Alexander McCall Smith
From Botswana toEdinburgh
The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency appeared in Edinburgh in 1998 with a first printing of some 1,500 copies. According to its author, Alexander McCall Smith, "I thought that would be it—I had no intention of writing a sequel." Yet McCall Smith has published five books starring Botswana's marvelous Precious Ramotswe, accounting for more than 3.5 million copies in print in the U.S. alone. The sixth, In the Company of Cheerful Ladies, will be published by Pantheon next spring, and two more are under contract.
Now, the author is introducing Isabel Dalhousie, a Scottish-American philosopher living in McCall Smith's hometown of Edinburgh. Published by Pantheon in September, The Sunday Philosophy Club begins a new series, as a young man falls to his death and Dalhousie sets out to investigate.
Asked if he turned to Dalhousie through weariness with Mma Ramotswe, McCall Smith quickly declares, "No, no. No, no." It's just that he has this overflowing wellspring of creative juices. In fact, he's on a three-year unpaid leave of absence from his post as medical law professor at the University of Edinburgh. "I'm now a full-time writer," he explains. "I couldn't do all this and keep my day job."
All this also includes 44 Scotland Street, a serial novel for his daily newspaper, The Scotsman, which demands 1,100 words a day, Monday through Friday. In addition, Anchor Books will bring out three comic novels in January featuring Professor Dr. Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld, the first of which is engagingly entitled Portuguese Irregular Verbs.
Fans of Mma Ramotswe tell McCall Smith that they like the books' quirkiness and their gentleness. "The new books will also be a little quirky," he says. "You'll get the philosophical ruminations of Isabel Dalhousie, who's not the same sort of comfortable character that Mma Ramotswe is. She's spikier, but she has a sense of humor, and she thinks about things that Mma thinks about—forgiveness, love. Also, Edinburgh should be exotic in its own way for readers in the United States."
Are more series in store? He doesn't say yes, exactly, but admits, "I seem to be a serial novelist, and that's a condition for which there doesn't seem to be a cure." —Robert Dahlin
Great Expectations: "Sandy creates characters whose greatest interest is in their relationships with people around them," says Pantheon editor Edward Kastenmeier. "I've never thought of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agencynovels as traditional mysteries in any sense. The Sunday Philosophy Club begins and stays a much more traditional mystery, but it's still a story of character and relationships." Although Kastenmeier won't speculate whether the new series will match the earlier one's popularity, he does point out that Sunday is already into its eighth printing with more than 175,000 in print.
Making the Historical Fictional
Barbara Cleverly describes her raw emotional state when she began plotting her first Det. Joe Sandilands murder mystery, which is set in 1922 during the final days of the Raj. "I fell into it out of despair. In 1999, my husband, Peter Cleverly, an architect, was dying of a wasting disease, although his mind was as sharp, lively and humorous as ever. We'd finished the [London] Times crossword, and I wondered, 'What now?' "
Shortly before, Cleverly was poking around their medieval dwelling in Suffolk. The couple had been married for nearly two decades. "The battered old tin trunk I found in the attic didn't look inviting at first sight," she recalls. Amid the memorabilia was a sepia photograph of a young boy bearing a resemblance to her stepson. The husband laconically explained, "My great uncle. When he was a schoolboy at Harrow. Spent a lot of time in India." The wife immersed herself in the exploits of Brig. Harold Sandilands, a career commander of the British Empire.
This photographic image, says Cleverly, remained "at the back of my mind" as she and her failing husband finished the crossword on that portentous morning. "The wind blew the magazine open at a page I hadn't noticed. It announced the last call to get your submission in for the Crime Writers' Association Competition for a newcomer's crime novel. I went into our library and stood thinking for 20 minutes. I walked back onto the terrace and said, 'Pete, we're going to write a crime novel.' He responded, 'Jolly good, darling.' " Based partially upon the historical Sandilands, her fictional protagonist transmuted into a Scotland Yard detective assigned to Calcutta.
