Tuesday, December 2, 2014

PANTHERS PLAY FOR KEEPS is "a wonderful cozy mystery." Thank you, MBR!

Thank you, MBR! "'Panthers Play for Keeps' is a wonderful cozy mystery with a well-planned story involving a gifted protagonist. ... The journey to the end is an adventure."– Teri Davis, Midwest Book Review. Thank you, Teri!

Read the whole review here.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Gumshoe Review "enthralled" by STAGES OF GREY

"This is one of those books where the reader gets so caught up in the narrative that you try to help the main character. You have to keep on reading because you continue to hope against hope that Dulcie will make the right decisions, or at least have a lot of luck if she makes the wrong ones. The writing draws in the reader and keeps them enthralled...."

Gumshoe Review

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Richmond Times-Dispatch loves "Stages of Grey"!

"With a keen eye for the hothouse world of academia and a touch of the supernatural, she creates another entertaining story..." Thank you, Richmond Times-Dispatch!

Book review (fiction): Stages of Grey
BY JAY STRAFFORD Special correspondent | Posted: Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Actors and hackers and sleuths, oh my!

All are among the featured players in “Stages of Grey” (217 pages, Severn House, $28.95), the eighth novel in Clea Simon’s mystery series featuring Harvard doctoral candidate Dulcie Schwartz, her pals and a few felines.

The fun begins with a local theater group, which is staging “Change: A Metamorphosis Musical,” a disco (yes, disco) version of Ovid’s play. But the fun ends when one of the actresses, Amy Ralkov, is found dead, her throat sliced.

Dulcie, who’s still working on her dissertation, puts herself in peril by engaging in some amateur detection. Aided by Gus, a Russian Blue cat who has been adopted by the theater group, she learns the truth.

Simon, a former journalist and the author of two other mystery series, uses her fertile imagination in all her work, and “Stages of Grey” is no exception. With a keen eye for the hothouse world of academia and a touch of the supernatural, she creates another entertaining story, one that combines a clever whodunit with an update on the lives of cherished characters.

Jay Strafford is a retired writer and editor for The Times-Dispatch. Contact him at jstrafford@timesdispatch.com.

Monday, August 18, 2014

PW gets "Stages of Grey" and Dulcie!

PW loves Dulcie! Reviewing my upcoming (Oct.) STAGES OF GREY, the review notes my "endearingly fragile but determined protagonist." So happy!

Simon’s diverting eighth Dulcie Schwartz mystery (after Grey Howl) finds Dulcie, now a fifth-year Harvard grad student, in need of a break from her academic toils. As a distraction, Dulcie attends a “disco interpretation” of Ovid’s Metamorphosis at a Cambridge theater, accompanied by her boyfriend, Chris Sorenson. During the performance, a blonde actress lures Chris to the stage by picking his pocket, and a cat walks a tightrope above the audience. After the show, Dulcie and company discover the blonde actress lying dead in an alley, her throat slashed. Was she the victim of a passing stranger, or possibly of domestic abuse? Or is the truth even more sordid? The feline complications of the plot should please those readers who crave shed fur in their whodunits. Dulcie herself is an endearingly fragile but determined protagonist. Agent: Colleen Mohyde, Doe Coover Agency. (Oct.)
Reviewed on 08/15/2014 | Release date: 10/01/2014 | Details & Permalink

Saturday, April 26, 2014

"Brilliant"! She said I wrote "brilliantly"! Thank you, Kings River Life!

"A strong heroine who sometimes acts much too impulsively, sarcastic humor and a respect and affection for animals enhance this tightly plotted mystery where the motives for killing prove to be all too human." Wow, thank you, Cindy Chow. To read more of this wonderful, detailed (and favorable!!) review by a librarian, in Kings River Life please click here.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

"'Panther Play for Keeps' is a sure winner." Thank you!

"Each new adventure in this series gets deeper and more intense as the author carries her creations to new heights of angst and anxiety. I highly recommend that you read this book. Beg, borrow or steal a copy, just read it and enjoy."

Wow, thank you, Nora-Adrienne! To read the full review, click here.

Friday, April 18, 2014

GREY HOWL is a "favorite." Thank you!

"Multiple plot lines and well-developed characters will keep the reader engaged" What a nice way to start the day! The Conscious Cat may be predisposed to like cat mysteries, but this is still high praise -- both for "GREY HOWL" and for the entire Dulcie series. Thank you so much!

"Clea Simon’s Dulcie Schwartz mystery series, featuring the Harvard graduate student, along with her kitten Esme and the spirit of her departed cat, Mr. Grey, has become one of my favorite cat mysteries..."
To read more, click http://consciouscat.net/2014/04/18/review-grey-howl-clea-simon/.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

"Up there with the greats." Thank you!

Clea Simon's "ability to juggle so many people and multiple crossing plots make her books a genuine pleasure to read, collect and share with friends." So says NoraAdrienne, avid mystery fan. If you want to read more, please click here.

Monday, April 7, 2014

"Grey Howl" – a Gothic homage

"Simon pays sincere homage to the gothic tradition while having a lot of fun with it." So says the Bookblog of the Bristol Public Library. Want to read more? Click here.

"Pru is back..." A review and a PANTHERS PLAY FOR KEEPS giveaway!

"Pru Marlowe is back and she's better than ever!" So says The Conscious Cat,who adds, " found this fast-paced and well-plotted book hard to put down, and I’m already looking forward to the next book in the series." Read the entire review - and sign up for the giveaway here.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Chatting with Hank Phillippi Ryan about how the sausage gets made

How do we write when Facebook is so tempting? What are the biggest obstacles to getting the daily word count done? Over at the Sisters in Crime New England blog, mystery superstar Hank Phillippi Ryan and I chat about the mechanics, and more...

Here's a sample:
Hank: When you need to do your writing for the day, how difficult is it to get yourself to begin? Why?

Me: It’s not difficult at all. Why do you ask? As soon as I’ve checked Twitter and Facebook, and then gone back because maybe I’ve missed a few Tweets. And then looked at my email and responded to my email, and then responded to new postings on Facebook and looked through the latest cat videos … sorry, what was the question again?

