Xmas Comes Early at Mysterious Bookshop

Last night Rob Schwimmer and I went to see a discussion with celebrated British espionage authors Charles Cumming and Mick Herron at Mysterious Bookshop.

I adore Herron and shamelessly seized my chance for a photo.

Both authors were charismatic, witty, and generous in conversation. They spoke of the long shadow of John Le Carré and discussed the realities of writing spy fiction set in the current day.

I had carefully prepared a question. In Dolphin Junction, Herron takes quite a bit of time to make fun of the phrase “A shot rang out.” Was there was a further story there? Yes, it was a reference to Kingley Amis, who had joked, “If a novel doesn’t begin with ‘A shot rang out,’ I don’t want to read it.” 

Cumming has broken through to a larger American audience with his new series beginning with the straightforwardly engaging BOX 88. To my delight, Cumming got the legendary owner of the Mysterious Bookshop, Otto Penzler, to spontaneously recite the opening sentence of James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss from memory:

“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.”

Herron responded by recalling the first sentences of a book I didn’t know, Uncivil Seasons by Michael Malone:

“Two things don’t happen very often in Hillston, North Carolina. We don’t get much snow and hardly ever murder each other.”

The moderator, Tom Wickersham, chimed in with praise for the Harpur & Iles series by Bill James. Herron said he loved those books as well, and agreed with Wickersham that Harpur & Iles share something with Herron’s own Slough House crew. H’mm! I’ve added Malone and James to the TBR pile.

(Sadly Malone passed away just this past August. Although born in 1929, James is still with us, and published the 35th installment of the Harpur & Iles series at the age of 90. I’ve actually read James’s much earlier excellent book on Anthony Powell, published under his real name James Tucker.)

In the view of a general audience, movies and TV outshine books. Both authors are connected with multi-episode TV projects: Herron with the acclaimed Slow Horses, now going into a second season, and Cumming is scripting an upcoming production of the famous Frederick Forsyth book The Day of the Jackal.

When asked what they snack on during the day while writing, Herron said he liked Kit Kats, while Cumming favored banana chips. I hadn’t tried a Kit Kat in ages, and on the walk home it proved to be just the thing.

Brand new New Yorker profile of Mick Herron by Jill Lepore.

Thoughtful NPR piece on Charles Cumming by Madhulika Sikka

Also at the Mysterious event was Jeff Quest, who runs the Herron-centric podcast Barbican Station. (Jeff also interviewed me about Rex Stout for Like the Wolfe.)