Monday, 16 October 2023

Judgment Prey
by John Sandford
read by Robert Petkoff
Penguin Audio, 11 hours, unabridged $40

Book 33 in John Sandford’s Prey series finds his heroes, Lucas Davenport and Virgil Flowers, again dueting, this time assisting local law and the FBI on the hunt for the murderer of a St. Paul, Minnesota, judge and his two young sons. The combination of hard-charging, wealthy (from the sale of a tech device) Davenport and the much more laid-back Flowers is as appealing as always, and their bro repartee has its usual witty potency. In their previous investigation, Righteous Prey (2022), Lucas suffered a bullet wound to his leg from which he is now recovering. When the two lawmen first meet here, Virgil takes one look at the immaculately dressed Lucas, leaning on a cane with a horn handle, and says, “I knew you must have a fashion cane somewhere.... Is there a sword in this one?”

Adding to the novel’s appeal is Virgil's struggle with his secondary career as a budding crime novelist, which includes advice for other would-be fictioneers. Perusing a Mick Herron Slough House novel, he decides the book he’s writing needs better scene settings and characterization. He’d written nonfiction before, but novels were different. “His mother had a sewing machine that had a built-in zigzag stitch, which he thought of as a metaphor for fiction-writing. It wasn’t done in a straight line. You constantly went back and forth. If something needed to be changed, enhanced, made-up, twisted, go back and do it. It’s fiction.”

The author, a bestseller and a Pulitzer Prize-winner under his real name John Roswell Camp, has an unerringly engaging style, but he might have paid more attention to Virgil’s advice. After 32 Preys, his plot here, though intriguing, is a bit thinner than usual. There are a few good twists linking two separate killers and two separate crimes, but the villains themselves aren’t on a par with past protagonists. And the two sleuths’ progress is a bit more haphazard than in the past.

Not particularly helpful, reader Robert Petkoff, though a capable performer with a well-modulated, often-effective delivery, isn’t quite the match for the material as was the series’ previous narrator Robert Ferrone. Ferrone’s hoarser voice added a depth to the prose, while his timing burnished both the furious pace and the funny moments of Preys past.

Dick LochteDick Lochte burst onto the crime-writing scene with Sleeping Dog and has continued to take the genre by storm ever since, becoming a Los Angeles Times bestselling author of 10 books of crime fiction and earning the highest honors a writer can attain in the mystery genre.

Review: "Judgment Prey" by John Sandford
Dick Lochte
Monday, 09 October 2023


Julia Kelly wows with her debut historical mystery A Traitor in Whitehall. Kelly is a veteran of romance and straight historical fiction, so this is far from a freshman effort. The first in the Parisian Orphan series, features Evelyne Redfern, a young woman working the munitions line in wartime London. When Redfern is offered a job as a typist for the government, she's excited to step up in the world and do her part for the war effort, but she soon finds herself putting her mystery novel "expertise" to work when one of colleagues, a fellow typist, is murdered.

Mystery Scene contributor Robin Agnew found A Traitor in Whitehall "impossible to put down," saying, "There’s a murder, a bit of espionage, and a budding romance , making for an all around terrific read." Agnew recently caught up with Kelly to discuss her new venture into mystery.

Robin Agnew for Mystery Scene: Reading your bio, I saw that you started in romance, then moved to historical fiction, and this latest book is an historical mystery. Can you talk about the progression and why you wanted to write a mystery?

Julia Kelly: Both of my parents are great readers, but my mother in particular is a crime fiction aficionado, so mystery novels have always been a part of my life. However, it took some time to figure out what kind of mystery I wanted to write.

Mysteries were always on the back burner for me, but I started out writing first romance and then historical fiction, which is where I really found both a voice and an audience. Perhaps it isn’t too surprising then that when the idea for A Traitor in Whitehall popped into my head, I had no doubt that it would be a historical mystery!

This book is set during WWII, a period you have written about frequently. With so many books set during that time period, how did you manage to make A Traitor in Whitehall standout?