Cleverly did not win the competition, although she was one of the 10 finalists. She completed the manuscript, and The Last Kashmiri Rose was published in England in 2001. Her husband died in 2002, the same year that Carroll & Graf released the first Sandilands installment in the U.S. The Palace Tiger, the fourth, appears here in August 2005.
Britain's Crime Writers Association recently gave Cleverly a career boost by awarding The Damascened Blade, the third book, its Ellis Peters Dagger Award for historical crime fiction. (According to PW's starred review, the book "evokes, and in some ways surpasses, the work of Agatha Christie.") Assessing the entire series, Carroll & Graf publisher Will Balliett says, "Barbara is unique. The historical detail is exact, yet all the characters are completely alive."—Charles Hix
Great Expectations: Associate publicist Patty Park tells PW, "We're launching an aggressive campaign to establish Cleverly as a household name"—including cross-promotion with Dell, her paperback publisher here. Cleverly will tour the U.S. and attend Bouchercon to press bookseller flesh. More exposure awaits when the writer introduces a new series set in the 1920s and '30s. "It features a girl detective who's an archeologist, a bluestocking but a free-thinking bohemian," says Cleverly.
Turning the Tables
A Chicago law firm partner, David Ellis first appeared on the crime fiction scene with his 2001 mystery, Line of Vision. It won the Edgar for best first novel. In the Company of Liars, his fourth, due in April from Putnam, is another original—it's told in reverse chronology.
"I'm a trial lawyer," Ellis says, "an appellate lawyer. I do a lot of government law, election law"—experiences that echoed throughout his second novel, Life Sentence, which concerned a counsel to a state senator in a city much like Chicago. His third effort was another legal thriller, Jury of One.
"I firmly believe that every trial lawyer likes to perform for an audience," Ellis tells PW. "A trial lawyer tells a story to a jury, but I finally wanted to tell a story I could control."
"I was a writer when I was a kid," he continues. "I wrote stories in the fourth and fifth grades, but I let it go for years. After practicing law for a couple of years, I was watching the sun set and reflecting on my life. That's when I realized I had a creative element in me that I hadn't fulfilled." Working on a case with Scott Turow, Ellis received solid advice from his bestselling colleague: Don't give up, no matter what people say. And find an agent. Ellis listened, and it worked.
"Although there are courtroom scenes in the new book, I'm spending less time on law now and paying more attention to thriller aspects," Ellis says. "I don't want to limit myself. I was thinking about what I could do to present a mystery in a different way, and I thought, 'There's no reason you can't read the ending first and then go backward.' So I started an outline with a forward progression and then flipped it over. There had to be plot twists and red herrings, and a surprise beginning at the end."
The book is easier to follow than the 2001 film, Memento, Ellis asserts, adding, "The thing I like best is giving readers some old-fashioned surprises." Writers he admires include Turow, Lee Child, Dennis Lehane and even the dark novels of Joyce Carol Oates. For himself, Ellis says, "I love taking readers down a road and then at the last minute showing them that the road is not at all what they thought it was." —Robert Dahlin
Great Expectations: "David is a really, really tricky plotter, and he doesn't cheat," says Putnam senior editor David Highfill. "I defy anyone to read In the Company of Liars and to figure it out before the end." Because of his skill, Ellis's sales grow with every book, notes Highfill. "It's tough to break someone out, but we've really been pushing. This one is a brainy, challenging book that requires concentration, which is not what you usually get in a thriller."
Farewell to the ER
From the start, carpenter-turned-writer Neil McMahon, a former Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, has garnered critical attention for his series featuring Carroll Monks, a divorced ER doctor with a drinking problem and a few other all-too-human faults. Michael Connelly praises McMahon's writing as having "the precision of a surgeon's scalpel"; Jenny Siler likens his taut prose to being "as sharp as a well-honed piece of surgical steel." But up to now, sales haven't kept pace.
The challenge for breaking out McMahon, as his editor Dan Conaway, executive editor at HarperCollins, sees it, is to get rid of the medical thriller label. "For the most part, 'medical thriller' seems quite downmarket," he explains. "When one thinks of the great thriller writers of the day—like Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly—none of the people on that list are writing medical thrillers." In fact, McMahon regards his books as simply thrillers: "To me, Monks, who is largely based on my brother, Dan, an ER physician, just happens to be a doctor."
