Getting Away with Murder

 
Mike Ripley Getting Away With Murder by Mike Ripley
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New publishing house Quercus (46 Dorset Street, London W1U 7NB), which launched its first titles in April, has a very healthy representation of crime fiction on its projected list.

 

American authors dominate with quality names such as Thomas H Cook, Joe Gores and Joyce Carol Oates, but Quercus have also acquired the latest Merrily Watkins (once unkindly referred to as The Exorcist of Dibley) novel from Phil Rickman. They are also putting some marketing muscle behind award-winning Australian writer Peter Temple, with two titles in 2006 – The Broken Shore and In The Evil Dayand an omnibus of three of his backlist in early 2007.

 

 

Possibly their most exotic title, though, is a debut novel from Manchester-based  Michael Walters, The Shadow Walker, which is set in Ulan Bator and introduces Inspector Nergui of the Mongolian Serious Crime Squad.

 

The most prominent name-check in the Quercus catalogue is my old and distinguished friend Otto Penzler, founder of the legendary Mysterious Bookshop in New York. (Ed McBain and Justin Scott are said to have helped install the first shelf units.)

 

For Quercus, Otto co-edits Best American Mystery Stories 2005 with Joyce Carol Oates (and which includes cracking tales from the late George V. Higgins and current hotshot Dennis Lehane), and also co-edits the 2006 edition with Scott Turow, later in the year. (All good anthologies require two editors, but don’t ask me why. See: Fresh Blood edited by Maxim Jakubowski and Mike Ripley.)

 

On his own (but with an Intro from Harlan Coben), Otto also edits Pulp Fiction: The Crimefighters, due in August and which promises contributions from Chandler, Woolrich, Gardner, Horace McCoy and Paul Cain, which sounds the tastiest of the three.

 

Normally shy and retiring, Otto Penzler is rarely photographed, but he was caught on camera once on a rare visit to Britain in 1995.

 

Otto Penzler

 

{Left to right} Thalia Proctor (now with Orion), Ripley, Colin Dexter, Ian Rankin, Otto Penzler, Maria Rejt (Macmillan)

 

* * *

 

 

The 2006 Harrogate Crime Writing Festival (another one I’ve not been invited back to!)takes place July 20-23 at The Old Swan, famously the hotel where Agatha Christie was discovered after going missing-in-action in 1926.

 

The line-up is said to include P.D. James, Ian Rankin, George Pelecanos and John Harvey, and I’ve been warned there may be a pub quiz organised by Val McDermid.

 

For more accurate info check out

www.harrogate-festival.org.uk/crime

 

(However, there is an unofficial website, www.chrishigh.com which is also linked to the latest Chris de Burgh tour. Now that’s scary.)

 

* * *

 

The crime-writers’ crime writer, Elmore Leonard was in London in May, appearing at the National Film Theatre to launch a series of classic westerns, starting with 3:10 To Yuma from one of his own western stories. Slim, trim and very sprightly at 81, Elmore showed immaculate timing when he spoke of his breakthrough novel Glitz, the first book of his to appear on the New York Times bestseller list.

 

   “It was quite a surprise,” he said, “as I had never thought I could write well enough (pause)… or poorly enough… to feature on the New York Times bestseller list.”

 

   In September, Phoenix continue their sterling work reissuing his crime backlist, with Split Images and La Brava from the early 1980s. The day after he appeared at the NFT, Elmore was awarded the Cartier Diamond Dagger for lifetime achievement, by the Crime Writers’ Association. And not before time.

 

   Surely there cannot be any other living crime writer whose stylistic innovations have influenced so many of the next generation. Well actually there is, and he is now the only glaring omission from the distinguished list of recipients of the Cartier Dagger. I refer, of course, to Len Deighton, who had an enormous effect on British crime writing in the 1960s, albeit as a writer of spy fiction rather than detective fiction, just as did John le Carre in the same field but in an entirely different way. Le Carre has rightly received his fair share of honours, but Deighton never did. He should.

 

   Len Deighton’s WWII ‘faction’ account of an RAF raid on Germany, Bomber, from 1970, is reissued  by HarperCollins in July. Although not typical of Deighton’s output, it shows what a brilliantly versatile writer he could be.

