J. Sydney Jones's Blog

September 26, 2014

german 2It’s been a hundred years since the beginning of the ‘war to end all wars’, and there have been a spate of books published this year looking at all aspects of World War One. I add a fictional element with The German Agent, a thriller set in Washington, DC, in 1917. Though the war had raged in Europe, the Middle East, and even parts of Africa for three years, the U.S. did not join in hostilities until 1917. The German Agent provides background to how we got involved in the international stage and is also a good, old-fashioned thriller in the style of Ken Follett.


The German Agent is available in England at the end of  September, and coming to the U.S. market in January, 2015. First a quick blurb, and please read on for a post on the inspiration for the book:


A ruthless German spy is torn between love and duty in this powerful espionage thriller


February, 1917. A lone German agent is dispatched to Washington to prevent the British delivering a telegram to President Woodrow Wilson – by any means possible. For this is the Zimmermann telegram: it contains a devastating piece of news which is sure to bring the USA into the war on the side of Britain and her allies.


Having fought in the trenches himself, Max Volkman knows that America’s involvement will only prolong the slaughter of innocents and is implacable in his determination to kill the British envoy carrying the telegram. But when his pursuit of the Englishman leads him to the home of American heiress Catherine Fitzgerald, wife to one of Washington’s most powerful politicians, he is presented with a terrible choice: loyalty to his comrades in the trenches or the loss of the one woman he has ever truly loved.


His decision will determine the outcome of the First World War.


The German Agent was inspired by two documents: a 1917 telegram sent from zimmermannGermany to Mexico, and a work of historical re-creation written four decades later. This is the story of that dual inspiration:


“Make war together, make peace together.”


That was the crux of a telegram sent in January 1917 by Germany’s foreign minister, Arthur Zimmermann, to Mexico via the German ambassador in Washington, D.C. What Zimmerman offered was a chance for Mexico to reclaim its lost territories in the American Southwest, simply by allying with Germany in the event that the United States declared war against the Central Powers–hardly a remote possibility, as Germany was set to recommence its unrestricted submarine warfare in a matter of weeks.


In other words, Germany was telling Mexico, Join us, and you’ll get Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico back.


But the telegram never became the diplomatic coup it was intended to be; instead, it was turned into the crux of a real-life spy thriller that sounds like something from John Buchan, or better yet, John le Carré. And it is the subject of Barbara Tuchman’s 1958 bestseller, The Zimmermann Telegram.


Like the best spy novels, Tuchman’s book is told from multiple points of view; it shifts location from London to Berlin to Washington to Mexico in a dizzying whirl of cross and double-cross, encoding and decoding lore, back-corridor negotiating and haggling; and it has a cast of high-profile, sometimes pompous, sometimes noble, sometimes risible characters that keeps the reader always guessing for motive and means.


decoded-message-l“The first message of the morning watch plopped out of the pneumatic tube into the wire basket with no more premonitory rattle than usual,” writes Tuchman at the start of her book. A classic sort of in medias res opener that is familiar from all good, fast-paced thrillers. I remember reading that sentence as a college student in a freshman modern European history survey course, and it hooked me. It still does. It was the first time I encountered hard-driving narrative history that could equal the best of fiction for pace and action.


The “message” in question, so innocent-seeming at first, is, of course the intercepted telegram sent by Zimmermann. The pneumatic tube spitting out its staple products is located in the ultra-secret Room 40 at British Naval Intelligence, the center of cryptanalysis for the Brits and run by the legendary Admiral William Reginald “Blinker” Hall. The folks in Room 40 are quickly able to decipher the telegram, as they have broken the German code. Soon analysts, strategists, and politicians in England will know they have geo-political gold: the smoking-gun evidence of evil intentions by the Kaiser and his cronies that will force the reluctant and insular Americans into the bloody fray of the First World War, and thereby end the deadly trench-war stalemate in Europe. (Ironically, in the Second World War the British trotted out a similar scenario–fabricated this time–prior to Pearl Harbor. A suddenly discovered German map displayed Mexico and the United States checkerboarded into German administrative districts, or Gau. This formed the basis of William Boyd’s 2006 novel, Restless.)


But now, as all good thriller writers do, Tuchman ups the stakes. There are complications upon complications. The British cannot simply hand over the decoded message to President Woodrow Wilson. First, they are guilty of poaching the telegram from a supposedly secure cable that Washington has established with Berlin in hopes of keeping peace communications open. Second, they do not want to let the Germans know they have cracked their code, in which case it will be changed and future valuable information will be lost. The British want their cryptographic pie and to eat it, as well.


Even as a fix is found for these early complications–fabrication of a tale that the


Willard Hotel, Washington, DC--scene of some of the action in THE GERMAN AGENT

Willard Hotel, Washington, DC–scene of some of the action in THE GERMAN AGENT


telegram has been discovered via the telegraph office in Mexico–others arise. Will the telegram be discounted as a forgery, a nefarious British invention by American isolationists such as Senator Robert La Follette? Can pro-war Americans such as Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and former President Theodore Roosevelt be counted on to back its authenticity? What will the anti-war Wilson do if and when the telegram is put into his hands?


Author Tuchman lets us see each of these characters in turn, using a few brisk and memorable words to fix them in our minds, as she does with Admiral Hall upon our first meeting, dubbing him “a demonic Mr. Punch in uniform.”


Meanwhile, the tide seems to be turning in Europe; resumption of Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare could spell the end for the Allies, cut off from American aid. Can the telegram save the cause? Tuchman sets the clock ticking, and the reader feels the urgency, feels the anguished tug of war between competing agencies and governments, all after the American prize.


And then on April 2, 1917, the Allies won that prize, with the American declaration of war on Germany. Although many people blamed Germany’s torpedoing of civilian ships for Wilson’s agonized decision, Tuchman has gone behind the scenes to show us other reasons for U.S. involvement. Hers is a tale of conspiracy and deceit mixed with occasional splendid bravery that can serve as the model for any aspiring thriller writer.


