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What Is a Mystery?

fascination*Every once in awhile, when my (ahem) amazing job comes up in conversation, someone will ask me, if not: “What is a mystery?” outright, another question along similar lines. Could be someone curious how the category has evolved in the years since Sherlock Holmes, Inspector Dupin and Hercule Poirot. Or it could be an avid reader just discovering a love of suspense, yet finding themselves somewhat flummoxed by all the subcategorization—with police procedurals, cozies, psychological thrillers, and so many more, the permutations can at times seem endless.

So what is a mystery? I’m sure for Mulholland Books readers, the answer comes easy. A mystery involves a crime, and centers around the investigations of a protagonist who endeavors to bring justice to its perpetrators. We often refer to this as the “solution” to the mystery, despite the fact that the crime most commonly depicted—murder—is irrevocable and, thus, unsolvable. (See: Detective Ramone’s penultimate speech in Pelecanos’s The Night Gardener.)

The other, slightly more slippery version of this prompt: What’s the difference between a mystery and a thriller?

Conversationally, readers often use the terms interchangeably to discuss any novel that engages the tropes of the crime fiction genre, or operates within the suspense paradigm. But the terms aren’t actually as exchangeable as we make them out to be. The answer has a lot to do with Hitchcock’s famous speech on the art of creating suspense—the bomb under the table, a very neat example from a master storyteller and a useful example for also highlighting the differences in the genres:

We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!”

Hitchcock’s version of events is a classic thriller premise—a crime is about to be committed, one which readers have been alerted to. But begin this story fifteen minutes later, just as the bomb explodes, and you have yourself a crime and mystery—the identity of the perpetrator—in need of a solving.  It’s all in the timing—start in one place, and you have a novel centered around anticipation, a thriller. Start later and you’ll find yourself in classic mystery territory.

Does this mean a mystery can’t be suspenseful? Certainly not—the path to each mystery’s solution is often littered with mid-novel scenes just like the thriller premise that Hitchcock describes, in which our protagonist’s life has been placed in danger and the survival, or successful unveiling of the truth itself, has been placed in suspense. Which is where the term mystery/thriller comes in handy, and why the two categories have become more and more confused in the past few years. Many of our most successful crime novelists have become masters at blending the categories so that suspense is as much the name of the game as the investigation at hand.

Take, say, Lee Child’s Reacher series. Most if not all of his novels are actually mysteries, despite Child’s reputation as one of our best thriller writers around. The Affair finds Reacher wrapped up in an unsolved murder case that will change the course of his life—and readers don’t discover the identity of the murderer until the novel’s climactic scenes. The Hard Way finds Reacher in New York City, investigating the kidnapping of a wealthy paramilitary figure’s wife–and we as readers won’t find out why or how she was taken until very late in the game. We often talk about these stories as thrillers, and quite understandably—they both certainly thrill—but given the unsolved crimes at their center, both are actually mysteries, strictly speaking. If Reacher were just a six-and-a-half-foot-tall, gorilla-faced guy who happens to be an ace in a fight, would readers really care for him in quite the same way? I doubt it—he’d still be in Carter Crossing, Mississippi, interviewing murder suspects, having never quite resolved the events of The Affair in the first place!

All of which begs the question, Mulholland Books reader: How do you prefer your bombs? Still ticking? Or already gone off?

Wes Miller is Mulholland Books’ Associate Editor and Marketing Associate. If Mulholland were a crime novel instead of an imprint that publishes them, Wes would be its PI—the stalwart presence resolving its issues, making sure at the end of the day, justice gets served and good prevails—at least until tomorrow comes. Reach him through the Mulholland Books twitter account (@mulhollandbooks), on Tumblr (mulhollandbooks.tumblr.com) or right here on the Mulholland Books website.

Ar-Go Accept Your Oscar

Take a look at the contenders for the 2012 Oscar race and it’s clear fans of suspense had much to be thankful for in 2012. With ZERO DARK THIRTY, DJANGO UNCHAINED and ARGO all serious contenders for the top honor, and with DJANGO UNCHAINED and ARGO taking home many of the top awards, the accolades have been anything but scarce this year for high-quality thrillers.

