With The Catch, readers find themselves hanging on for dear life as Vanessa Michael Munroe—"the cleverest, fightingest and all-around baddest heroines in contemporary suspense fiction"—takes us to Djibouti for her newest no-holds-barred adventure. Munroe is the unforgettable brainchild of author Taylor Stevens, who has a fascinating backstory of her own: She was born in New York state and into the Children of God, raised in communes across the globe and denied an education beyond sixth grade. Stevens was in her 20s when she broke free, and she now lives in Texas.
It's easy to wonder how much of the inspiration for Munroe came from Stevens' own life. As it turns out, that seems to be the question on everyone's mind. Stevens responds, once and for all:
Whenever I walk into an event—be it a book signing, Q&A or author’s talk—it’s pretty easy to spot the participants who’ve read my biography and at least one book, but haven’t yet interacted with me online or in person. It’s easy because they’re the ones wearing the guarded, concerned looks, subtly checking me out for signs of sanity, as if at worst I might be right on the edge of snapping and at best might need some soothing and comfort.
I suppose, really, this can’t be helped. Unusual characters populate my books, and I’ve led an unusual life. This has resulted in the most frequently asked question: "How much of Vanessa Michael Munroe is based on you?"
At the beginning, this conflation between character and author baffled me. Vanessa Michael Munroe is a hyperpolyglot (someone who speaks more than 12 languages), born and raised in equatorial Africa. She took up with gunrunners at the tender age of 14 and carries the mental and physical scars of a violent adolescence. To plagiarize myself, “the knife became her way to salvation and the missionary’s daughter, made to traverse the valley of the shadow of death, walked out the other side an apex predator.” She’s a chameleon, a hunter, an adrenaline junkie, self-contained, indifferent and shut off from the world—except when she’s not.
Oh that I was so brutally badass. Can you imagine the results I’d get at PTA and HOA meetings? Unfortunately, Munroe and I are nothing alike. Well, except for a hijacked childhood—we do both have wacky backgrounds. Mine had me born and raised in an apocalyptic religious cult, growing up as child labor in cult communes, spending far too much time out begging in the cold, and having my education stopped completely when I was 12.
But I’d made peace with all that long before turning to fiction. I started writing as a way to bring to life a small, paranoid, corrupt country off Africa’s west coast where’d lived for a little over two years. The thought of drawing on my childhood and adolescence for that first tale never even crossed my mind, and if it had, we would have had completely different characters—and probably not very good ones. I’m far too happy and enamored with life to belong in these intense, dark stories. I cry when I see sunsets and hear moving music, smile at everyone, am a total fraidy cat, and am overly empathetic to the point that my heart bleeds out onto my sleeve, which is super embarrassing. In perfect irony, I also hate suspense and violence—can neither watch it on screen nor read it in books—and yet that’s what I write.
Because I’m so opposite the characters that populate these stories, and because Munroe was drawn completely from imagination and snippets of other fictional characters (Jason Bourne and Lara Croft), I couldn’t understand at first how anyone could think she represented a real-life person, much less me. But then it got worse. People I’d never met used my fiction as a way to psychoanalyze the author, going on about my tormented psyche, insisting I was obsessed with violence against women, as if they knew me, as if assuming something about me magically made it true. Offended and insulted, I wondered if they also thought Carrie was based off Stephen King.
Once my skin thickened up a bit, once I realized how completely cool the character and author fusion was, I was able to embrace these assumptions for what they were: the ultimate compliment—proof of good storytelling—because the only way fantasy and reality can blend into such earnest beliefs is if the fiction feels real enough for the reader to assume that it had to have been drawn from real life, somehow.
These days I wear the conflation like a badge of honor, and when people ask me how much of Munroe is based on me, I look them dead in the eye and say, “all of it.”
Taylor Stevens is the award-winning New York Times best-selling author of The Informationist, The Innocent and The Doll. Featuring Vanessa Michael Munroe, the series has received critical acclaim and the books are published in 20 languages. The Informationist has been optioned for film by James Cameron's production company, Lightstorm Entertainment. Her latest novel, The Catch, will be published by Crown on July 15, 2014.
Author photo credit Alyssa Skyes.
John Verdon's brilliant sleuth, NYPD detective Dave Gurney, returns in his fourth adventure, Peter Pan Must Die. Gurney really just wants to live a simple life in the country, but he is dragged back into the crime world when a wealthy real estate developer is shot and the unfaithful wife is convicted of murder. But things don't line up, and Gurney finds himself up against a uniquely sinister villain.
Gurney can piece together a puzzle like no one else in the sleuthing biz. Verdon gives us a peek into his standout character:
Somewhere along the way in my literary education I managed to absorb the simple notion that drama is about conflict. Without conflict there is no dramatic development, no story, no tension—nothing at stake to hold our interest.
There are reasons for this. We have been hardwired by the survival imperatives of evolution to pay close attention to conflict in all its forms, from simple disagreement to outright violence. Conflict attracts our attention, and we want to see what happens next—how it escalates, how it’s resolved.
