by Sparkle Hayter
Published by No Exit Press (UK)
256 pages, 2002
The Robin Hudson Mysteries:
Also by Sparkle Hayter:
While interviewing Sparkle Hayter, we were struck by the parallels between her life and Ernest Hemingway's. Hemingway was a journalist who experienced and covered war first-hand, traveled widely, resided in Paris, lived life by his own rules and wrote novels in a voice that resonated with his generation. Hayter is a highly respected journalist, who in the 1990s accompanied the Afghani mujahideen as they fought off Soviet invaders. She travels widely, is residing in Paris while at work on her next novel, lives life by her own rules and writes in a 21st-century voice of experienced urban hipness. She's also a successful stand-up comedienne. You can catch her act in New York City on those infrequent occasions when she's in town.
Hayter insists that Ernest Hemingway is a much, much better writer and journalist than she is. But she's cuter and writes funnier chase scenes, including those found in her latest novel, Naked Brunch (released earlier this year in the UK and Canada, and due out in the States in 2003).
Born in 1958 in Pouce Coupé, a small town in northern British Columbia, Canada, Hayter went on to spend most of her childhood in Edmonton, Alberta. In 1980, though, she ran away to Manhattan, where she found work in TV news, eventually doing a five-year stint at CNN. After that, feeling "burnt out and bitter," she wrote her first novel, set at the thinly disguised "All News Network" (ANN). "It was very much a roman à clef ; I killed off people I knew," Hayter has since explained. The exercise didn't convince her to devote her life to writing mysteries. Instead, she moved to Pakistan and reported on the Afghan-Soviet war for Toronto's Global TV. It was only after one particularly harrowing four-hour trek through a minefield behind some Frenchmen and a flatulent packhorse that Hayter realized she'd had it with full-time journalism. She returned to New York, got married, broke into the world of stand-up comedy, celebrated the publication of her first novel (What's a Girl Gotta Do?), moved to Tokyo for a time, then boomeranged back to Manhattan, got divorced, had five more books published and became the proud recipient of a tattoo. (Don't ask for specifics.)
Hayter still contributes occasional pieces to The Nation and The New York Times' op-ed page. However, most of her writing energy these days is spent on twisted tales of urban humanity. The first five of her character-driven novels were satirical murder mysteries that provided wild and crazy romps through the environs of New York City and the inner circle of the news business, all in company with Robin Hudson, a reporter with ANN (at least until she moved over to the new Worldwide Women's Network [WWN] in The Chelsea Girl Murders). Hailing from a dinky burg in the American Rust Belt, red-headed Robin is a witty, feisty and glamorous girl (Hayter describes her as a "slightly rumpled" Rita Hayworth), who now fends for herself in the Big Apple -- more successfully at some times than others. Being nonviolent, she prefers pepper-spray and an epilater to a handgun, and grows poison ivy in the window boxes of her Lower East Side apartment as a crime deterrent.
As if Robin's adventures with S&M, moguls, mobsters and animal-rights activists weren't humorous enough on their own, her eccentric friends and coworkers add to the tales' lightheartedness. Dr. Solange Stevenson, for instance, is a psychologist and ANN broadcast personality, who loves nothing better than to practice her manipulative techniques on Robin. Jack Jackson -- "Our Fearless Leader, aka Daddy Warbucks due to a more than passing resemblance" -- is the CEO of Jackson Broadcasting and its subsidiaries, including ANN and WWN. And then there's Robin's boss, Jerry Spurdle, who swings between being annoying and wreaking more havoc than a tornado. He's often rude, crude and lewd, but behind it all he actually likes Robin and is really trying to "do the right thing" for her. Too bad his techniques are so coarse. Still, for all of Spurdle's shortcomings, this mystery series would suffer without him.
The Robin Hudson novels have won Hayter some impressive honors. She picked up Canada's Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Novel in 1995 and added to that Britain's Sherlock Award for Best Comic Detective in 1999.
