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Showing posts by: Susan Amper click to see Susan Amper's profile
Nov 3 2017 12:00pm

The Poe Myth Still Buried: Reviewing PBS’s Buried Alive

This week, PBS aired a documentary on Poe titled, Buried Alive. It should have been, Buried Anew.

It was too much to hope that the film would actually set the record straight about Poe. Yet the advance write-up on the PBS website said all the right things. The film would sweep away the “misrepresentations” of Poe and replace the “caricature” of Poe as a “madman akin to the narrators of his horror stories” with the “real story.”

Au contraire, the finished product cements the misperception of Poe and his work. Feasts on it, in fact.

[Read Susan Amper's review of Buried Alive...]

Oct 31 2017 1:00pm

Behind Poe’s Mask: Tricks That Are Treats

It’s Halloween weekend, and all across America, folks are cashing in with events commemorating Edgar Allan Poe. An upscale restaurant in Denver will offer a four-course “Mask of the Red Death” dinner, to which guests are encouraged to wear “masquerade attire.” Dorchester Brewery in Boston will debut its newest ale: Lenore Beer—named, the brewery says, for “Edgar Allan Poe’s mistress.” There’s a one-man Poe show in Bend, Oregon; a Poe-themed open-mic night in Williston, North Dakota; an “Edgar Allan Poe Halloween Lock-In” for teens at the Warren, Michigan, public library; and much, much more.

Poe would love it. First, because he craved notoriety—and wasn’t particular about what form it took. He once told a friend that he would pay $2,000 for anyone to spend the year attacking him in print.

[Happy Halloween!]

Sep 26 2017 10:00am

Review: Don’t Let Go by Harlan Coben

Don’t Let Go by Harlan Coben explores the big secrets and little lies that can destroy a relationship, a family, and even a town.

The subtitle for Harlan Coben’s Don’t Let Go could be: “Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you.” Set in a suburban New Jersey familiar to fans of Coben’s Myron Bolitar series, the tragic events from a night 15 years in the past come back to haunt the present.

In the waning days of a long-ago senior year, Napoleon “Nap” Dumas spends the night with his hockey team on an away game. That same night, his twin, Leo Dumas, and Leo's girlfriend, cheerleader Diana Styles, mysteriously die on the railroad tracks. Nap’s girlfriend, Maura Wells, disappears as well. When the bodies start to pile up in the present day, it becomes clear that the deaths have some link to the Conspiracy Club created in high school by Leo, Diana, and some of their paranoid friends in response to mysterious happenings they see in the woods that make them think about things like Area 51 and CIA black sites. Three members of the club are dead or disappeared, and now, a fourth member is murdered execution style and a fifth disappears. Someone is definitely out to get the remaining member of the high school club.

[Read Susan Amper's review of Don't Let Go...]

Apr 17 2017 12:00pm

Review: Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye

Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye is a satirical romance about identity, guilt, goodness, and the nature of lies, inspired by the classic Jane Eyre. It is nominated for an Edgar Award for Best Novel.

In Jane Steele, Lyndsay Faye reimagines Jane Eyre as a serial killer, and it’s a laugh-out-loud funny rendering of one of literature’s most beloved figures.  

Written in the first person, Steele begins her memoir by saying, “Of all my many murders, committed for love and for better reasons, the first was the most important.” Before the end of the third page, she says, “Reader, I murdered him.” I laughed and thought of the lyrics to Kander and Ebb’s “Cell Block Tango” from the musical Chicago.  

[Read Susan Amper's review of Jane Steele...]

Jan 19 2017 3:00pm

Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart”: Why Are These Men Laughing?

Today, Edgar A. Poe would have been 208 years old. His birthday gift to readers is stories that just keep on giving.

Have you ever heard “Little Red Riding Hood” or “The Three Little Pigs” told from the wolf’s point of view? If you think that’s amusing, try this one: “The Tell-Tale Heart” from the detectives’ point of view. It will knock your socks off.

This, of course, is the famous Poe story in which a man murders his employer in the night, says he hears the dead man’s heart beating, and ends up frantically tearing up the floor and revealing the dead body. Though the narrator assures us he is sane, he manages to convince everyone who reads the story that he is crazy. But he doesn’t convince the police.

[Don't hit me. I'll hit me. Cause I'm crazy!]

Jan 5 2017 12:00pm

Review: A Perilous Undertaking by Deanna Raybourn

A Perilous Undertaking by Deanna Raybourn is the 2nd book in the Veronica Speedwell Mystery series (available January 10, 2017).

