Friday, 31 August 2012

Keller’s on the case: From solving mysteries to writing them



Today’s guest blog is by Julia Keller the author of A Killing in the Hills, a crime novel published by Headline.  The first in a series of books to feature prosecuting attorney Bell Elkins who campaigns against the illegal trading of prescription drugs which is prevalent in rural America.  The series is set in the fictional town of Acker’s Gap West Virginia.  In 2005 she won a Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing whilst a journalist with the Chicago Tribune.

Had you chanced to be bedevilled by a daunting mystery or flummoxed by the loss of a favourite object, and had you lived in Huntington, West Virginia, some years ago, you would have done yourself a considerable favour by stopping in at my house.  For I ran a detective agency.  Moreover, despite the fact that I was in fourth grade, it was an excellent one; we were clever, discreet, and indefatigable.

Armed with a notebook, a well-sharpened pencil, and a couple of shiny bicycles—on the off chance that a particular case required travel—we offered our services at a fee that could fit most budgets.  Twenty-five cents gained you my full attention, as well as that of my associate, my six-year-old sister Lisa.  Lost dogs, missing caps, misplaced eyeglasses: Name your mystery and we hastened to solve it.

I now write crime fiction.  And I can draw a line from my early career as the owner-operator of a detective agency to my current profession, a line that loops around a passionate love for comic book superheroes and their crime-fighting ways and then makes a great sweeping curve around TV crime shows such as “The Wire” and “The Closer,” before finally coming to rest at “A Killing in the Hills” (Headline), the first in my series of novels about Belfa Elkins, a short-tempered but tough and effective prosecuting attorney in a small town in the Appalachian Mountains.

I recall an especially difficult case handled by my agency.  A client could not find the red leather leash for her dog.  She was certain that she had left it on her porch, but a check of the premises yielded nothing.  The “Aha!” moment came when I heard the dull roar of an electric mower, as a neighbour of hers finished trimming his lawn.  My client’s lawn, I noticed, was beautifully shorn; it was proof that her grass had recently been cut.  I began to sift the soft blanket of cut grass around the edges of the porch.  Success!  The leash had slipped off the porch and, when the mower swept by, the cut grass had managed to obscure the leash beneath a blanket of green.

What motivated the creation of the Keller Detective Agency—and what accounts for the popularity of crime fiction—is a certain earnest gallantry, a sense that the world must be put right again, after being blurred and scrambled and turned upside-down by perfidy, or sometimes simply by blind happenstance.  The satisfaction of writing and reading crime fiction is indistinguishable from the delights of running a detective agency.  Young and old, we believe that lost leashes were meant to be found, that two and two must equal four, that the universe ought to be comprehensible.  Because it is not, heaven knows, always kind or just.  That universe should—after we have sifted through all the clues—finally make sense to us, even if that sense seems fragile, shifting, and tentative.

And for that bit of wisdom, I’ve consented to waive my usual twenty-five-cent fee.

More information about Julia Keller and her work can be found on her website.




Thursday, 30 August 2012

Books To Die For - A snappy interview with John Connolly and Declan Burke


With the publication of Books To Die For John Connolly and Declan Burke have jointly edited one of the most widely anticipated books this year.  Despite their busy schedule, I managed to persuade the two of them to answer a few questions for Shots on Books To Die For  and the task they took on.

How did you come to the list / narrow down the list of authors you wanted to approach for a contribution?

DB: “Picking the list of contributors was pretty straightforward, in theory at least.  We just wanted the best living crime writers, so we set out to get in touch with them all.  I have to say that I was astonished by the response - I know that crime writers have a reputation (and well deserved) for being pretty helpful to one another, but the reaction to our proposal was amazing.  I guess that is in part, because every writer is at heart a reader, or is a reader first, and if you’re really serious about your books there’s no more enjoyable question than, ‘What’s your favourite book?’  That’s a question that could conceivably take hours to answer.”
 
JC: Most authors did seem to get it straight off, and those that didn't never came around to the idea, to be honest.  We had a bit of back-and-forth with a couple, but I think we both rather sensed that any hesitancy was likely to translate into a 'no'.  I guess my view was that we shouldn't ask anyone whose work we didn't respect.  Once we established that as a benchmark, it became fairly easy to create a wish list.  

Would you have been able to guess the books chosen by the individual authors?

