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Mug Shot: Rich Zahradnik

Rich Zahradnik is the award-winning author of the critically acclaimed Coleridge Taylor Mysteries. The latest installment, Lights Out Summer, comes out in October. Publishers Weekly said, “Zahradnik nails the period, with its pack journalism, racism overt and subtle, and the excesses of the wealthy at places like Studio 54, as he shows how one dogged reporter can make a difference.” He worked for almost 30 years in journalism and now teaches kids in the New York area how to write news stories and publish newspapers.

In your most recent finished work, what was the hardest scene to write?
Lights Out Summer is set in 1977. An important set piece is the New York City black out of July 13-14. I was working from newspaper coverage of the looting and destruction. I wanted to turn the facts into a true feel for the chaos of being out on the streets as mass crime happened--the skip-jumpy fear of trying to get through it.

What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
The day after I received an offer of representation, I found out I was admitted to the Crime Fiction Academy, a first-of-its-kind program run by the Center for Fiction. I workshopped my novel during my semester in CFA before my agent took it out to publishers. That effort helped the manuscript a great deal, and it became my first published novel.

What do you think is the best way to market your books?
This is a tough one. I’ve tried Facebook post boosts and ads, Google, Goodreads contests and ads, various deal emails and blog tours and still have not found the outlet that delivers a return on investment. I sold a bunch of books when a novel was priced at 99 cents, and I used the deal newsletters (others than BookBub; I couldn’t get on that one). But after costs, the royalties weren’t much because I’m traditionally published. In the end, I’d say having a PR person work on the book for three months before launch is the thing I would always do because I’ve got someone who knows the crime fiction blog scene and can secure good placements.

Who are some of your favorite authors that you feel were influential in your work?
Michael Connelly, for the way he uses seemingly straightforward, everyday language — though it’s really not — to draw you in. Before you know it, he’s grabbed you with his story. The energy builds and the fireworks go off.

Derek Raymond, for the dark, harsh yet emotional writing of this author of 1980s British noir. I don’t write this way, but I borrow bits of his technique.

Tony Hillerman, for making his landscape and setting a character in all his books. What he did with the southwestern desert, I attempt to do with 1970s New York.

Georges Simenon, for telling great, complex mysteries in 150 pages.

If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
Start writing sooner.

Breaking Formula: The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn

In the late 1960s, Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, the most popular science fiction writers in Russia, decided to write a mystery novel. The Dead Mountaineer's Inn was published in 1970, and its creation may have been motivated in part by the weariness they felt struggling with the Soviet authorities. Once writers of optimistic science fiction that the authorities backed, they had changed with time, and so had their relation to the authorities.

Their work over the years turned more dystopian and satiric, obliquely critical of a system that, in the wake of the post Stalin era thaw, had not delivered on its promises. The brothers liked the mystery genre, and Arkady in particular, who spoke English well, had read such writers as Rex Stout, Erle Stanley Gardner, John LeCarre, and Dashiell Hammett. None of these writers were well-known to the Russian public at the time; since the 1930s, the government had all but banished detective fiction. As Boris wrote in his 1999 memoir, Comments on the Way Left Behind, they meant to write a light-hearted, commercial novel that would be fun to write and raise no alarm bells with the censors.

What they actually concocted was a mystery with a classical set-up. There’s a bizarre murder that takes place at an isolated inn, a detective on vacation, and a cast of oddball suspects. The idea seemed straightforward enough, but of course, being who they were — masters of the weird and the speculative — their novel came out as a genre-masher, something decidedly non-formulaic.

As the novel starts, police inspector Peter Glebsky has left his job and the city behind. He’s also left his wife and kid at home to spend two weeks by himself at a ski chalet called The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn. The inn sits in a remote valley near a place called Bottleneck Pass, and Glebsky intends to enjoy the isolation. He just wants to lounge around, sip port, and ski. He’s a pretty good skier, and the first time he hits the slopes, he feels exhilarated:

With every breath I left myself further behind…left the tightly wound moralist who followed every law to the last letter, the man whose shirt buttons shone, the attentive husband and exemplary father, hospitable to his friends and friendly with his relatives…I was overjoyed to feel all this leaving me, I hoped that it would never return, that from this point forward everything would be light, elastic, crystal-clear, that it would proceed at this same furious, happy, youthful pace, and how good that I’d come here…

The inn has some odd things about it. To begin with, its name — derived from a mountaineer who died nearby when he fell from a cliff and set off an avalanche. The inn’s owner, Alex Snevar, is an eccentric designer of wind turbines he builds himself, and his dog, a Saint Bernard named Lel, seems to have preternatural intelligence. Indeed, Snevar describes his pet as “Sapient,” saying that he “Understands three European languages.” Though the mountaineer died six years ago, Snevar talks about him often, and the place seems imbued with the dead mountaineer’s presence, which Snevar points out to him.

