Shadow of the Lions
Ariell Cacciola

Blackburne is a highly competitive and no-nonsense Virginia institution, where students are held to strict codes of integrity and academic achievement. When author Matthias Glass returns as a teacher to the eminent all-boys boarding school he once attended as a student, he is sucked back into memories of his best friend Fritz Davenport’s baffling disappearance from ten years before. A decade later, Fritz’s whereabouts are still unknown, but, unlike others, Matthias refuses to believe Fritz is dead.

Christopher Swann’s debut novel flips back and forth between the present day and Matthias’s school days, allowing both times to enlighten each other. When a suspicious death comes to Blackburne, the adult Matthias quickly finds himself in the mold of a gumshoe detective as he seeks out the answers to both past and present mysteries.

The real strength of Shadow of the Lions is the boarding school world that Swann has devised. Atmospheric details down to the Spanish moss-covered tree limbs of the campus are vividly imagined, and the students, who could easily have been cardboard placeholders, vibrate with personality, attitude, and self-awareness.

Perhaps the one black mark on the novel is the ultimate solution to Fritz’s disappearance. While the narrative is intriguing and well-paced, its eventual resolution is a disappointment—answers are given, but are clunky and somewhat unbelievable. But this can be forgiven, as Shadow of the Lions is an effective addition to the campus crime genre. Blackburne is steeped in the whispers and misdeeds of long-held crimes and secrets, and the journey of meting out the truth is the novel’s true delight.

Teri Duerr
2017-09-13 16:29:39
The Blinds
Jay Roberts

Welcome to Caesura, Texas. A flyspeck town in the middle of Texas’ Tornado Alley, it is one hundred miles from anywhere, a fact that makes it the perfect place to stash people in the witness protection program. The citizens of The Blinds, as the town is known by its occupants, are all either criminals or victims of crimes so heinous that they needed to enter the federal WitSec program.

In Adam Sternbergh’s thriller, the catch to this new life in the middle of nowhere is a revolutionary scientific procedure that wipes out the specific memory or memories that got one to Caesura in the first place. You know you did or saw something, but you can’t remember what it was. You pick a new name, and live out the rest of your life hiding out from whatever it was that put you on the run.

But when a murder follows closely on the heels of a suicide, the calm way of life for everyone is upset. Sheriff Calvin Cooper, one of only three people employed by the people running the town, is charged with investigating the death. But how do you investigate someone when you don’t know who anyone really is? Could they have been killed by another resident? Was the town’s security compromised by an outsider?

The killer is revealed rather early in the story, but the murder becomes less important as things quickly spiral out of control in much more interesting ways. Confronted with a threat to their lives and safety, how will townspeople react, especially given that none of them really know what they might be capable of?

From Intake Day, when new people move to the town, to the descriptions of everyday life in The Blinds, Sternbergh walks readers side by side with his characters down Caesura’s streets: the heat of the Texas sun, the relative boredom of the never-ending repetition of life in isolation. In testament to the author’s skill, the large cast does not overwhelm, and through adept characterization, we still feel as if we like many of them, even after their dark origin stories come to light.

A stunning finale brings the story to a shattering end as truths are revealed, and lives are lost or irrevocably changed for better or worse. No one is spared from the onslaught of change coming their way and The Blinds asks the question: Just how useful are scientific advances when neither the people in charge of the technology nor those subjected to it can be trusted?

Teri Duerr
2017-09-13 16:33:38
12 Days at Bleakly Manor
Joseph Scarpato, Jr.

Based somewhat loosely on the Agatha Christie classic And Then There Were None, this Victorian-era romantic mystery involves seven people invited to an eerie manor for the 12 days of Christmas. If they are still there on the 12th day, they will receive £500—a great deal in 1850 England. But unexpected danger lurks! Who invited them, and why?

Two of the invitees are former lovers who were separated on their wedding day. He, Benjamin Lane, on his way to the wedding, was arrested and imprisoned for an unidentified crime. She, Clara Chapman, was impoverished and betrayed when someone ran off with the proceeds of her family’s business, that person—she has long believed—being Ben, her brother’s business partner.

Among the other invitees are an elderly woman who keeps a box of pet mice near her, an emaciated middle-aged man who takes an unappreciated interest in Clara, a blustery detective, a flighty and tiresome French woman, and a wheelchair-bound curmudgeon pushed by a quiet young girl. As the days proceed, strange accidents occur and, one by one, their numbers dwindle.

Although I love a mystery of this sort, I felt that the romance at times was overdone, particularly the on-and-off feelings of Clara towards Ben, even after he explains what really happened to him. The mystery itself isn’t bad and, at less than 200 pages, it moved along swiftly to a not-completely-unexpected ending. And apparently there will be more along these lines by the author. The subtitle of this novel is Once Upon a Dickens Christmas, Part One.

Teri Duerr
2017-09-13 16:39:41
The Dark Lake
Vanessa Orr

Rosalind Ryan is dead, a fact that has left many in the small town of Smithson reeling. Gorgeous and enigmatic, she attracted a lot of attention in life—and even more so in death. One of the most affected is Detective Sergeant Gemma Woodstock, who is investigating the death of her former classmate and romantic rival.

Gemma already has a lot on her plate; the mother of a toddler, she’s struggling with the idea of settling down with her boyfriend, while at the same time, having an affair with a coworker. She doesn’t do well in relationships, a fact that becomes more evident as she relives a tragedy from her past—one that is connected to the murder victim.

Flashbacks to Gemma and Rosalind’s school days help to demonstrate Rosalind’s hold on other students, as well as over her family. A flawed and often combative character, Gemma is a nice contrast to the ethereal, mysterious Rosalind. As the investigation proceeds, however, it turns out that Rosalind was not as perfect as she seemed, and, in fact, has many detractors—creating a large pool of suspects for the detectives.

While the mystery itself is rather straightforward, the tangled feelings that Rosalind and her death leave behind in those who knew her are not, adding depth and pathos to this multilayered story. Less a story of murder than obsession, The Dark Lake demonstrates how holding on to the past can forever affect the future.

Teri Duerr
2017-09-13 16:43:35
Lightning Men
Ariell Cacciola

Tense and heated suspense envelop Thomas Mullen’s second in his Darktown series. Lightning Men is a lit fuse about to go off at any time. In 1950 Georgia, just a few short years following the end of World War II, Atlanta is pulsing with post-Prohibition bootleggers, crime, and segregation, and the continued horrors of racism and Klansmen percolate through every element of life. Two “negro officers,” Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith, navigate the bureaucracy of both policing exclusively black neighborhoods and being treated as second-class citizens within the police department they have sworn allegiance to. In another part of town is Officer Denny “Rake” Rakestraw, who is noted as generally “decent” by Boggs and Smith, but whose wife and brother-in-law are less than happy to see black families move into their neighborhood. When Rake’s brother-in-law gets muddled in a confused KKK plot, the officer must choose between helping his family and distancing himself from the racist Klansmen.

The pleasure of Lightning Men is in its fully realized characters. They are complicated and multidimensional, as they reckon with the realities and unrest that strangle their neighborhoods and mark their relationships. Boggs and Smith are of two minds about their employment with the police: Yes, they’re making breakthroughs, but at what expense? Not treated equally by their white peers, they are only allowed to police black neighborhoods and forbidden from arresting white people even if the latter are caught in criminal acts. The criminal world of moonshine, drugs, and violence coexist with families trying to live peaceably, and over all the tremendous hate of the Ku Klux Klan looms. Mullen is superbly deft at balancing his characters; each chapter alternates a point of view and builds on the pulsing city and its inhabitants. The crimes all have their twists and turns, and nothing is at it is first presented.

Lightning Men is a difficult yet addicting tale about the people who are tangled up in segregated Atlanta, and that is where the book’s strength lies. I’m curious to see what next strikes Darktown.

Teri Duerr
2017-09-13 16:47:26
Unquiet Spirits
Joseph Scarpato, Jr.

Wow! Just wow! Purported in the preface to be a hidden manuscript of Dr. Watson’s, this nearly 500-page story moved swiftly, held my interest throughout, and was so close to the actual Holmes canon that I almost believed the preface.

Set soon after his Baskerville success, Holmes is begged by a young woman visitor to investigate some strange occurrences at the Scottish castle where she lives and the large whiskey distillery nearby owned by the family. Surprisingly, at least to Watson, Holmes refuses to take the case. Almost immediately, an unsuccessful assassination attempt is made on Holmes’ life, and the would-be assassin turns out to be a former college classmate.

Before long, Holmes’ brother, Mycroft, asks him to discover and neutralize the suspected danger to a wine research scientist who may be on the verge of discovering a cure to a plant disease that is destroying French vineyards—a possible plot concocted by Scottish distillers. While there, a bomb explodes, nearly killing the detectives and the scientist—and reintroduces Holmes to Jean Vidocq, a French detective and longtime rival. Surprisingly, and rather deftly, the author brings all of these seemingly disparate story lines together at the aforementioned Scottish castle and distillery.

What I particularly enjoyed, other than the smooth, true-to-the-Conan Doyle writing style, was the introduction of Holmes’ school days and his interaction with other young men which made him into the adult he eventually became. Similarly, the author provides more background information about Watson’s military experience and the effect it had upon him.

All in all, a tour de force and highly recommended to readers, whether Holmes fans or not.

Teri Duerr
2017-09-13 16:51:09
Fall Issue #151
Teri Duerr
2017-09-18 05:06:53
Beyond the Book: Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason
Dick Lochte

gardner erlestanleyNow that Robert Downey Jr. and HBO are prepping a new cable take on Erle Stanley Gardner’s iconic Perry Mason, this may be a good time to consider the famous defense attorney’s many and various appearances other than between book covers. The author, who was a member of the bar, began his long literary career by writing for the pulps under his own name and an assortment of pseudonyms, setting a goal for himself of 1,200,000 words a year. His first novel to feature Mason was 1933’s The Case of the Velvet Claws. The lawyer’s last hardcover courtroom appearance was The Case of the Burning Bequest in 1990, one of several books written by Thomas Chastain after Gardner’s death in 1970. Unlike the long-running CBS TV series, the novels, particularly the earlier ones, are hardboiled and, no surprise, much more complex. They also point up the fact that, as excellent a storyteller as Gardner was, sometimes his word-count mentality drove him to include detailed descriptions of mundane activities—the lighting of a match and applying it to a cigarette, for example—usually glossed over by contemporary fictioneers.

