The winners of the 2003 Agatha Awards
(presented in May 2003 at the Malice Domestic Conference) are as follows:
Best Novel - You've Got Murder
by Donna Andrews, Berkley Prime Crime
Best First Novel - In the Bleak Midwinter
by Julia Spencer-Fleming, St, Martin's Minotaur
Best Non-Fiction - They Died in Vain: Overlooked, Underappreciated, and Forgotten Mystery Novels
, edited by Jim Huang, Crum Creek Press
Best Short Story - TIE:
"The Dog That Didn't Bark
" by Margaret Maron, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine (December 2002); and,
"Too Many Cooks
" by Marcia Talley, Much Ado About Murder, edited by Anne Perry, Berkley Prime Crime
Best Children's/Young Adult - Red Card: A Zeke Armstrong Mystery
(The Zeke Armstrong Mysteries, 1) by Daniel J. Hale & Matthew LaBrot, Top Publications
The Lifetime Achievement Award was presented to Elizabeth Peters.
Malice Domestic instituted a new award this year (not necessarily annual) for people (non-writers) and organizations who make a significant contribution to the field of mystery novels. The first Poirot Award was presented to David Suchet.
Three people won Malice Domestic Writer's Grants:
Mr. Thomas E. Bonsall, Baltimore, Maryland, for his work-in-progress, Lilac Time
Ms. Martha Crites, Seattle, Washington, for her work-in-progress, She Who Listens
Ms. G. M. Malliet, Alexandria, Virginia, for her work-in-progress, Death of a Cozy Writer
Malice XVI in 2004:
Guest of Honor: Dorothy Cannel
Toastmaster: Jan Burke
Ghost of Honor: Erle Stanley Gardner
Lifetime Achievement Award will be presented to Marian Babson
Fan Guest of Honor: Linda PletzkeThanks to Linda Rutledge for the update.
Seeking nirvana in a dusty bookshelf
They may look sleepy, but many used-book stores are thriving. Plus, the best places to get lost in the stacks.
By James Verini
July 17 2003
"How many cities have revealed themselves to me in the marches I have undertaken in the pursuit of books!"
— Walter Benjamin, "Unpacking My Library"
It should be said from the start that going to used-book stores is, at best, a useless pursuit. It is reversionary, unhealthy even. Used-book stores are filled with books, dusty, old, sinus-polluting books and, as if that weren't enough, with the kind of people you make a conscious effort to avoid during the day — ne'er do-wells, layabouts, semi-employed dissertation candidates and self-proclaimed bibliophiles who consider writers such as Walter Benjamin, dead since 1940, their real friends.
Used-book stores are not where you absorb relevant knowledge; they are not where you go to bone up on Steven Pinker's latest thoughts on cognitive theory, to peruse the newest campaign biographies or to sneak a cheaper copy of "The Da Vinci Code" so you can affordably keep up with cocktail conversation.
If you like to make the most of your life, used-book stores can seem an absolute waste of time. That is precisely what makes spending time in them so worthwhile.
For devotees of the used-book store, Los Angeles has quietly become one of the last bastions, for L.A. has become one of the last great American book towns. New York may be home to the publishing industry and Lewis Lapham's thesaurus, Chicago still has Saul Bellow, but in both those cities high rents and the Internet have driven many of the venerable used- and rare-book stores out of business.
But here, the book business is thriving. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the greater Los Angeles area is the largest book market in the country now with 21.5% of the books sold by independent bookstores, the highest percentage in the country.
In social as well as economic terms, L.A. is a wordy town as never before. Witness last year's "Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology," from stuffy Library of America, and last month's "The Misread City: New Literary Los Angeles." The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books now is the largest event of its kind in the country. Look at the lineup of authors the West Hollywood store Book Soup attracts, and at the recent national syndication of the impossibly literate radio show "Bookworm," a KCRW-FM creation.
For truly devoted book nuts, however, for those who know what they're doing is hopelessly archaic and love it, the used-books store still is the center of the universe. Because — before you get too hopeful about the state of civilization — books are, let's face it, on their deathbed. As an art and a business, they're obsolete. They have been for the better part of a century. They may continue to be for a century more. That is their charm.
Borders and Barnes & Noble would want to deny this. But it is at the used-books store, the least sensible of all businesses, a place perpetually teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, where you can drink in the utter futility of books without a $4 latte chaser.
Take, for instance, what probably is the best establishment in the greater Los Angeles area — certainly the most voluminous — Acres of Books, on Long Beach Boulevard in Long Beach.
The name is not an exaggeration. Acres has, by a conservative estimate, 750,000 books on its bowed, rotting shelves (the number probably is closer to 1 million). "More books than anybody in their right mind needs," acknowledges Jackie Smith, who has worked in the store since 1976 and now owns it (her husband's grandfather opened it in the 1930s).
You'll find everything from Kakfa to books on games to play with your cat, studies of Mesopotamian sexual practices to the early novels of Henry Fielding, and in every condition from mint first edition to dog-eared and ragged.
You'll discover, as one reporter did, the first volume of Evelyn Waugh's very hard-to-find one-volume autobiography (he planned three, but then died), "A Little Learning." And for $5, hard-bound, no less.
Disregard your claustrophobia and the justifiable fear of getting smothered beneath the Pisa-like spires of books, and have one of the helpful Sonic Youth clerks help you to the section on "Hackysack, Yo-Yo's and Juggling." Nearby, look over the three full shelves devoted to the history and study of prostitution. And don't forget the Frank Cotton Memorial Oddball shelves, named for the late head clerk of Acres, who until his death in 1988 functioned as the store's only computer. There, you find a volume titled "14,000 Things to Be Happy About," and another called "The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics."
Along with these testaments to the misguided history of human curiosity, there are any number of misguided, curious humans to be wondered at, shuffling along with that awkward sidelong gait particular to creatures used to over-tight bookstore aisles. Pale and near-sighted from years of 50-watt bulbs, they gaze up at titles mostly long forgotten, at authors mostly dead and buried, E.M. Forster's words from "Howards End" perhaps ringing in their ears: "Only connect....only connect."The proximity of the present to the past — of life to death — in used-book stores is electrifying. In a pre-digital electrical way.
Take the Eclectic Collector, a dark, breezy hole in the wall just off the pier in Hermosa Beach. Presided over by Tom Allard, a Barnaby Rudge-type who can usually be found outside the shop in a Hawaiian shirt, smoking, the Collector is usually empty. A wholly different experience from Acres, it is the kind of place where you can sit down with a copy of, for example, "Legendary Yachts: The Great American Yachts from Crowningshield's Cleopatra's Barge to Today's Intrepid Bill Robinson" (1971, $8.50), and lose yourself for hours in nautical luxuries.
Lose yourself in a book, off the pier in Hermosa? What exactly was being smoked on the pier beforehand, you ask?
But Los Angeles has lately come to the forefront in keeping the tradition of bibliomaniacal uselessness alive. As the university libraries of Southern California strive to keep pace with mushrooming student populations, and as the rising cost of books drives students and parents to look for better values, the secondhand reading business is thriving along with the likes of Barnes & Noble and Amazon.
A recent tally by The Times uncovered roughly 40 used- and rare-book stores in the greater L.A. area. Although they tend to occupy low-rent districts, they exist in virtually every corner — Hollywood, Van Nuys, Thousand Oaks, Silver Lake, Westwood, Glendale — and in dizzying variety.
They cater to chefs (Cook's Library on 3rd Street in L.A.), photographers (Dawson's on Larchmont in L.A.), astrologers and soul-searchers (Bodhi Tree used book annex, on Melrose in West Hollywood).
Looking for an obscure work of 18th century German philosophy? Try Angel City Bookstore in Santa Monica. Want to know how to decorate a set entirely in bed linen? Book City in Hollywood. Looking for an obscure erotic science-fiction novel signed by the author? Bookfellows in Glendale. Need an early word of Samuel Johnson's? Why, Sam: Johnson's Bookshop on Pico, of course, where the owner, Bob Klein, a literature professor and novelist, will even deign to discuss the Doctor with you.
