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What’s the best way for an author to be remembered?

In books, writers, Writing on April 10, 2012 at 9:18 am

This past weekend, I checked the Amazon listing for Human Game and was pleased to see the sales ranking had jumped from the million-mark to the neighborhood of 200,000. Someone had obviously pre-ordered a copy. To that kind-hearted and anonymous individual, I send my sincere thanks. The book isn’t due out until October 2—indeed, the Amazon listing does not yet feature the cover image—so it’s great to know that someone is eager enough to order the book seven months before its release.

I once read somewhere that for a book to be a bestseller, heavy promotion has to begin about six months before it hits stores. Whether this is true or not, I have no idea—but, certainly, an aim of this blog is to get the word out. I realize blogging alone won’t sell books, but I’m hoping it helps. At this stage, it’s too early to tell. I do find it interesting, however, that several visitors to my blog have got here by entering the book’s title as their search-engine query.

While discussing all this with my wife over the weekend, I said, “What I’d give for just one major seller!” I feel no shame in admitting this. Yes, I want to sell out—I want to sell out an entire print run! I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a writer, musician, or any artist, for that matter, wanting to make money from their toils. Of course, I don’t write solely for cash. I enjoy the process and take great satisfaction in receiving the final product from the publisher prior to publication. I’m just saying one bestseller would be nice!

This all leads to a question: As an author, is it better to be remembered as a prolific scribe who turned out high quality books that never sold in large quantities, or remembered solely for one big-selling book in particular? Pondering this question, I drummed up a short list of authors who only ever produced one book—but, of course, they’re works have the stuff of immortality.

Margaret Mitchell – Gone with the Wind
Harper Lee – To Kill a Mockingbird
Ralph Ellison – The Invisible Man
John Kennedy Toole – A Confederacy of Dunces
Emily Brontë – Wuthering Heights

As for authors who produced numerous works but are remembered primarily for one book, I came up with the following (this, of course, is open to debate):

Hunter S. Thompson – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Joseph Heller – Catch-22
J.D. Salinger – The Catcher in the Rye
Ken Kesey – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Henry Miller – Tropic of Cancer
D.H. Lawrence – Lady Chatterley’s Lover
F. Scott Fitzgerald – The Great Gatsby

Honestly, if I were to be remembered at all, I’d be happy to be remembered either way, for it means the work–whether multiple books, or just one–has touched a considerable audience.

The Guardian approached this from a different angle last year and composed a list of authors “famous for the wrong book.” Among them are Kurt Vonnegut for Slaughterhouse-Five and Evelyn Waugh for Brideshead Revisited.

Are there any authors you’d add to the above lists?

Putting the smackdown on young, aspiring authors . . .

In books, e-books, publishing, Writing on April 3, 2012 at 9:02 am

Saturday’s New York Times featured an article on teens who self-publish their books with financial help from Mom and Dad. The parents of the young scribes interviewed say it’s a great way to encourage their kids to keep writing and to reward the months of work their children put into their manuscripts. Some in the publishing industry, however, see this as a negative thing. They argue it doesn’t teach children anything about perseverance or the real struggles involved in getting published.

The article quotes novelist Tom Robbins, who sounds somewhat bitter:

“What’s next Kiddie architects, juvenile dentists, 11-year-old rocket scientists? Any parent who thinks that the crafting of engrossing, meaningful, publishable fiction requires less talent and experience than designing a house, extracting a wisdom tooth, or supervising a lunar probe is, frankly, delusional. There are no prodigies in literature. Literature requires experience, in a way that mathematics and music do not.”

The article doesn’t actually assert that the parents interviewed think anything of the sort. But while we’re on the subject: Why compare writing to dental work and architecture? It is, resorting to cliché, comparing apples to oranges. One can’t say that writing a novel requires as much talent as designing and launching a lunar probe. They require two completely different skill sets. I’d say successfully sending a rocket to the moon requires an incredible amount of specialized talent. Or, maybe I’m being delusional.