Commenting on the importance of the incident, Tuchman notes in the last lines of her book: “In itself the Zimmermann telegram was only a pebble on the long road of history. But a pebble can kill a Goliath, and this one killed the American illusion that we could go about our business happily separate from other nations. In world affairs it was a German Minister’s minor plot. In the lives of the American people it was the end of innocence.”


A thriller with a message. Now, that is cause for celebration.


So how is it that a professional historian, a winner of two Pulitzer Prizes and the author of such best-selling and critically acclaimed works as The Guns of August, The Proud Tower, A Distant Mirror, The March of Folly, Practicing History, and Stilwell and the American Experience in China, was able to write such moving narrative history?


Well, because she was not a professional historian, not an academic. In a New York Times interview, Tuchman shared the secret of her success–she had never attended graduate school, content with a bachelor’s from Radcliffe: “It’s what saved me, I think. If I had taken a doctoral degree, it would have stifled any writing capacity.”


Amen to that.


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Published on September 26, 2014 09:16 • 2 views

September 9, 2014

barry-lancet-4-thumbBarry Lancet is the author of the Jim Brodie series of thrillers, featuring the Tokyo-based PI and antiques dealer. Lancet hit the ground running with the first novel in the series, Japantown, which was nominated for a Barry Award and selected as the Best Debut of the Year by Suspense Magazine in 2013. It was highly praised by critics. Booklist called it a “solid mystery with a memorable protagonist, the book captures our interest from the first page,” while the New York Times dubbed it a “sophisticated international thriller.” Japantown was also optioned for television by J. J. Abrams’ Bad Robot Productions, in association with Warner Bros.


The eagerly awaited sequel, Tokyo Kill, just released, takes readers into the realms of the Triads, Chinese spies, and Japanese kendo warriors, in a “first-rate mystery,” according to Booklist. Similarly, Kirkus Reviews felt that this series is “highly distinctive.”


Lancet may have been a first time novelist with Japantown, but he was not new to publishing or to Japan, having lived in Tokyo for twenty-five years and working for one of Japan’s premier publishing houses, developing books on Japanese culture from history to fiction, and from Japanese cuisine to martial arts.


Barry, it’s a real pleasure to have you on Scene of the Crime. Maybe japantown-thumbwe could start out by talking about your connection to Tokyo and Japan. How did you come to live there?


The first time I visited Japan was on pure whim. I’d planned on going to London and Paris, but when some new Japanese acquaintances suggested I come visit them in Tokyo, I said as a joke that maybe I’d “go the long way around from California to Europe.”


Several years on that is exactly what I did. Then I returned to the States to finish college and find a job, but Japan lingered in my dreams. I couldn’t shake it. Eventually, the pull was too strong, so five years later I headed back across the Pacific, with the idea of continuing to pursue publishing and writing in Tokyo. Which is what I did.


What things about Japan make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?


Tokyo is this intriguing mix of a modern megacity and exotic splashes of traditional culture. So are many other places throughout the country, but in different combinations. Layer onto that specific Japanese customs, history, legendary manners, cleanliness, the newer “cool” pop culture, and so many more of the country’s unique qualities and there is a great and endlessly fascinating pool of settings from which to draw.


Did you consciously set out to use your location as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story?


I set out to use Japan as a backdrop because I’d lived there for twenty-five years, and I’ve learned and seen so much. I am still based there. The idea of choosing a vivid location—whether in America or elsewhere overseas—was driven home to me in a memorable conversation I had with a rabid mystery/thriller fan, who also happened to be a bookstore owner.


He had this theory that a great thriller or mystery has four things: top-notch character, plot, dialogue, and sense of place. Great books present all four well, very good ones at least three, and passable at least two. Plenty of twos and even ones get published, but the books that break away from the pack are the threes and fours. Particularly the fours.


His “four” is the target I strive to hit.


tokyo-kill-thumbHow do you incorporate location in your fiction? Do you pay overt attention to it in certain scenes, or is it a background inspiration for you?


Jim Brodie moves between two locations, Tokyo and San Francisco. Both have culture and character, as well as some of the best things each country has to offer. Each city is elegant and exotic in its own way, so I have no trouble selecting fascinating backdrops to set scenes. I look for locations that have character, but the setting must also arise organically as a natural continuation of the story. I should add that Brodie goes many other places in the States and Japan, and to other countries. In each case I apply the same principles.


How does Brodie interact with his surroundings? Is he a native, a blow-in, a reluctant or enthusiastic inhabitant, cynical about it, a booster? And conversely, how does the setting affect Brodie?


Great question. Brodie is unique in that he is a hybrid. He’s American but both an insider and an outsider. Because of his upbringing, he can explain Japan with an insider’s perspective in a way any outsider can understand.


Brodie is able to do this because he spent the first seventeen years of his life in Tokyo. He attended Japanese schools, where he absorbed the language, the culture, and the mindset of the people. Having been born to Caucasian parents living in Tokyo, he can think like the Japanese and also think like the American he is. He’s the perfect conduit.


Has there been any local reaction to your works?


I’m happy to report that the response has been overwhelmingly enthusiastic among local interviewers/reviewers, every expat in Japan I’ve heard from via the website, and—equally satisfying—from Japanese readers.


 Have you ever made any goofs in depicting Japan or its time periods? Please share—the more humorous the better.


 I’ve skirted that danger so far, but in a related incident mischievous gremlins of unknown origin did creep into JAPANTOWN somewhere during the final stages. I still don’t know where or how or when, but I suspect an overzealous autocorrect function sprang into action when some function in the file was reset. The spellings of several San Francisco street names were “corrected” long after they were set. I heard from a lot of readers (thank you!), but Simon & Schuster corrected them in subsequent print and digital versions, so all is well. S&S is great about that sort of thing.