So if I had one overriding priority in mind when I began writing Think of a Number, the first novel in the Dave Gurney series of mystery-thrillers, it was the need for conflict—in every scene, on every page, even with only one person present. (That last one might sound odd at first, but I’ll come back to it.)
Since the story idea for Think of a Number began with a character who was in an emotional state of near-breakdown over a series of increasingly threatening letters, I wanted to involve him with a detective who was supremely rational. (Conflict comes in many flavors, including contrast between two perceptions of a situation.) That basic storytelling need gave rise to the core personality trait of Dave Gurney, leading some reviewers to compare him to Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot.
But that was just the starting point for the Gurney character. I wanted him to be married, because I believed that would give me opportunities to make him truly three-dimensional and—you guessed it—inject other interesting conflicts into his life.
Gurney’s first approach to every situation is analytical. He’s always thinking, asking why and how about whatever he observes. He’s obsessed with figuring things out. So I gave him a wife who’s just the opposite—who loves the experience of living, the immediate beauty of nature, the fascinating aspects of the thing in front of her. She’s every bit as smart as he is and often more acutely perceptive, but her way of seeing the world always contrasts with his. I’m especially intrigued by the role of personality differences in a close relationship like this, since it’s such a fertile ground for exploring the way persistent disagreements play out in our lives, as well as that ultimate tension between love and selfishness.
I mentioned earlier that I try to put conflict into every scene, even when only one character is present. It’s really easier than it sounds, when you consider all the forms of collision and frustration in our lives—for example, with inanimate objects. I recall a detective whose cigarette lighter never works, whose umbrella never opens, whose cell phone battery is always dead at the very moment that he must make a call. And, of course, a man like Dave Gurney faces an ongoing struggle every day with his own durable demons.
Conflict. It defines character and propels narratives. It’s what’s much of life and all great stories are about.
Thanks, John! Readers, Peter Pan Must Die is now available.
California native Karen Keskinen follows up her 2012 debut mystery, Blood Orange, with a new adventure for private investigator Jaymie Zarlin. In Black Current, the body of a local teen is found in a tank at the Santa Barbara Aquarium. It's ruled a suicide, but the girl's parents hire Jaymie to prove otherwise.
In a guest blog post for Private Eye July, Keskinen shares what it's like to be the featured author at book club meetings. It's no small job, that's for sure:
I’ve never been a chakra-and-crystals kind of girl. Sometimes I think a New Age is just what we need, but most of the time I find that this age we live in is—you know—good enough. And yet one night a few weeks back, as I walked home in the dark from a book club engagement, one of those New-Agey words popped into my head: shaman.
Yeah. As I walked home from a meeting right here in Santa Barbara, California, that’s what I felt like: a shaman. Maybe I didn’t exactly feel like one, but for the first time, I could sense the power those ancient storytellers wielded through their words.
This little city bristles with book club encounters every night of the week. Readers congregate in highbrow get-togethers and lowbrow get-togethers, well-heeled gatherings and run-down-at-the-heel gatherings, co-ed clubs, single-sex clubs and not-all-that-keen-on-sex clubs. But all these confabs have two characteristics in common.
One is food. Many so-called book clubs are actually misnomered: They are more accurately food and drink clubs. And huzzah to that! I’ve stuffed myself with full-on meals, nibbled at dainty noshes and, as a special tribute to my first book, taken part in a blood-orange-themed spread. You have not lived till you’ve tasted calamondin and blood orange pound cake. Yet, I digress.
Another feature these meetings have in common is that they encourage some feisty conversations, especially among my fellow Santa Barbarians.
Notice, I don’t claim readers think Blood Orange and Black Current are the greatest reads since Ulysses. But here in our town, these books are proving to be provocative, flaring matches put to drought-dried kindling.
When I arrive at a book club meeting, I usually say that I’ll stay for no more than an hour. I warn the members in advance that they might grow tired of me, and also that they might like to have time to say what they honestly think, once I leave. It makes no difference: I always seem to be driving or trotting home around 10:30, my mind roiling from the torrid and intense conversation, in no way ready for sleep.
The questions begin innocently enough. For example: Why is Jaymie Zarlin’s office address, 101 W. Mission, in fact that of the Cat and Bird Clinic? But soon, minutia dispensed with, matters warm up.
Are the rich so awful? Are cops corrupt? Are people that mean? So we talk about the bad in good people, and the good in bad. We talk about the abuse of power and the power money bestows. About corruption, both personal and systemic. And we talk about that corruption right here in River City, not in some theoretical realm.
In every book club I’ve visited, somebody has had her cage rattled. At one recent gathering, people were debating in twos and threes when a young woman said loudly: “Jenny, I’ve never heard you talk like that!” The room fell silent. Flushed, the accused looked away. For maybe the first time in her life, Jenny had publicly dropped the f-bomb.
I’ve thought about shamans over the past few weeks. How did they work their magic? They were conduits, mediums, copper wires. The shaman had her ear to the ground, a nose for the news, she didn’t miss much. And she let all that flow into her, through her, and on out to the ineffable, what we fear and don’t understand. Then all that power, transformed into story, flowed back again.
