Belly Up to the Bar with Holly West, author of Mistress of Fortune

Tierney's Tavern, Montclair

Welcome to Sally MacLennane’s, my virtual pub. It’s cozy but there’s always room for one more, and the spacious cellar contains every libation imaginable, along with crates filled with treasures undreamed of, a couple of lime pits we don’t talk about, and an obese mouse-chaser named CatLoaf. Take any seat you like, except that one on the end, with the scally cap on it. Fellow everyone called Church, short for Church-on-Fire, always took that seat. Until one night he raised a pint to toast and keeled right over on his back, curled up like a sprayed cockroach. We call it the Death Seat, and leave it empty in his honor. Not saying you’ll get a visit from Mr. D if you sit in it, but Caesar the bartender is liable to wallop you one with the billy club he keeps under the register…

Our guest of honor today is Holly West, author of MISTRESS OF FORTUNE. She’s had stories published in Needle: A Magazine of Noir, Shotgun Honey, and in the Feeding Kate charity anthology. She also writes about crime fiction at Do Some Damage. Let’s get the blurbery out of the way:

Lady Isabel Wilde, a mistress to King Charles II, has a secret: she makes her living disguised as Mistress Ruby, a fortune-teller who caters to London’s elite. It’s a dangerous life among the charlatans, rogues and swindlers who lurk in the city’s dark corners, and when a magistrate comes to her seeking advice about a plot to kill the king, both her worlds collide in a tale of lust, political intrigue, and brutal murder.

Tom Pluck BeerWelcome to Belly up to the Bar, Holly. I’m having a Sazerac, made with Whistle Pig rye. What can I get you?

3 oz Whistle Pig Rye whiskey ½ oz simple syrup 1 dash Angostura bitters 2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters ½ oz absinthe Coat the glass with absinthe, pour out the excess. Shake first four ingredients in a shaker and strain into glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.
3 oz Whistle Pig Rye whiskey
½ oz simple syrup
1 dash Angostura bitters
2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
½ oz absinthe
Coat the glass with absinthe, pour out the excess. Shake first four ingredients in a shaker and strain into glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.

hollywest_sml I’ll take a Belvedere martini, straight up, with a twist.

 2 oz Belvedere Unfiltered ¼ oz Vya dry vermouth Stir over ice and strain into a chilled martini glass. Garnish with a lemon twist

2 oz Belvedere Unfiltered
¼ oz Vya dry vermouth
Stir over ice and strain into a chilled martini glass. Garnish with a lemon twist

Tom Pluck Beer Historical mystery usually isn’t the kind of book I pick up, but I had a hard time putting this one down. It’s a hardboiled story, and puts us in the muddy ruts of the London streets more often than the gilded rooms of the royal court. And you know your 17th century England damn well. I felt immediately drawn into Isabel’s world. What drove you to write a story during this particular time?

hollywest_sml First of all, I like that you call Mistress of Fortune “hardboiled.” I was absolutely going for that tone. As for writing a historical in the first place, when I was a teenager, I read a romance called Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor. It was published in 1944 and portrays Restoration London (circa 1660-66) so vividly that it transfixed me. I’m not saying it’s the best novel ever written (it was, however, a huge bestseller at the time), but when you’re fifteen and dreaming of being a writer, books like that stay with you. From then on I studied Stuart London voraciously, collecting reference books, reading everything I could about the time period. Funny enough, I’m not all that interested in English history in general, but I’m fairly obsessed with Restoration England and King Charles II in particular. You never forget your first love, I guess.

mistress of fortune

You have a gift for character. My grandfather swam over from Ireland, and I’ve always had a bit of a chip of my shoulder against the British Empire. And yet I loved your portrayal of King Charles. He was incredibly human, and you made him very sympathetic with how precariously the crown was balanced on his balding head. But it was Isabel and her partner in crime Sam who captivated most. Tell us of her background, how she came to be a king’s mistress and where the inspiration for her came from.

hollywest_sml Why thank you, sir! I appreciate the compliment. I’ve had a crush on King Charles II since I was fifteen years old, so by the time I started writing him at age 40, he was a pretty well formed in my mind. He was always destined to be a character in one of my novels, but coming up with Isabel Wilde was a bit more difficult. At first, all I knew was one thing—she’d be Charles’s mistress. Then I learned about Aphra Behn, a successful female playwright of the time (it’s no accident that Lucian, Isabel’s brother, is himself a playwright). Behn worked as a spy for England during her youth and as a result of her service to the Crown, incurred a large debt that Parliament subsequently refused to pay. She spent a period of time in debtor’s prison. I incorporated these details into Isabel Wilde’s back story and used them to explain her unusual choice of profession; determined never to return to prison and unwilling to take on the more typical roles—wife, prostitute, chambermaid—available to women at the time, she convinces a notorious London astrologer to teach her the soothsaying trade.

