looking for nuggets of gold; the characters I meet and situations I find myself in is the payoff that I file away to incorporate into my books.
Ed Kovacs is the author of five published thriller novels including his latest from Minotaur, The Russian Bride. He is currently on deployment in Eastern Europe as a security contractor. His website is www.edkovacs.com.
Author photo credit Neungreuthai Chanphonsean.
Discover more great new mysteries and thrillers during Private Eye July.
Vacations and murder mysteries--escapism at its best! The 14 stories in Resorting to Murder, collected by editor Martin Clark, encapsulate this joy of escapism while exploring some hidden gems from the golden age of British crime fiction. Clark shares a preview of his collection, while shedding some light on why it's more likely we'll commit a little bit of murder while on vacation.
Holidays offer us the luxury of getting away from it all. So, in a different way, do detective stories. Yet another means of enjoyable escapism involves taking a glance at the past. Resorting to Murder, a new title in the British Library’s extraordinarily successful Crime Classics series, combines these three forms of pleasure-taking. In compiling the anthology, I’ve chosen vintage stories written over a span of roughly half a century, each with the backdrop of a holiday. And it’s fascinating to see the different plots that the authors came up with in the vacation setting.
Why are holiday mysteries so much fun? I can suggest a couple of reasons. First, when authors themselves visit an unfamiliar and intriguing location on holiday, it often serves to inspire their writing. Second, our lives change pace on holiday. We are more receptive than usual to fresh experiences. And sometimes, people take risks on holiday that lead them into danger, and even into crime. A holiday mystery seems more credible than a whodunit set in our backyard.
Resorting to Murder focuses on the work of British writers, although with a wide variety of settings. We have Arthur Conan Doyle and his brother-in-law E.W. Hornung, as well as those giants of the early 20th century, Arnold Bennett and G.K. Chesterton. Naturally, “the Golden Age of Murder” between the two World Wars is also represented.
I’ve included stories that have won acclaim over the years, but I was also keen to unearth previously hidden gems. “Razor Edge” by Anthony Berkeley—whose brilliance with plot had even Agatha Christie in raptures—is represented by a story so (undeservedly) obscure that even the British Library did not have a copy. Luckily, I have one in my personal collection of Golden Age fiction, correspondence and memorabilia, which was the source of much of the material for my book about Berkeley, Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and their colleagues in the Detection Club, The Golden Age of Murder. The stories by Phyllis Bentley and Helen Simpson are almost as rare as Berkeley’s, despite the success which both writers achieved. The tales written by H.C. Bailey (once a major figure in the genre, but now almost forgotten), Leo Bruce and the little-known Gerald Findler have seldom been reprinted.
The stories in Resorting to Murder are presented broadly (but not precisely) in chronological order, reflecting the way in which the holiday mystery evolved over the years. My hope is that readers will find the book is rather like the best kind of holiday—enjoyable and relaxing, with nice touches of the unexpected, and offering memories to look back on with a good deal of pleasure.
Martin Edwards is Series Consultant to the British Library’s Crime Classics and author of The Golden Age of Murder (HarperCollins). Visit him at www.martinedwardsbooks.com.
Discover more great new mysteries and thrillers during Private Eye July.
Where do you begin a story? By writing what you know? For author Ausma Zehanat Khan, it can all begin with a name and what she knows—or how little she knows—about the life behind it. Here she explores the names that inspired The Unquiet Dead, her powerful debut centered on the Bosnian War.
When I began writing The Unquiet Dead, I knew I would be writing about difficult issues that most people wouldn’t choose for their reading pleasure. War crimes, genocide, mass rape—I’d been the only person in small, stuffy cubicles in various libraries dissecting this material, so when it came to writing a mystery, I had to ask myself—how could I interest others in this story?
After several failed attempts at getting inside the world of my book, I realized the best way in was through character development. People whose lives and personalities were as damaged and diverse as one might expect from a mystery about a war criminal, might tell the story in ways that were easier to digest. The detectives were no trouble—I’d been speaking to Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty in my head for a disturbingly long time. The real challenge was to create a believable cast of characters whose lives revolved around the actions of my murder victim.
I try to begin with names and have various techniques for finding the names that suit my characters. I’ll spend a morning looking up names in the phone book, and then applying a history to the ones that I like. Charles Brining? He was born to be a finicky lawyer in a high-rise building made of glass. Melanie Blessant? Oh the glories of this name—rich, plump, ripe with possibility.