I really wanted to focus on creating a memorable character with a very strong voice in my amateur detective, Evelyne Redfern. Evelyne is a young woman who has had a taste of the notorious life thanks to the antics of her parents, but at the beginning of A Traitor in Whitehall, she’s still figuring out who she is. I like to think that, throughout the course of this book and over the entire Parisian Orphan series, she learns more and more about herself while also solving some dastardly crimes.

Photo of the original plan for the Cabinet War Rooms. (PA/Imperial War Museums)

Photo of the original plan for the Cabinet War Rooms. (Credit: PA/Imperial War Museums)

One of the details that really fascinated me was that the women working for Churchill and his ministers had to sleep down in the bunker while they were on duty. What kind of research did this book involve, and can you talk about the bunker where the work of the war was carried out?

The idea for A Traitor in Whitehall struck me while I was walking through the Churchill War Rooms (the modern name for the Cabinet War Rooms, where the book is set) with a friend. It’s probably no surprise then that I leaned heavily on the museum and its excellent print and digital catalogs for both inspiration and research.

One of the more unglamorous things that I learned was that staff would work multiple day shifts, sleeping in the Dock. This was essentially a dormitory separated by gender and outfitted with bunk beds. There are oral histories of some of the women who worked in the Cabinet War Rooms, and several of them recall the unpleasant smell of the chemical toilets and unwelcome visits from curious rats.

I loved the character of Evelyne and her background, which is quite detailed. Can you talk about how you created the backstory for her? Will her father make an appearance in future books?

I had a blast creating Evelyne’s backstory, so I’m glad to hear you enjoyed the end result! I knew from the start that I wanted a bilingual character who spoke French and English like a native because I wanted to give myself some possible inroads into France later on in the series. To that end, I decided to give Evelyne a French socialite mother and an English explorer father.

I knew that Evelyne’s relationship with her father would be estranged from page one, so to counter that I made her relationship with her deceased mother very strong. Evelyne wears her maman’s watch and her earrings, and some of her mother’s pieces of advice guide her throughout the book.

One of the formative events in Evelyne’s life is her parents’ custody battle for her in the French courts. This is when she earns the nickname the “Parisian Orphan” from the international press covering the trial. That case and Evelyne’s nickname were inspired by the real custody battle over the heiress Gloria Vanderbilt, which earned Gloria the nickname “Poor little rich girl.”

I also liked Aunt Amelia, and it seems like there is more to discover about her. Will she be appearing again?

Aunt Amelia is one of my favorite characters to write, and I have plans for her that definitely include appearances in later books. She’s a woman who has strong opinions and secrets of her own!

I loved the fact also that Evelyn is a dedicated mystery fan. One of the things I enjoyed about the book was imagining getting to read, say, Busman’s Honeymoon when it was first published. Are you a big fan of Golden Age mysteries yourself?

Golden Age mysteries were my bread and butter when I was growing up, and they hold a large place in my heart to this day. I had a great time going back and rereading some old favorites as well as exploring some titles I hadn’t managed to get to. I’m doing my best to slip in as many mentions as I can wherever I can.

This book to me was structured very much as a traditional mystery, with the war as a background. I appreciated the detective work and also wondered how difficult it was to come from historical fiction and create a mystery, which I imagine has different constraints for a writer.

It was refreshing to write a book where the central focus is ultimately on solving a puzzle. In my historical novels, often the emotional growth of the main character is the big driving force of the book. However, in A Traitor in Whitehall, laying out a murder mystery and then bringing the reader along as my sleuth solved it presented a slightly different set of challenges. I think it stretched me as a writer, and I found a lot of joy in learning as I went.

Were there actually leaks in Churchill’s bunker as you discuss? Or would that kind of thing have been so secret no one would have ever known about it?

One of the things that has always struck me about the research I’ve done into all sorts of aspects of World War II is how seriously people took their duties and responsibilities. Early in A Traitor in Whitehall, Evelyne signs a document under something called the Official Secrets Act, which basically compelled people doing sensitive work not to speak about what they were doing to anyone. People took this so seriously that the public didn’t begin to learn about places like the Cabinet War Rooms and Bletchley Park until decades after the war when things started to be declassified.