AUDIOBOOKS

The first audio versions of the novels were circa 1988, a typical example being cassettes of an abridged The Case of the Beautiful Beggar from the long-ago departed Dove Books, read energetically by actor Perry King. In 1991, Durkin Hayes Publishing continued the abridged cassette line with such titles as The Case of the Sulky Girl and The Case of the Reluctant Model, read by a growly voiced William Hootkins. Currently, Brilliance has begun issuing unabridged audios of the novels at a brisk pace (most in mp3 format at $14.99). These are read by actor Alexander Cendese, whose fast, hardboiled delivery has an intensity that requires a little getting used to. Nonetheless, it’s a fairly accurate portrayal of the tough, corner-cutting legal eagle as Gardner created him. A couple of titles considered the author’s best are available—The Case of the Drowning Duck and The Case of the Lame Canary—with more to come. Brilliance, in conjunction with the Colonial Radio Theatre, released an assortment of adapted dramatizations of several of the books in 2011. The cases of The Curious Bride, The Sulky Girl, The Howling Dog, et al., are available from Audible.

MOVIES

Warren William, the go-to guy for literary sleuths, played The Lone Wolf, Philo Vance, a renamed Sam Spade in 1936’s almost unrecognizable Maltese Falcon adaptation, Satan Met a Lady, and Perry Mason. The series got off to a good start with The Case of the Howling Dog in 1934, followed by The Case of the Curious Bride and The Case of the Lucky Legs in 1935. The last of William’s Mason portrayals was in 1936’s The Case of the Velvet Claws, a somewhat inferior entry in which the big surprise is Perry’s marriage to Della Street. Later that year, the series resumed with Perry and Della back in their single-o state and Ricardo Cortez (the first actor to play Sam Spade in 1931’s The Maltese Falcon) in The Case of the Black Cat, an adaptation of The Case of the Caretaker’s Cat. Gardner was lukewarm on William’s interpretation of his famous character, but he supposedly was so dismayed by Cortez’s casting that he demanded the actor be replaced, which he was, by Donald Woods in Mason’s last theatrical appearance, The Case of the Stuttering Bishop (1937). The William-starring movies are breezy fun and they and the others are available in a Perry Mason: The Original Warner Bros. Movies Collection (Warner Bros., $34.99). (If you search for Perry Mason movie titles on Amazon.com, you’ll pull up the 1940 flick Granny Get Your Gun, a Mason-less adaptation of Gardner’s The Case of the Dangerous Dowager starring elderly thespian Harry Davenport as lawyer Nathaniel Paulson. Not included in the movies box set.)

RADIO

In 1943, the Perry Mason show began airing in 15-minute segments weekdays on the CBS network. Labeled a radio crime serial, it was actually a soap-opera whodunit, and one with enough appeal to stay on the air until 1955. Mason was played, predominantly, by John Larkin, though Santos Ortega, Bartlett Robinson, and Donald Briggs also gave voice to the lawyer at various times. It’s worth noting that CBS and Procter & Gamble wanted to continue the program as a daytime television serial. When Gardner declined (supposedly because P & G insisted on a continuing love interest for Perry), the network went ahead with the show, minus Mason and the author’s other characters, and thus was born the long-running soap The Edge of Night, penned by Mason’s radio scriptwriter Irving Vendig, with Larkin in the lead. Many of the Mason radio shows are available on YouTube.

TV

Almost as soon as Gardner withdrew from The Edge of Night project, he agreed to a prime-time series on CBS, but demanded it meet with his personal approval. Though most of the involved parties preferred other actors for the leading role, the author insisted on Raymond Burr, whose screen tests for Mason (along with William Hopper’s) on You Tube will probably have you agreeing with the choice. The first show, an adaptation of the novel The Case of the Restless Redhead, debuted on September 21, 1957. With Barbara Hale as Mason’s assistant Della Street, Hopper as PI Paul Drake, William Talman as DA Hamilton Burger, and Ray Collins as Lt. Tragg, the series was so popular it continued for nine seasons, ending with an original episode, The Case of the Final Fadeout, on May 22, 1966. That title would, of course, be a bit premature. In 1973, The New Perry Mason, starring a miscast Monte Markham, barely made it through 15 episodes. (Some intros from the Markham shows are on YouTube.) In 1985, Burr once again assumed the role in an NBC TV feature film, Perry Mason Returns. Also returning was Barbara Hale as Della, with her son, William Katt, as Paul Drake Jr. Burr continued being the personification of Mason for 25 more TV movies before his death in 1993. All of the Burr-Mason episodes and movies are available in Paramount DVD box-sets (The Complete Series, $113.81; The Complete Movie Collection, $22.99). My personal preference is for the hour-long episodes from the original series that were adapted from the novels, usually by top writers like Sterling Silliphant, Gene Wang and Robert C. Dennis. The Season 1 boxes consist mainly of adaptations (Season 1, Vol. 1, $14.99, Season 1, Vol. 2, $11.69).

COMICS

gardner perrymasoncaseoftheluckylegsIt may come as a surprise to many of Perry Mason’s fans that the attorney has appeared in the comic pages. He made his debut in 1946 with, to use a euphuism of today, a graphic novel version of Gardner’s The Case of the Lucky Legs, followed in 1947 by The Case of the Shoplifter’s Shoe (Feature Books). A Mason daily newspaper strip begun in 1950, consisting of original stories, seems to have been at least co-written by Gardner himself. It was initially drawn by Mel Keefer, who completed The Case of the Innocent Thief and part of The Case of the Nervous Horse before being replaced by Charles Lofgren. The latter continued through The Case of the Missing Husband, The Case of the Constant Cricket, and three more stories until the courtroom doors closed after The Case of the Curious Cop. A trade paperback, Four Cases of Murder Starring Perry Mason, edited by Tom Mason, was published in 1989 (Malibu Graphics). It included the initial quartet of strip stories. In 1964, Dell Comics published two issues of Perry Mason Mystery Magazine. Obviously tied to the success of the TV series, with Burr as cover boy, the contents were original stories. As best I can tell, none of these is easily obtained, Feature Books and Malibu Graphics being among the victims of the past. However, samples of the strips, including a soupçon of a Mad magazine parody of the TV show, are as near as your internet search engine under “Perry Mason comic strip.”

For more information on Gardner, Perry, and the TV series, try: The Perry Mason TV Show Book by Brian Kelleher and Diana Merrill; Erle Stanley Gardner: The Case of the Real Perry Mason by Dorothy B. Hughes; the “Perry Mason” pages on the Thrilling Detective web site.

Dick Lochte is a well-known literary and drama critic and contributes the “Sounds of Suspense” audiobook review column to Mystery Scene. He received the 2003 Ellen Nehr Award for Excellence in Mystery Reviewing. His prize-winning Sleeping Dog and its sequel, Laughing Dog, are available from Brash Books. His Blue Bayou and The Neon Smile are available from Perfect Crime Books.

Teri Duerr
2017-09-21 15:58:02
Nelson DeMille and Cuba
Oline Cogdill

Living in South Florida, I am well aware of what goes on in Cuba and its impact on the US, especially in the area in which I live.

So Nelson DeMille’s latest novel, The Cuban Affair (Simon & Schuster), held special interest for me, aside from the gripping plot. The look at Cuba, and also the Keys, was what I was after.

Of course, the extra bonus is that The Cuban Affair is a darn good mystery. As I wrote in my Sun Sentinel review, The Cuban Affair is “a heady mix of politics—both US and Cuban—culture, nonstop action, and believable characters.”

DeMille launches a new series with his 20th novel, The Cuban Affair, and his new hero—Daniel “Mac” MacCormick—proves more than capable of leading his own series.

A 35-year-old army veteran wounded in Afghanistan and now living in Key West, Florida, as a charter boat captain, Mac is coaxed into a covert trip to Cuba that offers him a huge paycheck.

A group of anti-Castro Cuban-Americans hire Mac to bring back millions of dollars and some documents hidden in a Cuban cave.

“To say the job is risky is an understatement and it involves a convoluted network of plans, any of which could go wrong,” I wrote in my review.

The Cuban Affair is set in 2015, and US relations with Cuba were very different then, especially in light of recent developments in Washington. DeMille deftly makes “The Cuban Thaw,” as more than one character describes it, an integral part of the plot, which shows suspicions on both sides.

Mac sees Cuba as “an alternative universe where the past and the present fought to become the future.”

The Cuban Affair works as a travel guide, showing the country, the cities, and the people with clarity.

DeMille’s precise research stems from a trip he took with the Yale Educational Travel group in 2015. On that trip was a childhood friend who had been a roommate of former Secretary of State John Kerry.

They had a meeting with the newly opened American embassy in Havana, and a briefing there provided a lot of “grist” for his research, as he writes in a note to his readers. (That embassy has been in the news a lot lately.) While in Havana, DeMille’s group also visited many sites.

This research is deftly woven into the brisk, action-packed plot of The Cuban Affair.

But in addition to Cuban politics, DeMille also delves into the emotional landscape of those who have strong roots in the country. One character sees her grandparents’ former house, the bank her grandfather managed, and the streets her parents once walked. I know many Cuban-Americans who have had similar experiences.

It’s not giving anything away to say that The Cuban Affair begins and ends at The Green Parrot bar in Key West.

The Keys were devastated by Hurricane Irma, but Key West is open again for business, as is The Green Parrot, a landmark bar.

Nelson DeMille photo by John Ellis Kordes Photography.

Oline Cogdill
2017-11-12 04:14:48
Ngaio Marsh Winners
Oline Cogdill

For those of us who have read mysteries all our lives—I started as a child—those early queens of mysteries probably were our first introduction to the genre.

I cut my reading teeth on Hammett, Chandler, and Stout, but it was the stories of Josephine Tey, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Margery Allingham that I most gravitated toward.

And, Ngaio Marsh.

Ngaio Marsh was a New Zealand crime writer and theater director who is known primarily for her Inspector Roderick Alleyn, a gentleman detective who works for the Metropolitan Police in London.

If you have never read her Alleyn series, I highly recommend these 32 novels.

Dated?

A bit.

But they still hold up. Nine of these novels were adapted as The Inspector Alleyn Mysteries and aired by the BBC in 1993 and 1994 with Patrick Malahide as Alleyn. You can still find these DVDs as The Inspector Alleyn Mysteries, put out by Acorn Media.

Marsh has been cited by several contemporary women mystery writers as their inspiration, among these Val McDermid and Catriona McPherson.

Marsh also is the namesake of the Ngaio Marsh Award that honor the best in crime writing. The New Zealand award is now in its eighth year.

And finally, a woman has been awarded the prize for best crime novel.

