Monday, June 09, 2014

@The Poisoned Pen with Will Thomas and Alex Grecian!

The end of yet another month found Denis and me in the Jeep and headed-- you get three guesses and the first two don't count-- to our favorite bookstore, The Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale, Arizona. I was really looking forward to this event because it was a twofer: two authors who both write excellent mystery series set in Victorian England. Which two, you might ask? Will Thomas who writes about Barker and Llewelyn, two private enquiry agents in London, and Alex Grecian, creator of the Murder Squad novels. Any lover of Victorian mysteries was going to have fun that evening!

When we arrived, I took a look at the number of seats that had been set up for the event. Didn't look like enough to me, and by this time maybe I was something of an expert. We would see. Since people were already eyeballing the chairs, I scurried over to claim our two before I set off on my mission, which was to find a copy of The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths by Harry Bingham. Bingham had responded to an email of mine, telling me that his publisher had decided to release the third book in his excellent series in the US in eBook format only. I knew that if there was one place I could find a UK physical copy, it was The Poisoned Pen. Why? Because it's that kind of bookstore, and... I happened to know that owner Barbara Peters loves Harry Bingham's Fiona Griffiths novels, too. After a successful search, I brought my purchase back to my seat and proceeded to read a few pages of my book.

Jack the Ripper will never die...

L to R: Barbara Peters, Will Thomas, Alex Grecian

By the time the event started, the staff did have to set up more chairs, and there were two familiar faces in the audience with Denis and me: fellow mystery lover Virginia, and author Donis Casey, who was there to cheer on fellow Oklahoman Will Thomas.

Barbara Peters began the evening by telling us that both authors had dealt with Jack the Ripper: Alex Grecian in his latest Murder Squad book, The Devil's Workshop, and Will Thomas, in the Barker and Llewelyn novel he's currently working on. "Will, your books remind me of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin in the series of books written by Rex Stout. You're writing a book featuring Jack the Ripper, Alex has already written one about Jack the Ripper, and now I've learned that Stephen Hunter will have a Jack the Ripper book out next year. I don't think Jack will ever die!"

Alex Grecian, suffering from a miserable cold, said, "The reason for that is that the Ripper case has never been solved. It's just too much fun to speculate on what might have happened."

Peters added, "This doesn't really have anything to do with what we're talking about, but I've always loved the fact that one of the UK's largest crime databases is called H.O.L.M.E.S. It must've taken them a while to come up with that acronym." All of us in the room agreed, and since none of us could remember exactly what the acronym stood for, naturally I came home and looked it up: Home Office Large Major Enquiry System.

Alex Grecian
When asked about his Murder Squad series, Alex Grecian joked, "The Black Country [book #2] is the closest to a cozy that I can get. I was fascinated by the fact that Jack the Ripper evidently stopped killing. Serial killers just don't stop because of the compulsions that drive them. So I had my Jack get caught by a secret society."

Will Thomas joined in the Ripper talk by saying that Anderson, Swanson and McNaughton all said they'd caught the Ripper. In the book he's working on now, Barker and Llewelyn are the only two fictional characters in the book, so it's important that everything has to be spot on.

Barbara looked at Will and said, "I hear you have a ruthless editor, too." Thomas nodded in agreement, but then went on to say that he really appreciated the relationship he has with his editor.

Two for the Team

Then Peters asked another question of the two writers: "Why do both of you have teams instead of just one detective?"

Will Thomas
For Will Thomas, his books are the coming of age story of Thomas Llewelyn. "It's similar to The Virginian in which a tenderfoot comes to Wyoming and learns about life on a ranch," Thomas said. "When I wrote my first book, Anne Perry and Elizabeth Peters were writing their series set in the Victorian era, but I still needed my buckets of blood." I'm sure I'm not the only one who laughed while thinking that there isn't all that much blood in Thomas's books.

Alex Grecian told us he created a team because he wanted a balance between his characters-- between their backgrounds, the way they think, and the way they approach investigations. "And I'm telling you all now, I reserve the right to kill any of my characters at any time!"  Sounds like he has something planned for us, doesn't it?

Having mentioned Rex Stout earlier, the conversation turned back to him. Thomas reminded us all that Stout was the founder of the Baker Street Irregulars. Barbara Peters added, "Stout-- and other writers-- can have long apprenticeships before they hit on their great idea. Stout wrote something like forty books before his first Nero Wolfe novel. A lot of talented writers got their starts writing pulp fiction, and I think self-publishing has now become what used to be the pulps."

Harry Bosch at the Yard?

Thomas said, "When I sent out my very first book [Some Danger Involved], I got a call. I was astounded. I never thought it would sell." His new book, Fatal Enquiry, brings back a character introduced in that first book, Sebastian Nightwine. Thomas always knew that Nightwine would make another appearance. He also borrowed a couple of ideas from Nero Wolfe for the story. His two characters, Barker and Llewelyn, have always shown a fascination with the River Thames; they're always looking down at it. "Not any more," Thomas said with a smile. "This time I'm throwing them in it!"