Read more here.

Talking books (and cats) with Nancy Adams

Nancy Adams, blogger over at Saints and Trees, and I chatted writing, mysteries, and more:

NA: Tell us a bit about your writing journey: when you started to write, your journey to publication, and so on.

CS: I have always loved making up stories and have been writing stories since I could read. But it took me a while as an adult to think my stories had any validity. I became a journalist and wrote three nonfiction books in part because of this: I felt like if I was conveying information, then I had a reason to write. But I largely read fiction. It wasn’t until Kate Mattes, who owned the now-closed Kate’s Mystery Books in Cambridge, Mass., told me, “You should write a mystery” that I started my first one, “Mew is for Murder.” I think in some way I needed permission.

To read more, please click through to Nancy's blog, Saints and Trees.

When life imitates art: a panther appears in Massachusetts...

The dodo is extinct. The passenger pigeon as well, although some intriguing backward-engineering of DNA may soon change that. The Eastern cougar? That’s another matter. Last month, amid growing community concern, repeated sightings of a large, tawny cat just outside of Boston have made what was once a closed issue open to debate. ...

Read my entire guest blog at The Conscious Cat.

"Killer" review from the Richmond Times-Dispatch: thank you!!

"Infused with a killer plot and an engaging heroine -- as well as striking originality and a measure of humor -- "Panthers Play for Keeps" continues an addictive series and displays Simon's profound talents at their best." AND "Grey Howl" a "complex and satisfying whodunit."

The Richmond Times-Dispatch mystery reviewer Jay Strafford did a double review of my two latest books, and all I can say is, "Wow. Thank you so much." Read the full review here.

"Pru Marlowe is back and better than ever..."

"Fast-paced and well-plotted" Well, thank you! This great review ran in The Conscious Cat today.

Pru Marlowe is back, and she’s better than ever! In Panthers Play for Keeps, the fourth book in Clea Simon’s Pet Noir series featuring pet behaviorist and psychic Pru Marlow, Pru has to solve her most challenging case yet: while taking a dog for a walk, she finds the body of a young woman, who seems to have been mauled by a wild cat. Pru knows there have been no cougars in the Berkshires for years, and not much about this death makes sense. As Pru starts looking into the murder, a cougar of another kind has her eyes set on Pru’s on again, off again boyfriend, detective Jim Creighton. When Pru’s rival disappears, Pru is forced to set aside her own problems to solve the mystery.

Read the entire review here.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

This is what we look like

Women in the raw. Lots of them.

It started because of the horror. I and presumably thousands of other viewers reacted with shock at the sight of Kim Novak at the Oscars. Her face, once the epitome of icy beauty, looked frozen and bloated, more plastic than flesh. Social media soon had us reading an interview with the 81-year-old actress in which she acknowledged how insecurity about her looks prompted her to trust a plastic surgeon who, shall we say, did not do a great job. “We do some stupid things in our lives,” she told SFGate.

What followed became a vitriolic back and forth across Facebook and Twitter, with many people calling out an industry (film) and a culture (us) that place a ridiculous premium on youth. Others, myself included, argued that we needed to take responsibility for our own decisions – and own up to the reality of aging. If we don’t age, we die. That’s it. And the gray area? The question of what any of us will do to appear more attractive... hell, to appear to the outer world as we (still) feel ourselves to be? That we left untouched, a little too scary to tackle.

Enter Laura Lippman. Laura is a writer, a former journalist who now writes New York Times bestselling crime fiction. She was on my radar this week because I’d just heard her speak most inspirationally at the Sleuthfest crime fiction conference in Orlando. (Yes, any excuse to flee New England in late February.) Tellingly, when asked what she was most proud of, she quoted the Soundheim song that Elaine Stritch made famous, “I’m still here.” Persist, she told us. Work hard. That’s what matters.

And now, post Sleuthfest, post Oscars, and maybe post Kim Novak catfighting, Laura has stepped forward again. On Tuesday, she posted on Facebook a “raw” photo: no makeup, no filters, no flattering lighting. And while Laura is both a lovely woman in the flesh and years younger than Stritch, the photo showed the effects of wear and travel. She looks tired in her selfie. At 55, she looks her age.

And a meme was started. Sometimes using the Twitter handle #itsokKimNovak, at other times just linking to Laura’s Facebook page, women – primarily writers and our friends – have started posting our own “raw” photos. Men have joined in, too, and now there are hundreds of photos of real, unadorned faces showing up.

I decided to post one, too. It’s funny now, in retrospect, how scary it was. I took several “selfies” before finding one that I would dare post, and I actually very rarely wear makeup. So, this is the face most people see. And yet... it was hard. My husband (who said nice things about my photo) threw out the following observation: “Photos lie,” he said. In real life, in person, we are so much more animated than any one frozen image. We are so much more alive and attractive. But still….

This morning, still in my nightshirt and robe, I decided to try one again. I smiled in this one, and I thought it captured more of my personality, so I posted it: my second “raw” selfie. A friend even suggested I should use it as my author photo. “You look as if you know a secret,” she wrote. Maybe I do now. This is what we look like. Won’t you share it?

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Breaking into the Boys' Room: VIDA runs the numbers

Gender representation in book criticism is getting a little more even,but not much…

Paint a landscape. Anything you want. Only, you can’t use green. Or, let’s be fair, you can, but only a smidge – say no more than a nickel-sized dollop on your palette. And not, you know, too green. OK, then? Go wild.

Picturing a desert? You’re in luck. Same with, say, a high mountain scene or maybe a particularly stormy night. And if you prefer to work in black and white, as many of the greats do, then this prohibition won’t bother you in the least. Your viewers, who presumably know your style, will have no cause for complaint. The rest of them? They can go look elsewhere.

Unless they can’t. And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with gender underrepresentation in the media. Yes, it’s that time of year again and yes, VIDA, an association of women in the literary arts, has released its fifth annual tally of the number of women critics in major literary publications as well as the number of works by women being reviewed. And while the numbers are getting better – notably better in some places – they’re still not good.