Mystery and detective fans will be enchanted with Deanna Raybourn’s new detective, Veronica Speedwell. Aptly named for the plant of the same name—an easy-care perennial with spiky flowers of dizzying hues that attract butterflies—the decidedly un-Victorian Veronica Speedwell is an intrepid and carefree adventuress, avid collector of butterflies, and in the first in the series, A Curious Beginning, a Corsican bandit, the attentions of a killer, and a partner in crime solving. 

At the end of A Curious Beginning, Veronica and partner-in-mysteries-and-misdeeds Stoker (aka the Honourable Revelstoke Templeton-Vane, third son of the sixth Viscount Templeton-Vane) are in a near state of penury. In A Perilous Undertaking, set in 1887 London, they get a timely commission from Stoker’s friend and benefactor, Lord Rosemorran. Veronica—lepidopterist and lover of natural history—and Stoker—a natural historian, explorer, and taxidermist—are perfectly suited to curate Rosemorran’s collection of “art, artifacts, [and] treasure of every description” and establish a museum. Their respective occupations also supply them with witty banter, à la Nick and Nora Charles. 

[Read Susan Amper's review of A Perilous Undertaking...]

Nov 3 2016 10:00am

Review: Escape Clause by John Sandford

Escape Clause by John Sandford is the 9th installment of the Virgil Flowers series. 

Virgil Flowers, once a bit player in John Sandford’s Prey series, has become the starring character in his own series, which is in its 9th installment with Escape Clause. Flowers is an unconventional investigator for the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension who, in previous entries, has been involved in some fast-paced thrillers.

This time around, an endangered species is at risk. Two tigers have been stolen from the Minnesota Zoo. Flowers learns that “the tiger’s real value—they’re Amur tigers, and they’re rare in the wild—would be as ingredients in traditional Chinese medicine.” Readers know whodunit from page one, but that doesn’t destroy the suspense, which comes down to the ticking clock pressuring Flowers ever forward in hopes of finding the tigers before they become so much grist for the Chinese medicinal mill. 

[Read Susan Amper's review!]

Sep 8 2016 2:00pm

Review: Because I’m Watching by Christina Dodd

Because I'm Watching by Christina Dodd is a suspenseful thriller set in the quaint—and deadlycoastal town of Virtue Falls.

The isolated coastal town of Virtue Falls, Washington—the setting for Christina Dodd’s Because I’m Watching—seems like a perfect place for a ghost story. The ghosts, both imagined and real, are at work scaring the wits out of Maddie Hewitson.

By the time she arrives in Virtue Falls, life has already served Maddie a heap of heartache. She is the only survivor of a college dorm massacre, and is later accused of murdering her fiancé. In Virtue Falls, she is trying to hang on to her sanity while she writes horror stories about the monsters that slither through her dreams and imagination.

As Dodd notes in her Acknowledgments, her story is a mashup of Gaslight and Rear Window, with a “creepy” tale of “two broken people and the terrors that haunt them.”

[Read Susan Amper's review of Because I'm Watching...]

Jul 26 2016 12:30pm

Dangers on a Train: The Narrow Margin, 1952 and 1990

Despite their obvious limitations, trains make great settings for movies. 

Think of North by Northwest, where the wrongly charged and hunted Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) successfully hides in the upper of a Pullman berth, while the porter makes up Eva Marie Saint's berth; the cool blond helping him hide. Or Some Like It Hot, where Genevieve (Tony Curtis) and Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe) throw a cocktail party—also in an upper berth. And, there's the near perfect The Lady Vanishes, with Margaret Lockwood, Michael Redgrave, and Dame May Whitty.

While these are great films, the claustrophobic confines of a train seem especially perfect for films noir. One of the best is The Narrow Margin from 1952, remade in 1990. In the 1952 version, Charles McGraw plays the tough-talking, unbribable Det. Sgt. Walter Brown, in a trench coat right out of Bogart's wardrobe. His job is to protect Mrs. Frankie Neall (Marie Windsor), who is planning to testify against the mob. They must go by train from Chicago to Los Angeles.

[Alllll aboard!]

Apr 25 2016 12:00pm

Murphy’s Law by Rhys Bowen

Murphy's Law by Rhys Bowen is the first entry in the popular Molly Murphy Mysteries series. It won the 2001 Agatha Award for “Best Novel.”

