Mistletoe and Mayhem: Christmas Crime Time

Mysterious

It’s the time of the season where I like to indulge myself in a little holiday criminal activity… on the written page only of course. Over the past few years I read one or two mysteries set during the Christmas season. This year’s top choice is Christmas at The Mysterious Bookshop.

As a way to give back to his customers for their support and loyalty, The owner of The Mysterious Bookshop,  Otto Penzler, commissioned an original short story from a top notch crime writer each year that he would give away to his devoted customers. Penzler gave the authors three rules; first the story had to be a mystery, second it had to be set during the Christmas season, and finally The Mysterious Bookshop had to be included in some way. Over the years, writers have included Lawrence Block, Anne Perry, Mary Higgins Clark, Ed McBain, Donald E. Westlake, and  Meagan Abbott among others.  In all, 17 stories were written. 

In 2010, Penzler published the complete collection of short fiction under the title Christmas at The Mysterious Bookshop.  Recently, I purchased a copy and am ready to sit down by the fireplace with a hot chocolate and dive in. Okay, I live in Florida and I don’t have a fireplace! It will be more like turning on the air conditioning and a cold drink, but a fireplace and hot chocolate sounds more cozy and seasonal.

There are plenty of Christmas crime tales to keep you busy for many seasons to come, especially if you read cozy’s. I rarely do, but admittedly I have indulged Lea Wait’s Shadows on a Maine Christmas is a favorite.

I have listed below a partial list Christmas themed mysteries I’ve read in past years, and I am always looking for suggestions for the future.

Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (aka A Murder for Christmas & A Holiday for Murder) – Agatha Christie

The Spy Who Came for Christmas – David Morrell

A Christmas Tragedy (short story) – Agatha Christie 

Silent Night (Spenser) Robert B. Parker and Helen Brann

The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries – Otto Penzler (editor)

Visions of Sugar Plums – Janet Evanovich

Deck the Halls – Mary Higgins Clark and Carol Higgins Clark

Merry Christmas, Alex Cross – James Patterson

Shadows on a Maine Christmas – Lea Wait

Sanity Clause – Steve Brewer

King’s Christmas (short story) – Richard  Neer

 

 

Interview with author D.H. Schleicher

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The Great Depression has been the setting for many novels, notably John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, films (Wild Boys of the Road, There Will Be Blood) and in photographs by artists like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. It’s a fascinating period that is brought to life in author D. H. Schleicher’s second novel, Then Came Darkness.

Schleicher’s work has appeared in Underground Voices, Scratch, The Eunoia Review, Lit Noir, and Wonders in the Dark. He blogs about books, movies, and travel at The Schleicher Spin.

David was gracious enough to take some time out from his busy schedule and for this interview. 

Can you tell us a little what Then Came Darkness is about?

This is always a loaded question – talking about your own work, but I’ll give it a shot.

On the surface level, it’s about the Kydd family struggling to survive in the aftermath of the poor decisions made by the father, Samuel.  He’s brought all kinds of hardships on his wife, Evelyn, and their children, and it culminates in the return of his former business partner Joshua Bloomfield (a greedy, petty, misogynist, racist, revenge-fueled sociopath) who brings darkness and destruction everywhere he goes.

But apart from their family centered stressors, there are these cataclysmic world events weighing down on the family as well – the Great Depression, and the global rumblings that would bring about World War II.  I wanted readers to think about this family, and especially the kids, and wonder, “If they survive Joshua Bloomfield, and the Great Depression…what’s next?”  I wanted that to be part of the suspense.  Tyrus Kydd would be old enough to be drafted towards the end of WWII.  That sense of an always increasing impending doom…that even if they survive this immediate threat…there’s always more darkness creeping around the corner, looming on the horizon, ready to suck them right back into chaos.  I wanted to explore what kind of resilience a person would need in a world like that, and the types of decisions they would be forced to make.

What was your inspiration for the novel?

