Saturday, December 31, 2011


Wishing all Mystery Maven Canada followers a Mysteriously wonderful New Year!

Stay healthy, stay safe...and enjoy lots of Canadian mysteries!

Friday, December 30, 2011


It's all good!

With the media spending these last few days of 2011 revisiting the major stories of the year, I think it's fitting to do the same at Mystery Maven Canada. And I think the primary story in the mystery writing world is that it's alive and thriving!

Despite the gloom and doom, the ups and downs in the publishing world, Canadian crime writers continue doing what they do best -- writing outstanding fiction. There have been so many new releases in the past year that I dare not attempt to list them. It's guaranteed I'll leave out one or two, I always do. So instead, I'll refer you to the Crime Writers of Canada (CWC) website:

You'll find all the year's new releases listed in their monthly newletters and even more information on the author's bio pages. Now, not every mystery author in Canada is a member of CWC. Those, you'll have to find on your own. Note to those authors -- see the value of belonging to CWC?

This isn't meant to be a blog flogging CWC membership but it's certainly one of the valuable resources for writers and also one reason that profiles of Canadian crime writers are increasing. It takes a national organization to get the word out to the big names in media. For instance, CWC has partnered with the National Post for the Arthur Ellis Awards. National coverage, people!! The more readers hear about Canadian crime writers, the more they'll start to read their works. But I'm preaching to the converted, aren't I?

The crime writing world is also served by other organizations such as the Canadian arm of Sisters in Crime. The Toronto chapter is the hotbed and they work hard at carrying out the goals of the International association through workshops, meetings and social events. On the local front, in Ottawa we have Capital Crime Writers an extremely active group of about 70 members with monthly meetings featuring writing workshops and speakers from associated professions such as the police, lawyers, pathologists to name a few.

Then there are the conferences! Bloody Words remains the major gathering for those who like to commit crime on the pages of a book. In June, 2012 it returns to Toronto for another information-filled and fun weekend. That's followed by the smaller sized but just as potent Scene of the Crime held at Wolf Island (just off the shores of Kingston, ON) in August.

No wonder crime continues to run rampant in Canada -- crime writing, that is. With such strong organizations behind every writer, the possibilities are endless. And with that added ingredient, the reader who spreads the word to other readers, 2012 should be a great year!

Wishing you all great reading and good sales!

Linda Wiken/Erika Chase
A Killer Read coming April, 2012
from Berkley Prime Crime

Thursday, December 29, 2011


Christmas and Mysteries

Is there anything more satisfying on a blustery winter's eve than curling up with a good mystery? And a Christmas mystery at that?

Each year a new crop of Christmas crime novels and anthologies turns up on the shelves and I'm told they sell like the proverbial hotcakes. What is our fascination with this unlikely combination of joyous celebration and murder?

Vicki Cameron in an article for Mystery. Net a few years ago wrote:
"First, there is the cast of stock characters, well known to all -- Santa, the ghosts of other Christmases, the three Wise Men, the shepherds, and the main players in the Nativity scene. These characters need no introduction. They come equipped with a backstory. They can be tinkered with, shaped into the unexpected, given an evil underbelly. Well, maybe not the Holy Family, but all the rest are fair game.

Especially Santa. Now here's a character begging to be given center stage in a murder story. He's disguised, face and figure. He carries a sack, perfect for concealing stolen goods. He's expected to show up in strange places late at night. He is never turned away."

Ah hah. I happen to love short stories so I usually start the season by re-reading some of my favourites from Blood on the Holly, a splendid anthology edited by Caro Soles as well as a Folio Book called Christmas Crime Stories. This latter is a combination of old and new stories for the season. Then when the January issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine arrives (usually in early November) I devour those and often go back to some favourites from other years.

And each year I try out a new batch of Christmas novels. This year I discovered Alan Bradley's I Am Half Sick of Shadows. I've loved all the Flavia de Luce novels but this one has the added spice of being set in England during a blinding snowstorm. Bradley, a Canadian, places all his books in a post-war English village. His eleven-year-old heroine, Flavia has an encyclopedic knowledge of poisons and the nerve of a canal horse. Bradley admitted in a recent article in the Globe and Mail that he'd never actually been to the British Isles when he wrote the first Flavia novel. He found his inspiration from a unrelentingly British grandmother and plenty of reading and research.

I recommend I Am Half Sick of Shadows to anyone who loves a good Christmas mystery but now I’m running out of books and the season is far from over. Does anyone have a suggestion for me?

Sue Pike has published a couple of dozen stories and won several awards including an Arthur Ellis Award for Best Short Crime Story. Her latest, Where the Snow Lay Dinted appeared in the January issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. Sue and her husband and an opinionated Australian Shepherd named Cooper spend the winter months in Ottawa and the rest of the time at a mysterious cottage on the Rideau Lakes.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011


The year that wasn't!

2011 is slinking out the doors and may be remembered as the 'year that wasn't' in the publishing world.

It got off to a rocky start with the demise of Key Porter, a publishing subsidiary of H.B. Fenn and Company. Key Porter was a long-time and well-respected name in the Canadian publishing world and it signaled the decline of the parent company. A couple of months later, H.B. Fenn filed for bankruptcy sending shock waves through the industry. For authors and readers...this was not good news.

