Wednesday, June 24, 2015


Fifty-four year old Charles Davis is a remarkable novelist who we’ve published before. He’s a British citizen who has lived and worked in the United States, Sudan, Turkey, Ivory Coast, and Spain, before settling down several  years ago in France, across from the English Channel. An adventuresome and curious man he’s also visited and hiked around the Libyan desert, Zanzibar, and Timbuktu, and is fluent in Spanish and French as well.

In 2007 we published
Walk on, Bright Boy, set in Moorish Spain, and in 2010 Standing at the Crossroads, set in Africa. Both novels were highly praised, with Publishers Weekly saying that “his characters are about the awesome transformative powers of storytelling.”

I can only add this: that his historical (and hysterical) and moving novel, Hitler, Mussolini, and Me, debuts a year from now. And, for all the praise his earlier work have gathered, this latest one blasts off from Earth’s gravitational pull and flies into the furthest reaches of our solar system. It’s one of the most original and best books I’ve ever read and that we’ve ever published, and one that should find readers throughout the world. Our publication date in the USA is set for June 2016, a year from now, and we are expecting publishers in many other countries to acquire rights as well. With that, I turn you over to Charles:

“Novelists make stuff up, right? No, wrong. We do make up quite a lot of stuff. But we're also a gang of marauding magpies, pillaging other people's lives for stories, experiences, emotions, and observations, gathering the bright and shiny bits of being then rearranging them into a pattern we hope will be pleasing enough to persuade people we're not wasting their time. It's a tricky trade, tricky in every sense of the word, never more so than when the purloined raw material is a story based on historical events, because no matter how deft the narrative, readers will always end up asking, 'I wonder whether that really happened?' Worse, they can find out where you got it wrong.

“My most recent experience of conjuring fiction from fact was writing a novel about Hitler and Mussolini. I'd long wanted to write about Hitler. He does loom rather large in the history of the last century and anyone who wants to grapple with morality and human nature really has to take him into account sooner or later. But how? There are tens of thousands of books about Hitler and novelists as diverse as Beryl Bainbridge, Ron Hansen, Richard Hughes, Norman Mailer, √Čric-Emmanuel Schmitt, George Steiner and A. N. Wilson have taken a stab at capturing the man with words, not to mention the sickeningly brilliant meta-history devised by Ron Rosenbaum. Quite apart from the quality of the competition, the number of books alone suggest you might be better off doing a little light dusting or mowing the lawn. And even if millions of words hadn't already been churned out on the subject, just how do you grapple with a figure, so large, so improbable, so monstrous?

“Well, to start with, you make him smaller. But we'll come to that in a minute.

“First, the trigger. I wanted to write about Hitler, didn't know how to approach it. Then one evening we watched part of a documentary on the TV about 
Ranuccio Bianchi Bandinelli, an anti-fascist archaeologist and art historian who was obliged to guide Hitler and Mussolini around the monuments and museums of Rome and Florence in 1938. The documentary wasn't all that good and we turned the TV off before the programme finished. But I had my angle, somebody antipathetic to the tyrants compelled to accompany them before their crimes inflated them into monsters. That was key, 'before', in other words at a period when they were just people, powerful and unpleasant people, but otherwise much like any other people, not yet numbered among the main villains of the twentieth century and, in Hitler's case, demonized as one of history's greatest mass murderers.

“The main moral debate about Hitler concerns his place in humanity. The argument is between exceptionalists, who maintain that Hitler was a freak beyond human nature, and naturalists who claim he was within—but at the extreme edge—of human nature. Given all that tosh about the Jewish-Bolshevik-Christian-Communist-Capitalist-Jewish conspiracy, exceptionalists do have a point. Everybody knows that people can be fabulously dim, but come on, this is imbecility on an intergalactic scale, pushing stupidity to superhuman levels. And then there are the crimes themselves, crimes so immense that they must surely be beyond the bounds of a reasonable, reasoning species.

“Unfortunately, I don't think they are. I'm not saying, like some have, that any one of us could have been a Hitler. The fact that we all have negative bits lurking about inside us doesn't mean we're all hankering to commit crimes against humanity. But I do believe most of us would have muddled along well enough in Nazi Germany, participating in or turning a blind eye to the regime's crimes because it made life easier. And I do believe that it is an act of intellectual laziness if not moral cowardice to dismiss Hitler as a mad monster. Doubtless he was a bit mad, doubtless he was a monster, but he was one of us, too, and we can't just quarantine him in some category of inimitable iniquity that doesn't contaminate the rest of us.

