by Cynthia Chow
This week we have a review and giveaway of The Hammett Hex by Victoria Abbott, and a fun interview with with Victoria (aka Mary Jane Maffini and her artist and photographer daughter, Victoria Maffini). Details at the end of this post on how to enter to win a copy of The Hammett Hex. We also have a link to order it from Amazon, and from an indie bookstore where a portion goes to help support KRL.
The Hammett Hex: A Book Collector Mystery By Victoria Abbott
Review by Cynthia Chow
Hired by Harrison Falls, New York’s imperious Vera Van Alst, to locate and acquire valuable first editions of Golden Age of Detection mysteries, Jordan Bingham has spent the last two years successfully tracking down priceless tomes by Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, and Nero Wolfe. It’s also been completely without time off for a vacation, and only through Vera’s quest for an autographed copy of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest does Jordan squeak out a week in the author’s San Francisco hometown. Motivating Jordan’s uncharacteristic request and even willingness to sacrifice a salary is Officer Tyler ‘Smiley’ Dekker, whose own obsession with Dashiell Hammett has him delightedly funding the trip to sites made famous by Sam Spade. Keeping in line with his detective hero, Smiley does have an ulterior motive: introduce Jordan to the grandmother he has had virtually no contact with for the past twenty years.
Jordan had thought that she was the shady half of their new couplehood, as she was the first in her family to pursue a legal profession (much to her uncles’ disappointment). Suddenly, she and Smiley find themselves the target of a near hit-and-run, a shove from a cable car, a hotel break-in, and a home invasion. It all seems to circle back to Smiley’s grandmother in Pacific Heights, despite San Francisco also being the home of Jordan’s legendary Uncle Seamus, the source of Kelly aphorisms and whose last great theft is still shrouded in secrecy.
Although Jordan considers herself a fan of the more genteel classical mysteries, she feels trapped in Hammett’s ominous and shady world, where no one is to be trusted and even the nicest old ladies may be sinister. Jordan is riddled with guilt over hiding a secret from Smiley, especially as she grows surprisingly protective of his grandmother. Adept at picking locks, crafting DIY instant disguises, and quick with the sleight-of-hand, Jordan finds that the skills she learned from her larcenous uncles will prove essential as she engages in Continental Op-worthy detecting.
Once again the mother-daughter writing team of Mary Jane and Victoria Maffini combine forces to create a hilariously entertaining novel of capers and suspense. Despite Jordan’s dream of graduate school and degree in Victorian literature, the white sheep of her beloved family is extraordinarily skilled at pulling off heists. What will be a challenge is her relationship with Tyler, who maintains his Smiley-ness even as he moved and changed jobs almost entirely for her. As comforting as disturbing is that Gram has her own bizarre version Harrison Falls food—pushing cook extraordinaire Signora Panetone, as well as pug Asta who is just as adorable as Walter the Pug. Mystery fans will appreciate the tribute to the author who popularized the noir novel, in addition to enjoying the clever banter and joyful exploits of its struggling but optimistic heroine.
Interview With Victoria Abbott:
KRL: How long have you both been writing?
Victoria: You probably know that the shadowy figure known as Victoria Abbott is a collaboration between mystery writer Mary Jane Maffini and her artist and photographer daughter, Victoria Maffini.
MJ has been writing since the 1990s. Her first Camilla MacPhee mystery, Speak Ill of the Dead, came out in 1999 and Victoria began writing short stories in the late nineties. She has short stories published in the anthologies Fit to Die (Dundurn), and Dead in the Water, (Dundurn).
KRL: Why did you decide to write together?
Victoria: We enjoy spending time together and we each appreciate the other’s humor. We can bring each other to tears (the right kind!) We also both brought something to the table: MJ had thirteen mysteries in three other series, (all still in print and e-book) and Victoria provided a fresh, youthful and off-the-wall funny streak to the book collector mysteries.
KRL: How does it work writing books together?
Victoria: It’s lots of fun and there is a ton of compromise. We both accept that neither of us “owns” the book. The book is Victoria Abbott’s. But we each have our strengths. Victoria is very funny and she introduces intriguing ideas and then MJ tears out clumps of hair trying to make them mesh into what she has written. Yes, we are speaking of the exploding still in The Marsh Madness, among other things.
Here’s a snatch of that conversation:
MJ: But it’s a book collector mystery. Why would there be an exploding still?
Victoria: Because it will be fun. We’ll find a way!
Well, we did find a way and it was fun. Of course, then we tried it with a bookstore in The Hammett Hex.
KRL: When did your first novel together come out? What was it called? A little about it?
Victoria: The Christie Curse, our first book collector mystery, came out in 2013. It introduced our young sleuth, Jordan Bingham, the first person in her large, lovable, and crooked family to go straight, and her crusty employer, the book collector, Vera Van Alst, the most hated woman in Harrison Falls, New York.
Jordan is hired to find a previously unknown play, supposedly written by Agatha Christie during her mysterious 11-day disappearance in 1926. What a dream job! Only later does Jordan learn that her predecessor died looking for the same manuscript.
We also introduce the love interest, Officer Tyler “Smiley” Dekker, knowing that Jordan’s family will be horrified by having an officer of the law in their midst. But you know, in mysteries, the path of true love must never run smoothly. Of course, there are cats and dogs to be introduced too. We’ve never had a book without them!
KRL: Have you always written mysteries/suspense? If not what else have you written?
Victoria: MJ once wrote 50 pages of a romance that was so bad she couldn’t even read it herself. Aside from that, all mystery, all the time. We like to read it and we like to write it. We love the way it allows us to tell the story we want, while giving our readers a puzzle. Keeps both side sharp.
