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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 ( or right here on the Mulholland Books website.

A Conversation with Mark Billingham and Lee Child: Part I

This week we salute BLOODLINE by Mark Billingham as it hits bookstores in paperback. The New York Times Book Review raved that BLOODLINE offers a “psychologically twisted and strikingly original plot” with a “relentlessly swift pace and high emotional pitch.” Here, we present Part I of a conversation with Lee Child, the #1 bestselling author of the Jack Reacher series. And don’t miss the newest Tom Thorne novel THE DEMANDS, now available in bookstore everywhere.

Mark Billingham: I was thinking a lot about series and the demands that writing a series makes on you and the benefits of it.  Obviously in the last week or so there has been heaps of internet chat in response to the rumor that Tom Cruise might be about to play Jack Reacher. Whatever your thoughts are about that, it’s an incredible testament to the power of the series and the ownership readers feel they have of the character.  Do you feel that Reacher is yours?  Do you feel like you share him?

Lee Child: That’s a great point and it’s something I’ve been very aware of as the years have passed because it’s completely a progression, obviously.  On Day 1, nobody in the world knows anything about Reacher apart from me because it’s the first book. It’s a work in progress, it’s not finished, and nobody has seen it. Then, the first book gets published and then the second and the third.  And gradually the ownership of the character does migrate outwards into the public realm.  I was very aware actually of the particular point which was after eight or nine books, maybe ten books.  Previously to that people were kind of deferential.  They thought Reacher was an independent entity, but they knew somehow he belonged to me. Then, after about the tenth book, he became totally publicly owned to the point where I now get abused just like any other fan with a different opinion.  I count for nothing anymore.  Reacher is completely independent and completely out there.  And you’re right, the casting choice in Hollywood is being made right now.  My attitude towards that was whoever is cast, whoever it was, 99% of the fans would be outraged because it would be a sheer coincidence if whoever it was matched their own personal image.  I think it’s just proof actually of how tightly owned a series character becomes by the readers, which is great really because that is the advantage of a series.  This is a tough trade.  Launching one book every year is a new mountain to climb every time and if you can get any help at all carried over from previous years you need it.  Of course, one of the great helps is, if it is a series, (to borrow the language of credit card companies) the new book is kind of “pre-approved.”  The readership thinks, “Well, I liked the last six, so I’ll probably like this.”  It’s a much lower hurdle to get over.  I think with people who write standalone books, the author’s name obviously continues and counts for something, but you’ve got a slightly higher mountain to climb.  Are they going to like it?  Is it the same as what you’ve done before? You’ve mixed it, haven’t you?  How have you felt about that?

Continue reading “A Conversation with Mark Billingham and Lee Child: Part I”

The Story In My Head Has a Soundtrack

wireI can’t carry a tune in a bucket, but I love music. Music is a constant companion—at work, at the gym, relaxing around the house, and especially when writing. Maybe it’s from all of the soundtracks at the movies setting the moods in a film, but for me music is an integral part of my writing. In fact, when writing, I even create playlists for characters. While working on “Moonshiner’s Lament” which appears in the MWA VENGEANCE anthology, music played a role in shaping the story.

When I sat down to write this tale, all I knew was that the story would be set in Appalachia in the early ‘70’s, and I knew the hero would be a Vietnam Vet who has returned to his old ways of hauling illegal whiskey. When I began, I had was this framework and an opening line (Goat McKnight’s hands ached for a gun). That was all. Then, it struck me where Goat would be. I wrote the first page at a blistering pace. I re-read what I had written, and immediately pulled up my Window’s Media player and started creating what became “Goat’s Playlist.” This list became what played through my earbuds while writing and re-writing “Moonshiner’s Lament.”

The first songs were no-brainers. Who can write about moonshine without Robert Mitchum’s “Thunder Road,” or George Jones’ “White Lightning.” For me, the Cat-Daddy Appalachia moonshiner songs has got to be Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road,” and yes there is an homage to Earle’s song in my story.

To get into the mood of the 1970’s era, I leaned heavily on classic rock—The Doors, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, CCR as well as others. Rock and roll was part of the soldiers serving in Vietnam. The Doors and Stones songs all seemed to be what would be playing when soldiers thought about being back home having a good time. And when you hear Jimi’s blistering guitar or listen to CCR’s “Running Through The Jungle” you can feel the humid jungle weighting you down, and hear the staccato insanity of a firefight with tracers racing around.