I’ve stated my thoughts on self-published works before. While I’m not opposed to people publishing their books themselves, I think too many self-published authors rush to get their work out there and inundate the market with sloppy material. Then again, traditional publishing houses hit the public with a fair amount of garbage, too—so give these kids a break. Are they really causing any bestselling authors and powerful editors grief by putting their work out there? No. But what about the argument that “literature requires experience”?

The kids profiled in the article range from a 12 year old to a high school junior. While adults may stay clear of books written by teens, we can assume other teens may show interest in stories crafted by their contemporaries. I would venture to say these young authors have channeled teenage experiences into their fiction–experiences other teens would more likely identify with than someone who graduated from high school 20-plus years ago.

Not every piece of writing that’s published has to be a deeply moving experience for the reader (look at James Patterson). It can be something lightweight, written with the sole intent to entertain. Authors can think that what they do is deeply profound—but, in the end, their main job is to entertain. So let these kids self publish their books and enjoy the moment. Life only gets more stressful as one grows older, so let them enjoy the fulfillment of a dream . . . even if it’s only for a short while.

The mercurial tastes of readers . . .

In books on March 29, 2012 at 8:55 am

Why do so many books fail to make a big impression on the public, while others become blockbusters? This is a question I’ve been pondering since the emergence of Fifty Shades of Grey, the book dubbed “Mommy Porn” by the press, which has become a sales phenomenon. What started out as a piece of Twilight fan fiction on the Web has morphed into a New York Times mega-seller, earning author E.L. James and the small Australian press that initially published the book a six-figure deal from Vintage. According to the Los Angeles Times, the major studios are lining up to purchase the film rights.

Richard Perry/New York Times

For those who might not be familiar with the story, Fifty Shades of Grey chronicles the sexual adventures of twenty-something literature student Anastasia Steel, apparently a virgin at the beginning of the book, and her sadomasochistic boyfriend, young billionaire Christian Grey. The book, according to the articles I’ve read (seriously, I haven’t read the book), is pretty much one long sex scene, replete with hardcore bondage, domination, and other things that would have made Lady Chatterley blush. Make no mistake, I’m no prude. The subject matter is not one I find offensive—I’m simply curious about the book’s popularity.

I don’t begrudge James her success. Indeed, more power to her. But what is it about the book that’s fueling its overwhelming popularity? Is it simply sex? If that’s the answer, does this mean Henry Miller’s books will start appearing on the bestseller lists? What was it about Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy that spawned a similar frenzy? I read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its two sequels and enjoyed them all, but I’m at a loss to explain why those books in particular struck such a powerful chord with people. It’s a tragedy Larsson didn’t live long enough to see his books become the pop-culture phenomenon they did.

What I not only find puzzling–but disturbing–is Snooki, whose book . . . I can’t even finish typing this sentence. Let’s move on.

I’m currently reading Into Africa by adventurer Martin Dugard. The book details Henry Stanley’s epic 1871 search for missing explorer David Livingstone in the heart of Africa (their eventual meeting was immortalized by Stanley’s famous greeting: “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”). The book is a stellar adventure story written in a lively manner that almost dares the reader not to turn the page. It’s one of the best works of narrative nonfiction I’ve picked up in a long while and reads like a real-life Indiana Jones story.

It’s a wonderful character study of two very complex individuals: Livingstone, the missionary bent on finding the source of the Nile; and Stanley, a journalist plagued by failure and desperate to make something of his life. Why didn’t this book generate mammoth sales? It has drama, human conflict, adventure, a touch of mystery—but not much sex.

An author I’ve mentioned on this blog before is James Crumley, whose violent, drug-fueled detective novels rank amongst the best crime fiction I’ve read. He has been cited as a major influence by such bestselling authors as Michael Connelly and Dennis Lehane, yet he never found a large audience. Crumley, who died in 2008, voiced his thoughts on the matter in a 2001 interview with the Dallas Morning News:

I’m not middlebrow and middle class. Sure, I’d like it if more people read the books. My children would like it. My ex-wives would like it. But that’s just not what I’m about.