Winner of the 2001 Agatha Award for “Best Novel,” Rhys Bowen's initial entry into the Molly Murphy Mysteries series, Murphy's Law, begins with Molly proving true her mother's frequently repeated sentiment that she “would be getting…into big trouble one day.” Her poor sainted mother is dead now, and “one day” has arrived. Defending herself from the unwelcome advances of the local landowner's son, Molly Murphy, not yet twenty-three, becomes an inadvertent murderer on the run, forced to emigrate from Ballykilleen, Ireland and become an amateur private investigator in the waning days of New York's Gilded Age.

With a murder on the very first page and a heroine on the run, this reader expected Molly's arrival in New York City to happen in double quick time, but instead, the plot nearly grinds to a stop while still in Ireland.

[Read Susan Amper's review of Murphy's Law here...]

Jan 22 2016 11:00am

The World’s First Murder Mystery: A Birthday Present from Edgar A. Poe

It was Edgar Allan Poe's birthday this week (he would have turned 207 on January 19th), and the man who gave us so much with his writing managed to be so selfless as to give us a birthday gift. Though not actually a supernatural gift from the grave, one of Poe's earliest short stories, “The Assignation,” had been misinterpreted for years and may actually be the world's first murder mystery.

The scene is Venice, the fabulous palazzo of the world-renowned “Genius of Romance.”


The night before, at the Ducal Palace, a baby—child of the aging Doge and his dazzling young wife—fell into the canal. Just when hope for the boy seemed lost, our hero emerged from nowhere, dove into the canal, brought up the child, and delivered him safe to his blushing, scantily clad mother. As the hero departed, she whispered to him, saying, “One hour after sunrise we shall meet.”

[My hero!]

Oct 7 2015 8:30am

166 Years After His Death, Test Your Poe Q!

Edgar Allan Poe died on October 7, 1849, and no one knows how. But a much more important mystery surrounds Poe’s life and his works.

What most people think they know is way off the mark. Here’s a quiz designed to spark your interest in discovering the real Poe.

Select True or False:







1.     Poe was an opium addict.

2.     Poe was an alcoholic.

3.     Poe’s literary executor maliciously forged letters from him.

4.     “Annabel Lee” is based on a true incident involving one of Poe’s rivals.

5.     Poe once published a totally fabricated story about a transatlantic balloon trip as news.

6.     The first eleven stories Poe wrote were meant as parodies, but almost everyone took them seriously.

7.     Poe invented the phrases, “A mere bagatelle” and “Believe nothing you hear and only half of what you see.”

8.     Poe sparked a literary debate by attacking Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and kept the debate going by anonymously publishing articles that attacked his own position.

9.     T.S. Eliot said that Poe had “the intellect of a highly gifted young person before puberty.”

10.  Experts believe that “The Fall of the House of Usher” is a hoax.

[Click to see the Answers!]

Aug 20 2015 9:00am

Fresh Meat: X by Sue Grafton

X by Sue Grafton is the 24th mystery in the Kinsey Millhone series about the California-based private eye (available August 25, 2015).

An apt subtitle for Sue Grafton’s latest book X is the oft-repeated quote that “those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” In the 24th in her series of alphabet mysteries, private eye Kinsey Millhone, based In Santa Teresa, California, is pursuing a con artist, a sociopathic serial killer, and a couple of small time crooks, all of whom repeat the past with varying consequences.

In Grafton’s version of a time machine, Kinsey is forever stuck in the 80s. A is for Alibi was published and set in 1982, and 33 years later, X is set in 1989. Technology has improved at lighting speed in the decades since 1982, making it tough for crime writers everywhere. Cell phones are ubiquitous, cars come with emergency releases inside the trunks to put a crimp in a kidnapping plot; the days of hotwiring cars is long gone, and CSI has taken some of the fun out of the detective game. But Kinsey Millhone, with no high-tech devices to aid her, still gets a kick out of being a private eye. And readers who tag along will enjoy the ride.

[Just don't get locked in the trunk...]

Apr 3 2015 9:30am

Fresh Meat: Falling in Love by Donna Leon

Falling in Love by Donna Leon is the 24th mystery in the Commissario Guido Brunetti series set in Venice (available April 7, 2015).

The mystery in Falling in Love, the 24th in Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti series, is centered on diva soprano Flavia Petrelli, last seen in 1996's Acqua Alta, and before that in Leon’s first Brunetti mystery, Death at La Fenice in 1992. She has returned to Venice and La Fenice to sing the lead in Tosca. As adulation pours forth from the audience at Flavia’s final bow, the “first rose, long-stemmed and yellow as the sun, fell just in front of her. Her foot pulled back from it involuntarily, as if she were afraid of doing it an injury or it her.”