The face of the fear doesn’t matter: Once upon a time there were broken limbs that turned septic, and mountain lions that could flail open a man. Now we have terrorists, torturers, rapists. The bogeyman changes masks as the centuries pass, but never his nature, which is the ability to evoke dread.
The shaman’s tools never change, either. She has only three, but what a three they are! People, places and things. Waving those three wands, she teases out her listeners’ fears and dreams and heartbreak, then weaves all that chaos to make a map, a guide for survival. A story.
When book club members ask me questions about the settings, characters and special objects in Blood Orange and Black Current, I know their interest is piqued. But when they ignore my answers and insist on supplying their own, that’s when I know I’m their conduit: The readers are redeeming my stories, remaking them into their own.
Recently at one local meeting, an older woman announced she knew the real life people I’d used to create two of my characters, Dr. Bruce and Cynthia Wiederkehr. In fact, Bruce and Cynthia were created from whole cloth, but I had the good sense to keep quiet.
My reader whispered their names to a friend sitting beside her, and the two women raised eyebrows and exchanged knowing smiles. The Sha-Woman reached for a slice of chocolate cheesecake, and felt good. She’d given it over to them, it was their story now.
Thanks, Karen! Readers, Black Current is now available!
Suspense author Alafair Burke's new Ellie Hatcher novel, All Day and a Night, came out last month, on June 10. Oh, happy day—the on-sale day—also known as the day that makes authors crazy.
It’s not the reading or writing of books that makes an author stupid. It’s a book’s publication that seemingly shaves a standard deviation from an author’s IQ.
About a week before a new book comes out, I start to lose sleep, playing Words With Friends until 2 AM only to wake up at 5 from a dream that makes the Kimye-on-a-motorcycle music video seem ordinary. Awake, I’m too unfocused to produce anything useful, so I find myself in front of my refrigerator, posting dog pictures on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (the time-suck trifecta), and, the worst, repeatedly refreshing the not-yet-published book’s Amazon page to check its ranking. (Oh, c’mon @YouJudgmentalWriterYou, you know you’ve done it!)
By the time pub date comes, my brain is like a lazy uncle watching infomercials in his boxer shorts surrounded by Pop-Tarts, canned frosting and a case of Pabst Blue Ribbon.
And this has been only the precursor to on-sale week, when, if you’re lucky, you get to hit the road, juggling interviews and blog posts between flights. In some ways, the learning curve here can be steep: I get better by the minute at talking about the book and my writing process. It’s like a master class in how-to-talk-like-a-writer. But becoming a book-talking savant can extract a cognitive price.
Here are a few of the idiotic things I have done on book tour:
Supposedly Lloyds of London will insure anything. If so, they should consider selling a policy to cover all of the stray jackets, make-up bags, flip-flops and headphones I have lost over the years during on-sale week.
In a search for validation that I was not the sole victim of this phenomenon, I contacted some of my favorite authors to ask whether they, too, get stupid during on-sale week. This is what they told me.
Michael Connelly, author of The Burning Room:
“I have gone to the wrong hotel room, trying to open the door of the room corresponding to the room number of the night before. Usually this is late at night and more than once this effort has awakened and scared the crap out of the sleeping occupant. I’ve been mistaken as a would-be hot prowler and grabbed by security a couple times. They rarely buy my explanation that I was in room 213 the night before in a city in another state.”
Megan Abbott, author of The Fever:
“Once, in Scottsdale, Vicki Hendricks and I escaped scorching heat by ducking in a bar for a beer before our event. A man in his cups—on his way to jail for a month—pulled down his pants to show us a Mom tattoo on his posterior.” (The punchline? They thought maybe, just maybe, he’d show up at their reading as promised.)
Chris Pavone, author of The Accident:
“I stop sleeping well a week before [the on-sale date]. I fall asleep poorly, then I wake up in the middle of the night and can't get back to sleep. I think working would be no good, so instead I read, then I seem to fall asleep again just as I should be getting up, so then someone wakes me, which results in me being overtired and cranky at the exact point when I most need to be well-rested and happy.”
Laura Lippman, author of After I’m Gone:
“I got into the wrong town car when I was booked on 'CBS Morning.' I had my contacts in (oh, vanity), and I misread the driver's sign. Almost ended up at the 'Today' show.”
Ivy Pochoda, author of Visitation Street:
“I found myself alone in Boston for the first three nights of my book tour including on my pub date. I was excited and nervous and lonely, and didn't really know what to do with myself at night. So I drank as if I was on spring break. During the days I ran from event to event a little more dazed and confused then was appropriate for a newly published author.”
Lisa Unger, author of In the Blood:
“I am scatterbrained and confused on the road, overwhelmed I think with so many logistics, demands, exhilarations and disappointments (it ain't all awards and standing room only). Once, while packing for a conference, I practically sprained my shoulder patting myself on the back for being so organized and such a light packer. It wasn't until I arrived at my destination that I realized I had neglected to pack any pants!”