 Of the novels you have written partially set in Japan, do you have a barry-lancet-1-thumbfavorite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage of how location figures in your novels?


 TOKYO KILL has a large number of distinct locations in Japan and elsewhere, and I have a lot of favorite scenes, so it’s difficult to pick one. That said, the thriller does have an important sequence in the port town of Yokohama, where Brodie and Tokyo policewoman Rie Hoshino must jump through a series of hoops before they are taken to a secret rendezvous with a vital contact.


Yokohama is, to take a line from the book, “the black sheep of the Greater Tokyo area. It is something less than Japanese, and something more.” Brodie and Hoshino are led through back alleys, secret passages, and finally end up at the foot of the old Chinese cemetery, eager to meet their contact:


His look had been cryptic from the start.


Danny Chang had led us up the set of decaying stairs to a hilltop crowded with Chinese tombstones.


Behind a brick temple with vermilion doors, I saw the mausoleum, home to the “patient dead.” Years ago, a coffin ship would transport the deceased back to the motherland. The custom ground to a halt when Mao closed China. The caskets of homesick expats piled up.   I wondered if they still waited.  


“This is Uncle Chang,” Danny had said.


The mysterious man we’d come to meet sat on a cemetery bench. He wore a gray knit shirt and a threadbare navy blazer with a rolled Chinese newspaper stuffed into a side pocket. He’d plunged right in with the Black Wind.


Now he asked, “The killers came at night?”


“All except the ferry attack.”


“With chopping weapons?”


“Mostly.”


Uncle Chang closed his eyes and placed his hands on his knees. His breathing slowed. I sent a questioning look at Danny but his gaze was fixed on the family Ti Zang. Their seer.


A minute passed. Then another. Chang opened his eyes, reached for a pack of Guangdong cigarettes on the bench next to his leg, and lit up.


“What you think, Brodie-san?” he asked, exhaling the question with a blast of blue-gray smoke.


“Everyone thinks they’re Triads.”


“What you think?”


From a distance they looked Japanese but didn’t. A bit closer and they looked Chinese but didn’t.  


“I want to believe we’re dealing with Triads because it gives us a clear target, but I’m not convinced. And one of my sources insists it’s not Triads.”


Chang nodded in appreciation. “You found clever source.”


 Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?


 I have a number of favorite works by authors I admire, but I tend to linger over one or two of their best works. I’ve read far and wide—American, British, Russian, French, and more—so my influences are more mosaic-like than singular. I might recall the best part or parts from one novel or another, but no one book or writer dominates.


 If you could live anywhere, where would it be and why?


I’m already living in one of the places I want to live—Tokyo. Next up, in no particular order, Paris, Kyoto, Vienna, Rome (for a spell, spring to mid-summer), New York city, and a half a dozen other locations for a year or so.


 What’s next for your protagonist?


The third Jim Brodie book has him dealing with higher powers in Japan, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. Only one of them is benign. The other two are dangerous and potentially deadly. All the while, Brodie just wants to get back to the antique shop he runs.


On the personal front, he’s growing closer to a feisty new love interest who first appears in TOKYO KILL. And his precocious, far-too-observant daughter is stirring up trouble of her own.


Barry–thanks much for taking the time to talk with us at Scene of the Crime.


For more on Barry Lancet, visit his home page.


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Published on September 09, 2014 20:53 • 7 views

August 17, 2014

indexGerman has a word for someone who exhibits this sort of behavior: Arschloch.


Mea culpa, I plead guilty to the symptoms of this malaise more than once in my life, but the one instance that sticks out most in memory is in the spring of 1969 on a trip to Berlin.


As in East Germany. Yes, that East Germany: Checkpoint Charlie, spies in trench coats and fedoras, the Wall, building facades pockmarked with artillery damage a quarter century after the end of World War II. After the Abu Ghraib photos and the NSA disclosures, the Cold War seems an almost romantic place. Nothing romantic about it, however, if you were on ground zero at the time.


Berlin was ground zero for the Cold War.


It was not a smart time for me to display my Arschloch side.


It was actually quite a safe and cozy trip arranged for us students abroad in Vienna. A nice little bus trip from Vienna west toward Salzburg and then north into the Federal Republic of Germany, West Germany, and then finally into the belly of the beast, the German Democratic Republic, East Germany.


This was the year after Prague Spring; the Cold War was not always without shots fired.


So it was a serious trip, but it was also a lark. Blend the misguided sense of invincibility of youth with the equally benighted bulletproof feeling of the tourist, and you have a dangerous brew leading to rash actions.


The nudge of my inner asshole-ness came upon me as we were loading our bus in


The author as arschloch, third from left, back row; his victim, to his right

The author as arschloch, third from left, back row; his victim, to his right


Vienna. Good friend Jim had the seat just in front of me; he was bending over adjusting his luggage under the seat and I caught the glimpse of the green edge of his passport just peaking out the back pocket of his Levis. Was I playing Fagin’s Artful Dodger? Who knows. Tempted, I gave in without a second thought and snicked that passport out of his pocket as calmly as you please. He never felt a thing; no witnesses to my intended prank. I could just see him later on in the trip as we neared the border, his hand reaching back for the prized document and finding an empty pocket.


Or did I even think that far ahead? After all, who in their right mind is going to find such a stunt anything other than bloody minded?


I tucked the passport away with mine in the inner pocket of my cord jacket and thought nothing more of it, caught up in watching the view out the window or joining in a song fest as we jolted along the autobahn.


We stopped somewhere near Salzburg for a snack and bathroom break. It was a warm spring afternoon; I found a grassy slope near the rest stop and stretched out in the tall grass, watching a kestrel wheel in the sky high overhead.


It was about ten minutes later when I finally headed back to the bus and it was as if a bomb had exploded there. Luggage was strewn around the perimeter of the bus; a row of seats had been unbolted and moved outside; there was an urgency in the air with the other students that was clearly not right.


