Many of the usual suspects come under scrutiny when we ask general and specialty booksellers for their favorite mystery authors and titles to handsell. Beyond that gang of writers, however, all the retailers identify a sizable lineup of lesser-known pet perps as well. Most often named from all around the country are crime-meisters Dennis Lehane, Michael Connelly and Elizabeth George. Long guilty of enticing readers to stay up well past their bedtimes, the three, of course, are familiar monikers on national bestseller lists. Other regulars on the handselling circuit are Laurie King, George Pelecanos, Donald Westlake, Lawrence Block, Robert Crais and, more recently, Dave Barry.
But booksellers keep returning to the aforementioned trio. "Even before his latest, I thought Dennis Lehane was one of the best writers in America," says Otto Penzler, whose Mysterious Bookshop is in New York City, "and Mystic River [Morrow] is head and shoulders above anything he has ever done before. It'll have legs for decades. A lot of writers are terrific, but they can't plot very well. A lot have good story ideas, but they can't write for zip. Dennis Lehane has great plotting, great characters and a real style. He uses felicitous phrases and a nicely nuanced prose."
"We feel we discovered Dennis Lehane," remarks Judy Duhl, Scotland Yard Books, Winnetka, Ill., "but then, every mystery bookstore feels that way. His early two books should be read together—A Drink Before the War and Darkness, Take My Hand [both Avon]. Actually, most of my customers have read him because I wouldn't let them out the door without buying one."
"Michael Connelly really knows what he's talking about," says Bill Petrocelli, Book Passage, Corte Madera, Calif. "He was a police reporter for the L.A. Times, so there's a strong element of realism. He doesn't waste any time on superfluous subplots. Someone reading him for the first time could start with The Concrete Blonde [St. Martin's], which comes somewhere in the middle, and then work forward and backward." Although Connelly's fiction usually features LAPD detective Harry Bosch, Blood Work (Warner) is also a highly recommended title, says Petrocelli, referring to the novel in which retired FBI honcho Terry McCaleb undergoes a heart transplant and is then called upon to solve the murder of the woman whose heart now beats in his chest.
Elizabeth George is the first writer Dee Robinson, Village Books, Bellingham, Wash., mentions. "Her continuing characters are multidimensional," she asserts. "The plots are complex and I like the puzzles." Although long since unmasked as an American, George has won countless fans with her British procedurals starring Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley and his sidekick, Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers.
Barbara Peters of the Poisoned Pen, Scottsdale, Ariz., brings up the other Elizabeth, Elizabeth Peters. "Her Amelia Peabody series that started with a tongue-in-cheek gothic, The Crocodile on the Sandbank [Warner], many volumes back, built to what I believe will be one of the classic series of this second golden age of mystery, carrying a complex cast forward in time while displaying the author's expert scholarship in Egyptology—and a sparkling sense of humor." Peters's latest are He Shall Thunder in the Sky (Avon) and next month's Lord of the Silent (Morrow).
Choices Off the Beaten Path
Less predictable preferences for mystery writers also abound. David Hsie, a bookseller at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, says, "I like to read some of the more literate and historical mysteries. Among my personal favorites is An Instance of the Fingerpost [Penguin] by Iain Pears." The Pears tale is also admired by Lou Haggerty, a bookseller at Denver's Tattered Cover. "It takes place in the Cromwellian era," she notes, "when a woman, a home healer, is accused of murder." Another historical setting that appeals to Hsie is the mid-19th-century Madrid portrayed in mysteries by Arturo Perez-Reverte. Several of his titles, such as The Fencing Master (Harvest), have been translated from the Spanish.
"People like mysteries with historical backgrounds," agrees Kate Mattes, whose Kate's Mystery Books is located in Cambridge, Mass. "Robert Wilson's A Small Death in Lisbon [Harcourt] returns to the days of World War II. A girl is murdered in present-day Lisbon, and then the story goes back in time."
"My favorite mystery of the '90s, if I had to pick the one that is most nearly perfect, is Breakheart Hill [Bantam] by Thomas H. Cook," says Penzler. In it, a girl's beaten and broken body is discovered in the '60s, and the cruel act reverberates into the present.