I saw all three of the above, enjoyed them all immensely, and so found myself wondering: what precisely made ARGO the best film of the year, in the face of such fierce competition?

It bears pointing out here the absurdity of even trying to pick a single top film, given that every movie ever made attempts a singular endeavor—to tell a fresh story, as efficiently as possible, one that appeals to the film’s unique target viewership. (You could hardly expect the fans of DJANGO UNCHAINED overlap significantly with, say, everyone who went to see Pixar’s BRAVE.) If each film is unique, and uniquely attempts to thrill, delight, edify, and move a different group of theatergoers, what is the Academy even crowning with Best Picture?

You might argue that limiting the scope to the suspense fiction narrows things down enough to make singling out a single film more feasible. And yet. The three films nominated are each standouts in their particular subgenre, and their goals could hardly be considered the same. Each shows a different selection of the range of work suspense films perform. From the pleasure of witnessing the documentation of thrilling real(ish) events in ZERO DARK THIRTY, to being bombarded by tongue-in-cheek violence until your jaw pops open in DJANGO UNCHAINED, to the appreciation of faithfully reconstructed period details and quality performances in ARGO—even calling these films a variation on a unifying theme is a stretch.

So then, what does ARGO manage that ZERO DARK THIRTY and DJANGO UNCHAINED do not? If anything (and this can be considered both a good and bad thing, depending on your preference), ARGO seems the most conventional of the three nominees. Its heroes seem unremittingly good. Though the subject matter is fresh, the telling relies on a few tried-and-tested tricks. If (spoiler alert) an airport escape plot depends on someone picking up when the phone rings, we all know they won’t be there until the very last second—and the bad guys will end up chasing the plane down the tarmac.

And that may be the answer in a nutshell. Despite its plethora of double-dealing and deep cover, there’s very little truly subversive about ARGO—no rich ambiguity to divide politicians and inspire multiple, competing interpretations as ZERO DARK THIRTY has, or outsized version of our uncomfortable past that Tarantino forces his audience to confront in DJANGO UNCHAINED. Don’t get me wrong—ARGO is a great film. I ate it up like popcorn. But it may also be a case study in the way least controversy conquers all.

All that said, though, I will confess to being an avid Tarantino fan who’s still bitter about Pulp Fiction’s many snubs at the 1994 Oscars. Maybe I should just Argo f&*$ myself.

Wes Miller is Mulholland Books’ Associate Editor and Marketing Associate. If Mulholland were a crime novel instead of an imprint that publishes them, Wes would be its PI—the stalwart presence resolving its issues, making sure at the end of the day, justice gets served and good prevails—at least until tomorrow comes. Reach him through the Mulholland Books twitter account (@mulhollandbooks), on Tumblr (mulhollandbooks.tumblr.com) or right here on the Mulholland Books website.

The Dark in Zero Dark Thirty

Spoiler alert: DO NOT read this blog post if you haven’t yet seen Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal’s new film; this post most likely goes into enough detail that you’ll probably come away feeling a little bit like someone ruined the surprise for you. At least, as much as one can feel that way about a film where you already know how it ends.

Whether you’ve seen the film or not, you’ve probably caught wind of at least some of the controversy surrounding the release of the ZERO DARK THIRTY. Some members of the intelligence community assert the film misrepresents the role torture played in the trail of evidence that led to the discovery of Osama Bin Laden’s whereabouts. Critics have alternately claimed that the film’s portrayal of brutal interrogation methods either works either as a tacit endorsement thereof, or the film’s objective, journalistic approach is morally reprehensible in the face of what some would consider amorality of the events it portrays.

Maybe it’s an effect of my reading habits, or maybe I had Scott Montgomery’s essay on my mind—but I can’t help but feel there’s another interpretation of the film that hasn’t been fully explored in the criticism I’ve read: ZERO DARK THIRTY as noir cinema.