DB: “That’s an interesting question.  I suppose the knee-jerk answer, before we began, would have been a cautious ‘Yes’.  I mean, I had a pretty good idea, having interviewed him last year and spent about half the interview in a very enjoyable digression chatting about Raymond Chandler, that Michael Connelly would pick a Chandler novel.  That said, I was very surprised that he picked the one he did - if I’d been writing about Chandler, I’d have picked two other titles before I picked Michael’s choice.  But that was one of the real joys of the process for me, the fact that the contributors’ choices were so personal to them, and the way they talked about the impact a particular book had on them on an emotional level, say, or the way it spoke to them at a particular age, or a period in their life.  Linwood Barclay’s piece on Ross Macdonald is a good example of that, I think.  The contributors aren’t just talking about books that they believe to be technically brilliant, or a master-class in style / language, etc.  They’re talking about books they love.  And when it comes to something like picking your favourite book, I’ll take passion over perfection every time.”

JC: I was surprised by some of the choices, but not that many.  Rita Mae Brown's decision to write on A TALE OF TWO CITIES by Charles Dickens raised an eyebrow, I must admit.  I think she makes a valiant effort to justify it, but she's one of the authors - Julia Wallis Martin on Poe is another - who used the choice of book or writer as a springboard to dive into other issues and concerns.  Most of the choices were, if not anticipated, then not unexpected.  I knew, for example, that Paul Johnston regarded Philip Kerr's A PHILOSOPHICAL INVESTIGATION very highly because we'd discussed it - and disagreed about it - over the years.  Similarly, I knew that when I asked Chris Mooney, he'd pick either Stephen King, Thomas Harris or Dennis Lehane, and I felt that, given their shared Boston background, he'd do the best job on Lehane's MYSTIC RIVER.  I called that one right, as that's one of my favourite essays in the book.  In that sense, I suppose we sometimes had contributors in mind for particular titles or writers, but we didn't pressure anyone to pick a particular author or book.  That said, it took a long time to find someone to write on Dorothy L. Sayers, for some reason.  I guess she was one of those writers who was greatly admired, but perhaps didn't inspire passion in everyone.  Lauren Henderson in her Rebecca Chance guise did a lovely essay on Sayers in the end, though.

Were there any surprises or disappointments?

DB: “Well, I was very pleasantly surprised at how readily and enthusiastically the contributors responded to the idea.  That was the first thing.  In terms of their choices, certainly, there are plenty of surprises in there, for me at least.  One was how popular an author Josephine Tey remains - at one point it seemed as if every second writer was offering to write about a Josephine Tey novel.  Another very nice surprise was the way some entirely unexpected patterns started to emerge as the pieces of the jigsaw began to fit into place.  It became possible to chart the evolution of the crime / mystery novel as it responded to various social and cultural changes over the last 150 years or so, which was an unexpected bonus and very gratifying.  I was also nicely surprised by some names popping up that I’d never heard of before, Kem Nunn and his ‘surf noir’ being a very good example, and a writer that I’ll be checking out once the dust settles on this project.

JC: Like Declan, Tey was the big surprise for me.  She seems to be as iconic as Chandler is for a couple of generations of female writers, but I had never read her.  I took THE DAUGHTER OF TIME with me to South Africa, and then ended up giving it away before I'd finished it.  It wasn't because I wasn't enjoying it, but I was telling an audience about Tey, and I mentioned that particular book, and a man came up to me afterwards and said that he didn't read fiction at all, but he was intrigued by the sound of THE DAUGHTER OF TIME.  By coincidence, he was in a wheelchair, having contracted some terrible virus while working in Africa, and had spent months immobile, staring at the ceiling of a hospital room.  As THE DAUGHTER OF TIME begins with Alan Grant hospitalized and staring at the ceiling of his room, it seemed like one of those moments when a particular book was meant to be with a particular reader, so I gave my copy to him.  I hope he enjoys it.  I have to buy another copy now just to find out what happens at the end.

DB: “In terms of disappointments, well, I guess we knew before we began that the book couldn’t accommodate every single book we’d have liked to have seen in it.  It simply wouldn’t be possible.  But then, the book isn’t supposed to be a kind of sterile list of every crime / mystery novel you could possibly imagine, and nor is supposed to be a list of my favourite books, or John’s.  It was always intended as a labour of love, and not just on our part, but also on the part of the contributors.  And as I said before, love is an imperfect thing at the best of times, and it has its fair share of flaws and disappointments.  Ultimately, though, any small disappointments were far outweighed by the quality of the contributions, and the way in which the contributors engaged with their subjects.  I’ll be honest with you, I felt pretty humbled by the time we got through with this book.”