The Great Depression always fascinated me.  I always wanted to write a period piece that took place during the Great Depression.  Meanwhile, Upstate New York is one of my favorite places on earth, and I knew that I wanted to set a story in those fabled hills, with the Cooperstown area serving as the model for the fictional towns of Fenimore and Milton.  The idea of that dramatic and beautiful setting, and that traumatic milieu (the Great Depression) naturally brought to life the characters that would inhabit the world of Then Came Darkness.

I know you’re a big movie fan. How much influence did film have in the creation of the book?

I try to write in a vivid, cinematic style and I always imagine how my stories would work if they were to be movies.

If one were to boil down the main plot of Then Came Darkness, it could sound like a retread of The Night of the Hunter.  I saw that film for the first time as a child and it haunts me still.  Its influence is clear.

Another film that greatly influenced the style and tone of the novel is There Will Be Blood – that definitive sense of doom and fate and events put into motion by the minds and hands of misguided, greedy men.  I initially imagined Joshua Bloomfield as a broken-down, unsuccessful version of Daniel Plainview.  As I wrote the story he morphed into something a bit different, but that was my initial impression.

Steven Soderbergh’s King of the Hill was also an inspiration for the similar Depression-era setting and its depiction of the relationship between the two young brothers.

What kind of research did you do to capture the feel of the Depression era?

Every setting in the novel is based on places I have visited and researched.  Also, as I wrote the novel, I was constantly researching things like “what songs or radio programs were popular then?” to add layers to the characters by giving them favorite books, songs, and shows.  I also researched other events that were happening on the periphery that would be of interest to the characters (i.e. Lou Gehrig’s 1936 MVP campaign which was of great interest to Tyrus Kydd).   The heat wave in the novel is also based on the real record-breaking heat wave from that year.

Any real life people who inspired you in developing your characters?

The character of Myra Long has a brief affair with a photographer, and the works of this fictional photographer that are described in the novel are directly inspired by actual photographs taken by renowned Depression-era photographer Walker Evans.

The family dog Sue (a pivotal character) was inspired by a border collie my roommates and I rescued while in college.  She was a great dog but a restless soul, and we eventually had to give her away to someone who owned a farm so she could fulfill her life’s mission to run wild through fields and herd things.

What are your currently reading?

I normally read literary and mainstream fiction (an old Michael Ondaatje book is in my queue right now) but I’ve been on a weird kick lately.  I just finished the sci-fi novel, Artemis, which I didn’t care for, and I’m about 100 pages through the prequel to Dracula that just came out called Dracul, which I’m finding far more entertaining than I thought it would be.  To balance that, I’m also reading the annual Best American Short Stories (chosen by Roxane Gay).

Would you tell us a few of your favorite books?

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

Light in August by William Faulkner

Jazz by Toni Morrison

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene (my favorite writer, I love all of his work)

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

Recent Read: The Thin Man

Thin

“Nora: “How do you feel?”

Nick: “Terrible. I must’ve gone to bed sober.”

If you drank as much as Nick Charles does in The Thin Man, Nora does pretty well herself, you would never get passed the first few chapters of this or any other book. AA or even an early death would be in your future. The generous amounts of drinking may signal more about the author’s appetite for booze than anything else. The Thin Man is a decent mystery, but it’s most enjoyable for its sophisticated bantering and witty dialogue.

Nick and Nora Charles have come to New York for the Christmas holidays. Nick, the son of Greek immigrants, is a former Private Investigator who has given up his career after marrying socialite Nora. Nick rather spend his time drinking which he does in ample amounts. He is drawn unwillingly into a case involving a missing inventor and his dead mistress.  While solving the case, there is plenty of drinking, bantering, drinking,  smart dialogue and still more drinking.