Yet Naked Brunch is something of a departure. Rather than sassy Robin in the real New York City, it gives us Annie Engel, who lives in a fantasy world that's a lot like New York. Except that it's infested with werewolves. Annie, a legal secretary known for her sweet demeanor, is horrified to learn that she, too, becomes a wolf during full moons and hies forth to chew at the flabby throats of wealthy men. When Dr. Marco Potenza, who operates a clandestine clinic for recovering werewolves, offers to help Annie with her time-of-the-month problem, she doesn't refuse. But can she control her wild urges? Should she? At the heart of Hayter's sixth novel -- and her first standalone -- are thorny questions about species-ism. Must Annie and her breed hide in the shadows, or should werewolves be allowed to live openly, without fear of societal harassment? And since they prey exclusively on corrupt humans (corporate power-mongers, weapons merchants, etc.), is a higher power or justice at work? Don't let the moral dilemmas scare you away from Naked Brunch. This is a tightly woven tapestry of ancient fairy-tale creatures and modern life, a fantasy suffused with humor.
Hayter recently shared her thoughts about Naked Brunch and the current troubles in Afghanistan, as well as her views on true love, "tart noir" and folks who figure her name can't possibly be for real.
Newton Love/Delphine Cingal: When did you start becoming a writer? Was there a pivotal event that was integral to your journey?
Sparkle Hayter: My parents were both writers, so I think it was just natural for me to write. I had a speech defect as a kid, and was a weirdo anyway, and any kind of isolating circumstance contributes. But I know a lot of writers who didn't start writing until they were grown-ups, and were never weirdoes, so every journey is different.
Where do you draw your inspiration? What is the source of your creative spirit?
I don't know that I could pin it down. A need to describe what I see? To comment on it and question it? To explain the world to myself and myself to the world? To make myself laugh? I'm tempted to use the old joke, "I do it for the money." But I don't think anyone but the most foresighted and ambitious best-selling author gets into it for that reason. That would just be sad. If you want to make money, get into business, not the arts! Crime pays better than crime writing for most people.
Which writers have influenced your style?
Everyone from Dr. Seuss to Margaret Atwood has probably had an influence on me and everyone else who has read them, in some fashion.
In your opinion, what does it take to be a great writer?
Passion, originality, craft, sweat, perseverance and enough of an ego to get you through rejection slips. Craft is something I'm still learning.
You have been a stand-up comedienne in clubs. What impact has that had on you, and what impact did it have on your writing?
It helped me conquer my fear of public speaking. Fast! It was fun, too, and I still do it a couple times a year. It was a great way to test ideas and material while I was writing, because you get an immediate response on stage and learn about comic timing. And I met some really great people doing it. I also learned to think on my feet when heckled.
What are your chief sources of subject matter when you're putting together a stand-up routine? Do you favor any particular type of humor?
The news is good, the wire services. I love to do jokes about politics, weird scientific developments, cultural trends and myself.
Like most of the best things in my life, I was meandering along and fluked into it. I ran out of books to read while I was backpacking around India in 1986, and traded all my books with another backpacker for a bunch of Simon Brett mysteries, featuring hapless but human actor Charles Paris. I loved them, and when I ran out of those, I wrote my own, the first draft of What's a Girl Gotta Do? I did it just for fun. Whenever I'd get to a big city, like Calcutta, I'd find a copy shop and make copies to send to CNN friends, just to amuse them. My friend Diana Greene thought I should rewrite [the draft] and get it published and pushed me to do this, though I then wanted to be a more "serious" writer. I did eventually give in, and I rewrote that book a few times, with several different plots, before it was finally published. Now it seems like an obvious choice, but it's an obvious choice I lucked into.
Is it much more difficult to write humorous novels than serious ones?
I don't know what is harder. Serious fiction is harder for me; my instincts just lead me more to funny stuff. But there are times in life when it is impossible to be funny, and you have to step away and deal with life -- and the deadline be damned. It's hard work like any work. I have to rewrite a lot to get the story I like.
Many women writers, like P.D. James and Ruth Rendell, use male detectives. Did you think it was important for you to go with a female character, instead?
Robin was, in the second draft, a man. But since I've never walked around in a man's body or made love to a woman, I didn't feel I could write from that point of view as well as I could from the point of view of a female protagonist. A lot of stuff is universal human stuff, but there are some differences.
Why did you choose a clumsy journalist for a detective hero?