Turning to Grecian, Barbara Peters remarked, "Your book is a detective story, too, but it's written in a thriller format. It's a bit like Harry Bosch at the Yard."

Grecian laughed and agreed. "I have one character who doesn't recognize any constraints whatsoever. My book is more of a thriller; there's no forensics, no procedures." Looking at Will Thomas, Alex remarked, "Your books are happier than mine." Thomas laughed and quipped, "And my characters may get a good meal once in a while!" Thomas then looked out at us and said, "Alex's books are dystopic, a bit like steampunk. Anyone who likes steampunk or dystopic novels should read Alex Grecian."

"There are consequences."

Available Now!
Grecian commented that the Sherlock Holmes movies starring Robert Downey, Jr. are steampunk. "There's been a backlash against sanitized violence, and people now want it shown that there are consequences to violence."

Day and Hammersmith, Grecian's two characters, were sent out of London in The Black Country on purpose to cement their friendship before the "bad business" of The Devil's Workshop so they would trust each other. "A lot of the bureaucracy in the police force started in Victorian times," Grecian said.

Will Thomas's grandfather left the coal mines of Scotland for the coal mines in Pennsylvania. He walked four miles to the mine and back again everyday. It was a good thing to do; Will's grandfather lived well into his eighties-- those long walks cleared out his lungs.

Alex Grecian wrote three contemporary police novels that he couldn't sell. With the popularity of his Murder Squad books, that may change. "I would like to write two books a year-- one contemporary, one Victorian," he said. 

"I love the Victorian era," Will Thomas said. "I have a series set in colonial Hawaii that I want to work on. I'd been forming ideas and scenes in my head, but hadn't put one word on paper yet when I dreamed that the main character appeared to ask me to bail another character out of jail."

"I have fun with the first person narrative in my books," Thomas went on to say. When asked about his background, Thomas told us that he's spent the past twenty years as a research librarian. ("Research is my life!") He's spoken at the American Library Association and has written for Library Journal. "When I was seventeen, I joined a Sherlock Holmes club. I had so much energy that they made me the club book reviewer. I finally burned out of that and became a Holmes purist. I was going to write the Sherlock Holmes novel but decided I couldn't. Another interest of mine is martial arts. I let it be known that I needed help with the details in a scene using martial arts in Some Danger Involved, and that's how I was contacted by Tony Wolfe, the fight coordinator for the Lord of the Ring films."

Available Now!
At this point Barbara Peters got Thomas to say that he'd demonstrate some martial arts during his next appearance at the bookstore.

Both Grecian and Thomas agreed that the only Sherlock Holmes novels they like are the ones written by Nicholas Meyer (The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, The West End Horror, and The Canary Trainer). "The Seven-Per-Cent Solution rocked my world!" Will Thomas exclaimed.

The Party's Almost Over

When Peters asked the authors about how they were portraying Jack the Ripper, Alex Grecian told us that he made his own Ripper, avoiding all the historical speculation and using only the name. On the other hand, Will Thomas is sticking with his research and using what he learns about the actual Jack the Ripper case. It was right about here that Patricia Cornwell's book Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper, Case Closed was mentioned. None of the three at the front of the room cared for that book.

In a few questions from the audience at the end of the event, Will Thomas was asked a bit more about his background. "I have a nephew who is a professional bagpiper. My family was severely Scottish. Terminally Scottish. I was sent to a speech therapist as a child because my teacher thought I had an impediment. I didn't. I grew up in a household where everyone had thick Scottish accents."

Asked about his early influences, Alex Grecian mentioned children's literature. "There's a darkness in British children's literature that pulled me right in. A child can respond to that darkness as long as it's safe. So... British children's lit and that orange blood in the old Hammer horror films!"

Harvest Man will be Grecian's next Murder Squad book. It takes up the cliffhanger at the end of The Devil's Workshop and will end in an even bigger one. Alex knows which Murder Squad book will mark the final appearance of Inspector Walter Day-- but that doesn't mean the series will end. Remember what he said at the beginning of the evening? (Didn't know there was going to be a pop quiz, did you?)

Was the evening as much fun as I'd anticipated? You bet-- although I was sorry to see Alex Grecian feeling so miserable. The only dark spot on the night was walking out of The Poisoned Pen and realizing that I'm caught up on both authors' series and will have to wait until next year for the newest installments. Poor pitiful me!


  1. Cathy - I like that Victorian setting. Such a rich and deep context for a mystery series, I think. And those two different perspectives on it - fascinating!!

    1. Exactly-- different perspectives, yet both are excellent!

  2. What an interesting event. Wish they were streamed or taped and posted online. There is always good discussion with authors who know how to connect with their readers in person, not only on the page.

    1. At the time of this event, they were still waiting on the parts to repair their video equipment. Now they're back up and running, and you can see most of their events on the Poisoned Pen channel at


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