Or I might snatch names from my personal acquaintances and reverse their genders. Favorite teachers or childhood friends could find themselves cropping up as truly hideous characters in my stories. My gorgeous, jet-setting cousin Yasmin became a portly busybody in an earlier work. One of my good friends at the girls’ school I attended became a male reporter in the tradition of His Girl Friday.
Names point me in the right direction. I knew Melanie Blessant was destined to be a blonde bombshell with the intellectual depth of a wafer. I imagined a Real Housewife of La La Land, but one who didn’t have money. She was so devastatingly sexy that men just couldn’t function around her. From reader response, I quickly learned how much people—especially women—hated poor Melanie. So I have to admit, I considered whether I had written her too lightly. I remembered something my talented editor had once said to me: “Melanie’s whole outfit is leopard-print? Really?” She was dressed in a bra and leggings, along with a leopard-print hoodie. In a later draft, I made the hoodie white. The other characters were still dazzled.
And then, of course, Melanie went on to reveal her slightly more complex nature in ways that made it exciting for me to write her.
When I know my characters’ motivations and their internal contradictions, I’m ready to begin. Usually, I think I know exactly who they are, but then the characters start to speak and show me things I hadn’t anticipated. I imagined that Esa Khattak would be irresistibly remote. He turned out to be much more human. I planned for Rachel to be suave and self-confident. She’s a junk food-guzzling, hockey-playing woman of many mysterious parts. By coming into their own and speaking up for themselves, Esa and Rachel helped me create a world I hope is much more engaging for my readers.
And now, it’s back to the phone book for the next one.
Author photo credit Alan Klehr.
Discover more great new mysteries and thrillers during Private Eye July.
I always get a little nervous when I meet an author whose book I’m translating. After all, the job means I have to get inside their heads and interpret their intentions. It’s a very personal kind of business I’m in.
But this time it was different. I had fangirl symptoms when I found out Eric Giacometti was going to be in Toulouse, France, when I was there. I got butterflies in my stomach and my palms started sweating. Was it because the series he writes with Jacques Ravenne has sold 2 million books worldwide and they are rock stars among French thriller writers? Or was it because I was caught up in the translation, fascinated by the idea of esoteric secrets, and here I was going to meet someone with inside knowledge about a secret society?
As I waited for him to show up, I ordered a coffee at a café on the Place du Capitole, looking over the eight-columned neoclassical city administrative building across the way. I half expected to see Giacometti walking across the vast pedestrian square with a following of groupies. When he showed up, alone, with a five-o’clock shadow, his coat collar turned up against the chill in the air, and gave me a firm handshake, I relaxed a little. Then, early in the conversation he said something many French writers tell me: “I love American thriller writers—they are so professional.”
The formalities over, I couldn’t hold back any longer. I had to ask. I knew the real story that had inspired them to write this novel: During World War II, the Nazis raided French Freemason headquarters in Paris and stole trainloads full of archives, which were sent to Berlin. After the war the Soviets nabbed them, and they were only returned to France in 2000. I had read all about wartime spoliation, about Alfred Rosenberg’s task force, about Nazi interest in occult secrets and the Vichy government persecution of Freemasons. I knew that Jacques Ravenne is a high-level Freemason, so they had seen the stolen archives and even viewed Benjamin Franklin’s signature on some of the papers.
But I was fixated on one detail in the book that was disturbing my sleep. Inspector Antoine Marcas and Jade are assigned a black ops office in a building (in Paris) once occupied by the Gestapo and it is described as full of leftovers from a 1940 anti-Freemason exhibit held at the Petit Palais. This scene was haunting me. My experience from living in France—scars from WWII running deep and popping up in unexpected places, along with the typical aberrations linked to bureaucracy—made it entirely plausible that such a place existed. I had to know if it did.
What did Giacometti tell me? Well, there is no international Masonic conspiracy. The Iron Maiden was a very real instrument of 16th-century torture. And the office full of anti-Freemason memorabilia? I now know the answer, but can’t share it. Some things are still top secret.
Discover more great new mysteries and thrillers during Private Eye July.
What people talk about when they talk about the way New York City used to be: the dark, graffitied alleys you absolutely never went down, the overwhelming crime, the grit and the grime. Rob Hart is the kind of guy who remembers this NYC fondly, and he memorializes it in his debut, New Yorked, a noir murder mystery about part-time PI Ash McKenna, who has just been implicated for the murder of his girlfriend.
Hart takes us on a tour of his NYC through books, film and art.
You could live your entire life in New York City—beginning to end, without ever leaving—and never catch the full breadth of this place. It’s unknowable, moving at the speed of light, shifting under your feet. And because of that, everyone’s viewing angle will always be entirely and wholly unique to them.
