The Plan for 2014

Well, I did say this blog would be intermittent…. But a number of interesting things have happened lately and have only just reached the point where I can comment publicly.
First comes an amazing book featuring a drug-taking, misanthropic private detective who helps the police and who is notable for his keen gift of observation and his powers of logical deduction. He is a master of disguise and has a complete grasp of the chemistry and forensic science of the period. His audacious exploits are chronicled by his friend, a doctor. Who else could it be but…Maximilien Heller. This Parisian detective appeared in 1871— 16 years before Sherlock Holmes showed up. The Killing Needle will be out in May and readers may judge for themselves how much Conan Doyle might have been influenced. Incidentally, it’s also the first occurrence of a now classical locked room trick. Secondly, the great Paul Halter has produced a marvelous romp wherein a number of unsuspecting potential victims are lured to a remote island-peninsula claimed to have been built on the site of King Arthur’s original castle. Needless to say, the visitors start to get bumped off in impossible ways, the prime suspect being the ghost of the vengeful king–or perhaps a recently released homicidal maniac. You can rely on Paul to provide a rational–and fiendishly clever–solution. The Invisible Circle appears mid-June.

Thirdly, by kind permission of Douglas Greene, LRI will be publishing an omnibus of Derek Smith’s work. Derek is best known for Whistle Up the Devil, which appears in many lists as one of the very best locked room mysteries ever written. You can’t find a hardcover for less than $40, and the other two books in the collection aren’t even on the market: Come to Paddington Fair was published privately in Japan only, and Model for Murder was never published (it was written as a Sexton Blake story). Doug, who knew Derek, didn’t find out until late last year that he had been bequeathed the rights to all his literary works, because the executors neglected to tell him! (I know the I in LRI stands for International, but international doesn’t exclude English.) The omnibus will be out in July with a foreword by Bob Adey.

Fourthly, I was privileged this month to meet the great Shimada Soji who was visiting New York (more about that in another blog) I’m delighted to say that LRI will be reprinting his masterpiece The Tokyo Zodiac Murders in the late summer. Soji is credited with launching the revival of the classic Golden Age mystery style in Japan through the honkaku (orthodox) movement. Its success can be measured by the sheer volume of mystery novels (mostly impossible crimes) pouring out every year and the mangas. Even children and young adults have the bug (e.g. Case Closed). You can find plenty of copies of TTZM for under $10, which is fine for anyone reading French, Chinese or Vietnamese. It gets a little trickier if you want it in English. One hardcover copy is being offered for 2400 UK Pounds–postage not included! This will be the first English trade paperback edition. We also discussed a lot of future plans which could lead to some great reading in the future but cannot be revealed for now. 

Fifthly, as can be seen from the home page, The Lord of Misrule, the first LRI publication, is the only book without a cover illustration, which irks collectors. We shall be rectifying that in the Fall with a typically crude-and-clunky LRI style cover. What is the method behind the madness, I hear you ask? I sketch out a suggested cover layout in stick-man form and the illustrator, the other great contemporary impossible crime master, Paul Halter, creates the cover. Quel homme! Truly a Renaissance man. 

Sixthly, I’ve penciled in a plan for fourth quarter release of an impossible crime anthology including 20 or so short stories from around the world. I’ve been working on it with a friend and drinking partner for quite a while and hopefully this will be the year. One obstacle has been rights issues which, as you can well imagine, get pretty complicated if you’re dealing with overseas rights organizations–and I don’t mean Amnesty International. Most of the stories have never appeared in English-language anthologies.

Seventhly, I have an agreement with Paul Halter, to translate and publish two novels a year, the next one in the series beingThe Blurred Image. Twist and Hurst fans will be pleased to learn of their return. The first Halter book in 2015 will be The Phantom Passage, featuring Owen Burns.
Turning to another publisher, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, two noteworthy stories are due out later in the year. The Ghost of the Badminton Court by Szu-Yen Lin is set in Taiwan and is planned for the August issue. The Lure of the Green Door by Norizuki Rentarou is frequently cited as one of the best Japanese impossible crime short stories. Hopefully it will appear in the November issue, but there have been contract issues and it is not a foregone conclusion. I recently submitted a brand new Halter short and another Shimada story and hope to be able to report on them in another blog.