“Yes!” the owner cried. “There’s HIS pipe. That’s HIS jacket. And that over there is HIS alpenstock. ‘Don’t forget your alpenstock,’ I said to him that very morning. He just smiled and shook his head. ‘You don’t want to be stuck up there forever!’ I shouted, a cold premonition passing over me…”

…I muttered something about a lack of respect for the dead.

“Not at all,” the owner retorted thoughtfully. “It’s much more complicated than that. It’s much more complicated, Mr. Glebsky.”

Glebsky doesn’t want riddles and complications on his vacation, but the unanswered questions are just beginning. And then, there are Glebsky’s fellow guests, who he views as irritants.

There’s a traveling salesman named Albert Moses and his gorgeous wife. Mr. Moses is never without a mug in his hand, and though he drinks from it constantly, it always looks full. There’s the famous hypnotist and magician, Du Barnstoker, staying with his adolescent relative Brun —because Glebsky can’t tell the young person’s gender, he refers to the youth as “it” — and there’s Simone, a scientist recovering from a nervous breakdown. Soon, during a snowstorm one night, two new men arrive; one is Hinkus, an enigmatic youth counselor on sick leave, and the other is Olaf Andvarafors, a guy so big and powerful looking, Glebsky calls him a Viking.

With all the major players in place, more oddness ensues—  slapstick even; a person or force is apparently moving hotel objects around and making guests’ personal items disappear. It becomes clear, this is the last place Glebsky should have come to find peace and relaxation. The pacing and overall strangeness of everything keeps the reader both intrigued and laughing. As Ursula Le Guin said of the Strugatsky brothers, “One is descended from Gogol and the other from Chekov, but nobody is sure which is which.”

The storytelling inThe Dead Mountaineer’s Inn is fast-paced, hilarious, and filled with character detail, and the build-up to the inevitable murder is as entertaining as the investigation afterwards. Of all the puzzling happenings, Glebsky thinks, “Damn, I can’t figure it out…Not enough experience. I’m not Hercule Poirot…”

Maybe not, but for a police inspector who describes himself more than once as a mere bureaucrat, he does like to engage in what his by the book superiors back in the city would have to consider unusual speculations. While drinking port, he and Snevar discuss a number of questions that vary in the broadness of their scope:

Is mankind doomed to extinction (Yes, doomed, but we won’t be around when it happens). Is there a force in nature that the human mind cannot fathom (Yes, there is, but we’ll never know anything about it); Is Lel the St. Bernard capable of sentient thought (Yes, he is, though convincing scientific dolts of this is impossible); Is the universe in danger of succumbing to so-called “heat death” (No, it is not in danger, due to the existence of perpetual motion machines of both the first and second type in the owner’s barn); Was Brun a boy or a girl (Here I was unable to come to any conclusion, but the owner put forward the odd idea that Brun was a zombie, that is, a sexless creature animated by magic)…

Besides showing us that Glebsky isn’t as mundane in his thinking as he might have us believe, this passage balances tones in a way the Strugatsky brothers excel at. The Dead Mountaineer's Inn continually alternates in presenting what you might call metaphysical questions with absurdly inane ones.

A funny scene in which Glebsky waits in line with the other guests to take a shower captures this. The guests bicker, argue, and question each other, all the while trying to figure out who is in the common shower singing and mumbling. If everyone thought to be in the hotel is in view, who could be behind the closed door, washing himself? Is it the ghost of the dead mountaineer? Meanwhile, as they wait in line to use the shower, Du Barnstoker entertains them “with the multiplication and division of multidigit numbers.”

The mysteries inside the inn multiply until the worst happens. Olaf Andvarafors is found murdered in his room. The Viking’s door is locked from the inside, and though the window is open, no footprints are found on the sill or in the snow anywhere near it. The huge guy is lying on the floor face down, but his head is “turned one hundred eighty degrees in a brutal and unnatural fashion,” so that his face is turned toward the ceiling.

A locked room, an impossible crime, intimations of something at work beyond the natural — the Strugatskys give us a scenario that mysteries have mined since their beginning. Poe used it in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” Conan Doyle in “The Adventure of the Speckled Band.” Countless others have used it since.

