Notes From A Novice Bookseller
I may never distinguish myself as a bookseller, but at least I can say I had a distinguished first sale. In August, on my first official day at Mystery to Me – the cash register and I were about to begin an uneasy alliance – who should hand two books across the counter but David Maraniss, best-selling author, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and Monroe Street neighborhood resident.
by Doug Moe
David was buying books for his grandkids. We had been friends for years, but I was nervous; it was my first day. It was more than that. This was my first experience at any kind of retail sales since I worked behind the counter at McDonald’s as a 16-year-old. The location is now the Whole Foods on University Avenue. What I remember is trying to drop a frozen fish filet into a wire basket and dropping it instead directly into the deep fat fryer. I reached for it without thinking. You wouldn’t think your fingertips could make a sizzling sound, but trust me, they can.
Forty-three years later, my friend David Maraniss, perhaps sensing my unease, grinned as if to say, “You’re in a book store. What’s the worry?” With that, I exhaled. I have loved bookstores since I was a little boy, and on leaving the newspaper business this past summer for the freelance writing life, I embraced the opportunity to have a part-time home at Mystery to Me. Joanne and her staff had made we feel welcome as a customer, and they were equally welcoming to me as a new colleague. The cash register and I are still warming up to each other.
Part of the fun has been finding out how much I don’t know. I’d always considered myself well-read, especially in the mystery and crime area. As a young man I not only read all John D. MacDonald’s great Travis McGee novels, I wanted to be Travis McGee, living on a houseboat in Fort Lauderdale and drinking good English gin. When I didn’t want to be Travis McGee, I wanted to be Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer, uncovering the dark family secrets that lurk below the surface in sunny California.
But what I learned, stocking the shelves during my Wednesday afternoon shifts at Mystery to Me, is that my education as a reader has a long way to go and will never end. Who are all these authors? I know I will enjoy finding out. Joanne recently turned me onto Zoo Station, the first novel in a series by David Downing. The protagonist is a British journalist in Berlin on the cusp of World War II.
Along with making discoveries myself, I have been able to suggest some of my favorites to customers. Early on, Joanne asked me if there were any titles I thought the store should have on hand and didn’t. I staked a claim for Falling Angel, an utterly original thriller by William Hjortsberg set in New York and New Orleans in 1959. Joanne ordered three copies. I was delighted a week later to find one had already sold. I envied the unknown reader encountering it for the first time, and imagined them double-locking the doors before turning in that night.
I am still learning the business, and have appreciated everyone’s patience. I feel on more solid ground doing the author interviews I’ve begun at selected events at Mystery to Me. As a writer, it’s fun for me to learn how other writers approach their craft. Readers seem to enjoy it, too, and I hope people will consider coming to one of the interviews – we have several more scheduled this fall.
Talking about books, being around books and people who appreciate books – what’s not to like? I think of the golf writer Henry Longhurst’s description of his career: “A life spent among pleasant people, who have mostly been at their pleasantest in the circumstances in which I have met them.”
I think Henry Longhurst would have liked Mystery to Me.
My Five Favorite Crime/Mystery Novels
- The Last Good Kiss, by James Crumley. Crumley is not for the faint-hearted. If there is an opposite of the “cozy” mystery genre, this is it. But Crumley has the soul of a poet and his hard-drinking private eye protagonist knows a lot about life. The novel also features the consensus best first sentence in all crime literature: “When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.” I have a signed first edition of the hard cover, purchased for far too much at Printers Row Rare and Fine Books in Chicago.
- LaBrava, by Elmore Leonard. My favorite Leonard novels are those, like this one, set in Miami Beach. Leonard gets the mix of seedy and sublime that makes South Beach so seductive. Joe LaBrava is ex-Secret Service and an amateur photographer who falls for and helps a former film noir actress who seems clearly modeled after Jane Greer, the real life beauty who suckered Robert Mitchum in “Out of the Past.” Once you’ve read all of Leonard, consider reading the novel that Leonard said taught him how to write crime fiction: George V. Higgins’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle.
- Head Games, by Craig McDonald. Criminally underappreciated, although this debut novel (published in 2008) did get an Edgar nomination. It had a Madison publisher – Bleak House Books – and a protagonist named Hector Lassiter, a crime author who “lives what he writes and writes what he lives.” This tale involves the head of Pancho Villa, a visit to the set of Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil,” tequila bottles, dead bodies, and more.
- The Long Goodbye, by Raymond Chandler. If I had to pick one title from the great early masters – Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain – this would be it. It was Chandler’s most ambitious novel, and the author’s personal favorite. Chandler’s detective protagonist, Philip Marlowe, helps a friend flee to Mexico, not knowing the friend’s wife has been murdered. Then the friend shows up dead – or does he?
- The Good German, by Joseph Kanon. Kanon is my favorite espionage writer. He manages to create the atmosphere that a writer like Alan Furst gets so much credit for, but Kanon is also able to keep the plots hopping. “The Good German” was his third novel and is vastly superior to the movie version that starred George Clooney. It’s set in postwar Berlin and involves a missing scientist and conflicting alliances with the approach of the Cold War.
More Bookseller Favorites!
In Murder on Amsterdam Avenue, Victoria Thompson continues her excellent Sarah Brandt series in Manhattan in the 1890’s. The series is an easy introduction into New York's Knickerbocker society and this book neatly weaves in the topic of post-Civil War race relations in New York with the influx of blacks who fled the South during and after the Civil War. Each one of Thompson’s book’s presents an interesting and challenging mystery and also describes some aspect of life in New York during that time period.
In Summer of the Dead, Julia Keller continues her vivid description of life in Appalachia and the strong characters she has developed such as Bell Elkins. Her stories contain complex characters with surprising twists that will keep you guessing as to who committed the murder. Keller’s writing is tight and it will draw you quickly from page to page. In fact, it's likely that you'll know you need to put the book down and go to sleep for the night and good luck with that!