This being Los Angeles, of course, most stores abound in movie star biographies, self-help guides and Buddhism. Automobiles and art books often show up in force too.Still, some proprietors are not sanguine about the future. They say that, with as many used-book stores as there are, many have closed in the last 20 years. They say that the Internet, while it has helped them move inventory to far-flung customers, has also driven off-the-street business, and even regulars.
"Why should anyone go to a bookstore when they can order a book from the comfort of their desk and get it in a day?" asked Michael Thompson, who has owned Michael R. Thompson Bookseller, on 3rd Street in West Hollywood, for 30 years.
Thompson said that the huge market for libraries in Southern California may help business in the short run, but it has taken a lot of books that would have been bought and sold repeatedly out of circulation permanently. But he added that the mega-bookstore trend has not affected his business adversely.
But many experienced proprietors seem hopeful. Leonard Berstein's father opened Caravan Bookstore on Grand Avenue in 1954. Now Leonard owns it. "It's only been fifty years — I'll tell you in 75," says Bernstein, when asked about the state of business. He says he sees room for everyone in the book business — the Amazons, the Borders, the independent first-run stores and himself. "I'm not going out to buy a new Lexus every year," he says. "I'd rather spend it on books."
An encouraging sign is the recent influx of youth into the business. Traditionally the province of antiquaries and literates of the pre-computer age — that is to say, older people — used-book stores are now increasingly owned by people in their 30s and 40s.
Samantha Scully, 36, purchased Gene de Chene Booksellers on Santa Monica Boulevard in West L.A. from its aging owner last year. Faced with the store's closing and the loss of her job, Scully didn't want to see this neighborhood mainstay with a political bent (an antiwar poster adorns the door and a nice section of books on nuclear war sits inside) disappear. She believes she can keep the store afloat by attracting younger customers. "I wanted the store to stay here," she said, adding that, as she spoke, three patrons in their early 20s were browsing in her shop.
Brian Paepper, 39, a Dutch-born Angeleno, owns Alias Books, formerly West L.A. Book Center, on Sawtelle Boulevard. He sees a future in the used-book business, as long as it is treated as a business. The previous owner, Paepper said, would place high prices on books he felt especially attached to, and they wouldn't sell. He refused to utilize the Internet. To keep the store in business and relevant, Paepper has taken to selling textbooks and brought the store's inventory online.
"Used-book stores should cater to people who can't afford new books as they become more expensive," he says. Still, he adds, "it's a fool's profession."
But it is the foolishness, like the uselessness, like the smell of life and death on those shelves, that makes the used-book store what it is. Michael Silverblatt, host of KCRW-FM's literary talk show "Bookworm," says: "At a first-run bookstore, people don't necessarily like books. They like trends, or CDs, or coffee. But used-book stores are meeting places for people who like books, and not just books, but people who want to find bookishness, a substance in rare supply these days."
Silverblatt is fond of Cambridge Bookshop on Beverly Boulevard in West Hollywood — he likes to buy a book there and then go sit in Lulu's and drink coffee; but then who wouldn't? — and Arnold M. Herr Bookseller on Fairfax Avenue in West Hollywood.
The question, then, is not whether to get addicted to used-book stores — your mental well-being and family and professional lives, happily, stand only to suffer — but which used-book stores to get addicted to.
The Largest Book Deals Of 2002
Tomas Kellner, 07.18.03, 7:00 AM ET
Brand-name authors still dominate bestseller lists, but the reign of Stephen is over. King's last two books, From Buick 8 and Everything is Eventual, were each off 40% in sales compared with Dreamcatcher, his 2001 release.
Tom Clancy didn't fare much better. Sensing weakness, publishers are betting on new names and developing new brands. A fresh plot twist: Many of the writers lined up to take on Clancy, King, Michael Crichton and John Grisham are women. Tim Lahaye
Riding the surge in Christian-themed books, LaHaye signed a deal with Bantam Books to publish a new four-part Armageddon thriller. LaHaye is co-author of the doomsday series Left Behind, which sold 50 million copies. No surprise here. The religious books market hit $2.4 billion in 2001 and is projected to grow 3.7% annually through 2006. HarperCollins and Doubleday now have Christian book divisions. Patricia Cornwell
Her Portrait of the Killer purports to close the book on the Jack the Ripper case. Unlike her characters, the Cornwell brand is far from dead. The writer signed a two-book deal worth $16 million with PenguinPutnam last year. This fall she will deliver Blow Fly, a new installment in her Scarpetta series, chock-full with crime and corpses. Charles Frazier
The Pulitzer-prize winning author of Cold Mountain, a peripatetic Civil War epic about a Confederate deserter, sold his next book to Random House for $8 million and film rights to Paramount Pictures for $3 million. Miramax's movie adaptation of Cold Mountain is in the works, starring Nicole Kidman and Jude Law. Diana Gabaldon
One of the hottest new brand names in publishing, Gabaldon sold a three-book historical romance series for $10 million to her publishers at Delacorte Press in the U.S. and Doubleday and Random House abroad. Her first book, Outlander, a time-travel romance whose heroine has a husband in one century and a lover in another, got picked up after she posted parts of it on a CompuServe bulletin board. She built it into a best-selling six-book saga over the following decade. Janet Evanovitch
The creator of the Stephanie Plum series, about an intrepid New Jersey bounty hunter, sold the rights for her next two novels to HarperCollins for $10 million. Evanovich made an estimated $4 million for each Plum installment, of which there are nine now. She's branching out into romance, nonfiction and possibly even a TV series. Alice Sebold
Keep an eye out for Alice Sebold. The Lovely Bones, her novel narrated by a murdered girl, has never been off the Publishers Weekly bestseller list since it came out in June 2002. To date it has sold more than 2.2 million copies. Sebold's publisher, Little, Brown, is postponing the book's paperback release until the strong hardcover sales fall off. Sebold is working on a second book for Little, Brown, and then she will be free to shop for a new contract, potentially worth tens of millions. Forbes.com
Newton store sells well-traveled books:
Kontoleon family's shop on Auburn Street holds a collection amassed over 30
By Sarah Andrews/CNC Staff Writer http://www.dailynewstribune.com/news/local_regional/newt_store07162003.htm
Wednesday, July 16, 2003
NEWTON -- It's an inventory that would make any literary historian drool.
A French thesaurus from 1757, pages yellowed but still intact. A gold-leafed volume of poetry from 1845 with a personal inscription on the inside cover. Old Civil War letters and personal diaries. Even an original copy of the now out-of-print "Arnold's Bodyshaping for Women" by Arnold Schwarzenegger, circa 1979.
But though the relatively new Auburndale shop, Old Books and Prints, doesn't profess to have every book ever written, its collection of rare and old books will impress even those with a fondness for crisp, white pages and high-gloss covers.
Located on Auburn Street, Old Books and Prints has been open for business since January and is one of the only used-book stores in Newton. While it is technically owned by former technology professional Jon Kontoleon, it is staffed by two people who call themselves "a senior citizen volunteer advisory committee" -- his parents, Jim and Jeanne Kontoleon.
The reason they work there? Well, it's their stuff.
Almost 30 years ago, the Kontoleons, who have been married for 50 years, "were looking for something to do," according to Jeanne, a former high school librarian. So they began collecting books by frequenting book auctions and yard sales.
It all started with one barn in New Hampshire. Jim, then a station manager at WGGB in Springfield, was feeling the stress of his job and its new responsibilities, which included giving on-air editorials. One weekend, the Kontoleons took a drive up to New Hampshire to get away and stumbled on a yard sale of sorts inside an old barn.
Minutes later they emerged with a bag full of old children's books (Jeanne's favorite) and the rest was history -- literally -- as the Kontoleons began to amass a giant collection of old books which they kept in a spare bedroom.