 

* * *

In 1989, journalist and critic John Williams managed to write-off an American holiday by penning a splendid book about US crime fiction called Into The Badlands (Paladin, 1991). In a fabulous road trip (of which all his fellow hacks were extremely jealous), he got to meet and interview  George V. Higgins in Boston, Elmore Leonard in Detroit, Andrew Vachss in New York and even managed to survive meeting James Crumley in Montana.

 

   Last year, John, now crime fiction editor at Serpent’s Tail, repeated the exercise and Back To The Badlands (Serpent’s Tail, October) includes interviews with the cream of American crime: Ellroy, Lee Burke, Leonard, Paretsky, Pelecanos, Kem Nunn, Daniel Woodrell and the late Eugene Izzi. Amazingly, John’s liver appears to have recovered enough in the intervening 16 years for him to risk a return visit to James Crumley.

James Crumley

* * *


Derek Raymond was in his Sixties when he became associated with the ‘Fresh Blood’ group of writers. Actually all this meant was that several of us used to visit Derek in his local, The French House in Dean Street, Soho, which he always referred to as “Headquarters”.

 

He has picked up the tag “The Godfather of British Noir” which is probably fair enough, although Russell James can also lay a decent claim to that title.

 

Born Robin Cook, he was, as his great friend Mark Timlin once said, the only man ever to voluntarily change his name to Derek. His bleak outlook on life was exemplified in the ‘Factory’ series of crime novels, which became massively popular in France.

More than a decade after his death, Serpent’s Tail are reissuing He Died With His Eyes Open from 1984 (and filmed starring Charlotte Rampling) in September.

 

Alongside it, Serpent’s Tail will publish Nightmare In The Street for the very first time. In the first Fresh Blood anthology in 1996, John Williams told how, as Raymond’s literary executor, he had found the French manuscript of Cauchemar Dans La Rue and now, ten years on, Derek Raymond’s last crime novel finally hits the streets.

 

You can bet on it being a nightmare. Derek was good at those.

 

* * *

 

The editor of Crime Time magazine, Barry Forshaw, has taken on the task of editing the Penguin Rough Guide To Crime Fiction, to be published in 2007.

 

He also hints at a forthcoming two-volume definitive encyclopaedia of British crime writing, though such ‘definitive’ reference books rarely please everybody. The Oxford Companion to Crime & Mystery Writing (OUP New York, 1999) is rumoured to have been ten years in the making and was ill-received in the UK for its eclectic ordering of subject matter and generally paying only lip service to British crime writers.

 

More recently, in 2002, Mike Ashley edited Robinson’s Mammoth Encyclopedia of Modern Crime Fiction which is certainly exhaustive, although 200 pages are dedicated rather spuriously to TV cop shows.

 

Although incredibly accurate and well-researched, Mike Ashley’s 780-page blockbuster has its drawbacks. His conscious decision to leave out spy thrillers means that such as Le Carre, Deighton, John Gardner, Brian Freemantle and the great Anthony Price don’t get a look in and there is also no excuse for missing crime writers P.M. Hubbard (one of the most distinctive writers of the 1960s-70s), Francis Clifford or Denise Danks.

Still, it has a place of honour on my references shelf, alongside the classic Bloody Murder  by Julian Symons (1972), Colin Watson’s lovely Snobbery With Violence (1971), Tim Binyon’s Murder Will Out (1989), Ian Ousby’s much-underrated and superbly illustrated The Crime and Mystery Book (Thames and Hudson, 1997) and the 1982 compilation Whodunit? edited by Harry Keating with wonderful essays from Reg Hill, Michael Gilbert, Patricia Highsmith and Robert Barnard.

 

I’m saving space on that shelf for the Rough Guide. Who knows? I may be in it.

 

* * *

 

On the reissue front, the Orion publishing stable is pushing the boat out on the works of Jim Thompson (1906-77) either as part of their noble Crime Masterworks imprint or as regular Orion paperbacks this summer. The famous Thompson titles are there: The Getaway, The Grifters, Pop. 1280 and The Killer Inside Me, plus the less well-known Savage Night and A Swell Looking Babe.

