Author Archive for Agatha

Author Interview: Owen Laukkanen and Nick Petrie

Owen Laukkanen and Nick Petrie are two of the most talented and original thriller writers at work at the moment. Owen’s latest book, Gale Force, is a bravura tour de force set on board a salvage ship; Nick burst on the scene with The Drifter and hasn’t made a wrong move since.

Q: I’ve been reading and selling mysteries for so long now I’ve started to feel like a biologist, making categories. I had just read a bunch of cozies before I read your books and started thinking about how thrillers and cozies have some similarities. Certain tropes are expected. Can you talk about how you utilize tropes to structure your books?

Owen LaukkanenOWEN: Wow, what a great question, and not one that I’ve ever been asked before! I think readers expect certain things from a thriller, just as they do a cozy, and honestly I’ve found that thrillers just seem to work better if you adhere to certain tropes while looking for ways to put your own spin on them.

When I’m asked to do a reading, I typically read from the prologue or first chapter of my books, and that’s not an accident. I’m looking to do in a reading the same thing I’m aiming to accomplish with a reader who’s just picking up the book for the first time: draw the audience in and make it impossible for them to walk away (or not buy the book, as the case may be).

So I look to create a kind of self-sufficient capsule of a scene that’s going to establish what the book is about, illustrate whatever crime we’re going to be dealing with, and leave the reader with at least one burning question he or she simply cannot let go unanswered. And we’ll spend the rest of the book trying to answer that question, or dealing with its fallout. We’ll build to some kind of climactic showdown between the series characters and the bad guy, and hopefully by the end of the book we’ll have answers to some but not all of the questions we raised.

For me, the fun is using any kind of familiar thriller structure and using it to say what I want to say about social issues and the world at large while couching all of the preachy stuff in a fast-moving and entertaining story that ticks all the boxes a thriller fan is looking for.

Nick PetrieNICK: I read a lot, so I’m certainly aware of crime fiction’s many tropes, but I can’t say I consciously begin a Peter Ash novel with those in mind. Instead, my goal is to tell a specific, interesting, and exciting story featuring characters I—and hopefully the reader—come to care about a great deal. As I blunder through the first draft, though, certain themes and tropes begin to bleed into the narrative and structure without conscious planning. In part, this is driven by the kinds of stories that interest me, but it also comes from the influence of writers I’ve loved and read over many years.

Q: You both kind of write non-series series. You have connecting characters, but each book is so different from the one before. Can you talk about that a bit?

OWEN: I think one of the difficulties of writing a series is that the audience knows, by and large, that your main characters are going to survive (unless you’re George R.R. Martin, of course). So you automatically lose a lot of the tension when you thrust your series character into a dangerous situation.

I’ve found it’s pretty effective if you have kind of “surrogate” main characters, whether they’re bad guys who have enough humanity to them that we can relate and empathize, or victims/potential victims who we can see wandering inexorably into harm’s way but can’t do anything to help. We’re not sure, as readers, what happens to these characters, and it keeps us turning the pages and rooting for our series characters to hurry up and save the day.

I also find the most rewarding thing about writing crime fiction, as I mentioned above, is being able to write about social issues while still giving readers an entertaining story. I’ve been fortunate enough that my publisher allows me to write about whatever interests me, and my interests are pretty varied, so I’m always looking for a new direction to take.

I’d go insane if I could only write, say, serial killer procedurals. It’s just not why I got into this game.

NICK: Peter Ash, my series protagonist, is a lot of fun to hang out with, and I hope to be writing about his adventures for a long time, but I didn’t want to be stuck writing one kind of story. Writing about a rootless man, I can put Peter in a wide range of stories with essentially unlimited narrative, geographic, thematic, and stylistic possibilities. Also, each novel can be different in scope, with some books telling big stories, and others telling smaller, more personal stories. So far I’ve written about veterans’ lives in The Drifter, emerging technology in Burning Bright, the newly-legal cannabis industry in Light It Up, and race and class in my upcoming book, Tear It Down (January 2019)—although all the books deal with veterans’ lives in one way other another. Also, with just a few connecting characters, I can spend time developing “guest stars”—then do terrible things to them!

Q: There are some obvious questions for you both. Owen, why a ship? What kind of research did you have to do? Are you a sailor yourself? 

OWEN: I come from a maritime family—my grandfather was a boat-builder and a commercial fisherman, my uncle a commercial fisherman, and even my dad, who’s a doctor by trade, fishes commercially for lobster during the summer. I’d even applied to maritime college to go to work at sea, but it turns out I’m colorblind, and you really need to be able to differentiate between red and green if you want to navigate at sea.

So I’ve always felt drawn to the sea, and as a reader, to the literature of the sea. Since I couldn’t work on ships myself, I’d always wanted to write books set aboard them. The oceans are still so very lawless to this day, so they’re the perfect environment for a thriller writer. 

In writing Gale Force, I drew a lot on my own experience on the water. I worked summers on my uncle’s prawn and salmon fishing boat in the North Pacific through my twenties, and they were some of the happiest summers of my life. A lot of the maritime environment in the book comes from the people I met and places I experienced on the job.

And then, obviously, I did a fair bit of research about the deep-sea salvage industry, which is much more fascinating than it sounds; it’s essentially a gold rush with tens of millions of dollars on the line, and highly-specialized teams of seafarers braving monster storms as they race each other out to shipwrecks. Like I said, the perfect thriller environment.

Q: Nick, I don’t think you are a veteran yourself but your veteran character is a very powerful one, and I have customers who are vets who really appreciate Peter. Can you talk about why you made that particular choice?

NICK: No, I’m not a veteran, but I made my main character a Marine Corps Iraq War veteran for very personal reasons. I ran a building inspection business for fifteen years, and after the Surge, I had many clients who were coming home from war. I’m a curious guy and I’m interested in people, and in talking with these men and women, I found myself profoundly moved by what many of them had experienced, as well as the significant and often unacknowledged price many of them had paid in the process, and would be paying for the rest of their lives. It also seemed to me that, with our all-volunteer military, most Americans truly had no idea of what we’d asked of these young men and women, and I wanted to share their stories. Like you, I get a lot of feedback from veterans who tell me that Peter really resonates with them, which is the best compliment this writer could ask for. My ongoing conversation with vets is honestly the best part of writing about Peter Ash.

