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In Conversation with George Pelecanos and Richard Lange

It’s a rare pleasure to be a fly on the wall during a conversation between Richard Lange and George Pelecanos, two crime fiction masters. Below is our transcript of their exchange, which ranges widely and rivetingly across such subjects as empathy, prisons, the writing process, and why vets make ideal detectives.

Angel Baby by Richard Lange is available now as a hardcover, eBook, and downloadable audiobook. The Double by George Pelecanos will be available as hardcover, large print book, eBook, and audiobook on October 8th.

Richard Lange: First off, let me say that I’m a huge fan of your work from way back, and it’s a real honor to engage in this kind of dialogue with one of my heroes. I especially want to thank you for all you did to spread the word about Dead Boys, my first book. I can’t tell you how many people have told me that they read it because you mentioned it somewhere or recommended it to them. I’m forever in your debt for that.

Now, to the questions. I’ve tried to keep them brief and pertinent but haven’t always succeeded.

The Double by George PelecanosThe Double is the second book featuring Spero Lucas. Why did you choose to start another series, and what are the major differences between this one and your earlier series? Were you looking to explore new kinds of stories and characters in this one?

George Pelecanos: I never plan on a series. When I finished writing The Cut I felt like there was more to explore with the character of Spero Lucas, so I went after it.  Some of the things I only hinted at in the first book come to the forefront in The Double.  Lucas’s war experience in the Middle East has impacted him deeply, and the darker aspects of his psyche have bubbled up to the surface. It’s a harder, more violent, and more sexually explicit book than The Cut.  Also, I liked writing about a young, physical guy who has a young man’s appetites.  I’d been writing about middle-aged guys for awhile, and switching up helped me cut loose.  The Lucas books have a certain kind of drive and energy.

Richard, you made a positive reputation early on with your short story collection, Dead Boys, which you know I enjoyed a great deal. When I read Chapter 6 of your new novel, Angel Baby, I was struck by how complete and polished it was. Detailing the prison life of Jerónimo Cruz, it stands on it own. Is it accurate to say that you craft each chapter in one of your novels with the care and precision that you would in one of your short stories? And which form of fiction do you prefer, both as a reader and writer?

Angel Baby by Richard LangeLange: Maybe because I started as a short-story writer, the individual chapters of the novels sometimes have a self-contained feel to them. They’re almost slices of the characters’ lives. It’s at odds with the narrative demands of the plot, I suppose, but it’s the way I tell my stories, through discrete scenes. I’m a slow, careful writer, even in first drafts, and I spend a lot of time chipping away at things in order to get them to my liking. As you know, what looks simplest is often most difficult to achieve.
As far as what I prefer, short stories or novels, as a reader, I love both equally. When it comes to my own work, stories is where I feel most comfortable, but I’m learning to love the expansiveness of writing novels—which is good, because you can’t make a living writing short stories. Continue reading “In Conversation with George Pelecanos and Richard Lange”

An Author’s Inspiration: On The Fate of Mercy Alban

doors1I’m lucky enough to spend my days writing novels of gothic suspense in which family secrets and scandals bubble to the surface in big, old, haunted mansions. Ever since my first book hit the shelves a few years back, I’ll oftentimes find myself on panels with other authors at various book festivals and conferences, and one question we’re always asked is: “What inspired you to write your story?” Believe me, when you’re asking mystery, crime, thriller or suspense novelists this question, you’re going to get some strange, eerie and, let’s be honest, borderline psychotic answers. Mine included.

Erin Hart’s imagination shifts into high gear when she reads news stories about ancient bodies being pulled out of the peat bogs in Ireland, perfectly preserved. In her four novels, the most recent of which is The Book of Killowen, her lead character investigates these archaeological sites and usually unearths a present-day murder in the bargain. David Housewright revealed that, while attending a crowded music festival, he looked around at the sea of faces and began to marvel at how easy it might be to kill someone and simply slip away unnoticed… and thus began his novel Highway 61, in which an unfortunate fellow wakes up next to a dead body after attending a similar music festival, and thinks he has made a clean getaway until the blackmail threats start arriving.