Late in the spring, south of the border, Borders also filed for bankruptcy. That's the one that started this entire big box bookselling fiasco. It left in its wake way too many smaller independents that had closed over the years. However, this was also a blow to publishers as there was one fewer(with thousands of outlets)place to sell books.

However, there was a bright side to year 2011. There were smiles all around when Napoleon/RendezVous Publishing became part of the Dundurn fold. The RendezVous crime imprint has fostered many a successful Canadian crime writer over the years and its legacy continues within its new home.

And, a new venue (2010) for Canadian mystery and crime writers grew into a highly-respected imprint. Orca Books' Rapid Reads, books for the reluctant reader, has published novels by Gail Bowen, Barbara Fradkin, Brenda Chapman, Rick Blechta and Lou Allin, to name just a few.

Okay, so maybe it was more the year that got off to a shaky start. Have things in the publishing world improved? Let's just say, they're changing. E-books have taken their place alongside (so to speak) the printed novel. On-line shopping is becoming as popular as the brick and mortar style. Change is supposed to be good? Right?

Let's see what 2012 brings us!

Linda Wiken/Erika Chase
A Killer Read coming April, 2012
from Berkley Prime Crime

Tuesday, December 27, 2011


An Incomplete History of Crime as Entertainment

It’s no secret that human beings have always watched deaths for entertainment. The Romans built arenas to maximize public seating for their executions, while the Spanish Inquisition staged elaborate baroque rituals including the symbolic deaths of heretics (who were quietly killed for real afterward). Hangings used to be public events and the French Revolution was noted for turning the village square red from be-headings.

Death also featured in oral fiction and eventually in staged public performances. Possibly the oldest surviving murder mystery play is Sophocles’ Oedipus the King. First performed in Athens around 429 BCE, it followed Oedipus as he sought the murderer of his predecessor, King Laius.

Athenian plays influenced the Romans and everyone who came after. If there were public entertainments during the so-called Dark Ages that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire, their records have been lost. ‘Mystery plays’ in the early second millennium AD concerned religious mystery, not crime. During the Italian Renaissance, plays gradually became secular. The first non-religious plays were largely improvisational and humourous – Comedia Del Arte – involving not deaths but lesser crimes such as thieving servants or scheming, often inept conmen.

Carlo Goldoni and Niccolo Machiavelli (he of political-treatise fame) were among the Italian playwrights who fleshed out these lesser-crimes tropes into full length plays. French theatre followed their lead, with one of Moliere’s most famous characters, the sanctimonious Tartuffe, being exposed as a blackmailer and lecher.

The British, then as now, loved their dark family dramas. The Duchess of Malfi though set in Italy, was written by John Webster, an Englishman, for English audiences. [[[Spoiler Alert: the Duchess’s brothers schemed to kill her, both to grab her wealth and to restore the family’s so-called honour after her secret marriage. Honour killing – sadly topical in Canada today.]]] Shakespeare’s Hamlet was another family drama leading to murder. English theatre did have its lighter crimes. Ben Jonson’s conmen in The Alchemist (1610) or his conniving heirs in Volpone (1606) would have been at home on an Italian stage.

Otherwise, opera was the preferred stage venue of Death in the 17th and 18th centuries. Name an opera in which nobody dies at dagger-point…. Anyone?

Again on lesser crimes, Charles Dickens’ farce, Mr. Nightingale’s Diary (1851) has a conman as a central character. Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband (1895) featured blackmail and political corruption.

Mystery hit the footlights in earnest with Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Bat on Broadway in 1920, the same year the first Hercule Poirot novel was published. Busman’s Honeymoon by Dorothy L. Sayers opened on stage in 1936. If you think paranormal mystery is a new twist on the genre, you’ve never seen Noel Coward’s play, Blithe Spirit (1941).

Busman’s Honeymoon went cinematic in 1940, Blithe Spirit in 1945, starting a nigh-fatal trend away from live theatrical mystery. Crime script writers increasingly aimed for movies and then television. John Buchan’s wildly popular novel, The Thirty-Nine Steps, was made into numerous films in the decades following its publication in 1915 but not until the year 2000 was it staged live.

Yet live theatre is an intimate, communal experience that is simply not found on film.

If I could have one year-end wish, it would be to see modern Canadian mystery novels adapted for stage.
Anybody got titles to suggest?

Jayne Barnard is a Calgary mystery writer with a lifelong interest in live theatre and the scars to prove it. Her short mystery story, Each Canadian Son, won the 2011 Bony Pete, and her unpublished novel, When the Bow Breaks, was short-listed for the Unhanged Arthur. Her dream is to write and produce a full-length modern mystery for the stage.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Happy Holidays

Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas! May it be filled with family and friends, good music, and good times. And also with wonderful memories of those not able to be with us.

God Jul!

Mystery Maven Canada returns with a new blog on Tues., Dec. 27th!

Friday, December 23, 2011


How time flies!

So, where did it go? This week? This month? This year? I can't believe we're at Christmas already. And yet, it also seems like it's about time it arrived.

When I was working (outside the house) I used to long for the time when I wouldn't be so rushed going into Christmas. I'd longed for a couple of weeks to get in the holiday spirit, without something like a job mucking it up. So, now I'm at that stage and I'm still in need of a couple of extra weeks to get into the spirit.

