Thursday, September 28, 2006


Libby Fischer Hellmann is the outgoing president of Sisters In Crime, the national organization founded in 1986 to work for women crime fiction writers. Libby is concluding her tenure leading this vibrant, active organization. I thought it a good time to get her views on her year as president and the future.

CARL BROOKINS-Now that your presidential year is over, how do you feel about it? Was it what you thought it would be?

LFH-It was – in a word – busy. And productive. We started several new programs ($300 grants for promotion for authors), we expanded our website, we planned and executed a number of 20th anniversary programs, including a national promotion with Borders, independent bookstores, and in a few months, libraries. We planned the first ever “SINC goes to Hollywood” conference (to educate members how to sell to the movies), we hired a PR firm, we revamped our Monitoring Project, we started publication of an Anniversary anthology featuring former Presidents, we reworked a number of our publications, including a national brochure, our Books in Print, and we’re starting production on a new publication, tentatively called “Mystery Matters.”

It was busier than I thought it would be, but at the same time, it was without question the most gratifying thing I’ve ever done. The people that make up this organization are truly special. And talented. Everyone who was asked to perform a task, from Directors to volunteer members, did a terrific job, without complaint. I’ve never been involved with an organization with so many accomplished members, so little friction, and practically no politics. It’s been a remarkable year.

What one accomplishment during your year gives you the most satisfaction?

LFH-People tell me the organization has never been this energetic before, so I’ll claim that – infusing new energy into SINC – as my greatest accomplishment. I’m also very proud that we reached out to booksellers, both independents and chains, to let them know our members need them as much as they need us. I’m also proud of revamping the Monitoring Project. We now monitor over 60 publications regularly (for reviews of mysteries by women vs men) and because we do it online, we’re able to call up accurate data pretty much at will.

CB-Were there disappointments? What did you want to accomplish that you weren't able to do?

LFH-I would have liked to work on our relationship with publishers more directly, ie what can SINC do to encourage publishers to give their authors (particularly female) more support.

CB-What was the biggest surprise your presidency brought you?

LFH-That we could accomplish so much with so little. It was incredibly rewarding and affirming to come up with an idea, discuss it, vote on it, and then actually implement it. I don’t think there are many organizations as nimble or as accommodating. Not to say that we were impulsive, because we’re not – the women on the National Board are some of the wisest, but most creative people I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with. That, I think, was the biggest, and most enjoyable, surprise. That we could actually GET THINGS DONE! I hope that never changes.

CB-How has the world of publishing crime fiction changed in the recent past (or during your year)?

L FH-How much time do you have? Unfortunately, the market is becoming grimmer every day. Mass market sales are down, hard cover print runs are down, and individual titles have an ever shrinking window of time to succeed. Because of these factors, it becomes even more important to “seed” the success of a book before it hits the stores. IE Arc campaigns are critical, as are wooing influencers and arranging for co-op sales. All of which are difficult for an author to do without a publisher’s support. On top of that, the public is reading less, particularly fiction. So the author is getting squeezed coming and going. It’s not a particularly sanguine situation.

SinC has become a significant and growing presence on the crime fiction scene. Do you foresee a time when a separate gender-based organization will no longer be needed?

LFH-I wish I could say yes, but the reality is I don’t think so. When you stop pushing against a boulder, inertia and/or gravity often tilts it back the other way. We’ve made tremendous strides in attaining parity in the mystery community, but I think we’ll always need to be out there pushing.

CB-There are significant and ever-faster changes in our publishing universe. Do you foresee a time when the printed book becomes a dusty relic of a bygone era? Do you think there will be a time when your children or grandchildren will do most of their reading from screens, rather than the printed page?

LFH-It’s already happening. The problem is people are not reading books. They’re reading other things in much shorter, more palatable chunks of prose. I’m afraid you’re right, though, and it’s sad – I get such pleasure from reading a book that it’s impossible to think other people don’t.

CB-How's your personal writing going? Did you have to set aside your career for this past year as President of Sisters in Crime?

LFH-They say that being President of an organization like this means you lose a book during your tenure. That may be the case, but I write slowly anyway, so it’s hard to measure. But there will be another year before my new book comes out. I do have a couple of short stories coming out, though. One in October, the other in December.

CB-What's next for Libby Fischer Hellmann, author?

I have a new agent, and we’ve just finished revising my next novel, tentatively called EASY INNOCENCE. It’s a stand-alone PI book, featuring Georgia Davis (she was a cop in my 3rd Ellie Foreman book, AN IMAGE OF DEATH). It’s a mystery/thriller set on the North Shore of Chicago, and it deals with high school girls and what can happen to them when they’re not adequately protected or supervised.

CB-Thanks, Libby. For more, including membership information, go to For more information on upcoming activities of author Libby Fischer Hellman go to

Wednesday, September 13, 2006


Rules of the Mystery

Monsignor Ronald Knox was an avid reader, critic and essayist on mystery fiction in the early part of the Twentieth Century, as well as a novelist and writer of short stories. Originally an Anglican, he converted to Catholicism in 1917. In 1928 he published his “Decalogue of the Mystery: The ten rules of detective fiction.” Some of the rules are written in language that today is offensive, but I have tried to preserve the original, not as a comment on the writer, but as a comment on the society of the time.

1. Introduce the murderer early, but readers should not be allowed to know the murderer’s thoughts.

2. All super natural or preternatural agencies are to be ruled out.

3. No accidents or unaccountable intuition.

4. Only one secret passageway is allowed.

5. All clues must be shown at once.

6. Never make the detective the killer.

7. No exotic rule-free killers. (actually he wrote no Chinamen)

8. No undiscovered poisons.

9. No unprepared-for twins or doubles.

10. The stupid friend of the detective must never conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind, and his intelligence must be very slightly below that of the average reader.

These ten rules have guided writers ever since. Of course, many fine writers have and continue to twist, bend and violate those rules. But, as Beethoven is purported to have said to one of his students of composition, “it is hard to effectively break the rules until you know what the rules are.”