And then I remembered.


Jim was frantically going through his luggage for the third time.


Okay, at this point I still get the queasy feeling I had back then–enough to say I asked him if he was looking for his passport, tried to apologize, handed it back and skulked back to my seat like the moral leper I was.


We made it to Berlin later than evening, crossing the border without incident. We each had lodgings in guest houses around West Berlin. I roomed on my own. I climbed out of my clothes, threw them on the one easy chair in the little room, slipped into the narrow, lumpy bed, and fell asleep more quickly than I deserved to.


passportThe next morning we were scheduled for a bus tour into East Berlin. We would most definitely need our passports with. I checked my cord jacket to make sure it was in the inside pocket, and no passport. I went through my pockets, my overnight bag.


No passport.


You’ve got to be kidding, I thought. I mean, I guess I believe in karma, but instant karma?


I went through everything again.


No passport.


There was the hint of a smile of satisfaction on our group leader’s face when I told him my sorry tale. He had been put through the wringer with my prank yesterday, and now he was almost pleased to tell me I needed to get to the U.S. Mission–the embassy was in Bonn–and have a replacement issued. The U.S. State Department had a consular division in one wing of that mission.


Did I mention that we were in Berlin over a long weekend? This was Saturday; regular consular hours were Monday through Friday. Arriving at the U.S. Mission Berlin in the suburbs of Zehlendorf, I was feeling not only panicked but utterly confused about where to go. The Marine guard at the gate, who could not have been a whole lot older than me, listened to my Madam Butterfly tale, then pointed a bony finger in back of him and said in German with a Kentucky twang, “Geradeaus to the big building on the left.”


“Straight ahead,” he meant. Straight ahead to karma, I heard.


I finally found a sub-sub-consular who was doing penance on Saturday and he guided me through what became a full day process of issuing an emergency replacement passport to get me out of East Germany by the time my bus left on Sunday afternoon.


“Pretty bad place to lose a passport,” the sub-sub said with more than a touch of irony.


“Pretty bad,” I agreed.


The photo in the replacement passport shows a pretty harried looking young


US Mission Berlin

US Mission Berlin


man staring into a camera as if daring it to click.


It clicked. I got the passport as darkness fell over Berlin and made my way back to the center where I was staying. I was too exhausted even to bother with dinner. Another night on the lumpy bed, and I was up early to get packed and be sure to meet the bus on time.


I threw my crumpled pile of clothes into the bag, dimly aware of knocking something off the seat of the chair in the process. Looking down at the parquet floor I saw it lying there in all its olive green glory. My “lost” passport. I’d spent my whole time in Berlin humping about getting documents signed and testifying with a hand on the Bible, and all the time the passport was in my room, covered up by my mess of clothes, overlooked by someone with a bad conscious who was expecting karma anyway.


And now I had two passports and had to figure out what to do. Burn one? Where? And have the landlady come running? Tear it up and try to flush it down the toilet. Ever try to tear a passport?


I happily report that I did not for a moment think of trying to sell one of the passports, even though there was a very healthy market for such documents at the time. A modicum of maturity on my part.


In the end, I stuck the old passport down my pants until we were out of East Germany, and then tried to turn my tale of woe into an adventure for my fellow travelers.


They were more interested in singing “Kumbayah.”


 


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Published on August 17, 2014 18:34 • 3 views

August 7, 2014

(LEHTIKUVA)

(LEHTIKUVA)


I just learned that author Jim Thompson died in Finland on August 2. It’s a shocker and my thoughts go out to his wife. Jim was a long-time resident of Finland and penned four books in the popular Inspector Vaara series. The fifth, Helsinki Dead, was left unfinished at the time of his very untimely death at the age of 49. According to one Finnish source, James was apparently killed in an accident.


Born in Kentucky, Jim packed a lot into his all too short life. In addition to being a successful author, Jim had variously turned his hand to being a bartender, bouncer, construction worker, photographer, rare coin dealer, soldier and wrestling announcer. He earned a Master’s degree in English Philology from the University of Helsinki and spoke six languages.


I have run posts on Jim and his work a couple of times. As I recall, I was introduced to Jim and his work by Leighton Gage, another writer no longer with us. I find myself reverting to useless euphemisms at times like this; at times like this words don’t seem very useful. For a brief obit/bio, see this piece in the Helsinki Times.


We never met in person, but Jim was just one of those special people it was an honor to have known. He cared so very much about his craft and was savvy about the book business, kind to friends, and not one to suffer fools gladly.


I’ll miss him–I am sure there are a lot of you out there who will too.


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Published on August 07, 2014 15:41 • 8 views

July 15, 2014

img_0005Jason Goodwin is a British historian and author of the popular historical mystery novels featuring the eunuch detective Yashim and set in Istanbul during the early nineteenth century. The world of the Ottoman Empire figures importantly in the series, and Cambridge-educated Goodwin brings that world vividly to life in his novels, having already dealt with it in has narrative history, Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire. The Yashim series debut, The Janissary Tree, earned Goodwin an Edgar Award for the Best Novel in 2007.


Second in the series, The Snake Stone, won critical praise from many quarters. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Marilyn Stasio noted: “When you read a historical mystery by Jason Goodwin, you take a magic carpet ride to the most exotic place on earth.” The Washington Post also commended that series addition, observing: “The real pleasure of The Snake Stone lies in its powerful evocation of the cultural melting pot that was nineteenth-century Istanbul. . . . Goodwin’s sharp eye combines with a poetic style to bring the city vividly to life.” Book three in the series, The Bellini Card, prompted laudatory words from Publishers Weekly: “Goodwin skillfully blends deduction, action sequences and period color.” The fourth series installment, An Evil Eye,was published in the spring of 2011, and Publishers Weekly dubbed it “masterful.”