"Charles Todd has set his mysteries after World War I," says Bruce Taylor, owner of the San Francisco Mystery Bookstore. "The Scotland Yard protagonist returns from the war with shell shock. These books are not for everybody, but those of us who love them really love them." One of Todd's latest mysteries featuring Ian Rutledge, in whose mind conversations continue unabated with a man he had executed during the war for cowardice, is Bantam's Legacy of the Dead.
"John Dunning's new book is very good," says Petrocelli. "Everybody knows his two about the antiquarian book dealer set in Denver [Booked to Die, Avon; The Bookman's Wake, Pocket], but the new one is Two O'Clock, Eastern Wartime [Scribner]." It's set during radio's halcyon era in the early days of WWII at a station on the Jersey Shore where murder lurks. Petrocelli continues, "Going further back, I also like Steven Saylor's mysteries that take place in Rome before Caesar. They're very easy flowing books that provide a wonderfully vivid sense of what Rome must have been like then. He really does his history." Roman Blood (St. Martin's) concerns Gordianus the Finder, who resolves the charges against Sextus Roscius, who is accused of killing his own father.
"Less well known than [those of Elizabeth] George or [Martha] Grimes," says Peters, "Deborah Crombie's finely drawn novels explore varying British places and cultures, draw upon history to inform the present, maintain a prickly personal and professional relationship between her sleuths, Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James, and are growing in complexity and literary style. My favorite is her fifth, Dreaming of the Bones. We much anticipate May's A Finer End [both Bantam]."
Richard Gorman of Mystery Lovers Bookshop, Oakmont, Pa., also mentions Crombie's Dreaming of the Bones. "This is a past-and-present police procedural with a literary quality. The events concern a circle of poets in the '30s. An important aspect of handselling is cross-selling authors who are good matches with established bestselling authors. Crombie is an excellent cross-over with Elizabeth George. When someone asks, 'Is there a new Elizabeth George?' and there isn't, we ask, 'Have you read Deborah Crombie?'"
Gorman continues, "Our number one book for handselling is In a Dry Season [Avon] by Peter Robinson. It's a book with very wide appeal, and everyone who works here recommends it. It's basically a British police procedural, but the key events in the book take place during the Second World War in a village subsequently covered by a reservoir. During a drought, the village is uncovered and a skeleton is found. A previous crime impinges upon a crime in the present. We sold the hardcover quite well, and we've probably sold a couple hundred copies of the paperback. It's a perfect handselling book because it's by an author who's not that well known. You don't handsell Patricia Cornwell anymore. Eight or nine years ago you would, but not now because everyone is familiar with her work. If the author you're handselling has a series, you get a double payoff. When people read In a Dry Season, they go back and read all his other books."
"In a Dry Season is a wonderful book. I've sold a ton of it," remarks Mattes. "When Robinson's Cold Is the Grave [Morrow] was coming out, I thought it couldn't be as good—but it's even better. Another book I love selling is The Ice Harvest by Scott Phillips [Ballantine]. I think it's great, and so do the people who come back and tell me they agree. The author has a little Jim Thompson in him. He's gritty. He's funny. It's a book that appeals to people who like hard-boiled mysteries. Oh, and there's a wonderful gay character in a new series by Abigail Padgett. Her name is Blue, and the newest book is The Last Blue Plate Special [Mysterious Press]. Blue is one of the most refreshing characters to come along in a while. She's a social anthropologist who bought an abandoned motel in the desert outside San Diego, and her partner is Roxie Bouchie, a prison psychiatrist." Mattes praises the way Tim Cockey mines humor in a gloomy milieu with Hitchcock Sewell, a Baltimore undertaker who moonlights as a sleuth. Sewell's latest caper is Hearse of a Different Color (Hyperion). She also admires the ingenuity displayed in Thomas Perry's Jane Whitefield series, about a woman who helps people disappear.
"A guy on our staff thinks that Thomas Perry's Vanishing Act [Ivy] is the best book in the store," says Taylor. "That book [featuring Jane Whitefield] has been on our table of recommendations ever since it appeared in paper years ago."
"My favorites are authors like Chandler and Hammett, Rex Stout, John Dickson Carr," says Kevin Barbero, Murder by the Book, Cranston, R.I. "I tend to go to the older ones. I like the conventions of the mystery story as opposed to the newer blood-and-guts stuff. I do like Lee Child. He's got four books, and he can really write." Barbero mentions in particular Killing Floor (Jove). "The ongoing character, Reacher, is an ex-military policeman who roams the United States—and things happen." The newest Reacher novel, Echo Burning, is coming from Putnam in June.