Tom Pluck Beer I think some readers overlook historical fiction because they forget that we’re actually living in the most peaceful of eras, as disturbing as that can be to believe. Human history is a blood trail from the Lascaux caves to the mechanized slaughter of the 20th century. What was your approach to writing a historical mystery?

hollywest_sml The one thing I tried to keep in mind when I was writing Mistress of Fortune was that these characters, despite living 350+ years ago, were human. I think the tendency (at least it’s my tendency) when reading/writing historicals is to kind of skim over the fact that people had the same hopes, fears, ambitions, et cetera, that contemporary humans have. Their sensibilities might have been a bit rougher (for example, their attitudes toward capital punishment or their willingness to display the pickled heads of their enemies on stakes at the entrance of the city wall) but by and large, they were much more like us than not. And I tried to infuse this into my characters, their essential humanness.

Tom Pluck Beer Mmm… pickled heads. Would you settle for an egg, from the jar? No, don’t. It’s been there since before we were born! You have a strong voice writing as Lady Wilde, and one all your own. But who would you say are your influences?

hollywest_sml Kathleen Winsor and Philippa Gregory for historical fiction. David Liss for historical crime fiction. For mysteries & crime fiction in general, Lawrence Block, Sue Grafton and Tana French (there are so many more, but these are some of the biggest). I love true crime and hope to write one some day. In this, Erik Larson and Truman Capote are my biggest influences. Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk and The Secret History by Donna Tartt are two of the best novels I’ve ever read, and finally, I’ve got to give props to Judy Blume because her books inspired me to want to write in the first place.

Tom Pluck Beer Judy is a favorite of mine, too. And of course Lawrence Block, who sat in that booth for an interview, himself. Tana French simply stuns me with her stories. And you’re the second friend to recommend The Secret History, so it’s now on my list. You had my mouth watering with the descriptions of spiced ales and roasted oysters. We’ve had some great meals at mystery conventions, but what would you choose as your death row meal?

hollywest_sml I’d choose a medium-spiced lamb korma (a risky choice, I know, given that I’m in prison) with garlic naan and a large Taj Mahal beer.
taj mahal naan

Tom Pluck Beer I love vindaloo myself, but my wife is a regular korma chameleon. They’d hang me for that joke in Stuart-era London, wouldn’t they? You have a background as a jewelry designer, like Lady Wilde’s brother Adam. Can you see yourself writing craft cozies around that particular subject? (No slight meant, you’re sitting in a bar that will feature in a “cozy” of sorts.) If not, what’s next on your plate?

hollywest_sml I’ve no plan to write cozies on any subject, although the goldsmithing trade is the focus of my next book, Mistress of Lies. That said, if a good idea cropped up, I’d try my hand at a cozy, why not? Mistress of Lies is scheduled to be published by Carina Press in Fall 2014. I’m also working on another historical crime novel, this one set in post-WWII Philadelphia and featuring a large, Irish-American family.

Tom Pluck Beer I look forward to them both. Thank you for dropping by, Holly. MISTRESS OF FORTUNE will be released by Carina Press on February 3rd. Readers can pre-order it for Kindle, Nook, and for Kobo via many independent bookstores.

Dave White’s Protectors story gets honorable mention in BAMS 2013

Protectors bams dave white 2013


Congratulations to Dave White, whose story “Runaway” in Protectors: Stories to Benefit PROTECT was noted as a distinguished mystery story of 2012 in the latest volume of The Best American Mystery Stories, edited by Lisa Scottoline and Otto Penzler.

“Runaway” is a gripping and heartfelt crime story about a basketball coach in Jersey City trying to help a young athlete stay out of trouble, but as Jerseyans know, sometimes trouble finds you. Dave was eager to be part of the anthology I’m proud to have edited him. If you don’t know his other work, he is the author of the thriller Witness to Death and the Jackson Donne crime novels. The third Donne book, NOT EVEN PAST, will be released by Polis Books. Dave is a fellow beermonger and a genuine mensch.

Mystery or Crime Fiction? Less Filling.

Both Patti Abbott and Spinetingler editor Brian Lindemuth (at Do Some Damage) have asked whether you prefer Mysteries or Crime Fiction, both as a reader, and a writer, when it comes to labeling books.
It used to be that Crime Fiction was a subset to Mystery, and now the tables seem to be turning somewhat. Here is my long comment at DSD.

Almost every story has an element of mystery. What happens next? Parker is on a bridge and he tells a guy off. I like this guy. What’s he gonna do next? But that’s not a story of deduction. Is Tana French’s excellent Faithful Place allowed to be crime fiction? There’s a murder and we don’t know who did it. But her depiction of Dublin and her excellent characters are right out of Hammett or Chandler.