Today—after accidentally swallowing tomorrow’s allotment of pills from my vitamin container—I vaguely recalled from my college psych education that this temporary case of the I-Love-Lucies might have a cognitive explanation. Because I certainly wasn’t sleeping, I shot off a late-night email to my undergrad mentor, Daniel Reisberg (Reed College, author of The Science of Perception and Memory).
“People can do a wide range of things on auto-pilot,” Dr. Reisberg explains, “but automatic behaviors tend to be easy, but badly-controlled, and often leave you with actions that are habitual (even if they’re not what you intended at that moment). For example, you’re in the car, driving to the store. You intend to turn left at the corner, but, under stress, you turn right, taking the route that you usually take on your way to school.”
So that’s why I head for my usual airport (Newark) when I’m supposed to go to LaGuardia, turn right into a restroom instead of left, and walk out of a hotel room carrying the book I was in the middle of reading instead of a book I finished writing months before.
I should feel comforted, but I’m not.
I get stupid because of stress? Ten books in, shouldn’t I be beyond that? After all, I know, at an intellectual level, that by the time the books are printed and shipped, there’s nothing more for me to do. Whatever happens this week is out of my control.
Stress? Nah, I’m too cool for that. But these silly slips reveal the ugly truth.
Author photo credit Deborah Copaken Kogan.
Author Stona Fitch created Rory Flynn as a pen name to reinvent himself for a more commercial, popular fiction audience. Flynn's debut novel, Third Rail, is the first in a new series and introduces Boston narcotic detective Eddy Harkness. When Harkness' gun disappaears, he starts a secret search that leads him to discover a dangerous new drug, Third Rail.
But what happens when a pseudonym becoming a psuedo-nemesis? Fitch pokes hilarious fun at his love-hate relationship with his successful, upstart alter-ego Flynn.
Why I hate Rory Flynn
Rory Flynn, like many a bastard, was conceived in a moment of thoughtless abandon. I was on the phone with my agent, talking about my latest novel, Third Rail, when he floated the idea that the book might have a better chance of selling if someone else wrote it. Third Rail is more squarely in the mystery/crime camp, my sales history could charitably be called spotty, and a pseudonym would give me a fresh start. Since the book is set in Boston, how about something more Irish-y?
How about Rory Flynn, I said. And Rory was born.
I didn’t pay much attention to Rory at first. I figured he would have about the same kind of writing career as I did. He would weather through plenty of rejection (which is character-building and good for writers, as we all know), and occasionally sell a novel or catch some kind a break—foreign rights, a 25% discount on HP toner, something. Just like me.
But then the plot took an unexpected twist.
Within weeks, Rory had a book deal with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt – not just for Third Rail, but for a series—and not a series of disappointments. Then NBC/Universal Television optioned Third Rail for television. And Jess Walter, one of my favorite writers, sent a glowing blurb that ended with this kicker—“Rory Flynn is a suspense writer to watch.”
And so I watched. I watched as my pseudonym turned into my pseudo-nemesis.
I tagged along as Rory got his author photo taken in South Boston by a famously hip, long-bearded photographer who looked like he just stepped out of "Sons of Anarchy." He scouted gritty urban locations that would capture that moody darkness within Rory Flynn, crime novelist. Then a beautiful assistant adjusted his carefully styled hair so it didn’t cover his glinting, street-wise eyes. In the final author photo, Rory looks ready to kick some literary ass.
Who was this Rory Flynn and what did he want from me?
He wanted everything. Soon he was all over Facebook and Twitter, making friends with all the crime writers I had always admired. He was in New York City meeting with his editor, staying in a really nice suite at the W (charged to my credit card, no less). Last fall he went to Bouchercon, where he spent long nights at bars with the likes of Megan Abbott and Wallace Stroby, ladling on the Irish charm. Without so much as even mentioning me. And a couple of weeks ago, his publisher took him out to dinner with a dozen booksellers to an expensive restaurant with actual tablecloths and waiters who weren’t wearing costumes. The last time my editor invited me out to dinner it meant a bleary night at El Quijote, where I ended up paying for his paella, six margaritas and cab ride home.
As the pub date for Third Rail approaches, Rory’s proverbial platform is expanding. He’s got a stunning website and a sleek video trailer on YouTube that looks like it cost real money. And he’s got readings coming up, where he will, no doubt, be charming.
What do I have? I called up my agent to talk about my next book last week. I gave him the pitch. Doesn’t sound like a Rory Flynn novel, he said. I told him that it wasn’t. There was a long pause and the sound of a pen scratching on paper. Someone was bored and doing Sudoku—and it wasn’t me. So what do you think? I asked. Just have Rory give me a call, Stona, he said before the phone clicked.
When Third Rail comes out, I’ll buy a couple of copies, because that’s what you do to support a writer you know. Even one who commandeered my career, stole my agent and took over my office. Because I have faith that one day, with a little luck of the Irish, I could wake up and find myself living a life just like Rory’s.
Despite our rocky start, we’re really a lot alike, Rory and me. We’re both writers. We both like moving words around on the page, telling stories and hoisting the occasional pint. And Rory’s relentless charm offensive is working.
I’m starting to like having him around.