Well, for one thing, it's funny. A comedy staple, the way we mess up. Most people are clumsy some of the time. People who think/daydream a lot seem particularly prone to this. I know I've had some hilarious mishaps because I was walking along the street, pondering some nagging question or thinking about a character, and I've walked smack dab into a light pole, tripped and fallen flamboyantly, or knocked over someone. [Robin Hudson] is clumsy in other situations sometimes, too. I love superheroes, but I think one gets as good an understanding of how to survive and succeed by watching a flawed "womensch" wrestle with life's problems as one gets watching hyper-competent superwomen. Life is messy. But when the chips are down, Robin is also resourceful and able to figure her way out of the mess. Clumsy in some ways, not in others.
Why did Robin need to have Jerry Spurdle as a foil? Why not another foil, another type of boss?
Robin has several foils. There's also Solange Stevenson, the cool, hard, passive-aggressive. She represents a number of women I've known. Men too, of course, but the women who are skilled at this kind of covert power are much better at it than men, because women historically didn't have overt power and so that left-handedness developed more in women, I think. Robin isn't as good at this kind of thing, and has a hard time defending herself playing by Solange's rules. When Robin tries to make peace with Solange in a mature way in The Last Manly Man, saying she's sorry for giving Solange a hard time and that she respects what Solange has accomplished, Solange refuses to play by those rules and doesn't reciprocate. It's a petty power-politics thing, but it's something most people have to contend with in daily life, and it's an analogy for conflict, in general.
In contrast, Jerry is much more in-your-face. I love Jerry. Jerry is that jerk you'd like to throttle, but for every time he screws you over, he helps you out. He loves to goad Robin, and their exchanges are some of my favorites, but she plays a role in her own situation by reacting to his provocations in the early books. I've known a few guys like him. He's a jerk, but he's fairly honest about it.
You seem to have drifted away from veiled references to CNN. The early Robin Hudson books were fun, with occasional references to characters who bore a passing resemblance to real people, such as Larry King. But those references seem to have disappeared. Will there be more ANN intrigue now that Robin Hudson is on the world desk?
As the series developed, it took her more outside ANN, so the media references declined because they weren't as relevant to the story. But ANN and WWN are very relevant in the sixth episode, which I am working on now.
If someone were to adapt one of your novels as a film, which one would you choose? Who would you like to have play Robin, or any of your other characters?
It's hard to choose, because there are moments of physical comedy in each book that I'm dying to see on the screen -- the granny-weapon scene and wheelchair chase in Revenge of the Cootie Girls, for example. Visually, though, I think Nice Girls Finish Last might have the most fun stuff, with Aunt Mo and the scenes at the S&M club. As for actors, any good comic actress would take Robin and make the part her own. And I'm fine with that. I had a list of actresses I liked, but since then, a couple who were outside the box asked after the rights, and both of them would have been wonderful. I had to adjust my view of it. If the actor can nail Robin's core personality, and do the comedy, she's the right actor.
I've always thought James Garner would make a great Jack Jackson, though!
Do you have a favorite among your Robin Hudson novels?
It sounds corny, but the truth is they are all my favorites in different ways, like children. The chase scenes and set-pieces in one may be my favorites, the characters or politically incorrect mischief in another may be favorites on another level. [What's a Girl Gotta Do?], which I rewrote many times and saw through three dozen rejections over a six-year period, has a special place for me. When it came out in January 1994, it was considered kind of odd, and it took a while to get accepted. It was the first, and I love it for its freshness and the humor.
If you could go back and rewrite one of your books, knowing all that you do about writing now, which would it be?
Cootie Girls. I'd smooth it out and tighten the plot hole, which is big enough to put your fist through. But I suspect nobody reads me for the crackerjack plots, so even if I had the chance, I probably wouldn't rewrite. I'd rather put that time and energy into writing something new. I definitely would not change anything about Robin in the earlier books, because I think some of the fun is watching her change from an angry, tough girl in the first book to someone stronger and less knee-jerk later on.
Let's talk a bit about your latest novel. Why has Naked Brunch been called a "modern Grimm's fairy tale and a comedy with both heart and teeth"?
It features magnificent beasts and monsters, queens and courtiers, and true love, but in a modern setting where the characters are recognizable. The true monsters in the book are real -- they are based on real news stories -- and the heroes are like people I know, but [the book] uses fantasy to tell their tales.
As an artist and writer, what were you striving for in this book?
I didn't intend to write this book. Wolves and werewolves were something I wrote about whenever I'd get blocked writing other things, just to clear the pipes and loosen my screws. I was writing a completely different book but kept getting blocked, and this story just overtook the other one after all these years. I was striving to tell a funny, compelling story, a twisted little beach book.
