Henning Mankell: “An Honorable Man”

It is as though I’ve lost a very good friend in the death of Henning Mankell today, October 5, 2015. He created the internationally known, fictional Swedish detective, Kurt Wallander, and was an honorable man, as many have commented, for he wanted to right the wrong.

Henning-Mankell-in-Visby--007His books delivered me to Ystad, Sweden an area where most of his stories took place, featuring Kurt Wallander. Mankell was a writer who wanted to make sense of the world for his readers, that’s how he described his writing in an author’s note. Kurt Wallander was one “instrument.”

He had many such instruments, as The Guardian noted today in his obituary. “Mankell was always bemused to be known in the UK and US as a cop novelistwhich was a misunderstanding for his writings including 20 historical, literary and political novels and a series for children.” The Guardian wrote also that, “he was a prolific journalist and theatre-maker who wrote more plays than Shakespeare in a theatrical career so industrious that he often spent half the year in Africa, co-running the Teatro Avenida in Maputo since 1987 and undertaking much charitable and campaigning work, especially in education about HIV/Aids.

Henning Mankell was courageous as his fictional character, Wallander, in 2010 he joined “a flotilla of Swedish ships attempting to deliver aid to Gaza, his boat was ambushed by Israeli troops and he was at one point reported dead, although he was only arrested,” The Guardian reported.

Prolific and varied a writer that he was, the author of forty novels and forty plays, according the The New York Times and The Guardian, but what brought Mankell the most fame, selling forty million copies around the world, was his eleven book series on the Swedish police detective Kurt Wallander, which no doubt contributed to his image as a crime fiction writer.

The Guardian mentioned that he was “A leading figure in the so-called “Nordic noir” genre, exploring the darker side of Sweden and providing a counterpoint to the country’s image as a relatively crime-free society.”


Kenneth Branagh played Kurt Wallander for the BBC series, and so did Swedish actors, Rolf Lassgard, and Kristen Henriksson. Mankell noted that they had done a highly personalized depiction of his character and he was “honored’ by their portrayals.images

He stopped writing about Wallander while it was still fun, he said in an author’s note at in his novel, An Event In Autumn: In his own words: 

“But I don’t regret a single line of the thousands of lines I wrote about Wallander. I think the books live on because in many ways they are a reflection of what happened in Sweden and in Europe in the 1990s and the first decade of the twenty-first center. They are novels of Swedish unrest, as I used to call the series of books about Wallander.” images-1

When he heard he had lung cancer and it had spread to other parts of his body, he chronicled his decline in a series of articles. He remarked that he never lost hope in the future and that he was satisfied with his life.

This is about the best possible outcome as our lives come to a close and we take that long look back.

He chronicled his decline from lung cancer.

He chronicled his decline from lung cancer.

Brave and honorable human beings such as Henning Mankell live on inspiring us in our own works and deeds.


Parchment and Old Lace


I am delighted to announce that on October 6, 2015 Berkley Publishing will release the thirteenth book in the scrapbooking mystery series originated by Laura Childs. I am over the moon to tell you that I was honored to be asked by Laura to assist in writing  Parchment and Old Lace. We will be touring the blogosphere over the next few weeks,so if you see Laura, me, or Parchment  and Old Lace in your travels, please stop by and say hello.


Writing Organically

Stephen King does it, he writes organically, and another writer a little lower on the popularity scale, myself, and of course many others.

The First Writer and Editor: 'Take out that part?! Are you nuts? How is the stampede scene at the end of the cave going to make sense without it?!'

The First Writer and Editor: ‘Take out that part?! Are you nuts? How is the stampede scene at the end of the cave going to make sense without it?!’

A recent conversation with my sister revealed that people don’t know what the heck you’re talking about when you say you write organically. I told my sister that “nothing much was happening in my story,” and she delivered a long silence followed by “well?”

The most common reaction to my stories, although I’ve addressed organized crime and human trafficking, is that they are a “fun read.” That was kind of mysterious to me given the heavy subject matter. Then I realized that my books are like many others, they are adventures.

That’s always what I wanted them to be.

Of course, I place myself in my characters’ emotional lives and the physical movements and thought process begins and that’s what keeps the plot moving along. My research on the subject matter usually provides information for the reactions of my characters in a given situation.

If the plot gets stuck, for some reason or another, I just keep plowing along meaning my protagonist continues to do what she’s doing until another element pops up, or some event occurs to change the course of her actions. Which means I focus on another character and that character makes a surprising move and my protagonist reacts.

I also begin with a vision or two. Then I write to the vision, they usually reveal themselves in the course of the research on the chosen subject. I write to make the visions believable when the reader finally reaches them. But, I have no idea how the heck I’m going to get there, that depends on the research, the motives and the personalities of the characters.