JC: In a way, it would have been easier if we could have put a gun to contributors' heads and said, "You must write about..."  David Goodis and Horace McCoy are two omissions that rankle with me, but nobody picked them.  Someone agreed to do Eco's THE NAME OF THE ROSE, and then never responded to emails afterwards.  I wish someone had written on Joe Wambaugh too.  By and large, though, there are very few grating absences among the subjects, and those significant authors who were unable to contribute, or who just didn't want to, were covered in essays about them by other people.  For example, Jim Burke declined very gracefully, but I knew that someone would write about him, and if they didn't then I would.  Similarly for P.D. James and Ruth Rendell.  If I had to confess to one particular disappointment, it would be that I'd have liked it if more writers from outside the Anglo-American tradition had been willing to participate.  At one point, I was engaged in negotiations with writers from South Korea and Japan, and trying to hunt down someone in India, but all those efforts came to naught.  We also had great difficulty in getting a French writer to contribute.  I'm not sure why, but every author we contacted seemed to decline.  It may be that it was easier to convince Anglo-American authors, or Irish authors, because we knew a lot of them personally, and therefore there was a degree of trust there from the start.  When it comes to authors from outside that tradition, though, the only place to meet them is in passing at book festivals abroad, and often there are language barriers, or you simply never get to spend any significant time with them.  Then again, the book would have swollen to an unmanageable length.  It's big enough as it is.

DB: If I can indulge my personal wish list for a few moments, I’d have loved to have seen William Goldman’s MARATHON MAN in there.  A seminal thriller, I think.  And I love Alistair MacLean’s WHEN EIGHT BELLS TOLL.  I’m also a big fan of Barry Gifford’s Sailor and Lula story-cycle.  I think Horace McCoy’s KISS TOMORROW GOODBYE is an omission, and I’d loved to have seen Edward Anderson’s THIEVES LIKE US in there.  The Jim Thompson book, if I’d been writing about him, would have been THE KILLER INSIDE ME … and so on, for pages and pages.  THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADREBUILD MY GALLOWS HIGH

Would you work on a similar project again?

DB: “Never.  Not a chance.  You have NO IDEA how difficult John Connolly is to work with.  The man’s a complete diva … “No, I’d definitely work on a similar project at some point in the future, once I’ve forgotten how much time and effort this one took.  I wouldn’t mind so much, but John did pretty much everything except design the cover.  And I’m not entirely sure he didn’t do that too …” 

JC: I think Declan is being far too modest.  He was the voice of reason on this.  Margie Orford said to me that it was just as well that Declan was the main channel of communication with a lot of the contributors, as she didn't think I'd be as diplomatic as he was.  She was probably right.  I don't think anyone will do anything quite this ambitious within the genre again, or at least not for some time.  We've covered a huge spread of the major authors, as both subjects and contributors.  I suppose that there is scope for a volume that includes far more authors who don't write in English, but I'm not sure I'll be the one to tackle it.  I found doing this absolutely exhausting, and massively time-consuming.  I don't think I realised at the start just how difficult it would be, from sourcing contributors, to obtaining copy (deadlines were, by and large, merrily ignored by many of those involved!) and, ultimately, fact-checking all of those essays.  It's hard enough checking your own work.  It's massively, massively difficult checking other people's.  Every detail in every essay had to be checked, and we did it over and over, yet with every new proofread some previously unseen error came to light.  It almost broke me.

Any editorial disagreements?

DB: “I can’t remember any disagreements.  It wasn’t really that kind of book, because the vast majority of the contributors were self-selecting, in that we pretty much went out and tried to get the best crime and mystery writers working today.  And once that was achieved, it was up to the authors themselves to pick their own favourites.  A piece of cake, really …”

JC: I think that I was more inclined to be the bad guy when it came to editing.  For the most part - there were maybe only two exceptions, if that - any requests for rewrites were fairly minor, and the contributors understood immediately what was required.  That's the good thing about dealing with professionals: they're used to being edited, and they understand that no editor ever made a book, story, or essay worse.  

Any authors you would have loved to have included but could not for various reasons?