Always on the lookout for strongly developing authors, Peters says, "Rising stars include Edgar winner Steve Hamilton, whose A Cold Day in Paradise [St. Martin's] was a First Mystery Club pick for us alongside William Kent Krueger's Iron Lake [Pocket Books]. Still lesser known, both provide the same triumphs of plot, character, setting and, best of all, piercing prose styles evoking the upper Midwest—Michigan for Hamilton, Minnesota for Krueger. Plus they look at Native Americans from a perspective different from, and yet similar to, our Southwestern writers. Julia Wallis Martin is a strong comer from A Likeness in Stone [St. Martin's], working a similar canvas to Minette Walters, whose The Sculptress [St. Martin's] remains a staff favorite to handsell."
"The Sculptress is one of my all-time favorites," says Tattered Cover's Haggerty. "It ends with a moral question that's complex and fascinating. Mary Willis Walker is also exceptional. She takes an issue and does interesting things with it. The Red Scream [Bantam] concerns the death penalty. You have to be careful with handselling a book like that, but she does take you on quite a ride."
Yet another favorite at Poisoned Pen is P.F. Chisholm's A Famine of Horses. "Since Poisoned Pen Press has republished four volumes in the Robert Carey series, I am a seriously biased handseller," admits Peters, "but I am joined by Sharon Kay Penman, Dana Stabenow and Diana Gabaldon, who, with me, have each written an introduction to the volumes. Set along the Scottish border in Elizabethan horse-rustling country, they are sound historically, ribald, robust and as rowdy as American westerns."
Duhl at Scotland Yard Books notes, "I've done very well with Barbara Peters's books." One that comes to mind is Concerto in Dead Flat by Wendell McCall. "It's set in Oxford, has a music background and a wonderful sense of place. I also like the books published by the people who used to run the Rue Morgue bookstore in Boulder [Tom and Enid Schantz]. I cannot keep those titles in the store. They're more sophisticated than what you'd label a cozy. They were all published in the '30s, '40s and '50s, and they're sophisticated in their humor. These are books like The Grey Mist Murders by Constance and Gwenyth Little, originally published in 1938, and The Chinese Chop by Juanita Sheridan, first published in 1949. In The Chinese Chop, a young woman moves to New York City and into a converted old mansion. Her roommate is a Chinese woman. No one in the house had ever met a Chinese woman before, and while the mystery unfolds, it's fun to see the reactions and attitudes of that time." The publishing imprint for these two books is, unsurprisingly, Rue Morgue.
The Asian aspect has drawn Mattes to S.J. Rozan, whose latest mystery is Reflecting the Sky (St. Martin's). "Her series is set in New York and features Lydia Chin, who's a Chinese-American PI. She has a Caucasian friend, Bill Smith, and the two alternate as leading characters in the books. So the longer the books go on, the more you learn about the characters from each one and from the other person's perspective. That gives the books a lot of texture. The people who like Tony Hillerman like her too."
Locales Far and Near
Mysteries transporting readers to unfamiliar places exert a strong pull on both readers and booksellers. "Michael Dibdin is British. He lives in America and sets books in Italy," says Taylor. "He's a pleasure to sell. If I can get someone started on Dead Lagoon [Vintage], I know they'll come back for the rest."
If authors with international backgrounds provide glimpses of different cultures, home-grown Americans attract readers who want to stay in their own backyards.
"Florida is a mother lode of mystery writers," says Mitchell Kaplan, whose Books & Books is in Coral Gables, "and fortunately, a lot of them are really good, so we have lots of people to suggest"—and indeed, he lists well over a dozen. "Many have become famous, such as Carl Hiaasen and Edna Buchanan, but we also have good writers with lesser-known bylines like James Grippando, who's an ex-trial lawyer here in Florida; Carolina Garcia-Aguilera, who writes about a Cuban woman; and John Lantigua, a former reporter for the Miami Herald, who has a series of mysteries set in Little Havana." The latest books by the last-named threesome are, respectively, A King's Ransom (HarperCollins), Havana Heat (Morrow) and The Ultimate Havana (Signet). "Floridians love to read about their own state," says Kaplan. "Florida itself is laced with black humor. Everything is exaggerated here in real life, and we like our mysteries tinged with humor."
