Humor & Homicide: 5 Authors Who Mix It Up

With two of March’s visiting authors, Tim Dorsey and Deborah Coonts, being known for mixing homicide with humor, it seemed like an appropriate time to point out other authors whose characters are known for their laughs as much as their detection.

1. Rex Stout set the trend of bantering detectives with the eccentric genius Nero Wolfe and streetwise Archie Goodwin. Stout was a good friend of PG Wodehouse and many times feels like Jeeves and Wooster with a body.

 

2. Lisa Lutz’s Spellman Files introduced us to PI Isabelle “Izzy” Spellman and her dysfunctional family business. When they are not spying on strangers during a surveillance job, they spy on each other.

 

 

3. Bill Fitzhugh is a first rate satirist, whether skewering Nashville in Fender Benders or following bug exterminator Bob Dillon who’s mistaken for a freelance assassin. Always over the top and always hilarious.

 

4. Steve Brewer’s hapless PI, Bubba Mabry, was first hired by the actual Elvis-in-hiding in Lonely Street. His car thief stand alone, Boost, recalls Donald E Westlake at his best.

 

 

5. Craig Johnson’s Sheriff Walt Longmire series may not fit the category of comic crime novel, but many follow the put upon Wyoming lawman for his humor. The banter between Walt and his Cheyenne buddy, Henry Standing Bear, are worth the price of the book alone.

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Solving the Mystery of Sherlock’s “Death”

The 7% Solution Book Club will discuss 'The Sherlockian' on Monday, March 5, 7p. The conversation is free & open to the public!

~Post by Tommy W.

For more than a century the world has been obsessed with the wonderfully complex detective mastermind known as Sherlock Holmes. From his first appearance in A Study in Scarlet to his wild adventure in The Final Solution, Sherlock Holmes was an object of fascination for an entire society, and then without warning Arthur Conan Doyle killed his greatest character and left fans wanting more. Ten years passed and though fans and publishers begged, Doyle refused to bring back a character he felt no love for and supposedly despised. Then with just as much warning as was given of his death, Doyle brought Holmes back to life first with a flashback story, Hound of the Baskervilles, and then with new adventures. It is the mystery of why Doyle brought back Holmes with what appears to be no motivation that Holmes fans have been puzzling over for century, and it’s the mystery that Graham Moore’s debut novel, The Sherlockian, delves into.

Many authors have attempted to write new Holmes stories over the years, but with every new Holmes mystery, I’ve wondered when someone was going to write a mystery that focused not on Doyle’s greatest creation but on Doyle himself. Now I can finally stop wondering. The Sherlockian tackles the mystery of Holmes’ “death” over Reichenbach Falls not only from the perspective of a Holmes scholar in the present looking back into the past, but from the perspective of Doyle himself trying to solve a brutal murder. The chapters jump back and forth from the modern day, where the story revolves around a murdered Sherlockian and a diary missing from Doyle’s personal papers, to the turn of the twentieth century and a story that revolves around Doyle and fellow writer Brahm Stoker attempting to solve a series of brutal murders. Far from throwing the narrative into disarray, Moore’s time-jumping chapters actually tie the story together more effectively as events of the past effect the present and the mysteries of the present are made clear in the events of the past. The investigations run simultaneously through this book and, as the dual climaxes approach, begin to cliffhang back and forth.

As the mysteries through both time periods begin, Moore’s characters quickly begin to emulate Doyle’s as they settle into Watson/Holmes relationships. In the modern day, on the trail of a murderer and a missing diary worth a fortune to the right person, Harold White, a fan of Doyle’s and truly obsessed with Sherlock, evolves from a modern day film consultant into a late 19th century consulting detective as his intrepid sidekick, Sarah, morphs from a nosy reporter into a loyal Watson, always pushing Harold to reach further than his already brilliant deductions have taken him. In Doyle’s half of the story, the author, once so diffident about his character, attempts to emulate his own fiction by taking a case away from what he considers to be the imbeciles at Scotland Yard and promising to solve it himself. As for a Watson, that role is filled by Doyle’s longtime friend and confidante Brahm Stoker who, much like Sarah in the modern chapters, pushes Doyle to continue his investigation even after it seemingly falls apart around them. With riveting characters, well written prose, and a unique blend of both gaslight crime fiction and modern thriller tropes The Sherlockian cannot fail to delight fans of Sherlock Holmes, Victorian mysteries, or literary thrillers.

