Archive for mystery

Working your way up the foodchain: Michael Stanley talk about the slow process of becoming established writers

Posted in African fiction, crime fiction, international crime fiction, interview, police procedural, South Africa, South African writers, US writers, whodunit, writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 19, 2009 by richardkunzmann

Michael StanleyI first met the writing duo Stanley Trollip and Michael Sears – who together form the nom de plume Michael Stanley – at the CapeTown Bookfair in June 2008, when Deon Meyer made sure to introduce the two authors to the South African literary scene. By the end of the year, two regular guys sitting in the crowd attentatively listening to the crime fiction discussions, were suddenly hot news: they’d hit the LA Times’ pick of the best ten crime novels of the year, were nominated for the Macavity Award, the Strand Magazine Critics’ Award and were finalists in the Minnesota Book Awards.

What makes these two authors stand out is not the fact that they’ve written a series that is set in Botswana, like Alexander McCall-Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. No, I suspect Michael Stanley sniffed a change in the wind and produced an undeniably fresh series that is as much fun as it is serious – a take on crime fiction that’s sorely needed as our collective psyche becomes exhausted with the moral fug that’s hung over us since September 9/11. There’s an intense focus on Detective Kubu and his circle of friends and colleagues, an attention to detail when it comes to Botswana that renders Michael Stanley’s work real rather than pastoral.

Richard Kunzmann: For those of us who don’t yet know who you are and how you came about such a highly likeable character as Detective Kubu, give us your summarised back story (and that of Kubu!)

Michael Stanley: Michael Stanley is the writing team of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip. We’re both retired professors who have worked in academia and business. Michael is a mathematician, specializing in geological remote sensing. Stanley is an educational psychologist, specializing in the application of computers to teaching and learning, and a
pilot. We were both born in South Africa.

a-carrion-deathBecause we are both academics, our original intention in A Carrion Death was to have the ecologist as the protagonist. But we needed a policeman to run the formal investigation. And Kubu seemed to come fully created as though he was there waiting. His nickname is Kubu because of his size – “kubu” being the Setswana word for hippopotamus. Hippos in the wild spend most of the day in pools or rivers, with only their eyes and ears out of the water. They look deceptively docile, belying the fact that they kill more people in Africa than any other animal, trampling whatever lies between them and their objective. So with Kubu. On the surface he appears harmless; a convivial man with a sly sense of humor, who loves his wife, who is passionate about wine and music. But Kubu is a capable, wily policeman determined to rid Botswana of crime and corruption, no matter what gets in his way.Detective 'Kubu' Bengu's namesake

Richard Kunzmann: Both of you must have a deep love for Botswana. How did that come about?

Michael Stanley:When Stanley lived in the USA, he’d go back to South Africa every year to see family and friends. Being a private pilot, he would rent a small plane, fill it with friends, food, and wine, and head off to Botswana or Zimbabwe to watch game or birds. Michael was always one of the passengers on these trips. Over the years we had so many wonderful times in the Okavango or in the Chobe National Park that we fell in love with the country.

Richard Kunzmann: Diamond and drug smuggling are the core themes of your first and second novels. Are these issues close to your hearts or are they a serious affliction in Botswana?

Michael Stanley:Michael worked for ten years for Anglo American, a very large mining house originally based in South Africa. It is a major shareholder in De Beers, which dominates the world diamond market. And of course Botswana has the two richest diamond mines in the world, Orapa and Jwaneng, owned by Debswana, a joint venture between De Beers and the Botswana government. So it was an easy decision for us, as we planned our first mystery, to incorporate diamonds into the story. Once there were diamonds, it was a small step to think about how they might be used illicitly, so we came up with a strategy that would make several of our characters immensely wealthy if the plan succeeded. In reality, diamonds are well controlled in Botswana and there is minimal impact from “blood diamonds” as far as we know.

