As founder of the publishing house Felony & Mayhem, “the best in intelligent mystery fiction,” Maggie Topkis knows a thing or two about great mystery novels. Her expertise and good taste have made her one of Bas Bleu’s favorite publishers—and F&M’s books some of your favorite reads. This week, Maggie took time out of her busy schedule to sit down and answer a few questions about rescuing out-of-print classics, bucking publishing trends, and fiction’s nagging habit of creating crime-solvers who are “no fun at parties.”
Bas Bleu: You helped to found Partners & Crime, a bookstore in New York that sells only mysteries. Not many booksellers take the leap into publishing; both are pretty high-risk ventures. How did that shift come about?
Maggie Topkis: Sadly, Partners & Crime is no more; we closed last September, after close to twenty years in business. For all of those years, we were very into “hand-selling,” meaning we made recommendations. In fact, that’s what kept us in business, even though there was a Barnes & Noble three blocks away. Customers would come in and say, “I like X,” and we’d say, “Ooooh, you’ll love Y and Z and also A and B and C!” That was really the fun of it, for us, introducing people to books they would probably never have found on their own.
In the 1990s, the publishing industry went through a huge contraction, as publishing houses merged, went public, or disappeared. And one result was that thousands and thousands of books were taken out of print. As a bookseller, this was hugely frustrating: The customer would say “I like X,” and I’d find myself saying “Oooooh, you’ll love…..oh, wait, I can’t get that anymore. How about….Steve, can we still get Y? No? Damn, ok, well, Z is good….” This was really irritating.
Like my partners, I had a full-time job (bookselling does not pay the rent). I was a financial journalist, and after the tech crash of 2001, my magazine was in trouble. They closed us down in late 2002, but gave me a very nice severance package, and I decided I wanted to use it to bring some of those out-of-print books back to life. (At one point I thought, “Cool, I’ll call this Lazarus Press.” But my boyfriend at the time said, “Hunh, ok, so the book is Lazarus. Which would make you…..Jesus? You might want to rethink that.”) My initial thought was to produce books just for Partners & Crime, but it quickly became clear that I would have to expand my reach if this project were going to be financially feasible. So I found a printer (my beloved Sterling Pierce, in East Rockaway, NY), and…we were off.
BB: How did your career as a bookseller inform your venture into publishing? Do you think it gave you an advantage in the industry?
MT: My experience as a bookseller has been critical to my experience as a publisher. In the mid-1990s, maybe a year or two after the store opened, when thousands of titles had been taken out of print, I somehow figured out that many of them were still in print in England. My father and stepmother, bless their hearts, paid for me to go to London and find a distributor who could legally sell to me (the British publishers could not sell to an American store, but distributors, as middlemen, could sell to whoever they liked); find a shipper who could get books to me; and open accounts. I believe we were the first independent bookstore in the country with a serious import program. The imports did very well—the dollar was strong, and oil prices were low (meaning shipping costs were low), so we were able to price the books fairly and still make a decent profit. Our imports customers were very loyal; they would often call the store or drop by just to see if the latest shipment had come in. I ran the program, did all the buying, and over time I developed a pretty strong sense of what our customers wanted. That sense was absolutely what prompted me to found Felony & Mayhem. Felony is to a very large extent an expanded version of the P&C import program.
BB: Your company name, Felony & Mayhem, is attention-getting to say the least. How did you come up with it?
MT: As I mentioned above, I was persuaded to kill off Lazarus. I knew I wanted a name that echoed some of the great, slightly pompous-sounding old British publishing names (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, I’m looking at you), but just a bit….bent. I wanted something with a bit of a girly flourish (since I knew we would be publishing primarily for women) but with, as S.J. Perelman would put it, “somewhere a roscoe.” Years earlier, for some P&C project, I had written the opening paragraphs of a parody of a gothic mystery. The heroine was beautiful Felony Mayhem, and she had a sister named Dyptheria and a maid named Larceny, and they all lived in a crumbling mansion on the Yorkshire moors. So I was searching for a name, and suddenly remembered beautiful Felony Mayhem. I tried it out on several people, and they all giggled, and that was good enough for me.