Fans had to wait three more years for the fifth and final volume of the series, The Baklava Club, which a Kirkus Reviews critic called “elegantly written,” and of which Publishers Weekly noted: “Goodwin well illustrates the complex crossroads of cultures, politics, and religions that mapped 19th-century Istanbul.” baklavaclub


Jason, it is a real pleasure to finally have you on Scene of the Crime. I have been a fan of your work since the series opener. Maybe we could open this interview with some discussion of your connection to Istanbul/Constantinople.


Twenty years ago, when the countries of communist eastern Europe overthrew their leaders, I decided to explore them – on foot. We walked, from Gdansk in Poland, all the way south to Istanbul.


We were months on the road, staying with farmers and priests each night, and gradually we felt the pull of The City. Istanbul was the great gateway between the continents, the capital of the Greek Orthodox world, the centre of trade and faith and thought in the region. We felt it as soon as we reached Hungary – which was conquered by the Ottoman Turks in the 16th century. There was more colour, and better coffee.


I became fascinated by the city, and eventually I wrote a book about Ottoman history, Lords of the Horizons. 


What things about historic Istanbul make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?


Istanbul – Constantinople – has often been called ‘the capital of the world’. Its physical setting is extraordinary, raised on hills above the Bosphorus, the deep channel that divides Asia from Europe, and links the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. Huge ships slide through the city, whose hills are crowned with mosques and minarets. For almost 2000 years, the city has been a meeting-place, a crossing point, and a melting pot.


It’s the perfect place to find a body…


Did you consciously set out to use your location as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?


Considering how old, how tangled, how ethnically and religiously diverse Istanbul is – and the scale of its historical monuments and districts – the city was bound to become a ‘character’ in the books. There are so many different ways to approach Istanbul: every street wants to tell a story.


9781250002433How do you incorporate location in your fiction? Do you pay overt attention to it in certain scenes, or is it a background inspiration for you? Are you conscious of referring to your specific city or locale as you write?


Absolutely. In The Bellini Card I took my characters to Venice, because Venice is Istanbul’s alter ego, a sort of watery reflection of Constantinople. I really enjoyed contrasting the two cities, whose histories are different, but entwined. 


How does Yashim interact with his surroundings? Is he a native, a blow-in, a reluctant or enthusiastic inhabitant, cynical about it, a booster? And conversely, how does the setting affect Yashim?


Yashim, my investigator, works for the sultan and the high officials of the Ottoman Empire. But when I chose the 1830s as my period, I had a problem: a male investigator would be unable to talk to half the people in Istanbul – all the women, secluded in their harems, would be off-limits.


So I made the cruelest cut, and turned Yashim into a eunuch. Istanbul had eunuchs at that time, so he blended perfectly with the atmosphere of the city. He sort of emerged from it, really.


Has there been any local reaction to your works?


The series has been translated into more than 40 languages, including languages once spoken in the Ottoman Empire. So not only Turkish but Greek, Serbian, Romanian, Hungarian etc. Everyone is curious to see how I have dealt with them – and I think they’ve been satisfied. The reaction from Turkish readers has been one of delighted astonishment: I’m told the recreation of the past is very convincing.snakestone-f78a53768bff573af1f8cf4bb303cf4b66589eb2-s2-c85


Have you ever made any goofs in depicting your location or time period? Please share–the more humorous the better (we all have).


In The Bellini Card I sent a Venetian Commissario into a cafe for a ‘coretto’, which is something even stronger than an espresso. So I thought.


A charming Venetian gentleman wrote to me, pointing it out (among other blunders, I’m afraid). A ‘cafe coretto’ is a coffee. A coretto on its own is a small male choir. So it was an odd choice for the Commissario.


Of the Yashim novels, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?


This is a passage from The Janissary Tree:


“Yashim arrived early at the little restaurant beneath Galata Point and chose a quiet alcove which overlooked the channel of the Bosphorus. From where he sat he could watch the waterway he loved so much, the narrow sheet of gunmetal which had made Istanbul what it was: the junction of Europe and Asia, the pathway from the Black Sea into the Mediterranean, the great entrepot of world trade from ancient times to the present day.


“The water was as ever thick with shipping. A mountain of white sails rose above the deck of an Ottoman frigate, tacking up the straits. A shoal of fishing smacks, broad beamed and single masted, held out under an easterly wind for the Sea of Marmora. A customs boat swept past on its long red oars like a scurrying water-beetle. There were ferries, and skiffs, and overladen barges; lateen-rigged cutters from the Black Sea coast, house-boats moored by the crowded entrance to the Golden Horn. Across the jostling waterway, Yashim could just make out Scutari on the opposite shore, the beginning of Asia.


9780312426132“The Greeks had called Scutari Chalcydon, the city of the blind. In founding the city, the colonists had ignored the perfect natural setting across the water, where centuries later  Constantine was to turn the small town of Byzantium into a great imperial city which bore his name. For a thousand years it was the capital of the Roman Empire in the east,  until that empire had shrunk to a sliver of land around the city. Ever since the Conquest in 1453, the city had been known as Istanbul, the capital of the Turkish Ottoman empire. It was still the biggest city in the world.


“Fifteen hundred years of grandeur. Fifteen hundred years of power. Fifteen centuries of corruption, coups and compromises. A city of mosques, churches, synagogues; of markets and emporia; of tradesmen, soldiers, beggars. The city to beat all cities, overcrowded, greedy.


Perhaps, Yashim sometimes reflected, the Chalcydonians hadn’t been so blind, after all.”


Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?


My all time favourite has to be Raymond Chandler. Chandler created Los Angeles for me – the sickly hue of decay, money in the heat, mobsters and hustlers and all the ugliness of modern American sprawl.


Of course when I first visited LA, it wasn’t like that at all – it 9780312429355was rather delightful. But that is beside the point!


Before Chandler, there was Dickens, who also created a city – Victorian, industrial London.


I used to write travel books, and there are several travel writers I admire who can conjure up cities and locations with consummate precision – Jan Morris is one.


