And, that discussion of publishing kicked off the program at the Poisoned Pen when owner Barbara Peters asked Kelli about a paperback of her first mystery, Nox Dormienda. Stanley's second book in that series, The Curse-Maker, is out with a new publisher, St. Martin's Minotaur, and she was hoping they would release her paperback at the same time. They said they wanted to wait to see how this book did. In the meantime, Stanley is reworking that one to make it more accessible as a relaunch.
The subject of publishers brought up the recent bankruptcy filing by Borders. Barbara said she's been interviewed a number of times, but actually the closing of stores won't affect Poisoned Pen too much. They might gain a few customers, but it's not threat to the store. But, she said no one actually discusses the fact that the chain store business design is over in publishing. The problems at Borders and Barnes & Noble will definitely affect publishers. Borders' problems, and problems with a Canadian distributor have created terrible problems for some publishers.
Kelli said, speaking of Barnes & Noble, a number of people important to authors have been let go there. The mystery buyer and the Vice President of marketing are both gone. Some publishing is going to be driven to digital. Peters said there's going to be even more to lose as monoliths of publishing distribution fail because publishers designed their companies around them. She also said, speaking of e-book distribution, the Poisoned Pen website is being redesigned, and they will have e-book capability soon.
Before Barbara discussed Stanley's latest book, The Curse-Maker, she asked Patrick Millikin, the store's expert in noir, to talk about Kelli's last book, City of Dragons. Patrick said he liked the voice of the book. It's a challenge to write about the '40s with a female protagonist, but Stanley got the voice right. She also covered the social issues of the time.
Kelli thanked Patrick, and said feels it's important to discuss the social issues in her books. Some of those same issues are relevant today. Perhaps they are still important because, as a culture, we don't pay enough attention to history.
Stanley said she tries to be fair to the past. She doesn't romanticize it. The '40s did have wonderful art and creativity. People were more gregarious. Entertainment was out of the home. People went to hear big bands. That was all part of the past. But, so was bigotry, and racism, sexism. Harassment and rape were facts of life, and something women were just supposed to put up with. Social conditions were appalling in some parts of the country, such as Appalachia. There was a lack of schooling and education in many areas. Brutality was accepted.
Kelli Stanley's character, Miranda Corbi, isn't an anomaly. She's modeled after reporter Martha Gellhorn. Gellhorn was Hemingway's third wife, but she would have hated to have been known that way. She was actually a better reporter than Hemingway. Stanley said City of Dragons is an homage to an idealistic generation that felt they could make a difference.
We all grew up with a censored version of the '40s, based on the movies. But, the movies themselves were censored. We can recognize the commonalities and differences between our times.
Patrick told Kelli he admired the way she turns the tables on the noir role of women, such as Brigid O'Shaughnessy as the evil temptress. Kelli said beautiful women are stigmatized in crime fiction of the '40s. She wanted to create a noir where the femme fatale is a hero. Miranda is strong, assertive, sexualized, beautiful, and a gumshoe. Asked if there would be more of Miranda, Stanley said yes. The second book, City of Secrets, is scheduled for a September release, just before Bouchercon. The first book did well, and she's writing the third Miranda now.
Kelli Stanley is actually on tour for The Curse-Maker, the sequel to Nox Dormienda. It's a mystery set in Roman Britain, in Bath. The Romans were into spa tourism. Peters said it may have been the only time they were either warm or clean.
Peters said Bath is the one place you can see traces of the Roman city, the Georgian city of Jane Austen's world, and the modern city all in the same place. In fact, of all places, the Sally Lunn Historic Eating House & Museum have remains of the Roman, Medieval, Georgian and modern times all in the same place, the oldest house in Bath.
There are few mysteries set in Bath. Peter Lovesey lived there at one time, and set his Peter Diamond series there. But, the pollution is really bad there, and they have terrible weather inversions, so he moved.
Kelli said Bath was supposedly a pig wallow. Stanley was a scholar, getting a Masters degree in classics. Information about Bath was peripheral, but the combination of ancient cult, religion, and magic there excited her. She liked the idea of curses as part of religion and cult.
Cult was legal in Bath, but curses were frowned on. They were a way for the common people to control the uncontrollable. People would buy curses that were supposed to cause physical pain. Or, if you had a bet on a chariot race, you might buy a curse to be put on the favorite horse or chariot drive.
