Friday, September 10, 2010

Twists in a Mysterious Life by Thomas H. Cook

Thomas H. Cook is the author of twenty-seven  books, including two works of true crime. His novels have been nominated for the Edgar Allan Poe Award, the Macavity Award and the Dashiell Hammett Prize. The Chatham School Affair won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Novel in 1996. His true crime book, Blood Echoes, was nominated for the Edgar Allan Poe Award in 1992, and his story "Fatherhood" won the Herodotus Prize in 1998 and was included in Best Mystery Stories of 1998, edited by Otto Penzler and Ed McBain  His works have been translated into fifteen languages. 

Twists in a Mysterious Life
by Thomas H. Cook

I had not intended to become a mystery writer, which is strange since my first book was about a New York City homicide detective who is given the assignment of solving a murder.  Actually, there were two murder victims, neither of which was human.  The dead were two fallow deer, both given to the New York City Children's Zoo by a very prominent NYC family, hence the assignment to the case of a homicide detective.  The detective goes from witness to witness and, of course, finds the killer.  And I didn't think of this as a mystery?   It was, of course, a by-the-book police procedural.  I didn't realize this, however, because I'd never read a mystery, much less a police procedural.   The book was nominated for an Edgar.  Voila! I was a mystery writer.   My next novel was fully mainstream, but the one that followed it was a serial killer mystery.  My fourth book was another mainstream novel.  I was really in trouble.  Nobody knew what sort of writer I was.  In fact, I didn't know what sort of writer I was.   A friend suggested I write a series character.  I did three books with this character, then got really bored with him.   There is nothing worse than being bored by your own characters, and so I dropped the series at book three.  Now what?
I truly didn't know.  I moved to Spain, wrote a book so bad I didn't even submit it to my agent.  I felt washed-up, exhausted, more or less brain dead.  Then, rather suddenly, I got a new idea.  I would write a book that was both a mystery AND a mainstream novel.  That book was MORTAL MEMORY, and since writing it, I have done nothing but blend, or at least attempt to blend, elements of the crime novel with elements of the mainstream novel.   The result, at least in terms of my career, has been mixed.  I have gotten loads of critical praise, awards and nominations for awards, and loads of translations, with actual success if France and Japan, but in the U.S., neither fame nor fortune have been mine.  I have come to think that the problem is not with the books, but with the way readers in America are demarcated.   This demarcation is severe.  People who read "mainstream," rarely approach the "mystery" section of a bookstore.   As for "mystery" readers, they are equally demarcated by sub genres:  cosy, police procedural, thriller, private eye, series characters, etc.  I don't write books that fit well into any of these categories.  Once, at a speech in Nashville, a reader said, "Mr. Cook, your problem is that people don't know what they're going to get when they pick up one of your books."   My response:  "Isn't that a good thing?"   It is, in fact, a good thing, but it is hard on readers who are shelling out upwards of twenty-five dollars on a writer whose books they can't entirely predict.   This reluctance to take a chance was brought home to me recently in London.   I had just walked out of my publisher's office in Bloomsbury.   The cabbie asked if I were a writer. I said that I was and that I wrote "crime novels."  He then mentioned a very well-known crime writer and said, "I just bought the sixth book by her.  Boy, did the last four suck!"  And yet, this cab driver had bought yet another book by this author rather than take a chance on buying a book by an unknown writer, with no series character, namely Me!   The fact is, we should all read outside our comfort zones from time to time.  We should all occasionally choose an author with whom we are unfamiliar.  I sometimes think of reading only within one genre as akin to never traveling beyond your own town or farm or city.   I am currently writing a non-fiction book about visiting "the saddest places on earth," and though these places are very different, I have gotten something powerful from each of them, something I would not have gotten had I stayed home, or merely gone to various places within one genre of tragedy, say from one death camp to another.  What has made this experience moving is the variety of places I have visited.  I only wish the reading public would do the same, visit different writers, genres, worlds.


Peg Brantley said...

Kindle has allowed me to test the waters with new (to me) authors that I may have not taken the time to properly investigate before. My list of proven authors continues to grow thanks in large part to this new way to present books.

And years ago, I was a subscriber to Reader's Digest Condensed Books. They were well edited and exposed me to different genres other than the one or two I would likely seek out on my own.

Have you visited the Statue of Sorrow yet for your new non-fiction?

Anonymous said...

I agree with what Peg said. E-readers, controversial as they may be to some, are allowing readers to "sample" authors that they are unfamiliar with. It could be from downloading an actual sample or from pricing perhaps the first book in a series at a reduced price. I'm trying out all kinds of authors that I haven't before.

Very interesting post.

Anonymous said...

I love my Kindle. I buy many more books because of it.

Anonymous said...