The opening line to Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss is considered by many to be one of the finest of the genre:

When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.

The whole book, mind you, is phenomenal.

Otto Penzler, founder of the Mysterious Press and owner of the Mysterious Bookshop in New York City, could never account for Crumley’s lack of mainstream success. “He just never found a mass audience,” he told the the Los Angeles Times in 2008, “and I wish I could tell you why. I don’t know.”

As the author of six non-bestselling books (well, one did appear in a brief flash on the Barnes and Noble paperback bestseller list about six years ago) and my next book due out in October, I sometimes wonder if I’ll ever beat the odds. If great authors like Crumley go their entire career hidden in the literary shadows, what chance do other scribes have?

All writers, of course, are prone to such feelings every now and then. The trick is not to dwell on them too long. If we knew why some books meet with great success, while others go out in a blaze of obscurity, we’d all be writing massive bestsellers.

Who knows? Maybe in the end, it is all about sex.

Life is too short to stick with boring books

In books, writers on March 16, 2012 at 9:08 am

It recently dawned on me I’ll die before I get to every book on my reading list. These days, what with the day job, new daddy duties, and writing my own books, I don’t have as much reading time as I once did. Indeed, I find I hardly have the mental stamina in the evenings to get through five pages. I’ll read several paragraphs and realize none of what I’ve read has actually sunk in. All the while, the number of books on my bedside table continues to grow. If you were to take a look, you would find:

The Lost City of Z (David Grann)
Have Mercy On Us All (Fred Vargas)
Seeking Whom He May Devour (also by Vargas)
A Bridge Too Far (Cornelius Ryan)
Inferno (Max Hastings)
The Woman Lit by Fireflies (Jim Harrison)
The Farmer’s Daughter (also by Harrison)
Churchill: A Life (Martin Gilbert)
The Blue Nile (Alex Moorehead)
The Desert War (also by Moorehead)
Carte Blanche (Jeffery Deaver)

I should say not all of these are actually on my bedside table out of fear the stack might collapse and kill me while I sleep. They’re scattered throughout the house. Some people have closets filled with shoes; I’ve got shelves overflowing with books—and still I continue to purchase more, even though there are plenty I have yet to read. Is this a sickness? An addiction? I know I’m not alone. I also know it drives my wife bananas. “Why,” she asks, peering at me over a stack of hardcovers, “must you buy so many books?”

I simply love books . . . they bring me comfort. I love being surrounded by them. In my home office, I have three bookshelves stuffed to capacity with biographies, histories, and thrillers, including a couple of autographed books by Stephen King and William Peter Blatty. On one shelf, I have multiple editions of Ian Fleming’s original Bond novels, including six British first editions published by Jonathan Cape. They’re cherished possessions.

I’ve read ninety percent of the books I own—but that remaining ten percent nags at me. It’s because of this I no longer waste my time struggling to finish books I find boring. In a recent blog post, The Literary Man asked when is it okay to give up on a book. My answer is as soon as you realize you’re bored. Life is too short to stick with disappointing reads. If you’re served a crummy meal in a restaurant, you don’t continue eating it. You ask the waiter to bring you something else.

With all the books I still have to conquer—and the list continues to grow—I place high expectations on my hardcover and paperback entertainment. If I’m not hooked in the first 100 pages, chances are I’m ditching it. Our time here is limited, and I’ve got a lot of books to read.

Presenting . . . the cover to ‘Human Game’

In books, publishing on March 6, 2012 at 7:31 am

Last week, Penguin sent me the mock-up of the cover to Human Game: The True Story of the ‘Great Escape’ Murders and the Hunt for the Gestapo Gunmen. I’m pleased with the end result and find the red color theme to be pretty striking. The faded swastika behind the main title adds a menacing touch to the overall presentation without being distracting. I hope it lures readers! The book hits stores in the US October 2, with a UK release date scheduled for early next year.