I'll be the first to admit, writing a series is definitely a job, no matter how enjoyable it can be. As I've chronicled over the past few weeks, the writer can be steadily weaving a story together, only to be interrupted by the 'business' side of publishing. Needing to get a website up and running; being involved in a cover conference for the next book; reading over the proofs of the first one. This all puts time management to a test.

So today I'm taking a mental health day, with no feelings of guilt for avoiding the computer (aside from writing this blog, that is). Instead, I'll do those tasks that bring on the holiday spirit. I'll play my new Christmas CD -- The Colors of Christmas by John Rutter. It's a tradition to buy a new CD every Christmas and I must admit, I'm a Rutter fan and have most of them by now.

Then, I'll bake some Swedish Coffee Bread (yes, I actually do bake this one item) using my Mom's recipe. It takes several hours of kneading the dough, letting it rise, baking, know the process. But it's all part of the holiday tradition and evokes wonderful memories from my childhood.

When it's ready, I'll sample it of course, along with a cup of coffee in front of the fireplace and glance through my collection of Christmas books accumulated over the years. There's Babar and Father Christmas (it survived my childhood and my son's), a newer version of The Nutcracker with illustrations by Toller Cranston, The Night Before Christmas illustrated by Tasha Tudor, God Jul by Anders Neumuller (a collection of Swedish greeting cards from the 1800's), Christmas at the New Yorker (a collection of stories, art, humour); and the newest, A Star for Christmas by Trisha Romance.

These are part of my Christmas traditions, along with opening some gifts on Christmas Eve, singing at the midnight service, turkey and all the trimmings for the family at my house. It's a wonderful time of year..a time to share, a time to remember those who aren't able to be with us, a time to pause in our busy lives and be at peace.

And then, there are all those Canadian mysteries in my TBR pile, just waiting to be experienced next week!

May your Christmas be one of laughter, love and peace. And, of course...lots of wonderful mysteries!

Linda Wiken/Erika Chase
A Killer Read coming April, 2012
from Berkley Prime Crime

Thursday, December 22, 2011


The Gift of Light and Joy

The sappy season is well upon us. The streets sparkle with brightly coloured lights, the stores ring with song, and gold and glitter are everywhere. So are people, whizzing about the streets, ducking into liquor stores, juggling parcels and enduring long lines. There are only three more days till Christmas, and six more night of Hanukah. For the laggards, time is running short.

So I will keep this blog brief. Very few of us have time to waste these days. In my case, my house needs a miracle. There are floors to vacuum, furniture to dust, beds to make, kitchens to scrub, fridges to fill… It has to be transformed from a writer’s messy lair into a Hanukah holiday celebration before the kids come home on Saturday. The dogs are not helping by coming back into the house after every outing soaking wet and muddy.

I love this time of year. I love the lights, the songs, the excitement, the smiles and warmth of perfect strangers. Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, it doesn’t matter to me. What matters is that people wish each other well. But I know that this is a very difficult time for some people. For those who live alone and may get no gifts, those who suffer from ill health or recent loss, and those who struggle to put cereal on the table, let alone a turkey or a platter of golden latkes. This is a dark season for them, made darker by the joy of others all around them.

I’m a believer in giving gifts. A gift thoughtfully chosen and happily received bonds both giver and recipient. For those with little, even the smallest gift can be transformative, for it reminds them that someone cares. At the risk of being sappy, I have two suggestions for all of us as we rush around buying that last gift. First of all, shop in your local independent small stores. They have put personal thought into every item they choose for their stores, and the results are unique and interesting. These are hard times for them, but if we lose them to the big chains, a part of our community will be gone.

Secondly, think about just one person you know who is struggling with this time of year. It might be the elderly neighbour on your street, the widow facing her first holiday alone, or the single parent who can barely pay the rent, let alone buy gifts. Consider what would be the perfect gift for them. It might be dropping by to visit with a box of chocolates and a holiday card. It might be an invitation to join your celebration. It might be a book for the kids. If we all reach out to one person we know, chances are we’d make the season feel even more special for ourselves too.

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah, Happy Winter Solstice, top of the season to us all!

Barbara Fradkin is a child psychologist with a fascination for how we turn bad. In addition to her darkly haunting short stories in the Ladies Killing Circle anthologies, she writes the gritty, Ottawa-based Inspector Green novels which havewon back to back Arthur Ellis Awards for Best Novel from Crime Writers of Canada. The eighth in the series, Beautiful Lie the Dead, explores love in all its complications. And, her new Rapid Read from Orca, The Fall Guy, was launched in May.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


Sometimes I wake up at night, thinking of the myriad of books that I, as a bookseller, have placed in the hands of strangers, with the the assurance that 'you will enjoy this.'

One of bookselling's main skills is recommending books to people who aren't sure what they want. But reading is an intimate recreation, and to suggest a book to a person you don't know from Adam, you need to be part psychologist, part seer, and a bloody good guesser.

The natural starting place is right in front of you - the customer. I do a quick physical scan: a frail, elderly woman likely won't want a lot of sex or violence (but be prepared to gracefully amend that opinion in a flash), and a big, bluff man probably prefers a plot-driven novel without too much description. But assumptions can be deadly, and possibly embarrassing.

Your first question: whom do you like? Their answer will jump-start your mind with its files of potential authors. You know violence is acceptable-after all, a corpse or two will have to appear-but what level is suitable? A tidy Agatha Christie murder? Or are we topping the scale with someone like James Lee Burke. Does your customer require plenty of fast-paced action? Do they love in-depth characters, such as Elizabeth George provides? Or just the facts, ma'am. Would some lightness be relished, or should we keep humour at bay?