Now that I’ve got two novels on the shelves, one in the pipeline set for release in January 2014 and a fourth rattling around in my brain, I think it’s safe for me to say that I’m most inspired by place. I need to create the setting where my characters are going to do whatever it is that they do, and then the story flows from there.

My current novel, The Fate of Mercy Alban (2013, Hyperion), bubbled to the surface during a tour I took of Glensheen Mansion, a stately, old home on the shores of Lake Superior in Duluth, Minnesota. Once a private home and now a museum, Glensheen has its own haunted history — matriarch Elizabeth Congdon and her maid were murdered in the house by Elizabeth’s daughter and her husband, no less, and reportedly both of the slain ladies remain — but I wasn’t interested in writing their story. I wasn’t looking for story inspiration at all. I was just taking the tour.

It was a gorgeous summer day on Lake Superior, and after wandering from room to glorious room inside, I walked out onto the patio that spans the whole length of the house. I stood there gazing at the meticulously-manicured lawn that flows out to the lake, which was glittering in the summer sun.

I thought: “What a great place to host a party!” And I started imagining it — men in their summer suits, women in long, cotton dresses, servers in black circulating with drinks and hors d’oeuvres. I could almost see the ghostly images of the revelers there in the yard, talking, laughing, listening to music wafting through the air.

And then, being the type of writer I am, I thought: “Ooo. What if somebody wound up dead at that party?”

I could clearly imagine that, too. A gunshot, a scream piercing the night air, the confusion that would follow — stunned onlookers, too traumatized to move, others running for the door, a police siren, faint at first and then growing louder. The anguished cry of grief as a love is lost forever.

I don’t know how long I stood there, caught up in the scene playing out in my own mind. The thought of it just wouldn’t let me go. And so began The Fate of Mercy Alban, a novel centered around a long-ago summer party at a stately old mansion much like Glensheen, where one of the party guests, a world-famous writer, winds up dead, and the daughter of the host and hostess disappears without a trace.

Now I’m looking for inspiration for my fourth novel. Know of any haunted mansions to tour?

Wendy Webb is the author of the Heartland Indie bestselling novel, The Fate of Mercy Alban (2013, Hyperion), and The Tale of Halcyon Crane, (2010, Holt), which won the Minnesota Book Award for genre fiction. Her newest book, The Vanishing, will be released in January, 2014. Visit her online at www.wendykwebb.com.

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.

Fact and Fiction in Hunt the Scorpion

On sale today is Hunt the Scorpion, the second installment in Don Mann and Ralph Pezzullo’s SEAL Team Six series, which follows the trail of nuclear weapon components from a ship commandeered by Somali pirates through Libya and into a hornet’s nest of local police forces, terrorists, and the Iranian Revolutionary Corps.

The book’s depiction of post-Gaddafi Libya reads like it came out of this morning’s newspaper, which got me thinking: how much of Hunt the Scorpion is based in fact? Sure, it’s a rip-roaring, action-packed thriller, but Don Mann is a former Navy SEAL, and Ralph Pezzullo has written a previous novel with a CIA operative. Maybe there’s more fact to this fiction than I realized.

Fortunately, my curiosity did not go unslaked for long. Pezzullo kindly responded to my searching questions about Hunt the Scorpion‘s plot:

Yes, a good deal of the ops in the book actually happened. Most Americans probably aren’t aware that we’ve been fighting a clandestine war with Iran. Basically, they’re trying to develop nuclear weapons, and we’re determined to stop them. Iran runs this nasty little organization called the Quds Force, which is part of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution and reports directly to Supreme Leader—in other words, the religious leaders of  the country. The role of the Quds Force is exporting Iran’s Islamic revolution. It operates as highly-trained paramilitary unit and has been involved in bombings and assassinations in countries like Iraq, India, Bulgaria, Lebanon, and Thailand.

I keep my ear to the CIA-ops war ground, so to speak, and hear things. One of the most alarming things I’ve heard recently is about the efforts by al-Qaeda and the Quds Force to exploit the chaos in Libya following the overthrow of Gaddafi and get their hands on chemical weapons and nuclear material that had been developed while Gaddafi was in power.