Q: I was talking to some authors at Malice Domestic about how technology has changed things up—you can’t have a character not have a cell phone, for example, which sometimes makes things tricky in terms of plotting, I would imagine. These authors were older and you guys are kind of the new wave. How do you factor in/avoid technology when you’re structuring your novels? 

OWEN: I think technology gives a lot more than it takes away, as a writer. A lot of the inspiration for my stories comes from weird technological quirks and developments that simply wouldn’t have been possible a few years ago.

The Forgotten Girls, for instance, was inspired in part by the crazy, real-life story of quote-unquote Brother Orange. Essentially, some guy in New York had his iPhone stolen. A few months later, he started getting weird pictures of a Chinese man in an orange grove showing up on his new iPhone.

What he figured out was that the old phone was still connected to his cloud, and was uploading the pictures to both phones. The craziest part is that he tracked down the orange grove guy (“Brother Orange”) all the way in China, and the two men became Chinese celebrities and did a six-week tour of the country, opening restaurants and doing photo ops and stuff. Just weird.

But as soon as I read the story, my crime writer Spidey sense started to tingle. Because what if it wasn’t just someone else’s selfies that showed up on your phone, but pictures of a dead body?

And that’s how The Forgotten Girls begins, with some poor sap finding pictures of a dead woman on his phone, and the police all believe that he killed her.

NICK: I’m fascinated by technology, and also by the varied ways people use it. Some live on the bleeding edge, some are Luddites, and some, like me, live on the spectrum between those extremes. Similarly, certain characters, and certain books, require more extensive use of technology than others. And I have to say, for all the plot challenges brought on by modern technology, it also offers many opportunities. But because even a basic smartphone can made plotting problematic, I accidentally evolved a simple cheat. One of the running gags in the series is that Peter has trouble hanging onto a working phone—they get lost, broken, stolen, even eaten by a bear. And it’s part of Peter’s character that he doesn’t much care.

Q: What book/books did you read that made you think, wow, I want to do that? What book or books really changed your path as readers/writers? 

OWEN: The book that really changed my path as a writer was John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, which we read in grade eleven English class. I had moved to southern Ontario and was really missing the ocean, and Steinbeck’s description of the tuna boats setting out from Monterey made me yearn almost unbearably to go back to the west coast. Since I couldn’t get out there, I decided I wanted to be able to evoke that same kind of image with my own writing, and it was about then that I realized I wanted to be a writer—and also, that writing and the ocean became inextricably entwined for me.

More recently, I picked up Don Winslow’s Savages and it rocked my world. I was working on a Young Adult novel and it wasn’t really working as written, but the way Winslow plays with language and structure really inspired me to try something similar with my own book, and it was an extremely rewarding and fun exercise, and it wound up launching my YA career. (I publish under the name Owen Matthews.)

NICK: Oh, man, there are so many! Although for me, it’s more about authors than specific books. I grew up inhaling science fiction and adventure stories, gobbling down stories as fast as I could. It wasn’t until high school, reading Hemingway, that I realized that “literature” could be both exciting and beautiful, with very high stakes. In college, reading Raymond Chandler and Patricia Highsmith and Elmore Leonard, among many, many others, I saw the varied ways that crime fiction could also be gorgeous and profound. Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy was perhaps the biggest revelation for me—lush, violent cowboy novels masquerading as serious fiction, or maybe the other way around. I hoped I could do that same magic trick writing crime, and that goal is what keeps me going every day.

Q: What makes you excited to start your writing day/a new book?

OWEN: For me, it’s the feeling that I can’t rest until I get the story in my head on the page. There are days when I just can’t stop thinking about a story, plotting out scenes, chapters, places, characters, to the point that it’s impossible to even sleep unless I get something written out. That’s the best place to be; it’s that sense of urgency that made me sure I wanted to be a writer in the first place, and any time I can get that feeling back and harness it, I know the writing’s going well.

NICK: Coffee! An essential part of this writer’s toolkit. Actually, I have two favorite moments in the life of a book. The first is that electric jolt when my tentative attempts to find the opening of a novel finally result into my falling headlong into scene and story, and the book begins to unfold. The second is toward the end, when I’m writing full-tilt and I can’t type fast enough to keep up with the words in my head. It’s the slow, ugly middle that’s always a struggle—when it’s important to remind myself that it’s not my fault, it’s just the ugly middle, and if I keep writing, eventually the book will gather momentum again. (Some days, I’m tempted to write that reminder in reverse on my forehead, so I see it every time I look in the mirror.)

Q: How do you avoid being predictable?

OWEN: That’s another good question. I think it starts with being aware of the tropes in the genre, and that comes with reading widely and being aware of what other authors are doing. And then, I think it continues with having a desire to surprise the reader, which is something that I’d wager most thriller writers have in spades. I get a kick out of subverting expectations, so I try to lead the reader into a situation that they think is predictable, and then turn it on its ear.

NICK: Thank goodness, I’m not predictable! I actually work hard to keep things fresh, try new things, and stretch myself as a writer. This is part of why I’ve built the series the way I have—my vast looming dread of boring both myself and my readers. I think changing the setting really helps give each book a unique feel and flavor, and bringing significant new characters into play can really shape the form and path of a novel.

Q: Do you feel like you are having a conversation with readers as you write, or are you writing a story and just hoping someone will eventually enjoy it? 

OWEN: Obviously, I hope that the reader comes away from my books with a new perspective, or something unexpected to mull over, but for the most part, it’s the latter. I’ve found that my most successful and enjoyable writing comes when I forget about everything but the fun I’m having putting words on the page. I try to write the kind of book that I want to read, the way I want to write it, and then have faith that when other people pick it up, my excitement and enthusiasm will shine through.

NICK: Selfishly, I begin writing to entertain myself—to write the book I want to read next. I feel very lucky that the stories I want to tell also interest my readers. It does eventually turn into a conversation when I show sections to my wife, Margret, or to my editor or agent. They react to the work, and I internalize that feedback for the following drafts. 

