By Kristi Chadwick, Director, Emily Williston Memorial Library, Easthampton
April 13, 2012
Judging from current trends in mysteries and suspense, no place in the world is safe from crime. The best-selling appeal of Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium” series remains strong with American readers, and as those fans search for read-alikes, U.S. publishers are importing more mysteries from around the globe.
“[We] see hundreds of series mysteries, police procedurals, and detective stories each season that are set in many different countries,” says Brooke O’Donnell, publishing director of Trafalgar Square, a leading U.S. distributor of British and Australian titles.
Scandinavian thrillers continue to dominate the market, with no signs yet of peaking. In May, Trafalgar Square will release Camilla Ceder’s Frozen Moment (Phoenix: Orion), which introduces Inspector Christian Tell as he investigates two brutal murders in a small town on the Swedish coast. Offering a debut author from Sweden, especially one who has hit the number ten spot on that country’s best sellers list, allows the distributor to offer something a little different from its usual Anglocentric fare, explains O’Donnell. With its twisting plot, well-developed characters, and remote, stark setting, Frozen Moment is bound to draw in Larsson and Henning Mankell fans.
This June, American readers will meet Malin Fors, 34, a blond, divorced single mother of a teenage daughter and a hard-driving Swedish police superintendent who embarks on a manhunt for a brutal killer in Mons Kallentoft’s edgy Midwinter Blood (Emily Bestler: Atria). The first entry in a four-book series, this thriller garnered a laudatory blurb from fellow Swedish author Camilla Läckberg, sold an astonishing 300,000 copies in Sweden alone, and has been published in 22 countries.
Atria also shines the spotlight on Scandinavia’s most successful female crime writer. Liza Marklund this month joins authors John Connolly, William Kent Krueger, and M.J. Rose on the 12-city Great Mystery Bus Tour, which travels from New York City to St. Louis (April 12–19) to celebrate the Simon & Schuster imprint’s tenth anniversary. Marklund will be promoting Last Will (Emily Bestler: Atria, Apr.), her latest novel about investigative reporter Annika Bengston.
Other houses—Farrar Straus & Giroux, Houghton Harcourt, and St. Martin’s Minotaur imprint—are offering a tasty summer smorsgasbord of titles from new and favorite Nordic authors. Lars Kepler (a husband-and-wife team) brings back Swedish detective Joona Linna in The Executioner (Farrar, Jul.), a sequel to the nail-biting The Hypnotist. Norwegian Inspector Sejer investigates a series of cruel pranks in Karin Fossum’s The Caller (Houghton Harcourt, Aug.). Making his U.S. debut is Swedish journalist Håkan Östlundh with Viper (Minotaur, Aug.), a crime thriller set on an isolated resort island. Iceland is well represented by Yrsa Siggadóttir’s Ashes to Dust (Minotaur, Apr.) and Arnaldur Inridason’s Outrage (Minotaur, Jul.).
In the fall, Norway’s award-winning K.O. Dahl makes some Lethal Investments (Minotaur, Nov.).
Why do these dark crime novels continue to fascinate readers? They deliver what Poisoned Pen publisher Jessica Tribble believes mystery fans seek: interesting people and places, plus puzzles to uncover. “We used to think that American readers didn’t want the dark and grisly,” Tribble says.“The [Scandinavian] landscape is foreign to most Americans, and the bare and often disturbing portrayal of humanity acts as a foil to much of our own popular fiction. I think these stories provide a more complete experience: it’s all part of globalization.”
Emily Bestler, editor in chief and senior VP of her own eponymous imprint at Atria, agrees that much of the appeal of Scandinavian fiction lies in its setting and mood. Cold weather features prominently: ice, snow, frozen lakes, freezing rain, and blizzards all form a very effective and “chilling” backdrop to murder. “Similarly, though the writing styles are all different, the tone of these stories is similar,” Bestler notes. “The mood is quite somber and has an almost poetic quality. It’s really very different from the way most American and British thrillers feel.”
Tip of the global iceberg?