My experience will never be your experience.
There are things we can share. Places we love to eat. Those secret spots it seems like the hordes haven’t yet discovered and stripped bare. That swell of pride at making it another month in a full-contact economy, where so many prone bodies are being carted off the field.
Another thing we can share is art. The books and films and music that bottle up the spirit and essence of New York.
These are my favorite pieces of art featuring New York, as an inspiration, or a backdrop, or a feeling. The things that inspired me to give it a go and try to capture my experience of this impossible city in New Yorked.
In the City of Shy Hunters by Tom Spanbauer
This novel by Tom Spanbauer, published in 2001, is the best book ever written about New York City. Full stop. Will Parker, a shy boy from Idaho, moves to the city during the height of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. He falls in love with a six-foot-five African-American drag queen and performance artist named Rose, and watches as the city thrashes and convulses around him.
This is a portrait of a city that’s gone. The Bad Old Days as literary fairy tale. It cuts to the charcoal heart of New York with more grace and precision than anything else I’ve ever read.
The Warriors, directed by Walter Hill
Directed by Walter Hill and released in 1979, this movie is a fever-dream interpretation of New York City’s gang culture. The Boppers in their shiny purple vests, the Baseball Furies in their pinstripe uniforms and mime makeup.
This movie (based on the 1965 novel by Sol Yurick) took the most terrifying thing about the New York City of that era—roving bands of gangs and criminals behind the sky-high crime rate—and moved it into comic book territory. Something goofy and colorful that plays out like a Greek myth.
Here Is New York by E.B. White
It’s stunning that this slim volume, a love letter to the Big Apple written by E.B. White and published in 1949, feels so modern. It could have been written yesterday. And at less than 60 pages, it’s the perfect keepsake or gift—a blazing-fast read worth revisiting for the ensuing well of nostalgia.
White’s introduction so perfectly acknowledges how futile it is to write about this town, noting that to “bring New York down to date, a man would have to be published with the speed of light… it is the reader’s, not the author’s, duty to bring New York down to date; and I trust it will prove less a duty than a pleasure.”
Death Wish (film AND book)
The 1974 film Death Wish is the polar opposite of The Warriors. Gone are the goofy armies of street gangs, replaced by a staunch liberal twisted into a ruthless vigilante by a brutal attack on his wife and daughter. As the body count builds you’re brought to the conclusion that violence is the only answer.
The book it was based on, written by Brian Garfield and published in 1972, takes a different path—same liberal character whose wife and daughter are attacked, but his path to vigilantism results in a far more thoughtful examination of justice (and the movie’s gleeful violence so upset Garfield that he wrote Death Sentence as penance).
Girl Walk // All Day
This 70-minute music video, directed by Jacob Krupnick and released in 2011, turns New York into a dance stage. From the Staten Island Ferry to the Apollo Theater, and all points in between, three dancers—the Girl, the Creep, and the Gentleman—slink through the streets and inspire the denizens of New York to dance.
The video is scored to the music of Gregg Gillis, a.k.a. Girl Talk, a DJ known for mashups (you will find yourself awed at how well hip-hop group UGK’s song “One Day” matches up with “Imagine” by The Beatles). It’s New York through and through—a melting pot of musical styles, a guerilla production (they were tossed out of Yankee Stadium for filming a sequence during a game), and, most importantly, a pure explosion of joy that shows the city in it’s best light: As a hub for creative expression.
The art of Stephen Wiltshire
Stephen Wiltshire is a British architectural artist with an incredible gift—he can look at something once, and then produce an intricate, detailed portrait of the subject. He’s best known for cityscapes, and has rendered cities like London, Tokyo, and, of course, New York, in minute detail. This, after only partaking in a brief helicopter ride.
New York is a grand city. No one needs to be convinced of that. That Wiltshire took something so big and produced such an accurate portrait is remarkable. And he didn’t just capture the buildings. You can feel the energy—the life pulsating under the lines. Seeing the city through his eyes is like seeing it for the first time.
Shortbus, directed by John Cameron Mitchell
This 2006 film, written and directed by John Cameron Mitchell, is not for the prudish. The movie explores the lives of several people orbiting an underground artistic/sexual salon. The sex scenes, both straight and gay, are not simulated. If that doesn’t scare you, you’ll find a thoughtful examination on sex and relationships. The story culminates in a citywide blackout that demonstrates that great, overlooked quality of New Yorkers: Our ability to come together in times of crisis.