Most noir stories (or at least the genre’s most traditional strain) operate as negative example—a playing out of the it-never-gets-better series of events that lies in wait, should one make the same kind of choices as the story’s protagonist. This strand of noir is intensely, almost puritanically moral, despite the immorality it depicts; any portrayal of violence or criminality within the confines of this strand of storytelling is anything but an endorsement. Its message is simple: bad things happen to people who make bad choices–so choose wisely, or be prepared to face the music.

Montgomery argues that noir begins with a crime and only gets worse from there— certainly, ZERO DARK THIRTY has this angle down pat. An eerie series of voiceovers that alludes to the most infamous crime of the century, 9/11, opens the film, which then transitioning directly to another act of violence much more intimate in scope, yet just as central to the story at hand–the harrowing interrogations that took place in CIA black sites, where we first meet Maya, Jessica Chastain’s then-junior operative.

Maya’s first on-screen moments are performed with a thick, oversized ski mask that obscures both her features and gender—both to engineer a dramatic reveal and also, it would seem, to signify that without an active role in the brutal methods shown, she’s not yet fully accountable for the brutal violence to which the film depicts, more witness than active participant.

This all changes when Maya returns to the locked room, having this time left the mask at the door. Dan, the senior agent leading the interrogation, asks Maya to fill him a bucket of water that will be used to  torture the detainee under question. Maya hesitates, if only for a moment. And while, as with much of Chastain’s understated performance, much has to be inferred, her reluctance in this crucial moment speaks volumes. This is it, you can almost sense Maya thinking. Here is the point of no return.

From then on, Maya is complicit in the acts of violence depicted, at times even signaling to other participants when a prisoner is to be physically assaulted—even if Maya never quite inflicts these acts without the buffer of an enforcer. Even Dan, who seems so totally unflinching in the film’s opening scene, turns aside from this dastardly mission before Maya, who continues to take part in the torture of detainees right up to the minute the President puts an end to these brutal methods that give Maya her first piece of key intel, and many others that follow.

While the facts of Maya’s story necessitate there’s not quite the relentless, downward spiral of classic noir in ZERO DARK THIRTY—no pursuit by the authorities follows a government-sanctioned act of violence such as Maya’s—there is certainly a certain noirness in the overall trajectory of the plot. Director Bigelow and screenwriter Boal go out of their way to make note of every major act of terrorism in the past ten years while Maya continues her hunt, as if to challenge the validity the narrow focus of Maya’s relentless quest—more subtle and yet more effective than the in-tandem occasional insistence of Maya’s superiors that she consider broadening her focus.

The film’s conclusion carries this trajectory through to the bitter end. As we all know, Maya does, of course, get her man. And yet we never see Maya truly celebrate the completion of the task to which she’s devoted a full decade of her life—just more flat affect, a few choice tears, and a sense of loss in the final plateau, of Maya, alone, given anywhere in the world to go and nowhere in particular she seems to want to be. That may not be quite the sort of severe moral reckoning that traditional noir requires—but if so, it’s only another, more nihilistic strain of noir coming into play in the film’s final moments. In an unjust world with few moral absolutes, ZERO DARK THIRTY argues, sometimes the good guys aren’t quite so guilt-free—and sometimes the guilty go free.

Wes Miller is Mulholland Books’ Associate Editor and Marketing Associate. If Mulholland were a crime novel instead of an imprint that publishes them, Wes would be its PI—the stalwart presence resolving its issues, making sure at the end of the day, justice gets served and good prevails—at least until tomorrow comes. Reach him through the Mulholland Books twitter account (@mulhollandbooks), on Tumblr (mulhollandbooks.tumblr.com) or right here on the Mulholland Books website.

Not Your Father’s Bond

The new James Bond movie Skyfall has been out in theaters for about a month now, and as pretty much anybody visiting this site must already know, critics are calling it one of the best Bond films in decades. There are, of course, many reasons why the film has been met with the acclaim that it has. The breathtaking action sequences. Javier Bardem’s masterfully villainous performance. The way the film takes a step back and manages to capture the full weight of Judy Dench’s portrait of M, which has, largely unremarked, anchored the Bond series for nearly two decades.