Goat McKnight wound up going into the military to avoid prison for running moonshine, so Goat seemed to share the rebel spirit of the original country outlaw artists. As a result Johnny Cash, Johnny Paycheck, David Allen Coe, Hank Williams Jr and Waylon Jennings were in heavy rotation on Goat’s playlist.

A few albums helped set the tone of the story as well. Dierks Bentley’s UP ON THE RIDGE ALBUM is a bluegrass influenced country CD. The title track played while I was working out the first scenes up on the mountain. Since all of the songs on Kathy Mattea’s album COAL are about miners and the mining life, every track went on the playlist. Her song “Coal Tattoo” has a cadence of a moving car and that song played in my head while I had Goat driving the night away.

There were many other artists and songs, too many to list, though some were definite standouts, songs that seemed to speak directly about some part of Goat’s tale while I was writing. These were—Bruce Springsteen (Born In the USA), Brantley Gilbert (“Hell on Wheels”), The Cumberland River Band (“Let the Moonshine Flow” and “Rock Island Express”) as well as Old Crow Medicine Show (“Big Time In The Jungle”).

Most writers have some rituals. Some writers have to write at specific times or locations. Others have to outline or not outline. For me, whenever I open up to start a story, as I’m looking at the blinking cursor on the blank page, I click on my music library and hit play.

Check out “Moonshiner’s Lament” in Mystery Writers of America Presents Vengeance, in bookstore now.

Rick McMahan is a special agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The year 2012 marks his twentieth in law enforcement. Rick’s work wakes him to counties across central and southeastern Kentucky, including Bell County, the area featured in “Moonshiner’s Lament.” His myster stories have appeared in various publications, including the Mystery Writers of America anthology Death Do Us Part. He also has a story in the International Association of Crime Writers’ forthcoming collection of crime fiction from around the world.

Hope You Guessed My Name

Key Scratched CarWhen the folks at Mulholland Books asked me to write an article to introduce their anthology of mysteries titled VENGEANCE, I passed. It’s a subject I’m uniquely qualified to discuss, but I didn’t want to attract attention to myself. I cherish my anonymity, my ability to listen to the conversation beside me, or blend in among the crowd at a sporting event. I value my invisibility because you know me. You’ve seen me in countless films: the Boston crime saga, the British spy flick, the one about the lawyer who developed a conscience. I’m the finest character actor in the world, known for immersing myself in my roles such that no one ever recognizes me on the street.

Ultimately I changed my mind because I have a story to tell. I once met an actor before an audition. Back then he was starting out, but today he’s one of Hollywood’s leading men. We worked together on one of his action movies. Here’s a hint: the assignment he’s given? It’s not an easy one. Let’s call him Ted. From the moment Ted arrived in Hollywood, he was cocky and ruthless. At the audition, he told me a friend of his – we’ll call him Jimmy – had beaten him out for a part last year. It turned out to be a great role. Jimmy was coming to the audition today, too. When Ted told me he was dying to avenge his loss, I suggested he dent the casting director’s Audi and tell her assistant Jimmy did it.

It worked. The casting director wouldn’t even let Jimmy read for the part. But after the audition, Ted discovered a gash on his Porsche. Ted knew Jimmy had done it. He also knew where Jimmy lived. I reminded Ted that if he didn’t respond, he’d be a punk for the rest of his life. I urged him to drive to Jimmy’s house and show him who was boss.

When we got there, Ted knocked on the door and Jimmy let him in. They argued. When they got to the living room, four guys were waiting for Ted. They beat him to a pulp. You think Ted’s nose job was driven by vanity? Think again.

“I knew you cost me this audition,” Jimmy said, “and I knew you’d come running if I scratched your baby. Looks like we both got even.”

Shock registered on Ted’s face when I stepped out from behind Jimmy and put my arm around him. I’d helped Ted square things with Jimmy, but I’d also helped Jimmy settle the ensuing score with Ted. I can do that. I can be in an infinite number of places at the same time. And that’s why it was so important for you to read this story.

You know me. You speak to me when a driver cuts you off. You cry for me when a classmate bullies your child. You yearn for my help when your spouse cheats on you.