Human Game is the non-fiction sequel to the famous World War II story of The Great Escape, the book by Paul Brickhill that became the classic 1963 movie starring Steve McQueen and Richard Attenborough. The book and film (a personal favorite) detail the mass breakout of 76 Allied airmen from Stalag Luft III, a prison camp deep in the heart of Nazi Germany. What made the breakout famous was not merely the number of men involved, but the operation’s overall logistics. All escapees were supplied with German money, fake travel documents and identity papers, homemade compasses, maps, and rations. Outfits, ranging from business suits to German military uniforms, were tailored for every escapee. The men spent more than a year digging three escape tunnels. As I write in Human Game, this endeavor alone required . . .

“. . . the requisitioning of 1,219 knifes, 582 forks, 408 spoons, 246 water cans, 1,699 blankets, 192 bed covers, 161 pillow cases, 1,212 pillows, 655 straw mattresses, 34 chairs, the frames of 90 bunk beds, 3,424 towels, 10 single tables, 52 twenty-man tables, more than 1,200 bed bolsters, nearly 1,400 beaded battens, 76 benches, 1,000 feet of electrical wiring and 600 feet of rope. Four thousand bed boards were used to shore-up the tunnels. Lights wired into the camp’s electrical supply provided illumination underground; air pumps made of discarded kitbags, empty powdered-milk tins, wood-framing, wire mesh and tar paper supplied fresh air to those doing the digging.”

What the men accomplished was nothing short of amazing.

Of the 76 “Great Escapers,” only three made it back to England. Twenty-three were returned to various prison camps. The remaining 50 were rounded up by the Gestapo and executed. The movie ends with the condemned being shot en masse in a field by a German machine gunner. In reality, the men were taken in groups of twos and threes to isolated killing fields throughout the Reich and shot in the beck of the neck. The bodies were destroyed at local concentration camps and crematoriums. The movie always left me wondering who, exactly, was responsible for killing the escapees and what, if anything, became of them? In 2007, I decided to find out. Human Game is the result of three years of researching and writing.

In England, where I’m originally from, “The Great Escape” comes on every Christmas day—a strange, but enjoyable, tradition. I first watched it with my grandfather when I was a child, and it left an indelible impression. Second only to my grandfather’s wartime service in the Royal Air Force, “The Great Escape” launched my lifelong interest in the Second World War. Tales of ordinary people rising to meet extraordinary challenges have always fascinated me—and the investigation into the “Great Escape” murders is such a story.

Tasked with tracking down the Gestapo gunmen was a small team from the RAF’s Special Investigating Branch. The men, detectives in their civilian lives, arrived in Germany in September 1945—seventeen months after the killings—to pick up a trail long gone cold. The team would traverse a Germany divided amongst the American, British, French, and Russian occupiers, all of whom had their own agendas. Through sheer determination and crack investigative skills, the team brought 21 killers to justice in a hunt that spanned three years and pierced the darkest realms of Nazi fanaticism.

I hope readers, upon the book’s release, find the story as enthralling as I do!

Can ‘genre fiction’ qualify as ‘Great Literature’? Yes.

In books, writers on February 22, 2012 at 7:22 am


In a New York Times article last week, author Dominique Browning writes that while on a recent flight, she lost herself in a good book. So rapt was her attention, she stopped worrying about whether she would make her connection—in fact, she didn’t realize they had taken off until she pried her eyes from the page and looked out the window. The book, she writes, was the perfect kind of book to distract one’s mind from the many discomforts of air travel:

My heart and mind were plunged into an epic battle between good and evil, the struggle to establish a new world order, the heartbreak of love fractured by political imperative, the tragedy of families torn apart.

Was I reading War and Peace? Hardly. I have given up flying with Great Literature.

