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Gillian Flynn and John Searles on "Help for the Haunted"

John Searles' third novel, Help for the Haunted, is a chilling mystery and a subtle yet gripping thriller that draws you in emotionally and doesn't let you off the hook until the very end. Or as my colleague Chris Schluep put it in his review, it's "an expertly-wrought, coming-of-age story with a healthy dose of creepiness." It's also one of our Best Books of the Month picks for September.

Gillian Flynn, author of last summer's runaway hit Gone Girl spoke with Searles about the autobiographical nature of his main character, his views on the supernatural, recommended reading, and more.


Help for the Haunted
John Searles

Gillian Flynn: Writers imbue all of their characters with a little bit of themselves. Obviously, Sylvie Mason -- a young teenage girl – is very different from you. What were the challenges of writing her as a protagonist? How did you find a window into Sylvie?

John Searles: I always joke to people that deep down, I'm really a teenage girl. Growing up, my dad worked as a cross-country truck-driver and my older brother was usually off with his friends, so my mom and my two younger sisters and I spent most of our time together in a tiny house with two bedrooms. As an adult, I went on to become an editor at a women's magazine, where I worked in an office full of—what else?—women. So in a weird way, it was almost easier for me to write from a female perspective than a male one.

GF: You've talked before about how your sister's death affected your writing. How so in this book?

Help for the Haunted
Gillian Flynn

JS: After my sister, Shannon, died, my parents divorced, my brother moved out, and I took off for New York City to try and become a writer. In the wake of all that, our youngest sister, Keri, was left behind. Keri was around the age that Sylvie is in Help for the Haunted. At some point during the writing of the book, I realized I was channeling elements of her voice and emotions and experience from that time. She was so young to be faced with such a terrible tragedy, but she proved to have a remarkably resilient spirit.

GF: Help for the Haunted has some seriously scary moments and delves into a subculture that few are familiar with -– that of haunted souls and paranormalists. What inspired you to explore this world?

JS: As a kid, I was obsessed with scary things. I used to make haunted houses in our garage, and when I got my driver's license, I used to load my friends into my station wagon and drive us all down a dirt road late at night, where I'd do my best to scare the hell out of them. So I guess this is a grown-up version of what I used to do as a kid: Writing a scary book as opposed to terrifying my friends in an old station wagon.

Also, I grew up in the same town as the couple who were the real-life inspiration for the movie "The Conjuring." As kids, we used to see them in church and at the grocery store and the sight of them used to frighten and fascinate me. Years later, I saw the woman at an event at our local library. The two of us were posing for a photo for the town newspaper, and I started wondering what it would be like if Sylvie's parents had an occupation that dealt with the paranormal too.

GF: Do you believe in the supernatural? Do you feel you have to believe even just a little bit to tell a convincing story?

Help for the Haunted

JS: In Help for the Haunted, Sylvie says, "I do and I don't believe." Her mix of feelings is very much like my own and like so many people I've talked to who have read the book. Logically, we know better than to believe in ghosts and the supernatural, but every once in a while life serves up some unexplainable phenomena and that little part of us can't help but believe again.

GF: This will be your third book, the first two being the bestselling novels Strange But True and Boy Still Missing. How do you think you've grown as a writer over the course of your career?

JS: I have always tried to take risks with my writing, but in Help for the Haunted, I took more than ever before. I don't just mean telling the story from a young girl's perspective, but also combining a murder mystery with a coming of age tale, plus switching back and forth in time, and introducing the idea of supernatural elements. I used to go to lunch with my editor and ask her again and again, "Are you sure this story isn't too weird?" Thankfully, she loved it and always told me to keep going.

GF: Did you begin Help for the Haunted knowing what was going to happen, or did you follow your characters to see where they'd lead you?

JS: All I had at the very beginning was the voice of Sylvie, a teenage girl, who was left in the care of her tough older sister. The rest of the story came in pieces. The old Tudor in the woods where the family lives was inspired by an old Tudor where I stayed during a writing residency at Yaddo, an artist colony in upstate New York. The sisters' part-time job doing telephone surveys about bubble gum and fast food was one I had in high school, and I decided to use it while writing. The doll in the basement came to me when I discovered old Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls in my mother's attic. She had made those things years before, and I forgot about them until they were staring me in the face—and scaring me!—once more.