The Thin Man is a  fun mystery but not in the same class as The Maltese Falcon. There is an odd break about halfway through when Hammett goes into a long, detailed story about the Alfred G. Packer (first name is sometimes spelled Alferd) cannibalism case which extends for quite a few pages and breaks the rhythm. The Packer story is interesting in itself but seems to have no relationship to the rest of the book and goes on for way too long. I have to wonder why Hammett included it, what was the point?

 

Book Review: Fugitive Red

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Jack Harper is  stuck in an unhappy marriage. He and his wife Maria have been  in a downward spiral for years. Jack is an ex-alcoholic and former musician who is now a real estate broker. Maria has a corporate job and is the main bread winner in the family. They have an eight year old son, Jacob, who they both love, but he is their only connection these days. They barely talk and their sex life went down the tubes years ago.

When an old friend of Jack’s, a hot shot in the music industry, comes to town and brags about his extra-marital affairs meeting women through a dating website strictly for married people in unhappy relationships. Unhappy Jack reluctantly takes the plunge. On the website he “meets” Sophie  whose on line name is Fugitive Red. They have a few steamy conversations, she likes rough sex, and Jack’s soon convinced they made a real connection. The two agree to meet at her Manhattan town house  for a get together. When Jack arrives, he find Sophie dead…her head bashed in and a red tie around her neck.

He calls the police to report the crime and quickly becomes their number one suspect. Jack’s life quickly spirals out of control with not only the police on his tail, but after Maria discovers his involvement with the dead suspect she tosses him out on the street, changing locks on the door of their apartment, cutting off his credit cards and getting a restraining order. When two more bodies show up, one Sophie’s husband, Jack is in for a complete meltdown.

Jason Starr writes brilliantly flawed characters. He captures the grit and nuance of New York in this twisty suspense filled thriller. You will find Fugitive Red hard to put down.

 

Book Review: The Man Who Came Uptown

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Both crime fiction and book lovers will rejoice after reading George Pelecanos’ latest novel The Man Who Came Uptown. He not only gives us a character dictated crime story, but  pays tribute to book lovers and the joys of reading.

Incarcerated in a Washington D. C. prison,  Michael Hudson discovers a love of books thanks to Anna, the prison’s librarian. Michael’s love of reading opens up new worlds and possibilities that he never imagined. Anna encourages Michael and other prisoners at their weekly meeting to not only read but understand and discuss what the author is saying.

One week Michael does not show up. He’s been unexpectedly released from prison. Charges have all been dropped due to a shady P.I. named Phil Ornazian  who convinced the witness in Michael’s case not to remember a thing. Suddenly, Michael is no longer wearing an orange jumpsuit and is a free man. Phil lets Michael know that he owes him and some day payback will be requested. A free man, Michael is determined to go straight. He gets a job, buys himself a bookcase and books to read.

Ornazian is the kind of P.I. who walks the edge when it comes to good and bad, He wants to provide for his wife and kids and sometimes that means taking a walk on the wrong side of the law. He hates pimps who live off women and helps one hooker get out of the life by robbing the pimp and giving her enough of the money he stole for her to get out of town and start a new life some where far away.

When Ornazian needs a wheel man for one of his jobs, he calls in his favor with Michael Hudson; the dude knows how to handle cars. Michael doesn’t want to get involved, but Ornazian lets him know that the witness who forgot everything he saw could suddenly have an epiphany.

The Man Who Came Uptown is a tale about the love of books and about making choices. The kind of choices we all have to make in life. Sometimes we learn from them and sometimes we die.

 

 

 

 

 

The Best Years of Our Lives on TCM


the-best-years-of-our-lives-still-526x295William Wyler’s superb film about returning veterans will be broadcast on TCM tonight at 10 PM eastern. The brilliant cast includes Dana Andrews, Fredric March, Myrna Loy, Theresa Wright, Virgina Mayo, and Harold Russell, A must see!

Read about it and more than 30 other important films in my my book, Lessons in the Dark. Available at Amazon. Just click here.

Lessons Dark Final Book Cover