Friday, October 31, 2008

Friday's Forgotten Books

Sandra Balzo's first novel, UNCOMMON GROUNDS, was nominated for an Anthony and a Macavity Award, and her first short story, THE GRASS IS ALWAYS GREENER (EQMM), was nominated for an Anthony and won both the Robert L. Fish Award and the Macavity Award for Best Short Story of 2004. Her second short story, VISCERY (also EQMM), won the Derringer Award and was nominated for a Macavity.

GROUNDS FOR MURDER, the second Maggy Thorsen coffee mystery, came out in December of 2007 from Severn House and received a starred review from Booklist. The third book in the series—BEAN THERE, DONE THAT--was released earlier this year and garnered a starred review from Kirkus. The fourth book in the series, BREWED, CRUDE AND TATTOOED, is due out in 2009.

AMMIE, COME HOME by Barbara Michaels

The book is AMMIE, COME HOME by Barbara Michaels. Though AMMIE may have been forgotten, its writer has not. You see, Barbara Michaels is the pseudonym of Barbara Mertz, who is better known for her New York Times Bestsellers written under yet another name, Elizabeth Peters. Ms. Mertz wrote 29 novels under the pen-name Barbara Michaels--the first in 1966, the last in 1999.

AMMIE, COME HOME has been called the best American supernatural mystery of the 20th century. I would add the 21st century (at least so far) to that. The story involves Ruth Bennett, owner of an elegant Georgetown home, and her niece Sara, who is staying with Ruth while attending college. One night Sara starts exhibiting behavior that can be explained as either possession or insanity. It is a beautifully written ghost story, but under the chills and the atmosphere, AMMIE is a story of the unlikely alliance between Ruth, Sara’s scruffy boyfriend Bruce, and college professor Pat MacDougal.

Jim Huang of
The Mystery Company asked me to contribute an essay for his book MYSTERY MUSES: 100 Classics That Inspire Today's Mystery Writers. AMMIE COME HOME was my clear choice there, too. I wasn't sure exactly why I loved it so, until I sat down to write the piece for Jim. As I said then:

I vividly remember reading it the very first time. I had checked the book out of the library and I devoured it the moment I got home. I can still hear the crackle of the plastic-covered book jacket as I opened it, feel the weight of the thick paper as I turned the pages, and suck in that lovely, musty “library book” smell as I read.

Since then, AMMIE, COME HOME has become comfort food to me. I return to it when I need to, just as I might to Campbell’s Tomato Soup, or a McDonald’s cheeseburger and orange drink, or—more likely these days—a nice cabernet sauvignon.

Like a glass of good red wine, AMMIE, COME HOME is comforting, but also complex. The art, the language: “...the terror began. It came slowly and slyly, like a trickle of dirty water through a crack.” Or, in describing Sara, simply “the familiar, unrecognizable face.”

I’m more aware of the nuances now; but, when I first read AMMIE, all I knew was that it took me to a place where good was rewarded and evil was punished--even after death. And despite the fact that most
of the characters in the book weren’t related to each other, and I was kin to none, I felt bereft when I closed the book. Like I’d lost a family.
I could regain that family, though, by simply opening the book again.

That was important to me.

You see, AMMIE, COME HOME came out in 1968. My father was dying of lung cancer. I was fourteen.

I was angry, because life seemed so unfair.

I was scared, because I knew my dad would die, as he did that December.

And I was ashamed, because my awful, secret fear was that my mother would die, too, and leave me alone.
In short, I was ripe for a fictional world to disappear into and, particularly, for a book like AMMIE, COME HOME. I needed to believe there was life after death. That family could form where there was none. And, most of all, I needed to believe that there was justice. Somewhere. Somehow.

And isn’t that why we read—and write—mysteries after all?

To face our demons and triumph? To live our worst nightmares and still wake up in the morning?

Barbara Michaels helped me do that. Bless her for that.

Oh, and bless my mother, too. She turned 92 this year.