Fiona Sussman became the first female author to win the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel, for The Last Time We Spoke. The international judging panel praised the winning novel for being "laden with empathy and insight.... A challenging, emotional read, harrowing yet touching, this is brave and sophisticated storytelling,” Booksellers New Zealand reported.

The Last Time We Spoke, published by Allison & Busby, is described as a survivor and a perpetrator of a brutal home invasion try to come to terms with their altered lives.

Self-published e-book author Finn Bell won the best first novel category, for Dead Lemons. The judges called him "a wonderful new voice in crime writing" who "delivers a tense, compelling tale centered on an original, genuine, and vulnerable character."

Michael Bennett won the inaugural Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Nonfiction, for In Dark Places, which the judges called "a scintillating, expertly balanced account of one of the most grievous miscarriages of justice in New Zealand history."

Oline Cogdill
2017-11-15 03:27:20
At the Scene, Holiday Issue #152

152 Holiday cover

Hi Everyone,

Very few writers become true household names but James Patterson has certainly met that bar and then some. As prodigious as his writing output is, his philanthropical activities are just as impressive. Over the past few years, Patterson has given millions of dollars to libraries, classrooms, and independent bookstores across the country. We were delighted that he could take time from his busy schedule to chat with Oline Cogdill in this issue.

One hundred years ago, Mary Roberts Rinehart was almost as famous as Patterson. For some years she was the highest-earning author in the country. Rinehart was also a character, and as our writer Michael Mallory notes: “She made fortunes, lost fortunes, made new fortunes, and lived large with a sense of adventure.”

Brian and I traveled to Toronto for this year’s Bouchercon, and it was wonderful to see friends, new and old, including a number of subscribers. Brian and I ran into Peggy Perdue, curator of the Arthur Conan Doyle Collection at the Toronto Reference Library. Peggy gave Brian a tour of this fascinating collection, which you can read about in this issue.

John Valeri has two interesting interviews in this issue, one with the Maine cozy author Barbara Ross, and the other with Long Island writer Chris Knopf, who has also recently taken on a role at the well-respected Permanent Press.

Oline Cogdill talks to Joe Ide, whose first Isaiah Quintabe novel, IQ, hit several best-of- the-year lists last year and just won both Bouchercon’s Anthony Award and the Private Eye Writers of America’s Shamus Award for best first novel. His new novel, Righteous, is out and I can attest it’s just as much fun as its predecessor. Don’t miss this “hip-hop Sherlock,” he’s a hoot!

Kevin Burton Smith has been searching high and low for exactly the right holiday gifts for the mystery lovers in your life. This year’s bumper crop is sure to help you cope with the season’s shopping—or fill your own stocking with loot.

Brèni James is an almost-forgotten midcentury police procedural writer. Jon L. Breen thinks that’s a shame and makes a solid argument for reappraising her work in this issue. It persuaded me to buy both of her books, which are now at the top of my “to be read” stack. Enjoy!

Enjoy!

Kate Stine
Editor-in-chief

Teri Duerr
2017-11-15 19:41:46
Holiday Issue #152 Contents

152 Holiday cover

Features

James Patterson

It all began with the Edgar-winner The Thomas Berryman Number in 1976 but 183 novels later—135 of which are New York Times bestsellers—Patterson is a publishing phenomenom.
by Oline H. Cogdill

Mary Roberts Rinehart

She was once the bestselling crime novelist in the United States.
by Michael Mallory

Toronto’s Arthur Conan Doyle Collection

This Canadian library offers a treasure trove of first-edition books, interesting ephemera, toys, illustrations, manuscripts, and art.
by Brian Skupin

Barbara Ross: Death in Maine

A small town in coastal Maine is the setting for Ross’ popular cozy tales.
by John B. Valeri

The Hook

First lines that caught our attention.

Joe Ide

Blasting onto the scene with his award-winning IQ, Ide’s “hip-hop Sherlock” is back.
by Oline H. Cogdill

Gifts for Mystery Lovers

Here’s a dazzling array sure to please your favorite crime fiction fan.
by Kevin Burton Smith

Chris Knopf

Not only is he writing acclaimed novels, Knopf has just become a partner in the venerable Permanent Press.
by John B. Valeri

Brèni James

A mid-century police procedural writer who is due for a revival.
by Jon L. Breen

Double Takes
by Marcia Muller & Bill Pronzini

“Soho Crime” Crossword

by Verna Suit

Departments

At the Scene

by Kate Stine

Mystery Miscellany

by Louis Phillips

Hints & Allegations

2017 Anthony, Shamus, Ned Kelly, Dagger, and Derringer awards

Reviews

Small Press Reviews: Covering the Independents

by Betty Webb

Very Original: Paperback Originals Reviewed

by Hank Wagner & Lynne F. Maxwell

Sounds of Suspense: Audiobooks Reviewed

by Dick Lochte

What About Murder? Reference Books Reviewed

by Jon L. Breen

Short and Sweet: Short Stories Considered

by Ben Boulden

Mystery Scene Reviews

Miscellaneous

The Docket

Letters

Our Readers Recommend

Advertiser Info

Teri Duerr
2017-11-15 19:59:24
John Grisham Testifies
Tom Nolan

grisham_john_2010_small

Bestselling author John Grisham spins tales from his early writing days—including the $6 million worth of first editions he once had in his law office—and talks about his current spectacular success, which includes new legal thriller The Litigators and a planned 2012 TV series, The Firm.

"More often than not, I will take an issue and weave a novel around it...whether it's capital punishment in The Chamber or homelessness in The Street Lawyer or tort reform in The King of Torts or tobacco litigation in The Runaway Jury. I think those are the better books."

John Grisham, born in Jonesboro, Arkansas, in 1955, lived in several small towns throughout the South before his family settled in Southaven, Mississippi, in 1967. During the heart of Grisham's childhood, he and his baseball-loving siblings lived in the Memphis area, where they lay awake each night listening to announcer Harry Carey's play-by-play of St. Louis Cardinals games on the radio. "We would actually argue about which of us was going to play what position, one day, for the Cards," Grisham remembers. "The dreams were that real." And John dreamt the biggest: "I wanted to be a star, I mean—I wanted to be the next Stan Musial. I wanted to bat cleanup, and play the outfield, and—be Stan the Man."

John Grisham never got close to playing pro ball; he says, "I barely made my high school team." But in time, he achieved the essence of his dream: He became an undisputed all-star, a Hall of Famer, in his chosen game. For over a decade, he has been one of the world's bestselling novelists.

We spoke with John Grisham recently in Charlottesville, Virginia, before an audience of 600 people in the Culbreth Theatre, during the Virginia Festival of the Book. Here is an abridged version of that interview.

Tom Nolan for Mystery Scene: In the late 1980s, you were practicing law in the state of Mississippi, and had been elected to the State House of Representatives, where you served for seven years. You were happily married, I presume. Whatever possessed you to separate yourself from your work and your family for however many hours a day, and commit a first novel?

John Grisham: Well, when I started writing what eventually became A Time to Kill, the first thing I'd ever written, my motives were pure. I had a story that I wanted to tell, based on something I'd seen in a courtroom; and I concocted what I thought was a really compelling courtroom drama, as seen through the eyes of a young attorney in a small town—very similar to myself at that time. I was happily married, but a struggling young lawyer.

And the story became an obsession.

Finally, one night I literally sat down with a legal pad and wrote "Chapter One"—and started writing this story. My wife and small son were in bed asleep, and I stayed up late that night, writing, for the first time in my life, something that was fiction.

I worked on it for a few days and finished the first chapter. And I read it, and I thought it was—pretty good. (audience laughter) My wife was an English major in college; and she reads five to eight, ten books a week, all different types of books. So I finally got the courage to say, "Look, I've got something I'd like you to look at, if you don't mind."

She said, "What is it?"

I said, "Well, it's a book I'm writing."

And she gave me that look, like: "Unh, here he goes again; some other scheme ..."

I gave it to her. I was so nervous, I went for a walk around the block; I couldn't be in the house with her when she was reading my first chapter. And when I came back, she said, "Well, this is pretty good; I'd like to read some more." And I said, "Okay, I'll go write some more and bring it back ..." (laughter)

And that's how it got started.

And even now, I'll write a chapter, and she'll read it; or now, like sections—100 pages or so—and she'll read it, and we'll talk about it—and sometimes argue about it. Sometimes yell about it. (laughter) The kids have sort of grown up over the years, with some yelling in the house. They realize: "Oh, it's just mom and dad, fighting over the book," so it's no big deal...

But that's how it got started. And it took three years. Took three years of really early mornings, and working late at night, and a lot of lost sleep, to finish the story. Now again, this is a long answer—and by the way, I give long answers.

grisham_timetokillFine with me.

After about two years, when I realized I was halfway finished with A Time to Kill, my motives changed. I started thinking about getting published... I bought a book, the name of it was How to Become a Bestselling Author—written by a guy who never sold anything, but he got fourteen dollars from me. (laughter) I got really motivated to finish the book and to try to get it published...

Once A Time to Kill was finished, I spent a year submitting it to New York publishers. I'd read all these books on how you submit. I would copy the first three chapters. My secretary made a list of like thirty agents on one sheet of paper, and thirty publishers on the other; and we would do multiple submissions. She'd pick the first five on one list, the first five on the other. So at any given time, I had ten submissions floating around New York. And I'd send one batch off, they'd send them right back! They were coming back real fast!

The first one, by the way, was from Doubleday, my publisher for the past fourteen years... I kept that letter and shared it with them a few years later, and we all had a big laugh... But my secretary would go to the next name and cross it off, and just resubmit and resubmit and resubmit. And it was kind of fun. I mean, the mail was happening, something was going on. I was getting all these rejections... (laughter)

You know, I'd read so much about publishing that I knew there are wonderful stories about writers who get great books rejected twenty, thirty, forty times; I'd read all these stories, and so I wasn't really worried.

But one day I came in from work, and (my wife) Renee and I were having dinner. I was kind of down; I'd had a bunch of rejections that day. And we talked about it. She said, "Well you know, you're sending off the first three chapters of the book." I said, "Yeah, that's what you're supposed to do." She said, "Well ... the first three chapters are not the best ones in the book. Why don't you pick three other chapters?" And I said, "You mean, just pick three chapters at random?" And she said, "Yeah." And I said, "Well, that's pretty stupid. Who wants three random chapters?" And she said, "Well you're not doing so hot with the first three, so..." (laughter)

So I did. I went to copy the first chapter, the third chapter, and the seventh chapter; something really pivotal happens in the seventh chapter. I went to the next five names on the list, five agents, and sent some out. Within a week, three of the agents had called. So, around home I said, "Okay, now what do we do?"...