“So if the immensity of the man's crimes are not to remove him altogether from the moral universe, we've got make him smaller, reducing him to an entity that can be accommodated within the spectrum of human behaviour. And how do we make things smaller? When events are just too big and scary to be encompassed otherwise, when we can't run away or hide behind the sofa, what do we do? I know what I do. I laugh at them. That's the basic idea behind
Hitler, Mussolini, and Me. A bloke landed with a brace of tyrants, can't get away, so he's laughing at them; or, at least, we're laughing at them through the medium of his observations. The question is what belittling mockery is appropriate for Hitler and Mussolini?

“Looking at the pictures, it struck me that Il Duce bore more than a passing resemblance to a penis. That distended, glistening, glabrous, glandular looking head was all too phallic. And as for the helmets! He reminded me of a cartoon I saw when I was a teenager, a pornographic spoof called
Tarzoon: Shame of the Jungle, which featured foot soldiers that were basically male pudenda topped with a helmet trundling about on their bollocks squirting jizzum at their foes. When I checked, the image was not as close as I remembered, but the idea stuck.

"At the same time, despite the histrionics of his famous balcony speeches, there was something uptight, restricted, faintly costive about Mussolini, so I found myself thinking about him as The Constipated Prick. Hitler, meanwhile, was infamously effusive, wittering on remorselessly both in public and private, so he was clearly a windbag. And as a vegetarian it was not beyond the bounds of possibility to suppose his bowels produced more gas than most. As a consequence, he assumed the counterpoint role of The Flatulent Windbag.

“Next step, research, initially on the Internet, then in books, in the course of which I came across reams of little known facts about the dictators' private lives, including the astonishing discovery that Mussolini did indeed suffer from chronic constipation and Hitler was farting all the time. This was most gratifying. Novelists don't make stuff up? I'd just reinvented the twentieth century!

“Some writers plan every scene of a book before they even begin writing. Personally, I know where I'm starting from and I know where I want to go, but I only have a very hazy notion how I'm going to get there. This is a dangerous technique if you've already got enough notes to piece together a medium sized encyclopedia. When I started writing the first draft, I found myself breathlessly rushing ahead, trying to tell everything all at once. At one point, I was sixty pages into the novel before my principals had even made an appearance. However, I gradually managed to whittle things down and eventually whittled my way into a format that would allow me to tell my story and share some of the bizarre-but-true details I'd unearthed.

“Despite the somewhat cavalier attitude intimated in the first paragraph of this blog, turning famous fact into fiction does entail a degree of responsibility that is not implicit in making stuff up from the things we've cherry-picked from friends, family, and our own lives. The main issue I had was how to present Hitler and Mussolini. The advantage of writing about men like them is that you don't need to dream up or create characters, they're ready made and their fame means you can elicit a latent depository of images, prejudices, ideas and facts already stockpiled in the reader's mind. But you do have to realize the characters in a way that the reader accepts as plausible. You don't need to get every detail right, but you must ensure every detail is credible and coherent with the model.

“Given the aim of cutting the dictators down to size, this was a bit of a challenge, particularly for Hitler. Hitler was highly intelligent, charming, generous, funny, and charismatic. He was fond of children and animals, capable of capricious kindness, and could be a loyal friend. He was also a crashing bore with a vulgar mind and narrow intellect, a man so sure of his own rectitude that he never doubted the justification for any act of cruelty, barbarity, or brutality he deemed necessary. And he farted a lot. In a book aimed at laughter, you have to emphasize the vulgarity and flatulence, which inevitably falsifies the character, turning him into a caricature and reducing the complex human being. But, as I said already, that was my intention, reducing the monster, not so much to something less human, but more so, 'one of us' rather than 'one of them'.

“To compensate for the risk of simplifying, even traducing, complex characters, voice became vital. In
The Eighth Wonder of the World, Leslie Epstein opted to have Mussolini use two modes of speech, PONTIFICATING IN UPPER CASE LETTERS, and speaking in private like a pastiche Chico Marx. Since I'd already reduced my characters to an ambulatory fart and a penis on legs, I couldn't risk indulging myself in more childish humor, and so I used the words of my principals.