I think the KINDLE may save, rather than destroy, publishing. It allows for impulse buys and it keeps books in e-bookstores long after they have disappeared from the shelves of B&N and other retailers. It allows an author's backlist to thrive, and for readers who discover him/her to obtain earlier works long vanished from bookstore shelves.

Thomas Cook said...

Dear Peg:

I don't know what the Statue of Sorrow is, but I thought you might mean the Gulag Statue in Magadan, Siberia. But I see that it is in Ireland, right?
Any suggestions for saddest places are much appreciated.
Thomas H. Cook

Thomas H. Cook said...

By the way, I agree with the other people about the Kindle. My daughter bought one each for me and my wife, and we have bought many more books as a result.

Peg Brantley said...

Now you have me hunting. I must have the name wrong. It's a modern looking statue in a small, quasi-rural park in Russia. I think in the St. Petersburg area. As I recall, our group was told that the villagers were taken to the park and shot. So far, I haven't found the right place, but I do have a picture . . . I will continue to look. *sgh*

Julia Buckley said...

Great post! I've enjoyed many of your novels and they do offer a richness beyond the "typical" crime novel.

I even wrote about LOLA FAYE on my blog because I was so excited by it.

As for the saddest place on earth--my father would suggest several locations in Hungary, because he insists that he is descended from "A very sad people."

Vicki Lane said...

Hear! Hear! A well-told story is what matters, as far as I'm concerned. (And yours are very well-told, indeed!) Most novels -- including mainstream literary -- have a mystery at their core, even it it's only "Will he/she find true love/ redemption/success...?"

Peg Brantley said...

Not to detract one iota from your father's position, Juilia, I'm sorta thinking there's a global 'descendant angst'. So Thomas, will you do a follow-up on the happiest places on earth? Probably a much shorter manuscript. But can you picture all the tickets being purchased?

Oh, wait. Maybe those places are closer than we think.

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

I so agree with everyone who feels they're now reading more and buying more books because of the new technology. WHEN am I ever going to learn to stop saying "nope - not for me."

Tom - I loved this piece. I've been one of those who continued buying a book or two by a particular author in a particular series because I didn't want to give up on it or them. Sometimes, things have turned around, but sadly - sometimes not.

I think I probably read a little bit of everything, except I'll admit I'm not much of a SciFi fan. But who knows - that could change! I remember once upon a time I swore I wasn't a fan of Fantasy, and lo and behold - along came Harry Potter.

Peg Brantley said...

Everyone of us has our 'druthers', but those of us who are true readers? true searchers? truly possessed of an inquisitive mind? We will allow something as strange and odd as SciFi (or historical, or whatever) to fall open before us, either on paper or screen and we will open our minds to the experience. Heck, I even do it with the occasional non-fiction.

Kaye, your blog is an oasis. And Tom? You've reminded each of us to look beyond the label.


MJ Frederickson said...

I think Gettysburg, PA is one of the saddest places on earth where Americans fought against Americans and so many died.

I have been a Thomas Cook fan for many years and made sure my son read Breakheart Hill as an example of a mystery that reads as a brillant novel.

Chester Campbell said...

I enjoyed the post and plead guilty to being one of those who has read mysteries almost totally in recent years. Yesterday I was reminded that I should broaden my horizons. Looking at a catalog for The Great Courses, I saw two that I would love to get: "Einstein's Relativity and the Quantum Revolution" and "Change and Motion: Calculus Made Clear." Who knows, I might work some of that into a mystery.

Sandra Parshall said...

Tom, MORTAL MEMORY remains my favorite of your books, although MASTER OF THE DELTA and now THE LAST TALK WITH L0LA FAY are right up there too. I'm baffled by your lack of commercial success and continue to recommend your books to every thoughtful reader I know. Keep doing what you're doing, please.

As for the saddest places on earth -- the saddest I've ever seen is Bradshaw, in McDowell County, West Virginia. When I was a young newspaper reporter (back at the dawn of recorded history), I worked for six months on the Welch Daily News in McDowell County, and for some reason I can't recall I had to go out to Bradshaw. Like many communities in that southernmost part of the state, Bradshaw was up a hollow, at the dead end of a terrible little road. In winter, when the creek was iced over, I saw children outdoors without shoes or coats. Starved dogs with dead, hopeless eyes tied under porches. Thin roofs of rusted metal sheets. I thought I had seen poverty in South Carolina, where I grew up (my own family was poor), but Bradshaw surpassed anything I'd ever witnessed. I hope it's not like that anymore. I hope it doesn't even exist anymore.

Thomas H. Cook said...

I have been reading these posts and really enjoying them. Thanks to all of you for the kind words about my work, and I am particularly happy to have raised the issue of readers reading one series books after another no matter how bored the become by them, and am pleased that my post has served as a little reminder that there really are a lot of good books out there, books readers will never find if they simply continue to read the same of thing. So, on to the adventure, my fellow readers, and thanks again for letting me have my say.