It took a year for my new agent to sell A Time to Kill to a very small, unknown, brand new publishing company in New York; the book was published in June of '89. I didn't have a lot of money in June of '89. But I had more than my publisher. (laughter)

That's not a good sign.

They printed 5,000 hardback copies of A Time to Kill, and I bought a thousand of them. (laughter) True story.

They actually shipped me 1,500 to my law office. And...I had to pay for them, of course. The little town we lived in at that time did not have a nice bookstore so our plan was to go to a local library, and I'd invite all my friends to come. I'd have 1,000 books there—and I'd make it both ways, you know; retail, and royalties later. I had it all figured out.

Well, we had a wonderful book party.... We've got pictures of my kids, and they're real small, next to this mountain of books. And when the party was over, I still owned 882 copies of A Time to Kill...

And so for the next year, I sold them out of the trunk of my car, to libraries and bookstores and finally got rid of them.

The funny part of the story is: At one point I had 1,500 copies of that book in my law office; I mean, you couldn't walk in there. And a first edition now sells for something like four thousand bucks. So you can do the math.

That is a funny story.

Yeah. That's real funny. (laughter) It wasn't the first fortune I lost practicing law!

079_grisham_thefirmGiven this return on your investment—what possessed you to write a second book? (laughter)

I'll tell you why I wrote the second book. I'd worked for three years with A Time to Kill, and I'd got in the habit of getting up at five o'clock every morning. My goal every day was to be at my law office at five-thirty, with my first cup of coffee, writing the first word. I did it for three years and it became a habit.

When I sent the manuscript off to New York, my agent was this old really sort of crusty New York guy that'd been around forever, and I called him and said, "Okay, what happens now?" He said, "Look, don't call me every day, okay?" He said, "Let me give you some advice: You start writing another book right now. It'll serve two purposes: Number one, by the time I sell this one, you'll have that one finished. But much more importantly, it'll keep you busy, and you won't be calling me every day."

And so, soon—it was one of those moments that we laugh about now, I'm always pitching ideas to Renee—I said to her, "Okay, I need five minutes, I got an idea for a story." She said, "Okay, what is it?" I said, "All right—there's this law firm that's secretly owned by the Mafia. Nobody knows. It's in a small city; and once you go to work there, no one ever leaves the firm." Blah blah blah. And—I thought I was in trouble again.

Renee said: "Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Do that again. Do that again."

And I pitched again. And she said: "That, is a big, book."

And I said, "Okay. I like that idea." I'd worked so hard with A Time to Kill, over a three-year period, that The Firm was just a naked grab for money, okay? (laughter, applause) It's hard work, and if I'm going to do it, I'm going to try to get paid doing it, okay? And honestly, that's what it was.

And it worked.

Still works ...

Anything interesting happen with that second book that was different from the first book?

Oh, everything was different from the first book! I sent the book to New York in the fall of '89, just after A Time to Kill was published. My agent suggested that I make some changes. There were changes I didn't want to make, and I didn't think his ideas were good, and so we sort of argued for a while. And once he realized I wasn't going to change it to suit him, the book sort of languished in New York throughout the fall of '89. I mean there was no stampede, no rush to buy The Firm. It was just sort of lying there, and I was writing book number three.

Because by then, I'd written two books back-to-back, over a five-year period, and it had become sort of a habit.

And unknown to us—and this is the luckiest break I've had in publishing, and I think everybody at some point has to have a lucky break—unknown to my agent, unknown to anybody, a copy of The Firm was stolen from a publisher in New York—a publisher who hadn't read it yet—and it surfaced in Hollywood, sort of a bootleg copy of the manuscript. And a guy got it out there, and made twenty-five copies of it, and give it to every studio, and sort of gave the impression that he was my representative.

Again, this happens all the time, believe it or not, as I've learned.

What I'd hoped to do, with publishing the second book, hopefully, was go from 5,000 copies of A Time to Kill maybe to 25,000 copies of The Firm, then 50,000—and gradually build a readership, so one day I could do it full-time. That was my dream: to leave the law office and just write. It's a wonderful dream, and that was my goal.

During Christmas of '89, we hadn't heard anything from New York in a long time. We were talking one night, and I said, "Wouldn't it be great if we got like a $50,000 advance for The Firm? I mean, that would take care of a lot of problems." And the first week in January—Sunday morning—I had left to go to church, because it takes like three cars to get us to church down the street, and Renee came in late, and she said, "You've got to go call New York."

Well—these (New York) people don't work on Sundays. They don't work on Fridays, or Thursdays. (laughter) I said, "What are you talking about?" She said, "Your agent just called. Something big is about to happen, you've got to talk to him right now."

I raced home. I called my agent in New York, and he said, "I need your permission to take the highest offer from Disney, Touchstone, Paramount, or Universal Pictures for the film rights to The Firm."

And I said, "Slow down, we haven't sold the book rights yet." He said, "I don't have time!" (laughter) He said, "These people in L.A. are sitting by their phones for the final round of bidding."

Well the word bidding had a real nice ring to it... And I said, "Well okay, sure, uh, just for fun—how much money we talking about?" He said, "I'm going to try to get $500,000." I said, "And you want my permission to go do that? Okay, you have my permission."

And I went back to church with Renee. And I was sitting through the worship service; you can imagine what we were thinking about. It wasn't the sermon.

We raced home, and literally the phone was ringing. It was my agent. He said, "We sold the film rights to The Firm to Paramount Pictures." Then he proceeded to tell me all of the hard-nosed negotiation he had done. I said, "Okay okay okay—just for fun: How much money did we get?" And he said, "Six hundred thousand dollars."

I said, "You were hoping to get five, how'd you get six?"

He said, "I'm just a helluva agent." I said, "Amen, brother. Amen."

We sat down... Renee and I both come from these very close-knit, conservative Southern Baptist families; and we were both raised to never talk about money outside the family. There was no money inside the family, but—you never discussed money, okay? And we knew what we had just gone through was about to change everything. So we told our parents; her mom and dad lived on one side of the house, and my parents lived behind us. We said, "Okay, it's going to be a movie. Maybe it's going to be a book, too, but it's going to be a movie!" (laughter) Of course everybody wanted to know: how much did you get? And we said, "We're not going to talk about the money, we just feel very uncomfortable talking about the money."

Well, Monday morning, Paramount issued a press release, with all the details in it. And that's why that's the only deal I'll ever talk about publicly, because it was publicized.

A couple weeks later, we sold the hardcover/softcover rights to Doubleday and to Dell. And throughout the course of 1990, we sold off the foreign rights. A Time to Kill never went to paperback, let alone foreign rights. So it was fascinating: You write it one time in your own language, and it sells in forty more.

Then when the book came out, in March of '91, it had a lot of buzz, a lot of pressure behind it, and became a big book.

079_grisham_pelicanbriefNow that your situation had changed so much, was there a lot of pressure for the book after The Firm?

We always are pulling for the new guy, whatever it is, whether it's books or movies or sports. We always love the rookie, and all of that. Then we can't wait to see him stumble. That's the way we are: we love the underdogs, but we want people to be kept in their place. I knew the next book, whatever it was, was going to be hammered. So I made a decision—looking back, it was one of the wiser decisions I made—to get the next book out the following year, and go ahead and get the thrashing over with. And I got the thrashing, and I got it over with. I'm still getting thrashed, but I don't care any more. (laughter)

You were happy with the (third) book, though, right? You liked that book just as well as the others?

As time goes by, I look back, I like some books more than others. It's hard to believe there've been fifteen of them now; that doesn't seem like it's possible. But you do at least a book a year for twelve or thirteen years, and you wake up and you've written fifteen.

You have to like a book a lot, you have to love a story, to be able to finish the book. But then when I finish it... I don't dwell on the current publication ... It's time to start thinking about the next book.

As time passes, obviously, I think some are better than others. There are a couple, I think, looking back, that probably weren't very good at all, in my estimation.

But when you do a book a year, I mean—you write the best story you have that year.

And that's what I'm thinking about now. You know, I'm going to do a book this year, and—it's time to pick a story and go.

And when I start a book, I truly think: "Okay, I'm going to make this the best book yet." And—I mean, I take it very seriously, and I try, whatever type of book it is, to make it the best one yet. Sometimes I get close, and sometimes I don't.

You've said that some of your books are maybe a bit more serious or issue-driven than others?

Well, probably more often than not, I will take an issue and weave a novel around it. I do that to—not expose the issue, but just to explore it, to make people stop and think about whatever the issue is, whether it's capital punishment in The Chamber or homelessness in The Street Lawyer or tort reform in the current book (The King of Torts) or the tobacco litigation in The Runaway Jury. I think those are the better books.

At the same time, what I try to do—what I strive for—is a high quality of popular fiction. That's what I'm trying to write. It's entertainment. And I've never been pretentious about it. I want it to be real good—and I work hard at making it good.

There are times when I don't want issues; I want pure suspense, with a lot of mystery in it. There are times when Renee says, "Please stop preaching and just write a book?" And things are pretty testy around the house when she says that, so... (laughter) I'll go off and write The Summons, or I'll write The Brethren...

Were you a great reader, as a kid?

Yeah, my mom didn't believe in television. She just didn't. We moved around a lot when I was a kid, a lot of little small towns in the deep South, and the first thing we'd do was always join the local Baptist church, and the second thing would be to get our library cards. We would judge the quality of the new town by the number of books you could check out. And also by the quality of their Little League baseball field. My brothers and I could judge a town in a couple hours ...

We always had stacks of books around the house. It was a big family; we would read each other's books, and my mother would read to us. And I grew up loving to read.

I had the benefit of some really good high-school English teachers, who made us read great literature, and taught us how to. In Mississippi, there's a state law that you have to read Faulkner. (laughter)

I didn't know that.

Yeah, well—it's on the books.

It's a good law.

Every school child in Mississippi has to read Faulkner. I had a great teacher who also let us read, like, Steinbeck. So, when I was a senior in high school, I was reading Faulkner, you know, with a migraine—and Steinbeck, who I just adored, because you could understand what he was saying. (laughter)

I mean I never dreamed about being a writer, but when I read The Grapes of Wrath, I remember thinking, "If I could write, that's the way I would want to write." You know: clear, but also with passion, and meaning.

Did you read mystery writers, too?

When I was a kid I read a lot of them, yeah. All the Hardy Boys... (laughter) All of those.

Were you encouraged to write?

Never. No, I never thought about writing. I thought I was going to be an athlete, professionally. Wasn't sure which sport; didn't really matter, I'd figure one out. But I was never recruited, so that was a pretty good indication that I'd...need to study... (laughter)

And somehow I ended up in law school, and I thought I would do that for the rest of my life—until, like I said, I was inspired to write. I was thirty years old. It was 1985 before I started writing.