Book People’s Seven Percent Solution Mystery Book Club is reading this book for our March meeting on Monday March 5th at 7:00 P.M. If you’re intrigued, pick up a copy of this awesome book and come hang out with us as we talk about Graham Moore’s The Sherlockian, one of the best Holmes related mysteries I have ever read.

Book Review: ‘Pineapple Grenade’ by Tim Dorsey

Tim Dorsey is here to speak & sign 'Pineapple Grenade' Tues, 3/6 7p.

When it comes to comic crime novels, few stand out more than those written by Tim Dorsey and featuring his character Serge. Serge, a so-crazy-he’s-brilliant vigilante and trivia master, brings mayhem and murder to those who ruin his beloved Florida. He and his cannabis-consuming buddy Coleman ride a wave of Donald E. Westlake-style humor as they fight for truth, justice, and marijuana legalization. In his latest misadventure, Pineapple Grenade, Serge enters the world of espionage.

Along with becoming a pen pal to Sarah Palin, Serge has taken up being a spy, doing it as a hobby until someone hires him. With The Summit of The Americas taking place in Miami, the hobby leads him to a bed of intrigue. It involves the assassination plot of a South American leader, the CIA, carjackers, a Homeland Security head looking for a new color to frighten people, and a sexy spy who wants Serge. All revolve around our crazy hero, turning him into the sane one. Oh, and I almost forgot about the shark in the middle of the street.

Once again, Dorsey throws you in a hurricane of crooked politicians and businessman, criminals, murder, destruction, and laughs. The winds never stop blowing every satirical plot strand around until it forms a certain synchronized chaos. And if all of that wasn’t enough, Serge and Coleman perform a rap.

Tim Dorsey will be here at BookPeople to speak & sign Pineapple Grenade on Tuesday, March 6, 7p.

What makes a great novel? – Guest Post by RJ Ellory

We’re currently hosting a weekly series of guest posts by bestselling crime fiction author RJ Ellory. He came through Austin in January while on tour for A Quiet Vendetta. We had the pleasure of having him here at the store, and will now have the pleasure of sharing a new Ellory post with you every Monday for the next seven weeks. If you haven’t checked out his thrillers yet, I highly recommend you pick one up and find out what British readers have been raving about for years.

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I think any author possess the desire to write great novels.  I don’t think anyone – in their heart of hearts – writes because it’s a sensible choice of profession or for financial gain.   I believe it was Steinbeck who said, ‘The profession of book-writing makes horse-racing seem like a solid, stable business…’

Coleridge was a drug addict. Poe was an alcoholic. Marlowe was killed by a man whom he was treacherously trying to stab. Chatterton killed himself. Byron was accused of incest. Such testaments to the craft pose the question – Do you really want to be a writer — and if so, why?

There is a considered opinion that artists – anyone who creates something for the enjoyment or aesthetic appreciation of others – is composed of fifty percent ego and fifty percent insecurity.  That makes a great deal of sense to me.  You are sufficiently arrogant to consider that the rest of the world should enjoy your creation, and yet you are terrified of their rejection or dismissal!  To live with such an internal contradiction makes for a fascinating and challenging existence.
We create, we purvey our creation, we await the response.  We contend with critics.  Everyone contends with critics, no matter their walk of life.  But there seems to be something all the more penetrating about a criticism of something you have created with your own hands, your own heart, something that came from the soul.  Perhaps it is because it is taken as not only an attack on what you have created, but who you are.

Criticism seems to require no qualifications.  I have never seen such a position advertised in the newspaper.

People read books more than they read reviews.  Ultimately they care less about critics than they do the work that is being criticized.  As Christopher Hampton said, ‘Ask a working writer what he thinks about critics…you may as well ask a lamppost how it feels about dogs.’

Wendell Holmes added, “What a blessed thing it is that nature, when she invented, manufactured and patented her authors, contrived to make critics out of the chips that were left!”, to which Jean Kerr added, “When confronted by an absolutely infuriating review it is sometimes helpful for the victim to do a little personal research on the critic. Is there any truth to the rumor that he had no formal education beyond the age of eleven? In any event, is he able to construct a simple English sentence? Do his participles dangle? When moved to lyricism does he write I had a fun time? Was he ever arrested for burglary?”