You mine everything they say for clues, while scanning the shelves for inspiration. Size them up a bit before raving over that new book you loved - would it appeal to this customer? I'm wary of promoting too heartily - we've all plugged a book to a friend, only to have them turn away and mumble something about how it wasn't quite their cup of tea when asked how they enjoyed it (and you thought you knew them). Yes, bookselling is a subtle art, like alchemy, but the point is, to sell a book!

Then there is the customer who is buying a book as a gift, adding a further obstacle; now you're the third party in the preference assessment - a stranger is asking you to suggest a book for a mother, spouse, or sick friend. You ask questions, and hope for a moment of genius.

Equally tough is recommending within a genre you're not as keen on; you're less familiar with the books. Strict objectivity is necessary here; you want to put the right book in your customer's hands. People are counting on your expertise, and you don't want to let them down.

When I worked at Prime Crime, I kept extensive lists: historical mysteries, hard-boiled detective stories, murder-by-country (all of Scandinavia was hot!), even by state and province, for those moments when an unexpected question muddies your brain: I'm going on holiday, do you have something set in Spain? (or Hawaii, or Timbuktu). Or the customer who loves knitting, and wants a craftsperson as a detective. My lists were invaluable, and I was rarely stumped.

Of course, you have the 'regulars' with whom you have a running dialogue: "I liked this, but I wasn't really taken with that." You build a relationship, and recommending gets easier. Or the lovely person who comes in and says, "I was in months ago, and you gave me the best book - what else can you suggest?" But for the most part, we never know. Did that businessman go on to read everything by Giles Blunt? Did someone's ailing auntie like the Susan Hill? How about the fourteen year-old - is he now deeply into Sherlockania?

It's a real pleasure to see the answering flash of recognition when you mention a favourite author - ah, a kindred spirit. And you have to bite back indignation when you mention a cherished writer only to meet scorn: oh, I hate his books. Fair enough. Stuff the wounded feelings back inside, and see if this one suits. But you feel for the dismissed author: it's not toasters we're selling here.

I picture all those bedside tables with 'my books' on them, either waiting for the eager reader to return, or pushed aside in disappointment. It would be interesting to know your on-base percentage - booksellers rarely get to know how it all turns out. All in a day's work for the true sleuth of the book world - the bookseller.

Sylvia Braithwaite has been in the book world in one way or the other, her entire life: fanatical reader, bookseller, publicist – and occasional writer. This summer, she is spending a lot of time in her garden, which also involves plenty of reading in the shade, and dreaming up plots as well as tending them.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011


Santa, baby...

I've been nice this year! Well, most of the time, I think. So, here's my Christmas wish list and I'm hoping it's doable.

First of all, I need to fuel my creative abilities so lots of espresso beans, please. Or a (massive) gift certificate at my favourite local spot, Francesco's in the Glebe. I promise to keep alert and captive at my computer screen.

Terrific reviews and big sales when A Killer Read hits the shelves in April would be outstanding. Okay, these might be a little out of your control, but I'd be ever so grateful if you could swing it.

Snow! What's Christmas day if it isn't white? There's a rumour, fueled by long range weather forecasts, that the lawns might be green in these parts. Say it isn't so!

Some great new computer program for a dummy like me that allows me to do amazing things with my photos. Easy-to-read directions are a necessity.

The services of a handyman next summer. I'm talking landscaping abilities, of course!

And, here's the biggy, know those dynamite reviews? How about spreading them throughout the Canadian crime writing community! Let's make sure we become household names here at home -- like Atwood and Ondaatje, for instance -- and then we'll think about tackling the world next year. Easy, right?

I'll be sure to leave you lots of cookies (I promise not to do the baking of them) & some milk-based liquid to fortify you on your journey Christmas Eve. Thanks, Santa!

Linda Wiken/Erika Chase
A Killer Read coming April, 2012
from Berkley Prime Crime

Monday, December 19, 2011


What's new?

I have an announcement. I have a website. Or rather, Erika Chase has a website. And I'm both pleased and relieved.

It's been on my To Do list for about a year now. Really. When Erika came into being, we both realized that it would take a lot of self-promotion in a market south of the border that's filled with cosy writers who are very serious about BSP (that's blatant self-promotion, a term that became a promotional manual from Sisters in Crime). In order to compete, and blatantly, get the sales in order to continue the series and continue competing, one needs to become a favoured name on readers' bookshelves.

My agent sent out a manual of promotional tips and as we all know, there's a lot of ways to go about it. A lot of gimmicks, too from the bookmarks to erasers to chocolates one finds in loot bags at mystery conferences. But the methods that have the most value, and take the most work also, are websites, blogs, Facebook and Twitter. The electronic age reigns!

Many are these days re-evaluating the value of the blog. As Vicki Delany pointed out to many of us, The Lipstick Chronicles, a long-standing blog with mainly US writers as contributors, has decided to call it quits. I know there are a couple of others that are re-evaluating the way they go about the blog business. Twitter seems to be the method of getting the word out there. But frankly, I tweet at least once a day, scroll through recent tweets, check on a few people to see what's on their minds (my agent being one of those) and that's about it. There's too much traffic on the Twitter line.