Mystery readers derive pleasure wondering how the writer will explain the inexplicable away, knowing that following the genre’s traditions, “All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course,” as priest and detective story writer Ronald Knox famously wrote in his “10 Commandments of Detective Fiction.” The thing is, with The Dead Mountaineer's Inn — considering the science fiction background of its creators, that the novel up to the murder has been so irreverent, and that the book is subtitled One More Last Rite for the Detective Genre — the reader does wonder whether the Strugatskys will stick to the conventional rules.

His vacation ruined, Glebsky decides to investigate. No help will be coming from outside for a while because an avalanche in Bottleneck Pass has sealed the inn off. As others tell Glebsky that the victim, as well as some of the guests, may not even be human, he feels that he is getting out of his depth. He does have a philosophical streak, but the case is extending beyond his mental scope. Snevar knows this and tells him he has to expand his way of thinking:

…the only thing I feel, Peter, is that you’re going about this all wrong. You’re following the most natural roads, and for that reason you’ve ended up in particularly unnatural places. You’re exploring alibis, gathering clues, looking for motives. But it seems to me that, in this particular case the usual terms of your art have lost their meaning…

But what is a 20-year veteran of the bureaucratic machinery to do? As he says, “I’m just a police officer. I don’t have the clearance to carry on conversations with ghouls and aliens.” That is, if the solution to the mystery lies in the realm of ghouls and aliens?

A great thing about this novel is that it starts weird and develops into something even weirder after the murder—and yet ambiguity remains. At the conclusion, Glebsky himself cannot be sure what happened, cannot settle on a definitive interpretation of the events he lived through.

After the avalanche snow is cleared, the police he called arrive and comb over everything at the inn. There are reports and commissions; whatever may have happened, however odd and potentially dramatic for the human race, the bureaucracy rolls on.

Still, Glebsky is not that much of a functionary. In the case’s aftermath, he never is able to come to terms with how Simone, the scientist, came to regard him with contempt. Simone is convinced that Glebsky misread everything, with tragic consequences, and a part of Glebsky can’t shake the thought that maybe, just maybe, the scientist is right.

Was he, police inspector Glebsky, too small-minded to see the big picture? Should he at least have tried a different approach when examining the unfamiliar phenomena facing him? It’s possible he was, and remains, too narrow in his thinking, and in the end, after all the high jinks and laughs they give the reader, the Strugatsky Brothers leave us with a sense of Glebsky’s frustration.

A last rite for the detective genre? Sort of. There’s no affirmation of the powers of ratiocination here. The only thing to triumph is the idea of indeterminacy.

—Scott Adlerberg

Originally published in Criminal Element 

Scott Adlerberg lives in New York City. He co-hosts the Word for Word Reel Talks film commentary series each summer at the HBO Bryant Park Summer Film Festival in Manhattan. He blogs about books, movies, and writing at Scott Adlerberg’s Mysterious Island. His most recent book is the psychological thriller Graveyard Love.

Mug Shot: Kevin Egan

Kevin Egan is the author of eight novels, most recently A Shattered Circle, and Midnight, a Kirkus Best Book of 2013. He works in the iconic New York County Courthouse, which serves as the setting and inspiration for most of his recent fiction. Several of his courthouse mystery stories have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. His short fiction also has been published in Thuglit, Rosebud, and Westchester Review.

Tell us about your latest work.
A Shattered Circle involves a judge suffering from dementia. His wife, who also is his secretary, is fiercely protective of him, his career, and his reputation. The working title of the novel was A Small Circle, which was the title of my AHMM short story that became the germ of the novel. The term “small circle” was meant to convey the progressively circumscribed life of a person afflicted with dementia, especially Alzheimer's. In the novel, the small circle is the protective ring of trust and secrecy the judge's wife has created to protect her husband. Unfortunately, events from both of their pasts threaten to shattered the circle.

When and how do you find time to write?
My strategy is to have discipline make up for lack of time. On weekdays, I have three writing sessions. Two of them are automatic – the commuter train rides from between the suburbs and New York City. The third session of the day is lunch hour in the courthouse library, but that depends on how the workday is going. On weekends, I will get up early at least one, if not both days, depending on where I am in a project. Weekend work usually involves editing the previous week’s work and blocking out where I hope to go the following week.