As a woman author, I can tell you this sucks. (Though, in all fairness, I am almost equally up in arms about genre as well as gender discrimination – because, you know, traditional mysteries are not as important as slash’em up thrillers. Though, come to think of it, trad mysteries – “cozies” – are usually written by women, while thrillers are still overwhelmingly penned by men, hmmm…) But really this isn’t simply a women’s issue. It’s a reader issue. Because if people of any type are looking for guidance on what to read next and they are not hearing from a representative population, then they are not seeing the full spectrum of what is out there. Yes, they can look for themselves – but as bookstores stock newspaper-list bestsellers or (at best) “heard on NPR” shelves, and radio and magazine features focus on the same – these review sections function as gatekeepers. To readers, and thus to aspiring writers, critics, authors.

As I’ve said, it sucks. How bad is it? A quick look at the charts tells the story. Although this year’s count has expanded to include some cool journals – the VIDA Larger Literary Landscape – the mainstream media is still undeniably slanted. The New York Review of Books, for example, still has 212 male critics and only 52 women. You think that might be why 307 of the works reviewed were by male authors, while only 80 were by women? Ditto Harpers, with its 24 male critics to 10 female – reviewing 49 books by men, and 19 by women. Other members of “Dudeville,” as VIDA puts it, include The Atlantic, London Review of Books, New Republic, The Nation, and The New Yorker. “Drumroll for the 75%ers,” says VIDA. Would that it announced the coming of a tumbrel.

There is some good news. The New York Times Book Review and The Paris Review have both gotten better. The Paris Review went from 70 male bylines and 18 female in 2012 to 47 and 48 in 2013. The Times has added critics – and added more women than men: last year the paper had 400 male reviewers and 327 female. This year, it had 412 male and 393 female. Counting numbers of critics, bylines, and books reviewed brings the Times up to a full “VIDA Count” of 894 male, 725 female, and 1 transgender. (VIDA is aware of the issues surrounding binary classifications of gender but not at this point prepared to address them, says an editor’s note, for fear of “mission drift.” Not that others can’t take up these and further battles.)

Here in Boston, things are marginally better than the literary world at large. The Boston Review has equity in reviewers this year (10 of each), but not in authors reviewed (22 male authors to 10 female). Counting number of bylines and also micro-reviews, that comes to an overall count of 143 male to 106 female. The New England Review has an overall count of 53 male to 35 female. The Boston Globe isn’t in the count, but it does have a woman editing the book reviews (which helps). Plus, they let me write for them (as well as such better known names as Caroline Leavitt and Katherine Powers). So, yeah, maybe there is hope. But count in the backlash – Jennifer Weiner, anyone? – and you know that we’re not close to an endgame yet.

We will be. The VIDA count is part of it. So is getting angry. Read the report. Spread the word.

This essay originally ran in the Arts Fuse.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Publishers Weekly likes my upcoming "Panthers Play for Keeps," too!

Very psyched to see the early reviews for "Panthers Play for Keeps," the fourth Pru Marlowe pet noir, are beginning to come in - and to come in favorable! Here's the first word on "Panthers," which Poisoned Pen Press will publish on April 2:

Panthers Play for Keeps: A Pru Marlowe Pet Noir

Clea Simon. Poisoned Pen, $24.95 (256p) ISBN 978-1-59058-872-7

At the start of Simon’s engaging fourth mystery featuring animal behaviorist Pru Marlowe (after 2013’s Parrots Prove Deadly), Pru and Spot, a service dog she’s training for a wealthy man who is going blind, discover the badly mauled body of a young woman while walking in the woods outside the Berkshire town of Beauville. To all appearances, a large animal, most likely a wild cat, killed the woman, yet no cats like this have been seen in the area in years. Det. Jim Creighton, the man in Pru’s life who has recently become uncomfortably chummy with the attractive therapist sponsoring Spot, is inclined to think the woman was murdered. Pru, whose psychic powers allow her to understand animals’ thoughts, receives conflicting and confusing suggestions from Spot, as well as from her tabby, Wallis. In the end, Pru’s sleuthing instincts guide her to a satisfying resolution of the crime. (Apr.)
Reviewed on: 02/17/2014
Release date: 04/01/20

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

"Grey Howl" gets two very big thumbs up!

My seventh Dulcie Schwartz feline mystery, "Grey Howl," pubs on March 1 and I am pleased as punch that both Kirkus and Publishers Weekly have given me glowing reviews. Here are the reviews in their entirety:

From Publishers Weekly

Publishers Weekly

Grey Howl: A Dulcie Schwartz Feline Mystery
Clea Simon. Severn, $27.95 (208p) ISBN 978-0-7278-8346-9
Academic politics and the world of literary scholarship provide the background for Simon’s charming seventh Dulcie Schwartz mystery (after 2013’s Grey Dawn). Harvard grad student Dulcie, who’s been researching The Ravages of Umbria—a gothic romance—and the role of women in 18th-century society, is looking forward to a prestigious academic conference in Cambridge, Mass., at which she’s to present her first paper. On the eve of the conference, Marco Tesla, a visiting scholar, is found dead with a broken neck, having fallen from a balcony. Detective Rogovoy and Dulcie, with the help of three cats she communes with for assistance (one of whom, Mr. Grey, is deceased), determine that Tesla was murdered and try to uncover who, among the scholars vying for the position of department chair, is the culprit. Extracts from The Ravages of Umbria add to the fun. Agent: Colleen Mohyde, Doe Coover Agency. (Mar.)



by Clea Simon
More adventures in the dangerous groves of academe.

Doctoral candidate Dulcie Schwartz is thrilled that she is getting the chance to read a paper she wrote on aspects of a gothic novel by a so-far-unidentified woman author who’s the subject of her thesis. The literature conference is being held for the first time at a prestigious university in Cambridge, Mass. Dulcie has been pressed into service as a liaison and fixer of problems by her nervous department head, Martin Thorpe, who’s fighting to keep his job. Dulcie would prefer Renée Showalter, a Canadian professor who’s made available to her some highly interesting documents that will help in her research—at least, until she meets charismatic Paul Barnes, another candidate for Thorpe’s job who hints that he’d like to work with Dulcie. When a paper that Stella Roebuck had planned to read vanishes from her computer, professor Roebuck, blaming her former lover Barnes, demands that Dulcie’s boyfriend, Chris, a computer expert, find it. Then Marco Telsa, Roebuck’s newest lover, falls off a balcony at an evening party, and the police suspect murder. Dulcie, who often seeks advice from the ghost of her deceased cat Mr. Grey and her new cat, Esmé, is worried about Thorpe, who appeared to be drunk at the party, and Chris, who’s acting strangely. Although she’s survived several murder investigations (Grey Dawn, 2013, etc.), her immersion in all things gothic gives her a distinctive slant on sleuthing that puts her in peril.