With respect to the drug trade, Botswana is one of the conduits into South Africa, so it is impossible to ignore. Obviously it is a source of great concern in Botswana, and since our protagonist works for the police, it is of concern for him too.

A Deadly TradeRichard Kunzmann: What struck me most about A Deadly Trade was Goodluck Tinubu’s back story, and the personal tragedy of Zimbabwe as evoked by the different characters. It’s almost as if someone had those tragic tales to tell you….

Michael Stanley: The tragedy of Rhodesia and now Zimbabwe is so stark that it didn’t need a real person to provide the details and pathos. We both know Zimbabweans, black and white. Listening to their stories, coupled with the bombardment of news, made it easy to create a story of personal tragedies and disappointment.

Richard Kunzmann: I thought A Deadly Trade was a lot tighter and leaner than A Carrion Death. How have the two of you developed as writers since your successful debut?

Michael Stanley: When we started A Carrion Death, we had no idea what we were doing. Neither of us had written fiction before, nor had we written together. So the process was slow as we tried to figure out issues of plot and character, as well as how to share the responsibilities of writing, and remain friends. It took us three years to finish the first book.

For A Deadly Trade, we were better organized. We had a good outline of the plot before we started writing. We had learnt a great deal about making our writing more concise and leaner, so it took less time to produce a better draft. We had also refined the way the two of us interact, making the overall process more efficient. A Deadly Trade took about 20 months to complete. There is no doubt that we still have a lot to learn, and we hope we can improve the quality yet again in our third book.

Richard Kunzmann: A writer duo is still an unusual thing to me. How do you work together? Can you shortly take us through the process? What’s easy about it? What’s difficult?

Michael Stanley: We’ve developed a strategy which we think works quite well. Upfront, we work out a map of the plot, a synopsis, and the timelines. We try to get together to do that, and it takes a considerable amount of time. After that, it seems there are usually areas where one of us has a particular interest or a mental picture of what’s going to happen. He’ll write a first draft, and that is the starting point for multiple iterations. Often we will each be working on a different section of the book. This phase we can do by email interspersed with long internet telephone conversations. Eventually we go through each section independently to make sure it’s smooth, stylistically coherent, and that the characters’ behaviors are consistent from one place to another. Perhaps surprisingly it seems to work. Most people can’t discern any changes of style as they read.

Communication is easy thanks to the internet, and sometimes when Stanley is in North America and Michael is in South Africa the time change allows twenty-four hour writing!

Of course, sometimes understanding why the other person doesn’t like a piece is hard. It’s so clear to the original writer! But if one of us is having difficulty with a sentence, chances are that many readers will also. So we listen to each other very carefully.

Sometimes our schedules and priorities don’t match, and that can be frustrating.

Overall, we think that writing together is slower than writing alone, but the benefits of having an immediate, interested reader and someone with whom to brainstorm far outweighs the drawbacks.

Richard Kunzmann: How much of your success would you attribute to the book and old-fashioned marketing legwork?

Michael Stanley: When we started writing we told ourselves that if the books did not succeed it should be because they were not good rather than not known. For A Carrion Death, we received little financial support from our US publisher, which is typical these days. Publishers spend almost all their promotional budget on big names. The US is such a gigantic market (about 150,000 books published in 2008, and about 7000 mysteries) that if the author does nothing, nobody will get to know about the book. Certainly our publisher sent out review copies to reviewers at newspapers and magazines, which was a great help. We suspect that the fact we were reviewed at all was because our book was set in a part of the world that is exotic to most reviewers. And perhaps because of the success of Alexander McCall Smith. The great reviews were because they liked the book.

We wanted a broader profile than the reviews alone. So we put up a website for people to visit (www.detectivekubu.com). We wrote pieces for blogs, magazines, and newspapers. We visited a few bookstores and did events, and attended a few conventions, like Bouchercon. And to people who signed up on our website, we sent an occasional newsletter bringing them up to date on the progress of the next book, as well as about our travels.