Many wonderful writers, other than Stephen KIng, do a complete and detailed outline before they start. One new writer asked me how I began if I had no outline. I usually pick a subject I’m interested in, and what I think is a good move for my protagonist that has to do with research into the publishing business as well. Then my protagonist is fashioned by my own experience, sticking to that principle that you write about what you know. Endless details are the blood of your story, generally you don’t know them if you write about a subject you know little about even given the research.

I was an investigative reporter and so is Carol Rossi, my protagonist. A character, a subject and we’re off to the races.

I can see trying, however, to branch into subjects you know little about.

Do you do outlines?

Do you stick to what you know?




Crime Movies in the Queue: Dennis Lehane’s The Drop (2014)

the-drop-posterThis movie was previously called Animal Rescue, the title from Dennis Lehane’s short story from the Akashic collection Boston Noir, which he also editedWhile the title makes complete sense once you’ve seen the film, it could be a bit misleading in advance, because the subject matter is more centrally bad and not-so-bad people. Apparently 3 different puppies played Rocco, named after the Italian saint and patron of dogs, and they are deadly cute. If you’re sensitive to animals in peril, though the pooch starts in a tough place, I think you’ll feel okay with how this plays out. I’m glad they changed the title to The Drop, and since then, Lehane’s expanded the story into an entire novel to go with it and also got to make his debut outing as a screenwriter for the film.

Three days after Christmas, a lonely bartender looking for a reason to live rescues an abused puppy from a trash can and meets a damaged woman looking for something to believe in. As their relationship grows, they cross paths with the Chechen mafia; a man grown dangerous with age and thwarted hopes; two hapless stick-up artists; a very curious cop; and the original owner of the puppy, who wants his dog back. . . .

Boston-NoirI fear the movie’s release was a bit chilled by having the unfortunate distinction of being James Gandolfini’s last film appearance. (Maybe I’m wrong about that, and people flock for such reasons.) Gandolfini, as Cousin Marv, is very good, as are Englishman Tom Hardy as bartender Bob Saginowski (with a funny-pitched voice I liked) and Sweden’s Noomi Rapace as Nadia from the neighborhood (allowed to keep hints of her accent). Turns out another important character, Eric Deeds, was played by Matthias Schoenaerts, who is a Belgian, as is the director, Michaël R. Roskam, making his U.S. directorial debut. Unlike Lehane’s story, which was originally set in Boston (duh), the movie’s location moved to Brooklyn, which I think worked just fine. Hardcore, long-time Brooklynites might have quibbles, but having recently coped with seeing Coors on a “Boston” bar’s sign in Black Mass (also a recommended watch, but, um, NO), I’m feeling forgiving.

Lehane didn’t write the screenplay after his novel Mystic River, but director Clint Eastwood stayed very close to his source material. That meant lots of times when what was said wasn’t what was meant, where the simplicity of a statement was like the tippy-top of an unfathomably huge iceberg. The Drop is paced and told like that, too, a style which I really enjoy, because that’s what happens when people have painful enough history to speak in evasive shorthand about it. No one needs to say “As you know, when we did this thing at that place on such a date….” I always prefer mystery to be left in that kind of shared background, because it adds to the perceived import of whatever it was. Funnily enough, I think about what it meant that people at Hogwarts were so traumatized by the past they were afraid to speak Voldemort’s name. Bad times and bad people are like boogie men, and we can be afraid their names work like evocations. A life-changing moment or relationship may be reduced to “She left me.” or “He died by himself,” but that’s because we know words are insufficient. We barely sketch the outline for each other and require our shared humanity to fill in the rest of the significance.

The-dropThis movie is like that, told in hints and the looks crossing faces. The people in it are worth watching as they try to figure out who to believe, caught in situations where trust is in short supply. There are some darkly funny moments, too, and plot-wise, a couple of big surprises I really enjoyed. It was also nice to look at, because it was so regular. If they spent a lot of time masterminding a just-so production design, rather than just dropping into what is true-life for a lot of people, it didn’t look orchestrated. Having served my time behind the stick, Cousin Marv’s feels like a million local bars you could find anywhere across the country, and the streets and other interiors seemed that way, too. Even with genuine movie stars in it, the small, local ordinariness of it was very appealing. Experiencing a film less as cutesy, manipulative calculation and more just as being witness to a story can be a relief.

So, I’m recommending The Drop if you like such street-level crime dramas. The trailer gives a decent idea of the tensions at play, except the movie has much more quiet in it. It’s not relentlessly-paced, which makes the shocking scenes more dramatic and lets you know the characters and their lives better. So, add it to your queue, or tell me what you thought if you’ve seen it, too!

Banned Books Week

BBW-logoBanned Books Week runs September 27-October 3, 2015 this year.

Banned Books Week is the national book community’s annual celebration of the freedom to read.