BB: F&M focuses on “literary mystery fiction.” Define that for us.
MT: The best answer I can give is that we tilt toward what we think of as novels with mystery elements. That is, I would demand of this book that it meet all the expectations I have of a novel—vivid, interesting characters; well-crafted plot; an intelligent, compelling (and often witty) narrative voice—with the addition of the odd dead body. It needs to be good enough to satisfy a reader who is not particularly a mystery fan. That said, we certainly do publish classic genre fiction—the Ngaio Marsh “Inspector Alleyn” series would be a good example—and without apology. We think the straight-ahead mysteries we offer are some of the best in the field.
BB: Do you notice any recent trends among F&M’s bestsellers? In mystery fiction in general?
MT: I’d be much better placed to answer that if I were still working in a bookstore. The two overwhelming trends of the previous several years—vampires and Scandinavian mysteries—were definitely on the wane as of last year, but I can’t really say what has taken their place. It’s entirely possible that there aren’t any screaming trends; in most of my years as a bookseller, sales were not particularly trend-driven. To be honest, trends are really the product of lazy and desperate publishers. One book comes out and it grabs the readers’ (and reviewers’) attention. And it’s a clever vampire series that gets made into a stylish HBO series, or it’s a compelling trilogy of Swedish thrillers, and so other publishers JUMP onto the bandwagon, buying up any vampire series, any Swedish thrillers that they can find, with very little attention paid to the quality of the books they’re buying. Hollywood does the same thing. It never serves the audience very well.
BB: Some folks assume that female readers are only interested in “cozy mysteries” and that male readers are the ones reading “real mysteries.” In your experience, is this a valid observation or just another false gender stereotype?
MT: Forgive me, but I actually have several answers to this. “Cozies” tend to be regarded as the red-headed stepchild of the mystery world, a distinct second-best to the “hard-boiled” mysteries that are viewed as their opposite number. I actually believe, and quite strongly, that both this view and the extent to which it is accurate are an outgrowth of the sexism that remains rife in the mystery community. If I may go all lecture-y and define the terms? When people in the business talk about “cozies,” we’re talking about books that take their guiding spirit directly from Agatha Christie’s “Miss Marple” series. That is, the setting is usually town or suburb or village, rather than city. The protagonist is almost always female, and never a professional crime-solver (i.e., not a cop or a private-eye). There is little if any “onstage” violence, and there is, most critically, a somewhat sunny world-view: The world is tidy and pleasant, and while some bad guy or other has come along and made a mess, as soon as he’s caught and dealt with the, sun will shine again and there will be cream buns for tea. These books are published for and read by women, almost exclusively, and like romance novels, they are therefore assumed to be entirely second-rate.
This assumption is, of course, total hogwash. (It’s hogwash in reference to romances as well: Jane Austen wrote Regency romances.) There have been plenty of genuinely good cozy mysteries, starting with those written by Miss Christie, who was a genius at plotting.
Sadly, it is also true that the vast majority of cozies—like the vast majority of romance novels—are crap. The manuscripts are bought for pennies, the books are hustled into print virtually unedited, they get no—as in ZERO—marketing support, they sell at a rock-bottom price-point, and they go out of print within nine months. They are treated as the literary equivalent of Twinkies, on the assumption that their readers—women—can’t tell quality from junk, and don’t care about the difference. As a genre, they represent a massive insult to their audience.