McMahon paved the way to move Monks out of the ER and on the road with his last book, the third in the series, To the Bone (2003). "At the end ofit, he quits his job and hasn't really hooked back into it yet," McMahon tells PW. "I suspect he'll continue to practice medicine, but not necessarily in an ER. My initial idea for Revolution No. 9 [Jan. 2005]was that Monks was in the ER or a clinic and that's when the kidnapping takes place." Instead, to untether Monks completely from San Francisco's Mercy Hospital, the setting of his earlier books—and to give it a more stand-alone feel—the novel opens with two seemingly disconnected events: the murder of a wealthy couple in Atlanta for a set of golf clubs that are then given away to the homeless and Monks's abduction from his home in California by a cultlike revolutionary group led by an ex-con named "Freeboot." Monks's estranged son ("Coil") is involved in both the group and the kidnapping to get medical attention for Freeboot's young son, who is dying of diabetes.
Revolution No. 9 works on several levels, not only as suspense but as a tale of fathers and sons and of class struggle. "First and foremost, it's a page-turner," says McMahon, for whom the social and political overtones are also important. "Obviously, there've always been underclasses in society. The disturbing part to me is we're engineering a situation where this class is burgeoning. That's the premise of the book: What are we going to do with them?"—Judith Rosen
Great Expectations: "We're so convinced that Neil's new book is his breakout book that we're doing something we haven't done before," reports Conaway, whose very first purchase at HC was McMahon's first thriller, Twice Dying (2000). "We're pricing it at $15.95 hardcover, and we're giving it a 'money back guarantee,' which is stamped right on the front."
"Eclectic" well describes Ruth Francisco's small but slowly growing body of work, which has received effusive praise from Michael Connelly as well as the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association, which selected the paperback edition of her first book, Confessions of a Deathmaiden (2003), for its Killer Books program. The novel, a stand-alone, tells the story of a woman whose job is to help people die. Good Morning, Darkness (2004), also a stand-alone, concerns a woman who's disappeared and the three men who love her. In a major change of pace, Francisco tells the darker side of the Jackie Kennedy story in the tentatively titled Secret Memoirs of Jackie Kennedy, a fictional account of the inner life of the former first lady due from St. Martin's in July 2005.
"The story informs the way I write the book," says Francisco, who moved to Los Angeles to work in the movie industry and stayed to nurture her writing. "Confessions is the internal journey of a woman who discovered that everything she believed in wasn't true, so I wrote it from the first person. Good Morning, Darkness is about three men who fall in love with the same woman, and it's told in their different voices. My third book is not a mystery but an imaginary memoir, told in Jackie's voice, which is bound to get me in a heap of trouble."
The line between mystery and fiction writing has gotten so blurry, she says, it's not valid anymore. "The mystery genre provides such good structure. I tend to go off on very long, lyrical passages, so the structure is good for me. I'll continue in the genre." How did she learn to write? "You just do it," she says. "If it doesn't work, you redo it." She also read a lot of murder mysteries. Among her role models are Joyce Carol Oates writing as Rosamond Smith, Dennis Lehane, Colin Harrison and Don Lee (Country of Origin). "I love beautiful writing," she says. "I love writers who make you stop and reflect. The joy of reading is to put a book aside and go into your own head, and I love writers who allow themselves that liberty." Why does she think her publisher placed her in the rising star category? "My sales have not been huge so far, but they respect that I'm trying to be a writer," she says. "I expected royalties by my second book, but that was delusional."—Suzanne Mantell
Great Expectations: Mysterious Press editor Kristen Weber exults in the unusual nature of Francisco's work and in her unique voice. "Confessions was so different from anything that's out there. The beautiful writing is what captured us all. She has an elaborately laid-out world, the writing voice, the amazing main character, the setting. Good Morning, Darkness had the same beautiful writing—spare, haunting, modern noir. She paints L.A. really well, and very dark. Her books are for Connelly fans, maybe Minette Walters's as well. Ruth's doing something not many others are doing. She's not writing a series. There are so many out there, but it's great she's writing something different."