As Jim's job changed, the couple, who met at Syracuse University, moved from Massachusetts to Florida to Connecticut, each time hauling all their new collectibles. During one move from New England to Jacksonville, the load was so heavy and the streets so hot that the truck blew five tires on the way down.
"Each time we moved, it was always tremendous because we had all of our stuff and a book store," said Jeanne.
During the couple's final move, to New London, Conn., where Jim was starting up a television station, the collection was already quite serious. About three years ago, Jonathan came to visit his parents who were no longer working and decided to move them up to their present home in Oxford. Their new house even has a barn -- just for the books.
Jim and Jeanne's daughter, a Newton resident, found the Auburndale storefront recently and the Kontoleons decided to donate their collection to the store. They now not only sell their books, but also old original and hard-to-find prints and homemade greeting cards.
The difference in Jim and Jeanne's taste and preference makes for a store with a variety of merchandise, from military and medicine books, to old Life magazines and newspapers, to old Louis Prang prints.
And it's worth a visit if not just to meet the Kontoleons, who also refer to themselves as "the book gypsies." Maybe you will see Jeanne shyly roll her eyes when Jim calls her "lovely" in front of strangers. Or maybe Jim will tell you about how he was almost arrested in Medford when he threw pebbles at Jeanne's window before they were married.
"It was the kind of neighborhood where little short guys with suitcases couldn't peek in people's windows," he said.
While the Kontoleons don't actively peruse auctions and yard sales much anymore, they say they are still open to buying rare items. Currently, they have about 1,100 books in the store, with 3,000 more at home.
The store is a bit of a rarity these days, said Jon.
"The advent of book sales over the Internet and the increasing rents has forced many book stores of this type out of business," he said.
Author's lot not easy one at Costco gig
By Dick Kreck
columnist for the Denver Post
Wednesday, July 16, 2003
This authoring stuff is work.
Write a column three days a week for 16 years and people barely blink. Write one best seller and, suddenly, you're an Author.
Granted, an author who spent last Saturday at not one but two Costco stores, signing copies of "Murder at the Brown Palace," the runaway best seller about a 1911 shooting at the luxurious hotel. (Available at better bookstores everywhere.)
Anyway, there I was at the Park Meadows store, seated at a table between men's striped dress shirts and washable suede jackets. Just down the aisle was a large stack of plums by the crate.
I had some down time. Across the way was an endlessly repeating video for Oxi-Clean, a miracle if ever I saw one. Of course I watched. Scientists have proven that if there is a television turned on, a guy will watch it.
Costco is a phenomenon you have to visit to believe. This is impulse buying taken to a new level. On any given Saturday, a Costco outlet can expect to turn $500,000 in sales. One of the managers told me he sold a $53,000 diamond the previous day.
Products from lawn chairs to multi-packs of burritos tempt buyers-in-bulk. A woman strolled by (without buying a book, I might add), and in her cart were a giant bag of lemons, a smaller bag of giant mushrooms - and a 27-inch color TV. Did she go to get lemons, then decide she might as well get a new TV, too?
Anyone who thinks books are a dying art form should take a look at Costco. Both stores had a huge table of books at discounted prices. John Fielder's "Colorado 1870-2000" still sells like crazy. Me, I settled for a four-pack of Oxi-Clean products and a couple of pairs of boxers.
Good as gold
Bring us your tired, your poor, your 24-karat gold.
Buyers, in conjunction with Hyde Park Jewelers, are standing by at the erstwhile Roy's Cherry Creek restaurant in the shopping center to take those family heirlooms off your hands.
"We'll buy it! Sell Us Your Valuables!" proclaimed an almost-full-page ad in the paper earlier this week. Jewelry, silver, watches, autographs, vintage photos - bring 'em on.
"Don't make the mistake of thinking your items aren't good enough for us," they soothe. Is a gold coin from the Clark & Gruber Mint worth anything? Buyers are there from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. today and Thursday.
End of the road
Enuf already. There must be more "classic" vehicles on the road than I thought.
A couple of weeks ago I mentioned a mini-pickup with 400,000 miles on it. This, of course, led to a reader calling with a Subaru that logged 484,000.
Chicken feed to Nancy Camp. She bought her Ford half-ton pickup new for $4,200 in 1972 and the odometer just zipped past 562,300 miles. She had the engine rebuilt at 400,000 and gets the rust treated every couple of years, but, she says, "it really looks good.
"I intend to keep it until I die but, then, I'm in my 70s," she says, quickly adding, "We're both in good health."
Still openings for the 162-mile Courage Classic bike ride taking place Saturday through Monday. The classic has raised $10 million for The Children's Hospital in its 13 years. Call 303-456-9704 for info. ... Oscar-winning documentary-film maker Donna Dewey slings drinks at the Denver Press Club, 1330 Glenarm Place, from 6 to 7 tonight to help renovate the club. ... Quotable: "Being a sportswriter was the same as being a welfare recipient, but without any supervision." - Jimmy Breslin.
Dick Kreck's column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday. He may be reached at 303-820-1456 or DKreck@denverpost.com.
First-time novelist in his literary prime
SANDRA MARTIN talks to Mark Haddon, whose compelling debut novel narrated by an autistic teen looks set to be filmed by the Harry Potter team
By SANDRA MARTIN
From Tuesday's Globe and Mail
POSTED AT 3:35 PM EDT Tuesday, Jul. 15, 2003
Appearance versus reality is the underlying theme of the hottest debut novel of the summer. I can feel you yawning, but before you skip to another page of the newspaper, let me just say that the astonishing success of Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time shows that the way a story is told, rather than the story itself, often makes the difference between an instant remainder and a literary bestseller.
Rights to the novel have been sold in more than a dozen countries, with the British publisher producing it in separate editions for teenagers and adults. A consortium of Warner Bros./Heyday Films/Brad Pitt and Brad Grey have bought the film rights and are in the process of negotiating with Steve Kloves (screenwriter for the Harry Potter films) to write and direct.
After nearly 20 years writing and illustrating children's books, churning out television scripts, papering his walls with his own unpublished novels and firing his agent, Haddon has become an instant success.
"I have this fantasy that someone in that office has been beaten heartily on the bottom with a copy of this book," he says about his former but unnamed agent during an interview on a hot summer day in the Toronto offices of Doubleday, his Canadian publisher.
The novel has a deceptively simple surface. Underneath, though, it is quirky and complicated, both graphically and textually. Mainly that's because Haddon has chosen to tell the story in the voice of Christopher John Francis Boone. He's a 15-year-old kid who finds his neighbour's black poodle stabbed to death with a garden fork in the middle of the night and sets out to find the murderer.
Christopher has Asperger's syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism. Typically, people with this syndrome have normal intelligence; some, like Christopher, have an exceptional skill in a particular area. He has a photographic memory and a special talent for math. For example, he knows the names of all the countries of the world and their capital cities and every prime number up to 7,057. Besides numbers, he loves science, puzzles, drawing pictures and his pet rat Toby. He also likes dogs, as "they do not tell lies because they cannot talk."
That's the upside.
Christopher has no peripheral emotional vision; he sees the world in strictly literal terms and he has no friends. He hates change, looking people in the eye, the colours brown and yellow, and having different foods touch on his plate. If somebody inadvertently grazes Christopher's arm or stares at him, he is likely to bang his head against the wall or roll into a ball on the ground and emit loud persistent groaning sounds for hours on end.
"Christopher seems supremely ill equipped to be a narrator," Haddon agrees. And yet, as he discovered early on, Christopher's apparent disabilities were actually a safeguard against the literary traps that ensnare so many novelists. "He never explains anything too much, he never tries to make the reader's mind up one way or the other," Haddon says. "He just paints a picture and leaves you to decide. He is very good at show, don't tell."
Christopher speaks in short declarative sentences that he has organized in chapters headed by prime numbers. Here's the way Christopher writes: "13. This will not be a funny book. I cannot tell jokes because I do not understand them. Here is a joke, as an example. It is one of Father's.