Stona Fitch’s novels include Senseless, Printer’s Devil and Give + Take. He is also the founder of the Concord Free Press, the world’s first generosity-based publisher.
Readers can expect lots of laughs, clever wordplay and a fun Shakespeare connection in This Private Plot, the third adventure for amateur sleuth Oliver Swithin. This time out, Oliver discovers a corpse while on vacation. It seems the victim was driven to suicide by blackmail, and it's up to Oliver to figure out why.
In a guest blog post based on a lecture in This Private Plot from Oliver, author Alan Beechey corrects a few common Shakespeare-related misunderstandings. For example, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” is not a love poem at all!
“To be or not to be, that is the question.”
(Yes, but what was the answer?)
This year, we celebrate the 450th birthday of William Shakespeare. Or rather we have already, because it was on April 23, also the day of his death and, fittingly, the feast day of England’s patron saint, St. George.
I also celebrate the publication of This Private Plot, the third book in my Oliver Swithin mystery series. I mention that not merely because I want you to rush out and buy it, but also because Will S. looms over its pages like some great looming thing. Indeed, because the question of Shakespeare’s true identity is a feature of the story, I was actually forced to do some research for once instead of just making everything up, as I usually do.
It’s amazing how much we still get wrong about Shakespeare. For example, that patriotic date for both birth and death is pure speculation—we only have records of Will’s christening and his burial.
But we misinterpret his works, too. Take his most celebrated sonnet, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” When Colin Firth started reciting it in Bridget Jones’s Diary, it caused Renée Zellweger to go all unnecessary, as my mother would have put it. The trouble is, though, that particular sonnet (number 18 out of about 150) isn’t about romantic love at all.
And it was originally addressed to a man.
(And the answer to the question is “no, I shan’t.”)
Shakespeare’s early sonnets were written to flatter his patron, a young, effeminate nobleman whom he admires, but not in “that” way—as Will makes quite clear with a smutty joke in Sonnet 20. Instead, the effusive man-to-man admiration and passionate praise were a convention of the time, especially from an inferior to a man of high birth, and especially if he’s paying you a groat or two to say so.
But the plot thickens. Sonnets 1-17 are all variations on the same theme—that the young man should stop preening, get a wife and start begetting sons, so that his great beauty will be passed on down the ages even though he’ll get old and wrinkled and die. (Very flattering.) There’s even a theory that Shakespeare’s real backer was the young man’s mother, despairing of ever having grandkids. She makes an appearance in Sonnet 3.
By the time we get to Sonnet 18, there’s a shift of focus, but it still isn’t about love. It’s about the power of poetry. In brief, Will reminds us that summer days are no bargain—they’re too hot or too cold or too windy, and anyway, autumn’s here before you know it. You, my sweet lord, knock the spots off summer, because your beauty will last forever. How’s that then? Because I’ve written about it here in this sonnet, duh. In these “eternal lines to time.”
Ah, but here’s the clever part. The poem itself has indeed memorialized the young man’s beauty for posterity. (A bit arrogant of Will you might think, but four centuries later you can’t deny he was right.) But aren’t all those hoped-for sons and grandsons, snaking down through the generations on a family tree, also an eternal line to time? Clever, huh? Alas, not original — the dual immortality conferred by both verse and procreation was introduced in Sonnet 17.
By the way, did you ever wonder what those “darling buds of May” in line 3 of the sonnet are doing on a “summer’s day”? Well, in Will’s time, England was still on the Julian calendar, and May was a summer month. (Research!)
Now what about Hamlet’s famous soliloquy? He’s thinking of killing himself, right? Wrong. For a start, he dismissed that idea several scenes earlier. And at no point in the solo speech does it get personal—Hamlet never uses the words “I” or “me” or “my.” He basically weighs up the two options we all have when our fate takes an “outrageous” turn. We can roll over and put up with it, or we can fight back, even if resistance inevitably gets us killed. (Hamlet never states that this death is self-inflicted, or that the “bare bodkin” is turned on oneself.) And because death is scary, we usually play it safe. We be a live coward rather than not be a dead hero. The whole argument, the whole of this speech, is a kind of cheesy self-justification for Hamlet’s dithering over avenging his father’s murder. Later, he does act, and gets skewered by, yep, a bare bodkin of sorts, poisoned for good measure.
Hamlet features a lot in This Private Plot (although the book’s title comes from Henry VI Part 2), including a scene where a third-rate amateur drama group, rehearsing “To be or not to be,” run headfirst into one of Shakespeare’s finest mixed metaphors: “to take arms against the sea of troubles.” They eventually decide Hamlet’s thinking of some kind of harpoon.
So sorry, Renée, but unless you’re a philandering nobleman, Colin got it wrong. He needs to do more research.
Thanks, Alan! Readers, This Private Plot is now available!
Peter James is the best-selling author of the Detective Superintendent Roy Grace crime series, including Dead Like You and Dead Man's Grip. In the ninth book in the series, Dead Man's Time, the tenacious Brighton cop faces his toughest adversary yet.