Q: What’s next for you both?

OWEN: I have a new series coming out next year; I pitched it as Jack Reacher with a rescue dog, which is pithy but not entirely accurate. Essentially, it’s about a rescue dog who is trained by a convicted murderer in one of those prison outreach programs, and who is then assigned to a US Marine with PTSD.

The Marine gets into some trouble, and the dog is taken from her, and when the murderer is released from prison at the end of his sentence, he learns that the dog is in trouble and goes to see if he can save it.

In the process, he gets mixed up in the Marine’s troubles, and the two of them have to team up to save the dog and, ultimately, clean up the corrupt little town where the Marine is living.

The murderer kind of fancies himself as the Reacher character, but the Marine isn’t quite the damsel in distress. So it’s fun and hopefully a new twist on that trope. And as a bonus, the rescue dog is based on my own rescue pitbull, Lucy, who’ll be hitting the road with me to promote the book and who will actually be in Ann Arbor for my event with Nick!

NICK: My new book, Tear It Down, hits the shelves in January 2019. Peter travels to Memphis to help a photojournalist who’s being harassed. By the time he arrives, someone has driven a dump truck into her living room—and things get much worse from there. The story brings Peter into close contact with a gifted street musician, a neighborhood warlord and his enforcers, and a pair of hog-butchering brothers with an ugly agenda. The book was a blast to write, and it’s saturated with great Memphis music.

Essay: Agatha Christie: Her Life and Legacy

This is an expansion of an earlier essay and the basis of a talk I’ve given a couple times.

Like many of you, I started reading mysteries in the form of Nancy Drew in grade school. I was entranced, and in middle school I decided to read every novel by Agatha Christie. I found I could read one a day and after reading a great many of them, I was able to figure out whodunit – sometimes.

During college I discovered Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham, and when my husband and I moved to Ann Arbor in 1988, it was only a couple years before we opened Aunt Agatha’s. My husband Jamie worked at Borders for a few years and when we decided to branch out on our own, we went with the mystery genre. We named our store after Agatha and she remains, after 26 years, our bestselling author.

The passion for Agatha Christie never seems to go away. A friend, who is a critic and writer, suggested that it is harder to explain why you like something than why you dislike something, and while that’s certainly true – think about it – I’m going to give it a shot.

Young Agatha

First a little background on Agatha herself. She was born Agatha Miller in 1890 in Torquay, England. She had an American parent – her father, Frederick, and a British one, Clara, her determined mother. Clara bought the Torquay house, Ashfield, while her husband was away, and there the family remained. Agatha had two much older siblings, Monty and Madge, and was virtually an only child.

The shy little girl was schooled at home and was told by her mother that eight was an appropriate age to start reading. The curious Agatha of course started to read much earlier, at age 4. She loved making up stories and games, and she loved her pets. As she put it in her memoir, “One of the luckiest things that can happen to you in life, I think, is to have a happy childhood.”

This happiness lasted until she was 11, when her genial, lazy father died at age 55, leaving Agatha and Clara in reduced circumstances.   She herself said that her father’s death marked “the end of her childhood.”

While her mother figured out a way to send her to finishing school in Paris, when she eventually returned home, she found her mother was ill and the two women went to Cairo for where they stayed at the Gezirah Palace Hotel for three months.

It was here that the 18-year-old Agatha, having dabbled in short stories and poetry, began to try writing in earnest. She eventually wrote a novel set in Cairo, Snow Upon the Desert, and submitted it under the pseudonym of Monosyllaba. Like her poetry and stories, this was rejected several times, and her mother suggested that she reach out to family friend and successful writer Eden Philpotts. He was able to give her several helpful bits of advice, and even introduced her to his editor, whom Agatha found terrifying. Philpott told her she was good with dialogue and should make it as natural as possible, and he told her to “leave your characters alone, so they can speak for themselves.” He found her story structure admirable, and said to avoid “first hand moralizing,” calling it “bad art.” Then he advised her to read, particularly recommending the French author Gustave Flaubert.

Obviously Philpott had zeroed in on Agatha’s true strengths as a writer – strong storytelling and good dialogue. He was encouraging, and she kept writing. However, there were other things happening in Agatha’s life. She was a young woman and had several beaux, but she was eventually swept off her feet by Archie Christie. The two met just as war was breaking out in 1914. To the sheltered Agatha and Clara, the outbreak of war was a horrible shock, as well as the end of their peaceful Edwardian existence.

Their relationship was volatile; Archie was a daredevil, and in the War he served as a pilot, being much decorated and promoted for his bravery. Agatha served in the VAD – Voluntary Aid Detachment – and worked as a nurse, like many other young women of her generation, though she did not serve overseas. When Archie came home on leave in 1915 they snatched their chance and were married on Christmas Eve. Then they were separated again. All through the war they were separated, reunited, separated. Their real marriage didn’t really begin until the war was over and Archie came home. The pair were 27 and 29.

The couple settled in a tiny flat; Agatha was soon pregnant and gave birth to Rosalind Margaret in 1919, and that year saw another important birth in her life: that of Hercule Poirot.   Agatha’s sister Madge had challenged her to try her hand at a detective story, and because she was fascinated by puzzles, mathematical codes, and “strategems for keeping secrets safe”, detective novels were a good fit for her. She loved Sherlock Holmes and Wilkie Collins.

Poirot is Belgian because Torquay was full of Belgian refugees. She wanted him to have police experience, but not be a policeman, so he is a retired luminary. She originally named him Hercules, but Hercule ultimately seemed to fit better with Poirot. She made him eccentric and brilliant, with his egg shaped head and huge mustaches, and like Holmes, he has his slightly stupid sidekick, Colonel Hastings, introduced in the very first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles.   She submitted it, it was rejected twice, and she sent it on to the Bodley Head. She forgot about it until they contacted her and she agreed to terms that tied her to them for her next five books. Styles was published in 1920, followed by Murder on the Links(1923), Poirot Investigates (1926) and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926).

It was the year Roger Ackroyd was published that became a pivotal one in Agatha’s life. Ackroyd, whose denouement was suggested to her by her brother in law (and Lord Mountbatten, who was a fan) was a huge success.