It is true that no statue has ever been erected to a critic.

Personally, I have no complaint with critics or reviewers.  Generally I have been treated very kindly.  I think review and criticism is all part-and-parcel of the business of creation.  To determine that criticism is unfair is to question the validity of freedom of thought, freedom of opinion, freedom of speech, and that is an entirely different subject for an entirely different discussion.

Regardless of his or her views about whether the work should be evaluated positively or negatively, an author is perhaps the very last person who should judge the value or quality of his own work.  All they can do is evaluate their own motives for what they do.

Some of us, I imagine, write out of anger; some out of pain; some write out of prejudice or loss, some out of passion, the promise of something better, perhaps the belief that – even now – a book can be capable of changing a life.
Some of us write to remember, some to forget; some to change things, some to ensure things stay the same.
Some of us – as my editor and agent will all too easily testify – write because we cannot stop.

Renard said that “Writing is the only profession where no-one considers you ridiculous if you earn no money.”  Moliere said that first we write for ourselves, then we write for our friends, and lastly we write for money.  I am still writing for myself, and believe I always will be.  And the thing that drives me forward, the thing that reminds me of why I do this, and how important it is, is the reason for writing in the first place.  Because it matters.  It matters to the same degree as music, painting, dancing, sculpture, architecture, poetry, film, and all else that we create.  Is not the quality of life in a society judged by the degree to which its artists are supported and acknowledged?  Is not the society itself evaluated against the scope and substance of its artistic endeavors?

I just love to write, and though the subject matter that I want to write about takes me to the States, it is nevertheless more important to me to write something that can move someone emotionally, perhaps change a view about life, and at the same time to try and write it as beautifully as I can.  I also want to write about subjects – whether they be political conspiracies, serial killings, race relations, political assassinations or FBI and CIA investigations – that could only work in the USA.  Powerful subjects, emotive, contentious perhaps, but written with a view to engaging the emotions, the mind, the heart, the soul, and getting people to think about what they believe, what they see as the truth within our society, and perhaps to even change their preconceptions.

So what is a great novel?

Perhaps it is nothing more than a novel that challenges who we are, what we believe, and possesses the power to change our viewpoint about something, however certain that viewpoint might be.

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R. J. Ellory is the author of eight novels, including the bestselling A Quiet Belief in Angels, which was the Strand Magazine’s Thriller of the Year, nominated for the Barry Award, and a finalist for the SIBA Award. His novel A Simple Act of Violence won the Theakston’s Crime Novel of the Year Award.

J. K. Rowling Writing Crime Fiction?

This week, J.K. Rowling, famed author of the Harry Potter series, signed a deal with Little, Brown to publish her first novel for adults. UK paper The Guardian suspects this highly anticipated new book may be crime fiction. Apparently the Little, Brown editor who will be working on the book has also edited Dennis Lehane, Carl Hiaasen, and others. Considering the elaborate plot that stretched out over all of those Potter books, not to mention such villains as He Who Must Not Be Named, seems like a natural fit for her. Are you a Potter fan? Will you read it?

Delicate But Deadly

With Joan Hess coming to the store this Saturday, February 25th, 7p with Deader Homes & Gardens, it made us think of some of the other more genteel mysteries, known as traditional or cozies, that we enjoy. Known for the violence mainly happening off page, little or no foul language, these books typically feature an amateur sleuth and many times revolve around the protagonists’ occupation or craft. Think Murder She Wrote, not Mike Hammer. Here are five authors known for looking at the lighter side of murder:

1. Joanne Fluke’s Hannah Swensen has been solving murderers in her eccentric hometown when not running her bakery, since Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder. Joanne provides recipes in the book right alongside as a fun mystery. As someone who’s had her cookies and read her books, I can say she does a great job with both.

2. Maggie Sefton looks at the culture of knitters with her sleuth and avid knitter Kelly Flynn. Funny with plenty of heart, her first two books Knit One, Kill Two and Needled to Death can be found in the the omnibus Double Knit  Murders.

 

3. Texas author Susan Wittig Albert introduced us to the world of herbs with her attorney-turned-shop owner China Bayles in Thyme Of Death. Each mystery is tied to a different herb, and highlights their various uses and the lore surrounding them.