But part of the acclaim surely has to do with director Sam Mendes and screenwriters  Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan’s attempts to allow the influence of modern world into franchise that has always offered the ultimate in wish fulfillment.  Is anyone in the world as poised and suave, even for a few minutes’ stretch, as Bond has been at nearly every moment of his fifty-year history? Probably not. And for perhaps as never before (forgetting, for now, certain scenes of the dreadful Die Another Day), Skyfall shows James Bond brought down to human proportions—injured, aging, psychologically compromised, his very vocation placed on the chopping block by members of the British government, his longtime employer in the crosshairs of a killer unlike any he’s ever before faced.

Not everyone outside the critics’ inner circles has been enamored with this approach. A number of the detractors I’ve talked to in the past few weeks have taken issue with the humbling of James Bond, their arguments boiling down to: I see what they did there. But that’s not the Bond I grew up with. The unconverted happen to be absolutely right. Skyfall’s Bond is a far cry from the Bond of yesteryear. But what really interests me is not whether or not Skyfall is a great film—or a true Bond film–but why the hell it is the way it is at all. Continue reading “Not Your Father’s Bond”

Hard to Shake Off: In Conversation with Mischa Hiller

We kick off our week-long celebration of the publication of Mischa Hiller’s SHAKE OFF, a Publishers Weekly Pick of the Week and the book Kirkus has called “superb…an entertainingly complex, quick-moving psychological thriller,” with an interview with Mischa Hiller and his Mulholland Books editor Wes Miller.

Check back later in the week for tricks of the trade from Mischa’s novel and much more–and don’t miss today’s Goodreads Espionage Panel with Mischa and fellow espionage writers Charles Cumming, Joseph Kanon, and more! (Questions welcome!)

Wes Miller: Let me start by saying SHAKE OFF was one of those novels I just knew we needed for the Mulholland Books list as soon as I started reading it. The degree to which you bring readers into Michel’s world—a world in which almost anything is either a weapon or a tool, in which everyone Michel meets may be trying to lead him astray—is just astounding.

One of the things I’ve noticed about SHAKE OFF, rereading that evocative first chapter, is how absolutely chock-full of seemingly genuine tradecraft the opening section is. Had you done deep research into the tricks of the espionage trade in writing SHAKE OFF? Were there books or individuals (whether you can tell us about them or not) that were particularly useful in crafting such an air of authenticity? And did you always know you’d start the novel with what is practically a how-to on the art of subterfuge, or was this something that came later as you were figuring out how to introduce Michel’s world to readers?

Mischa Hiller: Well, let me start off by saying how proud I am to be published by Mulholland, whose list includes some great writers. To answer your question: yes, I did a lot of research, but was also lucky to have access to someone who had gone through this kind of training. There are books you can buy that detail surveillance and counter-surveillance but it’s the little insights that make it real, like trainee surveillance officers using dead letter drops to get their paychecks.

I felt the training was an integral part of the book in the sense that it is part of what makes Michel and explains his paranoia. A lot of spy books imply that this sort of constant subterfuge can be lived with easily, without any effect. My premise was that actually the whole idea of living a lie is quite damaging.

I should add here that it’s not just the tradecraft that’s written with such command in SHAKE OFF—it’s the sense of alienation with which Michel views his surroundings. It’s something I personally responded to in an unexpected way. You and I have never actually discussed this before, but we are both mixed race—you’re half Palestinian, half British, and I’m of Chinese, German, and Irish descent. I’m not sure if your heritage was something I knew about you when I started reading SHAKE OFF, and Michel himself is not biracial, but at least to me, the way Michel describes his sense of not quite belonging to his surroundings (something I know I’ve at times struggled with) was extremely well-taken and quite emotionally accurate.

Was cultural alienation something you’d known you wanted to write about, or a theme that grew naturally out of the genre as seen through your own particular cultural perspective? (Did you begin wanting to write a spy novel, or by wanting to write about a Christian orphan from the Sabra refugee camps?)

