Thursday, November 30, 2006


This posting has nothing to do with crime writing. Instead, it celebrates the romance of commerce.

When baby Debbie Macomber was baptized, the candles flickered in the church. A sign of future greatness, says Debbie's mom on Debbie's site,

Debbie wrote in her journal in 1973: "the greatest desire of my life is to somehow, some way, be a writer", and by 2006, sure enough, she had sold 60 million books, mostly published by Silhouette and Harlequin.

Her website is truly a marvel. After you've sampled and hopefully purchased some dozens of Debbie's books, try the book-themed gifts -- the gardener's kneeling pad (featuring cover art from the bestselling Susannah's Garden), the mugs, the t-shirts, the Gourmet Seattle Blend Ground Coffee (as drunk at the Lighthouse Restaurant in the Cedar Cove series), the Cedar Cove Zippered Carry-All Tote, the Knitting Notion Bag (as used in A Good Yarn and The Shop on Blossom Street) and the Variety Tea Pack -- from Debbie's Store, one of 21 different subsections on her singularly uplifting site.

Readers can get more directly involved. The October 2006 winer on the Readers' Recipes page is for Caramel Snack Mix. A November winner had not yet emerged at the time of writing.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006


At its best, crime fiction can detect the cracks in society's façade, the bits that don't fit, the revealing anomalies -- maybe even reach more existential targets, finding what the Italian poet Eugenio Montale called the broken mesh in the net that hems us in, "the dead point of the world, the link that won't hold, the thread to be untangled that might finally place us in the midst of a truth". Montale was talking not about crime fiction but about lemon groves at midday, where one could almost expect to uncover "il punto morto del mondo, l'anello che non tiene, / il filo da disbrogliare che finalmente ci metta / nel mezzo di una verità" ("I limoni", c. 1922). At its best, mystery writing can do just that: finger the flaws that disclose reality. Interviewed by Publishers Weekly (October 23, 2006), the Indian writer Vikram Chandra, author of SACRED GAMES(London, Faber, 2006) reveals that his take on the crime novel, "especially the noir novel, is that as the detective follows the crime, he moves through society, from high to low, and uncovers things that explain the culture".

Saturday, November 25, 2006


Linking to authors' websites from my list of Irish crime writers, you will find quite a few claims of bestseller status. Some are true, but most of us could never live by our writing. Well-respected authors often sell in minuscule quantities, and brilliant reviews do not correlate with brilliant sales. The "bestseller" claim is still worth making, however. A mass-market paperback can do well on the mistaken assumption that the original edition was a success, and "By the bestelling author of XYZ" makes a nice strapline. Most previous bestsellers seem to have been "#1", rather than #5.

My first book did actually wander onto an Irish bestseller list (presumably due to a computer error), and I have had the odd sensation of watching customers buyng my books, or reading them on trains, which many writers have never witnessed. So, relatively speaking, I have been "blessed".

The plight of the "midlist" author ("midlist" being a euphemism for "commercially unknown") is regularly canvassed in trade publications. One lives in constant fear of being dropped by one's heartless publisher. One is paid less per hour than the people who pack the books in the warehouse. And so on and so forth. Writers can be great grumblers.

Why do we do it, then? Because we can. Because we have to. But also because we might break out and make some real money. It's exactly the same principle as being a minor drug dealer, as described in the wonderful FREAKONOMICS by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner (published on this side of the Atlantic by Penguin). Levitt and Dubner's chapter "Why Do Drug Dealers Still Live with Their Moms?" point out that minor employees in the crack cocaine distribution business get paid less than the minimum wage, and work in conditions of extreme danger. Why would anyone take such a job, they ask. Because at the top end -- if and when you become a bona-fide drug baron -- the rewards are simply enormous. Winner takes all. But you can never reach the top unless you've started at the bottom. Ground-level drug peddlers do it "for the same reason that a pretty Wisconsin farm girl moves to Hollywood".

That rings true, at any rate. The waitresses on Sunset were certainly among the loveliest in their profession.

"To the kids growing up in a housing project on Chicago's south side," Levitt and Dubner write, "crack dealing was a glamour profession. For many of hem, the job of gang boss - highly visible and highly lucrative - was easily the best job they thought they had access to. Had they grown up under different circumstances, they might have thought about becoming economists or writers."

FREAKONOMICS spent 35 weeks on the US besteller lists in 2005, so the authors probably made the right decision. The rest of us will have to wait and see.