Yellow roses have been raining down on Petrelli’s curtain calls since her last performance of Nozze two months earlier. But here in Venice is the first time the soprano has been showered with them in her dressing room. She then finds them at the door to her apartment and is overwhelmed by a rush of fear.

She’d known fear in the past, but there had been a logic in what she feared: she’d know what it was about. These flowers made no sense: they should have been a compliment to her talent, sent in appreciation of a good performance. Instead, she felt in them menace and something even stronger than that, something approaching madness.

Flavia’s twisted admirer has been sending flowers to her in London, St. Petersburg, Amsterdam, and now, in Venice, where the stalker’s actions have taken a terrifying turn.

[You do know what fan is short for...]

Nov 17 2014 2:00pm

Fresh Meat: The Job by Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg

The Job, by Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg, is the third globetrotting book in the Fox and O'Hare series.The Job by Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg is the third globetrotting mystery in the Fox and O'Hare sereis featuring the unlikely pair of FBI Agent Kate O'Hare and professional thief Nick Fox (available November 18, 2014).

This is the third in the series by Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg, and it could be the second or the seventh. I started to write about the exploits of FBI agent Kate O’Hare and international man of thievery Nick Fox and how they had to travel the globe to retrieve an ancient and valuable artefact from China. Wait a minute, I could have sworn that the two ended up in Istanbul. Well, anyway, they stow away on a plane, kill an assassin, race through the streets of Shanghai in a vintage car and STOP! You perhaps see where I’m going with this; I was writing about The Chase when I should have been writing about The Job. Similarities aside, these stories are also escapist and entertaining.

At the start of the series, Kate O’Hare, special agent for the FBI is “chasing” Nick Fox. However, what most of the FBI doesn’t know is that Kate caught Nick. “Fidelity, Bravery, Integrity” are tossed out the window when Nick convinces the FBI they should hire him and pair him up with Kate; what better way to catch a crook then to send a crook.

[If you can't beat 'em, join 'em...]

Mar 30 2014 2:00pm

Fresh Meat: By Its Cover by Donna Leon

By Its Cover by Donna Leon is the 23rd Commissario Guido Brunetti mystery about the Venetian police chief, whose  current investigation starts with stolen pages from old books and ends in murder (available April 1, 2014).

Ah, I remember it well. Searching the dusty shelves of the library in the basement of the gothic building, amidst ancient tomes and tattered volumes, I stumbled across a 19th century edition of Gustave Doré’s Illustrations for Paradise Lost. Breathtaking, and I couldn’t believe that the library would loan such a treasure. But loan they did. I so wanted to keep it that I renewed it several times. Reluctantly I returned the book, but I’ve thought of it several times over the years, and each time I think, “I should have kept that book.” I love books, all types of books, but I’d never before or since for that matter had such a strong desire to become a book thief. So I can identify with the thief in By Its Cover, Donna Leon’s latest addition to her Guido Brunetti series of novels set in Venice.

Brunetti, Commissario di Polizia of the city of Venice, is called to the Biblioteca Merula where Dottoressa Fabbiani, chief librarian, tells him of the theft of material:

“From the collection?” Brunetti asked. He knew the library, had used it once or twice as a student but had not given it a thought for decades.


“What’s been taken?” he asked.

“We don’t know the full extent yet. So far, all I’m sure of is that pages have been cut from some volumes.”

[That book won't be the only victim...]

Mar 3 2014 3:00pm

Child-Killer Susan Smith, or, Why Alice Crimmins Makes a Lousy Role Model

Many people believe that Alice Crimmins got away with the 1965 murder of her two children. (Read my views on the Crimmins case here.) But could the Crimmins case have provided fodder for a future child killer?

Alice Crimmins always maintained her innocence, but the police and much of the press believed Alice Crimmins was a slut and therefore a murderer. She was convicted of manslaughter, but that conviction was overturned. She was retried in 1971 and convicted of the first-degree murder of her son and manslaughter of her daughter. In 1973, she was again set free. Upon review, the Appellate Division reversed the murder conviction, and affirmed the manslaughter conviction, but Crimmins never returned to jail. While in jail she had married her wealthy lover, Anthony Grace. She lived with him, and his money, until his death.