 

And though it’s not crime fiction, I can’t help praising the fact that someone at Gollancz (once the benchmark for British crime fiction) is republishing Richard Matheson’s masterpiece I Am Legend, from 1956, surely the only vampire novel that can stand next to Bram Stoker’s.

 

* * *

 

James Lee Burke has a new Dave Robicheaux mystery coming out from Orion, although publication has been switched from June to July. For some reason, the title has also changed from Pegasus Rising to Pegasus Descending.

 

Am I the only long-time fan (over 18 years now) who is finding Robicheaux’s sanctimonious and arrogant approach starting to grate? Is it his insistence that crime is usually a result of genetic defects or alcohol addiction, his lip-service Catholicism, or his bullying tactics which would by now have got him dismissed from the police force, even in Louisiana (or at least his ass would have been sued off)? In his latest outing, he over-reacts so hugely to a man he suspects of trying to poison his pet three-legged raccoon (sad or what?) that you begin to fear that someone so unstable should be walking around with a badge and a gun. Especially the gun.

 

Is Dave Robicheaux becoming the Grumpy Old Man of crime fiction? Or is it me?

 

* * *

 

Surprisingly, Robert Ludlum has a new, as yet untitled, thriller coming from Orion in November. I say surprisingly, because Robert Ludlum died in 2001. Still, you can’t keep a good franchise down.

 

* * *

 

The Secret Life of Elizabeth I by Paul Doherty is an historical mystery but not in the normal sense of ‘history/mystery’.

 

Here, the prolific Doherty has put all his own detective skills to work on a wealth of little-known historical sources from the Elizabethan era. Yet this is not a dry, historical reference book, although contemporary sources are scrupulously documented, as the narrative is presented in the form of a series of recollections from one of Elizabeth’s ladies-in-waiting not long after the Queen’s death in 1603.

 

The effect of this is totally enthralling, almost like hearing a spy being debriefed after a difficult mission, as the characters discuss Elizabeth’s ‘secret life’ in a way they would not have dared when she was alive. Did Robert Dudley have his first wife, Amy, killed so that he would be free to marry Elizabeth? Did the lovers (for they certainly were) have an illegitimate son, Arthur, who was seized by the Spanish in the year before the Armada sailed? How true were the rumours about Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn actually being the illegitimate daughter of Henry VIII as well as his second wife? And were the circumstances of Elizabeth’s death at the age of 69, entirely above board? Was the coronation ring really filed from her finger before she died and why the seeming delay in her funeral?

Book Jacket, The Secret Life of Elizabeth I

 

The Secret Life of Elizabeth I is published by Greenwich Exchange [ www.greenex.co.uk] at £16.99 (ISBN 1-871551-85-4). A Channel 5 programme based on Paul’s research is currently being filmed.

 

* * *

From his name alone, you might think Walter Satterthwait was a bluff, nineteenth-century northern brewer. In fact, he’s American and one of those rare breed of Americans who (a) have a passport and (b) have used it, as he has lived in Africa, Greece and the UK, as well as Santa Fe and, currently, Los Angeles. He is known for two distinct types of crime novels. His excellent private eye books featuring Santa Fe based Joshua Croft, and then his tongue-in-cheek period mysteries, most famously Miss Lizzie (starring Lizzie ‘The Axe’ Borden), the quite brilliant Wilde West (starring Oscar Wilde and a very uspect Doc Holliday) and the 1920s series featuring Pinkerton agent Ned Beaumont with a supporting cast ranging from Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle to Ernest Hemingway and a young Adolf Hitler.

 

Now he adds a third-string to his bow, with the serial-killer thriller Perfection, just out in the US from Thomas Dunne Books (St Martin’s Press). Walter being Walter, he can’t resist stirring it and he has a serial killer who only preys on “ladies of size” which probably hasn’t gone down too well in some parts of the US.

