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June 2006

How to Make an American (Hardboiled) Quilt

No Good Deeds When I was in my 20s, I read somewhere that anyone who could sew a straight line could make a quilt. I knew how to sew a straight line -- just. I bought a pattern book and chose the pinwheel, which required only one shape, an isosceles triangle, and two contrasting fabrics. I selected a burgundy print and a mauve one, which complemented the Laura Ashley sheets I owned at the time. Triangle was sewn to triangle, forming a square, then square was joined to square, four times over, and the final effect was mesmerizing to the eye, sort of like the backdrop used to suggest vertigo in old movies. From city to city, from apartment to duplex to house, I carried my squares in an antique picnic basket. The quilt top requires 81 squares, which means 648 triangles must be cut and assembled.

Two decades later, I'm still working on it. Theoretically. It's been months, maybe years, since I've sat in front of the television and completed a square. (Maybe programs such as this require more concentration? That's my story and I'm sticking to it.) I'm not as fond of burgundy and mauve as I used to be. Even if I were, those Laura Ashley sheets are long gone. I also have no idea how I'm going to complete the final step, the actual quilting. There are disturbing rumors about the need for something called a "hoop."

Then again, finishing was never the point. When I do find the time, I like the act of sewing, the Zen concentration of making those tiny stitches along a straight seam. In the old Sun newsroom, we had something called "the Wall," where unconsciously funny statements were typed on index cards. I was immortalized on the Wall thusly: "I think I must have been a hamster in a previous life because I'd be very happy, going around in my little wheel."

The quilt, of course, is a handy metaphor for the series writer. (So is the hamster in its wheel, come to think of it.) With Tess Monaghan, I am locked into certain decisions made a decade ago. Luckily, few of them involve mauve. In fact, I take great delight in looking back at Tess's history and using odd, seemingly trivial details to move her forward. In No Good Deeds, which goes on sale at the end of this month, a tossed-off moment from The Sugar House provides a key plot point, while a never-seen character alluded to in earlier books finally puts in an appearance. Like the pieces of the quilt I'll never finish, I carry Tess and her history with me everywhere. And given that I save the dead or decommissioned computers on which her earlier adventures were written -- a Mac Classic II, an orange iBook clam, a big blueberry of an iMac -- that's a lot more baggage than a picnic basket filled with cloth.

Only I didn't limit myself to the two-fabric pinwheel and I'm not hung up on symmetry with this project. Tess's quilt is more like a crazy quilt, and it includes scraps culled from writers whose work I love. No Good Deeds deliberately invokes Donald Westlake, Michael Chabon, Kate Atkinson, Phillip K. Dick, Walter Mosley, Stephen King. But it is, first and foremost, an homage to Early Autumn, my favorite Robert B. Parker novel.

I've tagged Parker before in my books. (Didn't anyone pick up on the coffee house called Pearl's in By a Spider's Thread, the one decorated with photos of German short-hair pointers? No? My editor must be right about these inside jokes.) But No Good Deeds was meant to be a straight-up tribute, a reworking of a classic story, in which a man helps a boy become a man. Dave White has called the result "Early Autumn on speed." (In interest of full disclosure, I once bought Mr. White the all-lump crabcake at Faidley's and he's acknowledged in the book for helping me with a bit of pop culture trivia. Still, he's a pretty good judge of crime fiction.)

But a funny thing happened on the way to the homage. It turned out that the teenager in my tale, Lloyd Jupiter, was even more truculent and difficult that Spenser's protégé, Paul. He's also African-American, a high school drop-out and essentially homeless, while Paul was a rich white kid. Could I really give Lloyd a straight-up happy ending, or should I acknowledge the more formidable odds against him?

To say more would be a spoiler, but the pre-publication reviews -- Kirkus, Booklist, Library Journal and Publishers Weekly -- have been complimentary, and No Good Deeds is a Booksense pick for July, the fourth year in a row that I've been honored by those good folks. But as the onsale date approaches, the usual rules go into effect. I've had my say, about 90,000 words worth. It's time for the book to go out in the world, to stand or fall on its own, with me trailing behind it like a handmaiden. You see, I've figured out something about book tours. People come to see the quilt, not the quilter Click here for the NO GOOD DEEDS tour info-- and that's how I like it. Click here to see where you can catch up with Tess this summer.

And if you're looking for some new Baltimore restaurants, No Good Deeds adds Tapas Teatro, Matthew's and Club 4100 to Tess's favorite haunts. It also sends a shout-out to Otterbein cookies. Trust me: You'll never need to make your own chocolate chip cookies again, unless you're jonesing for the dough.


Just when I think I'm out, they pull me back in. I committed an act of journalism last month, writing about Mildred Pierce for Space limitations dictated some cuts, so it doesn't include James M. Cain's priceless attack on critics, or Raymond Chandler's astute dissection of why Cain's dialogue didn't work on the screen. I'm often asked if I miss journalism and the short answer is: No. But it was fun, writing about my favorite Cain novel. Need more Lippman in your life? No, I suppose not. But I'm over at Mystery Circus once a month, writing as Miss Congeniality, in the company of writers such as Mark Billingham, Debut Dagger darling Otis Twelve and Ray "Man Enough to Do it Weekly" Banks.

A librarian from Whittier, California, will be the lucky recipient of The Pale Blue Eye, Louis Bayard's beautiful novel that gives us a young Poe at West Point, caught up in suitably Gothic murder mystery. Remember, if you want me to play literary matchmaker, all you have to do is write. You don't have to ask for a book; in fact, it's better if you don't. Just tell me something about yourself, how you came to read the Tess Monaghan novels, or what kind of books you generally like. Yes, Lenora Mattingly Weber fans definitely have an advantage, but I also have a soft spot for those who loved Maud Hart Lovelace, Anne Emery and Rosamond Du Jardin.

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