by Cynthia Chow
This week we have a review & giveaway of A Cast of Vultures by Judith Flanders, along with an interesting interview with Judith. Details at the end of this post on how to enter to win a copy of A Cast of Vultures. We also have a link to order it from Amazon, and from an indie bookstore where a portion goes to help support KRL.
A Cast of Vultures: Sam Clair series by Judith Flanders
Review by Cynthia Chow
The morning after a book launch where alcohol was the only real requirement, London book editor Samantha Clair was still recovering as she began her Saturday morning errand-running and marketing. As the go-between for her reclusive neighbor and another gardener, Sam is unprepared to resist the plea from Viv to check on her own missing upstairs neighbor. Dennis Harefield has only been missing for several days, but senior Viv is insistent that the middle-aged man would have notified her before voluntarily taking a trip. The police are unconcerned, and his case falls even further off their list of priorities when a fire that forces out squatters breaks out in an abandoned building. When a body is discovered and drugs found in Harefield’s apartment, the police have an easy answer and quickly make arrests.
Sam has her own concerns as Timmons & Ross undergoes the “Great Reorganisation Battle,” yet another restructuring with the mission of “fixing” their editing and publishing divisions. The editors have reason to be wary of the management consultants, who are skilled at corporate-speak but clueless about the actual process of book-editing. Since Sam has seen more than her share of redundant reorganizations, she decides to focus on investigating whether Harefield was truly involved in the fire, and if a possible development project could have played a role. Sam’s boyfriend Inspector Jake Field may resignedly live with the chaos of her life, but they have decidedly different opinions on the legality of squatters and just how much she should be involved in police matters.
This third in the San Clair series is at its best when it focuses on the minutia of book publishing. The bafflement of consultants in the face of their efforts to measure and profitize art is a delight, as is the editors’ exasperation. Readers have the pleasure of witnessing how, as much as the editors champion and finely hone the books, most of their time is spent coddling and coaxing their authors in the public arena. What further makes this novel so enjoyable is the acerbic and sardonic observations of Sam, whose sharp witticisms and humor isn’t above a pun or two. Sam’s famous solicitor mother swoops in to provide unasked for, but often much needed, advice, often forcing Sam to act more maturely than she would prefer. The mystery plot is strong and well-crafted, but this novel is never more entertaining than when it satirizes the convoluted and often absurd world of publishing.
Interview with Judith Flanders:
KRL: How long have you been writing?
Judith: I started writing in the late 1990s, and my first book, the biography of four Victorian women in Britain, was published in 2001. I wrote (and still write) history as my ‘real’ job; the fiction is a fun extra.
Judith: My first novel was published in 2014 with the title Writers’ Block. The book is set in a publishing company, and I thought the original title was funny, but the U.S. publisher HATED it. I would have argued, but we had found in England that the apostrophe was creating havoc with search engines; it was Writers’ Block, or Writer’s Block, or Writers Block, and depending on what you typed in, you either found the book or you didn’t. That was the clincher for me, so I agreed to the change it to A Murder of Magpies. The narrator in the book, a middle-aged female editor, would have agreed too; she would have led the charge to have the title changed. Instead, one of her authors goes missing, and she charges off to rescue him. And, as TV Guide says, hilarity ensues.
KRL: When did your first novel come out? What was it called? Can you tell us a little about it?
KRL: Have you always written mysteries/suspense? If not what else have you written?
Judith: As I said, I am primarily a writer of history; nineteenth-century social history (daily life) is my thing for the most part. Inside the Victorian Home looks at how Victorian homes were run—how they did laundry, and had baths without running water, things like that. The Invention of Murder is about the love of true crime stories in the 19th century, and how the Victorians turned them into entertainment—plays, novels, even puppet shows about murderers.
KRL: What brought you to choose the setting and characters in your latest book/series? Please tell us a little about the setting and main character for your most recent book.
Judith: Well, the narrator of the crime series, Sam Clair, works in London at a small publishing house, and her first outing involved one of her authors. The next one concerned an old friend who runs an art gallery and comes in one morning to find a dead body. (Don’t you just hate when that happens?) In the new one, she’s closer to home. I’m interested in how, even when we live in enormous cities like London, we really all live in small villages. I know a lot about my neighbours, and (rather worryingly) I’m sure they know a lot about me. I wanted to write about those networks we build up.
KRL: Do you write to entertain or is there something more you want the readers to take away from your work?
Judith: My history books have all the ‘take-away’; the crime fiction is pure escapism (and the odd nasty joke about publishers). I figure if I can make you forget that your toddler just finger-painted the dog with egg, at least for a while, then I’ve done my job.