Agatha around the time of her disappearance

Unfortunately her personal life was in great turmoil. Her mother was ill and died; and her husband told her he wanted a divorce and was in love with another woman, Nancy Neele. Archie was not helpful as Agatha grieved for her mother and went alone to clear out the family home; he found unhappiness “embarrassing”, and as Agatha adjusted to her new reality she became mired in what we would call today a deep episode of depression.

On December 3 of that year, Agatha checked on her sleeping daughter, got into the car Archie had encouraged her to purchase and learn to drive, and disappeared. Her car was found abandoned and a nationwide search ensued, with Col. Christie a prime suspect in Agatha’s possible murder. Agatha had in reality gone to an hotel and was found 10 days later. The family line has always been that she suffered a bout of amnesia; but whatever it was, it was certainly some kind of emotional fugue state, brought on by depression and melancholy. In any case, she never again spoke of it, and it remains something of a mystery.

Max and Agatha Mallowan

Not long after this she and Archie did divorce, and she bought herself a London row house. In 1928, when Rosalind was at school, she boarded the Orient Express in search of adventure. She traveled on to Bagdad, and went to a digging site at Ur. On a second trip in 1929, she met Max Mallowan, and the two were married in September of 1930. It was a lifelong, happy and agreeable marriage, with Agatha frequently accompanying Max on digs. She spent a great deal of her life traveling, and loved trains and new experiences. She even learned to surf in Capetown!

Eventually on digs Agatha had her own writing house, and she and Max only went to sites where they could work together. Agatha paid for her own board and lodging so as not to influence the funding. While she wrote during the 3 or 4 months they stayed on site, she also labeled exhibits, cleaned and conserved delicate ivory pieces, reconstructed pottery, developed photos and took her own field notes. All of these travels were reflected in her writing, beginning, of course with Murder on the Orient Express (1934) which she wrote at the Pera Palace Hotel in Istanbul. The hotel maintains the room dedicated to Agatha. But she also wrote Death on the Nile (1937), Murder in Mesopotamia (1936), Appointment with Death (1938), which is set in Jerusalem, Death Comes as the End (1944) and in 1951 They Came to Bagdad, all set in the same area of the world.

One very important influence on her writing came during the Second World War, when she worked in the pharmacy at the University College Hospital in London where she acquired her vast knowledge of poisons, which she frequently put to good use in her novels. The use of thallium as a poison was suggested to her by the chief at the University College Hospital, and she later used it in The Pale Horse (1961).

She was also much influenced of course by the events of the time. Both world wars played a huge part in her life, and her use of spies, espionage, and foreign agents are especially well represented in her novels featuring Tommy and Tuppence, who work as private detectives but whose work frequently intersects with British intelligence. They were the only characters of Christie’s to have aged in real time, and the five novels range from 1922 to 1973.

Christie herself was investigated by MI5 as she had a character named Major Bletchley, and they were worried she had an inside source at the top secret Bletchley circle. But as she explained to friend and code breaker Dilly Knox, she picked the name “because I was stuck there on my way by train from Oxford to London and took revenge by giving the name to one of my least lovable characters.” She based the Major on a tedious former Indian officer of her acquaintance.

Another influence on Agatha was her brother in law’s home, Abney Hall, specifically setting After the Funeral (1953), there, but Abney was always the basis for the ultimate country house in her mind. Most everything was grist for her mill, with even ordinary household tasks producing results. She put it this way: “the best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes.” She wasn’t one to talk about her creative process, insisting the books would speak for themselves. It makes you wonder how she would have functioned today with the expected author tours, mystery conventions, interviews, and social media.

The closest I’ve come to finding a mention of the creative process is in one of my favorite Poirot books, The Hollow.   One of the central characters is a sculptress, and as she finishes a clay head, she thinks to herself: “It feels nice, she thought, to be a human being again – and not that other thing. Nice to have stopped feeling restless and miserable and driven. Nice to be able to stop walking around the streets unhappily, looking for something, and feeling irritable and impatient because, really, you didn’t know what you were looking for! Now, thank goodness, there would only be hard work – and who minded hard work?”

Agatha certainly never minded hard work – she was incredibly prolific, producing 30 Poirot novels, 12 Miss Marple novels, 5 Tommy and Tuppence novels, 3 Colonel Race novels, many stand alone novels and dozens and dozens of short stories, as well as several plays, including the longest running play in the world, The Mousetrap. The Mousetrap has been running in London’s west end theater district since 1952. On leaving the theater, playgoers are traditionally encouraged not to reveal the twist ending.

So, as I asked myself at the beginning of this talk, why do I like Agatha Christie? It could be admiration for her many accomplishments. It could be that in an era when many women were housewives, she forged her own career, and enjoyed a life with a spouse who had his own vital career. While I don’t think she would have considered herself a feminist, as she was really a very traditional person, she certainly was.

I might admire her because she joined fellow crime writers Anthony Berkley (the imprint Berkley Prime Crime is named for him) and Dorothy L. Sayers in founding the detection club in 1930. (She served as president from 1957 until her death in 1976). After a war where so many young men had been killed or traumatized, puzzles, crosswords, and games like bridge became immensely popular as did the puzzle mysteries that Agatha so excelled at. While the novels were dismissed as “cosy” by some, these writers, traumatized by war in different ways, didn’t care to wallow in gore. Dorothy Sayers, embracing the zeitgeist of the time, came up with an oath new members had to swear to:

Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God? 

And the “rules” of the club followed suit, including no supernatural agencies; no twins; not more than one secret passage or room; no hitherto undiscovered poisons; and the “Watson” character needed to be slightly less intelligent than the average reader.