KRL: What brought you to choose the setting and characters in this book/series? Please tell us a little about the setting and main character for your most recent book.
Victoria: In The Hammett Hex, our fifth book collector mystery, we take our main character, Jordan Bingham and her love interest, Officer “Smiley” Dekker, to San Francisco in a bid to get over some trust issues. We love San Francisco and think it’s very romantic, but there are many, many ways to die in the city of Dashiell Hammett. Reading Hammett you learn that nobody can really be trusted (at least not in fiction). That’s a lesson for Jordan, as San Francisco turns out to be dangerous and emotionally turbulent for her. But yes, also beautiful and with wonderful food and views. Maybe some new vintage clothes.
KRL: Do you write to entertain or is there something more you want the readers to take away from your work?
Victoria: We do want to entertain and, of course, there’s the puzzle and the contest of wits with the reader. Naturally we want to make sure readers don’t figure it out. Mostly we succeed in surprising endings. We are also interested in seeing justice done and in how relationships unfold. We love the ‘cozy’ tradition in which people who care about each other can be counted on in the darkest hour. That’s why friends and family are important in the book collector mysteries. That takes a surprising new turn in The Hammett Hex.
Also, we love the books and authors of the “Golden Age of Detection,” and we bring one of these into play in each of the book collector mysteries. It allows us to introduce authors from the classic age of mystery to contemporary readers. We often hear from fans who have been happy to discover Ngaio Marsh, or Dorothy L. Sayers, or Rex Stout.
KRL: Do you have a schedule for your writing or do you just write whenever you can?
Victoria: We try to have a daily schedule, but life intervenes and so does promo. We had no idea early on how much time would be spent in connecting with readers. It’s worth the effort to spread the word about our words. All to say, mostly, the new writing gets done between seven and nine p.m.
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?
Victoria: We plan out the idea for each new book and explore what we think the crime would be, and what our characters might experience next in their personal lives. We do a loose sort of plan for the plot and off we go. We’d like to outline more. Mostly we try to keep each other guessing. It’s a miracle we’re still alive.
KRL: If you had your ideal, what time of day would you prefer to write?
Victoria: Ideally, the writing would be done by ten in the morning, but this hasn’t happened in recent memory. When MJ had her day job, she wrote before going to work. That was then. This is now.
KRL: Did you find it difficult to get published in the beginning?
Victoria: MJ took quite a while to sell that first book, but then the next twelve went smoothly. “Victoria Abbott” was lucky enough to walk right into the book collector mysteries at the right time.
KRL: Future writing goals?
Victoria: Don’t tell anyone but we have a fabulous idea for a new series that we are discussing with our agent. But if we told you more, we’d have to kill you.
We are also working (very slowly) on a book to help aspiring authors. Stay tuned!
KRL: Writing heroes?
Victoria: We [like] the comic writers, people like Donald Westlake and P.G. Wodehouse, because they made humor so natural and memorable. They both had a light touch that actually required a lot of skill and talent.
KRL: What kind of research do you do?
Victoria: Whatever it takes: lots of reading of the works of the author we’re exploring, for instance, all of Dashiell Hammett’s novels for The Hammett Hex. We read about 100 of Agatha Christies for The Christie Curse, and dozens of Nero Wolfe stories for The Wolfe Widow, and more than thirty of Ngaio Marshes for The Marsh Madness. We also research the location, the history, and in the case of Hammett, his life.
We researched small towns in Upstate New York like our fictional Harrison Falls, to make it real. Victoria researches the antiques, stately homes and vintage finds that are found in the books and also the rare first editions. She checks out the clothing and footwear with great enthusiasm. The wonderful food in our book collector mysteries (all from Signora Panetone) comes from our Italian relatives. We researched it plate by plate over the years.
KRL: What do you read?
Victoria: All kinds of crime fiction: cozy, PI, police procedurals, Canadian, US, British, European, and general fiction. MJ also enjoys political books and history, while Victoria loves darker humor and even horror.
KRL: Favorite TV or movies?
Victoria: We both love British crime dramas, from the light-hearted (Midsomer Murders), to the very gritty (Happy Valley). This year, we enjoyed the new Endeavor prequel to the Morse series, and the follow-up to Morse, Inspector Lewis.
KRL: Any advice for aspiring or beginning writers?
Victoria: Writers write. So stay in the chair. And when you finish your first book, write the second one. Once you sell the first, you will immediately be behind schedule if you don’t. There will be more tips when our writing book comes out!
KRL: Anything you would like to add?
Victoria: We are happy to be part of the wonderful world of mystery, where people seem kinder and more thoughtful than in many arenas. Perhaps it all comes out on the page. At any rate, it is a pleasure to find ways like this terrific magazine to communicate with readers and to get to know about other authors.
KRL: Thanks! We are happy to have you here. What is something people would be surprised to know about you?
Victoria: Although none of the main characters in MJ’s books or Victoria Abbott’s can cook to save their lives, we are very happy playing in the kitchen. We’re pretty good at it too!
KRL: Website? Twitter? Facebook?
Victoria: We’d love you to keep in touch: sign up for our e-newsletter for book news, dog silliness, and contests through either website: www.victoria-abbott.com or www.maryjanemaffini.com.
Join us each Thursday at The Cozy Chicks www.cozychicksblog.com.
On the second and fourth Saturday of each month you can find us at Mystery Lovers Kitchen. www.mysteryloverskitchen.com. Or follow Victoria Abbott on twitter: twitter.com/abbottmysteries.
To enter to win a copy of The Hammett Hex, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “hex,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen November 5, 2016. 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.
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