Exploring the Crowded Shelves of Aunt Agatha’s with Two Ace Mystery Writers

Why would a bookstore dedicate itself exclusively to one genre? Ask a mystery writer about Aunt Agatha’s in Ann Arbor. 

“When you walk into a mystery bookstore, you can feel the stories,” says Elsa Hart, the author of soon-to-be-released The White Mirror, set in 18th-century China, and an Aunt Agatha’s August guest. “With so many stories of crime around, you feel like you’re about to walk into one of them. Suddenly, everything in the store feels like a mystery. The half-finished crossword puzzle by the cash register, the book that isn’t in the right place, the closed door in the back, the customer who isn’t really reading— a mystery bookstore gets a reader’s imagination working.”

Hart will be in town on August 23, along with fellow writer Julia Keller, who returns to Ann Arbor to talk about the latest addition to her Bell Elkins series, Sorrow Road, set in Keller’s native, and beloved, West Virginia.

Agatha’s Mystery History

“Julia’s criminally underappreciated,” says Robin Agnew, who, with her husband Jamie, opened Aunt Agatha’s in 1993. The store, modeled on Uncle Edgar’s in Minneapolis, won the 2014 Raven Award,  the Oscar of mystery bookstores. But despite the accolade, “We’re the ugly stepsister of bookstores,” says Agnew. “It can be frustrating. Mysteries are some of the best writing, and the people we meet, whether just coming to the store or to our events, are so fascinating.” 

Keller agrees. “I’m one of those eccentrics who believes that every great story is essentially a mystery,” says the author. “Hamlet is a mystery. So is To Kill a Mockingbird and The Great Gatsby.” A Pulitzer Prize-winner for Feature Writing in 2005 and Nieman Fellow at Harvard, Keller has, “… always been interested in exploring the ‘big’ questions: about things such as crime and punishment, about retribution, about justice and injustice, about life and death and destiny. Crime fiction is the perfect canvas for that.”

Hart comes from an eclectic background as well. Born in Italy and raised in Russia, she joined her botanist husband in China after she graduated from law school in St. Louis. Suffering from insomnia as she interned at a Chinese law firm, she began reading Agatha Christie novels. Soon, her protagonist, Li Du, came to life. (For the full story, see the exclusive online interview at ecurrent.com.)

Beyond Football

Both authors look forward to their Ann Arbor appearance. Keller has been to Ann Arbor a few times—initially, she says, “with trepidation, because I’m an Ohio State graduate, and an enthusiastic football fan. Need I say more? But to my delight, I loved Ann Arbor. Just driving around the university is a pure delight. It’s a beautiful campus. I’m a sucker for stone and ivy and sun-struck quadrangles.” She may wind up giving a campus tour to Hart, who “almost applied to the law school (at U-M), so I might wander around and consider alternate realities.” Hart looks forward to Zingerman’s, which she knows, “from the most delicious chocolate bar in my local grocery store: dark chocolate with crunchy sugar crystals and vanilla bean.”

Beyond football and food, both writers look forward to getting lost in the stacks of Aunt Agatha’s. “A store such as Aunt Agatha’s is an unalloyed cultural good,” says Keller. “To snobs who might not appreciate the genius and craftsmanship that go into the making of a mystery, I’d ask them to consider John Banville, winner of the Man Booker Prize and a great literary artist. Writing as Benjamin Black, he has created a fascinating character, the bleak and doomed Dublin pathologist Quirke.” Hart, meanwhile, relies on, “serendipity. I let the ghosts and phantoms lead me to the book I’m meant to read.”

7pm | Tuesday, August 23 | Free
Aunt Agatha’s | 213 S. 4th Ave.
734-769-1114 | auntagathas.com


Chinese Puzzle Box

Author Elsa Hart discusses her mystery series set in 18th-century China.

“One of the year’s most engrossing debuts,” according to The Associated Press in 2015, was Elsa Hart’s debut novel Jade Dragon Mountain. In it, exiled scholar Li Du has mere days to find a murderer hiding in an intricate tangle of clues. Set in 18th-century China, in the mountainous territory near Tibet, Jade Dragon Mountain is the August selection for the reading group at Aunt Agatha’s, located on 213 S. Fourth Ave. Hart took some time to talk with Current about her origins, inspirations, and upcoming plans, which include the next installment in her Li Du series, The White Mirror.