The book was George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. When traveling, Browning tells us, her literary tastes veer towards Martin, Patricia Cornwell, P.D. James, and other scribes who write what many would call “genre fiction.” She loves the “narrative drive” of such authors and their ability to draw you into a story. No argument there. Martin, Cornwell, and James have all written fabulous books—and Browning openly discusses the joys of reading popular genres. What bothers me about the article is that she states several times that such books aren’t “Great Literature.” At one point, she writes:

I no longer take Great Literature on the road. It belongs nestled in my arms, deep in a comfortable chair by a crackling fire, where I can tend lovingly to every detail it whispers, where I can pay close attention to the dexterous play of intelligence and the lilting nuance of verbal agility.

There are those like Harold Bloom who believe only Shakespeare or Cormac McCarthy can write great literature (McCarthy’s refusal to use quotation marks drives me nuts, by the way), but that’s an idiotic stance. I’m not saying Browning is elitist, as Bloom would never admit to liking a fantasy novel, but I would argue a book that consumed her attention the way Game of Thrones did on that flight qualifies as great literature. When you get right down to it, a book’s main purpose is to entertain. A good book is a good book. It doesn’t matter who wrote it or when. Yes, we can be impressed with a writer’s vocabulary and the “nuance” of their “verbal agility”—but if the book ultimately bores us, is it still great? The definition, of course, is purely subjective. I love Steinbeck and John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra, but I also think Stephen King’s The Shining and Bag of Bones are examples of great literature.

Great literature draws you in, makes you forget your everyday worries and renders you oblivious to the passing of time. Going by this definition, I’d qualify the works of the late James Crumley—one of the most underrated crime novelists out there—as meeting such criteria. Consider the beauty of this passage from his book The Wrong Case:

A car full of drunks hissed over the Ripley Avenue bridge and down the ramp above us, fleeing through the night down black and wet streets, heading home or to another gaily lighted bar rife with music and dancing and sweaty women with bright eyes and lips like faded rose petals. As the driver down-shifted, the exhaust belched, the tires snickered across the slick pavement, a girl’s shrill laughter flew out, abandoned like an empty beer can in the skid. The colored lights from the discreet Riverfront sign reflected off the dark asphalt, wavering as the wind sifted the rain, glowing distantly like the lights of a city beneath a black sea.

It’s a wonderful piece of descriptive writing, typical of Crumley—a passage you’d want to enjoy in a comfortable chair by a glowing hearth, relishing the skill of an amazing writer. There is no shame in admitting that a popular author has created something of superior quality. Any writing that is able to remove us from the realities of everyday life is great literature.

Let the English majors shudder.

The day Hollywood called

In books on February 16, 2012 at 8:14 am

Sucker!

Valentine’s Day this year marked an anniversary for me, as it was on Feb. 14, 2011, Hollywood came knocking. Actually, it sent an e-mail and lured me in with a promise of great things. I’m not normally a naïve person, but I fell for the spiel and flattery. Then, just as quickly as it began, the all-too-brief acquaintance was over.


The person who contacted me was an Emmy Award-winning producer with major credits to his name. He wanted to chat about my first book, On the House, which details the bizarre murder of speakeasy habitué Michael Malloy in Prohibition-era New York. A gang of thugs, subsequently named “the Murder Trust” by the tabloids of the day, decided to take an insurance policy out on Malloy and do him in. Unfortunately for the would-be killers, Malloy proved to be a drunken marvel of indestructibility and survived multiple attempts on his life—each one more outrageous than the last—without realizing anyone was trying to kill him. The gang, consisting of a syphilitic speakeasy owner, crooked undertaker, trigger-happy gangster, desperate greengrocer, and alcoholic bartender, grew increasingly desperate with each failed attempt.