And while this is silly and fun, of course, the formula has held and become classic. Christie was responsible for the invention of countless tropes which remain in almost constant use. I think there are several that we can credit to her, either as her own invention or in using them so brilliantly they became hers. One is the “unreliable” narrator, not her invention, of course, but when she makes that narrator the killer, as she does in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, she took it to another level. She came up with “everyone dies,” as in And Then There Were None; and she came up with everyone is the killer, as in Murder on the Orient Express. She was fond of solving past crimes in the present (Murder in Retrospect), a trope much in use today. And she even wrote one of the scariest psychological thrillers ever written, Endless Night, in 1967. This one especially has certainly influenced a raft of writers, from Ruth Rendell to Ruth Ware. She introduced the concept of gathering the suspects at the end so the detective can explain the crime. Her fertile brain, much like Edgar Allan Poe’s (who is credited with inventing both mystery and horror fiction) inaugurated so many aspects of the crime novel, which she fine tuned and made her own.

She also leaves a giant legacy in the form of what is now called the “cozy” mystery. Every cozy author I’ve ever met mentions his or her indebtedness to Christie. Vicki Delany, who has written several cozy mystery series, defines cozies this way: “The characters live in a very pleasant world and their goal in solving the crime is to return their community to its pleasant state.”   It’s the best definition of a cozy I’ve run across, and it is Agatha’s writerly world view. She does begin with an orderly universe. Sometimes the people within it are in disarray – unhappy in some way – but the world she wants to reassemble by solving the crime is a clear and stable one. There are literally hundreds of cozy mystery writers who owe their essential world view to Agatha Christie.

And then, to me, there’s Miss Marple. I discussed her invention of Poirot earlier. While Poirot is a brilliant creation, he has his antecedents, beginning with Sherlock Holmes himself. He was a twist on a formula. To me, Miss Marple is not only revolutionary, she is subversive. She first appeared in 1927, in a short story titled The Tuesday Night Club, which appears in the collection The Thirteen Problems. She was based on Agatha’s grandmother, who Agatha described this way: “Although a completely cheerful person, she always expected the worst of anyone and everything. And with almost frightening accuracy she was usually proved right.” The name came from Marple Hall, near her brother in law’s home Abney Hall. Miss Marple has another antecendent, Miss Caroline Sheppard, in the Murder of Roger Ackroyd. The opening breakfast scene in that novel is one of my favorite scenes in any Christie book:

“The motto of the mongoose family, so Mr. Kipling tells us, is “Go and find out.” If Caroline ever adopts a crest, I should certainly suggest a mongoose rampant. One might omit the first part of the motto. Caroline can do any amount of finding out by sitting placidly at home.”

And so Miss Marple was widely introduced in the first Marple novel, The Murder at the Vicarage, in 1930. When we meet her, at a vicarage tea party, the rector thinks to himself: “Miss Marple is a white-haired old lady with a gentle, appealing manner – Miss Wetherby is a mixture of vinegar and gush. Of the two Miss Marple is much the more dangerous.”

Miss Marple, with her gardening, her fluffy knitting, and her sweet manner, is deceptive, and she goes on to take control of the novel, gently correcting the vicar and the police when they get it wrong. While Christie uses words like “elderly,” “gossip,” and “spinster” to describe Miss Marple, Miss Marple, despite these apparently negative traits, always prevails. Like all old ladies, Miss Marple is frequently ignored and dismissed. It’s character subversion as worthy as any plot twist Christie employs in her novels.

Miss Marple, like Hercule Poirot, has one basic rule she applies to each case. With Poirot, the rule is “the little grey cells,” i.e., using his logical and intelligent brain to deduce what’s going on. Among Poirot’s many descendants are detectives like Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe and TV detectives like Columbo and Monk. Emotion is pretty much out of the equation.

Miss Marple, on the other hand, finds a parallel person from her wide acquaintance and discovers, usually, that as people are the same everywhere, she can understand their character and then figure out what’s happened. It’s really the opposite of Poirot. As Miss Marple explains it in Murder at the Vicarage, “You see… living alone as I do, in a rather out-of-the-way part of the world, one has to have a hobby….my hobby is – and always has been – Human Nature. So varied, and so very fascinating.” She goes on to describe how she classes people as types and works from there.

Agatha’s look at a particular set of social class, codes of behavior, and way of life, is complete. It’s almost like Jane Austen. Austen also worked within a tiny framework but within that framework, she discovered the universe. So, I think, does Christie, who delivers a crime ridden, funny, unique and lasting universe within her pages. I’m getting closer to why I like her so much. I like her humor, I love Miss Marple (more so the older I get), and I love the way she tells a story.

Christie eventually tired of Poirot. By the end of the 1930’s she already found him “insufferable”; by the 1960’s she considered him “an egocentric creep.” There are far fewer Marple novels – after Marple’s introduction in 1927 she didn’t write another until 1942 (The Body in the Library), and so perhaps that’s why she didn’t tire of her. She was often asked if they would ever appear in a story together and she said, no, Poirot “would not like being taught his business… by an elderly spinster lady.”

But she didn’t want the characters to live on after her own death, either, and she wrote final novels for each of them which she put in a vault. They were published shortly before her own death as incipient dementia made clear she would no longer be writing. Curtain was published in 1975; Sleeping Murder was published in 1976. Poirot has returned in recent years, in the form of several novels by different authors, most recently by Sophie Hannah.

But on to why I really like her. I had to get a little help, and I asked some fellow readers what they liked about Christie and got some interesting and varied answers.

One reader said, “I love that her novels are so tightly and precisely written. There is never a wasted word, nor one lacking, and always a plot that is woven well, like a fine piece of lace. She’s still the queen.”

Another said “She explores human problems again and again from every angle. She has a sense of openness, humor and humility about it.”

“Christie novels are like a dry Martini – cold, balanced, perfect.” –author Susan Elia MacNeal

“We can see these people, hear them and know them. For a writer starting out, that ability to nail people in a line or two was a valuable lesson to learn. The plotting too, obviously. Those interwoven story arcs, each with a set-up, development and pay-off (often an unexpected one) taught me much of what I know about the black art of narrative. It’s no exaggeration to say that The Murder at the Vicarage set me on a path I’ve been happy to follow for 30 years.” –author Val McDermid

“It’s necessary to answer the question of ‘who killed x?’ but this isn’t sufficient. The real mysterious hook in crime fiction is not so much whodunnit, but ‘how on earth can the apparently inexplicable be explained?’” –author Sophie Hannah

So I think I’ve enumerated reasons Christie can be admired – and the reason other writers admire her. Pithy characterizations, humor, tight plots. All the Golden Age writers were able to deliver much of the same – but somehow, Christie is the one that’s most often read, re-read and cherished. So why is she beloved? I love Miss Marple, for one thing. I love the way she tells a story, for another, and I love that there are small characters I will always remember because of her concise and direct descriptions. But I think part of the reason I love her is intangible. Once I was selling some titles to a fellow fan and we just looked at each other and said – “Magic.” And there’s no better explanation of why I love her.