Follow @BannedBooksWeek on Twitter, or “like” the Facebook page. The Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association is also on Twitter @OIF.

Over at www.fiercereads.com, enter the sweepstakes to win a selection of banned YA books.

Consider participating in the Virtual Read-Out, or check out these additional free events during the week.                                                  The Call of the Wild

Click here for a list of Banned Books That Shaped America, such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain (1884), The Call of the Wild, by Jack London (1903), and The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger (1951).


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National Punctuation Day & Contest


Each year, September 24 is National Punctuation Day. It was founded in 2004 by Jeff Rubin. It simply promotes the correct usage of punctuation.


Reader’s Digest offers Weird Facts About 5 Punctuation Marks You See Everywhere.

mental-floss-logoMental Floss tells us about Little-Known Punctuation Marks We Should Be Using

National Punctuation Day is having a writing contest. Instead of the usual 250-word essay contest, they are going with a David Letterman-type Top 10 Contest: WHAT ARE THE TOP-10 WAYS PUNCTUATION HAS AFFECTED YOUR LIFE? 

Entries will be accepted through October 31 at Jeff@NationalPunctuationDay.com. The page doesn’t indicate what the prize would be, if any.

National Punctuation Day has a Facebook Page. On their website, they list style books and guides, and online resources to help with punctuation and grammar.


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Brooklyn Book Festival

September 2015 marks the Tenth Anniversary of the Brooklyn Book Festival. The week long celebration of literacy and literature ended on Sunday with the lovely green plaza  filled with readers, writers and publishers and surrounded by Brooklyn Borough Hall, Court Houses and the Post Office .Book_Festival_market I was lucky enough to have a story in the most recent issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and luckier still that I got to sign copies for eager readers while hanging out with Senior Assistant Editor Jackie Sherbow, Emily Hockaday and some of the other fabulous staff at Dell Magazines, home of Ellery Queen, Alfred Hitchcock, Asimov and Analog magazines.


Terrie Moran, Jackie Sherbow and Emily Hockaday

Terrie Moran, Jackie Sherbow and Emily Hockaday

We had a grand time at a wonderful event. Congratulations Brooklyn! May the Brooklyn Book Festival last for many decades to come.


Extinguishing a Kitchen Oil Fire

An extremely effective video about a kitchen fire that could help save a life. This is actually an easy method as long as one doesn’t panic. Share this information!

Mrs O'Leary's CowNext month is Fire Prevention Month, which was started to commemorate the Great Chicago Fire in 1871. It began on October 8, but did most of its damage on October 9, 1871. Check here for more information and tips regarding fire safety.

Every year, Fire Prevention Safety has a theme. For 2015, it is: Hear The Beep Where You Sleep. Every Bedroom Needs a Working Smoke Alarm!


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Writing Tips from E.L. Doctorow

image via www.popmatters.com

image via www.popmatters.com

The world recently lost a great literary master, E.L. Doctorow (Edgar Lawrence Doctorow ~ his parents named him after Edgar Allan Poe ~ lived from January 6, 1931, until his death at age 84 on July 21, 2015).

Here, Doctorow is giving an interview about his writing processWriting Clip Art

One of Doctorow’s most famous tips about writing: “I tell them it’s like driving a car at night: you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

From one writer to another, Doctorow said, “Perseverance is all.”

Doctorow had many quotes about writing, including: “Good wriragtime-novel-e-l-doctorow-paperback-cover-artting is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader — not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.”

I was fortunate to have met E.L. Doctorow at the Southampton Writers Conference in 2006. He autographed a copy of The Book of Daniel for my nephew, Daniel.

Do you have a favorite E.L. Doctorow quote? (Mine is: “Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go.”)

How about a favorite book? (Mine is Ragtime).


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Happy Birthday, Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie was born 125 years ago today. While there have been many authors of detective stories since the genre was first created, it is hard to argue that Mrs. Christie isn’t the most famous.

She produced mysteries for 85 years. Her 80 books (includes both full length novels and short story collections) have sold billions of copies. It is hard to research a number on exactly how many due to the many editions and translations which have been published. A number between two and four billion copies is used.

And don’t forget the plays. The Mousetrap has been running continuously on the London stage since 1952 – where I personally have seen it several times. I’ve also watched some pretty good performances of this whodunit in community theaters on this side of the Atlantic.

christie typing

Agatha Christie at work. Here she is typing, but she began her career writing in long hand. Later in life she made use of a Dictaphone.

Where did Agatha Christie’s talent come from? The story of her first attempts at writing has been often told. While recovering from influenza, the young Agatha was encouraged by her mother to try writing down the stories she liked to invent. She enjoyed writing, but found it frustrating. During the next several years she persisted and eventually found her way to detective fiction.