This is the New York as it exists for non-rich, non-fantasy people. And the movie also features a stellar performance (and musical number) by Justin Vivian Bond, who served as the inspiration for Ginny Tonic, the drag queen crime lord in New Yorked.
Gogol Bordello’s 2005 album Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike sounds like the beating heart of New York City. It’s a glorious mix of styles that occasionally drops into other languages but never strays from the familiar punk rock energy that once thrived on the Lower East Side.
It’s loud and fun and sharp and scrappy. It’s a stroll through the city set to music. Favorites include “Avenue B” and “Oh No,” the latter featuring—like Shortbus—New Yorkers uniting during a blackout. Though, listen to “Start Wearing Purple” and discover one of the most fun songs you’ll ever hear in your life.
Rob Hart is the author of New Yorked, now available from Polis Books. You can find him on Twitter at @robwhart and online at www.robwhart.com.
Discover more great new mysteries and thrillers during Private Eye July.
Brad Meltzer is known for many things, from his popular American political thrillers to his comic books to his History Channel TV series to his efforts to promote literacy in Florida. But here at BookPage, Brad is known for writing the warmest emails of all time. And so it comes as no surprise that Brad has some really great fans, as he shares below.
I’ve never told this story. And I promise this is true.
It was over a decade ago, at the start of my career. I can’t remember what book it was for. I think Dead Even or The First Counsel, but I’m pretty sure it was my first trip to Dallas. I was at a local Barnes & Noble and since I was new at this, I made sure to get to the event early. Really early, like, so early, no one else should be there unless we’re related.
So I was surprised to see this group of four or five young men and women in their late 20s, which was about my age at the time. According to the store manager, they’d driven all the way from Oklahoma.
I couldn’t believe it. From Oklahoma . . . all the way to Texas?! With my impaired sense of geography, that had to be like, a 16 hour drive (it was actually five). But still. No one had ever driven five hours to see me sign books before. You don’t forget when someone does that.
By 7:30 or so, the signing begins. People ask questions . . . I pretend I’m funny . . . and then the actual book signing starts. At the end of the line, I notice the folks from Oklahoma. Of course they’re waiting till the end. Whoever’s at the end gets the most time with the author.
Some more time goes by. The signing slowly moves forward, and every few minutes, I keep looking up at the Oklahomans. Even from where I’m sitting, they just seem . . . nice.
Eventually, they get to the front of the line and I sign their books. It’s late now, so I ask them where they’re staying in town. They look at each other and sheepishly admit that they have to drive back tonight. As someone who grew up without much money, I get it instantly: They don’t have the cash to pay for a hotel room (and yet here they are paying full price for a hardback book). They took their entire day to come and meet me.
Now let me be clear: What I was about to do, I’d never done before. I’ve only done it two other times since. But my gut told me these were nice people. And I trust my gut. So I said, “You’re not getting back in the car and just driving for another five hours. I’m taking you all out to dinner first.”
Their reaction alone was worth it.
But here’s the part I love: As we’re all leaving the bookstore together and heading for the restaurant next door, I spot one of the sales reps from my publisher lurking in the corner, by the door.
“What’re you doing here?” I ask, genuinely surprised.
“The publisher told me to come keep an eye on you,” she joked. Noticing the small crowd, she added, “Where you headed?”
“I’m just taking these readers to dinner.”
She almost choked right there. “Wait,” she told me. “You’re taking complete strangers—who you don’t know—to dinner?” I think she gave me some warning about how strangers can potentially chop you up into little pieces. Maybe she flipped through a copy of Stephen King’s Misery. But eventually, she was like, “I gotta see this.”
Looking back, she was just protecting her author from doing something stupid. But there’s nothing stupid about being a nice person. In the end, we all went to dinner together: me, the sales rep and my new pals from Oklahoma (you know who you are).
And the best part? Since the sales rep came along, she surprised us all by picking up the check. So you know what the real lesson is? Kindness will always be rewarded. Also, dinner’s always better when the publisher pays.
On June 16th, my new book tour started in NY. Don’t think I don’t know that at each event, the publisher stills spies on me from the corner.
See you on tour.
The President's Shadow is the newest in Meltzer's Culper Ring series, following The Inner Circle and The Fifth Assassin. Beecher White is a member of the Culper Ring, a centuries-old secret society founded by Washington and charged with protecting the President. When an arm is found buried in the White House garden, Beecher finds himself hunting down national secrets he never could have expected.
Author photo credit Andy Ryan.
Discover more great new mysteries and thrillers during Private Eye July.
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.