Within the mystery world, virtually all the status resides with hard-boiled novels, in large part less because they are inherently better than cozies (there’s plenty of hard-boiled crap out there) than because they are written for (and primarily by) men. And just to be clear, when people in the industry talk about “hard-boiled,” what we mean is books with (usually) urban settings (“down these mean streets….”), male protagonists who are professionally involved in solving crime, a fair amount of violence, and a generally cynical outlook: The world is dark and corrupt and nothing Our Hero can do will change that, but he is nevertheless compelled to try, even though he knows that he is ultimately doomed to fail. This knowledge makes him cranky and leads him to drink too much; it also makes him no fun at parties, so he doesn’t usually have many friends, much less a family. He occasionally has something approaching warmth with a woman of easy virtue, but she will either get killed or betray him.
As you can probably tell, I have about as much respect for cookie-cutter hard-boiled as I do for most cozies—although, as with cozies, there is some great hard-boiled fiction, beginning with Raymond Chandler, who essentially invented it. The really good news, though, is that the world of mysteries is MUCH larger than these two sub-genres. For example, at Partners & Crime, we sold very few traditional cozies, a lot of hard-boiled (to both men and women), and an enormous amount of British or “British-style” fiction, which is defined (for me) by an emphasis on character and—particularly—prose; these books tend to have a distinctive narrative voice, whereas with a fair amount of American mystery fiction, particularly very successful mystery fiction (John Grisham and Dan Brown, for example) the author is essentially invisible, the narrative voice acting as the equivalent of a white gallery wall setting off the work of art—in this case, the story. Still thinking about that wall (and REALLY laboring this metaphor), a British-style mystery has wallpaper. The painting is still there, you can still see and enjoy the painting, but it’s only part of the visual experience. The painting (the plot) is to some extent having a dialogue with the wallpaper (the prose).
These books also tend to have a keen sense of history, even when they have contemporary settings. P.D. James’s Adam Dalgliesh, for example, has been haunted over fourteen books by the image of his mother’s arm, blown off by a bomb during the London Blitz. That sense of history does come up in some American books: Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch, for example, was shaped by his experiences as a tunnel-rat during the Vietnam War. But for the most part, the path between the past and the present belongs to the Brits: Most American mystery fiction does not look back.
Another sub-genre that has become quite significant over the past few decades is foreign mysteries. Scandinavian mysteries have of course been hugely popular for the past eight years or so, beginning with Henning Mankell’s “Kurt Wallender” series, and then exploding with the publication of Steig Larsen’s “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” trilogy. Before the passion for the Scandinavians took hold there was something of a vogue for both Japanese and Spanish mystery fiction. In general, the foreign stuff tends to appeal to both men and women: It often combines elements of American-style hard-boiled (a distinctly dark tone, a professional crime-solver for a hero, a certain amount of violence) with both an elegance of prose and the eye to the past that somehow “soften” the violence and lighten the darkness, making the books accessible to a wider audience.
BB: How long have you been selling to Bas Bleu? How was that relationship born?
MT: I’ve been selling books to Bas Bleu since late 2006, the first year F&M was in business. We had had a real success, both critically and in terms of sales, with a book called Death in the Garden, by Elizabeth Ironside. NPR named it one of the twelve best books of the year, the Washington Post said it was reminiscent of Dorothy Sayers, etc. Late in the year I met Charles Edmondson, then the co-owner of Bas Bleu, at an auction, and we started chatting. I told him that I published mysteries, and he said that his wife, Eleanor, who did all the book-selection for the catalog, was not a mystery fan. I said I thought she might, nevertheless, like Death in the Garden, and I gave Charlie a copy I happened to have with me. Eleanor wound up loving it, and she and Charlie bought it for Bas Bleu—the first mystery they had ever carried, I believe. And that was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
BB: Our thanks to Maggie for chatting with us and, more important, for publishing fantastic books that keep us occupied into the wee hours of the night! Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for four new (to Bas Bleu) titles from Felony & Mayhem in our Fall 2013 catalog: Michael McDowell’s delightful Jack and Susan trilogy and the Scotland-based gothic thriller Naming the Bones, by Louise Welsh.