Can you see yourself writing more non-series novels? Do you have any ideas already?
Yes, I am under contract for another standalone and am working on it when I'm not working on the sixth Robin Hudson, Last Girl Standing. The next standalone is not magical realism, but it will be in the third-person and involve a cast of characters somewhat like Naked Brunch. This is the book I was supposed to be writing when I wrote Naked Brunch, instead. I guess I wasn't ready to write it then.
You were instrumental in starting the Web site Tart City and creating "tart noir." Is tart noir a subgenre or a movement in literature? What makes it distinct from other "noirs"?
To me, tart noir is noir fiction that is tart and funny without being too lightweight and frivolous. There's darkness in these books, even if it's just dark humor. It's also noir where the "tart," the rebel or "bad girl," is not the victim or the betrayer, she's the cynical, maverick heroine. It's about women who are tough enough to take on the bad guys and tender enough to be moved by the good guys, and live by their own lights.
Name some book titles or authors that fit into this category of crime fiction.
There are so many, and I'm sure to leave someone out and piss people off. By my definition, Sue Grafton is queen; she's got a sexy, strong, witty protagonist who is a victor instead of a victim. The various writers on the Tart City site are all tart noir in some fashion or other. Noreen Ayres is pretty cool, writes tough, vivid books for such a petite blonde bombshell, and knows how to shoot a gun. Outside of books, I think Talullah Bankhead, Theda Bara, Joan Jett, Debbie Harry and Madonna are tart noir icons. Lynne Russell, the former CNN headlines anchorwoman, is a licensed bodyguard and private detective who sometimes read the news with her pistol strapped to the inside of her thigh. That's pretty tart noir.
So, what is the future of tart noir?
I don't know the future of tart noir. I created the Web site for the tart noir group and edited the launch issue [in January 2000], then I started heading in a different direction and now have nothing to do with the site, though I think it's a lot of fun. It was a lot of work dreaming up that site and doing the HTML (which current webmistress Beth Tindall did a lot of work fixing -- please mention that). But I had to compromise a lot to make it a place the other women felt comfortable with, and in the end, I'd compromised myself out of it, and didn't feel comfortable with it anymore. I figured if I was going to do that much work on behalf of others, it should probably be people who really needed my work. I was already involved in some human-rights stuff, and I just devoted more time to it after that.
It was important in the past to have a distinct women's writing movement. But did women writers achieve equality in fiction during the 20th century?
In some ways, no. Men still seem to win more of the prizes, etc. But women are closing in. They write some of the best books, and women buy more books than men do statistically, so things are more equal now. I find that women who write in ways and forms considered "female" find easier acceptance than those who write more hard-boiled stuff, but that's changing, too. Witness Mo Hayder and Val McDermid. In France, there's Catherine Fradier, a former Paris cop who now lives in Valence and writes noir fiction. In the U.S., there's Katy Munger, Elizabeth Cosin, Karin Slaughter. Just to name a few.
What advice do you have for women writers in the 21st century?
We're going to have to be tougher and more tender, and turn our focus from our own patch of land and parochial concerns to the wider world beyond. The shit has hit the fan, as we say, and we're going to need all the good-hearted she-wolf bitches we can find to work with the good guys of the world.
What are your views on the evolution of this genre over the next 20 years?
I think detective fiction will evolve and experiment with different forms, but the central questions will remain the same. And there will always be a place for the classic mystery.
What impact would you like to have on detective fiction, or on the writing industry, in general?
I don't expect to have much impact on detective fiction. Maybe loosen a few screws. I wish I could have more impact on the industry. I'd like people to buy their books at their indie stores instead of the book supermarkets, though I've had some great experiences with some chain stores.
What do you see as the most distinguishing trait of your writing?
It's funny and different. I don't think I can be objective enough to say more than that.
What are the weaknesses you still have to overcome as an author?
I'm slow and like to write really wild -- I love and need that freedom -- so I have to rewrite a lot later. Craft and tight control aren't my strong points, but there are advantages to that, too -- more surprise, more spontaneity. And I wouldn't want to lose those things just to make a book conform to a higher literary standard or whatever. If I can improve without losing the surprise, that would be nice.