And how long did you keep practicing law?

That phone call, on The Firm? I think the next day. (laughter) It didn't take long. The legal career, and the political career, went by the wayside real quick, after that phone call.

Do you miss politics?

I don't miss being an elected official; that was really painful. I was elected twice to the House of Representatives in Mississippi. The campaigns were fun, but the job itself was drudgery. I love to watch politics, and I follow politics and keep up with it and get involved a little bit with some candidates I like...

Did you have a high point in your political career?

The day I announced I was not going to seek reelection. It's the last time people stood up and cheered for me. (laughter)

grisham_rainmakerfilm

So, you got involved with these Hollywood people pretty early on. Was that interesting?

Oh, it's a fascinating bunch of people, yeah.... I've never gotten too close to them.... I'll read the script, and make a lot of notes on the script; try to keep the story together. My contract now, I can negotiate certain rights. I don't want to cast for the movies, but if they're trying to cast someone that I really don't like, I can steer them away from that. If there's a director I really don't like, you know, I can request someone else.

But if you start making those choices, you sort of get sucked into the filmmaking process, and I know nothing about it, and I don't want to learn.

But listen: I've had six movies, and I've enjoyed watching five of them. That's pretty amazing.

The Chamber was a train wreck from the very beginning, and a lot of it was my fault. ...The best one is The Rainmaker (applause), with young Matt Damon, and Danny DeVito; Francis Ford Coppola did the movie. I loved the movie... It came out one week before Titanic—so nobody went to see it. But it's the best adaptation.

I met Stephen King a few years ago, at a book festival, in Mississippi... We hung out together for a couple of days, and we were talking about movies. This is a guy who's had forty movies made of his books, or stories... and he said, "Let me give you some advice. When it comes to dealing with Hollywood, there are two groups of writers. There are those who do not deal with Hollywood, okay? Period. That's a small group. The second group consists of those of us who do. And if you're in the second group, there are a couple of simple rules: Get all your money up front; kiss the book goodbye; and expect the movie to be something different. If you don't like that—go join the first group." I thought that was great advice, and I've stuck to it.

grisham_paintedhouseYou said you had some books you sort of prefer or think better of; do you have one that's your all-time favorite?

For years it was A Time to Kill; that was my favorite because it was close to home and all that.

I really like A Painted House. There are no lawyers in it. (laughter) I do get tired of writing about lawyers, occasionally... It's just a different kind of book; it's a childhood memoir, it's a lot of family lore, and there's a lot of autobiography in it; so I think now Painted House is probably my favorite.

Audience question: Do you still get up at five, to write?

Yes, I still get up at five o'clock in the morning. Well, I get up at six. Old habits are hard to break...

The schedule hasn't changed in probably close to ten years now. About this time of the year (March), I'll tell Doubleday yes or no on a book for February first of next year. Then we work back. For them to publish February first, they've got to see a good first draft by November first. And then to do that I've got to work real hard in September, October, and November.

But it's time to start the story really by the time school's out; I'll start doing a page or two a day, and that's usually at six in the morning. Maybe three, on a good day, throughout the summertime. And then, when the kids go back to school after Labor Day, I kind of go in my office and lock the door. There are no phones or faxes in my office, and it gets real dark over there, especially at six in the morning. And I work real hard from six to about eleven or twelve, for the first three months...

I'll spend the month of November doing revisions, which is the least attractive part of it. I'm determined every year to be finished by Thanksgiving. Then they start printing the books December the first, in Berryville, Virginia, just up the road. They print 100,000 a day, for a month.

I actually took my daughter's fourth-grade class to Berryville on a field trip. They were printing The Partner, at like 100 a minute or so. It's kind of fun to watch. Yanked one off the press and signed it for all the kids...

They ship them to the warehouse in January, and they have them in the stores the first Tuesday in February. And that's what's going to happen next year, if nothing bad happens to me. I've got the story.

Audience question: Do you work from an outline?

I work from a real extensive outline. When I think I have a story, I'll say, "Okay, Chapter One"—and write a paragraph about Chapter One. And Chapter Two—and all the way through Chapter Forty.

Forty chapters, at ten pages each, is what I shoot for. They're getting thinner—because I'm getting lazier. The price is not going down, though. (laughter) And they're all from 375 to 500 pages. I think a lot of popular authors get in trouble, because their books just get thicker... Anyway, the outlining process can go on for a long time, even a year or two. But it makes you see the whole story. And when you write suspense it's sort of like writing mystery: you have to drop off clues along the way, you have to make sure you've got your main plot that works, and your core subplot that works. And you've got to be able to see that when you start. You can't predict everything that's going to happen; you can't predict every character you're going to come up with. But I've been in trouble twice, in fifteen books—trouble, meaning I was really worried about a deadline because I couldn't get the story finished—and both times, it was because I'd cheated on the outline. If my outline is in good shape, the book is real easy to write.

Outlining is nothing fun, and the revisions are painful. But I tell students and writers all the time, if you're not willing to do those two things, then you're not going to make it as a writer.

runaway_jury_smallMystery Scene: Do you ever depart from the outline, comfortably?

I don't think so. I can't remember doing that. I'd be afraid to. Especially the way I back myself into a corner with time? I mean, I don't have a lot of extra time! If I had a good case of the flu in October, it would be trouble.

Audience question: How do you develop your characters?

How do I develop my characters? Well, the critics say that I do not! (laughter) And you know, some of that's fair; I'll tell you, it's fair.

When you write suspense, you have to sacrifice certain things, to keep the pages turning. And I deliberately try to make the pages turn. I want people staying up late at night, calling in sick for work... That's what I want.

It's not always easy. But to do that, you've got to sacrifice certain things. You've got to sacrifice things you would like to explore: people, relationships, setting, places, culture, food.

I did that with A Time to Kill. The first draft was some 1,000 pages, because I chased every wild rabbit I wanted to chase. A lot of it came out, but a lot of it stayed. Because it's the only book I've written with no deadline. It's probably the best book I've written.

I try to find characters—You've got to start with your principal character, it's got to be somebody that your reader cares about. And that's the hardest one. You've got to get them in trouble, and you've got to get them out. And your readers have got to care about that person when they're in trouble, or you've lost them. That's basic suspense, and I did not invent it. I heard it from Robert Ludlum...

Audience question: Who do you read, for your own enjoyment?

I'm in the middle of all of the great Raymond Chandler novels, the Philip Marlowe novels? I don't know why, I started reading them last fall, and it's some of the best stuff I've ever read.

I read most of the other lawyer/authors, just to kind of monitor the competition? Some are good; some are not too good.

Oh, my favorite author is a British guy, John le Carré—David Cornwell? He's a master of espionage and suspense; I love that guy's stuff. You know, Pat Conroy's a buddy. Of course he publishes once every ten years, so it's kind of hard to say you live for his books. I guess you do. (laughter)

Audience question: Do you have trouble thinking up a new plot every year or do you have them already lined up?

When you do what I do, and you watch lawyers, and you watch litigation and trends in litigation, and courtroom dramas, and the really colorful, wacky, crazy things that lawyers do—the material is endless. (laughter) I'm not kidding, the material is endless. As someone mentioned earlier: Enron, Worldcom—things like that just, pop up. And it really keeps me awake at night, wondering: How am I going to skewer all these lawyers?

john_grisham_room_smallThe Paper Trail

The John Grisham Room, located in the Mitchell Memorial Library on the campus of Mississippi State University, contains papers and materials donated by the author to his alma mater.

Included are legislative subject files from Grisham’s 1983-1990 service as a representative in the Mississippi Legislature; the original manuscript and various revisions of his first novel, A Time to Kill, as well as drafts of The Firm, The Pelican Brief, and The Client; various photographs of his legislative and literary days; correspondences, including fan mail, personal letters, requests for public appearances, and solicitations; and promotional materials and newspaper clippings.

A JOHN GRISHAM READING/VIEWING LIST

Novels
A Time to Kill (1989)
The Firm (1991)
The Pelican Brief (1992)
The Client (1993)
The Chamber (1994)
The Rainmaker (1995)
The Runaway Jury (1996)
The Partner (1997)
The Street Lawyer (1998)
The Testament (1999)
The Brethren (2000)
A Painted House (2001)
Skipping Christmas (2001)
The Summons (2002)
The King of Torts (2003)
Bleachers (2003)
The Last Juror (2004)
The Broker (2005)
Playing for Pizza (2007)
The Appeal (2008)
The Associate (2009)
The Confession (2010)
The Litigators (2011)

Theodore Boone YA Series
Kid Lawyer (2010)
The Abduction (2011)

Movies
The Firm (1993) Starring Tom Cruise, Jeanne Tripplehorn, and Gene Hackman; Directed by Sydney Pollack
The Pelican Brief (1993) Starring Julia Roberts, Denzel Washington, and Sam Shepard; Directed by Alan J. Pakula
The Client (1994) Starring Susan Sarandon, Tommy Lee Jones, and Mary-Louise Parker; Directed by Joel Schumacher
A Time to Kill (1996) Starring Matthew McConaughey, Sandra Bullock, and Samuel L. Jackson; Directed by Joel Schumacher
The Chamber (1996) Starring Chris O’Donnell, Gene Hackman, and Faye Dunaway; Directed by James Foley
The Rainmaker (1997) Starring Matt Damon, Danny DeVito, and Claire Danes; Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
79Cover_smallThe Runaway Jury (2003) Starring John Cusack, Gene Hackman, and Dustin Hoffman; Directed by Gary Fleder
Christmas With the Kranks (2004) Starring Tim Allen, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Dan Aykroyd; Directed by Joe Roth

Tom Nolan is the author of Ross Macdonald: A Biography and the editor of Strangers in Town: Three Newly Discovered Mysteries by Ross Macdonald (Crippen & Landru).

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Spring Issue #79.

Teri Duerr
2010-03-31 18:29:48

grisham_john_2010_smallJohn Grisham holds court with MS and shares about his early writing days to his current success.

