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The Sirens of Suspense




Con Lehane’s MURDER AT THE 42nd STREET LIBRARY, Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books, is the first in a new series featuring Raymond Ambler, curator of the 42nd Street Library’s crime fiction collection. On the horizon as well is a story, “Stella by Starlight,” in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. Lehane is also the author of a series featuring New York City bartender Brian McNulty. Over the years, he (Lehane, that is) has been a college professor, union organizer, labor journalist, and has tended bar at two-dozen or so drinking establishments. He teaches fiction writing and mystery writing at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland.


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item1 My Paths to Publication item1

I’m going to talk—well, not talk, write—about my paths to publication. My story might serve as encouragement to the many writers who are finding the path to publication difficult, frustrating, and discouraging; then again, my experience might better be seen as a cautionary tale.

The path to publication, these days, for crime fiction writers is both easier and more difficult than it’s ever been, given the high bar in terms of potential sales set by the dwindling number of New York publishing houses (the more difficult), and the proliferation of other paths to publication—a number of high quality smaller publishers, ebooks, and the relative ease of self-publishing.

When I began writing fiction, in the age before the internet, there were at least a dozen major publishing houses in New York that could readily get books out into the world (even though the age of publishing conglomeration had begun). You could submit a manuscript directly to a number of publishers (the slush fund, over-the-transom days), though the preferred route was through a literary agent. Submissions were by query letter, with SASE, (for those who don’t remember, self-addressed, stamped envelope). If an agent or editor did ask to see your manuscript, you trudged off to the post office and mailed it, including an SASE for the manuscript, too.

I’m not going to go into how long it took me to write my first novel. (Nothing should take so long.) I’ll begin with the first time I trudged off to the post office with the manuscript of a novel. This was late in the winter of 1987. I’d written a query letter to Theodore Solotaroff, a senior editor at Harper and Row who’d been my writing teacher for a semester in the fiction writing program at Columbia, and he’d asked to see the manuscript.

It’s difficult for anyone to imagine what a thrill this was that my book was to be read by a Harper and Row editor. Well, he read it, and he sent it back with a short, blunt note (Ted Solotaroff was good at being blunt), “seems dated.” It probably was dated since it took me so long to write the damn thing. After this, bloody but unbowed, I wore down a path to the post office, sending query letters; often, receiving letters in return asking to see the manuscript or in some cases a partial (50 pages with an outline). Many agents and a few editors were anxious to see the manuscript, a couple even called me after receiving the query letter to ask for the manuscript. All politely and regretfully rejected the manuscript.

This exercise in futility went on for a couple of years until I attended a conference on the first novel in Woodstock, New York. One of the speakers, Ruth Cavin, spoke about mysteries (my first novel wasn’t a mystery). What struct a chord with me was she said getting a first mystery published was easier than getting a first literary or mainstream novel published. So, having developed an interest in mysteries as a reader somewhere along the way, I decided to write one. My thinking was I’d get it published, establish myself as a writer, and once established, go back to writing the “serious” fiction I intended to write.

I wrote the book (Beware the Solitary Drinker) and sent a query letter to Ruth Cavin, who graciously asked to see the manuscript. I trudged to the post office and sent it off, with an SASE, though I hardly thought it was necessary in this situation. Actually, it was necessary this time and many times after this. I sent query letters and followed up with manuscripts or partials for a few more years. I think my initial submission to Ruth Cavin was in 1992. In 1997, at the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Week symposium, I listened to Francois Guerif of the French publisher Rivages/Noir speak about having published David Goodis when Goodis was out of print in the U.S. An enterprising audience member, seeming to read my mind, asked Monsieur Guerif if he would consider publishing a book that hadn’t been published in the U.S. He said he would.

After his talk, I asked if I could send him Beware the Solitary Drinker. He said yes … or maybe he said oui. I sent him the mss. In the spring of 1998, I opened an envelope with a French stamp and a return address on The Boulevard Saint-Germain. Rivages/Noir was making me an offer on Beware the Solitary Drinker. I was about to be a published author.

While I waited for the book to be translated and published in France (and took a stab at learning French), I contacted agents and publishers in the U.S. (I had the use of a French agent to negotiate the contract with Rivages). Despite the book’s acceptance by a reputable (if not leading) publisher of crime fiction in France, no agent or publisher would take it on in the U.S., … until I received a letter from Barbara Peters, founder and then-editor of Poisoned Pen Press, to whom months before I’d sent the manuscript. She wanted to talk about the book, and we did, coincidently during Edgar Week in New York. Poisoned Pen published Beware the Solitary Drinker, after some editorial changes suggested by Barbara, in late 2002. It received a starred review from Publishers Weekly and a spot on a couple of Best Mysteries of 2002 lists. I was published, read, reviewed … on my way.

My next book, What Goes Around Comes Around, came out in 2005 from Thomas Dunne Books/Minotaur. It didn’t get a starred review, instead it was mostly damned with faint praise. My third book, Death at the Old Hotel, came out in 2007 from Minotaur. This time, the reviews were good, including one from Marilyn Stasio in the New York Times. The publisher killed the series anyway because the sales weren’t good enough. I was back where I started, not exactly “outside of Mobile with the Memphis blues” but somewhere like it.

My newest book, Murder at the 42nd Street Library, comes out tomorrow again from Thomas Dunne/Minotaur. It’s been nearly a decade since the last one. The reviews, so far, are good, including a starred review in Kirkus. What have I been doing for those years? Writing. At least, I haven’t been trudging to the post office. And the lesson from all this? I don’t know.




DID YOU TAKE A ROUNDABOUT ROUTE TO SUCCESS? TELL US or leave a comment on the blog below or on our Facebook page and you’ll be entered to win a copy of MURDER AT THE 42nd STREET LIBRARY! (US entrants only, please.)



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