What single thing do you wish you had known starting out in this business, but that you only learned much later?
Single thing? Too many things. You work in obscurity for a long time before you get published, and all of a sudden you get a lot of attention -- some of it very weird attention -- and that can be hard to handle, that jump cut from being solitary and unknown to being read, praised, criticized, etc. I wish I'd had a better grasp on all that in the beginning, but what the hell. Live and learn. In that order.
Robin Hudson calls true love a "madness." Are your views on that subject reflected in her opinions, or are they different?
I'll keep my views out of it, because whatever I say now is sure to come back and bite me in the butt a year from now. I prefer to keep my private life private.
As for Robin ... [True love] is very far down the list of priorities for Robin at the moment. Robin enjoys being free most of the time. She gives her relationships her best effort under the circumstances, but so far has found that it's too hard to be the woman she needs to be and the woman a man needs her to be at the same time.
Publishers and booksellers have created categories in fiction -- mysteries, thrillers and the rest. But there is a lot of confusion over the use of such categories. Sometimes one book can be found in multiple categories, depending on the bookstore or the marketing effort of the publisher. What are your views on this?
If they can't categorize [a book] neatly, they can't sell it. It's overly simplistic. But I understand the problem. You want to put books mystery readers will like in the "Mystery" section so they can find them, but other readers may miss out on something they'd like that way. That's why I love the indies I've been to, those that specialize in mysteries, and those that carry general fiction and non-fiction. They hand-sell. A customer doesn't have to hunt down a book or take a chance. The indie staff will recommend books.
With writers being published in all countries, and films being shown worldwide, do you think the 21st century might produce a world-village set of combined cultural iconography and heritage?
Maybe. There is obviously a lot more flow of ideas and cultural iconography, and this could be a very good thing. I don't mean cultural imperialism, but more of a free trade in culture. I didn't like the movie Titanic until I read a couple of years ago that it was an illegal video hit in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. It got so bad, the Taliban had to crack down on young men flocking to get haircuts like Leonardo DiCaprio. I watched the movie again, and I saw it with different eyes -- a story about a young man who lives life by his own rules and wants the woman he loves to be free to do the same. That had a lot of resonance under the Taliban.
Two other things happened around the same time. I happened to catch a soap-opera from Iran on one of New York's public-access stations, a subtitled rebroadcast from Tehran. In it, a young man and woman, who were not married (already pretty shocking), were talking. The boy said he wanted the freedom to question everything, and the young woman looked in his eyes and said, "Ah, you're a seeker, too." It may seem corny, but these were milestones.
I then got a letter from a reader in Saudi Arabia, a then-16-year-old boy. It was a very witty and frustrated letter from a middle-class guy who had traveled and had a lot of privileges, but still felt oppressed and hemmed in by his country's culture and religion. It made me think about all the mavericks and rebels out there who are struggling for more freedom, for basic human rights, often with little or no outside support. As the flow of ideas increases, it's easier for these people to connect and find support and strength in numbers. Robin's job with [the] Worldwide [Women's] Network allows her to play with these ideas. It also means I can watch Iranian soap-operas and call it work.
You're obviously politically aware. Do you see Robin developing politically?
Mais oui. I like keeping her a tad naïve, partly because it's her last shred of innocence, and partly because it allows her to ask questions about different issues. She's trying to figure it out, but she's not politically correct about it and she'll never be orthodox in her views. It's fun when I let her be devil's advocate, sometimes against my own personal beliefs.
At his first showing at Cannes, director Martin Scorcese was asked about a scene from one of his films. A man in the film had asked a woman if she wanted to go to the country. Scorcese was asked if this scene was a denouncement of the urban machine in favor of a more pastoral culture? Scorcese was caught unaware. He eventually replied, "They just wanted to visit the country and see some pretty scenery." So, is there a political statement behind Robin Hudson leaving the empire that the United States has become for a more "connected" place in France?
It was because of a man. I was seeing a man who lived here [in Paris], and that made me focus on the idea of living here. The romance didn't work out, but by then I had already written Robin going to Paris at the end of Chelsea Girls, so I had to come here to write the next episode. I painted myself into a very nice corner. France does work very nicely into some of Robin's pet themes, though: men and women, media, power and politics, and communication problems between people. She can look at these things from a different point of view here. Also, it's got pretty scenery!