I’m here for you. My name is Vengeance. Give me a chance and I’ll set things right.

All it’ll cost is your soul.

Check out Orest Stelmach’s story “In Persona Christi” in Mystery Writers of America Presents Vengeance, now available in bookstores everywhere.

Orest Stelmach is the author of the thriller The Boy from Reactor 4, the first in a series featuring Nadia Tesla, and the historical mystery Lady in the Dunes, the first in  aseries set in 1950 Provincetown featuring Father Sean Kale. A Connecticut native, he went to kindergarten speaking only Ukranian. He still tries to use as few words as possible. Orest and his wife divide their times between Connecticut and Cape Cod. Visit him at

Mystery Writers of America Presents Vengeance: An Introduction

Editing this anthology was a lot of fun—not least because Mystery Writers of America’s invaluable and irreplaceable publications guy, Barry Zeman, did all the hard work. All I had to do was pick ten invitees. And write a story. And then later on read the ten winning stories chosen by MWA’s blind-submission process. Piece of cake. Apart from writing my own story, that is, which I always find hard, but that’s why picking the invitees was so much fun—I love watching something difficult being done really well, by experts.

It was like playing fantasy baseball—who did I want on the field? And just as Major League Baseball has rich seams of talent to choose from, so does Mystery Writers of America. I could have filled ten anthologies. Or twenty. But I had to start somewhere—and it turned out that I already had, years ago, actually, when I taught a class at a mystery writers’ conference in California. One of the after-hours activities was a group reading around a fireplace in the motel. A bit too kumbaya for me, frankly, but I went anyway, and the first story was by a young woman called Michelle Gagnon. It was superb, and it stayed with me through the intervening years. So I e-mailed her about using it for this anthology—more in hope than in expectation, because it was such a great story, I was sure it had been snapped up long ago. But no—it was still available. Never published, amazingly. It is now.

One down.

Then I had to have Brendan DuBois. He’s a fine novelist but easily the best short-story writer of his generation. He just cranks them out, one after the other, like he’s casting gold ingots. Very annoying. He said yes.

Two down.

And I had Twist Phelan on my radar. She’s a real woman of mystery—sometimes lives on a yacht, sometimes lives in Switzerland, knows about oil and banks and money—and she had just won the International Thriller Writers’ award for best short story. I thought, I’ll have a bit of that. She said okay.

Three down. Continue reading “Mystery Writers of America Presents Vengeance: An Introduction”

A Conversation with Mark Billingham and Lee Child: Part II

This week we salute BLOODLINE by Mark Billingham as it hits bookstores. rave that “BLOODLINE by Mark Billingham provides the best serial killer punch since THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. Here, we present Part II of Mark’s conversation with Lee Child, the #1 bestselling author of the Jack Reacher series. If you missed Part I, read it first.

MB: I think a lot of writers make a mistake – even if they do see a character that is going to have a decent shelf life – by laying it all out there in book one. By saying, this is who this person is. This is where he goes to school. This is what he has for dinner. This is who his family are.  I remember making the decision that I wouldn’t do any of that, that I was not going to have this dossier of facts and figures.  That I would simply try to peel away a different layer of the onion with each book and see what happened, so that the reader knew as much about Thorne, book on book, as I did. I’m not even sure that in the first book he was even the main character actually.  He had the most amount of ‘onstage’ time if you like, but the character I got all the reaction about in that first book was the victim, actually.

LC: Let’s mention what a great first book that was.  Your first book was just tremendous. A fantastic first book.

MB: I never actually got a chance to thank you because I know you picked it in your 40 Books of All Time list.  I don’t think I ever bought you the beers I owe you for that…

LC: I love accidental discoveries and I can’t remember how I got it or why.  In that first book, the “Wow” moment was very early on.  There was that fantastic line, “No, this was not a mistake.  This was what he wanted to do all along.” And I just thought, “Wow.” I knew straight away that this was a book that was going to be major and it was going to be a career that was going to be worth following.  I had luck with Killing Floor too.  I just think everything in the first book of mine worked very well, even the jacket.  The jacket in America especially was iconic.  We were both very lucky I think at the beginning.  Then the question becomes, “How do you deal with this?”

