Monday, April 30, 2012

Be Shot for Sixpence

BE SHOT FOR SIXPENCE – Michael Gilbert (1956)

I confess I cannot provide an objective assessment of a Michael Gilbert novel.  He’s a favorite of mine for his economical, almost terse style that nevertheless conveys just exactly the right amount of character development and plot momentum.  Be Shot for Sixpence perfectly illustrates Gilbert’s expertise at writing intriguing, thoughtful, and yet fast-paced thrillers.  The reluctant hero of this outing is Philip, who receives a cryptic message from his old friend, Colin:  “Go to Cologne, walk across the Hohenzollern Bridge.  Stand in the middle of the bridge looking down-river at nine o’clock in the morning.”

Philip, at loose ends after breaking up with his girlfriend, sees no reason why he shouldn’t go to Germany despite knowing that Colin must have been working for British intelligence and that something has surely gone wrong.  Indeed it has, and before you can say “You should have stayed in London and patched things up with your girl,” Philip is embroiled in international intrigue behind the Iron Curtain.  There’s a dubious fellow named Piper, and a yet more dubious fellow named Lady, a plausible chap called Messelin, and an agreeable young lady named True, but sorting out the divided loyalties of this group is a challenge for Philip.  Expect a bit of derring-do and double crosses before Philip gets to the bottom of the mysterious message from Colin.

Michael Gilbert is one of my "Persons of Interest" entries in Bev's Vintage Mystery Challenge.  Gilbert was a  London attorney who dabbled in writing mysteries and thrillers while practicing law.  I don't know anything about his expertise as a lawyer, but his writing was superb.  He was a tough character, having endured some time as a POW in Italy during WWII, an experience which he uses to great effect in Be Shot for Sixpence.  My favorite anecdote about Gilbert:  when his daughter told him she was going to write novels, he said:  "For God's sake, don't use adverbs."  You'll find the quote near the end of  his obituary in The Telegraph.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Keep Calm and Carry On

I'll soon be in London, where I expect to see plenty of merchandise bearing the ubiquitous slogan.  Here's a terrific video about the discovery of this now iconic poster, which has spawned the aforementioned glut of tea towels, mugs, coasters, t-shirts, etc.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012


It's probably a good idea for me to go to a writing conference once in awhile to remind myself just how lucky I am.  I have what many aspiring writers want:  an agent and a publishing contract.  Once you have those things you tend to get caught up in worrying about sales, whether you'll get another contract, and making each successive book better than the last.  This past weekend reminded me of the sheer pleasure that exists in creating a fictional world, without a thought for whether anyone will ever read your efforts.  I came back invigorated.  Now if I could only do my writing in the room below, my world would be perfect.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Home Again

I'm back from the Missouri Writers' Guild conference, held over the weekend in the St. Louis suburb of Chesterfield.  It's been awhile since I've attended a conference of any kind and I've forgotten just how exhausting they can be, even if you're not called upon to do much.

On Friday I had lunch with my friend Ann and we talked for hours.  Great fun and I hope to do that again some day.  Then it was over to the hotel to meet my agent Ann.  We've talked on the phone and corresponded (a lot) by email, but had never met in person.  Since the beginning of our relationship, I've felt fortunate to have Ann as an agent and this weekend just confirmed how lucky I am.  We did a session on the author/agent relationship and a live video interview (I think I waved my hands a lot) and in between we talked whenever we could.  What a fantastic agent and friend!

My favorite image from the conference:  the editor of a children's magazine propping up the bar at the end of the day on Saturday, downing martinis.  Can't say I blame her.  Every agent and editor there had been listening to pitches for hours and had a haunted look by the end of the conference.  Nothing glamorous about those jobs; it was hard work.

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Conference

I'm off to the Missouri Writers' Guild conference, where I'll be meeting up with my agent Ann and doing a breakout session on the "Agent/Author Relationship" on Saturday morning.  I'm taking along Olen Steinhauer's The Bridge of Sighs to read during down time.  I'll let you know how things went after the weekend.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Beat Not the Bones

BEAT NOT THE BONES – Charlotte Jay (1954)

I finished my reading for Bev’s Vintage Mystery Challenge with Beat Not the Bones by Charlotte Jay.  This is an absolute corker of a book and received the recognition it deserved by winning the first ever Edgar Award, presented in 1954.  Since young Stella married the much older and distinguished anthropologist David Warwick, they’ve lived separate lives.  She has stayed in Australia to care for her dying father and David has returned to Marapai, New Guinea, to continue his work.  When David commits suicide and Stella’s father dies, she travels to this exotic world to investigate David’s death.  She’s convinced he has been murdered and she is determined to learn the truth.

I hardly know where to start.  Jay is a superb writer.  There’s not a superfluous word in the novel.  In Jay’s hands, the glorious aquamarine water, the fabulous flowering plants, the natives with their dark, supple skin and frangipani flowers in their hair, do not evoke a bright and airy world.  Instead, the sea holds dangerous creatures, the inhabitants of the island are mysterious and unknowable, and the jungle is menacing.  The Australian administrators are a strange, fevered crew, oppressed by the climate and the futility of bringing “civilization” to the natives.

I’m not even going to attempt to summarize the plot, except to say that I was drawn ever deeper into the narrative with a terrible foreboding of what Stella would find.  The last thirty pages of this book contain one twist after another, and I raced through them to the end.  The writing is so superior that I found myself comparing Jay to Joseph Conrad.  He was a master of evoking the moral decay (and occasionally, the redemption) of white men among the muddy rivers and coastal towns of the third world.  I’m thinking specifically of Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, and Almayer’s Folly.  Jay is just as good.  High praise, but justly deserved.  I’d highly recommend this book.

