Thursday, February 25, 2010

Dir Sir or Madam, Will You Read My Book?*

Well-written crime fiction takes place against a believable backdrop. Even if readers aren’t thoroughly familiar with the context, they can imagine a murder taking place within it. That’s one reason, for instance, that the medical setting has proven to be such a popular context for murders. It’s believable. The same might be said of the publishing industry. In that industry, there are many conflicts, forces and situations that make for very credible motives for murder, and for believable suspects and victims. Here’s just one example. Suppose a well-known publishing house has made a contract with a best-selling author. Now, suppose someone at the publishing house has found out that the author has plagiarized. There are all kinds of opportunities in that sort of scenario for blackmail, cover-ups…or murder.

Readers get to go “backstage” in the publishing world in Nicholas Blake’s End of Chapter, which features his sleuth, poet Nigel Strangeway. The publishing house of Wenham and Geraldine has contracted to publish the memoirs of General Richard Thoresby. Thoresby’s memoirs could be very damaging to several highly-placed military leaders, including Major General Sir Charles Blair-Chatterley. So Wenham and Geraldine’s editorial staff members remove the objectionable passages. Then, someone replaces the passages just before the book goes to press, and the book is published with the damaging passages. Nigel Strangeway is hired to find out who put the passages back into the book, and goes undercover at Wenham and Geraldine. He’s soon found out, but since he’s a poet, he continues to work at the firm, and continues his investigation. At first, it seems that bestselling author Millicent Miles may be responsible. She’s got a reputation for being very malicious, and she hasn’t made many friends at the firm. But then, Millicent Miles is killed. So Strangeway has to look for connections between her death and the changes to General Thoresby’s manuscript. There are plenty of suspects, too, including the firm’s partners, Liz Wenham and Arthur Geraldine. There’s also Basil Ryle, the newest partner, who was responsible for bringing Millicent Miles to Wenham and Geralding in the first place. Miss Miles’ son, Cyprian Gleed, who is what used to be called a ne’er do well, is also a suspect. As it turns out, the replaced passages are connected with Miss Miles’ death, and as Strangeway finds that connection we learn a lot about the publishing business.

Robert Barnard’s Death of a Mystery Writer gives us an interesting look into the relationship between publishing houses and their authors. In that novel, Inspector Meredith investigates the murder of Sir Oliver Fairleigh-Stubbs. Farleigh-Stubbs is an overweight, obnoxious and roundly-hated detective story author. Despite his unpleasant personality, though, Farleigh-Stubbs is a best-selling author and his books are in very high demand. On the night of his sixty-fifth birthday, Sir Oliver dies suddenly after the celebratory dinner. At first, his death is put down to heart failure – not surprising given his age, weight and poor health. Soon enough, though, it becomes clear that Sir Oliver was poisoned. Inspector Meredith is called in to investigate, and he finds no shortage of suspects. The members of Sir Oliver’s family had no love for him, although they feel differently about the fortune he left. As if that wasn’t enough, Sir Oliver left behind an unfinished manuscript. That manuscript has become extremely valuable and it’s disappeared. In order to solve this case, Meredith has to look into the relationships among the family members and their relationships with Sir Oliver’s publishing house.

Peter Lovesey’s The Circle explores a different aspect of publishing – the so-called, “vanity press.” Edgar Blacker is a publisher who gives a presentation about his company to the Chichester Writers’ Circle, a group of unpublished writers. Blacker’s company has just agreed to publish a book on unsolved crimes written by the group’s leader, Maurice McDade. Then, McDade finds out that Blacker is running a vanity press, and that McDade’s been tricked into having to pay a considerable amount to get his work published. When Backer is killed in his own home by a deliberately-set fire, McDade is accused of the crime and imprisoned. The other members of the group, a rather eccentric circle of writers, don’t think that McDade is guilty, and they persuade their newest member, aspiring poet Bob Naylor, to spearhead their informal investigation. When Naylor himself narrowly escapes a blaze, it becomes clear that McDade isn’t responsible for the crime. Inspector Henrietta “Hen” Mallin is called in to find out who committed the murder and arson fires and why.

We see how important best-sellers are to publishers in Julie Kaewert’s Unsolicited. Alex Plumtree is the young head of Plumtree Publishing, a family-owned London publishing house. Two years ago, the firm received a fiction manuscript from an author known only as “Arthur.” Plumtree took a chance on the book and it became a surprise best-seller. Now, the sequel is due to come out. In fact, the mysterious “Arthur” has submitted all but the last five chapters of the sequel. The books are about the alleged shipment of British children to the United States during World War II. According to the book, some unscrupulous people took advantage of British parents’ desperation to keep their children safe and American parents who were just as desperate to adopt a child. With five chapters to go, “Arthur” stops sending his work, and Plumtree begins to wonder why, since “Arther” has always kept his deadlines. What’s more, Plumtree’s friend and book critic, Barnes Appleton, tells him that the books are not fiction; rather, they tell a true story. When Appleton is killed, Plumtree believes that he and “Arthur” may have been killed to prevent the true story from coming out. Plumtree investigates the story behind the books, nearly getting himself killed in the process.