In 1922 New York, a young boy named Gavin and his sister board a ship to Dublin. Their mother has been shot and their Irish mobster father abducted. A messenger hands Gavin a watch and a piece of paper bearing a cryptic message. In 2012 Brighton, Roy Grace investigates a burglary, in which an old woman is murdered and a fortune is stolen, including a vintage watch. Grace's investigation into the stolen watch reveals an ancient hatred and a murderous trail spanning the globe.
In a guest post, James recalls the two incidents that inspired Dead Man's Time, plus some insight into Brighton crime:
In July 2011 I was having dinner in New York with a detective friend in the NYPD, Pat Lanigan. Had he ever told me, he asked, that his great-uncle was Dinny Meehan, the feared and ruthless head of the White Hand Gang—the Irish Mafia that controlled the New York and Brooklyn waterfronts, and much else—from the 1850s until the mid-1920s? It was one of the White Hand Gang’s methods of disposing of enemies in the Hudson that led to the expression, "Taking a long walk down a short pier."
Dinny Meehan was responsible for kicking Al Capone and other lieutenants of the Italian Mafia, the Black Hand Gang, out of New York—which is why Capone fetched up in Chicago.
In 1920 five men broke into Meehan’s home in the Dumbo area of Brooklyn, and in front of his 4-year-old son, shot Dinny Meehan and his wife. The wife survived, and the boy went on to become a famous basketball player. The culprits were never identified. There was speculation whether it was a revenge attack organized by Capone or a power struggle within the White Hand Gang from Meehan’s deputy, “Wild Bill” Lovett. Meehan’s widow had no doubts, confronting Lovett in a crowded bar, and he was eventually murdered, too.
Pat Lanigan told me he’d had many approaches over the years for the archive material, which he possessed, but the family did not want this personal information released. However, because of our friendship, he volunteered to let me see, in case it might make a good story for me.
I was riveted by what I had read, and it sparked an idea which grew into Dead Man’s Time, where instead of becoming a basketball player, the boy ends up in Brighton as a hugely successful antiques dealer, and we pick up nine decades later, when he is an old man with memories and a still-unsolved family mystery.
In addition to my New York detective’s story, a major part of the inspiration for this book came from an attempted break-in at my Sussex country home two years ago during the night. Fortunately our three dogs did the trick and sent them running off the premises. The police were of the opinion they may have been targeting our cars—I have a bit of a reputation as a petrol head (!)—but it made me curious about what kind of person today’s house burglar is. Thanks to the Governor of our local Category B Prison, Lewes, I was able to get some insights.
One character in particular who I met was 38 years old, a career high-end car thief. He had started as a kid, for kicks, taking cars on joyrides, then got recruited by an Indian gang operating in London that tasered people in expensive cars, then pulling them out and dumping them by the road side. My character told me that with modern car security systems, it had become extremely difficult to simply steal a car by the old methods of hot-wiring. A recent Audi model could take four hours to start, he told me, so it is much easier to break into a house and simply steal the keys. And of course, while you are inside the house, then you might as well steal some valuables there, too.
On the topic of crime in London, people often ask why I choose to set my novels in a hip seaside resort, rather than a real hotbed of crime. Brighton—the city I grew up in and love passionately, and where I know virtually every street and alley—has long endured the sobriquet of "Crime Capital of the U.K." A journalist friend of mine recounted how, in a pub in Brighton a few years ago, he asked a fellow drinker at the bar if Brighton had a drugs problem. The man thought for a moment, then shook his head and said, “Nah, you can get anything you want here.”
Thanks, Peter! Dead Man's Time is out now, and his previous novel,
Not Dead Yet, is out in paperback!
Retired foreign service officer David P. Wagner worked in Italy for nine years. With his debut mystery, Cold Tuscan Stone, Wagner transformed his passion for "all things Italian" into an intriguing art thriller starring translator Rick Montoya. It's the perfect mystery for crime fiction fans who want to do a little armchair traveling. In a guest post, Wagner gives us a little Italian history lesson—a small preview of the interesting tidbits found throughout Cold Tuscan Stone.
My first book was not a mystery, not even fiction.
The Italians have an expression for what makes a small town appealing: a misura d’uomo, "on a human scale." Downtown Rome, the Rome of the seven hills and the Tiber running through it, is definitely "human scale." In the years I worked there, feet were my preferred mode of transportation, so I got to know the maze of streets as well as any city. Their names usually change at every block, so what we might consider the same street can have multiple names. While this may make it confusing for tourists, it provides a fascinating window into what the Romans consider important in their culture and history, since streets are named for famous people, monuments, events and the like.
So, I thought, how about a book about the origins of street names in Rome? Each one is a story, and usually a fascinating one. For example:
It’s been a few centuries since the crossbow makers had their shops on the Via dei Balestrari, but thankfully they kept the name. It is one of the names tied to specific trades that often concentrated on the same street, making shopping easier. You want a trunk, or a vest, or some hay, you know just where to go.
Via del Gambero gets its name from a restaurant that operated on the street, which must have been really good since it closed around 1600. It’s one of various streets with names of businesses or institutions long gone but not forgotten.