To that end, I didn’t encounter any leaks on the scale of what I write about in A Traitor in Whitehall during my research. However, the beauty of writing fiction is being able to take some artistic license from time to time!

Switchboard operators and typists in Winston Churchill's War Room 60. (Credit: PA/Imperial War Museums)

I also liked the detail of the blitz, which of course I’ve read about before, but you really brought it home with the girls running to the phones when they could to check on their families. Can you talk about researching the blitz and finding new details for readers?

The Blitz is one of those subjects that, when you begin researching it, it’s almost impossible to wrap your mind around how devastating it was. I live in London and I know as a historical fiction writer that entire parts of the city I’m familiar with are completely different than they were before 1940 because of the bombs that fell.

I wanted to make sure to include little details to try to make a modern reader empathize with what was happening to Londoners in those terrifying first days. Things like the air raid sirens had been a part of wartime life before the Blitz, but never had they been so threatening. Public air raid shelters and gas masks became a necessity. The detail about the typists, who were effectively shut off from much of the world while they were on their shifts, desperately trying to find out what had happened to their families as more information came in about the parts of the city that had been hit hopefully reflects a little bit of what those early Blitz days might have been like.

Finally, is there a book in your life that has been transformational for you—something, when you read it, changed the way you looked at reading or writing?

I read Jane Austen’s Persuasion when I was about 18, and it absolutely gripped me. Never before had I read a character in Anne Elliot who was flawed, quiet, regretful, and yet comes into her own by the end of the book. I’ve always enjoyed Pride and Prejudice and the confidence of a character like Elizabeth Bennett, but I’ve always felt far more connected to Anne Elliot.

Julia Kelly is the international bestselling author of historical fiction and historical mystery novels about the extraordinary stories of the past. Her books have been translated into 13 languages. In addition to writing, she’s been an Emmy-nominated producer, journalist, marketing professional, and (for one summer) a tea waitress. Julia called Los Angeles, Iowa, and New York City home before settling in London.

Robin AgnewRobin Agnew is a longtime Mystery Scene contributor and was the owner of Aunt Agatha's bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan, for 26 years. No longer a brick and mortar store, Aunt Agatha has an extensive used book collection is available at and the site is home to more of Robin's writing.

Julia Kelly's Debut Mystery Takes Flight With "A Traitor in Whitehall"
Robin Agnew
Thursday, 05 October 2023

Nat Segaloff, photo JB Lahmani

Photo by JB Lahmani

Multi-hyphenate Nat Segaloff has been a film critic, a reporter, a broadcaster, a TV producer (A&E’s Biography, etc.), a college instructor—that’s a short list—and, oh yeah, has written several dozen books. They include a tome on etiquette (never send an email when you’re mad!), another on tall tales and legends, but predominantly concern movies and moviemakers.

The latest, The Exorcist Legacy: 50 Years of Fear (2023, Kensington), is a deep dive into the film that left an iconic and devilish imprint on popular culture, and which benefits from the author’s longtime personal associations with filmmaker William Friedkin and author William Peter Blatty, who wrote the 1971 bestseller on which The Exorcist is based, and its Oscar-winning screenplay adaptation.

Segaloff’s own ties to The Exorcist date to the film’s December 1973 opening—when, as the publicist for a chain of theaters, he helped arrange a special advance screening. Years later Segaloff authored Hurricane Billy: The Stormy Life and Films of William Friedkin (1990), based on extensive interviews with the controversial auteur. Friedkin had first shaken up Hollywood in 1971 with the gritty crime drama The French Connection, which won five Oscars, including Best Director and Best Picture. The Exorcist was his legendary follow-up.

Mystery Scene contributor Pat H. Broeske is an admirer of The Exorcist —and other Friedkin films—who interviewed the late filmmaker on several occasions. After reading The Exorcist Legacy she spoke to the North Hollywood-based Segaloff about the movie that, he feels, “may be the most misunderstood classic of its time.” Take heed: There are spoilers—a requisite for assessing the 50-plus-year-old book-turned-film and its follow-ups.