They fed him shots of rat poison and anti-freeze, served him sardine sandwiches laced with carpet tacks and metal shavings, got him drunk and buried him naked in the snow, all to no avail. When running Malloy over with a car failed to get the job done, the gang decided to kill someone who looked like Malloy but might prove to be an easier target. To cut a long story short, Malloy was eventually murdered. The members of the Murder Trust paid for their misdeeds in the electric chair. In the wake of his death, the downtrodden Malloy became the toast of New York society. Much like Seabiscuit, the guy became a symbol of Depression-era resilience.

The book—published in 2005 by Penguin’s Berkley imprint—is now out of print, but I continue to have a soft spot for it. Anyway, the producer wanted to chat about On the House and the other books I’ve written. Why, he wanted to know once we connected on the phone, was I spending my days in an office when I was obviously a “great, fucking writer”? He told me to send copies of all my books to him and his partner, an Academy Award-winning screenwriter. Initially, I did a pretty good job keeping my hopes grounded—but the guy kept working me up. At one point, he wrote in an e-mail, “You won’t be sorry!”

Guess what?

The guy vanished into the ether and cut off all communication just as suddenly as it began. A movie he produced hit theaters last year and his name appears in the trade publications attached to various projects with big-name stars, but we’re incommunicado. What really ticks me off about the whole thing is the fact I sent the dude free copies of all my books (including the last two copies I had of one book in particular). With all his success, couldn’t he have just purchased copies and slipped a few bucks in royalties into my pocket?

C’mon, show a writer some love–and respect!

Publication frustration

In e-books, publishing, Random thoughts, Writing on February 14, 2012 at 9:11 am

Editor’s Note: This post is aimed not at the really good writers out there who publish their own work, but those scribes guilty of self-publishing books with horrible spelling, bad grammar, clichéd similes, and countless other literary crimes.

For my recent trip to England, I downloaded several books onto my Kindle Fire, including Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse and the classic thriller The 39 Steps by John Buchan. Both were great reads. Not great, however, were a couple of self-published books I purchased from the Kindle store. I won’t reveal the titles or authors—but I will say that I won’t be reading anything by these offenders again. No one recommended the books to me; I stumbled across them on my own. I’m not angry I spent good money on said books, as they were only 99 cents each—I’m annoyed with the authors for publishing them in the first place. I love many different authors and a broad range of genres, but I can’t tolerate horrible writing.

There is nothing wrong with an author publishing his or her own work. While it gives a writer greater control over their creation, it also places on them a greater responsibility to produce something of quality. I’m not saying it has to be Shakespeare—but it should, at the very least, display the author’s basic understanding of grammar and an ability to produce decent prose. Obviously, if you publish through a traditional publishing house, you have editors and proofreaders vetting your copy. If you’re putting it out there yourself, the entire burden rests on your shoulders. If you’re self-publishing, you’re in essence an ambassador for a burgeoning field. If you have several lousy meals at a restaurant, you’d probably stop eating there. Likewise, how many bad self-published authors does one read before giving up on self-published books altogether?

According to a statistic I came across online, more than 74,000 self-published books were released in 2009! One can’t be shoddy and expect to stand out in a field that crowded. It’s tough enough trying to make it with a major publishing house behind you. There are great self-published authors out there (check out my friend Chris Randolph at Oktopods) who fret over every word and sentence. This, of course, is how it should be. Take pride in what you write. At least prove to the rest of us you know the difference between “there” and “their,” or when to use “it’s” versus “its.”

And never, when describing a murder, compare a blade cutting through flesh to a “hot knife slicing through butter.”

I’m not a big fan of “American Idol” (I blame Ryan Seacrest for unleashing the Kardashian plague), but I sometimes take grim pleasure in watching the audition episodes. I always feel sorry for the poor individuals with no vocal talent whatsoever who truly believe they can sing. It’s both comedic and horrifying to watch.

Bad singing is funny; bad writing isn’t—but why not? Because expressing ideas on paper in a clear, concise manner is a fundamental skill we should all possess. Not everyone is going to write with Churchillian eloquence, but everyone should have a basic understanding of how to construct a sentence.

That’s all I want to say.