Visit from a Maestro

It was a privilege and a pleasure last month to receive a visit from the great Soji Shimada and his lovely wife and daughter. (I had previously met Yuko, the daughter, several times after we collaborated on an adaption of one of his stories: The Locked House of Pythagoras (EQMM August 2103); she continues to act as the patient translator-go-between while she completes her studies at Columbia University, just up the road.) Shimada-san, as explained elsewhere on this site, is the father of the Shinhonkaku (new authentic) literary movement which has seen the resurgence of classical detective fiction with fair-play plots and clues and an emphasis on impossible crime. The popularity of Honkaku is immense: there are hundreds of books published every year, schoolchildren and young adults lap it up in mangaform and thousands of people turn out when Soji has a public appearance:

 http://www.china.org.cn/arts/2009-12/10/content_19041653.htm

Contrast that with the US today: the editrix of EQMM complained to me that she had a hard time finding ‘whodunit’ stories because there was no interest among most American writers.

Despite his fame and recognition, Soji is charming and approachable, with a good sense of humour. I learnt over dinner that he is an ardent Anglophile: he played rugby at school (right wing) and drove sports cars such as MGA and MGB. When I recounted a near-death experience in a TR4, he joked that God saved me for a purpose: to popularize Honkaku in the United States. He loves Sherlock Holmes, of course, but also the work of more ironic and humorous writers such as Saki and Jerome K. Jerome. Like the other great contemporary impossible crime writer, Paul Halter, he is fascinated by Jack the Ripper and has written a novel about him. (More of that another time.)  

Over coffee two days later, we signed a contact for LRI to reprint his masterpiece The Tokyo Zodiac Murders and discussed numerous projects, including one especially dear to his heart: an English-language anthology of famous Japanese locked room/impossible crime mysteries. If we can overcome numerous obstacles, the foremost of which being rights issues, he will have accomplished something that the doyen of Japanese mystery literature Edogawa Rampo, failed to achieve. I pledged to do whatever it took.

Republishing The Night of the Wolf

Paul Halter’s collection of short stories came out in 2006 in hardcover and trade paperback format, published by Wildside Press, to whom I shall be eternally grateful for taking the risk and allowing the Anglophone world to finally appreciate his work. Despite critical acclaim, and one of the stories (“The Flower Girl”) being short-listed for the Barry Award for best mystery short story, Wildside declined to publish any Halter novels.

After many more rejections from publishers, I learned about self-publishing and print-on-demand from a Wall Street article and decided to have a go with The Lord of Misrule. I chose that novel because, even though I like it a lot, it doesn’t get rated as one of Halter’s best and I was still nurturing the hope of a ‘real publisher’ picking up his novels: anything I had just published myself would obviously be ruled out. That turned out to be irrelevant, because the mainstream publishing houses still didn’t believe there was a market for Golden Age locked-room mysteries (see the interview with Little Brown in Miles Jupp in a Locked Room. (When The Crimson Fog appeared ahead of Little Brown’s books in Publisher’s Weekly’s Top Mysteries of 2013, I emailed Dan Cole and asked him if they were now considering publishing Paul Halter. He hasn’t replied and I’m not holding my breath…)

The Lord of Misrule had a really tacky cover, but when Paul and I decided The Fourth Door would be the next novel in English, he came up with a great cover picture. I selected a different cover template, one in which the title did not obliterate the image, and the resultant LRI style has been used for all the subsequent novels.

When we met in Paris, we decided it was time to republish The Night of the Wolf (a) to create an e-book version and (b) to re-issue the tpb in the same style as the novels. The great thing about print-on-demand is that you can make this kind of decision with almost zero up-font cost (and the books never go out of print.) So, voila! (Actually, not as voila as I would have liked because technical problems delayed publication until three days before Christmas–there, I wrote the C-word)

Incidentally, Paul now has his own self-publishing company Eurydice, and we are going to try and synchronize publication of English-language and French-language titles, including some that weren’t written by Paul Halter. That will probably include republishing The Lord of Misrule in the LRI style. For those who are interested, I usually produce a rough sketch for the cover and Paul,who is adept at Photoshop creates the finished article.

