Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Man Who Craved Christie

Recently, following a funeral service for my wife’s uncle, I found myself in the basement/library room of the Pennsylvania house that he had shared with his wife, also deceased. While other family members were gathered upstairs, I took a moment to glance over the titles that lined those shelves. Among other things, I discovered a number of paperback mysteries, including a host of Agatha Christies, circa 1960s. While there are, of course, a multitude of Christie editions out in the world, I always find myself gravitating towards those paperbacks that I read as a teen-ager (mostly Dells, Bantams & Pocket Books.) Back then, I logged close to 40 titles and, to this day, I remember every cover. Those editions passed from my hands not long after I hit my twenties, but I’ve periodically acquired versions of them from used book stores. And now, a good number of those very editions were here on Herb and Molly’s shelves! I knew that their daughter would eventually be selling the house, and that she’d be purging, in various ways, its contents. But still, it seemed a little Dickensian to be coveting the effects of a man who’d just been put to rest. You know, like that creepy trio of cockneys in A Christmas Carol who’ve snatched Scrooge’s bed curtains and whatnot. I sure didn’t want to be a creepy cockney. (Whoa now, I’m not saying that all cockneys are creepy, only the curtain-snatching variety.) Anyway, I consulted with my wife, who said it wouldn’t hurt to ask—and it truly didn’t. After hearing of my enthusiasm for those books, Herb’s daughter was more than happy to pass them on to someone who’d appreciate them. So, therein lies the lesson of this little tale: it never hurts to express honest enthusiasm—even at the risk of appearing Dickensian. And when my time comes—a century or so down the line—please feel free to come raid my bookshelves…. 

Item image  Item imageItem image

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Book Deal!

As the next turn on my long, winding road as a writer, I’ve hit a much hoped for milestone: a deal has been struck to publish my mystery novel. Just this afternoon, my agent reached an agreement with a major publisher – St. Martin’s Press – for a two book contract. The first manuscript is in the editor’s hands; the second is to come. (These novels will feature my detective team of O’Nelligan and Plunkett whom I’ve grown quite fond of after having written and published three of their shorter tales already.) This all came to pass in a rather intriguing way. Last November, I was attending the mystery writer’s conference Crime Bake in Massachusetts. I was there as a panelist, but also as one of many writers trying to find representation for his manuscript. I pitched to a couple of literary agents there, who, in the end, chose not to take on the project. However, one night I ended up by chance dining next to Susan Gleason, an agent who I had not pitched to. Between the entrée and dessert, she told me that if I had something I wanted her to look over, I should feel free to contact her. I accepted her card and filed it in my breast pocket. Jump ahead to a year later, almost to the day. I’m driving down to this year’s Crime Bake, when I get a call from Susan (who by now has become my agent) to say that St. Martin’s has made an offer on the book. Ah yes! The whole cycle of this story begins and ends with Crime Bake – for which I tender an immense shout out. So that, my friends, is today’s tale…

 become a travel writer

Thursday, November 10, 2011

A Myth in the Forest

Like Odysseus returning to Ithaca after his eponymous adventure, I come back to this my blog after a bout of worldly activity and cyber absence. (A grandiose comparison, I know.) The center of my autumn doings was the Forest of Mystery, a large-scale outdoor theatrical event which I write and direct. With a cast of thirty and many support folk, it’s quite the production and became the center of my creative world for the fall months. This year, I wrote the script based on the old Irish myth of Sive (Irish spelling: Saidbhin) which I came upon in a roundabout way. Wearing another of my hats, I write traditional whodunits set in the 1950s, my detective being Mr. O’Nelligan, an Irish immigrant originally from County Kerry where my mother’s parents were born. This summer, while preparing for my next story, I was doing some research on Cahirciveen, my grandmother's hometown. I discovered that Cahirciveen translates as Cathair Saidbhín, meaning "little Sive's stone fort" derived from the old Celtic legend of Sive, a maiden turned into a deer through dark sorcery. I located the myth, read it, and had an aha! moment when I realized that here could well be this year's Forest of Mystery tale. Using the basic structure of the legend, I added a few other traditional Irish folk characters and expanded on the idea of a human emerged in a world of meadow and woodland. As the production came together, some of my actors provided various items that come from Ireland itself--here a shawl, there a walking stick, here a tapestry--which found their way into the performance. So, there was indeed a bit of the old country out there in the forest those nights. The shows went grandly and I was much content to have reached back to my Irish roots for an ancient tale. As for Mr. O’Nelligan, he’ll be seeing the light o’ day himself again in December in the upcoming issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. So, all told, it’s been a rather Celtic season for me. All to the good.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Goaded by Pogues