The Scandinavian surge has begun to generate a wave of new crime fiction from other countries. Bestler is seeing more commercial fiction from Germany, Holland, and France, and she credits Larsson’s best-selling success here for encouraging foreign publishers and agents to have their titles translated for consideration in the United States.
“A mystery in translation is a great way to introduce a new writer from a foreign culture to American readers,” says Riverhead Books editor Laura Perciasepe. “The genre constructs provide a familiar road map through a new writer and a foreign setting.” In June, the Penguin Group (USA) imprint is publishing Chilean mystery author Roberto Ampuero’s The Neruda Case.
“Ampuero is already a literary star internationally, but this will be his first time being translated into English,” says Perciasepe. In this political thriller, Ampuero brings an integral piece of Chilean history—the 1973 military coup that violently ended Salvador Allende’s presidency—to life as his protagonist, PI Cayetano Brulé, fumbles through his first investigation, brought to him by the dying Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.
Another Spanish-language author making his American debut is Victor del Árbol. In his The Sadness of the Samurai (Holt, May), a Spanish aristocrat in 1940s pro-Nazi Spain plots to kill her Fascist husband, resulting in betrayals and lingering repercussions for three generations. Holt president Stephen Rubin believes American publishers will continue to acquire foreign authors like Árbol, not just because readers are looking for an “international” mystery but because they are always on the lookout for new, interesting writers.
George Gibson, Bloomsbury USA’s publishing director, agrees. “One of the great virtues of mysteries, perhaps even more than general fiction, is their ability to transport us to places we’ve never been,” says Gibson. “Perhaps crime heightens our senses; it certainly reveals the human condition.”
In August, Bloomsbury’s Walker & Co. imprint will take readers to the exotic locales of Gibraltar and Morocco with Thomas Mogford’s series debut, Shadow of the Rock , in which Gibraltar lawyer/detective Spike Sanguinetti tries to save a childhood friend from extradition on murder charges. Tracking down a Mafia boss hiding in Germany keeps Commissario Alec Blume busy while his partner deals with murder in Milan in The Namesake (Bloomsbury, dist. by Macmillan, Jun.), the third entry in Conor Fitzgerald’s acclaimed Italian crime series.
As a rising economic power with a traditional society in transition, India is becoming a popular setting for crime fiction. This summer, Delhi’s portly sleuth Vish Puri investigates organized crime (and cricket) in Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken (S. & S., Jul.). And 2010 Costa First Novel Award winner Kishwar Desai examines the lives of Indian women in Witness the Night (Penguin, May). When an acerbic social worker comes to the defense of a young girl arrested for arson and murder, what starts as a not-so-simple case quickly grows into the discovery of a deceitful web of crimes against women.
“There’s a great deal of interest in India as an economic force in the world,” comments Penguin USA president Kathryn Court. “But as our book reveals, India is still a very exotic and unknowable country, where the lives of women are particularly difficult.”
Into the criminal past
The French writer and philosopher Voltaire stated that “history is nothing more than a tableau of crimes and misfortunes.” So what could be a more perfect venue for a crime novel than the past? Mysteries that draw from the well of history not only have their own central crime but can be influenced by the time period in which they are set, along with that era’s transgressions.
Historical mysteries continue to sell well as a crime fiction category, says Minotaur publisher Andrew Martin. “Like international crime, which transports readers to a place presumably little known and intriguing to them, a historical mystery transports them to a time gone forever, even more unusual and apart from their everyday world.” Martin would be hard-pressed, though, to pick one time period that works best. “A great well-written story in any time period is still a great well-written story. When a really good book catches on, often people mistakenly attribute that success to that period. It is clearly not that simple.”
One debut historical high on Minotaur’s spring list is Eleanor Kuhns’s A Simple Murder (May), the 2011 winner of the Mystery Writers of America/Minotaur First Crime Novel competition. Set in 1796 Maine, the mystery features Will Rees, a widowed itinerant weaver who gets drawn into a murder investigation at a Shaker community while trying to reconcile with his son. What attracted Minotaur editorial director Kelley Ragland to the book was its wonderful evocation of a time and place in American history that had not been covered much in suspense fiction.