I like both mysteries and crime fiction. I consider Lawrence Block’s Bernie Rhodenbarr “Burglar” mysteries to be cozies. I can never keep up with the classifications that nerds keep narrowing down, whether it’s in music (no dude, that’s not shoegaze, it’s um, darkwave fartsniff dubstep!) or books or whatever. I can’t be bothered.

Let’s face it, Mystery and Crime Fiction are labels to sell a book. If it bothers you to see “Mystery” on a book you like, is it because you imagine Miss Marple or Jessica Fletcher and don’t want to be associated with fans of those stories?
Mystery lovers likely get the same shiver when they see Crime Fiction or Noir on a label, they know there may be foul language and testicles (probably severed ones).
It’s a marketing construct. I don’t like either label. “Crime Fiction” can certainly drive away readers who assume it’s all about serial killers and gumshoes wearing fedoras and talking like Bogart, just like “Mystery” may be dismissed as a puzzler to keep you occupied in the waiting room for the gastroenterologist.

What about “Suspense”? I hope your story has suspense, even if it’s “literary fiction.” But heavens forfend it be labeled a “thriller,” those are for reading on airplanes, right? Speaking of thrills, I’m thrilled when an author I like is in the good old Fiction section. Megan Abbott, Pete Dexter, Scott Phillips are all recent sightings. But I don’t mind wandering to the Mystery corner, like the “Adult” section of the video store (if you remember those) to get my kicks.

Like Colson Whitehead says about those who call genre fiction a guilty pleasure:

“Other people’s labels. Other people’s hang-ups.”

Bouchercon 2012

A great time was had by all. Some visual highlights. I have a big post tomorrow about paying back the reader, so here is some eye candy before I ask you to eat your veggies and think about the reader-writer relationship.

That slinky siren on my arm is the magnificent and multitalented Christa Faust. Her novel Choke Hold- one of my top reads last year and still the best story I’ve read with an MMA fighter- was up for an Anthony Award. If you haven’t read her work yet, she is a noir original. Her scientific knowledge of the genre on film and paper gives her work depth and originality, and Choke Hold tells a great story while giving us a peek at the modern gladiators of the American Colosseum: fighters and porn stars.

This is the voracious and adorable creature known as Sabrina Ogden. Like a blonde baby wolverine, she will claw her way through your heart to get to a cupcake. She is eating a donut here, but we also saw her obliterate french toast, bacon, a bacon cheeseburger, quesadillas, mini cupcakes and 42 ounce steak. At least I think it was a steak, it might have been the remains of a rude con-goer. This dear friend is the beneficiary of the Feeding Kate anthology that you so graciously funded on IndieGogo last month.
So yes. she ate all that with jaw damage.
I shared the burger with her because I am dainty.
She blogs and reviews at My Friends Call Me Kate.

That is Johnny Ramone’s guitar and Some of Joey’s jacket. The opening ceremonies were at Cleveland’s Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame. Sorry if this is the gem of Cleveland, but it’s kind of like a giant Hard Rock cafe. They had a Linkin Park guitar there. I’m not even sure that the Elvis, early R&B and Beatles stuff can erase that indignity. But it was nice to visit it, and they have a giant hot dog that belonged to Phish:

Best meals of the trip? Pierogies at a diner and bratwurst at the casino buffet. There were some fantastic restaurants nearby that served roasted pig heads and the hotel bar made a damn good burger, but this is a Polish town and the good eats of our vowel-challenged brothers Wzsgbgnyzcwz are the finest fare. This was a good bar town as well, with plenty of local beer on tap. The hotel had four Great Lakes beers and I enjoyed them all. The Tilted Kilt (Scottish Hooters) had the double IPA Nosferatu, which kicked ass (or bit neck, perhaps). And speaking of bars:

Noir at the Bar was held at Wonder Bar, a fine establishment with patrons of discriminating taste. Meaning they listened while Snubnose Press authors Eric Beetner, Jonathan Woods, Les Edgerton, John Kenyon, Jedediah Ayres and Josh Stallings read their work. Good beer, better stories. Great time.

Josh and Les are buds whose work I’ve talked about before. Out There Bad by Stallings is like James Crumley’s brutal action film put to paper by a street poet. Edgerton’s career speaks for itself, the heir to Ed Bunker, the real ex-con who writes sharp-edged truth. They are both featured in the Protectors Anthology (link to your right) as well.

Bouchercon was a great time- a celebration hosted by readers where the writers go to pay back. Even the mightiest like Lee Child and Mary Higgins Clark (who I met on the plane, and who was as gracious as you could imagine) mingle with the crowds and are as friendly and approachable as can be. If you enjoy crime fiction, this is your Comicon, except you don’t pay for autographs and you can rub elbows and have a drink with the people you came to see.

I met a lot of new people and had great times with them and the “old” friends I met last year. Glenn Gray and Todd Robinson, Johnny Shaw, Stephen Romano, Neliza Drew, Kent Gowran, Joe Myers… it’s a crime family reunion, and a trip I will gladly make every year.