DB: “Well, as I said above, there were a couple of disappointments.  In terms of contributing authors, yes, there were a few people I’d have liked to have seen involved, but the timing wasn’t good for everyone.  That was always going to be the case and we knew that from the start.  You know how it is, there were some people we asked who were in the throes of putting their latest books to bed, for example, and couldn’t risk writing in a completely different style in case it might affect their own writing.  And that’s perfectly understandable, I think.  “To be honest, though, I never really looked at the list of contributors in that way.  It was always about who was involved, and how enthusiastic they were, and the way in which some of the biggest names in publishing responded to an idea that started out maybe a little whimsical but very quickly became a very serious prospect, and all because of the way people answered the call.  I don’t want to come over all Pollyanna about it, but to be honest, for such a supposedly hardboiled crew, the crime writing community is made up of an incredibly generous bunch of people.”

JC: I wish P.D. James had said yes.  We went through a certain amount of back-and-forth with her before she politely declined, but she's a perceptive critic, even if I don't necessarily agree with everything she has to say about the genre.  On a personal level, I'd love to have had an essay from James Lee Burke, but he's always declined to become involved in anthologies like this, and I can see why he wouldn't want to start writing for them at this stage in his life.  On the other hand, for every author who couldn't contribute there was one wonderful contribution from someone who I might have hoped would become involved, but regarded as a long shot.  Joseph Wambaugh was one of those.  I've been an admirer of Wambaugh ever since I read THE CHOIRBOYS as a teenager, but I'd never met him, or even corresponded with him.  He said yes immediately, and delivered a wonderful essay on meeting Truman Capote, which is an adornment to the anthology.  It all balanced out in the end...

John Connolly is the author (and is best known) for the highly acclaimed and award winning Charlie Parker series.  He has also written a number of standalone novels.  His latest Charlie Parker novel Wrath of Angels has recently been published.  More information on John and his work can be found on his website.

Declan Burke runs the highly regarding blog Crime Always Pays with “news, reviews and interviews about (mostly) Irish crime writing”.  His book Absolute Zero Cool won the Goldsboro Last Laugh Award at Crimefest 2012.  His latest book is The Slaughters Hound, which is a sequel to Eight Ball Boogie.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Ayo's Book To Die For - Farewell My Lovely by Raymond Chandler

© Ayo Onatade

When I am not blogging, I am generally reviewing books on crime fiction, interviewing authors or writing articles on the topic as well.  Currently I am the Chair of the CWA Short Story Dagger Awards, a regular contributor for Crimespree Magazine and an occasional contributor to Mystery Journal International.  When I am not writing about crime and mystery fiction, I am at the day job working with some very senior judges in the UK.

Funnily enough, my introduction to Raymond Chandler and my favourite crime novel – my one book to die for so to speak came about in a really round about manner.  I had read all the classics – Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham, Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie et al and I chanced upon a Raymond Chandler novel.  Now what a shock to the system that was!  The first Chandler book I actually read was The Long Goodbye (1953). 

Whilst The Long Goodbye is considered to be one of his best books and the one that has been lauded the most, it was not the one that dragged me hook, line and sinker into annals of noir.  For me it was Farewell My Lovely (1940).  Farewell My Lovely is actually an amalgamation of a number of previously published short stories.  Namely, The Man Who Liked Dogs, Try The Girl and Mandarin’s Jade and this is why the plot is a bit discordant.

At the centre of Farewell My Lovely is the pursuit of absent love and alongside it is a plot that is driven by personal reasons being that of love and ambition along with regret for what has happened.  Marlowe finds himself on the hunt for a woman.  One woman in particular, the long lost love of one Moose Malloy.  Malloy has just been released from jail after being framed and sent down for a crime.  On his release, his first thought is to track down Velma his one-time fiancĂ©e.  Marlowe attempts to not only find Velma but also discover who framed Malloy. He is also hired to help pay the ransom on a jade necklace.  Thus having two parallel plots.  As can be expected with Chandler, this is not a straightforward case.  Marlowe is soon up to his neck in robberies, murders and there danger all around him.

For me there have always been two main things about Farewell My Lovely that have stood the test of time despite the fact that at times the plot leaves a lot to be desired.  Firstly the characters – the colossal Moose Malloy, Nulty the detective who is incompetent and Randall who is his complete opposite and Grayle whose wife is at the centre of the whole sordid story (women also always end up being key to his stories).  This is of course the case with Farewell My Lovely.