My agent has just started to sail my mystery novel (The Spiritualists) out upon the wild blue waves of the publishing world. Here's hoping it finds a friendly port. I'm working now on the second novel of the series featuring my Irish-born detective, Mr. O'Nelligan. After a spell of slow-going, I've finally picked up some speed and seem to be in gear. Today while driving, I was listening to the gentle liltings of the Pogues. (For those not in the know, they're a raucous, stage-shaking punk/traditionalist Irish band who've been plying their wares for three decades.) The song I was listening to was "Down All The Days," a tribute to the late Dublin author Christy Brown--whom many know through the biographical 1989 film "My Left Foot." Born with severe cerebral palsy, Brown taught himself to write (and paint) with the only means available to him: the aforementioned foot. As I listened to the Pogues hard-driving ballad, I thought "Hell, if that guy had to type novels with his toes, what's my blanking excuse?" After all, in the light of Christy Brown's Herculean challenge, "My Two Perfectly-Functioning Hands" would make for a lacklustre book title. Thus goaded, I'm back at the keyboard...

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

I Do Love Thee, Doctor Fell

In getting primed for writing my next mystery tale, I’ve been reading some of the old masters. One novelist who has somewhat fallen from modern view is John Dickson Carr. I’m finishing up Hag’s Nook, the first of his Dr. Fell mysteries. Gideon Fell—a lexicographer by trade—is a rather bulky fellow, bespeckled and mustached, who wears a cape and gets about with the aid of two canes. In some of the novels, he’s compared to Father Christmas or Old King Cole. When not plying his sleuthing skills, the good doctor is busy writing a seemingly endless book on the lore and history of British beer-drinking. Hey, what’s not to like about this guy? John Dickson Carr (who also wrote under the pseudonym Carter Dickson) has earned the reputation as master of the locked room mystery. Additionally, his books often have a gothic, ghostly undercurrent that appeals to my own shadowy Irish heart. Hag’s Nook concerns a crumbling, ancient prison tower, an impossible death, and a creaky old family curse. Again, what’s not to like?

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

My Boyhood Crush on Agatha Christie

(This essay of mine was originally published in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.)