Day of the Dark: Stories of Eclipse
Betty Webb

In tribute to the total eclipse of 2017, I’ve decided to start off this column with Day of the Dark: Stories of Eclipse, edited by Kaye George. While the stories are uneven—some terrific, some blah—each provides a plotline based on those amazing two hours so many of us experienced. The most dire take on the eclipse arrives in Carol L. Wright’s “Dark Side of the Light,” in which a NASA scientist knows something about the upcoming event that his not-very-bright wife doesn’t know. But one of my favorite stories in the collection is Leslie Wheeler’s “Chasing the Moon,” which focuses on several groups of people in different states as the eclipse sweeps across the US, from Madras, Oregon, to Columbia, South Carolina. For some, it’s a wonderful event; for others, not so much. Paul D. Marks’ “Blood Moon” offers a bleak, noirish tale, while Melissa H. Blaine’s “The Devil’s Standtable” goes in the opposite direction by presenting readers with a group of loonies who see—or imagine—all sorts of otherworldly goings-on during the totality. An important thing to remember while reading these stories is that they were all written before the eclipse, when all sorts of odd human behaviors were being forecast, as in the story where the end of the world is proclaimed as nigh. Fortunately, in real life we dodged that particular bullet. After all, we’re still here, still complaining about the weather. Editor Kaye George is to be congratulated for putting together such an interesting and varied collection about a once-in-a-lifetime event.

Teri Duerr
2017-11-16 19:34:35

In tribute to the total eclipse of 2017, I’ve decided to start off this column with Day of the Dark: Stories of Eclipse, edited by Kaye George. While the stories are uneven—some terrific, some blah—each provides a plotline based on those amazing two hours so many of us experienced.

Double Wide
Betty Webb

There are no eclipses in Leo W. Banks’ Double Wide, other than in the dark side of the human heart, yet this tale of a washed-up pro baseball pitcher living in a 1977 Airstream trailer in the Arizona desert is filled with wit. His career long tanked, Prospero “Whip” Stark stays financially afloat by renting out space in Double Wide, his small, self-owned trailer court. One morning someone leaves an amputated human hand in a box on the Airstream’s doorstep. By studying the tattoos on the hand, Whip realizes it belongs to pitcher Rolando Molina, his onetime catcher and longtime friend. The day gets even worse when Whip comes across a dead man near Paradise Mountain, one of the major routes for the area’s drug traffickers as they make their way from Mexico into the US. But the dead man is a stranger, and he has both his hands. Probably a drug mule, Whip figures. Deciding to let the authorities deal with the problem, he commits himself to finding the rest of his friend Rolando. The plot of Double Wide delivers a lot of drug cartel, baseball, and agave cacti information, all of which is interesting enough. But where Double Wide really shines is in its characters. Softhearted Whip is a novelist’s dream protagonist: a once-famous sports figure who is now perfectly content to spend his time rescuing downtrodden drunks, teenage runaways, and women who are no better than they should be. While some of the book’s other characters may be a bit over-the-top, such as the hard-drinking TV anchorwoman, few readers will mind because they are all so much fun. My personal favorite is Whip’s father, a once-renowned college professor who may or may not have murdered a prostitute while in the throes of his heroin addiction. The loyal Whip makes a weekly 200-mile round trip to visit his jailed father while he awaits his trial. By the end of the book (I’m not giving anything away here) Dear Old Dad is still in lockup. But that’s good news, because maybe Whip can spring him in a sequel. I certainly hope so, because the half-hilarious, half-somber Double Wide is so good it could bear at least one sequel. Maybe even a dozen.

Teri Duerr
2017-11-16 19:44:51
Full Bodied Murder
Lynne F. Maxwell

During the dark, dismal days of winter (for many of us), what could be more inviting than a cozy mystery set in balmy Los Angeles? Well, how about a cozy set in Los Angeles—with wine! Just in time, Christine E. Blum serves up Full Bodied Murder, first in a new series featuring Annie “Halsey” Hall and the Rose Avenue Wine Club. Like many other novice sleuths in the cozy tradition, Halsey is a refugee from a failed romance, a high-stress job (designing computer apps), and the big city, in this case New York. Unlike so many of her fictional peers, though, Halsey exchanges her complicated big-city life for an equally complicated big-city life in LA. Halsey isn’t one for downsizing and simplifying; rather, she purchases a house with a pool and, accompanied by her Labrador puppy, sets up as a freelance web designer. No business owner retail nirvana for her! In fact, she can barely generate work product because she immediately befriends a group of local ladies who constitute the Rose Avenue Wine Club. And, boy, these folks are serious oenophiles! I lost count of the bottles of wine that the club members consume on a seemingly daily basis. Most mysterious of all, they never seem to suffer from hangovers. While Halsey contrives to escape morning-after headaches, she does incur an inordinate number of head injuries. That’s because she swiftly discovers the corpse of a neighbor who has been murdered with a knife. With her newfound group of wine lovers, she determines to identify the murderer. Certainly, there is no shortage of suspects in the neighborhood, where drug dealers and a suspicious couple engage in nefarious activities. Fortunately, Halsey hooks up with hunky dog trainer Jack, who also assists in the investigation. Finally, after sustaining the aforementioned concussions, she does identify the killer. Full Bodied Murder is a success story. Introducing a hilarious heroine who creates a vibrant new life for herself, replete with new romance, new job, and new neighborhood populated by quirky, enjoyable friends who know how to imbibe wine. Cheers to Christine E. Blum, who presents a witty new cozy series—and a fully-stocked glossary of wine, which is even better than the recipes that populate other mysteries. Decant this one, ASAP!

Teri Duerr
2017-11-16 19:49:32
Mayhem & Mass: A Sister Lou Mystery
Lynne F. Maxwell

In Olivia Matthews’ first series novel, Mayhem & Mass: A Sister Lou Mystery, Sister Lou is a nun in a non-cloistered order based in Briar Coast, located in upstate New York. Sister Lou is something of a renegade. A former academic, she succeeds in inviting Maurice “Mo” Jordan, her former graduate school colleague and friend, to deliver the speech commemorating St. Hermione of Ephesus Feast Day. Mo is a theology professor at a small college in Buffalo and is renowned for his brilliant, albeit highly controversial, scholarship. When Sister Lou meets Mo for dinner the night before the controversial speech, she is shocked to see how depressed he has become. In fact, he confides that he will be giving up his research travel and speaking engagements in order to spend more time at home with his wife and estranged son. Certainly, Mo no longer resembles the vibrant friend whom Sister Lou has known for decades. Nonetheless, she looks forward to hearing the speech and arranges to meet with him in the morning at the college affiliated with her convent. Alarmingly—but not surprising to the seasoned mystery reader—Mo fails to appear, and Sister Lou rushes to his hotel room, where she discovers that he has been murdered. Who would want to kill a gentle theology professor? His wife, who is having an affair? His wife’s lover? His estranged son, who resents the fact that Mo always placed his work before his family? His jealous colleagues, who were always eclipsed by his brilliance and fame? Or perhaps the man who strove to become a business partner?

Sister Lou assembles a makeshift team of investigators consisting of her handsome young nephew Chris, a development officer at the college, and Shari, a young reporter who is willing to sacrifice her job to uphold her principles by practicing honest, community-oriented journalism. After carefully identifying and vetting multiple suspects, to the chagrin of the police, Sister Lou and her team succeed in solving the mystery and apprehending the murderer.

Kudos to Olivia Matthews, who has created a new “hook” to draw in readers. Mayhem & Mass draws readers into the unfamiliar world of convents, colleges, and the politics that plague them. Not only do readers delight in meeting new friends—Sister Lou, Chris, and Shari—but they also get a glimpse of the petty egotism that plagues every profession. Jealousy abounds, while integrity takes a back seat to expedience and security. Amen, Sister Lou!

Teri Duerr
2017-11-16 19:57:21
The House at Baker Street
Hank Wagner

The House at Baker Street features, as you might expect from the title, the legendary consulting detectives Messrs. Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, MD. But in House, they only appear as supporting characters, on the periphery of the main action, as the focus of Michelle Birkby’s arresting debut are the women in their lives: their landlady, the surprisingly formidable Mrs. Hudson, and Watson’s beloved, ultra-competent spouse, Mary. Here, the duo come to the aid of a desperate client that Holmes has impatiently turned away, one Mrs. Laura Shirley, who is being blackmailed by a truly loathsome creature who enjoys destroying lives.

Birkby walks a fine line here, careful to develop the two women who remain largely in the background of the Holmes canon, while at the same time dropping myriad grace notes into the mix. Thus, readers learn more about Mrs. Higgins’ background, and her close relationship with Mary, but also get to enjoy cameos from the Baker Street Irregulars, Mycroft Holmes, and, as you might have guessed, Irene Adler. Birkby navigates the tricky terrain expertly, setting up a series that promises a great deal of charm, and, more importantly, staying power.

Teri Duerr
2017-11-16 20:05:56

The House at Baker Street features, as you might expect from the title, the legendary consulting detectives Messrs. Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, MD. But in House, they only appear as supporting characters, on the periphery of the main action, as the focus of Michelle Birkby’s arresting debut are the women in their lives: their landlady, the surprisingly formidable Mrs. Hudson, and Watson’s beloved, ultra-competent spouse, Mary.

Fall
Hank Wagner

Candice Fox, winner of the Australian Ned Kelly award for her first novel in her series of unnerving Archer and Bennett thrillers, Hades, and winner of another Ned Kelly for the follow-up, Eden, now delivers the third in that series, the equally harrowing and disturbing Fall. It finds the two Aussie detectives struggling to pick up the pieces of their chaotic lives after the events of their first two adventures, even as they go about their daily duties, in this case, investigating the savage killing of a jogger in a public park. Things are further complicated by Bennett’s new love interest, Imogen, who has taken a deep interest in Eden’s mysterious and unsavory past. It’s inevitable that things will get messy, but that’s what makes these books so irresistible, their utter darkness, unpredictability, and their complex and well-drawn characters, who inhabit a volatile world that few of us can comprehend.