Though Dulcie’s rather scatterbrained approach to sleuthing may put readers off, her seventh provides a plethora of suspects that keeps them guessing.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Review: "The Good Lord Bird" by James McBride

There is more than one way to tell the truth, “The Good Lord Bird” reminds us again and again, and many reasons to cloak it in humor. (first published in The Arts Fuse)

The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride. Riverhead Books, 432 pp. $27.95

By Clea Simon

James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird serves up history as a morality tale, played out in faith and plumage.

That doesn’t mean The Good Lord Bird, a historical novel, is without humor. On the contrary, McBride’s National Book Award winner – his fourth novel – is at times a howler, its message sugarcoated with broad farce. Considering that its subject – the unsuccessful raid by abolitionist John Brown on Harper’s Ferry, a quixotic attack that would spark the Civil War – is both tragic and honorable, that approach is daring. Indeed, its voice – the ungrammatical and often scatological first-person of an unwillingly freed slave – might border on the offensive if the author were not also African American. But despite the idiosyncratic, unconventionally educated voice, the tale evades minstrelsy because of both the protagonist’s unvarnished honesty and the author’s sly wit. There is more than one way to tell the truth, The Good Lord Bird reminds us again and again, and many reasons to cloak it in humor.

Henry “Onion” Shackleford, the fictional protagonist, knows something about disguise. Mistaken for a girl by Brown in the sortie that kills his father and results in his being taken up by Brown’s raiders, our picaresque antihero gives up trying to correct the error when he realizes that being female may just keep him out of battle. Ten years old, he’s slightly built, and Brown isn’t one to give up on a notion once he’s seized on it. Instead, the bible-thumping abolitionist takes Henry – whose name he has heard as “Henrietta” and who is wearing a sack that he mistakes for a dress – under his wing, declaring the child his good-luck charm and giving him a feather of the “Good Lord Bird,” the now possibly extinct ivory-billed woodpecker, as his own token.

What happens next is complicated, despite the hindsight of history. Onion, as he is called, accompanies Brown, a drag Sancho Panza to the abolitionist’s Quixote, in his quest to end slavery. But although Brown is single-minded, the world as Onion sees it is infinitely more varied. Simply put, the issue of slavery – or of race or gender – is not just black and white.

For starters, Onion doesn’t want to be free. “I was never hungry when I was a slave. Only when I got free was I eating out of garbage barrels,” he notes early on. Two years later, he is still griping: As a slave, he says, “Your meals is free. Your roof is paid for. Somebody else got to bother themselves about you.” Nor are white people the only ones corrupted by the institution, and one of the most moving passages involves Onion’s stay at a whorehouse where one of the black prostitutes, whom he loves, is as racist and cruel as the white madam who owns them all. Onion’s disguise – the ultimate manifestation of the emasculated black man – has begun to weigh on him, his moral growth emerging with his sexual maturity, and this lack of self-determination, a basic freedom, perverts everyone’s sense of self. It will make fools out of more than one character, including a blowhard Frederick Douglass, who is portrayed as a lecherous drunk. In fact, the one touchstone of virtue throughout the book is a character’s willingness to allow for some fluidity of identity. As Harriet Tubman, one of the few truly noble characters, says, “A body can be whatever they want to be in this world. It ain’t no business of mine. Slavery done made a fool out of a lot of folks.”

The book is not flawless. The trope of oppressed people disguising themselves in less threatening guises is almost too constant, and McBride tends to repeat himself, as when he spells out why such deceit is not only justified but necessary. “The white man put his treachery on paper,” he has Onion say. “Niggers put theirs in their mouth. … Every colored did what they had to do to make it.” Plus, despite McBride’s keen ear for individual voices, the dialect can get wearying at times. But the subtle beauty of this book rewards the reader who stays with it. There’s a lot of heart here, love as well as anger, and redemption, too, in those glimpses where Onion shows his true face. “If you can’t be your own self how can you love somebody?” he asks at last. “How can you be free?”

A former journalist, Clea Simon is the author of three nonfiction books and 14 mysteries. A contributor to such publications as the Boston Globe, New York Times, and San Francisco Chronicle, she lives in Somerville with her husband, Jon Garelick. She can be reached here and on Twitter @Clea_Simon.

The Unwavering Gaze — Fabritius and Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch”

The Unwavering Gaze — Fabritius and Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch”
(first published in The Arts Fuse)

In Donna Tartt’s much-lauded third novel, Fabritius’s painting “The Goldfinch” and the fleeting nature of, well, everything come together for a brief and shining moment.

By Clea Simon

I, perhaps like many birdwatchers, am suggestible. I watch the pecks and flutters out at the feeder and flesh out the squabbles these represent. Domestic drama, romantic rivalry, you name it. Give me a junco with or without his partner, and I recast Shakespeare.

Still, I do not think it was entirely in my mind when, last Sunday at the Frick Museum in New York, I looked from Rembrandt’s Portrait of an Elderly Man over to Fabritius’s The Goldfinch and saw a resemblance.

I was one of the record crowd who had come to see Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Hals: Masterpieces of Dutch Painting from the Mauritshuis, a little gem of a show that for four months occupied two rooms of the mansion museum. One room was given over entirely to Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. The other 14 pieces lined the adjoining East Gallery, and while I had waited for what may be my only chance ever to examine each of the pieces up close, at some point I found myself in the middle of the room, looking from one wall to the other. While the gallery was crowded – timed tickets for this last day had sold out by the time we used ours – the Frick had kept occupancy reasonable, and whether because of their planning or some trick of fate, I had a clear sight line to both paintings – the fleshy old man to my right, the tiny bird to my left – and I saw it. Something about the gaze: direct, unwavering. A little weary. In both, I saw the self-awareness of souls chained to this material world. Who had grown increasingly conscious of their bondage, had experienced the world’s cruelty as well as its beauty, and who were resigned, perhaps finally, to giving it up.