Kathryn Casey: In Plain Sight

Kathryn Casey is America’s greatest living True Crime writer, as evidenced by the fact that her books have been reviewed more often by Aunt Agatha’s than any others in that genre. The reason for this is simple—Casey has a firm grasp of the most important ingredients for any writing, fiction or non. First and foremost is character, and her latest has a doozy of a cast. She has a real talent for presenting the histories of the major actors in such sharp detail that the fatal product of their collision seems somehow inevitable.

Eric Williams and his victim Mike McLelland were both oversized personalities, with swaggering self-confidence, machismo to spare and lots and lots of guns. They’d clashed in local politics, generating a heap of ill will, and when the dust settled, Mike was DA and Eric was Magistrate in their small patch of Texas. When the DA had the chance to go after the Magistrate for a minor and unclear piece of workplace theft he went all in, stripping him of his position, his law license and, perhaps most importantly in today’s America, his health care, particularly crucial for his chronically ailing wife.

Since he had no actual courtroom experience, Mike enlisted the assistance of an experienced trial attack dog, Assistant District Attorney Mark Hasse. The two crowed about laying low Eric, who they considered a nerd and wimpy wannabe. Sadly for them, the same ethical vacuity that enabled him to casually walk away with a few computer monitors presented no barriers to revenge killing.

You learn a lot about the actual state of America from a expertly done True Crime book, particularly a state like Texas. The anti-gun control mantra of the efficacy of “a good guy with a gun,” is disproven when the bad guy has the drop on you with an assault rifle, despite your having “a gun in every pocket.” All the players here seem to have large arsenals and cowboy hats, the former no more a deterrent than the latter. As the victim’s son’s said, “It was the most ironic thing that’s ever happened in this world. My dad got shot and he’d been preparing for a gunfight forever.”

The role of law enforcement is another element shown to be much different than found in crime fiction. Not only is there no Poirot brilliantly putting together the pieces to find the killer, there doesn’t even seem to be a dogged Law and Order effort to run down the evidence. With the high profile killings there’s a plethora of cops and Feds, but they seem to confine themselves to running lab tests, looking at surveillance tapes and waiting by the phone for tips. The reader wants to shout at them to drag the pond, check out abandoned vehicles or at least tail the obvious suspect, but they seem incapable of following these simple crime tropes until tipped off. Perhaps another telling point about contemporary American justice is that the perp doesn’t come close to apprehension until he runs out of money for high priced lawyers and lets his own overblown ego lead the defense.

At well over four hundred pages In Plain Sight is quite a read, but it’s certainly worth it. Casey also had the clever idea of integrating the photos with the text, rather than clumping them all in the middle. Nobody does True Crime better, and, as I always say, you couldn’t make this stuff up. (Jamie)

Loren D. Estleman: Black and White Ball

Deep into a now 80 book and counting career, and 27 in to his iconic Amos Walker series, what is Loren Estleman going to come up with that might be new? You might be surprised. In this novel Walker crosses paths with one of Estleman’s other characters, Peter Macklin, who hires Walker to look after his ex-wife. She’s being stalked by his son, Roger, who has gone into the family business – contract killing.

Dividing the segments of the novel into “Me” (Walker), “Him” (Macklin), as well as “Her” (the ex-wife) and “Them” (various, but often Roger) has injected a fresh energy into this novel. As always, Estleman writes tight – this book clocks in at 240 pages – and also as always, his prose and expression are absolute treasures. Reading an Estleman novel is almost like eating a too rich slice of chocolate cake – you have to read slowly, because if you don’t you won’t be able to savor the prose and the witty sleight of hand that comprises Estleman’s dialogue. People in an Estleman novel speak like you wish you could and maybe the way you would if you had a long time to come up with the perfect turn of phrase. Alas, I think there are few human brains that actually operate on that elevated scale, but it’s certainly a delight to encounter it in print.

The set-up is a pretty simple one and Estleman, a writer who hews closely to genre convention, includes a smart dame who can handle trouble. He really writes women well and his women are always worth reading about, another reason I enjoy his books so much. Like all of us, Amos is aging – he has trouble climbing the fire escape and hoping out a window, and at the end he’s too much of a gentleman to hit on a much younger woman (which I also appreciated) but even though he’s older he’s still operating at a high level.

The scenes between Walker and Macklin are charged with electricity as each man takes the other’s measure. Even though he’s a hitman Macklin has a certain code of behavior; Walker, who definitely has a code of behavior and has the much more impoverished lifestyle to prove it, is reluctant to take Macklin’s money but he’s really not given much of a choice. Almost more than anything else, the meeting between these two characters is the meeting between two practical realists.

This novel, mostly set in the smallish town of Milford, has the precise explication of small town life, especially during a Michigan winter, that Estleman readers have come to expect. While we may not be running around heavily armed, slipping through locked doors with a credit card or paying transients to watch our cars, just about every Michigander will relate to the white-knuckle drive Amos takes on a snow-swept highway during the height of a blizzard.

In every way this novel was delicious, and even if you’re new to Walker’s Detroit, it’s a trip well worth making. Jumping in at novel 27 won’t be too unsettling – you should be able to slide right in to Amos’ world. It’s a little gritty, but it’s full of honor.

Elly Griffiths: The Dark Angel

Elly Griffiths goes from strength to strength with her Ruth Galloway series. She’s created a long form look at a main character that most readers not only love, but identify with. In this outing as Ruth hits the beach with her glam friend Shona, her discomfort at wearing her old black one piece in public is something pretty much any woman can relate to. But of course there’s more than an identification with Ruth Galloway that makes Griffiths’ novels a standout – she’s an effortless and energetic storyteller who punctuates her writing with healthy dollops of humor. What’s not to love?