His face was drawn but the curtains were real.
I know why this is meant to be funny. I asked. It is because drawn has three meanings, and they are (1) drawn with a pencil, (2) exhausted, and (3) pulled across a window, and meaning 1 refers to both the face and the curtains, meaning 2 refers only to the face, and meaning 3 refers only to the curtains.
If I try to say the joke to myself, making the word mean the three different things at the same time, it is . . . like three people trying to talk to you at the same time about different things.
And that is why there are no jokes in this book."
But there are plenty of puzzles. In fact, the novel is a giant question mark about making order out of chaos. There's Christopher himself, of course. He's the one who's been labelled and who goes to a "special needs" school. But, as quickly becomes apparent, it is the adults around Christopher, especially his parents, who are the truly dysfunctional ones. Christopher can't change the fact that he is autistic, but he does manage by the end of the book to organize his life in a manageable way. And in doing so, he provokes his parents into modifying their own crazily self-destructive behaviour.
Haddon, a soft-spoken Englishman, was born in Northampton, "the jewel of the Midlands," he says dismissively. "I always joke that there are only two literary links to Northampton, and both of them are to the same psychiatric hospital." Apparently John Clare, the English Romantic poet, ended up in St. Crispins Hospital, and so did Robert Lowell, the modern American poet, after suffering a manic episode when he was passing through. "That's the end of Northampton's link to world literature," Haddon says with a laugh.
Now happily living in Oxford, Haddon, 40, has big muscles from his penchant for marathon kayaking on the River Thames. "You can only write for five or six hours a day," he says, "so you have to find something else to do the rest of the time. For a lot of writers, it is either alcohol or family breakdown." Or both, one assumes. Haddon's solution is "wholesome outdoor sports" and painting with acrylics so that the canvases are dry before his toddler, Alfie, comes home from nursery school.
Haddon obviously doesn't suffer from a problem such as Asperger's, but there is lot of him in Christopher -- the love of math, for example, and also his need for solitude. "I was always one of those outsider kids," he says. He read gobs of science as a kid, avoiding fiction like a contagion. It wasn't until his teen years that he began wanting to write, and it was only at the last moment that he decided to study English lit rather than math at Oxford. "A narrow escape," he now thinks.
Even so, he periodically has to nourish the scientific part of his brain. "After I have read lots of fiction, it is like having too much birthday cake," he confides. "Reading science is like having a jug of cold water."
After Oxford, Haddon spent a few years doing assorted voluntary and part-time social-work type jobs before he discovered he "was completely unemployable." The longest he says he lasted at any one time in an office was five weeks. Not having a boss, he says, is one of the best things about being a writer.
All he ever really wanted to do vocationally was to paint and write. He fell into writing and illustrating children's books because "it seemed halfway there on both counts." Writing television scripts paid the rent. There is a double irony here: He was typecast because he was good at both; and the economy of diction and scene-setting he learned from the kiddie-lit and television trenches are the foundations of his international success.
He has blurred the boundaries between postmodern and genre fiction, between books for kids and those aimed at adults. But that is what fiction should do, he counters, pointing out that one of his favourite books is the quintessential 19th-century mystery novel, The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins.
"People ask me what model I had in mind when I was writing this book," he says. After thinking about it for a while, he finally concluded it was Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. She has taken the Bennet family, with their parochial lives, and adopted their language, which is in itself restrained and limited. But, he says, she has drawn them with such empathy that there is a universality about them. In retrospect, Haddon realized it was that quality of empathy that he had been striving for in creating Christopher.
Who would want to read a novel, let alone make a film, about a disabled kid living in Swindon, he asks, evincing a mixture of surprise and pleasure. The same could be said about Yann Martel's Life of Pi, a novel about a shipwrecked boy adrift on a life raft in the middle of the Pacific with a starving tiger. The reason that both novels connect with readers of different ages is that they tell simple but powerful stories and they pose the biggest puzzle of all: What is life all about?
Read the complete first chapter of Mark Haddon's book on the Entertainment page of our Web site, globeandmail.com .
Are you living in a literate city? A place with a love of books? A new survey by the University of Wisconsin ranks America's 64 largest cities with a population over 250,000 in terms of literacy.
The top 10 are: Minneapolis, Seattle, Denver, Atlanta, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Washington, Louisville, Portland, Cincinnati.http://www.uww.edu/cities/
The New Literary Lottery
Good news for aspiring novelists: Advances for first-time authors have blown sky-high. The catch? If the book doesn’t sell, the fallout can kill your career.
By Alex Williams
Amy Koppelman had always wanted to be a writer, even after all those years she spent slogging away on a first novel in her closet—the only “office” space available in her cramped Upper West Side apartment. “It was the closest thing I had to ‘a room of one’s own,’ ” she says. She still wanted to be a writer even after she got turned down by Columbia’s prestigious master’s-of-fine-arts fiction program. Twice.
For seven years, she hunched over her manuscript, a tale of post-partum depression and infanticide. The work spanned the course of two pregnancies and several thousand nagging doubts. Even after Koppelman, now 33, finally made the cut at Columbia in 1998, the doubts would grow so thunderous that she considered giving up and opening a coffee shop.
During the darkest of those spells, she happened across a “Page Six” item in the Post concerning noise complaints in Cindy Crawford’s apartment building; it mentioned in passing that Koppelman’s idol, Joan Didion, served on the building’s board. Although she had never met Didion, Koppelman tracked down the handsome East Seventies prewar and left a copy of her manuscript with the doorman. Tucked in the package was a note, meekly asking Didion if she should just quit altogether. Three days later, Koppelman received a reply on solemn gray stationery that started, “Yes, you are a real writer . . . ” And so Koppelman pressed on. It was only when she tried to sell the book, however, that she learned what it means to be a “real writer” these days.
She began by mailing out dozens of sample chapters of the book she had come to title Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight—later changed to A Mouthful of Air. As the answers started to trickle back, Koppelman detected an unsettling trend. “All the big New York agents and publishing houses told me the same thing: ‘Look at the movies. You need a happy ending,’ ” she recalls. “I showed it to one big agent who agreed to read the first eighteen pages. She told me to stick it in a drawer, nobody cares about dead babies—and that was her being nice. I sent a copy to a friend who works in Hollywood. He said, ‘You don’t really want to get this published, right? Just write the next Bridget Jones’s Diary.’ ”
It was clear to Koppelman that publishers not only didn’t seem interested in a modest first novel but also showed no interest in the idea of developing a writer over time, who might, several books down the road, produce something really stellar. Instead, even from unknown writers, they seemed to want only blockbusters. Not fitting that category, Koppelman finally found a small, independent publisher called MacAdam/Cage in San Francisco that believed in building a writer’s career. A Mouthful of Air was published in April, and the New York Observer was quick to call it an “exquisitely dark debut novel.” It is only now that Koppelman can pause long enough to contemplate the bigger question: Was it all worth it?
“I got a $3,000 advance for the book,” she says. “I’m not even sure that covers the postage on the queries I sent out.”
In other words, of course it was.
For thousands of would-be novelists like Koppelman, the dream of living the New York writer’s life will never die, even if it nearly kills them to pursue it. But that doesn’t mean the nature of that pursuit is in any way constant. And as always, the goal of carving out a life of letters in the city—shared by thousands of Sarah Lawrence graduates, Starbucks baristas, and drop-out tax attorneys alike—is inextricably linked to the chilly realities of the publishing business. But rarely have the realities of the marketplace changed so jarringly as they have over the past five years. While the major publishing conglomerates continue to cut back on “midlist” authors, they’re increasingly willing to lavish astronomical sums on unknowns. So many, in fact, that since the late nineties, half a million dollars is de rigueur for a first novelist who’s perceived to have hot prospects.