CURRENT: You’ve had such an interesting life and lived so many places. Can you describe the path that took you from law school to novelist?
At the time I graduated from law school, my husband, a biologist, was in China studying alpine plants. His research was going to take two or three years to complete, so I decided to join him. I took an introductory Mandarin course and interned for three months at a Chinese law firm in Kunming. Then I took an overnight train and met my husband in Lijiang, a city at the base of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. We rented a tiny apartment in town, but spent about half our time at a field station close to the mountain’s south summit.

I had trouble sleeping at high altitude, so at night I often listened to audiobooks and BBC radio dramatizations of Agatha Christie mysteries. One day, I was on a narrow mountain path watching clouds fill a ravine, and I had the idea that maybe in the past, a traveler had stood in the same place I was standing and seen the same clouds filling the ravine. I almost thought that if I turned, I would see him standing next to me. That imagined traveler became my protagonist, Li Du. With mysteries on my mind, I started to build a story around him. A visit to the astronomical observatory in Beijing added a new element: Jesuits. I started writing.

Being in a law school mindset helped me. In law school, most classes begin with the professor asking a student to recite the facts of a case. The first time this happens, the student looks relieved, thinking she has gotten the easy question. It’s actually one of the hardest. The professor interrupts to ask why each fact is relevant, and the student often ends up stammering and confused. There are thousands, millions, maybe infinite facts in a case. The challenge is to select those that are crucial to an issue, and to turn them into a narrative. If you can’t justify including a detail, you let it go. The same is true of writing fiction. Law school doesn’t teach you to lie, but it does teach you to tell stories.

When you began thinking about the book, did you conceive it as a series? Did you know you would set it in China, and in the past? What led to your decisions?
I was inspired to write Jade Dragon Mountain by what I was reading and where I was living. Historical fiction was an obvious choice for me. It is removed from reality, but its narrative parameters are partially defined by what is contained in historical records. The writer must keep in mind a reader who will bring a contemporary perspective to a story set in the past. I find those dynamics fascinating.

I didn’t originally intend it to be a series. I had written about half a novel when I realized that it contained way too much. If a short story can hold one big idea, I think a novel can hold maybe three. There really is not a lot of space. I had set characters on trajectories too long for one book, at least if it was to remain a mystery and not turn into an epic. At that point I made the decision to scrap everything and start again with a revised plot. During that rewrite, I began to see the possibility for a series.

What are the challenges of writing about a time and place that are unfamiliar to so many readers? What are the joys? Did you ever get any pushback to change either the setting or the time frame into something that might be a little more commercial?
When you set a story in an unfamiliar setting, there is a lot you have to explain to readers. In order to prioritize the story, which is the right thing to do in fiction, explanations must be camouflaged. If your fiction starts to sound like a history book, the world you are building becomes less convincing to the reader. Mysteries make this even more challenging because in order to be fair to readers, you have to give them a chance to solve the mystery. You can’t have too many clues that can only be recognized by someone with specialized knowledge. On the other hand, if you spend too much time explaining a clue, you risk calling too much attention to it and making the deduction obvious. Take, for example, a paperweight. A western reader of mysteries knows that when a victim is bludgeoned to death and the murder weapon is missing, a casual mention of a paperweight might be important. I don’t need to explain what a paperweight is. But if I want to suggest that an inkstone might be important, I have to explain to my reader that an inkstone is a heavy object with a well used for grinding and containing ink. The explanation calls too much attention to the clue. The challenge is to use specific historical details without compromising the conventions of the genre. It’s a challenge that is also a joy.

My agent and my editor at Minotaur were excited about the story, and have shown me nothing but enthusiasm and support. Readers have said they’ve enjoyed learning about a time and place that was new to them. At the same time, I hope that the story is strong enough for the setting not to be a deterrent even for readers less inclined to turn their imaginations to the borderlands of the Chinese empire in the 18th century. When I wrote Jade Dragon Mountain, I was reading books by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman and Ray Bradbury. I hope that there are deep currents of narrative in Jade Dragon Mountain that appeal to an audience beyond readers of historical mysteries. Hamza’s tales are an area where I think this shows – one is inspired half by a story written by Agatha Christie, and half by a story written by Jorge Luis Borges.

Do you have a particular number of books in mind for Li Du? If you were to leave 18th century China, where would you like to go? Is there another genre you'd like to work in?
Jade Dragon Mountain started a character arc for Li Du that, in my mind, spans three books, three puzzles to see him through his exile and to a resolution. I could see more adventures for Li Du after that, but I’m also interested in even more of a departure from reality. I’ve been thinking a lot about historical records lately, about physical objects and digitization and mixed up files. I think that my heart is in the mystery genre, but I might start to play a little bit more with time and space.