Secondly, Chandler’s Chandlerisms.  His one and two liners crackle across the page and reading the snappy dialogue is like walking on crushed ice.  No one does it better than Chandler.  Philip Marlowe’s description on first seeing Moose alone is a classic –
“a big man but not more than six feet five inches tall and not wider than a beer truck” and he looked about inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food”

Even when he is was talking about the most basic of things for example food he says it in such a way that makes you think -

The eighty-five cent dinner tasted like a discarded mailbag and it was served to me by a waiter who looked as if he would slug me for a quarter, cut my throat for six bits, and bury me at sea in a barrel of concrete for a dollar and a half, plus sales tax.”

Chandler in his famous essay The Art of Murder (1950) expressed the view that -

Fiction in any form has always intended to be realistic”

And that was his intention in all his novels.  He was very disparaging about Golden Age classic novels and his dislike of them included what he felt was a lack of credible characters and narrative.  He violated the conventions of the detective novel on a grand scale and by altering the rules of the genre he also changed reader’s fixed ideas which for me was not only the reason why my taste in crime fiction changed but also due to the fact that I found myself reading the type of novel that constantly never ceased to amaze me.  In fact my first reading of the novel astounded me.  I had been used to reading such authors as Agatha Christie et al and had not realised such novels existed.  In Farewell My Lovely, the realism that Chandler felt was lacking in Golden Age novels was certainly to the fore.  He uses dialect and racial insults that are commonplace to the mean streets.  Even Philip Marlowe whom I am sure he was describing when he said –

“But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.  The detective in this kind of story must be such a man.  He is the hero, he is everything.  He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man.  He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it.  He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world….”

was that character who understood the mean streets and all it stood for.  He was certainly under no illusions about what took place around him.


But why Farewell My Lovely specifically. I have always thought that there are some types of novels that lend themselves to including social commentary and noir and Farewell My Lovely is certainly one of them.  There is a lot of social commentary taking place.  The police corruption, the way in which he deals with the issue of race throughout the novel.  The way in which they deal with the death of the owner of a nightclub (who is black) compared to the way in which they deal with the death of a white man (which is treated very differently). 

Furthermore, the appeal for me is in his depiction of Los Angeles.  He paints a stark portrayal of the seedier side of life.  He also made a vocation of peeling the glistening parts off of L.A.’s image and showing it up warts and all.  As a reader, you can easily imagine yourself being in the city.

Then there is his prose. Farewell My Lovely is narrated by Marlowe and in fact all Chandler’s novels featuring Marlowe are written as first person a narrative, which makes it difficult for things to be left out.  His dialogue is sharp and commanding and for me, his writing and work have always been expressive.

Chandler’s aim was always to tell a story that would make you keep on turning the page and in my opinion; he did so with Farewell My Lovely.  For me Farewell My Lovely is not only a page-turner but also his best book.  Furthermore, everything is not tied up neatly in a bow at the end.

Suffice to say Raymond Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely led me to other noir writers such as Dashiell Hammett, James M Cain and Ross Macdonald and thus my fate was sealed.  Now whilst my taste for crime fiction has always been eclectic my heart belongs to noir and Raymond Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely in particular.  .  Farewell My Lovely did not make me a crime fiction fan (The Mysterious Affair At Styles did that) but it did change not only my life but also my reading tastes and it will always remain that one book that I would say “here!  Why don’t you try this!”.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Jon Jordan's Book To Die For - Dark Chant in a Crimson Key by George C Chesbro



Jon Jordan is the publisher of the highly regarded Crimespree Magazine. He was the organiser/chair of Bouchercon XLII in St Louis 2011.  He also organises with his wife Ruth the annual Murder and Mayhem in Muskego held each November. In 2006 along with his wife Ruth, he received an Anthony Award for Best Fan Publication. In 2008 and 2009 he received an Anthony Award for Special Services along with his wife Ruth. He is the author of Interrogations a collection of 25 author interviews.   Jon is also a major Lego enthusiast.

There are so many books and authors I love it’s hard to choose just one that I would recommend, but there is an author whose books I have put into people hands almost more than any other. George C Chesbro. Chesbro passed away a few years ago and before that he had gone a number of years without being published. The books are harder and harder to find. But it’s worth the effort.

His main series featured a dwarf named Dr. Robert Fredrickson, or Mongo, a not so ordinary detective. Mongo worked his way through college as a performer in the circus under the name Mongo the Magnificent, post college he taught criminology full time and part time works some cases. Occasionally his brother Garth, a NYPD cop joins in. Eventually they both leave their jobs and start their own detective agency. The books usually involve cases that are a bit beyond the norm delving into supernatural things, sometime supernatural feeling driven by science. The real defining characteristic for me is the pulp feel they have. Chesbro wasn’t afraid to take the books where they wanted to go. Sometimes it meant saving the world, sometimes it meant stopping witches.