Don and I discussed this and agreed that these events would make a great backdrop for Hunt the Scorpion. I can’t tell you exactly how much of it is true. I always do a lot of research. In this case it involved speaking to a number of people who have been to Libya recently and are familiar with what happened there after the fall of Gaddafi.

There you have it: enjoy Hunt the Scorpion for its nonstop thrills—and the SEALs are a lot of fun to be around!—and appreciate it as an unclassified primer in classified foreign policy.

Standing in Another Man’s Grave with a Gun Machine: Warren Ellis and Ian Rankin In Conversation

Ian Rankin has called Warren Ellis’s GUN MACHINE “hellish fun.” Warren Ellis has called Ian Rankin’s  STANDING IN ANOTHER MAN’S GRAVE “a magnificent read.” Figuring the Rankin and Ellis might have a thing or two to say to one another, we put the two in touch and watched the fireworks ensue. Their conversation follows…

Warren Ellis: In STANDING IN ANOTHER MAN’S GRAVE, you make returning to John Rebus look like putting on a comfortable old suit, but I wonder if it was. Was there ever a point where you assumed you’d never talk to Rebus again? Or were you waiting for the right story with which to go and see him again?

Ian Rankin: I retired Rebus because the real world demanded it. At that time (2006-7) detectives in Scotland had to retire at 60, and that’s how old I reckoned he was. But I knew that given the chance he would apply to work as a civilian in Edinburgh’s Cold Case unit. It really exists and is staffed by retired detectives. So when I got a notion for a story that involved a cold case…

Now let me ask you something, Warren: as a novelist, I found it hard the one time I wrote a graphic novel. I think authors of graphic novels work harder than novelists, who have all the time and words in the world. How different is it, approaching a novel to a graphic novel? What are the pros and cons of each?

Ellis: Writing a novel, for me, is always having to learn again when to stop describing.  You have to be so blunt and specific, for an artist, to achieve the image and narrative step you’re looking for, and doing that in prose is dull and thudding and takes away the possibility of the image growing and breathing in the reader’s head.  It’s like that art trick where someone draws three lines and a dot but yet everyone can see a face in it.  Not the same face, sure, because no-one sees everything the same way, but definitely a face.  But if you drew that face in detail, many of your readers would say, “huh, I didn’t think they looked like that,” and they’re kicked out of the book.  It’s that specific effect of evocation I have to try and find again.

The pros of writing a novel are about having space and time.  Graphic novels are limited containers of information, especially so in the amount of information one can radiate off a page, and books aren’t.  But there’s an atmosphere you can conjure in six words of text and a simple drawing that books simply can’t capture.  Comics are a hybrid form: they are semiotics and slogans and theatre and iconography and a dozen other things.  Like all hybrids, they have some weird weaknesses, and there are workings and effects in the prose novel that the graphic novel can’t really approach. But there are things in the graphic novel that the prose book simply cannot do.  They are pure visual narrative. Continue reading “Standing in Another Man’s Grave with a Gun Machine: Warren Ellis and Ian Rankin In Conversation”

Detective John Rebus: Twenty-Five Years Later

Twenty-five years will take its toll on anyone. No one knows this better than former detective John Rebus, the star of Ian Rankin’s dazzling crime novels, who now finds himself a retired civilian, peering at cases from the outside.

But even the passage of years can’t bring closure to a cold case, and Rebus has found the ultimate lost cause: the disappearance of a woman from the side of the road with no witnesses, no body, and no suspect. Rankin explains the evocative nature of the road and Rebus’s emotional state as he digs up the past in the new novel, Standing in Another Man’s Grave:

While we see Rebus’s role evolving, so, too, does our understanding of Malcolm Fox:

Continue reading “Detective John Rebus: Twenty-Five Years Later”

Year End Review: Five Tips for Horror Writers

With 2013 just around the corner, it’s the perfect time to sit back and reflect on another year of great content and great books. Check back twice daily in the last days of 2012 for a selection of our favorite MulhollandBooks.com posts from the past year!

USA Today has called BREED by Chase Novak “a thrill to read [that] keep an audience enraptured.” The New York Times‘ Janet Maslin raves, “BREED is a foray into urbane horror, chicly ghoulish, with a malevolent emphasis on family values. “ Keep reading for Chase’s tips for writing a horror novel.