So to answer your question, old-fashioned legwork is necessary for most new writers. Only a very few succeed without it. However without a book that people like, marketing will help very little.

Richard Kunzmann: Where do you see your series going? What’s coming next?

Michael Stanley: We are currently working on our third book. A Carrion Death is set in the dry Central Kalahari. Most of the action in A Deadly Trade takes place in the lush riverine forests of the Linyanti in northern Botswana, and in the third mystery we are sending Detective Kubu south west to Tsabong and areas around the Khalagadi Transfrontier National Park.

Bushmen SanThe back story of the third book is the conflict between the Bushmen (or San) and the government. This is a conflict that has reached the courts several times in several guises. In a landmark case a couple of years ago, the Botswana Supreme Court ruled that the government could not relocate some Bushmen from the Central Kalahari National Park to settlements outside. Of course the real issue is how nomadic people, who do not believe in land ownership, live in a world of private property, farms and fences. And what is the responsibility of the government to provide education and shelter to people who don’t want to stay in one place? At an even deeper level, society has to address the issue of whether it has a responsibility to preserve cultures such as that of the Bushmen, and if the answer is in the affirmative, how it does that.

Richard Kunzmann: Are translations on the horizon?

Michael Stanley: With respect to A Carrion Death, as of now we have an Italian edition (Il detective Kubu) in print. The French edition (Un festin de hyènes – a feast of hyenas) will be released in September. And a German edition is scheduled for 2010. We have sold the rights to A Deadly Trade to the French and German publishers.

Richard Kunzmann: Can you tell us what are the five most important things you’ve learnt as writers?

Michael Stanley:
1) When you become overly fond of a piece of writing, it probably should be cut.
2) Leave a lot to the reader’s imagination.
3) Believe in your characters. They will push back at you if you try to take them places they don’t want to go.
4) Readers care more about the characters than they do about the plot.
5) Editors tell you what’s wrong, not how to fix it!

Richard Kunzmann: What are the five biggest challenges you’ve faced?

Michael Stanley:
1) Getting to grips with a coherent plot that allows flexible development but avoids dead ends.
2) Letting the characters show themselves rather than telling the reader about them.
3) Getting the book complete in good shape within a given time frame (for the second book).
4) Learning how to market the book to agents, editors and readers.
5) Concentrating on the writing at the same time as doing the marketing!

Read reviews of A Carrion Death and A Deadly Trade

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Review: Ashes to Ashes, Barbara Nadel

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 28, 2009 by richardkunzmann

Ashes to AshesIt is 29 December 1940, and London is in the grips of the worst bombing conflagration of the Battle of Britain. Hitler has ordered the razing of London and the main target of the attack is St. Paul’s Cathedral. Knowing that the pride and fighting will of his entire nation are at stake, Winston Churchill personally orders all hands to defend the church, come what may. It is a terrible night as incendiary bombs rain down and spark fires wherever they fall, followed by high explosive bombs to fan the flames.

Francis Hancock, a half-Indian shell-shocked Great War veteran, takes cover from this barrage in St. Paul’s. Claustrophobic and on the verge of panic, he listens to the sirens howl up above, the bombs thud into the City, buildings splinter and collapse, while his fellow Londoners in the crypt whisper about a foul-mouthed girl who has gone missing in the church. It’s not long before he volunteers to find her, more to get out of that cramped crypt than anything else. Except, when a night watchman tells him of a terrible secret surrounding the girl’s disappearance, and is himself thrown from the highest point in the building by an unseen murderer shortly thereafter, Francis Hancock’s life is suddenly in greater danger than if he tried to venture out into the immolated streets. St Paul's Cathedral

Last week I reviewed River of the Dead, and if I had some reservations about that book, I have few about this novel. Ashes to Ashes is a triumph of atmosphere and setting. Not only does Barbara Nadel bring World War II and the battle to save London alive in the most vivid way possible, the brooding mystery at its heart is rendered all the more unsettling because we see it from the viewpoint of a physically and mentally broken man. Francis Hancock is as peculiar as he’s likeable, an unlikely hero who easily endears himself to the reader. What fascinated me most, though, was how Barbara Nadel took such an iconic building and turned it into a place of cramped murderous possibilities. The tight scenes, the claustrophobic atmosphere, the very real paranoia of a frightened man who can’t tell friend from foe, evoke the best of Alfred Hitchcock’s suspenseful films.