Teri Duerr
2017-11-16 20:24:52
A Legacy of Spies
Dick Lochte

In 1963, John le Carré leaped into literary stardom with his alternative to Ian Fleming’s popular fantasy adventures of superspy James Bond. Under his birth name, David Cornwell, he worked in Intelligence during the 1950s and a portion of the ’60s, giving him an even more jaundiced view of the clandestine profession than Graham Greene’s. His grim and gritty, ultra-realistic The Spy Who Came in From the Cold may have focused on hapless British agent Alec Leamas and his desperate attempt to complete an impossible assignment, but it also featured spymaster George Smiley, a character who’d previously solved crimes in the author’s first novels, both mystery fiction, Call for the Dead (1961) and A Murder of Quality (1962). After The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Smiley, the top investigator in England’s intelligence service, held sway over several superb novels, including Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) and The Honorable Schoolboy (1977). Though The Secret Pilgrim (1990) includes stories from the master’s past, the character was retired by the author after Smiley’s People (1979). Until now. Still, Smiley isn’t the protagonist of A Legacy of Spies. That would be his right hand man, Peter Guillam, once described as “Young Peter,” but these days feeling his age and a strange mixture of annoyance and fear at being plucked from retirement by a new generation of intelligence operatives who pressure him for the whereabouts of his mentor. They want to “interrogate” Smiley about the more controversial activities of The Circus (le Carré’s name for the agency) during the Cold War years. They’re particularly interested in those involving the fate of Leamas and a woman he recruited, whose offspring are suing the British government. This is a very clever way for the author to bring us up to date on his famous Smiley, who eventually puts in a notable appearance, to answer some of the questions left at the end of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (and The Honorable Schoolboy), and to close the file on The Circus’ Cold War years. Le Carré was the reader of most if not all of his previous audio novels, but this time he has left that task to actor Hollander, who appeared in the recent miniseries made from the author’s The Night Manager. Either purposely or by chance, he sounds very much like le Carré, properly British, with a smooth, perfectly paced, compelling delivery. He does a splendid job of vocally interpreting the many moods of the book’s narrator, Guillam, who’s insulted, threatened, stalked, and battered. He’s also particularly adept at catching the smarmy, insinuating tones of Guillam’s interrogators, the loathsome, insinuating Bunny and the feral Laura. Unlike le Carré, Hollander does not imitate Alec Guinness in giving voice to Smiley. He could, of course, be imitating the more recent Smiley, Gary Oldman, but who would know?

Teri Duerr
2017-11-16 20:33:28
Glass Houses
Dick Lochte

In her new novel featuring Armand Gamache, now Chief Superintendent of the Sûreté du Québec, Penny manages to combine a very old legend about the cobrador del frac, a masked, hooded, cloaked-in-black figure who collects debts, monetary and moral, with a fairly new problem, the opioid crisis. The plot primarily consists of flashback events bookended and triggered by a murder trial in Montreal in which Gamache is a witness for the prosecution. Penny immediately taunts us with a number of questions. Who’s the victim? Who’s on trial? And why is the prosecutor treating Gamache as if he were a hostile witness? The answers are parceled out during trips back several months to the cozy Canadian village of Three Pines where the superintendent and his wife, Reine-Marie, spend at least a portion of each novel in the series, enjoying the friendship of its charmingly eccentric citizens, like portraitist Clara Morrow, Gabri and Olivier, the bickering owners of the B&B, and, of course, the always angry old poet, Ruth Zardo, and her pet duck. This time Three Pines is far from carefree. A hooded man, identified by a visiting Spaniard as a cobrador, sits silent and unmoving on the village green, freaking out the townsfolk. Eventually, there is a murder. But more perplexing is Gamache’s odd behavior. With complaints of his ineptitude growing stronger, he seems to be making do-nothing decisions that add fuel to that fire. Could his obsession with the increasing dangers of opioids offer a clue? Bathurst, who became the series audio reader after the death of Ralph Cosham, continues to find vocal nuances serving Penny’s evolving characters. Here, he adds a large amount of determination to Gamache’s speech and a touch of concern and worry from his wife, friends, and associates as complaints of his inaction and ineptitude grow.

Teri Duerr
2017-11-16 20:40:12

In her new novel featuring Armand Gamache, now Chief Superintendent of the Sûreté du Québec, Penny manages to combine a very old legend about the cobrador del frac, a masked, hooded, cloaked-in-black figure who collects debts, monetary and moral, with a fairly new problem, the opioid crisis.

Incendiary: The Psychiatrist, the Mad Bomber, and the Invention of Criminal Profiling
Jon L. Breen

An explosive device planted at New York’s 1939 World’s Fair launched the career of the Mad Bomber, who would periodically rattle the city through the mid-1950s—with an announced hiatus for the duration of World War II in demonstration of his patriotism! Cannell’s distinguished work of true-crime writing recounts not only the bombings, their investigation, solution, and aftermath, but also the history of anarchist terrorism in the 20th century, American police work, and the ascendency and decline of newspaper journalism. It also serves as a dual biography of the bomber, not an anarchist but a disabled former Consolidated Edison employee who had a valid though inappropriately expressed grievance against the company, and the Freudian psychiatrist who through analyzing clues in the bomber’s letters to the press drew a portrait that proved to be remarkably accurate.

As science fiction sometimes anticipates the future, in this case so did detective fiction. As Cannell points out, Edgar Allan Poe’s Dupin and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes practiced the same sort of deductive reasoning Dr. James A. Brussel applied to the bomber and later to the Boston Strangler. “In 1956, there was no such thing as criminal profiling; nobody could recall an instance when the police had consulted a psychiatrist. It was a collaboration fabricated in detective novels, but never found in real life.” Brussel admitted in later writings that while he always started “with a solid basis of science...somewhere along the way intuition and imagination begin to take over.” The chapter in which Brussel reveals his profile of the bomber is extremely Sherlockian in feel. And Cannell notes, “Like Sherlock Holmes, he played the odds.”

I initially reviewed Incendiary from the audiobook, which, though effectively read by Peter Berkrot, demonstrates the limitations of the audio format for works of historical nonfiction. The print edition has eight pages of illustrations (most memorably a couple shots of the amiable, respectable-looking, and unthreatening bomber at the time of his arrest), and 19 pages of source notes.

Teri Duerr
2017-11-16 20:46:47
Katherine V. Forrest: A Critical Appreciation
Jon L. Breen

There’s no doubt that For rest, an important figure in the development of lesbian genre fiction and the author of some excellent police procedurals about LA cop Kate Delafield, is worthy of a full-length study. Betz draws on her extensive correspondence with Forrest while discussing contributions to romance and science fiction as well as mysteries. Especially outstanding is the account of the development of Delafield’s character from book to book and the challenges that escaping the closet presents to a female police officer. Occasional slips into the negative features of academic scholarly writing (dissertation-style organization, over-elaboration of obvious concepts, wordiness and jargon) should not turn off fans or general readers. The very readable and knowledgeable discussion of the novels should inspire many to discover or rediscover Forrest’s work.

Teri Duerr
2017-11-16 20:51:06

There’s no doubt that For rest, an important figure in the development of lesbian genre fiction and the author of some excellent police procedurals about LA cop Kate Delafield, is worthy of a full-length study.

Gothic Revival
Dean James

jane_eyre_2011_focus_films

Mia Wasikowska plays the title role of Jane Eyre for the 2011 Focus Films remake of the Bronte classic. Directed by Cary Fukunaga.

Once upon a time, an impoverished young woman took a job as governess to the child of a handsome, brooding aristocrat who lived on a remote estate that was rumored to be haunted. The governess, trying to find her way in her new situation, becomes aware that she is attracted to her employer, despite his reputation and despite the fact that his first wife died under mysterious circumstances. A cloud of fear and suspicion seems to hover over the castle, and odd little accidents begin to occur, as the governess delves into matters best left alone. But eventually, the virtuous and brave governess, despite grave danger to herself, exposes the secrets that have tortured the man she loves, and all ends happily. The governess becomes the new lady of the manor, secure in the love of her new husband and her new position in society.

dumaurier_daphneSound familiar? Ever since the publication in the mid-nineteenth century of Charlotte Bronte’s classic novel, Jane Eyre, writers of romantic suspense fiction (sometimes derisively known as “Gothics”) have rung many changes upon this theme. With the publication of Daphne du Maurier’s classic Rebecca in 1938, this genre of suspense novel gained new interest from publishers and readers alike, and soon many more works of this type began to appear on library and bookstore shelves. In the 1950s, Mary Stewart and Phyllis A. Whitney published novels in this vein, and in 1960, the publication of a novel entitled Mistress of Mellyn under the pseudonym “Victoria Holt” had readers all over the world wondering whether Daphne du Maurier was lurking behind a disguise. Eventually it was revealed that Victoria Holt was the pseudonym of a writer who had already gained a significant readership under the name Jean Plaidy, which was in turn a pseudonym of Eleanor Hibbert.

Stewart, Whitney, Holt—the three Grandes Dames of the modern romantic suspense novel—all became bestsellers in the 1960s and 1970s, and thus the first law of publishing was invoked. If it sells, publish as many like it as you can. Accordingly, the market was soon awash in a sea of Gothics. Some were published in hardcover, but the majority were paperback originals. Ace took the lead in this, bringing out hundreds (if not thousands) of titles, many originals but with some reprints. Besides Stewart, Whitney, and Holt, the premier writers of such fiction in this period were Jane Aiken Hodge and her sister Joan Aiken, Velda Johnston, Dorothy Eden, Anne Maybury, Jill Tattersall, and Barbara Mertz (aka Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Michaels).

odonnell_peter

British author Peter O'Donnell best known for his Modesty Blaise books, also penned gothic romance under the pseudonym Madeleine Brent.

A number of male writers also tapped into this market, under female pseudonyms, of course, and by far the best of these was Peter O’Donnell, creator of Modesty Blaise, who wrote Gothics as “Madeleine Brent.”

As with any glut in the marketplace, there were many inferior products. A fair number of these books featured dimwitted heroines who went into that proverbial dark room at the head of the stairs with no thought to the danger within, and if they had been murdered, well, it would have been little more than they deserved. Unfortunately, the really good books in this genre got tarred with the pitch of the bad ones, and eventually the rubric “Gothic” became as much a term of derision as anything.

Perhaps it was the advent of feminism that began to erode the popularity of gothics, or maybe it was the resurgence of the mystery novel in the late 1970s and early 1980s, with a new breed of heroine, or even a combination of the two, but by 1980 the market had changed. Though a few of the best writers of romantic suspense continued to publish, most fell by the wayside. The best romantic suspense novels, despite the jeers of ill-informed critics, always featured intelligent women who had to work things out for themselves. A man might be there at the end of the day, ready to live happily ever after with our heroine, but it was by her choice, and not his. Let’s not forget Jane Eyre’s triumphant declaration at the end of her story: “Reader, I married him.” Notice she didn’t say, “He married me.” Jane made the choice, not Rochester.

Romantic suspense never went completely away, despite the advent of mystery stories with women in strong roles such as homicide cops, private eyes or medical examiners. Harlequin, the leader in romance fiction for women, has been publishing a line called “Intrigue” for many years, and other publishers have included on their lists novels with romance and a bit of intrigue every year. Romance has been one of the constants of the marketplace in modern publishing ever since Harlequin and Mills & Boon brought out their first titles.

holt_mistressofmellynRomantic suspense these days, however, is in many ways quite different from the classic novels of Mary Stewart, Phyllis A. Whitney, and Victoria Holt. The pace is faster, the romance is far more sexually explicit, and overall the books have an edginess which earlier books eschewed. Some of these changes are reflections of the changes in mystery fiction in general. Mysteries these days are often darker, more violent, and more explicitly graphic in their depictions of crime and its aftermath than in previous decades. Writers of today’s romantic suspense, like the legendary Nora Roberts (who also writes as J. D. Robb), Tami Hoag, Eileen Dreyer, Anne Stuart, and Iris Johansen, all of whom got their starts writing romance fiction, don’t shy away from graphic sex and violence and rather dark themes in their work. Suspense is an important element of these books, but romance is every bit as important. Love continues to conquer all, but these days the path to “Happily Ever After” is strewn with a few more corpses, which may, or may not, have been dismembered by a serial killer.