KRL: Do you have a schedule for your writing or just write whenever you can?
Judith: Writing is my job: I’m either researching in a library, or writing, between eight and ten hours a day, just like everyone else with a job.
KRL: Do you outline? If not, do you have some other interesting way that you keep track of what’s going on, or what needs to happen in your book when you are writing it?
Judith: I do make outlines and plans for my fiction. Of course, compared to the non-fiction, these are brief, a couple of pages (which later get all scribbled up, as I try to remember what age everyone should be, or what day they went to the supermarket). Non-fiction consumes whole forests of paper—notes, references, and endless, endless chronologies. My most recent book (to be published this autumn), a history of Christmas, had a 49-page chronology.
KRL: If you had your ideal, what time of day would you prefer to write?
Judith: I’m a morning person: I’m at my desk by seven or so to do paperwork (or email interviews!), and with luck, I’m working on a book by 8.30.
KRL: Did you find it difficult to get published in the beginning?
Judith: I was very fortunate. I’d been an editor for nearly 20 years by the time I decided to write, so I knew how to go about it, and who to approach. Even so, while I sold my non-fiction right away, it took more than a dozen years to find a publisher for the crime fiction.
KRL: Do you have a great rejection/critique or acceptance story you’d like to share?
Judith: Well, my first agent told me ‘Don’t give up the day job.’ He wasn’t being nasty, just reminding me of the brute reality of how hard it is to make a living at writing, even if you’re published, and, to the outside world, published successfully.
KRL: Most interesting book signing story—in a bookstore or other venue?
Judith: My favourite was at the Edinburgh Festival, an enormous literary festival held in Scotland every summer. I had just finished doing a signing for my book Inside the Victorian Home, and was getting ready to leave when this huge man wearing leather, and with tattoos, rushed in. The place you sign has half a dozen desks, for half a dozen authors, so I made a fast assessment—leathers, tattoos, big butch guy, so he wasn’t there for me. The next thing I know, he’s standing by my desk, saying, ‘Am I too late? I just found out you were here, and I rushed over: I read all about you in Good Housekeeping.’
KRL: Writing heroes?
Judith: Probably William Trevor. His writing is so pure, so distilled, on a line-by-line basis, and yet with almost no seeming effects, he catches you up and makes you really care about his characters and their fates.
KRL: What kind of research do you do?
Judith: For fiction, it’s the fun kind. I left publishing nearly 20 years ago now, and so things have changed a lot. I am therefore forced—forced, I tell you—to have lunch, dinner, and drinks with my friends still in the business and listen to them gossip and complain about work, while I make mental notes. I rely on friends for the criminal side too (not that they’re criminals, I quickly add): a lawyer friend told me how people laundered money (although, oddly, he suggested I remove the dedication: ‘To XXX, who taught me everything I know about money-laundering’); my wonderful friend David Morrell, the creator of Rambo, helps me with firearms. (Actually, he and I do a knowledge-swap: his new series is set in 19th-century England, so I tell him how someone in the 19th century would address a vicar, or whatever.) But mostly, since Sam is a publisher, she doesn’t know much more than I do. Ignorance can be bliss.
KRL: How fun! What do you read?
Judith: Almost everything. The back of a cereal box, if that’s all that’s around. When I’m working on a history book, it’s usually a lot of books on that subject, although when I’m writing crime-fiction I try and stay away from contemporary crime. When I’m not, I love golden age crime—1920s, 30s and 40s stuff, those old green Penguins.
KRL: Favorite TV or movies?
Judith: One of the joys of living in London is its live theatre—I go to see plays a lot, and also dance, which is a big thing for me. And I love our National Film Theatre, where they schedule movie seasons—so it’s Rita Hayworth week, or Japanese samurai movie month or whatever.
KRL: What is something people would be surprised to know about you?
Judith: That I’m not English. I live in London, and I write British history, so it’s a natural assumption. In fact, I’m Canadian.
KRL: Website? Twitter? Facebook?
To enter to win and ARC copy of A Cast of Vultures, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “vultures,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen March 11, 2017. U.S. residents only. If entering via email please include your mailing address, and if via comment please include your email address.
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & short stories in our mystery section.
Click on this link to purchase this book & a portion goes to help support KRL & an indie bookstore Mysterious Galaxy:
You can use this link to purchase the book on Amazon. If you have ad blocker on you may not see the link:
Disclosure: This post contains links to an affiliate program, for which we receive a few cents if you make purchases. KRL also receives free copies of most of the books that it reviews, that are provided in exchange for an honest review of the book.