A Crime, a Mystery, and a Happy Ending
Housing Works Bookstore & Café assistant store manager Merril Speck approached our booth at BEA with a refreshing counterpoint to the hours of hyper-commercial meetings, greetings, queries, and conversations for which the trade show is known. His idea for an International Crime Book Group—to help engage the non-profit’s clients while securing contributions from publishers—stood out from the mundane busyness with which we were otherwise engaged. We agreed to contribute (our Venice Noir is on the group’s docket), and, in service to our International Crime Month theme, asked him to tell us more about himself, Housing Works, and the International Crime Book Group. We’re pleased to find his writing style just a little bit noir.
It hit me like a bolt out of the blue. Or perhaps like a sucker punch to the gut.
Autumn 2010: I was healthy and gainfully employed, with a roof over my head. I was in my forties and addressing, for the first time, one thing missing from my life: that I’ve never . . . helped. I’d never given back, given my time, my energy, my experience, to any cause. And that, I felt, was a crime.
I quickly identified the venue where I would volunteer my time—an amazing place called Housing Works Bookstore Café. It’s a huge, old-fashioned, two-level bookstore filled to the rafters with books, CDs, DVDs, and comics. I knew that it was a charitable organization, powered by donated product and run primarily through volunteer labor. But Housing Works is more than just a charity. It’s a healing community of people living with and affected by HIV and AIDS with the mission to end the dual crises of homelessness and AIDS. So, for four hours a week, as I priced books and manned the cash register, I was surrounded by an amazing group of life-affirming people who rallied around a common cause: to raise as much money as possible for Housing Works by making our bookstore the BEST bookstore it could be. I was honored to spend my time there and looked forward to coming back week after week.
Summer 2012: I had enjoyed volunteering at HWBC so much that I had lobbied my way on to the staff. I was responsible for specific sections of the store, and my favorite section to work on was a longtime personal favorite, Mystery. I read The Body in the Library in fifth grade. In high school, I was rooting for Martha Grimes’s Inspector Richard Jury and John Dickinson Carr’s Dr. Gideon Fell. These days you’ll find me reading a wide variety of titles, including Frank Bill’s hillbilly noir, Donnybrook; Bill Loehfelm’s New Orleans–set rookie cop drama, The Devil in Her Way; and Cara Hoffman’s devastating, small-town drama of kidnapping, murder, and revenge, So Much Pretty.
As I continued to work on my sections, I sought other ways I could contribute to the store. My first thought was to establish a regular book club. The opportunity to read something new—maybe something outside my comfort zone, something I wouldn’t have necessarily chosen on my own—and to discuss it in a group setting while sharing a coffee (or a beer . . . or two) appealed deeply to me.
But then it occurred to me: how will we get the specific books we need? Everything at HWBC is donated. How will I get what I need on a regular, monthly basis? It seemed I had a mystery on my hands.
My solution was to invent a concept that would be cool, unique, and personally gratifying, but would also be supported by publishers I’d solicit directly. I hoped that publishers would see it as a promotional opportunity for their brand, as well as a chance to donate to a worthy cause.
My concept for the book club was International Crime, a chance for me to combine my love of crime fiction with my enjoyment of good travel writing. I wanted to “travel” every month, learning the intimate details of foreign cities through expertly written stories of mayhem and murder. I hoped to not only be able to discuss whether or not the author had written a successful mystery, but to compare and contrast the culture of the novel’s setting with our own.
I gathered up my courage and decided the direct approach would be best. I attended an author event sponsored by Soho Press’s imprint Soho Crime. They were high on my wish list of publishers to speak with due to their wide variety of crime fiction set around the world. I approached Soho’s senior editor, Juliet Grames, and gave her my practiced two-minute pitch. And what do you know—she agreed to become the International Crime Book Group’s first publisher patron!
Fall 2012: Soho Crime and HWBC kicked off the first meeting of the ICBG with the Swedish thriller The Boy in the Suitcase by Lene Kaaberol and Agnete Friis. Since then, we’ve “traveled” to Laos, Ireland, France, South Africa, Brazil, and England.
Our group has a very simple set up. We settle into a large circle with our coffee and snacks. I address club business (what we are reading next, pointing out any relevant book events in town), we introduce ourselves and state our opinion of the book, then we’re off on whatever tangents come up. I always prepare some talking points, but I love to let the group steer the conversation. So far, the group favorite is Cara Black’s Murder in the Marais. Several people in our group had actually traveled to the Marais, so their input was invaluable to the discussion.
Contrary to the group, my favorite selection so far is Martin Limon’s Jade Lady Burning. It’s a fairly straightforward tale of a serial killer preying on prostitutes, but the novel has a unique setting—the DMZ between North and South Korea during the Vietnam War years—and a boozy, shambling narrative and tone, as the protagonists, two US MPs, drink and screw their way to a revelation of the killer. The novel feels like something Robert Altman or Hal Ashby would have directed for Hollywood during the 1970s. It had a feel to it that got under my skin, a sadness that lingered after the tale was done.
Nine months later, the International Crime Book Group is a success, and we’re hoping to launch additional book groups. Our Meetup.com account lists (to date) 108 members, of which we have a core group of around fifteen. The group is open to the public, and anyone is welcome to join us. Also, more publishers have agreed to support our book club, ensuring a wide variety of titles to introduce to club members. This summer, Melville House Press and its Melville International Crime imprint, will be programming several titles with us, including Death in Breslau by Marek Krajewski. It’s a brooding murder mystery with a police detective caught between the mechanizations of the Nazis and the Masons in 1930s Poland. In the fall, Mulholland Books will be sharing a gruesome tale with us: Donato Carrisi’s The Whisperer. And this September, Akashic Books will be sharing one of their short story collections with us: Venice Noir.
I first became aware of Akashic Books back in 2007 when an old school chum of mine was published in their release New Orleans Noir. Since then, Akashic and their Noir Series have taken me to the dark underbelly of many cities, from as far away as Moscow to my own home of Brooklyn. I always thought Akashic would be a good fit for my group, and I’m honored to have them on board.
Now: So there you have it. The arc of my story has brought me here. I’ve gone from being a mystery buff with time on his hands to a bookseller who gets to commune with other mystery lovers on a regular basis, all while raising money for a worthy cause. I hope if you live in or around NYC that you’ll join me at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe the first Saturday of the month at 11:30 a.m. for some coffee (or beer) and good conversation.
It’d be a crime to miss it!
Merril Speck is the Assistant Store Manager at Housing Works Bookstore & Café in Manhattan. He is the moderator of the International Crime Book Group. To learn more about the book group, go to here or here.
Posted: Jun 19, 2013
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