GF: All writers have quirky habits and rituals for when it's time to work. Could you share some of yours?

JS: Lying on the floor and staring at the ceiling. Push-ups. Chin-ups. Long runs. Coffee. More coffee. Tons of baths. Looking up weird facts on-line. I do all of those things when I am trying to figure stuff out because sometimes you have to distract your mind in order for the ideas to come. Plus, when I go into a real writing jag, I don't bother change my clothes or shower or shave. At one point, while revising Help for the Haunted. I had been in the library for eight hours straight and realized I was starving. I took a break and stumbled into a restaurant, where I sat at the bar and ordered dinner. All of New York City and who sits down next to me, perfectly groomed and dressed all swanky, but Jay McInerney. Someone introduced us and he looked at me with my greasy bedhead and scraggly beard and ripped clothes, and I swear he was about to say, "Excuse me but the soup kitchen is down the street."

GF: As a book critic yourself, you must read so much. What have you read recently that you enjoyed? And what are some books that have had a tremendous impact on you?

JS: Well, I am a huge fan of your books and have loved cheering for them! Also, I just read Chris Bohjalian's The Light in the Ruins and Ivy Pachoda's Visitation Street, which are captivating stories. Plus, there's Jodi Picoult's The Storyteller and Khaled Hosseini's And the Mountains Echoed. On a much lighter note, I read a really funny memoir called Screw Everyone: Sleeping My Way to Monogamy by Ophira Eisenberg that is a total riot and made me laugh.

Fuminori Nakamura's Dark, Existential Thrillers

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Fuminori Nakamura tells me exactly how he would steal my wallet. In Japanese, he explains that the trick is to lift it out of my back pocket with his three middle fingers. By foregoing the thumb (the clumsiest finger), it makes the rest of his hand more difficult for the victim to detect. Nakamura also says that if he were a better pickpocket, he would be able to lift my watch. (I check my wrist, even though I don't wear a watch.)

Nakamura doesn't steal wallets for a living, but he learned a lot about it while doing hands-on research for his novel The Thief, which concerns itself very much with the life of a Tokyo pickpocket. After a botched robbery, the nameless protagonist finds himself at the mercy of the thugs who set up the job. There's a sense of dread that pervades each page, and a surprising Camus-like ennui that provokes existential and deterministic motifs. The Thief is a swift but gloomy literary thriller, light on its feet but sinister in its intentions (much like a good pickpocket).

But for how grim his books are, Nakamura is a surprisingly affable, almost giggly presence. I have a hard time imagining that such a pleasant person could spend so much of his time exploring the darkest recesses of humanity. We meet at Café Grumpy in New York. Nakamura is visiting the States for the first time, both to attend the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, where The Thief is a Book Prize nominee, and to support his newly translated thriller, Evil and the Mask, out June 10.

Tonally, the books are similar. But where The Thief maintains an anonymous, distant narrator, Evil and the Mask is very much concerned with its anti-hero's name, or more specifically, escaping one's name. Fumihiro Kuki is born into a wealthy family set on being "a cancer on the world." The one bright spot in Fumihiro's life is an adopted sister of whom he feels protective (and with whom he has a disturbing relationship). To keep her safe, he is often forced to do terrible things. Evil and the Mask is concerned with a twisty sense of morality: is Fumihiro born evil, and can he escape the cruelty associated with his surname?

Whereas The Thief succeeds because of its simplicity, Evil and the Mask is a muddier affair. It's a longer, much more ambitious novel than The Thief, and perhaps a better one. And without giving away the ending, there's actually a bit of optimism in the closing pages of Evil and the Mask--not a lot, but when something is so bleak, even the slightest hints of hope are a welcome surprise.

When we arrived at Café Grumpy, it was sunny outside; by the time we leave, it's overcast and starting to rain. Even though I don't have a jacket or an umbrella, I don't mind. I'll look for cracks where the sun shines through.

Graphic Novel Friday: The Mystery and the Creep

The-Creep_HCAny great detective needs a flaw, and Oxel Karnhus, a private detective afflicted with Acromegaly and, well, his name, fits the bill in The Creep. The disease takes its toll on the once-handsome man--his face is exaggerated, grotesque--and Oxel is all too aware of his affliction. The neighboring teens make fun of him as he exits his apartment; a former flame attempts to hide shock at his appearance; and he breaks out in sweats and headaches due to the agony. The deformity is what gives the recently published compact hardcover its title--Oxel, no matter his good intentions, is an abnormality to everyone upon first glance. He is “the Other,” a creep.