There are similarities in style in these two paintings – both painted in the mid-17th century, the height of both Dutch painting and the small nation’s material wealth. And so maybe what I noticed was simply the technique delineating those dark, smudgy eyes. The free and rough brushstrokes that gave Rembrandt’s aged merchant his big, workmanlike hands and the little bird his soft body. Maybe it was their shared pose: staring out at the viewer. Maybe it was simply their placement across a crowded room.

Because there were certainly differences in the paintings as well as similarities, distinctions beyond species or intent. For while the Rembrandt is a full bust, nearly three by two feet, of a large man slumped in a chair, the Fabritius is so small (roughly nine by thirteen inches) as to make the little bird roughly life-sized. Throw in the domestic detail – its delicate chain, which connects the bird to what is described as a feed box – and you have a much more intimate painting, something more akin to the four devotional Piero Della Francescas that are currently making up another special exhibit, Personal Encounters, up the street at the Met.

Of course, the focus of private contemplation had changed dramatically in the two hundred years between Piero and Fabritius, and the Mauritshuis exhibit particularly focused on paintings from an era of unprecedented wealth and trade. In such a world, that little house pet is just one more luxury, like a Rembrandt portrait, while a painting of such a tiny treasure is less a devotional object, a focus for thought or prayer, than a private indulgence. And yet, that bird – those dark eyes… “By the time you see this,” that little bird is saying, “I will be gone.”

That perspective may well have been influenced by the themes of author Donna Tartt’s own blockbuster, The Goldfinch, the massive bestseller that reportedly helped drive Frick attendance to record levels. In this, Tartt’s much-lauded third novel, both the Fabritius painting and the fleeting nature of, well, everything come together for a brief and shining moment.

Yes, I did say brief. Because although at 771 pages, Tartt’s book has now been more often criticized for its length than for any of its characters, diversions, or convoluted plot lines, it is still finite. And since one can never read a book for the first time twice; that pleasure is ephemeral. More’s the pity.

Tartt, who graced the opening of the show and was reportedly in attendance on that last day, makes the Fabritius painting both a truly private devotional object as well as the ultimate treasure in the contemporary cutthroat mercenary world.

Her setup would be enough to make any curator wary, and it is perhaps just as well that the Frick was unaware of the upcoming publication when this show was being planned. As The Goldfinch opens, 13-year-old Theo Decker is on his way to a school visit with his mother – he has misbehaved – when a rainstorm drives them into a museum (the Met, in Tartt’s fiction) where the tiny masterpiece is on display. While they are sheltering, a terrorist bomb explodes. (As other critics have noted, Fabritius himself was killed, and most of his works destroyed, in an explosion the year that he painted The Goldfinch.) Waking, dazed, Theo sees the painting, “just about the first painting I ever really loved,” his mother had told him only minutes before, and takes it from the rubble. His reasons are complex, involving multiple manifestations of love (for a pretty girl, his mother, an old man’s memories, and more), but that one impulsive action will set his life on a strange and often harrowing course. Tartt uses Theo’s prized and secret possession as a means for studying not only love and beauty, but the nature of suffering: the deep soul-weary knowledge of mortality exposed in the little bird’s gaze.

“Even a child can see its dignity,” she has the adult Theo observe: “thimble of bravery, all fluff and brittle bone. Not timid, not even hopeless, but steady and holding its place. Refusing to pull back from the world.”

For Theo, the price of this knowledge is steep. With his mother gone, he is first sheltered by the dysfunctionally detached family of a wealthy friend, where he exists in limbo – the familiar environs of New York and school providing him a bare framework for continued existence. When his absentee father surfaces and spirits him away to Las Vegas, he is forced to become a more active participant in his own life. His father, an alcoholic and gambler, seems more interested in Theo’s insurance payout than his only child’s welfare, and although this, like all relationships, will prove more complex than it first appears, Theo is largely left to fend for himself. He is sustained by his friendship with another lost boy, Boris. This brilliant if feral Russian both teaches Theo how to survive and involves him in an underworld of drugs and crime that will shadow his life.

Theo is susceptible, of course, because of the secret of The Goldfinch. As much as he loves the painting, his possession of it warps his youth, pushing him toward the anesthetizing properties of various substances even as it hones his love of beauty. These qualities, if not Boris, follow Theo back to New York, where he seeks succor, perhaps too late, with an antiques dealer who has also been left bereaved by the bombing. But although both Theo and his new protector, Hobie, have both lost those they most loved, Tartt is a neat stylist, who wastes nothing. Those losses and all the wildly colorful characters we have already met will come to play at least once more in Theo’s journey, with the painting surfacing for one more glimpse – a quick peek – before the end.

That’s a lot for a novel, and despite her cool-eyed precision and her own unflinching honesty, at times Tartt does flag. Just as one visitor at the Frick was heard to comment, “This is what all the fuss was about?,” so many critics have commented that The Goldfinch could do to lose a hundred pages or so, earmarking different sections for after-the-fact editing. I would, if anything, trim the final adventure, which brings Theo to Amsterdam for the kind of guns-and-guts finale more suitable for a movie than a novel, slow reading even if its visceral gore serves to update the concept of a memento mori. Still, this too passes, and the book picks up again once the action concludes, with Theo’s internal monologue taking over the last 12 pages. This last bit – largely rambling philosophizing – alone is worth the price of admission, and, yes, as glad as I was to have finished – to have seen how Tartt brought it all together, how she tied up all her themes – I was sorry to see The Goldfinch end.

Life may be fleeting, and beauty eternal – but art should last long. We sense, in our hearts, we must give it all up, and quickly, too. Rembrandt knew that, and that little bird has an inkling of it, as well, at least as Tartt sees it: “There’s only a tiny heartbeat and solitude, bright sunny wall and a sense of no escape.”