Facebook is becoming a challenge. Some days it's a breeze -- post, read, comment, smile. Other days, there's also too much happening and too little time to spend on it, that's when it's technically working correctly.

So, back to the author's website. I put off doing it because I wanted to have control and be able to change it as needed. Of course, that means I'll have to remember to do that. But, I'm technically challenged, so that seemed a large stumbling block. Not so. Mystery colleague and friend David Cole found this great easy-to-do site that let me build it all. It has a few frustrations (like a box that I cannot get ride of) but aside from that, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

And I was so relieved to be able to inform my editor that yes, I did now have a website up and running. Tick a major stressor off my To Do list. I hope you will visit Erika at and that you enjoy it. Please send me your comments and suggestions. I'm always looking for ways to make things better.

How about sending me a link to yours?

Linda Wiken/Erika Chase
A Killer Read coming April, 2012
from Berkley Prime Crime

Friday, December 16, 2011


Looking ahead!

Can you believe it? 6 days until winter. 9 days to Christmas. 16 days and we're into a new year. But that also means longer days, shorter nights and spring is on the way. Okay, maybe that's rushing it a small bit.

But there's another reason to be looking forward to the new year. There's a pile of new books coming from Canadian mystery and crime writers! Part of that pile is stacked on my TBR shelf, along with those published this year that I'm struggling to get through (I DON'T mean they're badly written, just that life keeps heaping other stuff on my plate). Among them, and I forgot to mention this title last time I listed my PR's (pending reviews) and that's The Ophelia Trap by Kate Burns. It's now on the bookshelves, including mine, and I'm looking forward to the read.
Just arrived from the publishers' reps, more books published in 2011: The Girl in the Wall by Alison Preston. I've always enjoyed her writing -- she did a signing at Prime Crime one year -- and this one looks to be another page-turner. And, a first novel which was the winner of the First Book Competition from The Writer's Studio at Simon Fraser University, Nondescript Rambunctious by Jackie Bateman. Plus, Bloodline, a haunted crime story by Stan Rogal.

Coming up for publication this winter and spring: Red Means Run by Brad Smith (read his author interview here on Jan. 4th); The Beggar's Opera by Peggy Blair, her first and it was shortlisted for the Crime Writers Assoc. Debut Dagger Award in 2010; A Green Place for Dying, the fifth Meg Harris mystery by local author R.J. Harlick; and, Last Dance by West Coast writer David Russell. It's the second in his Winston Patrick series.

So, you see I have a lot of good reading ahead of me. And, I know there'll be new books from Gail Bowen, Pamela Ballow, C.B. Forrest, Janet Bolin, Vicki Delany and Erika Chase. Others will be added as we get into the new year selling seasons.

Let's all get out there and support our terrific Canadian crime and mystery writers. You'll be doing yourself a favour, too!

Linda Wiken/Erika Chase
A Killer Read coming April, 2012
from Berkley Prime Crime

Thursday, December 15, 2011


In His Own Words

Last week I had the opportunity to visit the Pierpont Morgan Library and Museum in New York City. A beautiful building with some rooms left as they were when Morgan died it is a testimony to a very wealthy man who chose to amass a collection of rare books and documents and hired a librarian, Belle da Costa Greene to manage and augment his collection, a job she did for forty years.

Despite the treasures, such as the Gutenberg Bible, on display it was a temporary exhibit celebrating Dickens, who was born two hundred years earlier in February 1812, that captured my attention.

A number of original texts were there including the first three pages which comprised the entire first chapter of A Mutual Friend. Written in a tiny script with much crossing out and correcting the pages have an immediacy that is compelling.

The opening lines, “carried along in the corpse-fisher’s boat, we seem to enter the dark side . . .” appealed to the mystery writer in me. On the same page he had changed, “touch of fear and horror”, to “touch of dread or horror”. The changes were numerous and interesting.

Dickens produced a Christmas book every year and these were easily recognized at the booksellers as they had distinctive bindings. However he wrote that it was a challenge to meet his annual deadline. A Christmas Carol was published on the nineteenth of December 1843 and by Christmas the edition of 6000 was sold out.

As we know he used these books to underline the plight of the poor and roundly condemn a society that allowed the poor to suffer. In fact, as he grew wealthy he contributed much to charity including the establishment of Urania cottage designed to train the poorest of poor women and help them make their way in the world. Some of these women immigrated to the colonies and I wonder if any came to Canada.

Dickens also had a playful side. When he was renovating and redecorating Tavistock House he amused himself by thinking up fanciful book titles for his library. One was to be entitled A History of a Short Chancery Suite (20 volumes) and a second was to be called The Scotch Fiddle. Scotch Fiddle was a euphemism for itchiness and reportedly reflected his opinion of Robert Burn’s work.

In response to a letter from a fan asking if he dictated his work he replied:
“I can no sooner imagine a painter dictating his pictures. No. I write every word of my books in my own hand. . . I write with great care and pains (Being passionately fond of my art, and thinking it worth any trouble.)”

Inspirational words matched by the chance to examine the original manuscript but not something tomorrow’s readers will be able to do. Today’s writers may write the first draft by hand but then they transfer the work to a computer where all thoughtful changes are lost forever.

Too bad.