 

4. Karen Olson provides a slightly edgier cozy with her Tattoo Shop Mysteries. Her high end tattoo artist, Brett Kavanaugh, travels through the stranger sides of Las Vegas solving crime. Start with The Missing Ink.

 

 

5. Janice Hamrick won the St. Martins/MWA First Mystery Prize with Death On Tour. This funny, low rent version of Death On The Nile introduces Hamrick’s divorced Austin middle school teacher Jocelyn Shore, as she deals with intrigue and murder on a discount tour through Egypt. The book has also been nominated for The Mary Higgins Clark Award.

Hard Case Crime Remembers Donald E. Westlake

When The Comedy is Finished, the forgotten manuscript of master story teller Donald E. Westlake, was recently found, it luckily made its way to publisher Charles Ardai and his imprint, Hard Case Crime. Charles was a fan and later an editor and friend of Westlake. I recently had a chance to ask Charles a few questions about the book, on sale today, and its author.

MYSTERYPEOPLE: Did I hear right that The Comedy Is Finished was sitting in the drawer of author Max Allan Collins for over twenty years?

CHARLES ADIA: Well…not a drawer.  But it is true that Max had it packed away in a cardboard box down in his basement, and it was more like thirty years.  Don sent him a carbon copy of the manuscript around 1980 or 81, and then when Don decided not to publish the book, Max just put it away for safekeeping.  Then when we published Memory and claimed it was Don’s final unpublished novel, Max remembered this one and let me know there was actually one more.

MP: I heard the reason that Donald Westlake decided not to publish it because he saw similarities to the Martin Scorcese’s The King Of Comedy. Other than it’s about a kidnapped comic, I noticed no similarities in plot, characters, theme or anything. Did you?

CA: No – aside from the basic premise (famous television comedian gets kidnapped), the two are very different.  In one case it’s by a crazy stalker and a would-be TV personality, in the other it’s a group of domestic terrorists with a political agenda.  But I guess Don was still concerned about it.  It’s not as bad as the story I heard about Ellery Queen throwing away a completed novel because Agatha Christie released And Then There Were None and it turned out to have the same solution.  At least Don’s book got put safely into storage – the Ellery Queen novel is lost forever.

Donald E. Westlake

MP: It’s rare to get an unedited manuscript from an author after his death. How did you go about working on it?

CA: I’d worked closely with Don on the previous books we’d done with him, so I knew the sorts of things he liked and didn’t, what he would have gone for gladly and what he’d have pushed back on.  Of course it wasn’t the same without him, but I just sort of pretended he was there and tried to hear his voice in my head, guiding me.  Fortunately (and not surprisingly), the book didn’t need much editing.  A few spots where a passage could be tightened up a bit; a few inconsistencies or typos.  But Don was a great writer, and even if he’d been alive I doubt we would have done a lot more.

MP: What struck you most about the book?

CA: The way every single character comes to life.  It’s a big book with a lot of characters – the victim, the kidnappers, the victim’s agent, his wife and kids, the FBI agent hunting for him – and every one of them is a fully fleshed-out, vibrant, memorable character, even the ones who make only brief appearances in the book.  It’s really breathtaking.  In so many novels, even the main character feels two-dimensional and never really breathes, but here even the minor characters feel like people you know well by the end of the book.  And of course that makes it all the more painful when they start meeting violent ends.

MP: Westlake takes an interesting look at  Koo and the radical kidnappers as two different generations whose eras are both coming to an end, and there are some barbs at our TV culture. Is this the closest Westlake came to more overt social commentary in his books?

Charles Adai of Hard Case Crime

CA: I think Don had more social commentary in his books than people give him credit for.  Sure, many are just escapist fun, but look at a book like The Ax, which is about the lengths a man might be pushed to by protracted unemployment in a desperate economic downturn.  That book was written decades ago, but he might as well have been writing about the economy of 2012.

MP: You were a fan of Westlake as a reader, who later became his editor, putting some of his books back into print, and his friend. What should people know about him as a writer and a person?

CA:Don was such a joy to work with.  We did most of our work together by e-mail, and the man was incapable of writing an e-mail, even one tossed off in passing, without being witty.  My face lit up any time I saw a message from him in my inbox.  I miss it, and I miss him.