“This was a distressing experience, since to extract the observations and statements required for my dialogue, I was obliged to scan through the recorded pronouncements of two men who were nothing if not verbose and nothing if not prone to saying things any sensible person could do without hearing. It was another process of selecting and whittling, above all whittling, trying to get a balance between evoking their blatherings without inspiring readers to slope off and slit their own wrists, which would otherwise have been a very reasonable response to much of what the tyrants said.

“Many of the questions brought up by a fiction based on factual events revolve around veracity. The Afterword in
Hitler, Mussolini, and Me goes into some detail about this. At present, the only unacknowledged falsehood I am aware of in the book (though there are bound to be others, both of fact and interpretation) is the suggestion that the 1933 torching of the Reichstag was the work of the Nazis. This was long thought to be the case, but though the Nazis were quick to exploit the arson, most historians now agree that it was the work of a lone Dutch Communist. As for the rest, it's all true—or very like.

“Fact and fiction blur together, but the balance of probability does not necessarily mean one is more or less true than the other. They provide different realities according to how they are perceived. And the reality I wanted to convey was that Hitler and Mussolini were people. Most people are absurd, even ludicrous. So were Hitler and Mussolini. You don't need to believe everything I tell you. But I do need to tell it in such a way that you are willing to suspend disbelief for the duration. Then you can create a reality of your own. Hopefully, one that both informs and makes you laugh.

is all true, though. Really, trust me. I'm a writer.”

I look forward to your comments both on this blog, by email to me, and to Charles as well at


Wednesday, June 17, 2015

You CAN Judge a Book by its Cover

There’s an old saw that says  ”Don’t judge a book by its cover.” But is it true?  Sometimes “Yes” and sometimes “No.”

When authors have huge followers, putting their names in huge letters on the dust jacket will suffice, even if the rest of the design tells you little of what the book is about.  On the other hand, one can come across a novel by a relatively unknown writer that is brilliantly written, but the cover does it no justice at all. Sending out an advance galley with a vapid cover to book reviewers—who are overwhelmed by submissions—would be far less likely to be singled out  than  if it had a striking design. The same is true for anyone browsing in a bookstore or seeing images on Amazon. This is a very human response. A product enclosed by beautiful wrapping will always be opened before one covered by a brown paper bag. Better yet, if the cover art is exceptional and also reflects what the novel is about, this makes for the perfect marriage.

Back in 1989, I received a flyer from Lon Kirschner and was mesmerized by his book cover designs. As I’ve said in a previous blog, I had my own art background. My beloved father, Mac Shepard, was an artist whose subway sketches are always featured on our catalog covers, while I was an art major at the High School of Music & Art in Manhattan during the late forties and early fifties. I was dazzled by his work, and Lon’s been designing covers for us for over 25 years. What a joy it is to both work with him and see what he  comes up with. Any publisher, large or small, looking for a master cover designer would do well to get in touch with him by email. With that, I turn you over to Lon directly.

“Some designers claim that the act of creating is a little like giving birth. There are designs that come rather easily and some are difficult and painful. Of course, being male I have never actually given birth, but I have heard the screams.

I’ve written about my thought process before so I thought it would be interesting to pick a few examples of covers I have worked on for The Permanent Press and discuss the degree of difficulty each one presented. I have found there to be three types of projects.

Number 1: The cover that practically designs itself. These come along less frequently than most.

Number 2: The idea comes quickly but the visual takes a little pushing and pulling to make everything work together.

Number 3: The difficult birth. I have just read the last page of the manuscript and I don’t have a clue how to present the story or what imagery will convey the essence of the book. When this is the case I usually put the project aside and let the story roll around in my head for a while. I then start looking at images of things that seemed to stand out from the book. This can be anything at all. I call it visual free association. It has always worked but can be a long and sometimes frustrating process with false starts and a bit of aggravation. It is also the main reason I try to read the entire manuscript if it is available. It is much harder to solve a problem with less information, such as a short description from the author or a publisher's brief. I often find that my idea comes from some description that is buried in the manuscript, easily missed if the entire story isn’t available.