Continue reading “A Conversation with Mark Billingham and Lee Child: Part II”

Report from the Bookselling Front at The Mystery Bookstore Los Angeles

mulholland drive somewhereMulholland Drive is notorious in our town and around the world as a street of significant history—some of it quite shady, some of it fictional, some of it quite real. All of it makes for great crime (fiction). When we saw the name of the new Little, Brown imprint, we were intrigued.

It was when we saw the lineup of the authors that we started doing various versions of chair dancing. Okay, I did some chair dancing and some instantaneous Facebooking and Tweeting; Store Manager Bobby McCue—aka Dark Bobby—raised an eyebrow, nodded his head ever so slightly, and said, “Hmmm…this will be cool.”

Mulholland Books has gathered authors ranging from legendary and established icons to up-and-coming talents, with everything in between. And they’re reaching beyond our own American shores to the UK and Australia, and to various subgenres within the field. Most of these authors will already be known to our customers; many of these authors have become good friends to The Mystery Bookstore Los Angeles. All of these authors will be of great interest to our customers and staff.

The authors and the mission of Mulholland Books are so very much at the heart of The Mystery Bookstore Los Angeles: to promote the best of crime fiction, whether it’s from old friends or newcomers to the field. When I saw the press release on an author friend’s blog, I immediately fired off an email to Miriam Parker, head goddess/marketing director of Mulholland Books, and said, “Whatever we can do to help, let us know!” This is a party we want to be in on, from the very beginning—a venture that has The Mystery Bookstore Los Angeles written all over it!

Continue reading “Report from the Bookselling Front at The Mystery Bookstore Los Angeles”

A Donkey in the Grand National

Congratulations must go to crime novelist Peter Temple who last month won the Miles Franklin Award, Australia’s oldest literary prize. But before we seal and send that particular “well done, mate” package, let’s just drop a sharply delivered head slap in there, too. Because as much as Mr. Temple obviously deserves his accolade, he’s also prompted an additional round of Booker bleating.

For those of you not in the know, I’ll keep it brief — the Man Booker Prize is a cash award (originally £5k, now a whopping £20k) for the best novel written in the English language, written by a Commonwealth or Irish citizen, and published in the UK. It’s arguably the most prestigious literary award in Blighty, and for some reason crime writers want in on the act. The difficulty is, of course, that publishers have a limited number of entries, and according to former chairman of the Booker judges John Sutherland, if publishers were to nominate a crime novel, “There’s a feeling that it would be like putting a donkey into the Grand National.”

Which, y’know, if you want the press to go pestering Ian Rankin and Val McDermid for their already well-recorded thoughts on the matter, then that’s a fine way of going about it. The problem is crime novels have consistently made the Booker shortlist, along with other genres. In the past ten years alone we’ve seen Margaret Atwood’s 2000 winner The Blind Assassin (crime), Peter Carey’s 2001 winner The True History of the Kelly Gang (crime), Tim Winton’s Dirt Music (thriller), Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (sci-fi), Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal (thriller), David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (sci-fi), Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (sci-fi), Aravind Adiga’s 2008 winner The White Tiger (crime), and Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger (horror).

Now, yes, maybe I’m playing fast and loose with genre definitions there, but I still believe that whatever line there is between literary and genre, it’s easily blurred by quality. Case in point, and homework for you if you want it: compare and contrast the work of Richard Price and George Pelecanos with a particular reference to genre bias. Price’s first novel was a coming-of-age story about gang warfare; Pelecanos’s, a considered contemporary spin on the PI novel. Both have written extensively for The Wire, and both have had their most recent books branded with The Wire graphics, at least in the UK. Price’s novels frequently have cop protagonists and some kind of street-level mystery to be solved; Pelecanos has written variously of cops, PIs, and music-store clerks and tends to eschew mystery, especially in his later novels. So the question is, why does Richard Price have the popular literary label, while Pelecanos remains apparently stuck as a crime writer? Quality isn’t a factor — both are accomplished novelists. Is it a stylistic issue? Are Price’s prose pyrotechnics what make him literary? Do we still attribute being prolific with being poor? Pelecanos has written almost a book a year since his debut in 1992; Price has written four books since that time. Or is it simply geographical snobbery, where New York is seen as more artistically credible than Washington? Or is there an artistic glass ceiling, a real “us and them” situation? Because I have to say, I’m beginning to think it’s more just an “us and us” situation.

Continue reading “A Donkey in the Grand National”