The book I tell people to start with is the one I read first. Dark Chant in a Crimson Key. The book brings in two other characters that Chesbro created, Veil and Chant, both of whom had their own books (Chant books written as David Cross). Veil is a former sniper who served in Viet Nam, a man who can take care of himself. Chant is a mysterious assassin/conman who uses his talents to take down men who are pure evil. In this book all three converge in Switzerland and find themselves eventually on the same side against the Cornucopia Foundation.


It’s a great introduction to Mongo and the other characters that populate his world. Great twisty turny plot, fast moving and loads of action.

Richard Katz of Mystery One bookstore in Milwaukee handed me my first Chesbro book, this one. I was hooked after finishing it in one sitting. Being just before the internet really became what it now is I had to track down all the books the old fashioned way; I searched bookstores and made phone calls. I eventually procured hardcovers and paperback versions of all the books, and the last on the list set a new high for what I would pay for a single book up to that time. It was worth every minute and every penny. Chesbro is a gem of a writer that just seems to be overlooked and while time moves on and there are no new books sadly, his body of work holds up and is still among the most entertaining I’ve ever read.


I was so enamoured of his writing that I actually sent him a letter. Not an email, a letter. And he responded with his own letter to me the same day he read mine. I have it framed with a cover of his first book. He was also among the first authors I interviewed. The interview can be found here.

I was just starting out and if were conducting the interview now I’m sure it would be very different, but I did it as a fan and I am still as much of a fan today if not more.

There is a website still run by his wife here

Take some time, do some internet searching and pick up this book. And then bookmark where you got it as you will want to go back and get more…

Monday, 27 August 2012

Chris Simmons's Book To Die For - Asta's Book by Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell)


Chris Simmons started Crimesquad.com over seven years ago on his own and now has a team of seven dedicated reviewers to highlight the best in current crime fiction.  In such a short time Crimesquad.com has become one of the most popular crime review websites garnering respect and praise from publishers, authors and readers.  Due to his pioneering for debut crime authors, Chris Simmons was a judge for the John Creasey/New Blood CWA Dagger four years running.  Now his judging has recently ended, Chris will soon be bringing out his own collection of short stories on e-book, whilst also trying desperately to catch up with four year’s worth of crime novels!

Asta’s Book’ has been number one of my Top Ten for nearly twenty years.  Personally, for me Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell) has produced some of the most ground breaking novels of our time. Having read all her books I prefer the Vine canon of work as they again pushed the boundaries and the writer produced more of a novel with a crime element than what could be classed as a ‘normal’ work of crime fiction. Kate Atkinson and Susan Hill have been applauded in recent times for interweaving mainstream literature with crime fiction, something Rendell has been doing since the 80’s with her first Vine novel, ‘A Dark-Adapted Eye’.

My favourite of the Vine books is by far ‘Asta’s Book’.  It intrigued me with its premise with Asta and her husband, Rasmus arriving from Denmark to begin a new life in Hackney in 1905. It is a loveless marriage and Asta is homesick for her country and pours her heart and soul in to diaries that she keeps for the rest of her life. After their arrival in Britain, Asta has two more children including her favourite, Swanny. However, typically with Vine there is something not quite right and despite her continual blustering and sidestepping, Asta swerves her daughter’s constant hankering to know if she really is Asta’s daughter or some changeling. It isn’t until Asta’s granddaughter, Ann discovers the diaries decades later and publishes them to great acclaim that the truth about Asta and her favourite daughter, Swanny begins to emerge.

The prose in ‘Asta’s Book’ is lyrical and the characters and places, especially Hackney is so vividly brought to life (most probably as I was born in the area).  Asta can be cold and cynical but the unconditional love she feels for her ‘little Swanny’ is wonderful to behold. The writing is rhythmic and the book flows smoothly like a good wine, so that Vine with professionalism alternates between the past and the present with ease. ‘Asta’s Book’ can never simply be defined as a crime novel – it is a novel about families, about immigration, about love and above all: identity.  With the recent explosive interest in genealogy, more people than ever feel the need to know their ancestors and discover their family tree. ‘Asta’s Book’ perfectly puts this in to perspective.  Do we really need to know our past or does the unconditional love of a parent solve our need to know who we truly are?