Joan Boswell is a member of the Ladies Killing Circle and co-edited four of their short story anthologies: Fit toDie, Bone Dance, Boomers Go Bad and Going Out With a Bang. Her three mysteries, Cut Off His Tale, Cut to the Quick and Cut and Run were published in 2005, 2006 and 2007. In 2000 she won the $10,000 Toronto Star’s short story contest. Joan lives in Toronto with three flat-coated retrievers.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011


Rick Blechta back on the hot seat!

Yesterday's blog started this conversation about book covers with Rick Blechta, mystery author and designer. There's more...

3. As a designer, what would you advise authors to focus on when having input into a cover design?

First of all, don’t expect to get much of a say in the matter. Even if an author complains loud and long about the horrible design of the book’s cover, most publishers will fall back on the usual bromide: “It’s a marketing decision.”

In designing covers, I’ve discovered two very surprising things along the way. First is that many, many people in the publishing industry (and I’m including writers in this) don’t know the first thing about good cover design. Case in point: they’re not aware on how choice of colour can affect the perception and legibility of a cover. Try this if you have the computer knowledge to do it: find a whole bunch of covers and remove all the colour. Make them black and white. Are they still really legible? It’s amazing how often that wonderful looking colour cover becomes an illegible mess when it’s changed to black and white and shrunk to fit a newspaper review. If you don’t see that as of critical importance, you’re nuts. Do you think the designer of that page is going to sit down and optimize that cover for you? Ain’t gonna happen.

So my suggestion to any author is to print out their proposed cover on a black and white printer. Stand back about five to ten feet? Can you still read it easily? If you can’t, something has to be fixed. Less experienced designers make this simple mistake a lot.

Second, look at the book’s title and your name. Again, stand back a few feet. Can everything be read easily? If not there’s a problem either in font choice(s), setting of the font(s), size, kerning (how close or far apart the letter are), contrast or choice of colour – or both. A lot of times designers will make inappropriate type choices that muddle the message. I’m not saying that every book cover should be designed using just a handful of very legible, standard typefaces that have been designed for display work, but type should be appropriate to the use to which it’s being put. Inappropriate type can also call attention to itself too much. You want people to read the words not have trouble figuring out what the words are or gawking at the pretty typeface or the clever way in which it’s been set. The first rule of good typography is always that it should be “invisible”. In other words, it should just look right.

Another thing: is the image on the cover appropriate? Does it actually communicate something useful? Don’t get married to the idea of having a scene from your book on the cover. First and foremost, you want the image to be evocative. It can sell the sizzle of the book, or it can sell the steak. Either one can be good and effective if handled properly.

The most successful cover I ever designed was for one of my own books, Cemetery of the Nameless. Over and over, booksellers told me how much they loved the cover. It was often faced out on bookshelves for just this reason. Now that’s a powerful sales tool and I got it for nothing. Well, I’m here to tell you that that particular cover design broke just about every rule in the book: the image was ridiculously too busy, the balance between the title and author was deliberately out of balance each to the other, but they were placed that way because they further strengthened the image. The strongest thing in the design was the way the title of the book was set. Why? Because it was a great title. (For the record, I didn’t come up with the book’s title. Two cops in Vienna did when they told me about the real Cemetery of the Nameless.) Incidentally, we came up with forty-eight different versions of that cover (some variations were minor) before we settled on the one that was used (#42). Not many designers can afford to put that much time into one cover – an no publisher would have paid for what that cover actually would have cost.

4. What about photographs vs artwork? What’s more effective?

It depends on how they’re used. The nice thing about an illustration is that you can get exactly what you want. If the illustrator is given a detailed concept from which to work, and they’re competent, you’ll get a good image. If they understand the concepts of effective book cover design that I’ve outlined above, you’ll get a great image.

For photographs, again, find the right photographer, give them a great concept and let them do their thing. You should get a great image.

The shortcoming of both in the modern world of publishing is that commissioned art, whether it be illustration or photograph can be very expensive. Publishers are leery of it for that reason. Ever see a cover where you’ve wondered, “How did that ever get approved? It is just plain ugly!” Well, what could have happened was that the artist or photographer just didn’t do a very good job or they weren’t given a clear idea of what was needed. (Almost no designers, illustrators or photographers have anything more than a cursory knowledge of the book for which they’re designing the cover.) But with commissioned art, the publisher has invested a considerable amount of money and they’re loathe to just toss that away. Quite often the person at the publishing company who commissioned the original art is unwilling to take the fall, so they push the hell out of it to compensate for their error. It’s dumb, but it happens.

Which brings us to the current reality of cover images: stock photos. There are a number of companies that sell them, most do it online now. What happens is the designer and sometimes the editor pour over pages of images based on keywords that are punched in. Hopefully, they come up with something good. Part of the equation is how many hours they’re prepared to look since you can imagine that this situation is akin to finding a needle in a haystack. For the publisher, the monetary saving is big. They might be able to buy that image for as little as $20, instead of several hundred for the most established stock photo resellers or upwards of $1000 for a commissioned image from a great photographer or illustrator. Which route do you think they’ll choose, especially if the author is low in the pecking order?

The big problem is oftentimes the designer never finds that “just right” image so they settle for something less. You’ve seen the results on countless covers over the past several years.

5. Is there anything else you feel needs to be said?

This is already pretty long. Let’s stop now. I could go on and on and on. Time to step off the soapbox.