And the recession that has caused sales of all but a few books to flat-line hasn’t slowed the run on mega-advances; if anything, the desperation to find the next Alice Sebold has only upped the ante. In the past two years, a steady stream of first-time authors have joined the club. Yale Law professor Stephen Carter may have made headlines when Knopf coughed up an astonishing $4 million for his first two novels, but he is by no means alone. Medical student Daniel Mason received $1.2 million for a two-book deal from Knopf on the strength of his manuscript for The Piano Tuner, which appeared last fall. Hari Kunzru, a former editor at Wired UK, received nearly $1 million for the U.S. rights to his first novel, The Impressionist; Khaled Hosseni, an Afghan-American, whose first book, The Kite Runner, concerns life under the Taliban, pulled in a substantial six-figure sum, as did Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez, who received $475,000 for The Dirty Girls Social Club, which took the former New Mexico reporter six days to write (yes, that’s $80,000 a day). Arthur Phillips, a Minnesota-bred Gen-Xer, earned a similar sum with his debut smash, Prague. And the youngest recipient of publishing’s new largesse, local poster boy Jonathan Safran Foer—a 26-year-old Princeton grad living in Jackson Heights—received a clean half-million from Houghton Mifflin (not to speak of a very quick $925,000 for the paperback rights) for his first novel, Everything Is Illuminated.
The magnitude of Safran Foer’s advance, combined with his tender age, drew so much attention it served to demonstrate to publishers just how powerful a marketing tool the advance itself could be. The larger the advance, the louder the publisher’s declaration that this is the book the house is gambling on this season. The marketplace has become a literary lottery, not just for the authors but for the publishing houses too. A modest advance, which used to signal the intention to invest in a long-term relationship, now indicates lack of commitment. As one senior editor at a major house says: “The hardest thing to do is to buy a book for no money. The money is a function of enthusiasm. If there’s no enthusiasm, why bother?”
The book that really changed publishers’ minds about the commercial potential of literary fiction, and in particular the possibilities of first novels, was Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain. Published by Grove/Atlantic in 1997, this Civil War tale was a groundbreaking success—a serious book that held its own on the Wal-Mart shelves, selling an incredible 1.5 million copies in hardback and following up with another 1.3 million in paperback. It was one of the biggest debuts in publishing history. The cry from every publisher in town was “Get me the new Charles Frazier!”
Suddenly, literary fiction was no longer thought of as a high-prestige but low-profit venture in an industry largely propelled by cookbooks, self-help tomes, and pulpy thrillers. Of course, literary authors like Norman Mailer, Toni Morrison, and John Updike were guaranteed generators of revenue, but they had built their reputations over a course of years. What had changed was publishing’s embrace of the unknown.
Last year, a record fifteen debut novels shipped more than 100,000 copies each. The most notable of these, of course, is Sebold’s The Lovely Bones—a surprising novel whose narrator is a murdered girl—which has sold more than 2 million copies in hardback and last week logged its fifty-third week on the New York Times best-seller list.
Even if the crossover smash was still the exception, such books encouraged the idea that any promising young nobody might be transformed into a very big somebody with the right promotion, and ironically, a big-enough advance could help serve as that promotion. The problem was, with everyone swinging for the fences, publishers could no longer afford to have much patience for young writers who show only warning-track power. “It’s the ‘blockbuster’ mentality applied to literature,” says New York literary agent Jody Hotchkiss. “The middle is falling out, but the financial upside is far, far greater. It’s exactly what’s happening in Hollywood right now.”
But what’s good for the author’s bank account—and the publisher’s—in the short term is not necessarily best for his career in the long term. “At Doubleday, we believe in investing in a career,” insists Bill Thomas, editor-in-chief of Random House’s Doubleday Broadway group. “That gets harder to do with the money that’s being thrown around these days. It’s closing your eyes and praying. And that can hurt the writer.”
Jonathan Burnham, president of Miramax Books, who startled the publishing world last fall by forking out $625,000 for a novel called Bergdorf Blondes by Vogue editor Plum Sykes, concurs. “There’s no doubt that publishers will be prepared to overpay for a major new literary voice,” he says. “But a big advance puts a huge pressure on the novel to succeed. This peculiar marketplace entrance-performance is something that everybody has to do now. William Faulkner didn’t go around and meet ten publishers, who then participated in a heated auction that was publicized by Keith Kelly in the Post the next day.”
Another publisher is even more blunt: “The writer has got two or three years to make the money back. If he doesn’t, that big advance might be the last nickel he ever earns in the book business.” So maybe it’s no longer publish or perish; now it’s also possible to publish and perish. The time-honored tradition of a novelist’s serving an apprenticeship through his early thirties is waning quickly, says Morgan Entrekin of Grove/Atlantic, who gave the world Frazier’s Cold Mountain six years ago.
“It used to be that you had pretty modest expectations for a first novel, and the idea was to get the writer in print and the writer would be allowed to develop,” Entrekin explains. He points to John Irving, who was shepherded by the industry through a number of promising but uncommercial early novels (who remembers Setting Free the Bears or The 158-Pound Marriage?) before bursting onto the airport newsstand with The World According to Garp. “That experience has been turned on its head. All publishers are looking for fresh new voices. It’s great if you have a positive sales record, but it’s better to have no sales record than a poor one.
Consequently, it’s easier to go out with an unknown writer than it is with a second or third book from a writer who hasn’t done very well.”
As Daniel Mason’s agent, Christy Fletcher, puts it: “It’s like credit. It’s better to have no credit than bad credit.”
One writer who wound up almost buried by a book-industry jackpot is Lori Lansens, an unpublished novelist from rural Chatham, Ontario, who four years ago found herself in the midtown Sheraton, the subject of a fierce bidding war among seven major New York houses. At that point, Lansens, now 40, thought she had already given up her career in the arts, having quit acting after fifteen years (the highlight: a scene opposite Al Pacino in Sea of Love that was later cut). Although she neither studied literature nor attended any writing programs, Lansens decided to attempt a novel—eventually titled Rush Home Road—chronicling the relationship between a black grandmother in an Ontario trailer park and the abandoned white girl she adopts. The writing went surprisingly fast—the first draft took her about a year. “I had read in some book that five to ten thousand dollars would be an average advance on a good book,” Lansens recalls. “And that was if, as was my dream, it was published at all. My husband and I were seriously talking about self-publishing.”
It never came to that. Unsolicited, Lansens sent her manuscript to a Toronto-based literary agent, who quickly sold the Canadian rights. Almost instantly, the big New York houses were squaring off over the world rights. “The deal happened within a day,” Lansens says. “I was meeting my agent at another publisher’s office in midtown Manhattan, and she stopped me at the door and said, ‘We can’t go in there. We have to talk.’ ” Little, Brown, the agent said, had made a preemptive offer: $500,000, for two books. “I was amazed,” Lansens says. “I was unknown.”
The euphoria didn’t last long. “It was a wonderful story, beautifully written, but they could hardly get the book reviewed, even with that advance,” recalls Jody Hotchkiss, Lansens’s New York film agent. “The book came out, had a beautiful half-page ad in the New York Times Book Review, which is very expensive, but essentially disappeared. She couldn’t get reviewed in the Times daily, which is still the Holy Grail. So now she’s on contract for this second book, and she’s due $250,000. But believe me, Little, Brown is sitting there saying, ‘Whoa, we better hope we can pull a rabbit out of a hat.’”
Lansens felt the pressure as she scrambled to find a suitably marketable topic for her second book. “After this big deal happened, I guess we did all have expectations,” she says. “It was frustrating, because nobody could really answer why.”
But just before Lansens became a casualty of publishing’s new economics, her luck turned violently, again. Hotchkiss, in New York, got a call from Whoopi Goldberg’s production company. She wanted to buy the movie rights and Whoopi herself wanted to play the lead. For Lansens, the deal meant another six-figure sum, not to mention an unimaginable windfall of publicity for the book, now in paperback.
Once again, and just as unimaginably, she was a poster child for the Hollywoodification of the book business—but this time, literally. Now anointed a significant literary voice, Lansens, who spent some time just processing all the drama, is now one fifth of her way through a second book. “This was my first book,” she says, still astonished. “If it were my tenth book, I wouldn’t have expected this.”