Jacob’s Ladder

The February 2014 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine is out already and contains one of his very best:
Jacob’s Ladder. A religious fanatic has periodic dreams of ascending Jacob’s Ladder to heaven. One day, his brother, inside the house, hears him cry that the moment has arrived. When the brother hears a heavy thud, he rushes out and finds his brother’s crushed body on the ground. The medical examiner says the injuries are consistent with a fall from a great height, yet there is not a tree or a building within miles high enough to explain the injuries….

The Crimson Fog: A Top Mystery of 2013

The news is only just beginning to sink in. Readers will know that Paul and I hastily revised our publication schedule for 2013 in order to get a proof copy of what had been titled The Red Fog in Lenny Picker’s article Ripping Yarns into the hands of Publisher’s Weekly’s editor in time for an October review date.

I hadn’t been very optimistic: after all, it was seen as a self-published book (which it really wasn’t, as it had been published before in 1988 in French, and I didn’t write it) and a print-on-demand trade paperback to boot. Yet not only was it accepted, it received a starred review in the October 7 issue. I tried unsuccessfully to find a copy to take to Paul, as I was about to fly to Paris to spend several days with him and other friends.

A ‘Q&A With Paul Halter’ appeared in the October 28 issue, followed by a request from the PW media editor for a photo of the cover, which I dutifully sent. When I enquired the reason, I was stunned to learn that my print-on-demand paperback, published by my one-man-band enterprise Locked Room International was up there with the mainstream mystery publishers in the November 7th issue
.
‘Self-publishing’ has well and truly arrived!

What is the color of blood?

I’m currently translating Paul Halter’s contribution to the Jack the Ripper canon: Le Brouillard rouge. Normally, I do two Halter books a year, which appear in June and December. This one will also follow the same pattern, meaning the book will come out in December, but I am working on an accelerated schedule in the hopes of getting a review in Publisher’s Weekly to coincide with the publication of the novel. To do that, I have to submit a preliminary copy of the whole book to PW by early September. The reason I’m hopeful something will come of it is because of the fine article that Lenny Picker wrote for them back in April: Ripping Yarns which effectively pre-announced the book.

However “Rien n’est simple” as the French say (nothing is simple): in the rush to meet the deadline for the article and include a cover shot, I had to go with a literal translation of the title, namely The Red Fog.

Now, as it happens, I don’t like that title. The French title has four syllables and a certain ring to it. The Red Fog has only three and sounds flat and pedestrian to me. Alternatives could be The Crimson Fog, crimson being chromatically the closes color to blood, or The Scarlet Fog which sounds slightly more sinister.. Or even The Vermilion Fog?

Suggestions are welcome.

The Tiger’s Head (was The Head of the Tiger)

The Tiger’s Head, the latest in the series of English-language translations of Paul Halter’s impossible crime novels went up on Amazon and Kindle on June 11 and people were ordering it before I even realized it was up there!

When you submit the final copy to Amazon, they tell you the trade paperback version will take 5-7 business days and the e-book version will take 24 hours. I suppose this is contingency planning on their part, but it can trip you up if you’re an author/translator. In fact, both versions went up the very same day and I was blissfully unaware until last night. Any way, I’m just pleased to be able to bring books of a supremely talented author to locked room fans.

As you may have noticed, I dithered around with the title. During the translation phase, I used Tiger’s Head throughout, but then someone whose ideas I respect said it sounded better as Head of the Tiger (more evocative, more consistent with Night of the Wolf, etc.) I polled the proofreaders, a majority of whom preferred Tiger’s Head (punchier). The main reason I stuck with Head of the Tiger for so long is that for me, born and raised in London, The Tiger’s Head made me think of a pub….Any way, reason prevailed: I went back through the text and it was immediately obvious that Head of the Tiger would make clumsy reading. So that was it. . .