Thanks, Rick! It's a large topic and that's a tall soapbox packed with lots of valuable information.

Besides his career as a writer of crime fiction, Rick Blechta has been a graphic designer since 1998 who now owns a successful design studio, Castlefield Media. Over the years, during which he was mentored by well-known designers and artists, Kal Honey and Kim Lee Kho, he made himself an avid student of this arcane art. His design output has included commissions for a number of book covers.

As a writer, his short novel, Orchestrated Murder, was recently published by Orca Book Publishing, and fall of 2012 will see the release of his full-length novel, The Fallen One, by Dundurn Press.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


Rick Blechta's got you covered!

As a bit of a departure, and carrying forward the blog comments from last week about covers, I've sent mystery author Rick Blechta some questions -- not about writing mysteries but rather, about 'covering' them. Rick's 'other life' is as a designer and since he has a lot to say on the topic, the Q&A is split over two blogs.

1. How important are book covers

To my mind, box covers are the way prospective readers first see your book. They need to catch a shopper’s eye, especially if you’re not a top-tier author. From my viewpoint as a designer, I like to also think of book covers as posters. One very experienced designer talks about “ten-foot covers”, meaning that she felt people should be able to discern something that intrigues them about a book from ten feet away. Accomplishing that can be a tough thing and it often takes everything in a designer’s bag of tricks.

For something as seemingly simple as a cover with its three components (title, author name and image), you have to consider so many small things and know how to juggle them successfully to get the correct balance. Then you have to worry about things like contrast between the colours used, placement of the components on the cover, treatment of the image so that it doesn’t overbalance or underbalance with the two other components, followed by making everything pleasing to look at (even if the viewer doesn’t know why it’s pleasing). A cover designer has a full dance card.

But it all boils down to this: the cover can make a huge difference in getting a person to pick up that book. Accomplish that and you’re halfway home.

Then there’s the cover’s sell copy: either the inside flap for hardcovers, or the back cover for trade and mass market paperbacks to seal the deal.

And that actually brings up another sore point with me: why do people at publishing houses (usually the editor or marketing director) naturally seem to think that they are equipped to write advertising copy? Being able to express oneself with the written word and writing effective sell copy are two completely different things. When corporations are trying to market their wares, they pay a huge amounts of money to ad people to come up with copy that will effectively sell their products, because they know how critical it is to the success of their ultimate goal: selling things. And yet nearly every publisher I’ve ever heard of composes their sell copy almost as an afterthought and it’s never written by a professional copy writer. Why is that? Have they ever investigated how successful ad campaigns for other products have been assembled? Thousands of dollars of production money can go straight down the toilet if the sell copy on a book cover is ineffective.

It’s really sad to see people pick up a particular book over and over and then put it down because the sell copy is so poor. I’ve watched it happen when doing book cover research.

Bottom line: a great cover can get a reader to pick up a book, but then the sell copy has to seal the deal. If these two things aren’t put together very carefully by people who really know their business, then a publisher is blowing one of their best chances to sell their wares – particularly if the author isn’t a household name.

2. What do you say to those who think, especially with the advent of e-books, that they’re not important?

To those who think a cover isn’t important to e-books, let me ask them this: how else is the book going to be presented to potential buyers? Can’t you see the space where the cover is normally displayed on Amazon, for instance, with a couple of lines of type giving the title and author. Boy, that would be really effective to get the person browsing to investigate further. As long as there are books, covers will be important whether you’re holding a bound sheaf of papers in your hands or an ebook reader. Let me also ask you this: if covers weren’t necessary anymore, do you think publishers would bother paying for them? Why do you think they came up with book covers in the first place?

Thanks, Rick! That's a lot to think about. Part two will appear tomorrow on Mystery Maven Canada.

Besides his career as a writer of crime fiction, Rick Blechta has been a graphic designer since 1998 who now owns a successful design studio, Castlefield Media. Over the years, during which he was mentored by well-known designers and artists, Kal Honey and Kim Lee Kho, he made himself an avid student of this arcane art. His design output has included commissions for a number of book covers.

As a writer, his short novel, Orchestrated Murder, was recently published by Orca Book Publishing, and fall of 2012 will see the release of his full-length novel, The Fallen One, by Dundurn Press.

Monday, December 12, 2011


Tell me it isn't so!

I fear it is so, though. And even worse, 'still'. I'm referring to Jeffrey Simpson's column in the Globe & Mail on Saturday, If you don't have time to read it, the short version is that Canadian writers 'get no respect'.

In Simpson's column he's focusing on Richard Gwynn's historical works about John A. Macdonald in particular. If these were published in the U.S., and about American statesmen, they would be best sellers. Not so, here in Canada. The less we know about our history, the better it seems. So, publish away. The sales will be to those history buffs who probably already know most of the story.

Ottawa crime writer C.B. Forrest wrote one of 177 comments posted to that column. He pointed out that this malady is one suffered by most Canadian authors, except for those household names, Atwood and Ondaatje know the list, I'm sure. And then there's the lowly crime writer. If you're Robinson or Bowen, your name commands instant recognition with the mystery lover reader. But what about with mainstream readers?

That could be because Canadian crime novels seldom appear on the books pages of our newspapers and magazines. What an amazing feat then that Elizabeth Duncan's latest
mystery, A Killer's Christmas in Wales, hit the Postmedia newspapers across the country on Saturday. Well done, Elizabeth. There MAY be hope for us all. But don't hold your breath. Forrest went on to point out that the Globe's 'top 11 crime books of 2011, listed only one Canadian.