1. The requirements of good horror are not different from the requirements of fiction in general. Fresh language, believable characters, and a story that operates on more than one level –a story that has a meaning outside of and beyond the mechanics of the plot.

2.  If a paragraph can create that pleasurable rush of anxiety in you, probably others will get that lovely chill from it, too.

3. Sentences.  Fiction is made of sentences.  All fiction.  Building a novel out of weak or sloppy sentences is like building a house out of defective bricks.

4. Beware of concepts.  A cool idea does not necessarily lead to a good book. Figuring out the marketplace –vampires are in! no, zombies!  no, vampires!, no serial killers! –is for the marketing department, and books that begin with the writer trying to figure out what might get him or her onto some bandwagon are usually DOA.

5. Beware of formulas:  the books that last are the ones that are not really like other books.

CHASE NOVAK is the pseudonym for Scott Spencer. Spencer is the author of ten novels, including Endless Love, which has sold over two million copies to date, and the National Book Award finalist A Ship Made of Paper. He has written for Rolling Stone, The New York Times, The New Yorker, GQ, and Harper’s. BREED is his debut novel as Chase Novak.

Me and Mike: Sophie Littlefield Interviews Mike Cooper

With 2013 just around the corner, it’s the perfect time to sit back and reflect on another year of great content and great books. Check back twice daily in the last days of 2012 for a selection of our favorite MulhollandBooks.com posts from the past year!

Sophie Littlefield:  So let’s get the basics out of the way first. You write, I write. You’re the much, much older east coast sibling and I’m the fun-loving west coast one. We both have kids and we both grew up with our noses in books. What else should people know about us to start off with?

Mike Cooper:  We’re bicoastal now but we started in Missouri! – and in a much different time, when children were allowed freedoms that seem extraordinary to me now.  My memory, perhaps unreliable, is that we were completely unsupervised after school and on weekends.  The woods and fields just over the backyard fence were a place of fantastical play: ponds to swim in and skate on, the cemetery and the quarry, the derelict airport with runways like the Bonneville Salt Flats.  How could we not become people who live by our imaginations?

Of course, my stories involve ruthless banksters and exploding helicopters, and some of yours have decidedly noir, even dark elements.  In some ways our lives were difficult and complicated, and that’s as essential as the sunny memories.

We both came to write seriously somewhat later in our lives.  In my case it was after my daughter was born – my wife and I decided that I’d be the stay-at-home parent, and what with two naps a day, I suddenly had time to try what had been only a hobby.  (I took one of those naps myself, true.)  I recall you publishing stories, fiction and non-fiction, for many years before you buckled down to novels.  What was the impetus?

SL: I think the better question is, “What took you so long?” And the answer, of course, is fear. I’m astonished at how much I’ve given away to fear over the years. Oh well, middle age took care of that in a hurry. My first novel was tentative, limp, diluted, and derivative. But I learned something from it and from every one that followed, until I finally ended up writing a novel with teeth.

Nowadays, I seek out opportunities to be brave. Lots of extra points if someone chokes on their coffee when I propose a new project. For instance, when I first told my agent my idea for my January ’13 book (A GARDEN OF STONES, MIRA) the pitch was “Japanese internment in WWII, plus taxidermy.” I stubbornly believe there is an audience out there that longs to be challenged.

Which reminds me. Do you remember when you wrote that short story a few years ago and I read it and told you “that story’s a best-seller for sure, drop everything and turn it into a novel”? And then you spent the next few months writing and polishing and submitting it? Continue reading “Me and Mike: Sophie Littlefield Interviews Mike Cooper”

Year End Review: Tradecraft 101, Spy Tips from Mischa Hiller’s Shake Off

With 2013 just around the corner, it’s the perfect time to sit back and reflect on another year of great content and great books. Check back twice daily in the last days of 2012 for a selection of our favorite MulhollandBooks.com posts from the past year!

SHAKE OFF‘s Michel Khoury is a veritable encyclopedia of the espionage tradecraft that is essential to his life as a spy, which Mischa Hiller gleaned from access to someone with direct knowledge of the tricks of the trade. Want to learn how to become a skilled agent? Here are a few of the tips from Mischa’s novel:

Concealing documents and cash? Use a newspaper.