My main objective has always been to design a cover that has the attitude of the book. Not an illustration of the story.

Number 1. The Cover Designs Itself.
A Movable Famine

This book was a joy. Quirky, funny with a totally engaging main character. I knew right away this would be a portrait of him.
I rarely show a character. I don’t want to impose my idea of what someone looks like on a cover because what I love about reading is that everyone sees it differently. We are all reading the same script but watching a slightly different movie on the screen. So here is the problem. How do you show someone without showing them? The answer was the first line of the manuscript. To me it was the defining line of the book and set the tone. When I read it, I knew it was the character. That opening line became his portrait. With the addition of the retro looking suit, tie and a splash of notepad yellow I had a cover, evocative of a time when poetry was written out in long hand or typed out on the black and white keys of a battered Smith Corona.

Number 2. Almost There.
The Three-Nine Line

I have done all of David Freed’s Cordell Logan mystery titles. This one was different. The other covers in the series always featured some type of graphic that involved the hero’s plane, a beat up Cessna coupled with some type of graphic mystery element. This title called for something different. The story is set in the present day, but the memories and experiences of American soldiers who were prisoners during The Vietnam War is at the core of the book. It is a dark tale set in an exotic land. David had sent me some images of the setting of the book. One of these was of The Huc Bridge of Hoan Kiem Lake. I knew this was going to be the cover. I researched images and found one that had the right amount of ominous mystery. With some color manipulation and addition of background to make it fit my format, it became a strong cover image but I felt it needed something. I tried adding additional elements to tie it into the war. These proved unsuccessful and the cover was stripped down to the foreboding bridge image and title. Everyone loved the image but agreed that something was needed to tie it all together. After staring at the cover, I saw it. This was a story of prisoners of war. I needed to convey that so I underscored the title with barbed wire. That was the missing element. Although the final cover took a fair amount of work, the basic imagery was there from the very beginning, it just needed a push in the right direction.

Number 3. What Do I Do With This?
Grendel’s Game

I have chosen another mystery for this category. This was a tough solve and one that I think proved to be very successful. An eerie story with a fair amount of brutality, it takes place in Sweden with complex and well developed characters. It is really a psychological thriller. A gory murder cover would have done this book a disservice.

Without giving too much away, I began the free association of looking at images. After a while, one image kept coming back to me. The meat hook. Let me stop here and say that this was not what I would call a pleasant visual experience. If you don’t believe me, Google 'meat hook' and see what comes up. It was because of that fact that I knew I had to turn down the gross factor and turn up the creep factor.

The solution was to use the hooks to literally hang the title on, with the addition of a distressed background environment to give the title a home. The effect was a cover that let you know this was a chilling book and it was done without spilling one drop of blood!

Although all three of these examples are very different in the way they were solved, they all have one thing in common. Each cover is built on a concept. We live in an age where it is possible to do anything graphically. But if the concept isn’t sound, then all of the technology isn’t worth much. The first part of my job is to conceptualize. The second part is to make that concept come to life.

To see more of my covers please visit You can also contact me at”

COMING UP NEXT WEEK: Charles Davis will talk about the challenges of writing Hitler, Mussolini and Me, a historically accurate and satirical novel that takes place in Rome in 1938, which we will be publishing next June.

I look forward to your comments and also hearing back from you by email.


Wednesday, June 10, 2015


I’m a radio guy myself. Each morning, after waking up, I turn on WSHU National Public Radio while doing stretches and some weights. Here on the East End of Long Island, Connecticut Public Radio is as accessible as any local station. Driving around town doing errands, I listen to this same station. When I’m in my office I listen to the streaming sounds of, the jazz station out of Seattle/Tacoma—for my money the very best jazz station in the universe—while working on my computer. And here’s another perk: I’ll often hear Joan Baum on WSHU doing one of her extraordinary reviews.

Enough about me. Time for some background that Joan offers about herself:

“Ph.D. from Columbia, dissertation area: English Romantic poets. Did my thesis under the direction of Lionel Trilling.  B.A. from Queens College, CUNY. Graduate of the High School of Music & Art, like Marty, the Master-blogger.  I write book and art reviews and articles for Dan's Paper. Besides reviewing books for WSHU, I also write  reviews for Hadassah Magazine and sing tenor in the Choral Society of the Hamptons,  where ‘t’ and ‘d’ sounds also give trouble.”