Admin
2010-03-31 22:29:34

janeeyre_2011Gothic romance has been popular since Jane Eyre first caught the eye of Mr. Rochester.

The Possibilities of Happiness: a Conversation With Alexander Mccall Smith
Charles L. P. Silet

Alexander McCall Smith's The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party is out this spring. In this 2003 Mystery Scene Issue #80 interview, Smith discusses the inspiration for Mma Ramotswe, Botswana, and redbush tea.

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Alexander McCall Smith was born to Scottish parents in Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, where he spent his childhood and received his early education. He returned to Scotland to attend the University of Edinburgh, where he currently holds a Chair in Medical Law. Since leaving Africa he has lived mostly in Scotland with periods in Botswana and Swaziland, and also in Dallas, Texas as a visiting professor. He has published some 50 books including specialist academic titles, collections of short stories, and quite a number of children’s books before beginning his current series. The fifth of the Mma Precious Ramotswe books, The Full Cupboard of Life, will be published in the United Kingdom in June. The fourth, The Kalahari Typing School for Men, was published in the United States in April.

Mystery Scene: How did you begin writing mystery fiction?

Smith: Well, I suppose by accident, really, because I’d never really been involved in the genre prior to writing the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, and it is not a terribly conventional mystery. There is not a great deal of actual crime, and it’s fairly incidental to the other problems that Mma Ramotswe deals with. Mystery readers read the books as mysteries; novel readers read them as novels. So they span both categories. I just became intrigued by the possibility of writing about a woman who has a small private detection agency in Africa, which struck me as being an odd and amusing thing for somebody to do, and the mysteries, such as they are, provide a vehicle for portraying the society and the people who live in Botswana. Obviously if you set up a character with a little tinpot detective agency, all sorts of characters can walk in the door—and do. Then once I’d done that, I realized what terrific possibilities the genre actually held. In mystery or crime fiction you can talk about so much within a society. If you were writing about someone who had a more mundane job, the possibilities would be more difficult. The detective genre also gives a nice potential structure, and then you can branch out and embellish and really write about the things you want to write about while feeling that you’ve still got your readers’ attention.

botswana_mapHow did you decide to set the series in Botswana?

In the '80s, while I was visiting a village in Botswana to the north of the capitol, my hostess took me for a walk, and we called on somebody who was proposing to give her and her husband a chicken for an Independence Day lunch. This lady chased the chicken around the yard creating a tremendous kerfuffle. She was a very well-built lady, and she caught the chicken and promptly wrung its neck and handed it over. She was quite enterprising, cheerful, and ebullient, and I thought it would be interesting to write a story about such a Botswana woman. The germ of the idea was in my mind for a long time, and then around 1996 or 1997 I sat down and wrote the first Ramotswe story which became a book.

Tell me a little about Mma Ramotswe.

Physically she’s described, and indeed she describes herself, as a traditionally built lady, which means that she is quite large. She often says this business about everybody being bony and skinny is a Western idea which is not the traditional view of beauty in Africa. So she’s a large, very cheerful woman, and she’s also very intelligent and has considerable intuitive powers. She sees through people quite easily, she’s very, very direct and sincere, and she can get to the quick of the matter quite easily. She’s proud to be an African, and she’s proud of her country. Plus she’s just tremendous fun.

The series is about a changing Africa and the conflict between the old and new ways. Why focus on a woman to deal with these issues?

In some African societies women can have quite a difficult time, and because African women are usually very hard-working and resourceful and often very put upon, I thought it would be appropriate to describe the society from that particular angle.

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Tell me about the other characters in the series.

The principal male character is Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni, who’s Mma Ramotswe’s fiancé. He’s a garage mechanic and a great man. The idea of these books is to be as positive as possible; there is a romantic streak to them, they are about the possibilities of happiness. Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni is very happy when Mma Ramotswe agrees to become engaged to him. Mma Makutsi really stands for all women who encounter a glass ceiling which prevents them from reaching their potential. She’s a graduate of the Botswana Secretarial College, but she feels that she could be much more, and Mma Ramotswe gives her her chance. And there are the two orphans: Motholeli, and her brother, Puso. They’re based on a couple of real children whom I saw when I visited an orphanage in Botswana. The man who ran the orphanage told me this extraordinary story of how the girl had saved her young brother and then brought him up in somebody’s backyard in Francistown. There are stories like that in Africa of children who somehow survive a pretty difficult beginning. I met the little boy but I didn’t meet his sister. When we go out to Botswana with the BBC—who are doing a show about the background of the books—we are going to track down the girl and find out more about what has happened to her. She does exist and, like the character Motholeli, she’s in a wheelchair.

There is a lyric quality to the books.

There is something very beautiful and beguiling about Africa. There are these great empty spaces and the gorgeous skies and all of that. Also there is a spirituality in life in Africa which I really want to try to get across. One doesn’t want to go over the top, but that does require the prose to have an adequate dignity. So that probably explains it, plus it’s just my style of writing.


Smith_Alexander_McCall

In the books you discuss the traditional values of African society.

Southern African society has quite a strong communitarian culture built on sharing. If you look at traditional patterns of land ownership, the land was held in common, the people had common grazing rights, and neighbors shared common fields. And there were very strong expectations of personal support and help, so you could contact fairly distant cousins if you were in difficulty and claim some help from them. They’re all involved with one another, and they’ve all got responsibilities for one another, but that is changing with urbanization and so on.

Traditionally in Africa there would be no such thing as an unwanted child. The whole idea would be pretty alien to them, in that somebody would take on the child or the child would have a place and an identity. People are raised by communal effort and everybody would have some sort of input into that effort. That’s something that Ramotswe sees changing in Botswana, and she sometimes thinks about the behavior of young people and sees examples of rudeness that would not have happened in her day. Also I think it’s a great pity that when people think about Africa these days they think about the images of starvation, AIDS, and suffering—which admittedly are a part of the reality of Africa—but they are only one part of the reality. People never hear about the decency, the humor, the warmth, the human niceness of so many people in Africa. I would hope these books can try to do something in a small way about portraying some marvelous human values and qualities, to try perhaps to correct the overly sad picture of Africa we get. People are frightened of Africa, they feel there will never be any end to Africa’s suffering as disaster follows disaster. Well, yes, but there is the other side.

The books have been a publishing phenomenon in the States. Do you have any sense why the series has been so popular?

I’ve been delighted that they’ve been well-received in the Unites States, and I’ve thought quite a lot about why that might be so. It strikes me that people in the US actually are quite open-minded, they’re very open to something new, and these novels are a little bit different from what people are used to reading. I also think that perhaps there’s something more profound than that. I don’t know whether I misread the US, but it seems to me that there is a very strong trait of idealism in your country, and the people relate to Mma Ramotswe, to this strong idealistic character.

The reviews here have been very positive.

I can’t tell you how delighted I am. I’ve had the best reaction of anywhere in the US I feel that I have gotten through to my American readers in a way that I have not necessarily gotten through to my readers elsewhere.

One review described Mma Ramotswe as the Miss Marple of Botswana.

I’m flattered but I don’t think she’s really a Miss Marple at all. Precious Ramotswe is far more, how would one put it, modern. When Mma Ramotswe wants to find something out, she just goes and asks somebody and she usually gets the answer. End of the matter. There are no clues, no elaborate working out of convoluted plots; it’s very direct.


no1_ladiesdetective_season1dvdIs it true that The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency
is going to be made into a film?

We gave an option to an extremely nice American woman, Amy Moore, who is currently based in Johannesburg and has a production company there. Then she went to Anthony Minghella, and he became involved. They were talking about a TV series, and now they are talking about a feature film, but I’m not sure where we are.

Are you going to be involved in any way?

They very courteously tell me what they are doing, so I get regular emails from Amy Moore, but I wouldn’t be involved. Obviously, movies involve money with strings, but I wouldn’t want the books changed in too dramatic a fashion. If at all possible the one thing that I would want them to do is to try and preserve the feel of the books. That would be wonderful, but it’s all very complex.

Would you talk a little about a second series you are beginning featuring another lady detective, Isabel Dalhousie?

She’s a person who’s a moral philosopher and who gets involved in people’s affairs, and the book will deal with philosophical issues. She has a Scottish father and an American mother, and she lives in Edinburgh, so there is a Scottish background but she travels around a bit. The first title, The Crushed Strawberry, is named after the color of corduroy trousers worn by the unsuitable boyfriend of the heroine’s niece. You know, the sort of pinky reddish, crushed-strawberry color. What I’m writing about is the opposite side of Edinburgh from that which is portrayed in the usual Edinburgh novel in the genre, for example, of Ian Rankin. This isn’t in any sense criticizing Ian Rankin, but people are used to the underbelly of Edinburgh, now we’re getting the other side of it. This will be the Edinburgh haute bourgeoisie. You know, very different. No bad behavior. We’re tentatively calling the series the Sunday Philosophy Club, and I think that actually works rather well. The title was suggested by my editor at Random House, Edward Kastenmeier. The BBC have optioned the book for a television series.

smith_fullcupboardoflifeWhat can you tell us about the fifth Mma Ramotswe book, which is going to be published in the UK this summer?

It is called The Full Cupboard of Life. It continues matters at the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and a number of new issues arise. I don’t want to give away what happens, but poor Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni is put in a tremendously awkward spot by the matron of the orphan farm, so he’s got to try and get out of his difficulty. I just describe it as a very happy book.

One final question: What is redbush tea?

Redbush tea is a sort of tea that grows in South Africa. It’s naturally caffeine free. It’s a bit of an acquired taste, but if you put honey in it, it is quite refreshing. Edward said to me that he wanted more in the books about it, because the readers keep asking for more. In The Full Cupboard of Life there’s a whole chapter especially written for Edward called “Tea Is the Solution to Everything.”

This article originally appeared in Mystery Scene Summer Issue #80.

Teri Duerr
2010-03-31 23:02:59

mccall__smith_alexander_croppedThe No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency author discusses Mma Ramotswe, Botswana, and redbush tea.