If the reminders to the reader of why a particular act was committed are as annoying as the occasional devilish monologues by the bad guys – à la Arthur Conan Doyle and his Inspector Sherlock Holmes – the moral dilemma that Barbara Nadel poses at the end of the book isn’t. It’s a question I’ve frequently asked myself in this post 9/11 world of ours, that is: to what extent must evil be left to flourish in order to preserve the greater good? It’s a question I’ve thought about many a time; as for the answer – it’s a horrifying thing to have to admit, but evil is as much a part of being human as is the good, and this duality makes me cringe when I wonder what I might do when driven to the extreme.

What did you think of the novel? Drop me a line and let’s compare notes. It’s always great to have a second opnion.

Interview with Barbara Nadel
Keep an eye out for the next blog, which will be an interview with Barbara Nadel about her two leading men, Cetin Ikmen and Francis Hancock.

Review: Barbara Nadel’s River of the Dead

Posted in crime fiction, international crime fiction, mystery, police procedural, review, UK writers, whodunit, writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 21, 2009 by richardkunzmann

River of the deadThis book was my first visit to Istanbul, and I have to say I’m dying to go back and see the city again … only this time for real. Barbara Nadel does an exceptional job evoking its streets, the sights and sounds, the smells and textures, its denizens. When I finished reading this latest instalment in the Inspector Cetin Ikmen series, I had to remind myself that my memories of that city came from a book.

Isn’t that the best thing about reading, though?

Yusuf Kaya, a jailed psychopathic drug-dealer, has escaped from custody and left no witnesses alive. The jailbreak is a particularly heavy blow for Inspector Mehmet Suleyman, Ikmen’s trusty sidekick, as he was the one who first brought Kaya to book. Soon the investigation is torn in two: Ikmen continues to pursue leads in the capital, while Suleyman gives chase into the far eastern corners of Turkey, the wild tribal homeland of the powerful Kaya family, long known for their links to drugs and weapons smuggling. Istanbul

Ikmen and Suleyman are two detectives on the opposite ends of a spectrum: one is a chain-smoking father of a large Turkish family, an intuitive investigator whose mother was a well-known witch, while the latter is a straight-backed descendent of Ottoman princes, a calculating thinker married to a half-Irish woman. It’s a duality that probably works very well in other novels, but on this occasion they’re very much apart. Instead, Suleyman hooks up with Edibe Taner, who at first impresses us as a tough modern woman in a patriarchal world, but then it comes to light that she has links with an ancient snake-Goddess cult.

I struggled to find my way through many parts of this book because of the endless plot reversals that frustrated rather than intrigued me. Often our experienced detectives unnecessarily summarise for us what has come before, and then strangely take a direction that seems to clash with what they’ve just deduced from the evidence. Someone once said about red-herrings that they can only be called that when they’re obvious; in this novel there was a shoal of them. I also found it difficult to distinguish between the characters, because they all seemed to speak in the same voice – the dialogue is littered with language that seems more at home in a Hercule Poirot story than a modern gritty city like Istanbul, and the statement “but of course” emerged as a verbal tick of virtually every character. But let this not be a condemnation of Barbara Nadel’s work in general. Next week I’ll be reviewing her second novel for the year, Ashes to Ashes, which I found much more compelling, both for its setting and characters. Ashes to Ashes