Kuhns, a career librarian, explains that she chose this particular time period because historical mysteries about the United States tended to focus on wars. “Although our history is shorter than the European or Asian theaters, it is no less rich. The New Republic is especially interesting to me because so many of the issues then are still hot-button issues today,” Kuhns says.
Ragland praised the book’s other strong draws:
Kuhns’s in-depth characterizations and the depiction of the Shaker
community and its relationships with the outside world. “She’s a
terrific discovery, and we’re thrilled that our first novel competition
brought her to us,” says Ragland. Plans for the book include a targeted
library marketing campaign and Kuhns’s appearance at the American
Library Association annual conference in Anaheim, CA, in June.
Grasping the unfathomable
If early American history is virgin territory for most mystery writers, World War II continues to inspire numerous crime thrillers. Rebecca Cantrell’s fourth Hannah Vogel novel, A City of Broken Glass (Forge: Tor, Jul.), finds the German reporter with her son in 1938 Poland when she hears about the deportation of 12,000 Polish Jews from Germany. Her investigation lands her back in Berlin and danger.
In cases where history is harder to stomach, such as the rise of the Nazis, Tor/Forge associate editor Kristin Sevick believes readers are trying to understand how and why the events happened. “It’s one thing to look at historical events on a global scale and quite another to see them on a personal level, through the eyes of a sympathetic and compelling hero or heroine,” says Sevick. “This close-up, detailed, personal view allows the reader to be on the ground, experiencing and examining the sights and sounds of the time period. And, of course, a catastrophe like Kristallnacht (as seen through Hannah Vogel’s eyes) creates incredibly heightened and compelling circumstances for a crime to take place.”
The 1980s are history
While events of 30 years ago may not seem particularly “historical,” PM Press cofounder/publisher Ramsey Kannan disagrees. The early 1980s of Reagan’s America, he explains, were “the beginning of the ‘take back what’s ours’ trickle up economic onslaught of the neocons, the Rockefeller Drug Laws, and the assault on the social gains (from trade unions to welfare) ushered in from the New Deal through civil rights.”
socially conscious press highlights this era with the republication of
Kenneth Wishnia’s 1998 Edgar and Anthony Award–nominated debut, 23 Shades of Black
(Jun.). Set in 1980s New York City, it introduces Latina police officer
Filomena Buscarsela. An immigrant single mother stepping into a white
man’s world, Buscarsela must not only deal with betrayal from her fellow
cops but also enforce unjust laws relating to drugs and undocumented
immigrants in her own community.
A golden oldie reborn
Other mystery publishers prefer turning to the genre’s own rich history for their titles. Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone , published in 1868, has long been heralded as the first modern detective novel. But this month, the British Library is bringing The Notting Hill Mystery by Charles Warren Adams back into print. Originally published in serial format in 1862, the novel follows insurance investigator Ralph Henderson as he discovers that the death of a baron’s wife may not be as accidental as first thought. Presented as Henderson’s own findings in the form of family letters, diary entries, depositions, and other recorded evidence, this innovative work is a true Victorian mystery, steeped in more modern concepts of forensics and investigation.
Held in the British Library’s collections, the novel resurfaced publicly thanks to the library’s digitization program of out-of-copyright books for print-on-demand publication. While the book was already enjoying decent sales through Amazon and its UK affiliate, a January 7, 2011, New York Times Book Review essay by Paul Collins triggered a sales spike, thus facilitating the decision to rerelease the title in a trade edition.
“Apart from the POD edition, it has not been in print since its original
publication in 1864,” explains British Library editor Laura Spechler. “We also decided to include the illustrations by George du Maurier [grandfather of Daphne] from the original serial publication…. These were not included in the original volume edition or in the POD.”
A noir master’s lost manuscript
If publishing the first detective novel is a literary coup for the British Library, consider Titan Books’ Hard Case Crime (HCC) imprint and the mysterious case of the lost James M. Cain novel. A longtime fan of the author of such noir classics as The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, HCC editor Charles Ardai had always hoped to publish one of his titles. However, Cain’s best books were still in print.