Via Salaria starts at a city gate and heads north to the where salt (sale) was found. Salt was a type of currency in ancient Rome, giving us the word salary and the phrase “worth his salt.”
There are numerous streets named for saints, as you might imagine. One is Via Santa Maria dé Calderari. It was a custom that a guild or association of tradesmen would built a church for their members, and there was one on this street dedicated to Mary and financed by artisans who made pots, pans and cauldrons, the calderari.
Many names come from prominent Roman families, like Piazza Rondanini. The name is better known for its connection with Michelangelo, whose unfinished Rondanini Pietá was found in the family palazzo on this street. The heirs sold the sculpture to the museum in Milan where it is can be seen today.
The name of Via del Pozzo delle Cornachie is traced to a well (pozzo) in the courtyard of a palazzo that once stood on this street. Carved on the well were two crows (cornachie), part of the coat of arms of the man who built the house, the English Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. Wolsey is probably best known for his unsuccessful attempt to convince Pope Clement VII to grant an annulment of the marriage of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon.
Via Padre Pancrazio Pfeifer honors a close adviser to Pope Pius XII. Because of the priest's German nationality, the pope used him as an intermediary between the Vatican and German commanders during the city's occupation from the summer of 1943 to its liberation on June 4, 1944. Pfeifer was instrumental in blocking the deportation of many Roman Jews to death camps, and convinced the Germans to distribute food to the city during a winter in which starvation was common.
In the past, Largo del Pallaro was known for an activity which was made illegal in 1780, essentially a numbers racket. A pallaro was a man who collected bets for the drawing of five numbers from among 90. His profession—if you can call it that—could be loosely translated as bookmaker. A street named for bookies? Why not?
I could go on and on—there are enough to fill a book—but that gives you an idea. Alas, I never sold that book, but it led to trying my hand at a mystery whose plot was connected to a riddle about Roman street names. That didn’t sell either, but it got me started in the genre which eventually, and finally, brought success with Cold Tuscan Stone. It takes place in the town of Volterra, which also has some interesting street names, some of which are mentioned in the book.
Thanks, David! David P. Wagner’s debut mystery novel, Cold Tuscan Stone, features stolen Etruscan artifacts, intrigue and murder. It is published by Poisoned Pen Press.
Catherine Coulter's new international thriller series kicks off with The Final Cut, a globe-hopping thriller with nonstop action that introduces Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Nicholas Drummond. In his first adventure, Drummond travels to NYC to investigate the murder of Elaine York, the minder of the crown jewels on display at the Met. Then the diamond centerpiece of the exhibit is stolen by an international thief called the Fox, and it's up to Drummond to retrieve the stolen gem before it's too late.
But Coulter wasn't alone in crafting Scotland Yard's newest hero. She collaborated with best-selling author J.T. Ellison, who shares in a guest post (one of my favorites to date!) the process of collaborating with veteran writer Coulter.
A writer’s career is full of moments. Capital M moments. Writing the first line of your first novel. Finishing said work. Getting an agent, then landing a deal. Seeing your book in print for the first time, then on the bookshelf in your favorite store and your local library. That first fan letter. I could go on and on. Trust me, having moments never gets old.
But some moments are bigger than others. Rewind to May 4, 2012. I’d just accepted a three-book deal with Mira books to continue my Samantha Owens series. (I’ve been writing two books a year for Mira since 2006—my debut, All the Pretty Girls, was released in November 2007.) Decent deal, job security, all the things a writer wants from her career. I went into the weekend very, very happy.
On May 7, all hell broke loose, in all the best possible ways. I received a call from my agent who wanted to give me a heads up that Catherine Coulter was about to call me and offer me a job. Cue sheer, unadulterated panic. I knew my name was in the mix for Catherine’s co-writing gig, but so were a lot of others very talented authors, and to be perfectly honest, I didn’t ever imagine she would pick me! As pie-in-the-sky dream jobs go, this one ranked up there. I mean, we're talking about Catherine Coulter! I’ve been a fan of Catherine’s books for years—since I read The Cove, and I especially love Savich and Sherlock—and the idea of working with her on a book both scared and thrilled me. Co-writing is a big decision, for both the writers. I was immediately plagued with worry. What if I wasn’t good enough? What if I was?
Before I could spin myself into a frenzy, the phone rang again. It was Catherine, and all worry was laid to rest. The first thing that struck me was her laugh. She has the most wondrous, wicked sense of humor. She said some very nice things about my writing, and how complimentary our styles were, which turned out to be hugely important down the road, laid out the plan for the books, what she wanted to do, how she wanted to do it, the characters, the series, everything. I was so impressed by how smartly she’d planned all of it. She knew exactly what she wanted, and I knew immediately we were going to have a good time, and I was going to get an education. So I accepted on the spot.
And suddenly had five books under contract over the course of three days. Moments that turn momentous, indeed.
After a fine bit of juggling with my editors and agent, Catherine and I made arrangements for me to fly to California to meet with her, plot out the book and generally get to know one another. Happily, we found out we have so much in common, so many congruous interests and opinions, that a friendship blossomed immediately.