“They are easy to ditch, and you can carry one under your arm even as your bags are being searched.”

Know your cover.

“If you can believe just a bit of your cover story then you can convince your listener (and even yourself) that it is all true.”

Incriminating evidence to ditch? Use the restroom.

“It is easier to flush soaked paper than dry.”

Disguise yourself.

“Hospitals have no security to speak of.  You can wander almost anywhere unchallenged, particularly if you don a white coat – best acquired from the doctors’ lounge in the A&E department.  Or go dressed in a suit carrying a briefcase and pretend you are a drugs salesman.”

Watch your back.

“You should always sit at the back of the bus when you get on, because surveillance like to sit at the back to get a good view of you embarking without having to turn around.”

Beware the honeytrap.

“It is easier to believe that a woman finds you irresistible than that she is trying to ensnare you.”

Tired of looking over your shoulder?

“Take a few days off, go to the cinema, sit in the park, stay at home and read a book….Make them bored. A bored surveillance team is a careless one.”

Blend in.

“Be gray, not colorful, my trainers in Moscow had said.  I always matched my shoes to my clothes.  I’d heard that immigration officers checked for illegal immigrants by looking at their shoes.”

Finish the job.

“To kill someone you need to shoot them at least four or five times in the head, just to make sure.  And it needs to be up close with a hand-held weapon.  You have to put it right up against the head or very close to it, otherwise you could miss; some weapons give a massive kick, and any shot following the first could go wild.  If you can’t get close enough to kill the target with your first shot, then you will need to incapacitate them with a body shot first and finish the deed close up, a coup de grâce.

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.

SHAKE OFF, selected by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker as one of the best books of 2012 (“Hiller’s novel has the benefit of mining every trope of the thriller genre while being absolutely original at the same time. I will read anything by Hiller from now on”), is now available in bookstores everywhere.

Year End Review: Defending Bill, An Interview with William Landay

With 2013 just around the corner, it’s the perfect time to sit back and reflect on another year of great content and great books. Check back twice daily in the last days of 2012 for a selection of our favorite MulhollandBooks.com posts from the past year!

When you ask folks in the crime fiction community about Defending Jacob, William Landay’s new legal thriller, you better be holding a small brown paper bag – because they’re going to start hyperventilating when they talk about how good it is. Before it ever hit the shelves, it had already garnered a stunning list of blurbs, a blinding assortment of starred reviews and no shortage of industry buzz.

Since then it’s become as much of a commercial success as it was a critical one. At a time when the self-publishing evangelists are questioning whether conventional publishing is still capable of breaking out a new author, Defending Jacob has become a loud argument for the power of the Big Six. Landay’s book has set up shop on the New York Times Bestseller List, having spent the last eight weeks (and counting) there, going as high as No. 4.

Bill and I recently sat down – or at least I presume he was sitting while he wrote his half of this exchange – for a virtual chat…

You and I first met at Bouchercon last year. And I’ll admit there was nothing that impressive about you. You’re self-effacing. You’re a nice guy (especially for an ex-lawyer). You have a little bit of a beaten-down air about you. And you have a worse haircut than I do (which is saying something). I knew that an Advance Review Copy of your book, Defending Jacob, had been included in everyone’s goody bag and was already starting to get some buzz. But, frankly, I didn’t think much of you. Then I read your book and, in a word: Wow. So I guess my first question is: Will you ever forgive me for not being properly deferential to you, Mr. Landay?

It will take a lot of genuflecting, but I’m willing to consider it.

Actually, this is the great thing about writing. Only the books matter. The author’s personality will only take him so far. Yes, it probably helps to be a showman like Dickens or a self-promoter like Mailer or an egomaniac like … well, lots of writers. But you can be a recluse, too, like Dickinson, Salinger or Pynchon. In the end, you’ll be judged by the quality of your work and nothing else. That’s a comforting thought to an unimpressive, self-effacing, beaten-down sort of guy like me. (But please, a word in my barber’s defense: that’s not a bad haircut; it’s bad hair.)

Continue reading “Year End Review: Defending Bill, An Interview with William Landay”