In The Creep, a young boy commits suicide following the death of his friend. The former’s mother is convinced that there is more to her son’s death than depression. Oxel takes the case and it leads him to a secret so shocking that the final revelation left me stunned, even when I was sure I’d correctly read all the dreams and symbols that writer John Arcudi leaves along the book’s path. It’s to Arcudi’s credit that The Creep does not rely on the big secret to drive the story. Instead, it’s Oxel who carries the book. He’s sympathetic--falling in front of the cruel boys who lurk at his stoop, to their laughter and his nosebleed; he makes poor decisions and fumbles toward a resolution without a grand redemption.

And it’s artist Jonathan Case whose beautiful line work takes this story and makes it all the more memorable. Case previously worked on another Dark Horse title, Green River Killer, which was one of Amazon’s Best of the Year picks in 2011. Here he works in color, adding that extra vigor to psychotic hallucinations and Oxel’s fever dreams throughout the book. His Oxel is not a monster--the deformity is prominently displayed without gothic shadows or familiar visual tricks. It’s a frank look at an uncomfortable visage, and Oxel is not alone in Case’s expert portrayal. Characters emote without exaggeration. Readers witness shame, grief, and horror in genuine display, all of which makes the final chapter so vivid. In one flashback panel, the colors appear scratched out of a section, the memory too real to witness in full.

Despite Dark Horse and John Arcudi’s history with supernatural tales (see Arcudi's B.P.R.D., a paranormal investiagtion series), The Creep is a story full of whispers depicted at great volume. The mystery that unfurls is all too human.

--Alex

 

An Evening with Dan Brown

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How do you welcome an author who has sold 200 million books worldwide to New York’s Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center? Show the 2,000 fans in the audience where he lives, of course. At this launch event for Dan Brown's latest Robert Langdon thriller Inferno, Today Show host Matt Lauer introduced the author with a clip from an interview he conducted at Brown's home in Exeter, New Hampshire. This rare glimpse into Brown's life reveals that his house closely resembles his novels--full of beautiful old-world furnishings and secret passages hidden behind paintings and rotating bookshelves. (Imagine Tolkien creating a life-size replica of the Shire in his backyard.)

This turned out to be the perfect kick off to the evening, during which Brown opened up about his personal life and the road to his international success. Taking the podium, Brown talked about how his upbringing influenced the major theme of his novels: the conflict between religion and science. As it turns out, this tension manifested itself at a very young age. Brown's mother was the church organist and choir leader and his father was a math teacher. To illustrate their different beliefs, Brown held up the vanity license plates his parents had when he was a child: one read KYRIE (the Latin word for Lord) and the other said METRIC.

He thanked his parents for their lifelong support, noting that if you encourage your kids to pursue creative fields, you will either end up with a happy kid whose rent you'll be paying forever, or they will be popular enough to speak at Avery Fisher Hall and make fun of you.

Continue reading "An Evening with Dan Brown" »

2013 Edgar Award Winners Announced: "Live By Night" Gets Best Novel

Edgar "Some years later, on a tugboat in the Gulf of Mexico, Joe Coughlin's feet were placed in a tub of cement. Twelve gunmen stood waiting until they got far enough out to sea to throw him overboard, while Joe listened to the engine chug and watched the water churn white at the stern. And it occurred to him that almost everything of note that had ever happened in his life--good or bad-- had been set in motion the morning he first crossed paths with Emma Gould."

So begins Live by Night, the latest novel by Dennis Lehane, acclaimed author of Gone, Baby, Gone and Mystic River, and the recipient of the 2013 Edgar Award for Best Novel.

The annual dinner and ceremony celebrating the year's best writing (according to the Mystery Writers of America) took place Thursday night at the Grand Hyatt in New York City, where attendees were "Dressed to Kill" and nominees vied for the prize in Best First Novel, Best Fact Crime, Best Short Story, Best Television Episode Teleplay, and more. 