So, yes, we have other books to read, I understand. We do not necessarily put down The Goldfinch only to meet the void. Still, why rush to the inevitable end? Too soon, it will all – like the Frick show – be gone.

A former journalist, Clea Simon is the author of three nonfiction books and 14 mysteries. A contributor to such publications as the Boston Globe, New York Times, and San Francisco Chronicle, she lives in Somerville with her husband, Jon Garelick. She can be reached here and on Twitter @Clea_Simon.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Type M for Murder: A Call to (Proper) Arms

Type M for Murder: A Call to (Proper) Arms

Jumping genres to support our SF/F sisters

Call it dueling futures. Because the battle for the soul of the science fiction and fantasy community is about nothing less, and even if we in the mystery community never considered the impact of a chainmail bikini, you may want to sharpen your broadsword.
The fight began at a trade publication, but its implications reach far beyond. Specifically, the brouhaha came to a head last month with the publication of issue #202 of the quarterly bulletin of the SFWA, a professional organization for science fiction and fantasy writers that claims 1,800 members. But the ill will in the SF/F community, as it usually abbreviates itself, had been brewing far longer. Last winter, for example, numerous bloggers complained about issue #200, which featured on the cover a male fantasy figure (female warrior with large breasts, barely concealed in the dated – and clearly ineffective – chainmail two-piece mentioned above). More to the point, the issue contained a history by longtime contributors Mike Resnick and Barry N. Malzberg of women in the genre, which referred to “lady editors” and “lady publishers,” occasionally citing their “knockout” looks.  The next issue, #201, had a piece by a different male writer, CJ Henderson, praising Barbie – yes, the doll – for maintaining her “quiet dignity the way a woman should” (not to mention that she has “quite the pair of sweater-fillers”). Then, in June, issue #202 came out with another adolescent fantasy cover, a well-intentioned discussion of objectification – and Resnick and Malzberg’s rebuttal to the “liberal fascists,” “thought police,” etc., who didn’t like their previous column. All hell broke loose. Did I mention that this is a professional bulletin? Could you imagine this in The Third Degree?

This squabble follows hard on the heels of closely related explosion of bad boy behavior. SF/F conventions, or “Cons,” are where authors and readers meet and literary prizes are awarded. Because of the highly interactive nature of SF/F, there’s also a huge overlap with gamers, online forums, films, etc., and big deals – real money – are made. It’s become an open secret that many cons are unsafe for women, with groping, stalkers, and inappropriate behavior as rife as, well, those damned bikinis.
Increasingly, women in the genre – dues-paying, book-writing, comics-illustrating humans – are speaking out. But when they do, they have been viciously attacked with language that would appall the Texas legislature. “If the bitches don’t like it they can leave,” reads one comment on the blog Gorgonmilk, referring to the SFWA fight. “We Y-chromosome boys were in this hobby before it became cool and the vaginas started joining.” And that’s some of the more printable language. Rape and death threats are not uncommon.

Nor is the hatred aimed simply at women. There’s the open homophobia of SF author Orson Scott Card, for example, which has resulted in a call for a boycott of the upcoming film of his book Ender’s Game.  For women of color – hell, for SF/F professionals of any gender of color – the issues multiply.
But the tide may be turning: Author Genevieve Valentine blogged about being harassed last summer at ReaderCon, a Massachusetts-based con, which she attended as a nominee for the prestigious Shirley Jackson award. After much back and forth, the offender was banned for life and the entire board resigned. In May, author Elise Matthesen formally reported an editor – an editor – for sexual harassment at WisCon, in Madison, and as of July 7, he is no longer with his publishing house. 

Meanwhile, the (female) editor of the SFWA bulletin, Jean Rabe, hasresigned, and the publication is on hiatus while the board reviews its policies. And though recent SFWA president John Scalzi, whose three-year term ended July 1, has declared a policy of not speaking about the controversy for at least one year, he did apologize to the membership. He has also, and more importantly, spearheaded a campaign to boycott any conventions that do not have a stated anti-harassment policy. 
But it is exhausting to have to continually re-fight this battle. In a professional arena, we want to be treated professionally. That means nobody has the the right to comment on our looks, our sexuality, or our apparent level or lack of sexual activity. (And, believe me, if the tables were turned, so many of these trolls would understand: fat, balding, and effectively impotent as so many may be.)

And this isn’t simply a tempest in a teapot, not even a futuristic one. Because while in the public imagination, SF/F may summon images of socially inept males, the field has always been more than nerd boys tugging one off to rocket-fueled fantasies. Despite the bikinis, SF/F has also always been the home of progressive thought. Back in 1969, Ursula K. LeGuin wrote of gender-fluid characters in a bisexual world in her brilliant The Left Hand of Darkness, which won virtually all the genre’s top awards. Since then, writers like Octavia Butler, N.K. Jemisen, Ellen Kushner, and others have explored class and race as well as gender. In general, says the marvelously outspoken author/blogger Foz Meadows, this is a community “actively concerned with questions of representation and diversity.” 

That’s because, at heart, SF/F is populated by dreamers. That is the nature of fantasy. And while some fantasy is “forward-looking technologically and backward-looking socially,” in the words of Kushner(whose 1987 breakthrough, Swordspoint, featured a gay male couple), not all of it is.  “When you’re dealing with SF, you’re dealing with possibilities and possible futures,” she says. “Until you can envision it, you can’t start trying to create it.”

Which is why the women of SF/F are taking up the sword, and why we in the crime fiction community should support them. If only to win better armor.

This blog first appeared in Type M for Murder: A Call to (Proper) Arms

 Clea Simon, author of 13 mysteries, knows that good books defy genre. She may be reached at http://www.cleasimon.com

Monday, May 20, 2013

PW gives "GREY DAWN" a star and a rave!

So happy!