Possible book project and confusion at Starbucks

In author, books, publishing, Writing on February 11, 2012 at 11:16 am

Last Friday, my first night in London, I met my book editor for drinks and dinner at the Goat Tavern, a 300-year-old pub on Kensington High Street. It was our first face-to-face encounter. We worked together a couple of years ago on Dark City, my history of infamous crimes in wartime London. Said editor, Mark Beynon, is also an author. His most recent work is London’s Curse: Murder, Black Magic, and Tutankhamun in the 1920s West End, which implicates occultist Aleister Crowley in a series of murders that shocked London following the discovery of King Tut’s tomb.

It looks as though Mark and I may be working on another book together for publisher The History Press. Details have yet to be ironed out, and I’m still researching the tentative subject matter at hand . . . so we’ll see how things proceed. In other books news, Penguin will soon have the finished cover design for Human Game (scheduled for an October release) ready. Once they send it my way, I’ll post it here!

Last Sunday afternoon, I went to Paddington Station and caught a train north to visit family. Before my departure, I walked into the station’s Starbucks and ordered a latte. The young guy behind the register was of Eastern European descent and had a very thick accent. I must have also been hard to understand because it took me two tries to convey what I wanted to drink. He eventually picked up a paper cup and a pen and said something to me. Again, there was a communication breakdown. I could only assume he was asking me my name so he could write it on the cup, as they do in Starbucks here in the States. I said, “Simon.” He offered me nothing but a blank stare, so I proceeded to spell my name for him. He dully scribbled it on the side of the cup, looked at me, and said, “Why do you tell me your name?”

I felt the blood rush to my face. “I have no idea,” I said. “I thought that’s what you were asking me.”

“I wasn’t,” he replied—without offering any explanation as to what he had actually said to me.

When the barista (also Eastern European) was handed my cup to make the latte, she asked the cashier, “What is ‘Simon’?”

“I don’t know,” the cashier shrugged, pointing a finger at me. “He keeps telling me his name.”

By now, I just wanted to make a hasty retreat with my latte in hand. Mercifully, the barista got busy making my drink. When done, she thrust it in my direction and said, “This is yours.”

I took my coffee and scurried from the premises.

Journeying into the past

In books on February 1, 2012 at 2:29 pm

The suitcase is nearly packed; my reading selection for the plane is close to being finalized. Tomorrow, I take off for the United Kingdom. I’m being interviewed on Saturday for an upcoming episode of “Murder Casebook” on the UK Discovery Channel. The show will focus on the Blackout Ripper, a serial killer who stalked the nighttime streets of London in February 1942. He murdered four women and attacked two more in the course of a week before being apprehended by Scotland Yard. I wrote about the case in my second book, published by Penguin in the US under the title In the Dark and by JR Books in the UK as The Blackout Murders. It’s also covered in my most recent book, Dark City, which was published in Britain to commemorate the seventieth anniversary of the Blitz.

Friday night, I’m meeting my book editor for several pints and a good English meal (yes, I love English food: roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, fish and chips, sticky toffee pudding . . . the list goes on) at The Goat Tavern in Kensington. The pub features in one of Britain’s most notorious murder cases, for it was here John “Acid Bath” Haigh met one of his victims. Haigh’s modus operandi earned him his nickname. He would shoot his victims in the back of the head and then dispose of their bodies in acid.

My interview is tentatively taking place in the officer’s mess at RAF Uxbridge, the fighter base responsible for the defense of London and southeast England during the Battle of Britain. Winston Churchill visited the base’s operation bunker on August 16, 1940, to monitor the progress of an air battle. It was on this occasion he first uttered his famous remark, “Never has so much been owed by so many to so few.” Four days later, he would incorporate that phrase into one of his rousing war speeches.

What can I say? I’m a history geek, so all this stuff excites me! I’m not sure if I’ll have a chance to blog while I’m in the UK, but I’ll certainly be posting an update when I return!

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