Attorney Kate Flora is the author of eleven books. Her dynamic character, Thea Kozak, returned in 2008 in Stalking Death. Finding Amy: A True Story of Murder in Maine, co-written with a career police officer, was a 2007 Edgar nominee. The story has been filmed for Court TV, Psychic Investigators, and two other TV shows. She has gone in a new direction with Playing God and The Angel of Knowlton Park, (Sept. 2008) gritty police procedurals from Five Star. She is currently writing a new true crime and plotting a light-hearted series. Flora’s stories have appeared in the Level Best anthologies, in Sisters on The Case, an anthology edited by Sara Paretsky, and in Per Se, an anthology of fiction. Flora teaches writing for Grub Street in Boston. She is a partner in Level Best Books, which publishes yearly anthologies of crime stories by New England writers.
The Grijpstra and De Gier series, Janwillem van de Wetering
I'd like to remember the Amsterdam-based detective series by Janwillem van de Wetering featuring Grijpstra and De Gier and The Commisaris, their elderly boss who feeds an equally ancient and stately tortoise lettuce in his garden. I started this series back when I was in law school and read mysteries like bonbons as an antidote to the seriousness of the law. The gap between 1986 and 1994 was painful, but a reader coming to it now won’t have to suffer that pain.
Among his many careers, van de Wetering was a Dutch policeman (he later moved to Maine and lived in a Buddhist monastery) and his experiences illuminate and inform the novels. What makes the series a delight, though, is the deeply developed characters, with all of their quirks and crabbing, their caring and their quarreling. Over the course of the series, they become people you care about. The books also have that wonderful “travelogue” quality of well-set mysteries, so that a reader can get a strong sense of place and culture, along with a gripping mystery story.
The series is long—as the list below shows, and for those of us who love a series, it is always fun to discover one that will keep us reading for months, not weeks. Too often today, a publisher drops a series after one or two books, and if you’ve cared about it, it’s like getting one unsatisfying meal after another. This series, instead, offers a feast:
Grijpstra and de Gier novels
- Outsider in Amsterdam, 1975; Tumbleweed, 1976; The Corpse on the Dike, 1976; Death of a Hawker, 1977; The Japanese Corpse, 1977; The Blond Baboon, 1978; The Maine Massacre, 1979; The Mind-Murders, 1981; The Streetbird, 1983; The Rattle-Rat, 1985; Hard Rain, 1986; Just A Corpse at Twilight, 1994; The Hollow-Eyed Angel, 1996; The Perfidious Parrot, 199
To my great sorrow, the author died in 2008. A few years before, I had the privilege of hearing him speak at a mystery conference, and he told the following story. He had gone up to Bangor from Surry, Maine, where he was living, to talk about a new book at a local TV station. He drove around town for a while, but he couldn’t find the station, so he gave up, and went into a diner. Stephen King was sitting at the counter, trying to eat, and his eating was awkward. Food kept falling out of his mouth. As though thinking he owed van de Wetering an explanation, he wrote, “Dentist” on a napkin and slid it down the counter.Van de Wetering decided to share his dilemma. He wrote: “Can’t find Channel 6,” and passed it back.
King wrote something on the napkin, and slid it back down the counter. It said, “YOU can talk.”
Patti Abbott, A Kiss Before Dying, Ira Levin
I was a great fan of Ira Levin, back in the day. Rosemary's Baby, The Boys from Brazil, This Perfect Day were three of my favorites. But with A Kiss Before Dying, which won the Best First Novel Edgar in 1954, he set a gold standard for the modern thriller IMHO.
The plot sounds ludicrous. A sociopath, on finding the heiress he hopes to marry is pregnant, murders her, believing her father will disinherit her should she have to marry under these circumstances.
His experiences in the war have made him a sort of Ripley character, with a complete belief in his ability to fool people, to do what he has to to get what he believes he deserves. The woman has two sisters and both of these women are seduced by our hero under different guises since he is unwilling to let his chances for a big score with this family go.
Naturally his plan eventually spins out of control. This is a breathlessly exciting novel. Whoever said a protagonist has to be likable has not read this.
It was filmed twice, more successfully with Robert Wagner, in his best if only good film performance. Why did no one else see his good looks and flat acting style made him a perfect villain and boring hero? The film versions eliminated the third sister--always a bit of a stretch in the novel. You can only go to the well so many times. All of Levin's novels are something special to me but this was my favorite.
Ed Gorman is the author of many books including A TICKET TO RIDE. You can find him right here.
Death's Sweet Song by Clifton Adams
Motels seemed to fascinate Gold Medal writers of the early Fifties. John D. MacDonald did at least one book with a motel setting, Day Keene did at least one, too, and I'm pretty sure there were two or three other writers who used motels as the focal point of their stories. John D. in The Crossroads talked about the serious business of running a big motel with all the amenities. But Keene and the book at hand, Death's Sweet Song by Clifton Adams, used failing motels as the reason their protagonists were willing to take a walk on the wild side.
Now Clifton Adams was mainly a writer of westerns and very good ones, too. Donald Westlake always pointed to Adams' The Desperado as one of the best of the Gold Medals (he was also right to note that its sequel, Noose For A Desperado, stunk).
Adams did a number of crime novels both under his own name and that of Johnathan Gant. Death's Sweet Song is the best of them about a man who needs money to save his motel who is all too easily talked into crime by a married couple he meets when they rent a room.
What gives the book its flavor is its desperation. Adams, whatever he was writing, worked in one of two modes. One was irony which he kept broad enough so that mass audiences could grasp it. It played off as humor. The other was a sweaty frantic fatalism that gave several of his westerns a true hardboiled edge. The opening page of A Partnership With Death is about as bleak as western fiction, H.R. DeRosso not withstanding.
This is a book that should have at least a small contemporary audience. Adams was an intriguing writer who had his own voice, his own style and his own angle of vision. I wish he'd written more crime novels
Rob Kitchin 1
Rob Kitchin 2