Issue: 20TH MAY 2013

★ Grey Dawn: A Dulcie Schwartz, Feline Mystery, Clea Simon. Severn, $28.95 (224p) ISBN 978-0-7278-8261-5

With the lightheartedness and strong themes that characterize a cozy series with
staying power, Simon delivers her winning combination of academic rivalries, student relationship drama, and kitty wisdom in the sixth Dulcie Schwartz mystery (after 2012’s True Grey). A student who closely resembles Dulcie is discovered, alive but with multiple throat wounds, in the same area of the Harvard campus where Dulcie heard howling and saw her harried thesis adviser, Martin Thorpe, looking strangely wild the night before. The gothic romance The Ravages of Umbria—a dark, cryptic novel that Dulcie is studying in hopes of attributing it to the anonymous author who is the subject of her thesis—frightens her even more, as do warning messages from her ghostly cat adviser Mr. Grey, as Dulcie tries to determine whether Martin is actually a dangerous werewolf. Excerpts from Dulcie’s melodramatic research project offer a delightful homage to 18th-century
gothic fiction that also binds this whodunit to its historical predecessors.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Malice Domestic: Celebrating 25 years of traditional mysteries

Must be my journalism roots. I can't resist reporting... and I'm just leaving the three-day cozy fest known as Malice Domestic. There, I attended panels on "mysteries around the world" and "social issues in traditional mysteries" and I was invited to speak on a panel about paranormal mysteries, called "Me and My Dead Friend." And while I didn't take notes about everything, I did jot down some of the funnier and pithier bits, which I share with you now.

Guest of Honor Laurie R. King was interviewed by Hank Phillippi Ryan and was both funny and modest. She said her goal was "to keep the mirrors flashing enough so....they're blinded to the machinery." (She also added, since she doesn't outline, that "an outline is something you force out to gjve to your publisher so you can get an advance.")

Receiving her award as honored guest, Carolyn Hart noted that we were 500 strong at the Malice banquet and "I know you are good and kind because you read the traditional mystery and you believe in goodness." Whereas Aaron Elkin receiving a lifetime achievement award joshed "Your royal highness, distinguished members of the Swedish community..." (A bon mot he then credited to Ed McBain.)

Hart also noted that, when she started writing, "As far as NY was concerned the only books [worth publishing] were hardboiled thrillers written by men or mysteries by dead English ladies." But, she added, "Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky, and Margaret Marron changed all that."

Speaking of historical mysteries, the Agatha award nominees talked about the importance of detail. As eventual Agatha winner Catriona McPherson put it: "I want to see where the scullery maids lived because that's what I would have been."

Rhys Bowen was quite eloquent about the importance of historicals, saying, "History is written by men, historical novels, written by women...run around the back and give you the social history." She then added: "the fascinating thing about the British upperclass is that they really do believe God created them and then he rested." And, most tellingly: "you have to write with no foreshadowing...in 1930s England, Hitler was 'that funny little man.'"

Speaking of the difference in mysteries set outside the US, the panelists pinpointed some important fact. "In the UK, guns are illegal," noted Peter Robinson. "But CCTV is everywhere and everyone knows that so you have to work around that."

Toastmaster Laura Lippman closed the festivities with some encouraging words.

"So many times you solve a particularly troublesome plot problem when you're not trying to solve it," she said, explaining that (like me) she gets some of her best ideas on the treadmill.

"You have to get lucky in this field but to get lucky you have to do the work." She related this to a story of her agent giving one of her books to a film producer... the agent meeting the producer was luck. But the book? That was the work Laura had already done. "you've got to own your dreams," she also said. "You've got to admit what you want. And when you get it, dream bigger.

And finally, she gave us a haiku: ""what a swell party/you don't have to go home/but you can't stay here."

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Didn't you love that photo of Melon the cat? Well, his person - a librarian - weighs in on the book here.

"If," she writes, "you like multiple stoylines, an academic sleuth who is less practical than she likes to imagine, and some slightly otherworldly felines, then Grey Dawn is a definite winner." [read more here]

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

An indie bookseller on PARROTS PROVE DEADLY

From the Kingdom Books blog

Clea Simon's companion feline is named Musetta -- and there's a photo on Simon's blog of this canny cat, staring into the computer screen. Whether Musetta can guide Simon in plotting, who knows? But the years of companionship show up wonderfully in Simon's newest mystery, PARROTS PROVE DEADLY. [click to read more]

Quite the tail!

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Me and Alan Furst

Oh, don't I wish!

But I was thrilled to see two new reviews this morning. The first informed me that the BBC adaptation of Furst's "The Spies of Warsaw" begins tonight, and I've set the DVR (9 p.m. Eastern). Love his books - so moody, so intense.

The second was even more personal: Beth Kanell of Kingdom Books reviewed my new (out yesterday!) "Parrots Prove Deadly," the third Pru Marlowe pet noir. In addition to many other lovely things, she said: "In Simon's quick-paced narrative, there's plenty of suspense and a very real sense of struggle to translate what's important in the "speech" of companion animals into something Pru can make sense of." Which is too long for Twitter, but just makes me so happy. Thank you, Beth!

Beth's review of "Parrots Prove Deadly": http://tinyurl.com/cg7p9lt

Times review of "Spies of Warsaw"" http://tv.nytimes.com/2013/04/03/arts/television/spies-of-warsaw-a-bbc-america-mini-series.html?smid=pl-share

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Zelda as the muse

What is it about a madwoman? From the Maenads to Edie Sedgwick, such heedless spirits have long inspired our stories. When they don’t exist in real life, we invent them. Just ask Heathcliffe what was pushing him so hard, and he’ll come back with some tale about a first wife in an attic. ...

Me on Therese Anne Fowler's Z in Dame Magazine.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Historical friction...

And here's my piece on why you're all reading the wrong Hilary Mantel novel, also for DAME.

That's why the feminist is a Dame....

It occurs to me, I should link to the book pieces I write for DAME magazine. So here's my take on why, 50 years after its publication, Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique still matters. It's not what you'd think...