The new pressures are very clear to many young writers. A few years ago, Arthur Bradford, now 33, moved from Austin, Texas, where he was working as a school gym teacher. He quickly made his mark, earning an O. Henry Award for a short story in his collection, Dogwalker, and invitations to barbecues at Dave Eggers’s house. Already, however, Bradford’s worrying about following that artistic success with a commercial one. “If your first book or two is not widely read, it can ruin your chances of publishing anything else,” Bradford says. “You don’t want a small debut. You need to hit them over the head right away.” For some, the new equivalent of a writer’s apprenticeship seems more like a hazing ritual. Novelist Mary Morris is something of a Mother Superior to Brooklyn’s exploding writers’ scene. The author of thirteen highly readable midlist books, Morris presides over an exclusive writers’ group, which meets weekly in her Park Slope brownstone. Among the Slope’s legions of Next Jonathan Lethems, admission alone is something of a literary debut, a major step toward a first contract. Lately, however, Morris is finding it tougher to offer the sunny encouragement that young writers need to survive.
“There’s really more of a bottom-line mentality now,” Morris says wearily. “When I started out, publishers could still commit to a writer. Now they’re publishing a book. All any publisher has to do is push a button and get all the numbers from the big book chains. And those numbers,” she adds darkly, “will track you forever.”
Nelly Reifler is a typical young writer living in Brooklyn. Now 35, she spent the first fourteen years of her “professional” life working the register at a store that sold wind-up toys on Columbus Avenue, or walking dogs for Paul Auster—anything that allowed her time to write. She published ambitious short fiction in underground journals like Pressed Wafer and the better-known Bomb. Then Reifler signed on with Leigh Feldman, the agent who sold Arthur Golden’s best-selling Memoirs of a Geisha and Cold Mountain. Feldman sold Reifler’s first collection of stories—See Through—to Simon & Schuster, albeit for a sum that would barely be large enough to buy a new replacement for her 1987 Toyota Camry. While the irrepressible Reifler considers a sum like that heroic compared with her previous paychecks, she acknowledges that the concept of living a midlist writer’s life like Morris’s—nice brownstone, regular contracts—is looking ever more difficult to attain.
“It helps to have low expectations.” Reifler says with a shrug. “It’s a crazy way to live. It’s just a gamble. You’re just betting on a way of life.”
But while writers like Mary Morris consider the blockbuster mentality something of a sickness in the book business, others insist it’s a measure of health. “Some of the worst cynics tend to be people who maybe are never going to get published for a reason,” says Nicole Aragi, the superagent-of-the-moment who brokered Jonathan Safran Foer’s handsome payday. Aragi embodies the blockbuster mentality better than most. She claims not to bother with midlist clients and takes on at most one or two new authors a year, and then only the superhot (she also represents Junot Díaz). Winning Aragi’s approval in itself is a benediction of sorts.
“I’ve heard some very nasty accusations from people, then you look at their work and think, Well, there’s a reason fifteen rejections are sitting in your box,” Aragi says. “I’m very cruel about that, though, so I’m not going to start sounding like an old bitch. There have always been bean-counters in the industry, because it’s a business. We need them to behave in a businesslike way.”
Though Bill Thomas of Doubleday disagrees that this shift in publishing has created better fiction writers, he suggests it has coincided with a really good crop of emerging American novelists. “I think American fiction is in a very good place right now,” says Thomas, who edited Jonathan Lethem’s commercial breakthrough, Motherless Brooklyn, before ascending to his current post. “If you look at Jonathan Safran Foer, no one said, ‘Well, this is a difficult postmodern novel by an unknown writer, we’re not going to get involved.’ Everyone bid on it. That feeling of excitement when you start turning pages of a manuscript and you want to share this with the world, that still drives the business.”
For superstar authors, the publicity machine runs nonstop. Lesser-known writers hit the road and promote their own books. Never mind that they may have better things to do -- like write
Adair Lara, Chronicle Staff Writer
Saturday, July 12, 2003 ©2003 San Francisco Chronicle
Hillary Rodham Clinton got a cool $8 million advance for her memoir, "Living History," and a publicity blitz that included prominent journalists from foreign countries flying to Washington to interview her. Right behind that, Harry Potter fans were whipped into a frenzy by an orchestrated campaign of embargoes on the new volume and then treated to bookstore pajama parties across the country.
Alas, the publishers of the estimated 55,000 books that come out every year in the United States must count on lesser-known authors to do more and more of the promoting of a book, from hiring publicists to setting up and paying for tours. Many publishers even expect authors to submit their marketing strategy as part of their proposal. For authors, finding readers for a book is often harder than writing it was.
J.S. Holliday, author of the acclaimed "The World Rushed In: The California Gold Rush Experience," recently drove from his home in Carmel to a vast chain bookstore 200 miles north in Roseville for a reading he set up himself. He arrived to find a podium and chairs, a mike turned on and 30 shrink-wrapped copies of his new book, "Rush for Riches," on a table.
But the chairs were empty. The manager refused to make an announcement over the PA system, so Holliday plucked an audience of six from among the store's shoppers. "Look, I'm about to give a rousing speech over there," he said, putting a friendly arm around their shoulders. "Why don't you come over and listen to me?"
He talked to six people for half an hour and sold five books. Then he helpfully took the shrink wrap off the remaining books and signed them. The clerk was aghast. "You've torn the bar code off! We need that to sell the book! " Holliday fished the shrink wrap out of the garbage and restored the bar codes while customers watched, "amazed, no doubt, at the humiliation authors must wade in to make sure that a book gets sold," he said, laughing. Later he learned that every one of those books had sold, and the store had reordered.
When San Francisco's Kirk Read got his coming-of-age memoir, "How I Learned to Snap," published by Hill Street Press, an independent house in Athens, Ga., he understood that publishing it was all they could afford to do. "I told them,
just send me 200 books and I'll sell them," Read said. He drove to 100 tour dates in 40 cities -- everything from book group meetings to huge university lectures. He made purple T-shirts and buttons depicting a hand snapping and gave them out at each stop.
"A lot of authors are better at thinking outside the box than publishers because they live outside the box," said Gerry Howard, head of Broadway Books, a division of Random House. He offered as an example Dave Pelzer, author of the best-selling book "A Child Called 'It': One Child's Courage to Survive."
"He's on a permanent campaign," Howard said. "He travels the country in an evangelical way and sells lots of books in the back of the auditorium."
Even cookbook authors must -- literally -- cook up interest in their books. Joyce Goldstein of San Francisco flew to Miami with six pounds of fresh phyllo on her lap. The former owner of Square One and author of 19 books, she cooked all morning, making 300 "tastes" of bougatsa, a Greek phyllo pastry filled with cheese custard -- and sold five books. Soon she'll fly to Baltimore to attend a conference at the invitation of the Potato Board. She went to Copia in Napa to do "This Is Not Your Mother's Seder."
"I have cornered a rather funny little niche as the resident food Jew in the Bay Area," Goldstein said. "You sell them one book at a time. Drip, drip, drip.
"Bookstores? You might as well kill yourself," she said.
The imagination every author possesses goes to good use in these grassroots marketing efforts. When he isn't setting up readings at bookstores, Holliday speaks at Rotary clubs, always making sure they have his books there for sale afterward. In March he spoke to the American Glaucoma Society. "There are conventions and conferences in town all the time, and they need some alternative to their subjects," he says.
Linda Watanabe McFerrin of San Francisco, author of the story collection "The Hand of Buddha," traveled to 25 states on an Amtrak pass for a month. She taught workshops and stayed with friends. Constance Hale ("Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose") conducts writing and grammar workshops in bookstores and at Media Alliance, the Learning Annex and UC Extensions up and down the state.
"My publisher did next to nothing," she said, "but each time I teach a class there's a little notice in some catalog or mailer about my book."