River of the Dead truly takes flight when Barbara Nadel settles into her narrative. She takes us as easily through the backstreets and markets of a modern Istanbul, passed the mosques and churches that date back to Byzantine times, as she shows us the vast plains around Mardin, a place so steeped in history and mysticism that your heart aches to stand at the spot where Suleyman first sees that green landscape stretch out beneath him. I enjoyed the descriptions of the Scorpion clan that is Yusuf Kaya’s family, the snake-goddess worshipped by the locals, the jailed living saint – all of which is part of a Cob-webbed world that is grossly at odds with Suleyman’s digital age. The best part of this novel was Nadel’s understanding of the complex push and pull relationship between an ancient culture and a world of glass and plastic that tries to bury it.

Short Stories 2: The perfect mood of Edgar Allan Poe

Posted in book, crime fiction, fantasy, mystery, review, science fiction, short stories, speculative fiction, thriller, US writers, writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 20, 2009 by richardkunzmann

Hit PLAY on the YouTube cast and read on.

Previously I made a case for rebranding short stories and giving them the luxury publication they deserve. If you hang on through this series of comments on my favourite short story writers and the editors who’ve compiled them, I have some ideas on how that might be achieved. But for today, let’s share short story favourites.

First off, I have to admit, my tastes lean heavily towards the weird and grotesque, probably because I followed my dad around emergency wards when I was young and saw things kids don’t ordinarily see, and because of a hundred year old tomb I inherited from my grandmother when she died, called A Century of Creepy Stories.

It’s inside the covers of this monster that I first discovered Edgar Allan Poe.

edgar alan poe “And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revelers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall. And the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay. And the flames of the tripods expired. And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.” – Masque of the Red Death

Depending who you speak to, Poe has been credited with inventing just about any of the modern sub-genres of fiction – the mystery, detective fiction, science fiction, horror to name but a few – but I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. What these attributions do attest to is how influential he has been in reshaping how we approach the modern novel and short story. Personally, I’m more infatuated with his macabre prose and the way he deftly crafts suspense than the themes of his finest works.

His writing is always ominous, the ebb and flow of the poetical narration often building into a crescendo that perfectly reflects the ideal form of the modern thriller, hardly ever dropping off into lengthy dénouement. The themes of his best known works often revolve around death and being buried alive, guilt and fear, murder and its consequences, and of course the supernatural. His choice of words is almost always in perfect harmony with the atmosphere he is attempting to create – surely a result of his being a poet first and foremost. His densely packed narratives are imbued with such rich textures that they lure the imagination into a realm where you forget it’s just a … short story.

An excellent example of this skill is his surreal description of the masked ball in The Masque of the Red Death , where the revelers are doing their utmost to pretend that they are not mortal and a mysterious plague cannot touch them. It’s the desperate act of embracing life and hope that ultimately makes them as ugly as any demon painted by Hieronymus Bosch. Hieronymus Bosch

My essential reads (roughly in order of favourites):

1.The Masque of the Red Death (for an excellent reading, download at Librivox here)
2. The Pit and the Pendulum
3. The Cask of Amontillado (for an excellent reading, download at Librivox here)
4. The Fall of the House of Usher

Fans reputedly include:

Bob Dylan, Stephen King, H.G Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jules Verne, H.P. Lovecraft

Check out what others thought of Poe’s writing at Goodreads and at Amazon.

Best read to the music of:
Lycia
Preisner

Review: A Deadly Trade, Michael Stanley

Posted in African fiction, book, crime fiction, international crime fiction, mystery, police procedural, review, South Africa, South African writers, thriller, whodunit, writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 14, 2009 by richardkunzmann

Michael StanleyA week ago I reviewed A Carrion Death, written by Michael Stanley (the pen name of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip). Not only was it a strong first attempt at a crime novel set in an exotic setting, it was also a sheer act of determination and personal marketing that eventually saw the book break through to the LA Times bestseller.