The full list of winners and nominees can be found here, including:

Best Novel

Live by Night

Best First Novel

The Expats

 

Best Paperback Original

The Last Policeman

 

 

Best Fact Crime

Midnight in Peking

Best Critical Biography

The Scientific Sherlock

Young Adult

Code Name Verity

 

Congratulations to all of the winners and nominees. Visit TheEdgars.com to see the contenders and outcomes all fifteen categories.

 

Marvelous Books on Marilyn Monroe

"It was a strange feeling, as if I were two people. One of them was Norma Jeane from the orphanage who belonged to nobody. The other was someone whose name I didn’t know. But I knew where she belonged. She belonged to the ocean and the sky and the whole world." –Marilyn Monroe

Metamorphosis-MMSince Marilyn Monroe’s death on August 5, 1962, at age 36, hundreds of books have emerged, some celebrating her legacy, others scrutinizing her life in obsessive detail. Controversies still swirl, but we know many of the facts: She grew up in foster homes, devoutly religious and shy. She married her first husband at age 15, and when he went off to war, she started modeling and found the power in a snug sweater to keep up troop morale. She worked her curves on and off camera, propelling herself from wholesome girl next door to ultimate platinum vamp—a transformation most stunningly depicted in David Willis’s Metamorphosis. We learn from Marilyn in Fashion that she often worked with designers to create looks to enhance the Marilyn image, defining sophisticated '50s style. She had dozens of affairs (some public, others deeply private), but Norman Mailer noted—in his seminal 1973 biography, Marilyn, later paired with Bern Stern’s photographs in a lavish Taschen tome—that her “greatest love affair was conceivably with the camera.”

Much of her life beyond her legend remains enigmatic. Marilyn famously said she didn’t want to be rich, she just wanted to be wonderful, and too often she didn't realize that she already was. On film, we saw Marilyn luminously at home in her body: Lawrence Schiller, who photographed her on the sets of Let's Make Love and Something's Got to Give, describes her in Marilyn & Me as a tough, ambitious agent in her own career and a self-assured model.

But her incandescent confidence was a veneer barely concealing her vulnerability and self-doubt, a conflict masterfully dramatized by Joyce Carol Oates in her novel Blonde. Marilyn grew to deeply resent and resist the prison of the sex symbol role in which she had cast herself. She longed to be taken seriously, and despite her stutter and deepening battles with addiction and depression, she devoted herself to becoming a great dramatic actress (beyond the comic genius so evident in Some Like It Hot), and she showed every sign of getting there.

MM-My-StoryShe made up for a missed education by devouring books, writing poetry, and developing intense friendships and affairs with artists, intellectuals, and, most (in)famously, politicians like the Kennedys. Some believe that her autobiography, My Story, was altered after her death to the point that it’s not entirely reliable, but her genuine wit and intelligence is undeniable. Lois Banner's MM—Personal offers the most revealing look inside her everyday life (photos and art and other objects that mattered to her), while we see the introspective, intellectually hungry Marilyn most directly in Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters, which culminates in a spread of her most cherished books.

 Many assert that Marilyn was coming into her own as an artist and learning to speak with her own voice just as her life ended. Adam Braver's new novel, Misfit, centering on her last weekend at Frank Sinatra's Lake Tahoe resort, brilliantly imagines her struggle to create an authentic identity and the tragic consequences.  Several writers and historians contend, citing convincing detail, that she was decisively silenced: Donald Wolfe makes a meticulously researched    homicide case in his nonfiction work, The Last Days of Marilyn Monroe, and J.I. Baker's The Empty Glass is a breathlessly paranoid noir thriller that draws on much of the same evidence.

MM-Passion-ParadoxI feel the full loss of her when I imagine how a well, vibrant Marilyn—a woman who pushed the cultural boundaries of the 1950s until they strained at their seams—might have expressed her creative and intellectual self over the course of a full lifetime. Her husband Arthur Miller observed that "to have survived,  she  would have had to be either more cynical or even further from reality than she was. Instead, she was a poet on a street corner trying to recite to a crowd pulling at her clothes.” Lois Banner describes in Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox how Marilyn's private funeral, arranged by Joe DiMaggio (whom Marilyn had planned to remarry that same week) ended with fans rushing her grave "in one big wave," tearing apart every floral tribute in their frenzied desire for souvenirs—much like people had tried to take pieces of her dress or hair when she was alive. Marilyn gave too much to deserve that. Books make much more marvelous souvenirs. –Mari Lynne Malcolm

See more of our favorite books about Marilyn Monroe.

