The Many Lives of Donald Westlake

Michael Weinreb at Grantland:

In his nearly five-decade career, Westlake, who died in 2008, created a diverse and surprising catalogue that encompasses crime — from both sides of the law — and science fiction and satire and adventure and enjoyable little oddities that don't really fit into any category. He was astoundingly prolific and eminently readable; he had a loyal fan base and respect among his peers but never made a New York Times best-seller list; and he is known by many not for Parker, but for his comic novels, the most popular of which featured a curmudgeonly literary cousin of Parker named Dortmunder. "Comic literature of any kind is the hardest thing to write," says Otto Penzler, Westlake's friend, sometime editor, and the proprietor of the Mysterious Bookshop in Manhattan. "It's also very subjective."

3 Fast, Funny & Sharp Thrillers

It feels like I've broken through a logjam in my reading this summer, and I'm back to cranking through books like I used to be able to do. At least, I'm cranking through the books that have the magical qualities that I look for in my fun reading: a great plot, a likeable lead character, a swift and sassy writing style. In short, I'm always on the lookout for a new writer who has stepped into the shoes of Elmore Leonard or Lawrence Block or Thomas Perry.

Through some combination of luck and fate and sharp-eyed bookshop spotting, I've just read three new-ish books in the past couple of weeks that brought to mind all three of those landmark thriller & mystery writers. If, like me, you are a fan of all three of those writers, this post is going to fill your weekend with great reading.


The book for fans of Lawrence Block:
Something Missing
by Matthew Dicks
Broadway | 9780767930888 | $22.95 | July 2009

I should preface this by saying that my favorite Lawrence Block character is not Keller, the sardonic hitman, nor is it sad-eyed alcoholic ex-cop Matthew Scudder.  It's always been that light-hearted scamp, the gentleman burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr (newbies should begin at the beginning: Burglars Can't Be Choosers.). 

Like Bernie Rhodenbarr, our hero in Something Missing is a careful, meticulous burglar with a few personality quirks.  For his entire adult life, Martin has been supporting himself in a cautious manner by stealing small quantities of household goods and precious items that won't be missed from a "client list" of families that he burgles repeatedly.  He's so careful in his planning and execution that he is able to go back time and time again.  He has worked out a series of rules that guide his daily rounds:

  • If the missing item will be noticed, don't acquire it.
  • Never spend more than 15 minutes in a house.
  • Never fall into a routine for entering or leaving the premises.
  • Never, ever run on the stairs lest you break a leg and have to call 911 from inside a home.

He's been making these rounds for so many years that Martin has begun to feel a kind of kinship with his "clients".  When Martin accidentally knocks a client's toothbrush into the toilet, his OCD traits and his feeling of responsibility to the clients force him to deviate from the rules and his careful planning.  And that small accident sets him on a whole new path of rule-breaking and risk-taking.

A speedy read, a fun tour through an ethical burglar's brain, a surprising thriller.

The book for fans of Thomas Perry:
Beat The Reaper
by Josh Bazell
Back Bay Books / Little, Brown | 9780316032216 | $14.99 | paperback coming Sept 2009

The first Thomas Perry novel I read was not one of his Jane Whitefield thrillers, though I do love his elaborate descriptions of how Jane helps her clients disappear.  It was a story of a disappearance gone awry: Sleeping Dogs, the sequel to The Butcher's Boy.  In Sleeping Dogs, Perry related the adrenaline-revved, bloody tale of a mob hitman who just wanted to stay retired and hidden.

Beat The Reaper is an updated take on the same basic plot - an incredibly talented hitman goes undercover after a double-cross, spends the next 8 years in Witness Protection learning to be a doctor.  And one day, while making his rounds at the grungy New York hospital where he's working, a former associate ID's him.

The best thing about this story - aside from the inventively imagined scenes of mayhem - is the narrator's voice.  Dr. Peter Brown (formerly Pietro Brnwna, mob hitman) tells his own story of violence, love, betrayal, and revenge in a wry, knowing first person. 

And Josh Bazell has layered his story with an insider's knowledge of the ugly side of hospitals, internecine mob warfare, Witness Protection schemes and medical mysteries that could be ripped right out of House.

Leonardo DiCaprio has been mentioned as a likely lead in a film adaptation of Beat The Reaper.