Kelli then gave us a scenario. Let's say Barbara was at the spa without her servant. There were rituals there, the hot plunge, a cold plunge, bad poetry, food. It was like the malls, and people spent the whole day there. When Barbara came out, her favorite slippers were gone. So, she wanted to put a curse on the person who took the slippers. It's as if you filed a police report after a theft, and it would you feel better.
Bath was a little spa town, a tourist town. There wasn't much recourse for theft. Buying a curse was the equivalent of filing a police report. So the victim (Barbara) would go to the market, and find a curse-maker who would put a curse on the person who took the slippers.
Curse-makers were people who lived on the fringes, like carnies. They preyed on the desperate. There was an element of seediness about curse-makers.
Curses went into the channel to the deity, Sulis, the goddess of the spring where everyone went to get well. Curses were thrown into the sacred spring, along with an offering to Sulis. Then, people waited for the curse to come true. And, based on Kelli's research, this could be just as effective as reporting a theft to the police. The curse-maker would post a notification of the curse, and the person who took "Barbara's slippers" might think twice, and return them. At which point, Barbara Peters said, see, publishing was the key element in a curse.
Bath was one of two places where curses were legal. They bound people to do certain things. Curses weren't legal in the rest of the Empire. Kelli said she was inspired to write about the curses when she was in England, and made a presentation at the University of London. She made a side trip to Bath, where she was allowed to touch curses and go behind the scenes at the Bath Museum. Two items that were found in the sacred spring have puzzled people. One was a valuable bag of gemstones, including cut stones. The other was a tin mask. Stanley uses both of them in The Curse-Maker.
Kelli proceeded to show us a curse. They were usually made of lead, the metal of choice to reach the gods. Romans were polytheists, and they called on a number of gods to curse people, including Jesus. The better class of curse-makers would have extremely thin sheets of lead. Then they would use a stylus to write on it. Stanley didn't think they would allow her to bring lead on the airplane, so she used aluminum foil. She had an actual crucifixion nail to use as a stylus. Then the curse would be folded, and sealed with a binding curse. It would be bound by force to bind the deity to do the bidding of the curse-maker. That would fix the magic in place, and compel the deity. So, Kelli stabbed the nail through the curse.
The curse had to get to the hand of the god. In places where there was not a sacred spring, people would go to a Roman graveyard, find a fresh grave, dig it up and put the curse in the hand of the body so it would get to the gods. There were grave curses against people who dug up corpses. In fact, Shakespeare had one on his stone, "Cursed be he that moves my bones."
Stanley's sleuth is a physician, Arcturus. Ruth Downie also has a series that features a Roman Britain doctor. Kelli said she uses a physician because that seemed the most logical person to get involved. She needs a solid, logical reason for investigating. At the time she had the idea, and wrote her first book, no one had done a Roman Britain doctor. Arcturus had been to war, so has seen sickness, death, and murder. He brings expertise to the investigation. Nox Dormienda was already written and accepted for publication when Ruth Downie's book came out. And, Kelli said she worried because her book was coming out from a small press, Five Star, while Downie, who was British, had J.K. Rowling's publisher. Then Nox Dormienda went on to win the Bruce Alexander Award for historical mystery.
Kelli said she was emphasizing style more than character because writers have to be able to say what sets your book apart. Nox Dormienda means A Long Night for Sleeping. It's in the noirish style, and a tribute to The Big Sleep.
Jane Finnis is another author who writes about Roman Britain. Her character is a woman, an innkeeper, and a refugee who fled Pompeii. Peters said since there was no police force in Rome, that period really doesn't have police procedurals.
Kelli Stanley said The Curse-Maker is lighter and funnier than City of Dragons. It's an homage to noir, not serious noir.
Stanley ended the program by reading from The Curse-Maker, setting the scene in the spa town of Bath. Arcturus is there because his wife seems to be in a state of deep depression, but he distrusts spa towns. They promised something they can't deliver, and those involved in spas prey on people.
As I said in the beginning, readers who have an interest in history might appreciate Kelli Stanley's books. I know I'm looking forward to reading The Curse-Maker. And, she even stamped the book with a blessing, "May good fortune bless and protect you always," and a stamp based on a picture she took in Bath of the image of the goddess Sulis.
Kelli Stanley's website is www.kellistanley.com
The Curse-Maker by Kelli Stanley. St. Martin's Minotaur, ©2011. ISBN 9780312654191 (hardcover), 320p.
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