Thanks, Patti, for allowing me to share my "pick." By the way, I sent Ms. Mertz a copy of MUSES when it came out. She sent me back a lovely handwritten note thanking me for letting her know that "Barbara Michaels" has not been forgotten.

Sarah Weinstein is the voice of Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind and reviews crime fiction for newspapers across the country.

Thom Jones: The Pugilist at Rest: Stories.

This short story collection is 15 years old and it feels like it was written this past year. It blew me away with its searing depictions of army members in the midst of cracking up, women caught in self-destructive relationships and other people locked into patterns that are destined to repeat themselves and produce worlds of hurt. Jones lived and hurt for years before he produced the stories that made up this 1993 collection, and even though a couple more volumes of stories followed, it really feels like he's been off the radar for years. Hopefully he'll be back soon with more tales of the dark side of reality.

Patricia Abbott is your host. Patricia Moyes' series.

I don't have adequate time to do Patricia Moyes justice, but when I think back to the various detective series I read in my twenties, one that stands out for me is Patricia Moyes' series of mysteries about Inspector Henry Tibbett, who solved many of his cases with the help of his wife, Emmy. I found their marriage as well as their cases fun.

Anthony Boucher wrote this in the NYT at the time of the first of the series, DEAD MEN DON'T SKI.

“If you’re as hungry as I am for a really good whodunit. you will welcome the debut of Patricia Moyes."

We may not be as hungry for whodunits as we were then, but they can still be very satisfying when done well. If I can count on my memory, these were.

The setting for that first book DEAD MEN DON'T SKI was the Italian Alps, where Henry Tibbett, on vacation from Scotland Yard. Henry and his wife. Emmy, have settled in for some skiing, when Henry uncovers a smuggling ring, which includes hotel guests.
Then a guest who was alive when the ski lift began its descent is found dead when the lift touches bottom.
Henry Tibbett, Chief Superintendent of Scotland Yard, gave me many hours of pleasure and I remember sadly the day when I learned of Moyes' death.

Here are the books in the series:

Dead Men Don't Ski (1958)
The Sunken Sailor (1961)
aka Down Among the Dead Men
Death On the Agenda (1962)
Murder a La Mode (1963)
Falling Star (1964)
Johnny Underground (1965)
Murder By Threes (1965)
Murder Fantastical (1967)
Death and the Dutch Uncle (1968)
Who Saw Her Die? (1970)
aka Many Deadly Returns
Season of Snows and Sins (1971)
The Curious Affair of the Third Dog (1973)
Black Widower (1975)
To Kill a Coconut (1977)
aka The Coconut Killings
Who Is Simon Warwick? (1978)
Angel Death (1980)
A Six Letter Word for Death (1983)
Night Ferry to Death (1985)
Black Girl, White Girl (1989)
Twice in a Blue Moon (1993)
Who Killed Father Christmas?: And Other Unseasonable Demises (1996)

Here are some more forgotten book reviewers.

Dan Wagner

Bill Crider

Martin Edwards

August West

Charles Cumming

Barrie Summy

Kerrie Smith

Lesa Holstine

Paul Bishop

James Reasoner

David Cranmer

Scott D. Parker

Sandra Ruttan


Women of Mystery


Lesa said...

Perfect selection for Friday's Forgotten Books, Patti. In fact, I read the first of Sandra Balzo's books, and I have to get back to the others. I know a couple other people who have enjoyed the series so much.

Ray said...

Interesting story - just added this book to my list.

Just posted a 'Forgotten Book'

Clare2e said...

The personal stories connected to the right book and a given time are what make a book forever un-forgettable. The recently-published one I posted on today couldn't really be called forgotten, but we did link to your list, and thanks for all the great recommendations!

Kerrie said...

I never cease to be amazed at all the books I've never heard of, and than also all the ones that I really have forgotten. I love visiting all the blogs each week, and I am naughty in that I sometimes don't leave comments. Thanks for the Forgotten Books opportunity Patti

pattinase (abbott) said...

And thank you, Kerrie, for being such a faithful contributor.