Laurie Wagner, author of "Living Happily Ever After," said that an aunt threw huge book parties for her in Los Angeles. "At the first event I sold 160 books to family and friends. The next event I sold 120. And the events generate word of mouth."
The downside of all of this is the time taken away from what writers do best: write. The financial realities can be daunting, too. Most authors make $2 to $3 on a hardcover sale. An out-of-town reading might cost $300, even if you stay with friends. An author has to sell 100 books to break even, and bookstores rarely order that many copies.
Yet do-it-yourself promotion pays off, if not in huge sales then at least in keeping a good book in print long enough to find its readers. Joyce Goldstein says her editor knows how hard she works to sell the books and will keep that in mind next time he's considering publishing her. Kirk Read promoted his hardback so vigorously that the paperback was bought by Penguin. Holliday gets books from the publisher at a 40 percent discount, so when he sells them himself he not only makes a few dollars, but, more importantly, helps them stay in print.
Scenes of the crimes
A bloody body in Edinburgh. A frozen, severed arm in North Bay. SANDRA MARTIN talks to mystery writers who take you where tour operators won't go
By SANDRA MARTIN
Saturday, July 12, 2003
You know the routine: Work lands you in a new city, you have an hour between appointments and you want to cram in the high spots. Do you grab a cab, head for the tour bus, or wander around the main square, trying to keep your bearings while you soak up atmosphere?
None of the above. If you are smart, you have planned ahead by checking out the crime-fiction section of your local bookstore. Forget the old cliché, if this is Tuesday, it must be Belgium. Instead try: If this is Bombay, read Leslie Forbes; for Moscow, check out Martin Cruz Smith; for Venice, Donna Leon; for Chicago, give Sara Paretsky a whirl; and if you find yourself by chance in Botswana, Alexander McCall Smith is your man. Under no circumstances should you head to North Bay without packing a Giles Blunt or two.
In the literary world, crime-fiction writers are trusty travel guides. They will entertain you en route, expose you to the social, economic and political issues festering beneath the spires and cupolas, and take you places most respectable tour operators are too scared to venture.
In fact, entrepreneurial tourist operators have clicked on to the trend by offering guided tours of Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles, Ian Rankin's Edinburgh, Colin Dexter's Oxford, featuring rambles through the seedier parts of town and stops at the pubs haunted by Rebus and Morse. The owners of John's Grill in San Francisco, the place where Sam Spade dined on chops in The Maltese Falcon, have capitalized on the connection and turned the diner into a shrine to author Dashiell Hammett.
A sense of place has been integral to crime fiction since at least the days of Edgar Allan Poe's The Murders in the Rue Morgue or Wilkie Collins's Woman in White 150 years ago. All of the best crime novels are built like three-legged stools: character, story and place. Strip away one of these and either the book totters to a conclusion or the reader falls off long before the murder is solved and finds something more absorbing to read.
Transporting the reader to a particular place is essential, argues Margaret Cannon, crime-fiction columnist for The Globe and Mail. There are two ways of doing this, in her opinion. Either you can have an imaginary set of stock places, as Agatha Christie did in the manor house or the vicarage where she set her whodunits, or you can describe a room or landscape or a city so superbly that it becomes transformed into a place of mystery and suspense.
Poe did it with Paris by gaslight, she says, adding that "anybody who has read any crime fiction at all can describe Sherlock Holmes's room right down to the tobacco he kept in a pipe slipper."
Two of her favourite examples are the settings evoked by Raymond Chandler and James Lee Burke. Chandler remade Los Angeles to suit his fictional purposes in his Philip Marlowe series, she contends, while Burke's prose is so potent you can "smell" Dave Robicheaux's Louisiana. With writers of this quality, place is not just part of the narrative, it is a character.
Ian Rankin makes no bones about the fact that Edinburgh is an essential character in his bestselling series of police procedurals about dyspeptic and cynical Detective Inspector John Rebus. In Toronto on a 24-hour junket for Book Expo Canada last month, the dark-haired Scottish writer took time out from book signings to chat about his own connections with Edinburgh. "I started writing the books because I wanted to make sense of Edinburgh," he said candidly, over a glass of water -- unlike his creation Rebus, who never seems to say anything without a double whisky to hand.
Rankin arrived in Edinburgh at age 18, the first person in his family to go to university. "My parents were very working class," he explained. They never owned their own house, or a car, his sisters left school at 15 and 16 and he grew up feeling very much like the cuckoo in the nest. He always wanted to read books and sit in his room scribbling poetry, a fact that he kept hidden from his family. "I think they thought I was doing drugs," he shrugs. "That would have been more understandable." Having spent much of his teenage years loitering on the periphery of local gangs, he arrived in Edinburgh and found it a complex, enigmatic city in which people kept their secrets behind thick stone walls and net curtains.
"There was the city that the tourists saw," he remembers, "or were allowed to see -- the castles, the monuments, the festival. And then there was another, hidden Edinburgh, where there were massive problems with heroin and AIDS and HIV."
He came to crime fiction after a literary meander worthy of one of his own subplots, through Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Spark's novel, set in a private girls' school, is about the proper refined Edinburgh -- an Edinburgh that Rankin feels never existed. Although Stevenson located his classic novel in London, he was really writing about Edinburgh, Rankin says, through the character of Jekyll, a repressed man riddled with heinous urges.
While Rankin was ostensibly working on a PhD about Spark, he was really trying to turn himself into a Stevensonian-style writer with Edinburgh as his central character. His first few Rebus books were supposed to be updatings of Jekyll and Hyde, but because he pitched them as crime novels about a repressed detective haunted by his past, nobody realized his intention. He even called his second Rebus novel Hide and Seek, but nobody caught on, or so he says.
For a long time, Rankin says, he felt guilty about making Edinburgh darker and more desperate than it really was, but he had to be true to the character he had created. "A detective like Rebus can only see certain aspects of Edinburgh," he says. "He will go for a meal with his girl and they will come out of the restaurant and she will say, 'Look how beautiful the castle looks tonight' and all he sees is a crime scene waiting to happen." His feelings have been mollified by the hordes of tourists coming to Edinburgh demanding to do the Rebus trail, which invariably ends up in the Oxford Bar where Rebus and Rankin both drink.
Writing from a sense of place came naturally to Peter Robinson, the Yorkshire-born, Toronto-based author of the Inspector Banks novels. "That was one of my interests as a poet," he explains, adding that he wrote his PhD thesis at York University on the sense of place in contemporary British poetry. "I don't know that writers consciously do it," he says, pointing out that "an Agatha Christie could take place in any country," while the sense of place in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles is "almost like an extra character" that precipitates the action.
Robinson, a native of Leeds in the north of England, is proof that a crime writer doesn't have to inhabit his fictional locale to make it real to his readers. Anybody can dig up facts about street corners, restaurants and local landmarks. What marks the difference between a book that limps along and one that captures the wanderlust of a reader is the passion -- whether it is love or hatred -- with which the writer creates his crime scenes.
It was absence that sparked Robinson's descriptive passions. He began writing crime fiction only after he immigrated to Canada in the early 1970s. These days, while he sets up his laptop in the east end of Toronto, his imagination still wanders around the dales of Yorkshire where he was born and raised. In fact, he was driven to reading and writing crime fiction as a doctoral student and a frustrated poet much enamoured of traditional narrative poetry replete with capital letters and rhyme.
He now realizes that a lot of the images and impulses from his poetry found a happier home in crime novels written about a character who could have been his alter ego. Robinson deliberately made Banks physically different from himself -- short and dark-haired -- and wrote about him in the third person to distance the character from his creator. "We probably shared very similar childhoods, and when we hit the age of 18, we went in different directions. I went into literature and the arts, and he went on a course that took him toward the police as a career. So our paths have diverged and run in parallel universes ever since."