Another friend I respect said that, never mind the solutions one of Paul Halter’s strengths was dreaming up the impossible situations in the first place. And Paul certainly set himself a challenge this time. Not only all the doors and windows locked, from the inside, but witnesses stationed at each one of them. I don’t believe that’s ever been tried before.

Enjoy!

John P.

The Locked House of Pythagoras

Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine just released its August issue which features Soji Shimada’s ‘The Locked House of Pythagoras’ in the ‘Passport to Crime’ section (See Recommended Reading for other locked room authors published in that section) The recognition was long overdue, for Shimada-san is one of the towering figures of Japanese detective fiction who, more or less single-handedly, re-introduced the Golden Age concepts of the puzzle-plot and fair cluing.

In fact, the translation and adaptation were completed, and the publication approved, over a year ago but the story was held up waiting for a slot. There is only one story per issue in the ‘Passport’ section, which is dedicated to texts originating in a foreign language, so there is a line anyway. However, Japanese stories face an additional hurdle because they tend to be very much longer on average than western stories (5000 words versus 15000), and there isn’t always that much space available in a given issue. That’s where the adaptation comes in. Soji’s gifted daughter Yuko did the initial translation and she and I worked together to make the story more compact (10,000 words) without, we hope, losing any of the intrigue and atmosphere of this very ingenious story.

Please join me in congratulating the maestro.

The Head of the Tiger

I’m working on the back cover blurb for The Head of the Tiger, the latest Paul Halter book in English, due out mid-June:

“The murderer known as the ‘Suitcase Killer,’ who has been causing panic by leaving dismembered bodies in London’s railway stations, vanishes into thin air when cornered cutting up his latest victim. The detective team of Dr. Twist and Inspector Hurst receive a tip that he resides in Leadenham, a sleepy village twenty miles from the capital. Another resident, a retired major of the Indian Army, claims he can summon an evil genie by rubbing an artifact known as ‘The Head of the Tiger.’ He and a doubter stay in a room where not only is every door and window locked from the inside, but each is guarded by a witness. Nevertheless, the major is found dead, and the doubter unconscious from wounds which could not have been self-inflicted; there is nobody else in the room. Could the serial killer be an evil genie? Or is it conceivable that two murderers, each with the apparent ability to vanish at will, inhabit the same small village?”

It doesn’t say, but there is a rational explanation for everything and abundant clues, true to classic mystery tradition. This will be the sixth Paul Halter novel in English (and the seventh LRI publication.)

I’m in the final throes of preparation and am waiting for the five volunteer proofreaders to send me their results. Experience has taught me I need at least four (no matter how good, it’s unusual for anyone to catches more than fifty percent of the errors), and there is no shortage of volunteers. I break the translation into three parts —judiciously chosen to end at a crucial point—and wait for the feedback from the first before sending out the second, so the story appears to the readers as a monthly serial. From all accounts this is a great experience: by the time the third part goes out, they are climbing the walls trying to work out the puzzles the diabolical Monsieur Halter has concocted and trying to outguess him. Nobody ever succeeds. For, make no mistake about it, the man is a master of misdirection and a deviser of brilliantly clever murders.

Currently, I’m trying to finalize the orders for the signed and lettered edition for The Head of the Tiger. They are the same trade paperbacks produced by Amazon/Createspace except that they are signed by Paul Halter with a dedication in French. There are only 26 of them for each title (assigned a letter from A to Z) and when they are gone they are gone forever.They are ordered directly from me at pugmire1@yahoo.com. If you place an order before June1, you can personalize the dedication to read: “For Peter” or “To Jennifer” or “For the Library of Matthew” etc. etc. (your choice) They cost $39.99 which isn’t bad for a signed limited first English edition of a major writer.

London calling…

,,,or, rather, Edinburgh. Who’s going to quibble if it’s the BBC who’s calling?

There was I on March 16, 2012, seated at the computer and minding my own business, when an e-mail appeared out of the blue from a BBC producer asking me if there was a way he could reach me for a chat about a forthcoming Radio 4 programme (UK spelling) on Locked Room Mysteries. You could have knocked me down with a feather, as they say where I come from.