            Perhaps a muse should be made of more gossamer stuff.
Perhaps she should take the shape of a frolicking maiden with long, wind-whipped tresses, fine of form and ethereal in nature. Somebody, well…elfin. My own particular muse, however, was none of that. Solid, tweedy, very British, and cresting eighty by the time I first read her—such was Dame Agatha Christie.  
When I was thirteen, I caught a televised version of Ten Little Indians and was reeled in by the narrative of strangers trapped on an island as some unknown murderer whittled through them. Learning that the story was but one of very many by a particular author, I promptly went out and purchased my first Agatha Christie paperback mystery. It was called Murder After Hours, and the cover artist had done a bang-up job of setting the mood. He had placed upon a window ledge a tantalizing array of objects: a golden-beamed flashlight; a crumpled, cryptic note; a floral-patterned teacup; and a revolver. If all that wasn’t enough, just outside the cracked pane a perched owl scowled at me from a dark-purple sky. I was hooked. What’s more, the illustration proved to be an accurate representation of what a Christie tale was, suggesting puzzlement, mayhem, deduction, and (via the teacup) refined civility.  
While, like many a lad, I had cut my mystery teeth on (who else?) the Hardy Boys, Christie now became the first “adult’ author of my reading life. Along with the stellar John Steinbeck, she was the writer who kept calling me back throughout my teen years. In that period, I racked up about forty of her works. I still feel a shudder of nostalgia when I recall opening a particular Christmas present to discover a stack of five glistening Christie paperbacks. Well done, Mom.
I could spin you long anecdotes of how Agatha Christie has popped up time and time again in my life. I could tell the account of weeping over a potential break-up with a girlfriend in an Irish pub and how our recriminations ground to a halt as our eyes locked on the pub TV—Hercule Poirot had just squeezed his suspects into the parlor and was about to reveal the culprit! I could tell about the afternoon years later when my wife (a different lass) was jitteringly awaiting the results of a home pregnancy test while I calmed myself with the dénouement of the Christie novel I was just then finishing. Whodunit? Turns out it was me! Nine months later we had a daughter and we named her… Sorry, not Agatha. Sure, I could tell you stories, but I won’t.
In my own foray into the world of mystery writing, I’ve leaned firmly on Christie’s shoulders. All her frills and thrills—the gathering of suspects, the detective’s damning soliloquy, the cornering of the (hopefully) least likely suspect—all have I embraced warmly. My own detective, Mr. O’Nelligan, who’s appeared twice so far in these pages, owes much to Poirot and Miss Marple, Christie’s forefront sleuths. True, I made O’Nelligan Irish as befits my roots, but his spiritual godmother is definitely Dame Agatha.
Having been asked to select a Christie short story for republication in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, I happened to start my search at an unfamiliar used bookstore. After exploring the mystery section thoroughly, I was saddened to find not a single Christie title on the shelves. How the mighty have fallen, I lamented to myself. Time was when no honorable bookseller would have dared neglect the grand duchess of deduction. I sought out the proprietor to sound my concern. Following the path of his pointed finger, I turned to find myself facing a multi-tiered bookshelf stuffed with nothing but Christie books. Aha! She’d been accorded her own section.
I really needn’t have been concerned. After all, Christie’s works (a whopping127 books and 15 plays) have sold something like four billion copies worldwide, putting her and her countryman Mr. Shakespeare alone atop that particular literary plateau. Her play The Mousetrap has been running non-stop in London for fifty-eight years and counting, closing in on 24,000 performances. You’d think that by now someone would have let slip the ending, but apparently not. Some modern critics have faulted Christie for a certain quaintness of style and occasional stereotyping, and, I’ll admit, for those very reasons I eliminated a few of her tales from my consideration. Still, few connoisseurs of the mystery genre will deny her skill in constantly tricking her readers. 
One last thing concerning my connection with Agatha Christie. On the day I left my teen years and entered the realm of young adulthood—my 20th birthday, January 12, 1976—my muse left the world itself. On that very same day, at age eighty-five, the Queen of Crime slipped off forever into the dark-purple night.


Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Kite Speaketh

            Like a befuddled kite in a trade wind, I now find myself whirling into the cyber ether. This is the inaugural entry of my newly minted blog. Yes, with my wife’s technical assistance, I’ve officially been dragged kicking and screaming into the new millennium. As a published writer hoping to further ply his trade, I’ve known for some time that I needed to create more of an “online presence” as they say. And thus I now blog. Much of my writing gravitates towards historic themes, so this sort of modernity doesn’t necessarily come easy to me. For God’s sake, even my spell check doesn’t recognize the notion of “blog.” It strongly suggests that the word I meant to write is “bog” – as in a dank, spongy expanse into which unfamiliar wayfarers might fatally sink. So… Welcome to my bog!
The truth is, I’m probably more suited to the quill pen than the keyboard, which brings me to Nathaniel Hawthorne. My collegian daughter has recently taken on an assignment exploring ‘ol Nat’s use of folklore. Knowing that her sire had tiptoed through the hawthorn in his time, she asked me for short story suggestions. Having read most of “Twice-Told Tales” – which, by the way, my daughter thinks is the best title ever, as do I. – I offered up three of those: "The Minister's Black Veil," "The Gray Champion"  and "The May-Pole of Merry Mount." She’d just read “Young Goodman Brown” (from the collection Mosses from an Old Manse) so that seemed like a good quartet of stories to work off of.
Inspired by that discussion, I spent the next couple of days rereading those four tales plus several others by the venerable old Salemian.  (Isn’t that what you call a denizen of Salem, Massachusetts?) Even though Hawthorne’s tales aren’t bursting with happy endings, I still find something quite comforting in those ancient, gothic, spooky, Puritan-plagued narratives. So, if you’d like to spend an evening in antique New England, pull down that dusty volume (the one your grandfather gave you for your high school graduation) and revisit my favorite Bododian. (Isn’t that what you call someone who attended Bowdoin College?) Boy, that guy sure could quiver a quill…