How much and what kinds of marketing do you and how do you feel it works for you?
I always start with an event at the Mysterious Bookshop. Beyond that, I write guests posts for as many web sites as will have me. I have done readings at several independent book stores and at the fabulous KGB Lit Bar. However, independent bookstore events seem to be dwindling along with the stores themselves, so in the future I will turn my attention to libraries. I established both a Goodreads author page and a Facebook page four years ago, but can’t seem to work either of them very well. Self-promotion just isn’t in my DNA.

What fictional detective would you like to be and why?
The quick answer is Jack Reacher and the simple reason is: Who wouldn't want to be? But before there was a Jack Reacher, the hands-down answer was Spenser. For me, Spenser had everything: toughness leavened with a deadpan wit, a marvelous foil in his buddy Hawk, and the exquisite Susan Silverman as his love interest. Plus he could cook.

In five words or less, what advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Same time every day.

On All One Case and Ross Macdonald

Loneliness and frustration
We both came down with an acute case
When the lights came up at two
I caught a glimpse of you
And your face looked like something
Death brought with him in his suitcase
—Warren Zevon, “The French Inhaler”

I don't exactly know why I took Kevin Avery and Jeff Wong's It's All One Case: The Illustrated Ross Macdonald Archives off the shelf the other day. Truth to tell, no reason is needed; anyone who's seen this marvelous tome knows that it's a continuing source of wisdom and delight, well worth dipping into at any point in time.

A bit of background might be helpful for the uninitiated. In 1976, journalist Paul Nelson recorded almost 50 hours of interviews with Ken Millar, better known as detective novelist Ross Macdonald, for a Rolling Stone article. The article never happened, and the tapes languished. Macdonald died of Alzheimer’s Disease in 1983. Nelson died in 2006.

Kevin Avery, a writer who venerates Nelson, published Everything Is an Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson, in 2011, bringing the critic and his work newfound attention and respect. Avery was approached by artist and illustrator Jeff Wong, a friend of Nelson's and the owner of an extensive collection of material (books, manuscripts, letters, etc.) by and about Macdonald. Wong had a transcript of the 1976 interviews. Would Avery like to read them?

Avery said yes, and the result, ultimately, was It's All One Case. Avery skillfully edited the interviews. Wong selected hundreds of mouth-watering items from his collection and designed the coffee-table-sized volume for Fantagraphic Books. Visually stunning, intellectually provocative, Case is a triumph. Flipping through its pages, the reader finds gem after gem.

Discussing Mickey Spillane and his followers, Nelson observed: "It seemed like the hardboiled style went into excess very fast."

Macdonald answered: "Well, it's very hard to keep it clean, to keep it morally clean, because simplicity is the most difficult of all tools to use. When you're writing what purports to be the spoken word, you're constantly having to differentiate between what's valid and what's ephemeral . . . Most slang dies, for example, so you have to be very careful. You really have to write a purer style in a sense than the literary writers write; and I think Hammett does write a purer style than most of his literary contemporaries. His style in his best work is amazingly pure and accurate and simple. Well, that's not what I aim at, of course. I don't aim at simplicity."

Nelson: "Do you think you’re a prisoner of complexity in a way?”

Macdonald: “Yes, but a willing prisoner. It's sort of a happy imprisonment, though, to be imprisoned in something that you've made yourself.”

Readers familiar with Macdonald’s staggeringly complicated plots will agree: It's a pleasure to be caught in his imaginative web.

I could quote at length from Nelson and Macdonald's conversations, but — like Macdonald's novels — the cumulative effect is more powerful than any given moment, striking as it may be.

The last decade has been good to Macdonald. His books are back in print. A number of his works have been included in the prestigious Library of America series. Meanwhile There Are Letters, a collection of his correspondence with Eudora Welty was published in 2015. His reputation, which had declined in the years following his death, is once again on the rise. The reputation of Margaret Millar, Macdonal's wife, is also on the upswing, and her works are now available from Syndicate Books. Jeff Wong designed the covers for the Millar re-issues.

Warren Zevon was a rabid fan of Macdonald's. (For more details, see Nelson’s piece on the singer-songwriter in Everything Is Afterthought.) Zevon never achieved his goal of writing a detective novel, but he drew from the hardboiled perspective time and again in his songs. I've always liked the lined quoted at the top of these remarks, and you can hear them here:

— Joseph Goodrich

Joseph Goodrich is an Edgar Award-winning dramatist whose plays have been produced across the country. His fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, and Noir Riot. His most recent play, an adaptation of Rex Stout's Might As Well Be Dead, recently closed a successful run in St. Paul, Minnesota.

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