As the book opens, Ruth is reluctantly attending the wedding of policeman “Cloughie” – a likable good guy on DCI Nelson’s team – to a glam actress. Ruth dreads seeing Nelson and his presently pregnant wife Michelle. Regular readers of the series are aware that Ruth and Nelson have an illegitimate daughter, Kate, and that Michelle tolerates Nelson’s small participation in Kate’s life. Spicing things up is a recent affair between Michelle and Tim, another officer who worked for Nelson, and Michelle is far from sure that the baby she’s carrying is Nelson’s.

Despite Kate’s complete appreciation of a sparkly bride, all Ruth can think is that she needs a vacation, and when she gets a call from a former colleague in Italy, asking her to consult on some bones and offering her a free place to stay for two weeks, she hurriedly accepts, taking her friend Shona and her son Louis along.

The bones are certainly curious – the skeleton her friend has discovered was found buried face down with a small stone wedged in his mouth – and Ruth’s professional curiosity (she’s an archeologist) is certainly piqued. She balances work with vacation in this novel, giving the reader a luscious virtual tour of the small village in the Italian hills where they are staying.

All the same, Griffiths is up to her usual tricks – she has a love of the slightly gothic and of history, and she brings in the Romans, Mussolini, an earthquake, a couple blackouts, a mysterious boar’s tooth and of course, a dead body in an appropriately goth location.

Back in King’s Lynn, Ruth’s hometown, Nelson is slightly troubled by the release of a prisoner he put away for killing his family. The man appears to have become a Christian in prison but Nelson is not so sure. Griffiths takes all these elements and creates a great story with them, even somehow believably getting both Nelson and Cathbad to Italy. Plus there’s a real wowser of an ending, with complicated repercussions for just about every major character. This is another great read from this more than reliable author.

Jenny Milchman: Wicked River

Wicked RiverJenny Milchman’s talent for suspense is of a very high order. I read lots and lots of mysteries – obviously – but it’s rare that I read a book that makes me so squirmy I have to put it down a couple times as I read it. She reminds me of Joseph Finder, in that I had to keep telling myself that this was fiction and wasn’t actually happening.

The book opens at a lovely wedding, but of course, as any suspense fan knows, this wedding is not going to end well. In this case, it’s not the wedding that’s the problem, it’s the honeymoon. Natalie and Doug have a camping/canoeing trip planned for their honeymoon, one that takes them deep into the Adirondack wilderness.

Natalie is not so sure about the trip, but the enthusiastic Doug has convinced her that two weeks of hiking, canoeing and portaging will be fun. And at first it is, though since I hate the idea of camping, it didn’t sound fun to me. But then, through a series of calamitous events, they lose their GPS and their way and end up in a part of the park that’s totally wild and rarely traveled.

About half way through, Milchman turns up the heat and makes this excellent chase novel ALSO a detective story with a twist I didn’t see coming. Then she adds to the mix an escaped prisoner who has lived on his own in the woods for a couple years. He’s fit, lonely, and terrifying, and he keeps an eye out for any hikers that come his way.

As Doug and Natalie begin to suffer seriously from their unplanned trek into deep wilderness, the man comes into play in both a good and a bad way. Milchman is expert at making you feel what the characters are feeling, and part of the reason she’s so good at it is that she is able to make the reader invested in what is often a central female character. In this case it’s Natalie, who undergoes an emotional transformation of sorts during the course of the novel.

This is a wonderful, vivid story, with great characters, an unforgettable setting and a bad guy and suspense that doesn’t stop. This was an exhausting read, but a worthwhile one. I have to say I was delighted to have read it on my sofa, not in a tent in front of a campfire. Shiver.

Laura Lippman: Sunburn

SunburnLaura Lippman’s ode to James M. Cain is masterful. As I began reading it, I thought it was going to be based on The Postman Always Rings Twice, and it is, but it’s also based on Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce. Cain’s ingenious, scathing stories were pure story, punctuated with the inappropriate yet raging desires on the part of the female characters, whether it was Cora, Mildred or Phyllis, and the somewhat clueless collusion on the part of the males in their orbit. All of Cain’s females have a burning idea of how to proceed. So does Lippman’s Polly – an understatement. She’s also expert at waiting for results.

The book opens with Polly walking out on her husband and daughter and vanishing into the little town of Belleville, Deleware, where she becomes (of course) a waitress. All her careful plans go to hell when P.I. (though she thinks he’s a guy whose truck has broken down) Adam walks into the bar. While Adam is scoping out Polly, the careful Polly is scoping him out as well. A classic triangle emerges: the other waitress, Cath, has a thing for Adam too. While Cath is wily in a somewhat feral way, she’s no match for Polly, who emerges triumphant with Adam.

The first part of the book is the slow burn between Polly and Adam and their eventual raging desire for each other. Before he knows what’s happening, Adam is existing on Polly’s terms rather than the other way around. And up to this point, even with the whole prologue of Polly leaving her family, the book wasn’t grabbing me. It was well done, as Lippman’s novels always are, but it wasn’t until she jumped in with an old story of insurance scams involving Polly’s violent first husband that I was really hooked.

The other thing, of course, that makes this novel so contemporary (even though it’s set in the mid-90’s) is Polly’s awareness of how she’s treated or perceived as a woman. When she leaves her family, she thinks to herself that a man would not be so censured. He would be cut a break. She only ends up in Belleville because the old man who gave her a lift tries to put his hand up her skirt, and she demands to be let out of the car. She’s a good waitress but she doesn’t let herself really relax around her customers; she holds herself back a bit. Human interaction is a bit like a science experiment to her.

As Lippman proceeds to pull back the layers of Polly’s back story – her two husbands, her own violent past – Polly begins to come more and more into focus. Adam loves her but doesn’t trust her. At one point, another character, realizing Polly often wears yellow and looks her best in it, also thinks to himself “Still, he has to admit that yellow, the color used for warnings and caution, suits her.” She’s utterly fascinating.