And Graham Greene. I love Graham Greene: locations, and ambiguities.


Jason, thanks much for taking the time to talk with us at Scene of the Crime.


To learn more about Jason Goodwin visit the author on his home page.


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Published on July 15, 2014 21:16 • 7 views

June 9, 2014

BreedingThe U.S. release of A Matter of Breeding, the fifth book in my Viennese Mysteries series, is now available. To celebrate its publication, the San Francisco Book Review features me in an extensive interview on the series and on writing historical fiction, as does the Big Thrill.


The novel also continues to garner strong reviews.


Publishers Weekly felt that this “solid fifth whodunit featuring lawyer Karl Werthen and real-life criminologist pioneer Hanns Gross … is one of the series’ best at combining plot and historical background.”


Kirkus Reviews also had praise for the novel, noting: “Turn-of-the-century Austria has its own homegrown Jack the Ripper, a killer with a cruelly creative streak and a disturbingly playful nature…. Jones adds a delicious historic perspective…, all presented with precision and panache.”


Here’s a brief summary of the book:


The fifth installment of the acclaimed Viennese Mystery series, A Matter of Breeding, finds lawyer and private inquiries agent Karl Werthen and his colleague, the criminologist Dr. Hanns Gross, investigating a series of grizzly murder/mutilations of young women in the Austrian province of Styria. The newspapers are touting Jewish blood ritual murders and vampirism, and Werthen and Gross–assisted by the Irish writer Bram Stoker who is in Austria to give a speech–battle against time to discover the real motive for such brutal and seemingly random killings. Meanwhile, Werthen’s wife, Berthe, has her own case to deal with. Commissioned by Archduke Franz Ferdinand, she is investigating a potential breeding scandal at the famous Lipizzaner stud. If the stud line has indeed been corrupted, this can prove to be more than a mere embarrassment for the Habsburgs, for the Lipizzaner blood line has been introduced to most of the royal stables of Europe. As these dual investigations proceed, it eventually becomes apparent that there is a connection between the two. In the end, it all comes down to a matter of breeding.


You can actually buy it now at Amazon or  at your favorite bookshop.


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Published on June 09, 2014 09:15 • 4 views

BreedingIt’s still a few weeks to go before the U.S. release of A Matter of Breeding, the fifth book in my Viennese Mysteries series, and the book is already garnering good reviews.


Publishers Weekly felt that this “solid fifth whodunit featuring lawyer Karl Werthen and real-life criminologist pioneer Hanns Gross … is one of the series’ best at combining plot and historical background.”


Kirkus Reviews also had praise for the novel, noting: “Turn-of-the-century Austria has its own homegrown Jack the Ripper, a killer with a cruelly creative streak and a disturbingly playful nature…. Jones adds a delicious historic perspective…, all presented with precision and panache.”


Here’s a brief summary of the book:


The fifth installment of the acclaimed Viennese Mystery series, A Matter of Breeding, finds lawyer and private inquiries agent Karl Werthen and his colleague, the criminologist Dr. Hanns Gross, investigating a series of grizzly murder/mutilations of young women in the Austrian province of Styria. The newspapers are touting Jewish blood ritual murders and vampirism, and Werthen and Gross–assisted by the Irish writer Bram Stoker who is in Austria to give a speech–battle against time to discover the real motive for such brutal and seemingly random killings. Meanwhile, Werthen’s wife, Berthe, has her own case to deal with. Commissioned by Archduke Franz Ferdinand, she is investigating a potential breeding scandal at the famous Lipizzaner stud. If the stud line has indeed been corrupted, this can prove to be more than a mere embarrassment for the Habsburgs, for the Lipizzaner blood line has been introduced to most of the royal stables of Europe. As these dual investigations proceed, it eventually becomes apparent that there is a connection between the two. In the end, it all comes down to a matter of breeding.


You can actually buy it now at Amazon or pre-order at your favorite bookshop.


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Published on June 09, 2014 09:15 • 6 views

April 26, 2014

DeniseMinaTHUMBThey call it Tartan Noir, the Scots form of noir crime writing. And Glasgow crime writer Denise Mina is one of its major practitioners. Mina is the author of a number of critically acclaimed novels: the three installments of the “Garnethill” trilogy featuring Maureen O’Donnell as an unwilling sleuth; three novels featuring Paddy Meehan, a journalist in 1980s and 1990s Glasgow; the stand-alone crime novel, Sanctum; the 2010 graphic novel, A Sickness in the Family; and contributions to the John Constantine, Hellblazer series.


Increasingly, however, Mina has become identified with her series of novels featuring Glasgow DI Alex Morrow: Still Midnight, The End of the Wasp Season, Gods and Beasts, and The Red Road. Writing in the New York Times Book Review of the last-named novel, released in the U.S. in 2014, Marilyn Stasio noted: “If anyone can make you root for the murderer, it’s Denise Mina, whose defiantly unsentimental novels are less concerned with personal guilt than with the social evils that create criminals and the predators who nurture them. . . [The Red Road is] as fierce a story as any Mina has written.” Publishers Weekly also had high praise for this installment, calling it “perhaps her finest yet, a brilliantly crafted tale of corruption, ruined lives, and the far-reaching ripple effects of crime.” n413367


Mina hit the ground running, winning the John Creasy Dagger for Best First Crime Novel in 1998 for Garnethill, the first of a trilogy of the same name. She was dubbed the “Crown Princess of Crime” by author Val McDermid, who went on to note, “”If you don’t love Denise Mina, you don’t love crime fiction.”  Mina has also earned praise from fellow Scots writer Ian Rankin, who called her “one of the most exciting writers to have emerged in Britain for years.” She has since been a finalist for the Edgar and the recipient of the 2012 Theakstons Old Peculier crime novel of the year award (for The End of the Wasp Season), beating out such formidable competition as John Connolly.