"We have a lot of Seattle mysteries that we handsell," says Elliott Bay's Hsie. "Either the authors live in the area or their books are set around here—people like Earl Emerson, J.A. Jance and Dana Stabenow."
"I prefer selling regional mysteries," says Janet Kent, a bookseller at That Bookstore in Blythedale, in Arkansas. "They're books that other people might label as cozies. They're good, fun reading, nothing deep and dark. My favorite for the last couple of years has been the Southern Sisters series by Anne George, which is set in Birmingham, Alabama. Her characterizations are so good. You feel that she's been peeking into your own hometown. The sisters are amateur sleuths. One is a retired schoolteacher and the other has been married—or rather widowed—three times." The latest from George is Murder Dirty Boogies with Elvis (HarperCollins). "If I get excited about something, I tell other booksellers that they can handsell if they want to on my recommendation." Among other authors Kent favors are Earlene Fowler, Susan Wittig Albert, Joan Hess and Carolyn Hart.
"A few years ago, we separated out the Northwestern mysteries," says Robinson of Village Books. "Probably a third of our mystery shelves are regional now. We also include Dana Stabenow, whose [Kate Shugak] mysteries are set in Alaska."
Gone but Not Forgotten
While booksellers acknowledge that it is not feasible for publishers to keep everything they publish in print forever, it can be frustrating when books they have successfully handsold are no longer available.
"An author I really love, but who is virtually out of print, is Donna Leon," says Petrocelli of Book Passage. "She has such a sophisticated wit, but most of her books have to be brought in from England, so we have to raise the price on them and we can't find them as reliably. It can be maddening." Death at La Fenice: A Guido Brunetti Mystery is the only title still in print in paper at HarperCollins.
"All of Peter Robinson's books have not been reissued," says Kate's Mystery Books' Mattes. "I don't understand why publishers don't start reissuing titles when an author's new hardcover is released. Jan Burke, who won an Edgar last year, doesn't have her early books available. When you recommend a series, people logically want to start with the first book."
"Ross Thomas was my secret weapon here for years," says Penzler. "I would recommend him to someone who would later come back and say, 'You are brilliant. You know just what I like.' His Chinaman's Chance was drop-dead perfect, but of his 21 books, only one or two are in print now."
"What I'd give for Tom Perry's The Butcher's Boy," says Peters. "We missed Dick Loche's Sleeping Dog and Robert Barnard's A Scandal in Belgravia so much that we reprinted them ourselves."
Not Very Mysterious
It sometimes happens that popular handsold books at specialty stores are not mysteries at all. Susan Vreeland's A Girl in Hyacinth Blue (Penguin) is a non-mystery that remains among the top sellers at Poisoned Pen. It does have a puzzle, however, raised by a rare Vermeer and its provenance.
"The Debt to Pleasure [Holt] by John Lanchester is only marginally a mystery," says Taylor at San Francisco Mystery, "but it's a good book for us. A British dilettante inherits a piece of property in France with his brother, and everyone starts dying in odd circumstances. It's a book that people are either aggressively for or against."
"In Sunlight, in a Beautiful Garden [FSG] by Kathleen Cambor is a novel about the Johnstown Flood of 1889," says Mary Alice Gorman of Mystery Lovers Bookstore. "The Farrar, Straus rep is a friend of mine, and he handed me a galley of this book, which I read in one night. It obviously had local interest, and I could handsell it. Someone also saw to it that I got a galley of City of Light [Dial, Dell] by Lauren Belfer. It's not a mystery, but has to do with generating electricity at Niagara Falls. We have sold many copies on the basis of my enthusiasm. Handselling starts at the top, so it's wrong for publishers to cut back on galleys. When I'm passionate about a book, on a Saturday I can completely sell out one whole title, which I have done with City of Light. When you see someone checking out with three or four books, you have a sure clue about what that person likes. So you say, 'If you like that kind of book, you'd probably like this one,' and you suggest another. Nine times out of 10, the person will buy the book you suggest too."
"We all take our jobs as book emissaries very seriously," says Judy Duhl. "Just about every book we sell is handsold."