Margaret Canon, Don Graves and a few others are still able to give prominence to Canadian crime and mystery books in their columns. Remember the days when there were double that number?

I keep coming back to this every few blogs or so...the message needs to get out there and it's up to the readers and writers to make sure that happens. I urge you to use your blogs, Facebook pages, and Twitters accounts to herald the fact that we have some excellent Canadian mystery and crime writers. Go ahead -- name names! Point the finger! Be a snitch.

And after you've read all those wonderful Canadian books you'll (hopefully) receive for Christmas, go on-line and post reviews. We can make this happen. And maybe next year at this time, I won't be blogging about this topic again!

Any suggestions as to what we can do?

Linda Wiken/Erika Chase
A Killer Read coming April, 2012
from Berkley Prime Crime

Saturday, December 10, 2011


Red Means Run
by Brad Smith
Simon & Schuster

I'm in love with Brad Smith. Okay, I've admitted it. So that's why, when I received the advance reading copy of his latest novel, Red Means Run, I couldn't wait to read it.

I usually don't review books until they're available on the shelves for readers. I know it's frustrating to read a great review and not be able to find the book. But this time, I'm making the exception because Red Means Run will be available in January, so that's not long to wait.

And another reason is that if you haven't yet discovered Canadian author Brad Smith, you'll have time to read Brad's earlier books before Red Means Run releases. It's not necessary because he doesn't write a series. But once you get hooked on his writing, I know you'll want to read them all.

So, now I'll edit my opening statement -- I'm really in love with his writing. And, Red Means Run did not disappoint me. It has all the Brad Smith qualities -- the laid back protagonist -- Virgil Cain -- with a prison record and a good heart; several bad guys trying to get the best of him; and that touch of romantic sparks zapping the pages.

Virgil Cain is trying to live the quiet life on a farm in upstate New York, after serving a jail sentence in Quebec (the Canadian connection!). So much for that goal when the body of a very successful, much-loathed criminal lawyer is found on a golf course. It's too bad he had a connection to Cain and that just two weeks prior, Cain had wished him dead. Out loud. In front of witnesses!

Once the cops, or at least the lead detective, thinks he has his murderer and indeed, throws Cain in jail, the search for other suspects is finished. Cain knows his only hope is to escape and prove his innocence.

What he doesn't know is the other cop -- the cute female who has all the brains -- is also keeping an open mind and while she must track down the escaped Cain, she's also trying to find the real killer. But when another body, also tied into the lawyer, is found dead, that noose gets so much tighter around Cain's neck.

Brad Smith has mastered the funny, sexy noir caper and Red Means Run is a prime example! Read it for the dialogue, read it for the chase, read it to have a very enjoyable time.

Want a taste of Red Means Run? Check out the trailer at his Facebook site at

Mystery Maven Canada is pleased to launch Brad Smith's Blog Tour on January 4th. Be sure to stop by as Brad gets the third degree!

Friday, December 9, 2011


Gotta love that book!

So how much do you love that book you’re writing? Do you enjoy going back to it each day? Do you look forward to spending time with the characters? Entangling them in all sorts of sticky situations? Having them solve the crime?

You’d better because you’re going to be spending an awful lot of time with them! I don’t mean writing time. That varies with each writer of course. You may whip through a draft in a couple of months, revise in another two or three and have the finished product off to the publisher within a year. Or, you may have been working on this baby for too many months to count.

It matters not in this context. Because once you do send it off, you’ll be revisiting it again and again. And again when it comes time to doing the promotional gigs.

Here’s the scenario – you finish the manuscript, breath a massive sigh of relief and perhaps, feel a tiny let down because those long months of visiting (insert name of setting) are over. So is the routine of writing daily. What – you have a life again?

Only for a short time. So make the most of it. Because it’s on to the next book.

And after a few months of writing, at a point where you’re brain is so wrapped up in the new plot, then you get the editor’s comments. If you’re an amazing writer, there may not be much to touch up or re-do. Otherwise, dig your head out of the new and get back to reading the entire manuscript and doing those changes.

Off it goes again. Maybe you can actually break the back of the next book. Oops…that email from your editor just came in. Now it’s time for a cover conference, so write the cover blurb please and send suggestions about the cover. What? That next plot has enveloped your mind again so it’s back for a scan of the first book. Do it and send it off and wait. It won’t be long until another email appears.

Only this time, it’s from the copyeditor with his/her suggestions which could mean a lot of red lines and hidden comments. Put the next book on the cold back burner once again. Start reading the manuscript from start to finish, once again. Do what needs to be done. Send it back.

Think you can really immerse yourself into writing at this point? Forget it. Next come the proofs and that requires a very thorough reading for typos, etc. Mmm, the plot seems way too familiar. But it gets done.

Another sigh of relief and back to writing. Until release date of the first book and then you have a launch which requires a reading done by you. Hadn’t thought of that, had you? Better re-read and find the appropriate portion of your work of art that will have them hooked.

All done? Not likely. But enjoy the moment. And by the way, do you still love that book?

Linda Wiken/Erika Chase
A Killer Read coming April, 2012
From Berkley Prime Crime
(available for pre-order on Amazon)