Denise, it is a joy to finally have you at Scene of the Crime. I love the way you are able to infuse the thriller with depth and real understanding of human nature. Your characters have, as the wine wallahs say, legs. They last; they stick with you.


n389018First, could you describe your connection to Glasgow?


I live in Glasgow. I moved here when I was nineteen. My extended family lived here but my immediate family moved around a lot (21 times in 18 years). I only came back because I ran out of money in Galway in Ireland and came to get the cash to go back to London. I fell in love with Glasgow then. The people are so warm and the architecture is Victorian Gothic, it’s beautiful. No one wanted to live here then and it was possible to rent Victorian rooms for next to nothing.


Best off all the mountains can be seen from the city centre.


What things about Glasgow make it unique and a good physical

setting in your books?


It’s transferable in a day, actually a small geographical area. The people all talk to each other, almost manically. Standing at a bus stop together creates a sort of civil law obligation to tell your life story. Also the people are very funny.


Did you consciously set out to use Glasgow as a “character”garnethill

in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story

or stories?


The Garnethill series was a love letter to Glagow, the weather, the amazing light here. I think it’s less of a character in my later books.


How do you incorporate location in your fiction? Do you pay overt

attention to it in certain scenes, or is it a background

inspiration for you?


Yeah. I always try to find the house that the characters would live in before I begin because it gives you so much of a sense of how they live, do they drive to the shops? What happens if they need milk or a gun? I do all the walks in the books as well, just because sometimes you’ll see things you didn’t expect: road works or a collapsed drunk or a memorial garden or something.


How do your various protagonists interact with their surroundings?


end of was (morrow 2)In Garnethill Maureen is very much part of the city. In the Alex Morrow books she is trying to get away from the setting, trying to detach herself but still very much coming from the underbelly of the city.


You have a large fan base in the States. Has there been much local reaction to your works?


Glaswegians really appreciate them, I think. It’s hard because my books are addressed to working class Galswegians and readings and emails tend to be from teachers or other people who object to swearing and so on. I did a dismaying reading here once to an audience who didn’t really get it and then afterward went into a really shitty cafe where the waitress recognised me, said she’d read my books when she was in psychiatric hospital and it had changed her life. The Paddy Meehan series is set in the eighties and nineties and depicts the city then. That’s been more controversial because everyone remembers the city differently. But I’m the one who’s right.


Reviews are almost universally good though.


Amazingly, although middle class Glaswegians don’t always get morrow 1the books middle class people in other countries do: Poland, France, the US and Canada. It’s weird.


Have you ever made any goofs in depicting your location or time  period? Please share–the more humorous the better (we all have).


Mostly spelling: let this be a lesson to the young. You can’t skip school for the last two years and leave at sixteen without it affecting your spelling. And spell check can’t catch place names. I’ve misspelled most areas in Glasgow.


Of the Glasgow novels, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place?


paddy1 fieldThe hills aren’t really documented in Glasgow. I’m always aware of how high a place is. Maureen’s house is on a high hill in the centre, Alex Morrow lives far out on the flat plains of suburbia.


Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers

influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?


Alistair Gray had a huge impact. No one wrote seriously about Glasgow but he did. Glasgow was a slightly ashamed place back then but he wrote about it with defiant pride and said that Glaswegians couldn’t imagine another life because we never saw ourselves depicted. It made me want to depict the city. And so I did.



Thanks for much for speaking about Glasgow and your works, Denise.



For more information on Denise Mina, visit her homepage.


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Published on April 26, 2014 15:24 • 15 views

April 4, 2014

a matter 3A Matter of Breeding, book five in the Viennese Mysteries, has just been published in England (due out in the U.S. in July) and has already been earning critical praise. British bookseller and blogger Jo Graham commented: “This is a rich and luscious historical read, within a well crafted plot, there are plenty of historical facts and famous faces to be found, fans of Conan Doyle will love this.” U.S. critic David Marshall, writing on the Thinking about Books Web site, remarked: “Altogether, A Matter of Breeding is a thoughtful … entertaining mystery.”


Read this fellow to get the real feel for the book and the series.


A quick précis :


1901. Karl Werthen and his colleague, renowned criminologist Dr Hanns Gross, are investigating a bizarre series of murders in the small Austrian town of Graz, aided, or impeded, by Irish author Bram Stoker, who as Marshall noted, is “some author fellow who’s visiting to promote his books. It seems vampires are at large and an expert’s help is called for. ” Meanwhile, back in Vienna, Karl’s wife Berthe is looking into what seems to be a fraudulent breeding scheme involving the prized Lipizzaner horses. Could the two investigations be connected?


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Published on April 04, 2014 21:08 • 16 views

March 25, 2014

GaryCorby[1]Australian novelist Gary Corby is the author of the Athenian Mystery series, which stars, as Corby explains on his home page, “Nicolaos, his girlfriend Diotima, and his irritating twelve year old brother Socrates.” The most recent series installment, The Marathon Conspiracy, is out this coming May. Publishers Weekly has this to say about the series: “Corby displays a real gift for pacing and plotting.” Similarly, Library Journal commented: “Mix one part ancient history, one part clever and contemporary banter, and one part action, and you have a top-notch crime caper.”


Gary, it is a real pleasure to welcome you Up Over (sorry about that) to Scene of the Crime. Can we start things off with the obvious? What made you choose ancient Greece for murder mysteries?


It was an incredibly exciting time! And unique in history.


Athens went through a golden age of about 50 years, during which they invented our civilization. In that tiny place and time, they had the world’s first democracy; they began modern theater; they had trial by jury; Hippocrates invented medical science; it’s the birth of philosophy and science. To top it off, they killed each other in such interesting ways. What’s not to like if you’re an historical mystery writer?


Nicolaos begins his career in The Pericles Commission when the new democracy is only three days old. It’s a little known fact that the guy who created the world’s first democracy was assassinated about three days later. That’s the first crime Nico has to solve.