Canadian Giles Blunt sets his crime novels (Forty Words for Sorrow and his new one, The Delicate Storm) in Algonquin Bay, a fictionalized version of North Bay. Although he was born near Windsor in the southern part of Ontario and spent a couple of decades in New York, North Bay, the town where he lived from ages 10 to 17, is the place -- despite bugs in the summer and frozen nostrils in the winter -- that he calls home.
"I lived in the U.S. so long that North Bay is completely exotic," he says. "It astounds me that people live in such a place." It is so cold in the winter that "it hurts your face to go from the house to the car," and the summers are "brutally" hot with "plagues of black flies" starting on Victoria Day. "I remember going on an ill-advised camping trip with some friends after we moved up there," he says with a laugh. "I think it was the first time I ever got angry at God. I was about 12."
Setting is about much more than geography. It is an opportunity for writers to send a message to readers about social or political issues.
Think of Martin Cruz Smith's Gorky Park, in which Renko exposes us to the dying days of the Cold War in a much more telling way than vast numbers of magazine or newspaper articles could do. Similarly, Alexander McCall Smith, who lives in Edinburgh and writes in Vancouver, sets his Precious Ramotswe novels in Botswana because he wants to show that this is one African country that, despite AIDS, has had a fairly stable and peaceful history since independence.
People write best about places that evoke passionate feelings, says British crime writer Val McDermid. "Otherwise the writing becomes flat on the page." She has written a series of books about a private detective named Kate Brannigan that piece together a social history of Manchester in the 1990s. "It was the place where I lived and the place where I worked [as a journalist] and the place that excited and stimulated me and I wanted to write about it," she said during a visit to Book Expo in June.
McDermid wrote Killing the Shadows after a holiday trip to Toledo in Spain. What a fantastic place to have a serial killer operating, she thought, staring at the honey-coloured medieval buildings nestled atop a mammoth chunk of rock towering over the Tagus River and thinking of Toledo's bloody history dating back through the Civil War and the Inquisition all the way to Roman times. She dumped the body of a young tour guide in La Degollada, a gorge named after a gypsy woman who had been found there centuries earlier with her throat cut. And she hung the sodomized corpse of an American graduate student from the manacles adorning the façade of the monastery church of San Juan de los Reyes.
Inspiration does not always flash so quickly. McDermid fell in love with the White Peak district of Derbyshire in northern England when she moved there from her native Scotland in 1979 and spent 20 years trying to figure out a way to use the limestone landscape in a novel. The mysterious, narrow, twisting dales and the little rivers that disappeared in the summer and rose up again in the winter got under her skin in a "weird" way, and it took her a long time and a rereading of W. H. Auden's poem In Praise of Limestone to find a way of combining plot and atmosphere in what became A Place of Execution.
"There is a wonderful bit in the middle of the poem," she recalls, "where he says something about how they lead constrained lives in their narrow valleys, and never go out into the wider world, but when one of them goes to the bad, we all understand why. And that was like the penny dropping."
She still had to work out the myriad details about the child living in an isolated, incestuous community who goes missing and why her friends and family are so grudging in their co-operation with the police. They clearly love the missing girl, and want her back, but that loss is pitted against the fear of letting the police know a diabolical secret about their past.
Reading Execution, I was struck by how even though serious practitioners of heinous fiction eschew the locked-room murders of, say, Agatha Christie, they still have to find a way to create an isolated crime scene -- the lonely house on the outskirts of the village, the village cut off from the city, the woman who misses the bus and walks home late at night. The problem is the same -- putting victim and murderer in each other's sights; it is the setting that has changed.
"The whole structure of the way we use place is actually a big trick to pull the reader into the book," McDermid says. "The more convincing you can make your world, the easier it is for the reader to suspend his or her disbelief about the things they know you are lying about."
Just as there are conventions about putting real people in fiction -- you can't ignore the historical record by changing known biographical facts such as death and birthdates -- there are unwritten rules about how you use geographical locations. Writers who violate them risk destroying their imaginary pact with readers. A writer such as Rankin has Rebus drinking in an actual pub and walking down real streets so that readers who know Edinburgh can identify landmarks and visualize themselves in the same setting. Then, based on that reality, the writer creates a fictitious but convincing crime scene.
If you want to write about a nightclub where drugs are dealt, it is best not to give it the name of an actual club, unless you are willing to risk a lawsuit. Similarly, you can't put a raunchy nightclub in the wrong part of town. Readers who know the area won't believe it and will lose faith in your story. The final level at which a sophisticated crime writer uses setting is to make a particular place universal so that readers can transfer from the page to their own experience. You may not know Paretsky's Chicago, for example, but in reading about it, you are reminded of certain aspects of your own city.
No matter how many books they write, or sell, there is one thing that all crime writers seem to have in common: the feeling that they don't get enough respect for what they do. J.D. Singh of the Toronto bookstore Sleuth of Baker Street, says crimewriters have a lot of trouble shaking the feeling that they are second-rate despite a growing number of scholarly articles praising their work as "real" literature. So why don't they switch to writing mainstream novels? Partly it is habit. Like actors who have created a famous role, crime writers with a memorable character can find the mould so comfortable they don't want to risk breaking it. And the pressure from publishers and fans to keep writing a sure thing is enormous.
But there is more to it than that. Unlike many mainstream novelists, crime writers are enthralled by storytelling. They are drawn to books that have beginnings, middles and ends, even though the form has now become so stylized that a reader cannot expect the three parts to be in the traditional order. Solving the puzzle is often the least important part of crime fiction, with all sorts of writers, from Ruth Rendell to Rankin to Robinson, telling us who did it to whom on the very first page. It is the why, not the how, that intrigues them and keeps us turning the pages.
A reading list of other crime-fiction novelists and their favourite locations:
Total Recall by Sara Paretsky -- Chicago
The Wailing Wind by Tony Hillerman -- New Mexico
The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett -- San Francisco
Basket Case by Carl Hiaasen -- Miami
Mystic River by Dennis Lehane -- Boston
Death of a Hawker by Janwillem van de Wetering -- Amsterdam
Auprès de ma blonde by Nicolas Freeling -- Netherlands
The Russia House by John le Carré -- Moscow
Silence of the Rain by Luiz Alfred Garcia-Rosa -- New Mexico
Wonderland by John Brady -- Dublin
From Doon with Death by Ruth Rendell -- Suffolk, England
Death in Holy Orders by P.D. James -- London, England
Maigret and the Enigmatic Lett by Georges Simenon -- Paris
The Angst-Ridden Executive by Manuel Vazquez Montalban --Barcelona
Cabal by Michael Dibdin -- Rome
Death at La Fenice by Donna Leon -- Venice
The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith -- Italy
The Night of Wenceslas by Lionel Davidson -- Prague
The End of Lieutenant Boruvka by Josef Skvorecky -- Prague
The Third Man by Graham Greene -- Vienna
Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene -- Havana
Smilla's Sense of Snow by Peter Hoeg -- Denmark and Greenland
The Key to Rebecca by Ken Follett -- Cairo
The Bank of Fear by David Ignatius -- IraqAlexander McCall Smith
The Kalahari Typing School for Men
"In a dry country like Botswana, shade netting made all the difference to a plant's chances, keeping the drying rays of the sun off the vulnerable green leaves and allowing the earth to retain a little of any precious moisture left over from watering."Ian Rankin
A Question of Blood
"The car was parked on North Castle Street, but they walked past it, heading for George Street. Directly ahead of them, the Castle was illuminated against the ink-dark sky. They turned left, Rebus feeling a stiffness in both legs, the legacy of his trek across Jura."Raymond Chandler
The Long Goodbye
"Everything was the fault of the smog. If the canary wouldn't sing, if the milkman was late, if the Pekinese had fleas, if an old coot in a starched collar had a heart attack on the way to church, that was the smog."Val McDermid
Killing the Shadows
"The first body had been found in a deep wooded gorge running down to the River Tagus about a mile from the city gates. According to local custom, the gorge boasted the revolting name La Degollada -- the woman with her throat slit."