That’s an interesting question. This idea of belonging and identity is something that interests me, no doubt, and I recently wrote an essay on what it means to me to be of mixed race, and the challenges this poses (in terms of belonging and acceptance) and the advantages it can provide, especially as a writer, in terms of being able to look at things ‘from the side’, as it were. I mentioned in a previous blog post about how I drew on my own feelings when imparting the alienation Michel felt in the book, and of his being a fish out of water. One could say that this was a theme I wanted to explore to some extent, and indeed the outcome of the book is his way of addressing this loss of identity. As for wanting to write a spy novel or a book about someone from the camp I think both came to me simultaneously. What would happen, I thought, if an orphan was groomed for espionage and placed in an alien environment? Also, I did think, how great it would be to have a Palestinian protagonist in a thriller.

 I’ve given much thought to genre and subgenre in the years I’ve spent working exclusively with suspense fiction since the launch of Mulholland Books. I’ve heard it said that it’s often those moments outside of those expected from the conventions of the form that affect you the most strongly.  (Michael Connelly and Mark Billingham touched on this in their conversation on the MulhollandBooks.com earlier this summer—the “looking out the window” moments from Connelly’s Bosch novels being some of Billingham’s favorites—and there’s a TED talk with JJ Abrams where he mentions subgenre in discussing the unspoken reasons a film like Jaws becomes part of the cultural lexicon.)

SHAKE OFF does this better than most in the slow introduction of Helen, Michel’s flatmate, into Michel’s otherwise almost hermetically sealed life—their budding romance is the reason that suddenly this nail-biter of paranoia, dead drops, and clandestine missions becomes an almost lyrically-written love story as well. Many, many writers struggle with the idea of sub-genre and romance in particular—do you have any tips to share with any colleagues who might be reading? What would you (humbly) say about writing Helen and Michel’s story makes their relationship seem more genuine than most? And are Helen and Michel based on any people in particular or serve as amalgamates of people you’ve known?

I am pleased, as reviews and readers have suggested, that I have managed to escape the confines of the genre. To me this is the greatest compliment I can be paid as a writer. Genre can be limiting (both in terms of writing and what people will read), so if, as a writer, you can fuse more than one genre, or transcend the genre you are ostensibly writing in, without pretension or creating a horrible mess, then you may be onto something. You can appreciate this effect better in great films, as you mentioned; they are about something greater than the plot, which is often incidental.

For me, SHAKE OFF could easily be about Michel and Helen’s relationship, with some spying and politics that get in the way, rather than the other way round, and my only advice would be to give as much thought and weight to one aspect of a book as you do another. Unfortunately a lot of books, and films, bolt something on (usually the ‘love interest’) rather than weave it in, but it is obvious and therefore unsatisfying.

Michel and Helen are not based on particular people but there are aspects in each that I have observed in others and myself.

Your earlier novel SABRA ZOO focused on the Sabra and Shatila massacre of 1982 in Beirut, Lebanon.  SHAKE OFF is also Michel Khoury is a survivor of the Sabra massacre, an event that haunts him throughout the novel.  I believe you were living in Beirut at the time of the Sabra and Shatila massacre—what was it like, being in Sabra then? How would you describe living in cities torn apart by sectarian violence to Americans, whose almost sole point of reference would have to be the events of 9/11?

It is difficult to explain what it is like to people who haven’t experienced it, which I guess is why some of us write books about it. I suppose, therefore, people could do worse than read SABRA ZOO to get a feel for what it was like in Lebanon at that time.  But there are other fine books that deal with conflicts in a serious and sensitive fashion. A couple of years ago, after SABRA ZOO was published, I read HALF OF A YELLOW SUN by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche which is set against the Nigeria-Biafra war of which I was completely ignorant. It is a powerful book that I felt had effectively tackled the Nigerian Civil War in a way that I had aspired to do with SABRA ZOO for the Lebanon Civil War.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a crucial part of the drama of SHAKE OFF. While in a less astute writer’s hands, treatment of the conflict might have seemed more didactic and overtly polemical, because of the work you’ve done in crafting Michel as such a seemingly real and empathetic character, the Palestinian perspective (and the Israelis’ as well, through Michel’s reading and education) comes through in remarkably nuanced fashion. For me, those sections of SHAKE OFF that address the conflict head-on reminded me in a way of some of Dave Eggers’ later work—another testament to SHAKE OFF’s complexity.