As a journalist who once worked in Afghanistan, what is your view of the events going on there now?
I'm glad to see the Taliban and Al Qaeda driven out, for the most part. Too bad [the U.S. and its allies] haven't caught any of the real leaders yet. I like [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai, but am still angry that the U.S. didn't help [the late Afghan resistance commander] Abdul Haq, who was a great, charismatic guy. And I worry the U.S. knowledge of Afghan tribal politics isn't yet sufficient. I also worry that people will forget about Afghanistan the way most of the world forgot after the Soviets pulled out [of there] in 1989.
Do you think that Western nations prosecuted the war in Afghanistan as best they could?
The war was clumsy and uninformed because of a lack of good intelligence, and so thousands of innocent Afghans were killed and the leaders of Al Qaeda and the Taliban somehow managed to escape. But I am happy to see the rat's nest cleared out and Afghanistan on the road to recovery, and I give the U.S. credit for that. Now, if the West keeps its promises to help rebuild that beaten-down and beautiful country, Afghanistan could be free again -- freer than before.
Do you think peace has a chance in that war-ravaged nation?
Yes, I do. The tribal politics and ethnic divisions will be a problem, though so far things have gone relatively well in that regard. Religion may be tricky, but Afghanistan was -- pre-Soviets -- the "Southern California of Islam," as a friend of mine put it. It was a freer, independent, more culturally advanced and tolerant place than most countries in that region ... until the Soviets went in and made Muslims defensive, and then the U.S., Pakistan and the Arab states exploited that and fed the extreme Islamic factions in order to use them against the Soviets in the Cold War. Sufism -- a tolerant, mystical form of Islam -- was very big there. It annoys me when people lump all Muslims together or make it seem that it's that particular religion that's the problem, when the problem is any blind adherence to any unquestioning religion or belief system. Islam is taking even more knocks now that Catholicism, despite the scandals in the Catholic Church. All this does is serve to make Muslims defensive, which curbs the debate within Islam for reform.
My hope is that Afghanistan will become a model for development and for religious and social reform.
Do you like living in France?
I love it. Some of my friends think I'm not cynical enough. One, Patrick Boman, handed me a piece of dried bread spread with stinging hot mustard and said, "Here, taste this. This is the real Paris."
It has its human problems, too. But it is undoubtedly a place that celebrates art and humanity, ideas and pleasure, without the puritan guilt of the U.S. and Canada. I came here six weeks after September 11, reluctantly at that point, and people were exceptionally kind and helpful. The beauty and history of the place, and all it has survived, and how it has grown from its tragedies as well as its triumphs, was very soothing and energizing at the same time for me.
What were your thoughts on France's recent elections?
I was impressed at the way people stood up and declared that [presidential candidate Jean-Marie] Le Pen was not all of France, he only represented a small minority. I was impressed with the positive, joyful mood of the anti-Le Pen demonstrations. I love the way people take to the streets here. The government may have the official power, but if it does something the people don't like, they get off their asses and make their feelings known. I get very homesick for New York sometimes, though.
What's the one thing you miss most about New York City?
One thing? The Chelsea Hotel and my friends and neighbors there, and -- this is affiliated -- the people at the Aristocrat Deli. And the guys at the now-defunct "Donuts" shop on 8th and 23rd, where they thought my name was Linda for some reason. I think about those places every day.
Let's say you suddenly find yourself marooned on a desert island. Which five books would you most want to have with you as you await rescue?
Five empty notebooks and enough pens to fill them. Or the Pelican complete Shakespeare, the collected works of Mark Twain, the complete poems of W.H. Auden, Ten Ever-Lovin' Blue-Eyed Years of Pogo and the next Harry Potter book.
Finally, have you ever made a count of how many times you've been asked whether Sparkle Hayter is your real name? Has it reached a million yet?
I lost count. Lots of people don't believe me when I tell them my name, and I've learned to not tell them anything else after that about my crazy life or they think I'm lying and making fun of them. I can't lie about my age, because too many people have seen my birth certificate, although I don't show it to people anymore. If they don't believe me, too bad. | July 2002
Newton Love is a war-gamer now working at a think-tank in Annapolis, Maryland. His first novel is currently being looked over by a French publisher. Delphine Cingal, a university professor in Paris, is working on biographies of crime writers P.D. James and Pierre Siniac.