The book for fans of Elmore Leonard:
Starvation Lake
by Bryan Gruley
Touchstone / Simon & Schuster | 9781416563624 | $14 | March 2009

Right off the bat, there were a few clues that had me thinking of Elmore Leonard as I started reading Starvation Lake.  First, it's set in Michigan, longtime home and setting for some of Leonard's most memorable novels.  Partly Detroit, but mostly the tiny northern vacation town of Starvation Lake. 

Second, our narrator of the novel is that beloved Dutch Leonard character type, the disgraced pro on the run.  Think of Get Shorty's Chili Palmer. 

Third, Gruley mentions Leonard's Ten Rules of Writing in his afterword, referencing his dictum against an author's perpetrating "hooptedoodle": "Try to leave out the part readers tend to skip".  Gruley likes to keep it plainspoken and fast-paced, just like Leonard.

So, the book opens and it's dead of winter in Starvation Lake.  Crack reporter Gus Carpenter is back in the town where he grew up, just ahead of a whole chain of lawyers and lawsuits resulting from an investigative series he wrote for a Detroit paper.  He's gotten a job as editor of the local paper, but even with his big city experience, for most of the locals, he's still just the former goalie who blew the big championship game

When the snowmobile that once belonged to the hockey team's long-missing coach turns up on the shores of Starvation Lake, a whole lot of the town's ugly history is about to be brought back to the surface with it.  And Carpenter and his star reporter are either going to blow it all out in the open, or they're going to be forced to bury the lead one more time.

I always like to be surprised when I'm reading a mystery like this.  Another great writer I thought of while I was reading Starvation Lake was Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer series - buried secrets, missing family members, and wealthy men with motives.  But Gruley found ways to surprise me, and keep it from just being an iced-over Lew Archer mystery.

Fall Handselling Challenge picks: Geoffrey Jennings & Rainy Day Books

After the completion of our Independents Week Contest, Geoffrey told me that he had some other ideas in mind for the fall. Here's Geoffrey's invitation to indie booksellers to take part in our contest for this fall - the Fall Handselling Challenge.  It will be both a test of handselling prowess and a fund-raising opportunity for the winning bookstore's charity of choice.

I've known Geoffrey for many years, as a bookseller, a dinner companion, a good friend to talk to about the business of books. He's part of the core bookselling team at Rainy Day Books in Fairway, KS.

You can follow the progress of the Fall Handselling Challenge here at my3books, and on Twitter. Use the hashtag #RDBFHC to keep on top of the latest news.

Independent booksellers take books and become individual champions for them. Customer by customer, book by book, we build a sales record for the author. We personally match books to customers in face-to-face transactions. Unlike Wall Street, the media, and our online competitors, we are working in our communities every day to build more than just a stronger local economy: we are building relationship capital. This is the currency of our realm. When you build trust by selling something transformative, you make your community stronger.

Independent booksellers sell specific books and authors because we realize that there is a real human being behind the work. In fact, there's an entire chain of people that more of us should take the time to know personally. There's an author, an editor, a publicist, a publisher. Many of us stop at the sales rep, and many reps have so many titles now that they are truly dependent on independent booksellers to help them spread the word about what is good, why it's good, and how it can be great. We can do more, and I challenge you to do so.


Homer's Odyssey
by Gwen Cooper
Delacorte Press | 9780385343855 | $20 | Aug 2009
Caitlin Alexander at Random House is the editor. I've never met either author or editor as of this writing. I don't know who's handling publicity.

Homer's Odyssey is a book about a remarkable cat, told by a remarkable woman. Unlike many books it will be favorably and appropriately compared to, the author bio will tell you that this has a happy ending. It has parts that make you laugh and cry, sometimes at the same time. Homer's Odyssey is part spectacle, part case study in overcoming adversity. At a time when the world and our customers are demanding reassurance and hope, this book delivers. It is the type of book where people will return to tell me how much they loved it, some will buy it for friends.


Moonlight In Odessa: A Novel
by Janet Skeslien Charles
Bloomsbury Publishing | 9781596916722 | $25 | Sept 2009
Sara Mercurio is handling publicity. I've never met either the author or publicist as of this writing. I don't know who the editor is.

Moonlight In Odessa is a love story. It's about the yearning we all have for something meaningful in our lives. A bright and beautiful engineer named Daria narrates her tale of struggle in modern Ukraine. Unable to find a job in her field she works as a secretary, dodging the overt advances of her boss while she searches for a way out. In her off-hours, Daria assists at an international matchmaker, helping far more desperate women meet equally desperate Western men. Eventually, rivals appear for Daria and she must choose. Leave her country behind? Follow her heart? How do you know what the right thing is until you do it?