Given that you’ve done such great work in depicting the nuances of the conflict—to such a degree that you’ve made even this self-professed Apathetic American feel deeply for the plight of Michel and those like him—what is your view of the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict?  Fully realizing what an impossible question this is, what do you think it would take for a solution to be reached—and would there ever be one that will satisfy both ends of the negotiations?

Well, I am pleased that it has had this effect, and I’ve had emails from people expressing similar sentiments. Fiction is a great way to give narratives that are rarely heard an airing, and I thought Eggers did that brilliantly with ZEITOUN.

This is probably not the forum to propose a detailed solution to the Israel-Palestine problem, but I would start with the naïve and basic premise that everyone living there should have equal rights.

 The PLO is still active and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is still unresolved. Given this, why did you decide set SHAKE OFF in 1989 before the end of the Cold War instead of the modern day? Other than the later historical landmarks that would influence parts of the story (the Madrid conference of 1991, the Oslo Accords, etc), would you say that this novel could at least in spirit be set in modern times?

Yes, it could be set now, but that was such a fascinating time – a year that culminated in the fall of the Berlin wall – with the PLO still being supported by the Soviet Union and its allies within the context of the Cold War. Also, the spying game was a lot more interesting then because it was still people-driven rather than technology driven. Intelligence officers today spend more time in front of a screen than talking to agents. A contemporary book would therefore look different, but there is certainly still plenty of political intrigue to mine.

Mischa Hiller is a winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in the Best First Book category for South Asia and Europe. Raised in London, Beirut, and Dar El Salaam, he lives in Cambridge, England. Visit him at www.mischahiller.com.

Wes Miller is a Mulholland Books editor who has been at the imprint since the launch of its first list. You can find more of his MulhollandBooks.com posts here.

SHAKE OFF, which has been praised by Charles Cumming as “a spy thriller of the highest class” and by David Morrell as “smart and tense and real enough to be scary,” is now available in bookstores everywhere.

King Pleasure

more super rainI work in midtown, an area of Manhattan that isn’t often accused of having an excess of personality. Good restaurants within a few blocks’ radius are hard to come by. Chains dominate in all endeavors. But whenever I need to pop out at lunch for a few minutes of sweet escape from the nonconventional bookshelves, I’m glad the office is within easy walking distance of at least one New York underground staple: Midtown Comics.

Like Jonathan Santlofer, Brad Meltzer, and Max Allan Collins—like a whole lot of other crime and suspense addicts out there, I suspect—I, too, initially cut my teeth on the monthlies. It somehow became a tradition in my family that, after my father took me into town to get a haircut, we’d drop by the local independently owned comic store and I’d get to pick out one issue to add to my small but growing collection.

For me, it was less Batman or horror rags—I was a Marvel kid to start, mainly thanks to The Amazing Spider-Man around the time the villains Venom and Carnage were created.venom vs carnage

Whether or not all of my selections were age-appropriate is up for debate—I was young enough to still enjoy being read aloud to on occasion. During the recitation of a particularly climactic issue of X-Men, in which Magneto uses his power to forcefully expel all of Wolverine’s adamantium from his body—essentially gutting him like a fish—my father was horrified enough to refuse to continue right in the middle of a text box.

From then on, I kept my reading mostly to myself.

Like any self-respecting comic store, Midtown Comics has a section devoted to back issues many times deeper than the new offerings. This was my destination—not for one of the Marvel giants that initially drew my eye, but for something a little more obscure: Malibu Comics’ Solitaire #1. An origin story that has stuck with me to this day, of special note because it’s more than just derring-do, babes and bad guys. It’s a crime story. Continue reading “King Pleasure”