"There's a corpse at the beginning, a solution at the end, and an opera in between," says William Lashner of his mystery series starring Victor Carl, a down-at-the-heels lawyer of somewhat dubious repute. The "opera" refers to the complex orchestration of characters, action and humor that Lashner strives to achieve, which results in mysteries that are longer than your average fare. The latest in the series, Past Due (Morrow, Apr. 2004), follows three earlier entries: Hostile Witness (1995), Bitter Truth (1997) and Fatal Flaw (2003). Coming in May from Morrow is Falls the Shadow.
Why would Lashner be nominated as a rising mystery star? "Because my books are big and fun and people relate to the character Victor Carl," he says. "When I first created him, I had written short stories and novels and never gotten anything published. I was feeling bitter and left out. The same thing I felt as a writer, he was feeling as a lawyer. The first book is about being desperate for success and the price Carl has to pay for it."
Unlike some mystery series characters, Victor's changed over the years, Lashner says. "He wasn't happy in his own skin at first. He's become more at ease and funnier and a better lawyer. He still doesn't make enough money and he still doesn't have a steady girlfriend and his law firm is still second-rate, but he's had a few successes in court and that has given him a sense of self." The Philadelphia-based Lashner, who long harbored dreams of being a writer, took time from a career as a prosecutor in the Criminal Division of the U.S. Justice Department ("I loved being in front of a jury") to attend the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where he studied with James Salter, among other writers. "Jim taught me that a writer's job is to be interesting. That guides me all along. I try for something that pops on every page."
Salter also taught him that good is not good enough. "Keeping suspense is important, it pulls people through, but if that's all there is, it's disappointing. If there are revelations and depth and humor, then you can say, that was quite a ride. That's what I want people to feel." Not surprisingly, Raymond Chandler is Lashner's literary hero. "Like Marlowe, Victor has an inner code that he follows, even though he's not always sure what it is. It tests his limits. Victor never uses a gun like Marlowe—he uses the law and not violence—but he's funny like Marlowe." Lashner says he has no plans to abandon Victor Carl. "I'll stop when he stops evolving, but I don't see him getting there yet."—Suzanne Mantell
Great Expectations: Asked to name her favorite thing about Lashner's work, Morrow executive editor Carolyn Marino begins a long list—"The writing, the characters, the wit. There are so many things I like about him. He has a flawed hero in Victor Carl, who always does the right thing but for the wrong reasons. He's a knight-in-rusted-armor sort, which is very appealing." The paperback edition of Fatal Flaw hit the New York Times bestseller list, and Morrow recently repackaged Lashner's first two titles (published by Regan Books) as part of an aggressive paperback campaign to give him a recognizable look. "We're broadening his readership," Marino says.
Reed Farrel Coleman
Dean of Mysteries
"Not all detective fiction is Faulkner, but a lot of it is," says Reed Farrel Coleman. "I defy critics to read my work and not say, 'Hey, this isn't bad stuff.' "
While not yet assigned classroom reading, Coleman, whose third book in the Moe Prager series, The James Deans, will be released by Plume in February, has impressed critics. The New York Times Book Review hailed Walking the Perfect Square, the first in the series, as "A mystery that would get under anyone's skin," and PW called it "a first-rate thriller."
Coleman makes no apologies for the genre in which he writes. It offers him a venue to take on serious issues in an engaging way. "You'll see in The James Deans," he says, "that it's heavy thematically. Someone said that as long as you're entertaining your readers, you can be as heavy as you'd like, and I agree. Genre writing is fun because you can write about weighty issues with the extra burden of entertaining."
The James Deans finds Moe depressed after his wife's miscarriage. A wealthy backer hires Moe to clear the name of a state senator—once on track for national office until he became mired in a scandal involving a dead intern—and allow him to live up to his once-promising future. A suspect quickly emerges, but there's something too easy about it for Moe's taste and he begins to probe deeper, discovering older secrets that put his life in danger.