A Deadly TradeWith A Deadly Trade, they are back and with a vengeance, too. This second book is tighter, leaner and more focused than the first. Michael Stanley is well on his way to establishing himself on the international crime thriller scene.

A man is walking back to his tent one night, at a remote resort deep in the heart o the Okovango Delta, when he’s brutally killed and mutilated. When dawn comes a second body is discovered and a third man is missing. The Botswana police have to fly into the remote area, and our hero Detective Superintendent Kubu Bengu and his new sidekick, Detective Tatwa Mooka, quickly establish that the two murdered individuals, and the prime suspect who was unsuspectingly taken to the airport that same morning, have links to the political turmoil in Zimbabwe and a drug smuggling ring in South Africa.

What is not immediately established is that all the guests at Jackalberry Camp on the night of the murders are very much involved, in one way or another. Though this hints at an Agathie Christie style investigation, there’s plenty of action in store.

Kubu Bengu is his usual likeable self, drinking a steelworks whenever the moment arises, or daintily dipping a Marie biscuit into his tea. And I’m glad to see that Ian McGregor has shed the staccato Scottish accent from the first novel, which was jarring to read. Two new characters stand out as fine examples of well-developed characterisation: Goodluck Tinubu, the well-loved teacher with a dark past, and Moremi Suthani, the eccentric chef with a Kwe bird on his shoulder. Dupie, the camp manager and a former Sealous Scout from Zimbabwe’s civil war past, also rings with authenticity.

The second novel is an improvement on the first, but some of my concerns from the first novel have remained. Our police officers seem extraordinarily happy to discuss the finest particulars of a murder case with just about anyone willing to listen, which doesn’t jive with police procedure. Some chapters grind the story to a virtual halt because Kubu and his friends painstakingly recap events for us. I have to compare this with Peter James’s excellent Looking Good Dead, which I’ve just finished. Looking Good Dead Detective Roy Grace also frequently recaps, but this is either mentioned as a one liner, especially if he’s filling in others; or, if it’s for the reader’s benefit, sums the entire investigation up in no more than three lines. A bundle of pages is never a good idea. I’ve stepped on that mine myself, plenty of times. There are unnecessary tracks of exposition in two of my novels, Bloody Harvests and Salamander Cotton , of which readers have been far too forgiving.

I particularly enjoyed Kubu’s discovery of Goodluck Tinubu’s history, but I don’t want to give too much away. Suffice it to say, there is true tragedy in his demise as a fallen hero, and Tinubu’s death seems a fitting waste of a human life – perhaps the perfect metaphor for the chaos in his home country, Zimbabwe.

Check out what others thought of A Deadly Trade at Goodreads .

Best music to read by: Miriam Makeba

Review: The Bullet Trick, Louise Welsh

Posted in book, crime fiction, review, UK writers with tags , , , , , , , on April 13, 2009 by richardkunzmann

bullet-trick3The Bullet Trick is Louise Welsh’s second novel, which deftly follows up on her first The Cutting Room. Like her first book, this is a story that shoots for the gothic and carnivalesque, but it doesn’t quite hit the mark.

William Wilson is a magician on the last leg of a faltering career when an old friend asks him to do a second-rate show in a London strip club. What happens during the show drags Wilson into the violent aftermath of a dusty missing person’s case.

The story is set in three cities – Glasgow, London and Berlin – and Welsh effortlessly shifts between locations without losing the reader. Her depiction of these places and Wilson’s burlesque underground world is commendable, while the quirky showmen and grifters he meets along the way are appealing, if not memorable.

Louise Welsh’s writing is concise, and her style is playful in a way that makes the language itself alluring. In places the novel drags a bit, but the only real disappointment is William Wilson’s eventual show-down with the killer hunting him. One is left with a sense that the back story was more powerful than William Wilson’s awakening as an unlikely hero. Taken as a whole, it’s a fine read to pass the time, but chances are you won’t remember the details a week from now. – Canongate