I love everything Caldecott Medal winner Kevin Henkes does, and his new children's book, Waiting, is a particular joy. Written and illustrated by Kevin, this new book explains the nature of waiting with a gentle, quiet grace. Kevin portrays the passage of time and the inevitability of change while five small toys sit on a windowsill waiting for something to happen. It's a beautiful book. And if you need a little mystery in everything you read, you might ask: "Did the ceramic elephant slip off the ledge or was he pushed?''
Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks. In this latest offering from the Pulitzer Prize winner, Geraldine Brooks turns her hand to a fictional biography of the Israelite king, David, Using the story of his life from the Hebrew Bible, Brooks fleshes out the life of this most complicated of characters in sometimes moving, sometimes shocking ways. David was a deeply flawed man. He was also the Beloved of God. A great read even if you already know how it ends!
Marvel and a Wonder by Joe Meno would be a fabulous bookclub pick. It's a literary novel, it's a mystery, it's a coming-of-age story. The book focuses on a grandfather and his grandson who find themselves taking care of a horse. When their horse is stolen, their relationship necessarily grows. Their search for the horse - and the reasons behind why they had the horse at all, is full of mystery. Loved the book!
Two days ago I started Gates of Evangeline by Hester Young. I've always loved debut novels for the freshness of the writing and this one does not disappoint. The story involves a woman who, after losing her young son, moves from NYC to take a writing job in Louisiana. The problem is that she dreams the future - and that's not always a good thing... and she dreams of past events (even though she wasn't there) Nightmares, murder, betrayal and possibly, ghosts.
Brilliant by Roddy Doyle is the Man Booker Prize winner for children and young adults. The book is just as wondrous as his A Greyhound of a Girl. Gorgeous illustrations, exquisitely-timed dialogue and a heart-filled and adventurous storyline: The Black Dog of Depression has descended over the adults of Dublin. Uncles are losing their businesses, dads won't get out of bed, and mothers no longer smile at their children. Siblings Raymond and Gloria have had enough and set out one night with one goal in mind - to stop the Black Dog, whatever it takes. In a chase through the streets and parks and beaches of Dublin, the children run after the Black Dog, and soon dozens, then hundreds, then thousands of kids join in their fight. They discover they have one weapon again the Black Dog. The weapon is the word "brilliant."
Diary of a Camera by Richard Quinney. Wisconsin photographer and author, Quinney has created a meditation on the art and history of the camera, presented in the "words" of the camera. Stunning fine art photographs throughout combined with words making the experience of this books feel close to prayer.
Just Kids by Patti Smith, the 2010 National Book Award winner for non-fiction, is a memoir of Smith's unconventional, deeply moving relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in the 60's and 70's as they tried to establish themselves as artists in New York City. I'm anxiously awaiting the next installment, M Train, which should be out this week!
I just love Jussi Adler Olsen's Department Q series set in Denmark! Carl, Assad, and Rose return to solve cold cases in The Hanging Girl. Adler-Olsen's dry humor always has me laughing while reading these very suspenseful novels. And there is no need to read these in order (seriously!) --- just jump right in!
Finders Keepers by Stephen King is the most recent King (it's hard to keep up!) in which he revisits the theme of rabid fans of authors, but in no way is it a stale read. I stayed up for a few late nights with this book. A few characters from Mr. Mercedes even appear in this thriller.
Wednesday, October 7
6:30 pm at HotelRED
1501 Monroe Street (Free parking and more space to enjoy this launch party!)
Kathleen Ernst launches Death on the Prairie, Chloe Ellefson Mystery #6
Saturday, October 10
10 - 5 pm
Monroe Street Festival!
One Day Only... 15% Off All Hardcover books! Wow, way to get ready for the holidays
Thursday, October 22
6 pm - at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery
Wisconsin Book Festival presents Stuart Firestein, author of Failure: Why Science is so Successful
Mystery to Me will be on hand selling books.
Friday, October 23
2:30 pm - at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery
Wisconsin Book Festival presents Eileen Pollack, author of The Only Woman in the Room
Mystery to Me will be on hand selling books.
Saturday, October 24 -- Wisconsin Book Festival at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery
Mystery to Me will be there to sell books.
Avi Lank & Ron Legro, authors of The Man Who Painted the Universe
Yona McDonough, author of Little Author in the Big Woods
Anil Ananthaswamy, author of The Man Who Wasn't There
Jude Stewart, author of Patternalia
Sunday, October 25
11 am - 4 pm
Trick or Treat on Monroe Street!
Tuesday, October 27
Bestselling author Hank Phillippi Ryan will be here to discuss her newest mystery in the Jane Ryland series, What You See.
Tuesday, October 27
7 pm at Cooper's Tavern, 20 West Mifflin Street
Mystery to Me will be there!
Jessie Lee Kerchival launches her newest poetry translation, Invisible Bridge/ El puente invisible: Selected Poems of Circe Maia (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015)
Wednesday, October 28
6 - 8 pm
Introduction to the Mystery and Magic of Zentangle
Thursday, October 29
Doug Moe will be interviewing Matthew Prigge, author of Milwaukee Mayhem: Murder and Mystery in the Cream City's First Century.
Friday, October 30
Doug Moe is back tonight to interview Don Sanford, author of a new book On Fourth Lake: A Social History of Lake Mendota.
Keep our website bookmarked....
Stay tuned for updates on events such as...
Jim DeVita at Waunakee Library
Madison Writers Studio
And while you're at it... take a minute to vote for Mystery to Me as a Best of Madison! Did you know you can vote every day through October 17? Seriously folks. We need your love....