You grew up in Moscow. By any chance, was Martin Cruz Smith (author of Gorky Park and Polar Star) an influence?
I don’t know his books well, but I do know Gorky Park! I was a child in Moscow from 1986 to 1991. At that time I was not noticing much beyond the snow castles I was building in the park and the disintegrating plastic playgrounds surrounded by wooden sculptures of characters from Russian fairy tales. I’d like to read more Martin Cruz Smith. John le Carre was definitely an influence. There was a copy of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in a cafe in Lijiang. I copied out whole paragraphs in order to study le Carre’s approach to narrative perspective.

Any words to the literary snobs who look down their noses at mysteries?
Snobbishness is so often more about fear than it is about taste. We tend to judge when we are afraid of being judged. A good novel pulls a reader into a world from which the reader emerges with a new perspective on his own. There is nothing about writing within the conventions of a genre that prevents a writer from writing a good novel.


The Haunted Mountains

A chat with Pulitzer Prize winning author Julia Keller.

She may have one of the most eclectic resumes in publishing today. Just a few of her books: Mr. Gatling’s Terrible Marvel: The Gun That Changed Everything and the Misunderstood Genius Who Invented It, a nonfiction account of the inventor of the Gatling Gun, Richard Jordan Gatling; Back Home, a young adult novel about a girl whose father suffers a traumatic brain injury while serving with the National Guard in Iraq; and the Bell Elkins mystery series, set in Acker’s Gap, West Virginia, which began with A Killing in the Hills and continues to the latest installment, Sorrow Road. And of course, there’s that Pulitzer, for feature writing in 2005. Prior to her August 23 appearance at Aunt Agatha’s bookstore in Ann Arbor, Julia Keller took a few moments to talk to Current about the joys and occasional drudgery of mystery writing.

CURRENT: What do you love about genre writing? What are the challenges of mystery writing, and in particular, in writing a serial? Do you ever get tired of your protagonist?
When I was a kid, I'd get breathless and excited when I beheld a series of books lined up on a shelf, with all of those identical spines. Nancy Drew, Tom Swift, Brains Benton — the idea of a series stirred my blood. I'd practically hyperventilate. And I always dreamed of having my own series. I'm writing the sixth novel in my Bell Elkins series right now, and I suppose I do grow a bit weary at times of some of her issues — just as I might grow weary of hearing a friend repeatedly complain about her or his problems. (My problems, of course, are always fascinating, and my friends are never bored by them. Right?) Keeping characters fresh and surprising is a major challenge. Am I meeting that challenge? Check back with me in a few months and I'll let you know.

Who would play Bell in the movie version?
Jennifer Garner. No wait — Ashley Judd. No, wait — Maria Bello. No, wait — Michelle Pfeiffer.

Do you feel there's a common thread that runs through all your work?
Yes. I wouldn't have said so at the outset of my fiction-writing career — I did not set out with a manifesto, or with a prime directive, "Star Trek"-style — but as I look back at what I've written, I do see a theme running through my imagination like a river: grappling with the past, and coming to terms with regret and disillusionment. West Virginia, where my series is set, is a place haunted by the past. The mountains, I often think, are symbols of the past that brood over the landscape. You can't escape them. You can't turn away from them. And so you must learn how to live with them.

Do you ever find the messy parts of crime fiction — learning about what happens to bodies killed in a particular way, how different killing methods would proceed, etc — kind of, well, icky? Is there any aspect of this series where you kind of have to grit your teeth and get through it?
Wonderful question — and one that's not asked nearly often enough. Crime fiction necessarily involves the worst moments of human existence: the destruction of bodies, the infliction of pain, the uneven course of justice. To write about these ghastly aspects of life is to immerse oneself in tragedy and death. It's a matter of factual accuracy, yes, but it's also a matter of moral and spiritual accuracy. I took firearms training at a shooting club near my home, because I believed it was important to know what it feels like to hold a handgun, to shoot it, to feel the weight of it — and by "weight' I mean not just the density of the gun, but also the heaviness of the idea that holding a gun means that one is holding, as George Pelecanos put it, "a piece of death in one's hands."

Are there writers on the shelves at Aunt Agatha's that will be hard for you to resist?
Yes, indeed, there are irresistible literary artists at work today, writers who happen to specialize in crime fiction. Stuart Neville, Belinda Bauer, Michael Connelly, Elizabeth George, Sue Grafton, Michael Cruz Smith, Jo Bannister, the late Henning Mankell — a novel by any of these writers is a cause for celebration. A store such as Aunt Agatha's is an unalloyed cultural good.

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