And that friendship got us through the first few months, when we made pretty much every mistake possible. The Final Cut was my 12th novel, but it felt like my first many times as we sailed into uncharted territory of joint creation. As similar as our writing styles and work ethic are, we still had differences, and we needed to get used to those. Which we did, of course, ultimately parlaying our differences in style into the book’s strengths.
My biggest issue was writing in another author’s voice. I found it an incredible challenge. Catherine’s funnier and lighter than me—I’m a naturally dark, introspective writer—so I had to work twice as hard to both draft the story and find her voice. But find it I did, and the book came together quickly after that. There was a moment (see, they crop up everywhere!) toward the end of the first revision of the book when we were on the phone literally writing together, each contributing words to the sentences, and it was sheer magic. Magic I think comes across quite clearly in The Final Cut.
You have to have a lot of faith and trust in your co-writer to do this, and from the moment I met Catherine, I knew I could trust her, and I know she feels the same. She’s a writer’s writer, which I greatly respect. We have a similar work ethic – there’s no nonsense, no prevaricating, we just get down to it every day and make the words flow, and I think that was a big part of our success with The Final Cut. You absolutely can’t have a successful collaboration if you put a Type A writer with a Type B writer. You’d drive each other crazy.
This experience has been incredibly rewarding. One day, when I have 70 or so books under MY belt, I hope to repay the favor by doing the same thing, bringing another writer along for the ride. For now, I know our moment is just beginning. And I can’t wait to see where it leads us.
Thanks, J.T.! Readers, The Final Cut is on sale today!
Write what you know? Many writers get their inspiration from where they know. Author Reavis Z. Wortham's Red River mysteries are set in a fictionalized version of Chicota, Texas, where he grew up. In a guest post, Wortham talks about the good people of Texas and the flavor of his Texan setting, and gives a preview of the newest book in his series, The Right Side of Wrong.
As my writing career has progressed, I’ve come to realize the setting has become just as much a character as Constable Ned Parker et al. in the Red River mystery series. I didn’t intend for that to happen, but the rural, bordering counties along the river in northeast Texas are alive and well in my memories of the 1960s. My family roots are from that area, and their stories from that time and location are the reason I began this series.
The '60s were a time of change as this country evolved from a primarily rural society to an urban environment. Though the U.S. race to the moon was well underway, a large part of the population still scratched a hard living from the ground. In The Right Side of Wrong, the small community of Center Springs is a microcosm of life and the social and civil changes going on in this country. In addition, this setting is flavored with the speech patterns that define the small community of Center Springs where American Indians, “coloreds,” and the white population struggle to co-exist in a rapidly changing world.
It was the land that defined them.
It was the rural location that encapsulated them.
It was a time between two worlds, as their rural roots withered under the tidal wave of urban change.
My first book in this series set in 1964, The Rock Hole, came about because I wanted to preserve the memory of those coming-of-age years when I was 10. The speech patterns, old words, the simple and changing lifestyle and, of course, the stories told on the porch of that little country store were quickly fading as the old folks passed on.
See, here’s the deal. I believe my mysteries hold the reader’s interest because it’s the land that makes the good, moral characters what they are. Both men and women back then were strong. They stood up for themselves and their neighbors, and they learned the difference between right and wrong from their parents, grandparents, neighbors, and in the tiny clapboard churches that called them to worship every time the doors opened.
In each of my three novels, evil is eliminated when good, honest people cross to the right side of wrong. That’s where Ned Parker comes in. He’s both a farmer and a constable, and a Renaissance man. In a world filled with bigotry and hatred, Ned is simply a decent person who surrounds himself with noble Texans, such as Deputy John Washington, the first “colored” deputy in my fictional Lamar County.
Both of these strong, caring and fair men come from old-fashioned root stock. Big John and Ned are also human, in every sense of the word, and live to defend their community against whatever may come. In their own way, they always try to do the right thing.
Ned, kinfolk Constable Cody Parker and Big John forge strong bonds as this series progresses. In Burrows, John and Cody find themselves trapped in a five story Cotton Exchange warehouse full of garbage. It is a hoarder’s world á la Stephen King. In fact, someone said it was Stephen King meets Harper Lee. To survive their horror and find a serial killer in the monstrous building John and Cody learn to rely on each other without question. It is a bond Ned and John welded years earlier, and now Cody comes into the fold.
In The Right Side of Wrong, Constable Cody Parker follows his main drug smuggler across the Rio Grande into Mexico and is thrown into a prison run by a crooked officer. Ned and John traverse the Lone Star state, and that took some doing back in 1966. When they reach the Rio Grande, a far different artery than their Red River, they find themselves in a radically different culture than their own, but at the same time, they find good people south of the border.
I think you’ll also find the setting in Mexico has also influenced inhabitants of that country, both good and bad. Like those on the Red River, the people who live across the Rio Grande are also defined by the land, but despite the corruption, most mirror their good neighbors to the north.
The land is in the people, it shapes them, and it provides the background for the mysteries in all of us.
Thanks, Reavis! The Right Side of Wrong (Poisoned Pen Press) is out now.