Then writer Max Allan Collins told Ardai about a lost, unpublished Cain manuscript he’d heard about but never seen himself, a book Cain apparently wrote at the end of his life called The Cocktail Waitress. So Ardai started hunting for the manuscript, a quest that took years until he learned that his own agent in Hollywood had inherited the files of Cain’s agent, H.N. Swanson. Ardai asked his agent to check Swanson’s records. “Lo and behold, what should turn up in my mailbox a few days later but a copy of the manuscript for The Cocktail Waitress.”
This September, the novelwill finally land in readers’ hands. “It’s an announcement I couldn’t have dreamed of making when I created Hard Case Crime, and I’m still walking on air over it,” says Ardai. Noir fans will revel in this tale of a beautiful widow who takes a job as a cocktail waitress after her husband’s suspicious death.
Also big on HCC’s list is Ariel S. Winter’s The Twenty-Year Death (Aug.). Spanning the 1930s to the 1950s, this first novel by former bookseller Winter essentially provides three novels in three very distinct styles inspired by mystery legends Georges Simenon, Raymond Chandler, and Jim Thompson. [For more on the Titan Books/HCC collaboration, see the Q&A with Titan managing editor Katy Wild and Ardai, p. 26.—Ed]
As another high-stakes election season gets into gear, mystery authors are shedding light on the dark side of politics. In what Midnight Ink publicity director Steven M. Pomjie calls the house’s first experiment with the political suspense genre, Maggie Sefton, well known for her “Knitting Mystery” series, in August launches a new series about a senator’s daughter heading back into a world she thought she had left forever: politics in Washington, DC.
While Deadly Politics may seem a radical shift from her previous cozies, Sefton has really just gone back to her roots. Growing up in North Arlington, VA, Sefton was “a stone’s throw across the Potomac. And I’ve been watching Washington politicians since I was old enough to read the Washington Post . DC is in my DNA,” she says.
Midnight Ink acquiring editor Terri Bischoff believes that Americans are disgruntled and suspicious of the political system in general. This mistrust is driving readers to books in which the villains are powerful Washington insiders. “It’s interesting that in old political thrillers, the bad guys were the Soviets. Now they are the power players in Washington,” says Bischoff. “Of course, in both there are heroes who fight the bad guys and give us, as the reader, a sense that all is not lost.”
One such hero is Jane Ryland, TV news star demoted to newspaper reporter and the protagonist of Hank Phillippi Ryan’s new series launch, The Other Woman (Forge: Tor, Sept.). Jane tracks down a candidate’s secret mistress days before a pivotal Senate election and discovers a link to a possible serial killer.
The Agatha and Anthony Award–winning Ryan is no stranger to politics. Her 30 years’ experience as a TV reporter investigating political insiders and the inner workings of the system taught Ryan that seduction, betrayal, and murder could happen in any political party. “What politics are in this novel of election-year suspense? The politics of power, greed, and revenge.”
Politics of today and yesteryear meet in William Martin’s The Lincoln Letter (Forge: Tor, Sept.) in which treasure hunters Peter Fallon and Evangeline Carrington battle nefarious forces to find Abraham Lincoln’s diary. Martin notes that readers living in difficult times look for comfort in characters who can survive hard times. “If a set of characters could make it through the Civil War, say, could survive the political backstabbing, the typhoid, and the terrible heartbreak of Lincoln’s assassination, well, maybe we can survive whatever politics, disease, and heartbreak come our way.”
Seasonal Smorgasbord— best-selling edgy Swedish series gets U.S. launch from Emily Bestler: Atria in June
The money trail
Poisoned Pen’s Tribble says the house has in general shied away from thrillers, but she was attracted to the economic issues raised in Mark de Castrique’s The 13th Target (Jul.), in which a former Secret Service agent investigates the suicide of a Federal Reserve executive. “Can we trust our lawmakers? What do we really know about the Fed? In economically uncertain times, it is important that we ask these questions and engage with the answers,” says Tribble. “We begin to speculate about their future decisions and the effects of these decisions on us. And what better way to see these things played out than in our fiction?”