The Pig Did It
by Joseph Caldwell
Delphinum Books | 978188328534 | $13.99 | April 2009
I've never met the author. I don't know who the editor or publicist is.

The Pig Did It is a cozy Irish mystery featuring the inadvertent services of a porcine investigator. When I first read this in hardcover I had hoped there would be more in this charming series. To my delight, I just received word that there will be more.

For fans of procedural mystery who want something funny, check this out. Life in County Kerry, Ireland is just what you'd expect, or not. When a body is discovered by the (random?) diggings of a wandering pig, the hunt is on. All the while you're reading this whodunit filled with great characters and snappy dialogue you'll be asking yourself what everyone else in town is: what's the pig have to do with it?


Now the bigger question: why THESE three books? What they all have in common is that they all need someone to champion them. Someone to give them a helping hand, to build an audience, to push them to a tipping point where an army of satisfied readers will start spreading the word on their own. Along the way, I'll meet the people behind these books. Depending on how I do it, I might also meet other people who do what I do well: handsell books.

All of this was inspired by The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin, coming in January from Harper. Learn more at


guest post: Paul Ingram from Prairie Lights

Shortly after I began my job as a sales rep in the midwest, I came to understand that there were bookstore buyers whose knowledge about the books they handsold, and the customers they sold them to, exceeded by far the same bodies of knowledge at all the publishers that I was representing.

When I walked into Prairie Lights in Iowa City, I soon learned that Paul Ingram was one such buyer. As I started asking booksellers to send me their choice picks for my3books, Paul was at the top of the list.

Mick Herron's books from Soho Press
representative title: Reconstruction
Soho Press (Consortium) | 9781569475652 | $13 | Apr 2009

Little doubt, Soho Press has been publishing the best written, most consistently interesting, and generally thrilling crime novels decorating the Mystery section of Prairie Lights over the last few years. In 2009 they've released a handful of terrific English thrillers set in Oxford by one Mick Herron.

The best I've read so far is one called Reconstruction (I don't know what the title means), which begins with an armed man entering a nursery school containing three adults and two children. As he waves his gun about, the reader knows he/she will not be able to put the book down till this man puts his gun down. Full of surprises (like who's the good guy) which I won't tell you about since I'd rather you read the book.

Some of the others feature Chloe Bloem, private detective. Herron is a 21st Century feminist male whose female characters put up with a great deal of shit from men, and sparkle with intelligence and wit. Herron likes to demonize the James Bonds working for Tony Blair. Great fun.


Olive Kitteridge
by Elizabeth Strout
Random House | 9780812971835 | $14 | Sept 2008

I'm deeply impressed with Elizabeth Strout's 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Olive Kitteridge. I'd read her first novel Amy and Isabelle, and liked it quite a bit. It was one of those oak-and-acorn/mother-daughter stories that I found deeply satisfying. I never thought she'd win a Pulitzer, but she's gotten better.

It's a book of linked stories set in small-town Maine. Olive Kitteridge, retired schoolteacher, has large or small parts in each of the stories and as the title character draws the reader's mind. She can be likable, nasty, pathetic, and brave, depending on her situation. The passage of time has her flummoxed, the way different time periods ask different questions of her, make different demands on her.

I found the book sad, in the way that many excellent novels are sad without being depressing. Strout has a wisdom about her and a clear compassion for each of her many characters. Her writing style has a transparence that many writers work their careers to achieve. Men and women seem to like the book about equally.


by Jim Krusoe
Tin House Books (PGW) | 9780980243673 | $14.95 | May 2009

Erased is, physically, a lovely trade paperback from Tin House Books. It tells a wonderful goofy story about a man, Ted Bellifiore, who sells high end gardening accoutrements, who receives a call from his estranged mother one night. She has had a mysterious encounter with a stranger outside her window who suggests that she might indeed be dead.

Two such odd conversations result in Ted searching for his mother. A search he never thought he'd be making. The mother, incidentally, left the family when Ted was two to pursue her career as a sports fisherman/woman. Ted is finally drawn to Cleveland (Krusoe's home town) in search of a mother gone missing.

Cleveland has seldom had the send-up Krusoe gives. It has a rat-killing day when Clevelanders prowl alleys with croquet mallets, unless they forget. Krusoe is very, very funny, but thoughtful as well in Erased. An unusual book but not a difficult read.


Twitter info for the above-mentioned publishers:
Soho Press (and their distributor, Consortium Book Sales & Distribution)
Random House
Tin House Books