Lippman is also a master, every bit as much as Cain, at plot, though she goes about it differently. The twists, when they come, are well set up but still something of a shock. I guess bad behavior is shocking. If Cain’s novels – short, brutal and honed to a fine point – were about the breathless committing of a crime, the modern crime novel, while also about committing a crime, is very much about the aftermath. Lippman is a master at aftermath.

This languorous novel, spanning Labor Day to Christmas, is in a tight time frame but unfurls like a slow fever dream. While the homage to Cain is ever present, Polly is all Lippman’s own creation. The complex plot is lightly told and clearly laid out, but chilling all the same. This story will definitely stay with you for quite awhile after you finish it.

Catriona McPherson: Scot Free

Scot FreeThis light, funny, delightful novel from Catriona McPherson introduces readers to native Scot Lexy Campbell. She’d fallen for a hunky American and ended up moving to California where they married and lived in what she describes as a “beige barn,” the type of house familiar to many Americans as a McMansion. Objections to her husband’s lifestyle choices aside, he’s also a cheater, and Lexy walks out on him on the 4th of July, moving in to the Last Ditch Motel. She’s sure this is temporary.

Lexy’s job has been to work as a marriage counselor, and on this same ill fated evening, one half of her only client couple, Clovis Bombaro, is killed by an (apparently intentional) exploding firework. Clovis’s wife, Vi, has been arrested for the crime but Lexy is sure she’s innocent and heads to the courthouse to help Vi post bail. There are plenty of people sympathetic to the plight of long time resident and business owner Mrs. Bombaro, and she is allowed to head home, Lexy at her side.

McPherson then manages to introduce a swath of totally fascinating supporting characters – many of whom live at the Last Ditch. Most memorable is the germ-obsessed Todd, who takes over Lexy’s clothing and underwear choices and redecorates her ratty motel room. At the same time, McPherson is also gently skewering American culture and shining a light on the chasm between the haves and have-nots. Oh, and I forgot to mention – Lexy is deathly afraid of fireworks, so when she’s asked by Mrs. B. to tour the fireworks factory with her she has many, many reservations.

There’s a death in this novel for sure, but it happens off canvas and as readers we don’t really know Clovis, so it’s not a tragedy. Lexy and her self-appointed helper Todd begin to unravel the strands of Clovis’ murder, but there are plenty of twists and surprises thrown in before they get to a solution.

The humor and satire in this book is never forced, it’s completely natural, which makes it all the more hilarious. I found myself snickering and outright laughing as I read (embarrassing in the store) and I can’t recommend this highly enough. A perfect smart escape read that made this reader very ready for another installment.

Mariah Fredericks: A Death of No Importance

A Death of No ImportanceThis kick ass book features ladies’ maid Jane Prescott, who happens to be working for the newly wealthy and somewhat clueless Benchley family when a murder explodes the family’s world. Jane has more or less taken the Benchley girls under her wing. Their mother is a feckless household manager and the girls, Charlotte, beautiful and headstrong, and Louisa, plain and shy, welcome the kind of insider society knowledge Jane possesses after working for various wealthy families. It’s 1910 and a good marriage for each girl is uppermost in their minds – and in the mind of their mother.

Jane is telling the story, and it’s clear she’s looking back in time as she remembers the incidents that so shaped the lives of the Benchley family. While Jane works for one of the wealthiest families in 1910 New York, she’s also friends with an anarchist named Anna who brings her a different view of the world and when the murder occurs, a different view of the importance of the dead person. Jane balances her loyalty and affection for the family she’s serving while hearing Anna’s voice in her head.

The other family affected owned a mine in Pennsylvania where eight children were left for dead after a collapse. This family has been receiving threatening notes from the anarchists referring to the mine tragedy. In this way, Fredericks almost gently points out the vast divide between the upper classes and everyone else, though her main character is ruled more by her heart than by principles.

Jane, at the request of Mr. Benchley, helps to investigate the murder with the help of a tenacious and bold reporter. They ably follow the threads of the mystery back to the source. Jane and her reporter buddy are tormented by the classic dilemma posed in almost every mystery novel: does a killing come down to the killer’s character or the situation? Or both?

Fredericks, a brisk and lively storyteller, takes the reader on a careening ride through the various echelons of 1910 New York society, helping the reader to be invested in Jane from page one. I found this novel extremely difficult to put down and satisfying after I’d finished reading it. This is a wonderful first foray into historical mystery fiction for Ms. Fredericks. I can’t wait to read more.

Denise Swanson: Tart of Darkness

Tart of DarknessDenise Swanson is a wonderful storyteller and one of the things she’s exceptionally good at is creating a “mean girl” character. Herself a high school social worker for many years, I’m sure Ms. Swanson knows the type, but in this outing, the first in a new series, she creates a doozy.

The set-up: central character Dani Sloan has left her HR job and has unexpectedly inherited a Victorian mansion. The mansion has not been totally rehabbed but it does contain a new chef’s kitchen, and Dani, in the middle of reinventing herself as a personal chef and caterer, takes it as a sign that she’s on the right path. When one of her former neighbors, college student Ivy, gets kicked out of her former apartment building, Dani takes Ivy and her friends in as boarders. A perfect setting for a new series.

Dani, while older than the girls and serving as more or less a de facto housemother, gets drawn into their drama. When Ivy begs her to cater a party for the super popular Regina, Dani reluctantly agrees. Regina, the mean girl of the title, is so nasty it really takes the entire book to reveal all of her misdeeds, but since she’s so outstandingly nasty it’s a pretty safe bet that her time on planet earth is limited. Indeed it is, and Dani and Ivy are immediately cast as suspects.

Making things more uncomfortable: a vengeful, spiteful detective in charge of the case. Making things more comfortable: Ivy’s hunky uncle Spencer who swoops in to help out. Dani and Spencer obviously have feelings for one another but Swanson is far too canny a writer to let things take their natural course in a first book.

One of the best definitions of a cozy I’ve ever heard comes from cozy writer Vicki Delaney: “The characters live in a very pleasant world and their goal in solving the crime is to return their community to its pleasant state.” Swanson has created here an extremely pleasant world. The reader desperately wants Dani to get back to her “normal” life. Solving the murder helps to accomplish that, but there’s obviously room left for this vivid and funny new series to continue to grow and flourish.