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Thank you, Publishers Weekly

"Clever... pithy dialozuge and distinctive characterizations..." These are some of the early words from Publishers Weekly for my April pet noir, Parrots Prove Deadly.
Parrots Prove Deadly: A Pru Marlowe Pet Noir
Clea Simon. Poisoned Pen, $24.95 (278p) ISBN 978-1-4642-0104-2

A parrot proves a key murder witness in Simon’s clever third mystery featuring Pru Marlowe, a latter-day Doctor Dolittle, who practices in the Berkshire town of Beauville (after 2012’s Cats Can’t Shoot). When 84-year-old Polly Larkin, who lives in a room with her parrot, Randolph Jones, in a retirement complex, dies abruptly, Pru investigates. Pru determines that someone attempted to poison Randolph Jones, presumably to cover his or her tracks. Suspects include Polly’s two grown children; resident gerontologist Dr. Wachtell; Polly’s blind friend, Rose Danziger; and Rose’s aide, Genie. Pru meticulously pieces the clues together with psychic advice from a fuzzy crew of confidantes: her tabby, Wallis; Rose’s seeing-eye dog, Buster; Frank the ferret; and the neighbor’s bichon, Growler. Det. Jim Creighton, her on-again, off-again boyfriend, lends human assistance. Simon’s pithy dialogue and distinctive characterizations more than compensate for the predictable plot. (Apr.)
Reviewed on 02/22/2013 |

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Somerville gets its own Cat Fest!

Call us copy cats! In the wake of the hugely successful Cat Video Festival at the Walker Center in Minneapolis, our little city that could – Somerville – is hosting its own "Copy Cat Fest." The event, to be held Sunday, Feb. 17, 4-7, will be smaller in scope, but will have videos, readings (yes, I'm reading), celebrity cat guests... you name it! I am so psyched. Thank you, Arts Council!

Here's the link.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Next Big Thing blog hop

Welcome to this blog hop.
What is a blog hop? Basically, it’s a way that readers can discover new authors, because with bookstores closing and publishers not promoting new authors as much, we need to find a way to introduce readers to authors they may not see in their local bookstore.

Here you have the chance to find many new authors. Here you’ll find information about Amy Shojai and her dog-centric thriller novel, LOST AND FOUND, which NY Times bestselling author James Rollins calls, “Riveting, heart-wrenching, brilliant, the debut of a stunning talent.” Also see links below to five other authors you might like to check out.
I’d like to thank fellow author Amy Shojai for tagging me to participate. Click the links below to find out about Amy Shojai’s book.
Website: http://www.cleasimon.com
Amazon: http://tinyurl.com/atfb732
B&N: http://tinyurl.com/a9luhwm

In this particular hop, I and my fellow authors, in their respective blogs, have answered 10 questions where you get to learn about our current work in progress as well as some insights into our process, from characters and inspirations to plotting and cover decisions. I hope you enjoy it!
Please feel free to comment and share your thoughts and questions. Here is my Next Big Thing!
1: What is the working title of your book?
A Spot of Death: A Pru Marlowe pet noir
2: Where did the idea come from for the book?
I've been collecting news stories about wild animals that are kept, inappropriately, as pets for a while now...
3: What genre does your book come under?
Amateur sleuth - sort of a not-too-cozy cozy
4: Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
Pru is a dark-haired bad girl. I'd love to have Claire Danes play her, with a dye job. Wallis the tabby would have to be portrayed by a very strong-willed tabby.
5: What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
When a newcomer is mysteriously mauled, murder-by-beast is suspected.
6: Is your book self-published, published by an independent publisher, or represented by an agency?
I am represented by Colleen Mohyde of the Doe Coover Agency, and this book is being written under contract for Poisoned Pen Press.
7: How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
I'll let you know when I'm done.

8: What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Well, it is in the spirit of Dogs Don't Lie, Cats Can't Shoot, and this spring's upcoming Parrots Prove Deadly, the earlier books in this series.
9: Who or what inspired you to write this book?
I am having such fun with these characters, I want to keep going.
10: What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
Pru and Wallis have a prickly, but very real relationship that any cat-person will recognize, and anyone who has read about - or wondered about - keeping a wild animal as a pet should be intrigued by the possible complications.

Below you will find authors who will be joining me by blog, next Wednesday. Do be sure to bookmark and add them to your calendars for updates on WIPs and New Releases! Happy Writing and Reading!

Tina Whittle: http://tinawhittle.blogspot.com
Bernadette Pajer: http://bernadettepajer.com
Dusty Rainbolt: www.dustycatwriter.com
Sheila Bonham: www.sheilaboneham.com

Friday, November 30, 2012

Thank you, Kirkus!

"As paranormal talking cat mysteries go, Simon’s latest gives her humans their due and a little bit more."

Hey, Kirkus is renowned for the "Kirkus kick." This is more plot summary than review, but I'll take it!

TRUE GREY (reviewed on December 1, 2012)
A graduate student finds that life imitates art a little too closely in the gothic romances she studies.

Dulcie Schwartz (Grey Matters, 2011, etc.) doesn’t understand the meaning of her recurring nightmares, in which she finds a body—sometimes red-haired, sometimes dark-haired—from which the “precious ichor glistened jewel-like no longer.” She does know that under the watchful eye of Thomas Griddlehaus, chief clerk of her university’s famed Mildon Collection, her dissertation about The Ravages of Umbria is moving along nicely—at least until the arrival of celebrated gothic scholar Melinda Sloane Harquist leads the Mildon to be locked down under the orders of Dean Haitner, who wants to give Melinda sole access to its treasures. Ignoring a warning from Mr. Grey, her dearly departed cat, who comes periodically from the other side to counsel her, as well as the concerns of her current pet, the younger but equally talkative Esmé, Dulcie goes to Dardley House to confront Melinda. She finds her rival sprawled out like the figure in Dulcie’s dream and every bit as dead. Now, Dulcie is a person of interest in the investigation, and her friendship with Detective Rogovoy of the university’s security force doesn’t help much when she’s questioned by the Cambridge police. Adding insult to injury, Dean Haitner slaps her with plagiarism charges. Now that her boyfriend, Chris, is working a night shift and her thesis advisor is giving her wide berth, Dulcie has almost no one to share her sorrows with—except of course her feline friends.

As paranormal talking cat mysteries go, Simon’s latest gives her humans their due and a little bit more.

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-7278-8215-8
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: Severn House
Review Posted Online: Nov. 19th, 2012
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1st, 2012