Book Jacket, Perfection

Although championed by editor Elizabeth Walter at Collins Crime Club in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Satterthwait has been disgracefully blindsided by UK publishers for about ten years now, although he is incredibly popular in Germany. (Well, up to the Hitler book, anyway.)

 

Early in his writing career he even had a biography written by an ardent fan, Sleight Of Hand, published in a limited edition by the University of New Mexico Press in 1993. My copy carries the dedication “This is bound to become extremely valuable. Very few copies were printed, fewer were distributed, and none were sold.” Which sort of shows that the experience didn’t go to his head. [Check out Walter’s website on www.satterthwait.com ]

 

*  *  *

 

I cannot be alone in mourning the disappearance of Douglas Lindsay, the funniest Scotsman since Gordon Brown, from the British crime scene. Douglas is in fact in the throws of a move to somewhere in Eastern Europe at the request of the Diplomatic Service, but if I told you what he did, he would have to kill me. It seems an age since A Prayer for Barney Thomson appeared, disgracefully briefly, in British bookshops. In fact, it was 2001 and Prayer was the third novel in the ongoing saga of Scotland’s most incompetent (and possibly innocent) serial killer. The books were dark, gruesome, very Scottish and very, very funny, a trait guaranteed to unsettle publishers. But true fans of Scottish humour – those who appreciate the likes of Billy Connelly, Andy Stewart and Ally MacLeod – need not despair. The first three Barney Thomsons, plus a fourth, The King Was In His Counting House and a novella, Barney Thomson and the Face of Death are now all available from Douglas Lindsay’s own imprint: Long Midnight Publishing, Suite 433, 24 Station Square, Inverness IV1 1LD (or check out www.barney-thomson.com) . My spies tell me there will be a fifth novel, Barney Thomson and the Last Fish Supper, in August.  If you’ve not yet discovered Barney Thomson, you must, but don’t just take my word for it. Take a recommendation from a country which really knows and appreciates comic writing: Germany, where you’ll find Furcht und Schreken im Frisorsalon, Fur eine Hand voll Lockenwickler and Waschen, Schneiden, umlegen all in print and doing well.

 

 

* * *

 

The amount of people being thanked in authors’ acknowledgements is beginning to assume Oscar-acceptance speech proportions.    Author Craig Russell in his new book Brother Grimm (Hutchinson), thanks no less than 30 individuals including his mother and sister, his accountants (!), everyone at his publishers around the world and the entire population of Hamburg, for making the “Jan Fabel series an international success”.  

 

Not bad considering this is only his second book.

 

* * *

 

The legendary Elizabeth Walter, who ran Collins Crime Club and was Agatha Christie’s last editor (though she once told me she always preferred to read Dorothy L. Sayers), died in May aged 78.

 

The oration at her funeral was by Robert Barnard whilst other former Crime Club authors Reginald Hill, Catherine Aird and Marion Babson joined me in the pews for hymn-singing which, if not exactly in tune, was certainly heartfelt.

 

* * *

 

My first novel, Just Another Angel, which was bought for Collins Crime Club by Elizabeth Walter in 1987, opens in a pub called The Gun in Brushfield Street, opposite London’s Spitalfields market. In those days, the pub opened “market traders’ hours” i.e. six o’clock in the morning, and remember, this was the days when pubs closed in the afternoons.

 

On my way home from Elizabeth’s funeral, I called in at The Gun to drink a final toast to my first editor, rather sad that she did not live to see that first Angel adventure reissued this summer by cult imprint Telos Books.

Book Jacket, Just Another Angel by Mike Ripley

The pub is still there, although the famous jukebox has long gone and because Spitalfields market is no longer there, the pub keeps conventional pub hours now. But not for long. By the end of 2006 The Gun   will be no more as it is scheduled for demolition in a big re-development scheme and another Angel watering hole will be no more.

 

* * *

 

Until now I had always thought that Robert Littell’s magisterial The Company at 894 pages qualified as the longest thriller I had read, or attempted to lift. But in September, Faber publishes Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra, featuring Sikh detective Sartaj Singh of the Mumbai police, which spans some 918 pages. The proof copy alone weighs in at about 1.4kg (which is 3 lbs in old money).

 

 

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