Now on to the meat and potatoes of her blog:

“A long time ago in a fallacy far away (that one could make a living as a freelancer), I was asked if I’d be interested in doing science book reviews for NPR, courtesy of  a two-year National Science Foundation grant. Science?  What did I know?  Exactly so, came the reply. We want someone who’s not a specialist to look at these subjects for a general audience. I was thrilled, challenged, and intimidated. Little did I know that two minutes of air time could be used up fast just reciting a book title, particularly if the work under review came out of the polysyllabic field of chemistry, or when the author was listed as the head of an et al. team. But the experience was fun, and doing radio reviews sharpened my writing skills. The unexpected dividend was that radio and print supported one another. Radio made me more conversational than academic, and I learned to not always dismiss in print what worked well on the air: repetition of key words, overall short sentences. Other lessons were to come.

“When the NSF grant was up, I was picked up (ah, someone was listening) as a general book reviewer for Christian Science’s Monitor Radio, and it was there that my reliance on Roget’s became a happy addiction, for at the time the editors made it clear that certain words were to be avoided for taboo reference. Sorry, but you can’t have someone smoking, I was told, when I was reviewing the biography of a famous man who did smoke, or mention someone being fired by way of receiving ‘a pink slip’ as it was too suggestive of a negligee. As for a line about a certain medical procedure in regard to a major illness, I was asked to please see if the person couldn’t just fall down a flight of stairs. And then get therapy. There were also words to be avoided for reasons of sound and clarity: words that ended in ‘t’ or ‘d’; familiar expressions in another language that I’d lose time explaining; puns that depended on visual as well as an auditory sense. I always felt that a good book review would give an example of an author’s style, but what to choose as representative?  Print allows, radio restricts. Concision would rule. I soon discovered that the advantages of doing both print and radio at the same time were reciprocal: radio can enhance the sense of voice and rhythm in print, and print narratives help direct the logical structure of an on-air review.

“Commercial radio book reviews are rare—as opposed to mass media interviews, which tend to concentrate on author intention rather than book evaluation based on timeliness and significance. But commercial reviews tend to follow celebrities and even then typically run for no more than 50 seconds. My own radio experience has reminded me that there’s nothing wrong with entertainment as a means to inform and persuade. Once upon a time my dissertation advisor pressed me with a rarely heard question: ‘Wouldn’t you like someone other than your mother to read this?’ Well, my mother’s no longer around, but knowing there’s an on/off button out there does the job.”

I hope you will comment on Joan’s blog both on this website as well as emailing her directly at

COMING NEXT WEEK: Lon Kirschner, an exceptional designer, will be posting his blog: You Can Judge A Book By Its Cover, which will include some exciting visuals.


Wednesday, June 3, 2015


This year Crimespree Magazine—a bimonthly publication that covers all styles and aspects of mystery writing—won the Raven Award. The Mystery Writers of America announcement stated that "The magazine is devoted to promoting writers who are not (yet) household names," Jon Jordan concurs. "If I have a choice between a debut author or somebody with their second book out, or the latest Michael Connelly, the truth is Michael doesn't need our help." 

The Jordans ship about 2,000 copies of each issue, to subscribers in about eight countries, including Lithuania, Japan and Brazil. That may seem like a small number, but Jon notes the typical Crimespree reader buys "at least 20 or more books a year in hardcover." 

Fiscally speaking, Crimespree breaks even, or occasionally shows a slight profit. Both Jon and Ruth have day jobs. "Truthfully, anybody who gets into any aspect of the (book) business only to make money is crazy," Jon said, a statement that I, as a publisher, can readily confirm. As did Robert Rosenfeld, who along with his wife Barbara Peters and their daughter started The Poisoned Pen Press 18 years ago. When I saw Robert at the Frankfurt Book Fair last year he said, with a broad smile, “It’s the least expensive hobby a man can have.” If a publisher can’t be in it for the love of discovering and sharing good books, I think one might just as soon be a shoe salesman—surely a more profitable profession. With that, I turn this blog over to Jon:

“I’ve been a reader for as long as I can remember. My mother was a voracious reader and there were always books around. My folks were cool with us reading whatever we wanted and so I picked up a lot of my mother’s books. By the time I was eleven I was reading Ed McBain, Gregory McDonald’s Fletch books, Clive Cussler, and David Morrell. Often I would blow off homework to read fiction. I actually got sent to the principal’s office a few time because teachers thought I shouldn’t have the books I did, but of course Mom set them straight.  These reading habits stayed with me: in college I would blow off classes in favor of finishing books.