 How does your protagonist interact with his surroundings?


Nicolaos is pretty much the dumbest guy in the room.


You see, Nico has an irritating little twelve year old brother named Socrates. Yes, it’s that Marathon Conspiracy Web[1]Socrates. Nico’s girlfriend is Diotima, a for-real lady philosopher of the time who was also a genius. His boss is Pericles, one of the greatest statesmen in all of history. Surrounded by all this genius, poor Nico is the one expected to solve the puzzles. Fortunately he has a sense of humour to see him through.


Did you consciously set out to use your location as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?


I get a huge boost from the culture. The place is famous, of course. Everyone knows the Acropolis and the temples and the mythology.


Ancient Greece gets used as the background for a lot of modern epic fantasy. Think of all the recent books and movies based on Greek heroes. That makes the setting both familiar to modern readers and, at the same time, rather exotic.


To an average reader, who perhaps isn’t a history expert, but who’s interested in the period, it’s like reading a murder mystery set in a fantastic world that really happened.


How do you incorporate location in your fiction? 


n357288 You wouldn’t believe how many hundreds of hours I’ve spent working out where everything was in ancient Athens. If you planted me in the middle of Athens in 461BC, I’m sure I could walk from, say, the Acropolis to the Academy without getting lost. Nico often mentions directions and things he sees about him, but to him of course, it’s all normal.


I make lots of use of lesser known locations as well as the major landmarks.


The Marathon Conspiracy for example is about dread secrets that have remained hidden for thirty years after the famous battle. Our heroes do visit the battleground to pick up some clues, but most of the action is set at a school for girls called the Sanctuary of Brauron.


Not many people know that Athens had the world’s first official girls’ school. It’s a known site; which means the building layout in the book is what you see when you visit the ruins.


Has there been any local reaction to your works?


Local reaction for me is more to do with what the ancient historians and the classics experts Sacred Games webthink!


I do get email from enthusiastic modern Greek readers. They usually ask me to include their favourite historical character in a future book. But it’s also the case that modern Greece is very different to the ancient. One classics professor who is Greek, but teaches in England, said to me that we’re all the cultural descendants of those ancient Greeks.


I’ve been fortunate that a lot of professionals like my books. My twitter following includes a fair sample of profs, which says to me that I’ve got the accuracy level about right. That isn’t necessary to tell a good detective story, but I’m also trying to give the reader a good feel for what it was like to live back then.


It’s also terrific for research. When I was writing Sacred Games, I needed to know how bright was the moonlight to see by, on the second night of the Olympic Games in 460BC. So I contacted one of my readers, who happens to be a professor of archaeo-astronomy (yes, there is such a subject). He gave me the precise phase of the moon for that night, 2,474 years ago.


ionia sanction - icon Have you ever made any goofs in depicting your location or time period? Please share–the more humorous the better (we all have).


This isn’t a book goof, but a real life goof…


A couple of the more ridiculous things that happen to my hero really did happen to me. At one point in The Ionia Sanction, Nico is in a tavern, where he orders what he’s assured is “a traditional local dish”, only to discover later that he is eating rat stew.


That happened to me. Only I didn’t eat a rat, when I was in a restaurant in Crete, I and several others in my party were served alley cat disguised as rabbit. The dodgy restaurant had come up with an innovative system for reducing their food costs. You can imagine how happy we were. When I wrote the book, I wanted Nico to suffer as I had.


One that isn’t a goof is that Nico from time to time mentions seeing or eating corn. That’s caused a steady stream of American readers to tell me I got it wrong. Corn is American! It could not possibly be in ancient Greece.


It’s true the sticky yellow stuff is from America, but corn is an ancient word that Ionia Sanction oz cover - iconmeans any cereal grain, including wheat and barley. Weirdly, even the Bible uses the word corn to mean barley, but no one seems to spot it.


Do you have a favorite book or scene?


You can’t play favourites with your own children!


But having said that… I always have a soft spot for the most recent book, so right now The Marathon Conspiracy is the one I think of fondly.


Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?


George MacDonald Fraser for his Flashman Papers. They are the memoirs of Sir Harry Paget Flashman VC KCB KCIE, the greatest cad, bully and bounder ever to shirk his duty in the British Army.


Mary Renault showed the way on how it is possible to write good modern books set in ancient Greece. Her style and mine could not possibly be more different, but she wrote a series of unconnected novels each hitting some major event in the ancient world.


Last but not least, of course, is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The Holmes stories are considered historical now, but they weren’t when Doyle wrote them.


PC-penguin-cover-smallIf you could live anywhere, where would it be and why?


There are too many great choices. I’ll nominate Munich — a place I’ve always loved to visit — and Vanuatu — it’s a small island in the South Pacific — southern France or southern England.


If we could move the food of France, the beer and bonhomie of Munich, and the weather and beaches of Vanuatu to a picturesque village in England, that would be about right.


What’s next for your Nico?


Nico and Diotima will continue to bounce in and out of Athens, keeping the city safe from enemies both domestic and foreign.


Nico and Diotima’s first adventure takes place in Athens, right at the birth of democracy. Then they move to Ionia on what’s now the Turkish coast to deal with a threat to Athens. Then they go to the Olympic Games, where a terrible crime occurs.


They have this unfortunate tendency to always be where things go wrong…


The Marathon Conspiracy sees them back in Athens, where they must deal with a deep, dark, thirty-year old conspiracy.


They’ll stay there for the next book, too, which will be called Death ex Machina. It’s a pun on the theatrical term deus ex machina. As you might imagine, this will be a theatrical death. After that, the working title of the book I’m writing now is Aegyptos. There are no prizes for guessing where they’re headed.


Gary, many thanks for taking the time to talk with us at Scene of the Crime.


To learn more about Gary Corby and his books visit his home page.


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Published on March 25, 2014 14:10 • 18 views