There followed a lengthy and informal chat a few days later, with none of the stuffiness you tend to expect from the BBC (perhaps because the producer, David Stenhouse, is a down-to-earth Scot). He explained it was going to be the third in a series of radio documentaries hosted by the comedian Miles Jupp covering different aspects of the mystery genre, and would mainly consist of on-the spot interviews in interesting locations such as the Tower of London and a crypt somewhere. We covered a range of topics including my thoughts on the sub-genre, suggested reading, real-life locked-room mysteries and who the current masters were. I recommended John Dickson Carr’s Locked Room Lecture, Bob Adey’s Locked Room Murders and a Book and Collector Magazine article Brian Skupin and I had written on the contemporary scene (see Recommended Reading.) I suggested he might want to talk to Brian, Bob, and Bob’s French counterpart Roland Lacourbe who speaks fluent English..

Regarding the modern masters, I nominated three prolific writers: Paul Halter, Soji Shimada and David Renwick, and offered to arrange for Miles Jupp to interview the first two (I assumed that the BBC didn’t need my help to locate the author of their Jonathan Creek series). Let me state here that the over-riding quality I look for in a locked room mystery is the “Aha!” factor: the ability to utterly bamboozle and elicit a gasp of admiration at the denouement. Prolific as they are, I just don’t feel that way when I read Paul Harding’s or Bill Pronzini’s stories–with a couple of exceptions– and Christopher Fowler hasn’t written enough yet (although The White Corridor contains a definite “Aha!” for the murder of a coroner inside a locked morgue.) I know my views are up for debate!

David took up my offer to link up with Paul Halter and Shimada Soji and, while I was contacting them, he and Miles prepared a list of questions to be put to each of them. I translated Paul’s, and Soji’s charming daughter Yuko translated his. Then, of course, the answers had to be translated back. The broadcast itself: Miles Jupp in a Locked Room was scheduled for May 21,2012. The show was prerecorded, with Paul’s interview on April 19, 2012, and Soji’s on April 25, 2012; translators were . to attend in case of impromptu discussion (at least, that was the idea.) Paul was to go to the BBC studio inside the European Parliament in Strasbourg (where he resides,) and I was to go to the one inside Carnegie Hall.in New York. Soji’s interview was to be by phone from his home in Tokyo with Yuko linked in from Washington, D.C., where she was studying.

On April 18 I was notified of a change in venue from Carnegie Hall to a “BBC Studio” in West 33rd St, which was actually a space that the BBC leases inside the Associated Press headquarters. This has to be the most godforsaken part of Manhattan, at least a mile from any public transportation and overlooking a major highway. Why a major news organization would select such a spot is quite beyond me. Anyway, I grossly underestimated the walking time and there were no taxis around, so I barely got to the broadcast in time on the following day. The building itself is tacky and dilapidated, but it’s radio– so who’s to know?

David and Miles were already in the Edinburgh studio when I arrived and so was Paul. We ran through the procedures to be followed, and I must say they did a very good job of putting us at our ease. They started off with the prepared questions but once they had Paul’s voice recorded for the first view questions, they veered off into other topics, notably Jack the Ripper. In the final broadcast, Paul’s responses were faded out after the first and replaced by that of a professional BBC reader. After Paul’s section had finished and he was off the air, Miles started asking me questions. We chatted for a while and, although I knew it was being recorded, it was still quite a surprise to listen to the actual broadcast and find I’d been given equal time with several best-selling authors. Maybe it was because I laughed at Miles’ jokes 🙂

Obviously in the interests of time, very little of the prepared material actually made it into the final broadcast, but luckily I kept all the questions and answers from Paul and Soji, and the Articles page on this web-site is the only place you’ll find them.

All in all, a highly enjoyable experience, although if I’d known I would be heard by nearly 500,000 people, I might not have been quite so sanguine. The reviews were quite favorable as well. Here’s one by the Puzzle Doctor. Christopher Fowler, who was one of those interviewed, talked about his own experience on his excellent blog.