Some crime fiction novels don’t focus as much on the publishing industry as on authors. For example, Agatha Christie didn’t really center her novels on the world of publishing. Yet, her fictional detective novelist, Ariadne Oliver, frequently mentions the pressure she’s under to meet deadlines and turn in enough words, so to speak. In Christie’s Cards on the Table, for instance, Oliver is one of four sleuths invited to a dinner by mysterious Mr. Shaitana. Along with the sleuths are four people who have, so Shaitana hints, gotten away with at least one murder. When Shaitana is stabbed, each of the four murderers comes in for suspicion, since each had the opportunity. Ariadne Oliver and the other three sleuths (Hercule Poirot, Colonel Race and Superintendent Battle) sift through the evidence of each suspect’s history to find out who killed Shaitana. At one point, Oliver has a long conversation with the room-mate of one of the suspects, who is also a fan. During that conversation, Oliver admits some of the challenges of what she does. For instance, if she runs short on word count, she has to “throw in another murder and get the heroine kidnapped again.” Oliver provides a very interesting “author’s perspective” on the writing and publishing process.

Patricia Cornwell’s second Kay Scarpetta novel, Body of Evidence, also focuses on an author’s point of view. Beryl Madison, a reclusive, up-and-coming writer of historical romances, has been brutally murdered. To add to the mystery, her final manuscript has disappeared. In order to find out who killed Beryl Madison and why, state medical examiner Dr. Kay Scarpetta retraces Madison’s last days. She finds out that Madison had stayed for a while with her mentor, noted writer Cary Harper, and his sister. She’d then gone to Florida, but, after several threats to her life, had returned to Virginia, only to be murdered there. At first, it seems that Harper might have killed his protégée out of jealousy. But then Harper is killed and his sister commits suicide. Scarpetta comes to believe that the missing manuscript may hold the key to all three deaths, and it’s not until she finds it that she begins to understand what happened to Beryl Madison.

The writing and publishing world certainly has its share of infighting, backstabbing, blackmailing and other elements of crime fiction. So it’s no surprise that several crime novels take place in that setting. What’s your view on this particular context? If you’ve read novels that take place in the publishing and writing world, which have you enjoyed?

*Note - The title of this post is the first line of The Beatles' Paperback Writer.


  1. I loved AC's Ariadne Oliver and I know many crime fiction has taken place in the publishing world. I guess we write what we know.


  2. Very interesting post and a couple of books I wasn't familiar with. I can see where there would be a wealth of possibilities to have a murder committed when dealing with a publishing house.

  3. Ann - Oh, Ariadne is one of my favorite literary characters! She was supposed to have been AC's way of poking fun at herself, and I wouldn't be surprised if that's true. I think you're right; we do write what we know : )...

    Mason - There really is a whole host of possibilities for motives, characaters, etc., in the publishing context. I really didn't realize how many, either, until I started writing this post

  4. I thought "Publish or Perish" was a good one. :)

    And...congratulations! I see your blog made the list for best blogs on classic mysteries:


  5. Elizabeth - Thanks : ) on both counts! You know, I hadn't thought about Publish or Perish in that category, because it doesn't really focus on the publishing industry, but yes, there is a connection.... How nice of you to mention it.

  6. Yes, this is a fun topic, and one that I enjoy reading. One of the Anne Holt books was an unusual twist on this theme - The Final Murder. There is a cleverly ambiguous ending to it, also.

    I suppose you could also, perhaps by stretching it a bit, include Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy in this category - Millennium is the name of the magazine that is at the centre of the plot of all three novels, in a different way each time, and each publication plot is integrated with the mystery/crimes.

  7. Maxine - How funny you mentioned Millenium and the Larsson trilogy! I actually thought of mentioning those books, but decided it was just a bit of a stretch for me, so I didn't. I'm glad you did.

    Thanks for the recommendation on the Anne Holt novel. I had heard that The Final Murder was a good one, but I haven't read it. You always add such interesting suggestions to my blog posts : ). I will have to put this one on my TBR list, as I like Holt's work.

  8. I absolutely love Ariadne Oliver; she's so wonderfully self-deprecating. I'm sure Dame Agatha enjoyed writing her and using her to voice her own opinions about writing mysteries. It does make me wonder though, was Dame Agatha continuously eating apples?

  9. Elspeth - LOL! I don't know about Dame Agatha and apples, but I wouldn't be surprised if there were something like that that she was "stuck on." I love Ariadne Oliver's character, too! Isn't she wonderful? She is self-deprecating, but she's also smart and shrewd. Just a beautifully-drawn character...

  10. I thought, too, of your own "Publish or Perish", Margot, as I read this blog. I'm sure we'll soon have some murder mysteries centered around e-books and the controversy of e-reader supporters vs the traditionalists. Thanks for a great blog, as always.

  11. Bobbi - Thanks : ). That will be interesting to see how the concept of the murder mystery in the publishing setting changes as a result of developments like the E-book, the Kindle reader, and so on. And I really like your idea of the controversy between "e-readers" and "traditional readers." There's a plot in there somewhere...

  12. Maxine has reminded me of two, but I would have said I only remembered one right now, Publish or Perish :D

    And I certainly liked it!

    I must remember to tell my students that the wages of plagiarism may be death! (had to preach a bit yesterday, but I think they got my message).