Pat H. Broeske for Mystery Scene: Some of our readers might think of The Exorcist as a horror film. But, it’s much more than that, isn’t it? William Peter Blatty called it a whodunit—a supernatural murder mystery. Can you elaborate on the mystery elements of the book and film?

Nat Segaloff: There are four stories that weave through The Exorcist, and they are all fully developed. But the major story is a murder mystery. Somebody has killed movie director Burke Dennings [played by Jack MacGowran] and Lieutenant William Kinderman [Lee J. Cobb] is trying to find out who did it.

The other stories, are, of course, a mother, Chris MacNeil [Ellen Burstyn], trying to protect her child Regan [Linda Blair] from forces she doesn't understand, a young priest [Jason Miller] having his faith restored, and having it restored to the point where he sacrifices his life for someone he never knew. The fourth is the elderly priest, Father Merrin [Max von Sydow], coming up against an old enemy of his, the demon.

There have been many movies about the battle between good and evil. Why are we talking about this particular film, 50 years later? What made it a phenomenon?

I can guess a couple of things. First, it doesn’t have any stars. Let me specify that Billy [Friedkin] didn’t want to cast stars. Though Ellen Burstyn had made The Last Picture Show, she wasn't a star. For Jason Miller, this was his first film. And the first big film for Linda Blair. Max von Sydow wasn’t widely known over here [in the States]. The only recognizable face is Lee J. Cobb, who had sort of been out of view for a while.

So there weren’t stars in the film, therefore the audience related to the characters as people...

And you also have the fact that the film was just damned effective. It works. It works out on all the different levels, the subplots, the characters. And the overarching aspect of the film is that it looks real. There's no CGI. When the bed shakes, when Regan elevates, when the walls crack or things fall over, the famous “pea soup” shock—those things really happened in front of the camera because of Dick Smith’s makeup and Marcel Vercoutere’s mechanical effects. So the film has a documentary looks like a documentary about some kid who's possessed. It looks real—and it taps into lots of different pressure points.

You write about how the film resonates on different levels with different people.

Yes, for instance, the notion of a mother protecting a child is quite pervasive and very powerful. When reports arose of people getting sick watching the film, the point at which they got sick and ran out of the theater was not the head spinning, or the pea soup. It was the arteriogram procedure. A cold clinical scene set in a hospital. Regan getting tested. And do you know, 99% of the people who fled the theater were men. Women were there to protect a child, and having gone through the pain of childbirth, certainly understood what was involved.

The film certainly has a formidable villain.

When you see a horror movie in a theater, the Frankenstein monster, Dracula, Freddy Krueger, whoever, they stay in the theater. But Satan is another matter. Satan is a very real force to many people—and could be waiting for you at home.

Religion is so pervasive in our society that the ecosystem affects people who are given to believe in religion quite profoundly. The Catholic Church, of course, embraced the film because it essentially follows the company line.

During the filming of The Exorcist there were a number of seemingly inexplicable occurrences. A set burned down, there were unexpected deaths; other strange things that led to talk of an Exorcist curse. But you discount that theory.

I talked to Terry Donnelly, the production manager/first assistant director. I've known Terry for a thousand years. I’ve spoken to other people, too, and I believe statistically, when you have, say, 500 people working on a movie for three years, and you factor in their families and their friends, something's gonna happen that connects all these people.

The Exorcist was nominated for a staggering 10 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. It won only two, for adapted screenplay and sound. In your book you discuss the backlash against the movie by certain members of the Motion Picture Academy.

There was some backstabbing, shall we say, going between certain influential members of the Academy, led by George Cukor...

You were working in movie exhibition then. Tell us about holding a special screening of The Exorcist before it opened to the public.

I was publicity director for the Sack Theatres chain in Boston. The screening occurred the day before the official opening—that means it was Christmas Day, because the movie opened on December 26. William Friedkin had given permission to have the screening so that the weekly youth papers could make their deadlines. We didn’t know bupkis about what was going to happen in that movie. We didn't know we were supposed to puke. We didn’t know we were supposed to have our beliefs challenged. All we saw was a great movie.