“In the mid-nineties I discovered a store here in Milwaukee called Mystery One (owned by Richard Katz) that carried nothing but mysteries and thrillers. I was in heaven. I started going to a few signings and spent more time at the store. It was also around this time that I got pulled over for drunk driving while in Illinois.  I quit drinking in 1996, when I was 33 years old, and while that is a whole other story, part of what happened was I stopped sleeping. Finding myself in need of things to fill my time I started reading more, up to ten or twelve books a week.  I also started spending a lot of time at the book store.  I would show up every Saturday morning and Richard and I would watch Adventures of Brisco County Jr together. I helped out in the store, went to every signing. Soon I was invited to go to dinner after signings and I spent more time with the authors coming to town. And my library grew, and I built more and more shelves in my place.

“In 1996 I had also discovered the internet and soon found myself on a newsgroup called rec.arts.mystery filled with people talking about the books I loved. This was awesome because on nights I was awake until 4 in the morning there was always someone on line to talk to. In early 1999, discussion started about something called Bouchercon and it was coming to Milwaukee. After a little investigation I knew I had to go. I ended up helping Richard as Mystery One had a booth at the convention. I had four full days surrounded by authors and book sellers and fans of the genre. One thing that became very clear to me was that I was not part of a small group of people obsessed with reading these books of suspense and murder.  By the end of the weekend I had decided I needed to get more involved. 

“I also met Ruth Flannery, who a year later would be Ruth Jordan.

“By the spring of 2000 I was dating Ruth and we were planning to get married. I was doing interviews of authors for two websites and writing book reviews. This went on for a while after Ruth and I wed, with both of us spending a lot of time on the computer doing book related things.  I had found something that I loved and a group of other people who loved it as well.   Reading about Matt Scudder and Dave Robicheaux helped me through the first year of getting sober, as the mystery community soon took care of my problem with free time.

“At the Las Vegas Bouchercon Richard and I debuted Interrogations, a book of my interviews. We sold some copies and had fun with it, but also Ruth and I set up a breakfast meeting that would change our lives.  We sat with my sister Jennifer, Jeremy Lynch, Ali Karim, Sarah Weinman, Mary Reagan and Simon Kernick and filled them in on this idea we had for a magazine we wanted to publish. By June of 2004 we shipped the first issue of Crimespree. There have been a few late issues, but we keep on plugging away. We’re not getting rich but the magazine has always managed to pay for itself.  There are late nights when I’m finishing layout and I’m at the desk at three in the morning wondering what the Hell were we thinking. But then we get a letter from a first time author who sees a review in Crimespree and tells us how happy that made them. Or a letter from a subscriber who said they went and bought eight books because they read about them in Crimespree and they loved them all. And that’s why we do it: sharing our love of the mystery genre.

“The mystery genre has always been a part of my life and now it’s a huge part. Almost everyone we hang out with reads mystery. Discussions, more often than not, end up being about books or publishing or movies based on books or some aspect of the genre. Our vacations seem to be involved somehow, visiting a friend we know because of the genre or going to a convention. We have calendars with book release dates and we set schedules around signing events. Through it all the one thing that keeps us doing this is our love of the genre and the people in the community. Over the years we’ve won a few Anthony Awards which was awesome since we met at Bouchercon. 

“This spring we were honored at the Edgar Awards with The Raven Award which is a special award given for outstanding achievement in the mystery field outside the realm of creative writing. It was a real honor to stand on that stage where so many of our favorite writers have been. The whole night was magical and the funny thing is that we were getting honored for what I consider being nothing more than good friends: promoting the genre and trying to get more people to read it, because it’s who we are and what we do.” 

COMING NEXT WEEK: National Public Radio critic Joan Baum talks about the unexpected rewards of radio reviewing,