By all accounts Agatha, an only and solitary child, was a prolific reader who had also been read the books of Charles Dickens (her favorite was Bleak House) by her mother. At the age of eight she discovered Sherlock Holmes. More than one critic has noted the parallels between Sherlock Holmes/ Dr. Watson/ Inspector Lestrade, and Christie’s characters: Hercule Poirot, Captain Hastings, and Inspector Japp.

In 1916 Christie began writing her first mystery: The Mysterious Affair At Styles, which introduced Poirot to the reading public. The novel was not published until 1921 (copyright: 1920); the manuscript had been rejected by six publishers before The Bodley Head decided to consider it.

It took eighteen months before the decision to accept the book was made by The Bodley Head and Agatha signed her first publishing contract. The terms were 1) no advance; and 2) no royalties until 2,500 copies had been sold. Also, The Bodley Head had the rights to her next five books! It is worth noting that sales of Styles did not reach the 2,500 mark, and the only money Christie received from her first published book was 25 pounds from the magazine serial sale.


The Crime Club jacket for Sparkling Cyanide (1945). When Agatha Christie signed her first publishing deal with The Bodley Head in 1921, she didn’t know how to negotiate favorable terms for herself. But in 1930 she became one of the first authors in the new Crime Club series begun by the London publisher Collins. Her first book The Murder At The Vicarage had an initial printing of 5,500 copies.

Her second book The Secret Adversary (1922) was a thriller about espionage. Christie said it was easier to write than a detective story.

But detective stories were her forte, and once she started she was prolific. A new Agatha Christie usually appeared at the end of every year, just in time for Christmas and holiday gifting. Royalties also increased with her popularity. In 1976 she was paid $1 million for the American paperback rights to Sleeping Murder, the last book in which Miss Marple appears.

Christie novels are not high brow, and their author has her critics. But the fans outweigh the fault finders, and I proudly count her as my favorite crime author. Her style of writing influenced mine, and I learned a lot about writing a mystery by dissecting her books.

I love her use of red herrings. She always has numerous suspects, and she will lead you astray from time to time in your pursuit of determining the guilty party. But she always plays fair. Everything you need to know is laid out in the story. You just have to pick out the bits that are relevant to the crime as opposed to what are the red herrings.

For example, one of her devices is to give you a clue to the murderer’s identity early in the plot. This is at a time when you, the reader, are still getting acquainted with the characters in the book. You are happily reading along, blissfully paying no notice to that key clue in the first chapter.

I draw your attention to A Murder Is Announced (1950).

Dora Bunner is the resident house guest of her childhood friend, Letitia Blacklock, whose late sister Charlotte was also a friend of Dora’s. Early in the story Letitia, whom everyone calls Letty, is addressed as Lotte by Dora. Your eyes move unwittingly over Dora’s slip of the tongue, much to your later chagrin when the killer is unmasked at the story’s end.


Actor David Suchet is one of many performers to play the role of Hercule Poirot. Agatha Christie insisted that an image Poirot not be used on her book covers.

In Cards On The Table (1936), the wealthy Mr. Shaitana is murdered in his own home by one of the guests at his dinner party. The several guests are playing bridge while he sits in a chair by the fire where he is stabbed. One of the four card players had the opportunity to murder their host while he or she was dummy in the bridge game and could get up and leave the table.

Poirot must deduce which of the bridge players is Shaitana’s killer. Again you, the reader, follow the investigation, accepting at face value the clues to the killer’s identity given in the narrative. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that the solution to this crime is much more complicated than first appears.

Peril At End House (1932) is another favorite Christie. Nick Buckley, a young woman who owns a run down seaside estate, tells Hercule Poirot that someone is trying to killer her. Poirot witnesses with his own eyes a bullet which barely misses Nick’s head and leaves a hole in her hat.

You, the reader, think you know what’s going on. Afraid not. This is another Christie plot which will confound you, but the keys to the unexpected solution are once again right there in the pages of the book.

I’ve always liked The ABC Murders (1936). Mrs. Ascher of Andover is the first of the victims in the alphabetical list of serial killings where the victims’ names and the places of their residence both begin with the same letter of the alphabet. So are these ABC murders the work of Alexander Bonaparte Cust, the traveling salesman who is conveniently in all the alphabetical cities on the same day as the murder of the alphabetical victims?

What do you think?

Remember that characters can lie.

When she began writing, Agatha Christie asked a Devon neighbor, novelist and poet Eden Phillpotts, to read one of her manuscripts. He thought she had talent and wrote her a letter with some valuable advice, which she followed her entire career:

“Try and leave your characters alone, so that they can speak for themselves, instead of always rushing in to tell them what they ought to say, or to explain to the reader what they meant by what they are saying. That is for the reader to judge for himself.”

How about you? Are you a Christie fan? I’d love to know your favorite novels and why you enjoy them.