Now, the asterisk there is that I was standing outside the theater, guarding it, so that people who weren't invited didn't get in. When I'd hear a noise [from the movie] I would rush back in, and of course, by then I'd missed what was happening. It was a few days later when I finally caught the full film.

I went on to meet William Friedkin by a very strange occurrence when I and my executives were indicted by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for blasphemy, obscenity, and corrupting the morals of a minor. It seems that a [woman] who lived in the suburbs had brought her underage daughter to see the R-rated film and claimed the film had hurt the girl.... We had to go for a summary judgment. William Friedkin called our offices from California to offer us moral I first met him over the phone. That began a friendship that lasted for 50 years. Let me add that we got that case thrown out, ironically enough, on the first day of Lent.

Before we started this interview, I read you an excerpt from Friedkin’s own book (2013’s The Friedkin Connection: A Memoir), where he talks about his disappointment over not having made his Citizen Kane.

Billy is, was, very introspective. And he had so many dreams. It was sort of like a race car that's up on blocks. He was a director who had lots of ideas, but couldn’t work all the time, and he worked longer than most.... He really did want to make his Citizen Kane, although many of us think he made four of them—French Connection, The Exorcist, Sorcerer, and To Live and Die in L.A. Not bad.

There was a lot of press when Friedkin recently passed away (on August 7, 2023, of heart failure and pneumonia). Did you know he was ailing?

You're the first person I've spoken to about Friedkin's death, and I've been trying to put my own feelings in order about that, because, of course, we were friends for half a century, and I'm trying to be a journalist on the one hand and a mourner on the other . . .

The Caine Mutiny Court MartialThe company line was that, for nearly 88-years-old, he was doing really well. I suspected, of course, that he was reaching the end of his life, but certainly not the end of his productivity, because he has a new film opening in Venice next month, a remake of The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial.

We did not speak for my Exorcist book. I tried a couple of times to reach out to him, but he was busy. But I got all the Billy Friedkin stories I needed back when I was writing Hurricane Billy. You know, people have a tendency to embellish stories over the years. So I would rather go with the stories I heard from Billy when The Exorcist was simply a hit, and before it became a classic.

How about Blatty? How did your paths first cross?

I met William Peter Blatty when he was coming through Boston to promote The Ninth Configuration, which he wrote and directed himself, based on his book of the same name, which was a reworking of his earlier novel, Twinkle, Twinkle, “Killer” Kane. It's part of his trilogy of faith. The Exorcist, The Ninth Configuration, and The Exorcist III [based on his novel, Legion] are his religious pictures. I know some people say these are about the mystery of faith. But to Blatty, who was a devout Catholic, faith was not a mystery.

I interviewed Blatty about his writings and all aspects of his life and we kept in touch afterward. Not always on the record. Let me add that he was a mensch, a wonderful man.

Your book goes into the tiff between Blatty and Friedkin over scenes from the novel that were left out of The Exorcist. Some of them made it into the director’s cut. And then there were all those sequels and spin-offs.

The Exorcist was never planned as a franchise. It became a franchise when Morgan Creek Entertainment bought the property

My head felt like it was spinning—I have to say that—when I read about the different versions of the original film and of the various follow-ups. Plus a TV series I never saw. And now there’s another Exorcist film coming—and Ellen Burstyn is involved.

Right, it’s planned to be a trilogy. [For] the first film, The Exorcist: Believer, Ellen will recreate her role of Chris MacNeil. She’s going to help a father whose child has been possessed.

There you go. The legacy continues. Speaking of continuing, what’s your next project?

Say Hello to My Little Friend: A Century of Scarface. It’s the 40th anniversary of the Brian De Palma-Al Pacino reimagining of the 1932 Howard Hawks' film classic.

The Exorcist: Believer (2023)

The Exorcist: Believer opens October 6, 2023 in theaters.

Pat H. Broeske is mystery devotee who regularly reviews for Mystery Scene. Based in Southern California, the veteran journalist-author is a former staff writer for the Los Angeles Times – where she sometimes wrote about horror, science fiction, and fantasy films, including The Exorcist and its offspring.

Q&A With Nat Segaloff, Author of "The Exorcist Legacy: 50 Years of Fear"
Pat H. Broeske