Wall Street shenanigans lead to murder in James Conway’s debut, The Last Trade (Dutton, Jun.), and blue-collar men become white-collar criminals in Fifteen Digits by Nick Santora (Mulholland: Little, Brown, Apr.). John Schoenfelder, senior editor at Mulholland Books, stresses that this title was signed well before the Occupy Wall Street movement captured headlines.
Amid all these bloody crimes and high-stakes thrills, cozies remain a viable subgenre. Tiffany Schofield, Five Star Press’s acquisitions editor, sees these books as the initial stop for mystery newbies. “Cozy readers enjoy the small-town atmosphere and the quirky characters that inhabit the pages, in part because the murders typically occur off-site and there are usually very few if any gory details and/or explicit scenes. The focus is on the sleuth, not the crime itself.” High on Schofield’s summer list for its tongue-in-cheek humor is Jeanne Glidewell’sLexie Starr adventure Haunted (Five Star: Gale, Jul.). The middle-aged sleuth turns her boyfriend’s bed and breakfast into a Halloween haunted house for October and discovers that the dead bodies aren’t just an act.
Adding to the genre’s enduring popularity is its diversity. “We’ve got all kinds of cozies—everything from culinary mysteries to pet-related ones to bookstores, paranormals and everything in between,” says Berkley Prime Crime associate editor Michelle Vega, who points out that authors keep coming up with new and interesting ideas, from vintage kitchens (Victoria Hamilton’s A Deadly Grind , Jun.) to tapping into the “bonnet fiction” craze (Laura Bradford’s debut Hearse and Buggy: An Amish Mystery , Jun.).
Other series debuts such as Michelle Rowen’s Blood, Bath & Beyond (Signet: NAL, Aug.) and Molly MacRae’s Last Wool and Testament (Obsidian Mysteries: NAL, Sept.) continue to highlight the serial themes (and punny titles) that are central to current cozy mysteries, while showing that the subgenre has moved quite a bit beyond its Agatha Christie roots. Obsidian editor Sandra Harding notes that some writers are picking up elements from the urban fantasy world and incorporating paranormal elements into their mysteries. Others are blurring the boundary between the cozy and literary fiction and delivering mysteries with elegant, finely crafted prose that will appeal to general fiction readers.
Despite the publisher marketing push behind debuts, a successful mystery series can build a readership, and characters can become as well loved as family. “Series are still the brass ring,” says Ransom Note Press publisher Christian Aligheri. “When an author succeeds in creating an appealing protagonist and a strong supporting cast, readers’ interest in those characters’ lives can keep demand quite high.”
Making return appearances this summer are actor-turned-sleuth Tennyson Hardwick in Blair Underwood, Tananarive Due, and Steven Barnes’s South by Southeast (Atria: S. & S., Sept.), Los Angeles DA Rachel Knight in Marcia Clark’s Guilt by Degrees (Mullholland: Little, Brown, May), Bill Pronzini’s Nameless Detective in Hellbox (Forge: Tor, Jul.), Detroit PI Amos Walker in Loren D. Estleman’s Burning Midnight, (Forge: Tor, Jun.), and small-town newspaper editor Gus Carpenter in Bryan Gruley’s third Starvation Lake installment, The Skeleton Box (Touchstone: S. & S., Jun.).
“There is an alchemy here that is impervious to finagling by even the best publishing minds,” explains Simon & Schuster senior editor Sarah Knight. “Plenty of would-be ‘next great series’ wither and die after one or two or three books.” Knight has worked with several authors who have succeeded where others have not. Among them is Jeffery Deaver who introduced his series protagonist Kathryn Dance in the Lincoln Rhymes thriller The Cold Moon. Now Rhymes makes a cameo in Dance’s third outing, XO (S. & S., Jun.). And longtime series favorite James Lee Burke’s Det. Dave Robicheaux takes his fans back into the bayou with Creole Belle (S. & S., Jul.).
characters, notes Knight, inspire a loyalty that carries through the
years. “You want to keep up with them, be there in their time of need,
follow them through one adventure to the next…the best series characters
can’t let you out of their lives.”