The children of Susan Smith: Michael and younger brother AlexFast forward to October 25, 1994. Susan Smith, then 23, claims that a black man hijacked her car and drove away with her children inside. A nation watches horrified as the grieving mother makes emotional pleas on television for the safe return of her two small boys, three-year old Michael, and 14-month old Alex. Nine days later, the children are found dead, strapped into their seats in the car, lying at the bottom of John D. Long Lake in Union, South Carolina.

The police arrested Smith and tried her for murder.

Was history repeating itself? Or is it possible that Susan Smith knew Alice Crimmins’s story? A made-for-TV movie called A Question of Guilt based on the Crimmins affair came out in 1978. John Guare wrote a play inspired by Crimmins, Landscape of the Body, that opened in 1977 and has since been restaged many times. Two Small Bodies by Neal Bell was made into a film in 1993.

Did Smith decide that if one slut could murder her kids and walk away with a rich husband, why not two?

Sheer speculation, to be sure, but Smith might easily have seen some of herself in Alice Crimmins. Both were in troubled marriages, both had wealthy men on the side, both had two children cramping their style.

[An awful tale, old as time...]

Jan 17 2014 9:30am

Happy Birthday, Edgar Allan Poe: Dominated by Humor, Not Terror

An art piece of Edgar Allan PoeOn January 19th, we celebrate the 205th anniversary of the birth of Edgar Allan Poe. Poe’s been dead for one hundred and sixty five years, and for most of those years he’s been misunderstood.

Evidence is everywhere that the idea we have of Poe and his work is a complete fiction.

That usual picture of Poe as a pathologically brooding, tormented soul was concocted by a literary rival, and is now thoroughly discredited. The true picture is of a hardworking writer, an astute magazine editor, the keenest critic of his generation, and a sought-after guest at the New York salons. Poe had demons, all right, but real-life ones: alcohol, poverty, and thwarted ambition.

As for his fiction, on any accounting, it is dominated by humor, not terror. A dozen supposed tales of terror he wrote: These, we call typical—and keep re-publishing in edition after edition. But wait a second: if an author writes 69 stories and 12 of them are about death and madness, and these are the only ones that get read, who’s pre-occuppied with death and madness: the author, or the readers?

[An excellent question!...]

Jan 3 2014 2:30pm

Fresh Meat: River Road by Jayne Ann Krentz

River Road by Jayne Ann Krentz is a novel of romantic suspense about a forensic genealogist and investigator who teams up with a security expert, also her childhood crush, to uncover the secrets of their shared hometown (available January 7, 2014).

In River Road, Jayne Ann Krentz returns to what she does best: classic romantic-suspense. The story of a small town hiding its deadly secrets is a compelling page-turner.  

Lucy Sheridan is 16 when she first tangles with 19 year-old Mason Fletcher. He drags her out of a wild party and drives her home. “Who appointed you my guardian angel?” Lucy wants to know. “I’m not anyone’s guardian angel,” Mason says. “I’m doing you a favor tonight.” Lucy senses there is more to the story, but it will be thirteen years before she returns to Summer Island and learns the truth of that long-ago summer party.

Fletcher was removing Lucy from a party filled with booze and drugs and one seriously demented teenager who had planned to film his rape of Lucy and post it on the Internet. The cold-blooded teenager, Tristan Brinker, who had set his sights on Lucy, disappeared mysteriously after the party and has not been heard from since Lucy left town.

The Lucy who returns to Summer Island, California thirteen years later to settle her aunt Sara’s estate is the picture of a successful career woman, working as a forensic genealogist.

[Eminently qualified to uncover the past's secrets...]

Sep 28 2013 3:00pm

Fresh Meat: Mrs. Poe by Lynn Cullen

Mrs. Poe by Lynn CullenMrs. Poe by Lynn Cullen is historical fiction about a consuming affair between Edgar Allan Poe and the poet Frances Sargent Osgood (available October 1, 2013).

It’s 1845 and Edgar Allan Poe is basking in the success of “The Raven,” his most popular work to date. 

In February of that year, Poe gave a lecture in New York in which he criticized American poetry but singled out Frances Sargent Osgood for praise, saying she had a “a rosy future” in literature. This is perhaps what inspired Cullen to write this novel, told from Osgood’s perspective, which fictionalizes the seriousness of a relationship between the two poets.

There isn’t much to the plot. The story has them both unhappy in their marriages and attracted to each other through their loneliness and art. Frances Osgood is trying to sell some poetry, and Poe, as an editor, attempts to help her. And that’s enough of a link, apparently, on which to hang a romance. The title is meant to, I think, suggest something of a puzzle.

[Does history matter to the heart...?]