Of course, nothing is easy for Moe, says his creator. "Moe takes very unconventional approaches because he doesn't know what he's doing. The water is always above his head. I don't believe in superheroes, or in heroes either. I believe in heroic acts. But Moe's a curious son of a bitch, the kind of guy who picks the scab. He usually has to make great sacrifices in his life to get at the truth."
Moe is no James Dean, which prompts a question Coleman answers with purposeful ambiguity—it is a mystery, after all. "To be honest, I chose the title for commercial reasons. I know it's an attractive name. I could have called it The Marlon Brandos or Vic Morrows or Lee Marvins—it just needed to be a white male movie star from the '50s who we associate with tough film roles," says Coleman. "There's something about the James Dean mythology. He died in a romantic way; he'll always be young and handsome and the guy on the screen. The allure of that image is something I wanted. Actually, people thought the title was weird, then they read the book."—Michael Archer
Great Expectations: Plume editor-in-chief Trena Keating believes that Coleman's style and personality will help bring star power: "Reed is very passionate and committed to his writing, so he brings an unusual blend of intensity and playfulness." Coleman calls this his best work, and Plume expects that to translate to an even bigger audience. "[He] wins new readers with every book and new friends at every reading," says Keating.
"People often tell me that Bubbles is such an unrealistic character," says Sarah Strohmeyer of Bubbles Yablonsky, the Spandex-wearing, leopard—print—loving, hairdresser/reporter/sleuth who has starred in four critically praised novels for Dutton. The fifth, Bubbles Betrothed, is due in March.
"In reality," says Strohmeyer, "Bubbles is like so many of the girls I grew up with in Bethlehem, Pa., who got married and pregnant then managed to get their lives together by the time they were 30." The author does credit one friend in particular with inspiring the upwardly mobile Bubbles—but not, she insists, Bubbles's flashy retro wardrobe. "Anne Marie Gonsalves ran a local bar where reporters from the Bethlehem Globe-Times hung out. One day, the newsroom was short staffed and someone suggested sending Anne Marie out to cover the story. She did so well that she ended up with a job as a reporter. Anne Marie now owns the Valley Voice, an award winning paper in Hellertown, Pa. But it was only after I'd written the first Bubbles book that Anne Marie told me she had once been a beautician."
Unlike many of her classmates, Strohmeyer did manage to leave Bethlehem. She earned a degree in international relations at Tufts and, with "no prospects of a job at the CIA," became a journalist. She often worked as a "cops and court" reporter, once covering the trial of an Ethiopian ax murderer in New Hampshire. In 1997, she coauthored the cult hit, Barbie Unbound: A Parody of the Barbie Obsession (New Victoria).
While interviewing author Janet Evanovich, Strohmeyer confided that she had an idea for a mystery set in Vermont. "Janet told me I should set the story in Bethlehem and the Lehigh Valley and even gave me the name Bubbles. As you can imagine, I feel a deep debt of gratitude to Janet Evanovich." Bubbles Unbound was published in 2001, to be followed by Bubbles in Trouble, Bubbles Ablaze and Bubbles Abroad. The forthcoming caper features a murder suspect named Crazy Popeye, a female podiatrist on the lam and a "proposal" from Bubbles's photojournalist boyfriend, Steve Stiletto.
Now living in Vermont, Strohmeyer is always on the lookout for stories that might inspire a new Bubbles adventure. "My husband calls me Mrs. Kravitz, after the nosy neighbor in Bewitched. I tell him that I'm a fiction writer, and I have an obligation to gossip and pry into people's business." —Lucinda Dyer
Great Expectations: "We're smitten with Bubbles," says Dutton publisher Brian Tart. "We thought from the first book she could be a very successful franchise, and we were right. Sales are growing both in hardcover and mass market, a clear sign we picked the right series to break out." And since Dutton is committed, reports Tart, to "doing something different with each Bubbles book," Bubbles Betrothed is being marketed as a "Honeymoon Special." The lower $19.95 price, Tart believes, will expand Strohmeyer's base of both mystery and women's fiction readers.