Beat Not the Bones is an entry in the Golden Girls category of the challenge.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

More Stuff About the Titanic

I didn't come up with anything for the blog regarding that whole ship vs. iceberg thing, but I'm glad other bloggers did.

Did you know the Titanic had two sister ships of the same class?  The Olympic was involved in several collisions and the Britannic sunk.  Bizarrely, one Violet Jessup is alleged not only to have survived the Olympic's collision with the HMS Hawke, but also to have been a passenger on and survivor of both the Titanic and the Britannic when each went down.  You can read more at M.J. Wright's blog.

One of my favorite bloggers reveals that she might not have been around to entertain me if her grandparents hadn't changed their mind about emigrating to America.  They had booked tickets in steerage on the Titanic, but Elaine's grandmother, six months pregnant at the time with Elaine's mother, didn't feel up to the voyage.  You can read about it on Elaine's blog.

And finally, Borepatch dissects the legend of the last song played aboard the ship as it sunk beneath the waves and includes some great video and audio.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

That Didn't Take Long

From an article by Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg in the The Wall Street Journal:  
"Barnes and Noble Inc. bore the brunt of Wednesday's antitrust settlement between the U.S. government and three major book publishers, losing 6.4% of its market value on Thursday alone and tumbling 17% this month.
Those market worries reflected the broad sentiment in the publishing world that Inc is likely to emerge a far stronger competitor in the fast-growing e-book business now that it once again will be able to discount digital books...."

Friday, April 13, 2012

It Came from Outer Space

Looks like Amazon is fixin' to (as we say around here) do really, really well very soon.  Seems that Apple (the developer of the iPad, but you already know that) and five of the country's largest publishers colluded to set prices on ebooks.  After the agreement was reached in 2010, the prices of ebooks rose substantially.

Now three of the publishers have settled with the Justice Department and I don't doubt that the other three will fold soon.  What does this mean?  In the short term, good news for readers as Amazon has already announced it will drop prices on its ebooks.  If they don't have to comply with the publishers' pricing structure, they're free to lower prices and even sell at a loss to gain market share.

Now the bad news:  we're inching closer to the day when Amazon is the behemoth of publishing.  That is bad news for traditional publishers who may be going the way of the dinosaur.  It's bad news for writers as the pool of potential purchasers for their product shrinks.  And it will be bad news for book buyers because there won't be anyone competing for your business.

Here's the full article from yesterday's NY Times:

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Review from England

Here's a link to a nice review of the first and second books, written by one of my favorite bloggers.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Working with Agents

I've done a guest interview over at the Missouri Writer Guild's blog explaining how I work with my agent, who lives in Boston.  Ann and I will be meeting for the first time in two weeks when we do a joint session at the MWG's conference.  Here's the interview, for those interested in how such things work.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Drink to Yesterday

DRINK TO YESTERDAY – Manning Coles (1940)


When I opened the cover of this book, I casually noted the dedication page, and was brought up short to find that just such a man plays a key role in the novel.  Some biographical sources have pondered whether the old gentleman actually existed and whether one of the authors might have encountered him under the circumstances described in the novel.  It's an interesting and intriguing theory, and another reason I enjoyed the book.  In fact, I loved everything about this novel, starting with the chapter titles:  "Time of our Tribulation," "Salus Populi Suprema Lex," "Our ’Orace Says," "Let the Bright Seraphim," and "For All Your Sins," among others. 

Young Bill Saunders is drafted into England’s intelligence service during World War I by his old school master, Tommy Hambledon.  Hambledon and Saunders set up shop in Cologne, masquerading as an uncle and his nephew running an import-export business.  Soon Saunders has wormed his way into German society and makes the acquaintance of Max von Bodenheim, a brilliant, bitter man consigned to a wheel chair who contributes to the war effort by acting as a German agent.  Saunders allows himself to be recruited by von Bodenheim and is soon acting as a double agent, with primary loyalty to Britain.  However, he becomes increasingly drawn to von Bodenheim and the people he meets in Cologne.  Surprisingly, for a book published in 1940, Drink to Yesterday contains a compassionate and objective view of the German people, including its soldiers and spies.  

Germany isn’t the only place where Saunder suffers from divided loyalties.  Impulsively he marries a young British woman he meets just before leaving for the continent.  Unable to speak of his work to her, he becomes increasingly disengaged and their marriage suffers.  Saunders is called upon to do many things in the service of Britain and all of them test his moral compass.  He does his duty, but with an increasingly detached attitude which will damage his life.

Drink to Yesterday is a stunning book, by turns funny, ironic, and sad.  Its author, Manning Coles, is an entry in my Persons of Interest catalogue at Bev’s Vintage Mystery Challenge.  Coles was actually two people:  Cyril Coles, involved in British intelligence during both world wars, and Adelaide Manning, who worked for the War Office during the WW II.  They met by chance as neighbors and soon formed a writing partnership that lasted decades.  I'm pleased that there are 25 other espionage novels by this duo.  I'll be reading them all.   

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Pub Crawl

In a little over a month, TC and I will be heading to London.  We'll take in some of the usual sights, I'll do some research for future India locations, and the evenings will be spent in the city's pubs.  I plan to leave my pet seal at home, though.

Monday, April 2, 2012

A Thought for the Day

"Writing is the only job in the world which largely consists of staring into space with your mouth hanging open."

From the blog of the most excellent Christopher Fowler.  If you haven't read his Bryant and May series, I recommend them.