The ‘crime’ itself, the trial of Alfred Roper is buried deep within the book and could be classed as a side issue, for the real crux of the novel is the relationship between mother and daughter. Reading this book back on its release in 1993, moved me so much that I wrote my one and only ever fan letter to the author about how I had loved this book. She replied and mentioned that Asta and Rasmus had originally been built on her own grandparents although by the end of the book neither of them was remotely like the portrayed characters in the book. No other book has ever propelled me to write to an author the way ‘Asta’s Book’ ever did.  This novel shows Vine/Rendell at her zenith and is sublime in its subtlety and through her gentle prose unravels a conundrum that is breathtaking as it is heartbreaking. This is why it has stayed with me nearly twenty years after the reading. I strongly suggest you read it. This is why ‘Asta’s Book’ will always be my number one and my book to die!

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Jen Forbus's Book To Die For - L.A Requiem by Robert Crais


Jen Forbus blogs at the Anthony Award nominated blog Jen'sBook Thoughts.  Before coming to the crime fiction community she taught high school English, wrote technical manuals for a computer software company and developed online training for professionals in the college store industry.  These days she's combining her love of the technical and the literary by working with a web design company that specializes in author websites.  Jen also dabbles in other freelance work including reviewing for Crimespree Magazine and Shelf Awareness for Readers.  When her nose isn't stuck in a book or a computer, she is at the beck and call of her two chocolate labs and four rescue cats.  The stork dropped her mistakenly in Northeast Ohio and try as she might, she hasn't escaped it yet.

Private investigator Elvis Cole and his long-time partner, Joe Pike, are summoned to investigate the murder of Pike’s ex-girlfriend, the daughter of a prominent L.A. businessman.  Through the course of the investigation, Pike’s history with the L.A. Police Department surfaces and old wounds are scratched open, threatening to destroy the fiercely loyal partners.

L.A. Requiem is the book I most often suggest people read when they ask for recommendations.  Whether they’re new to the genre or crime fiction fans, if they haven’t read it, I send them post haste to the nearest bookstore or library.  I also have a rather worn paperback that I allow people to borrow, but it’s not likely to last much longer.  Note to self: replace the loaner copy of L.A. Requiem.

I believe L.A. Requiem was pivotal in creating the modern crime genre.  By definition genre is a set of rules or expectations, but Robert Crais proved that genre is also a living entity.  It has room to grow and morph without becoming a completely different creature.

Elvis Cole embodies many of the characteristics of the classic private investigator character.  Crais’ novels with Cole followed the traditional first person narrative up to Indigo Slam, and then he just leapt off the cliff with L.A. Requiem.  Crais took the silly putty that is genre and said, if I push this little corner a bit in this direction, I still have my silly putty – it didn’t break – but by gosh, I think this shape works better for the story I need to tell.  And therein lies the key, it is the story he needed to tell, rather than the rules he needed to follow.

In L.A. Requiem Crais explores a depth in his characters that demands the audience not only read the book but also be a part of it, invest in it, bring their own experiences to the table, and in essence give a part of themselves to the book.  The relationships of the characters to one another compound that effect.

L.A. Requiem is a book that demands multiple readings.  There are so many layers to the plot, so much significance in every small element, that to fully appreciate it, one has to read it several times.  I’m also an advocate for listening to someone else read it aloud.  The first time I heard an audio version of L.A. Requiem I heard a new voice (not the one in my own head) and a new interpretation.  Suddenly I was asking myself new questions.

Robert Crais has influenced and continues to influence modern crime fiction writers, and I would argue that he has done that more so with L.A. Requiem than any of his other novels, so to appreciate the genre as whole as it is in the 21st Century, a fan should appreciate the evolution that brings it to where we are now.  L.A. Requiem is a part of that evolution.

L.A. Requiem is also standing the test of time.  Does it reflect the 1990s when Crais was writing the novel?  Absolutely.  But it isn’t dependent on that period; it’s dependent on concepts that are timeless: murder, betrayal, love, friendship, loyalty. 

And if that rationale seems too hoity-toity then how about, “people just freaking love this book every time I recommend it.”  I have converted many a person to the chapel of the Craisies with L.A. Requiem.  It’s a drug that’s nearly, if not impossible to resist.  L.A. Requiem made me a crime fiction fan and it still tops my list of favourite books within or outside the genre.