Exclusive: "Road to Perdition" Writer on Going From Book to Screen, and Back Again

Lady, Go DieMax Allan Collins writes movies, graphic novels (Road to Perdition) and mysteries (Lady, Go Die, released last month). In this exclusive guest post, Collins talks about the challenges of writing for the screen vs. novels (and graphic novels), and how lessons of independent filmmaking help him make the transition.

I’m a storyteller.

That’s how I think of myself, and describe myself. Everything else is a compartment: mystery writer; screenwriter; comics writer; non-fiction writer; songwriter; and so on … almost always with “writer” part of the description, but “storyteller” at the heart of the beast.

Those various compartments grow out of two things: enthusiasm and necessity. Enthusiasm is what drives me — I get an idea for a story, and I want to pursue it. Necessity is the need to keep the writing projects flowing, because this is my profession and I need to make a living. You know, to keep the lights on in the joint.

That means I need to be flexible and versatile. Starting out, I thought of myself as a mystery writer, and writing mystery novels was the goal. But I was always a big fan of movies and comics, so when I’ve been given the chance to work in those fields, I’ve grabbed it.

On the other hand, a lot of writers can’t make the transition into another form. The list of novelists who are miserable screenwriters is a long one; and the list of screenwriters who become successful novelists is a short one.

The ability to write both novels and screenplays well requires developing an appreciation and an understanding of each form. The novelist who wanders blithely into screenwriting will inevitably write scenes that would work fine in a novel but are inappropriate for a film. A novelist will typically write a dialogue scene that is either too long, too short, or not necessary. Novelists have no budgetary restrictions in fashioning a novel, a freedom that is death on a screenplay, where every dollar — like every second — counts.

Having directed independent films, I know things most novelists don’t — like the need to minimize the number of actors and locations. These kind of basic technical concerns are a must in screenwriting.

But the most important factor is understanding that novels are interior and films are exterior. A novel is told from inside a character or characters, and a film is told from the outside of the characters, reporting their actions and reactions.

Read more at Hollywonk, the official blog of Amazon Studios.

Edgar Award Winners Announced, Including Best Novel: "Gone"

EdgarIn Mo Hayder's Gone, a carjacking is actually a kidnapping, potential clues lurk inside a tunnel, and almost nothing turns out to be what it seems to be. That's what the keepers of the Edgar Allen Poe spirit must be looking for each year when they (the Mystery Writers of America), in honor of Poe's birthday, dole out the prestigious Edgar Awards. Hayden's sinister and suspenseful Gone won the best novel award, and more than a dozen other winners were announced Thursday in New York, in such categories as best paperback original, best critical biographical, best short story, and best TV episode.

The full list of winners and nominees can be found here. Among them: 

GoneBest Novel

Best First Novel

Continue reading "Edgar Award Winners Announced, Including Best Novel: "Gone"" »

Exclusive Video from Author Patricia Cornwell

We at Amazon had the pleasure of receiving this exclusive video from Patricia Cornwell, author of the popular Scarpetta series--which, as a body of work has won just about every award available to mystery/thriller writers, as well as being a cult favorite among fans. In anticipation of the latest Kay Scarpetta installment, Red Mist, Cornwell offers a meta-perspective of her character's psyche as she delves into the past to solve an old murder.

Best Mystery and Thriller Books of the Year

This year's best Mystery & Thrillers span the genre, from psychological or technological thrillers to murder-mysteries. But they all have one thing in common: they kept us reading late into the night, desperate to find out what happens next.

S. J. Watson's debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, BeforeIGotoSleepgripped our imaginations back in June and has haunted us ever since. Christine forgets everything while she sleeps at night. When she wakes up, she depends on her husband, Ben, to fill in her memory for her. She keeps a daily journal in an attempt to jog her memory, and one morning she opens it to read: "Don't trust Ben." Equal parts fascinating and terrifying, Before I Go to Sleep is impossible to put down. The questions it raises (how can our past define us if we can't remember it? What happens if you can't trust anyone--not even yourself?) will linger long after the last page is turned.

Continue reading "Best Mystery and Thriller Books of the Year" »

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