Please welcome a special guest to MaineCrimeWriters.com. Steve Steinbock is a mystery writer and reviewer who lives in Yarmouth, Maine. Currently he writes a regular review column, “The Jury Box,” for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and is working on a mystery series featuring a young rabbi living in a Maine college town. He regularly attends the mystery fan conventions Malice Domestic and Bouchercon, which is where I usually run into him. I think we’ve only met once when we were both in Maine, and that was at the Portland Jetport.
Kaitlyn: When we first met, at the Seattle Bouchercon in 1994, I had written a couple of mysteries for young people but was really there as a fan. Where were you in your mystery career?
Steve: At that time I was a fan and a budding scholar. I had aspirations to write mystery fiction, but I was really there because I loved the genre and wanted to know more about it. I grew up in Seattle and still had family there, so it gave me a good excuse. That Bouchercon in 1994 was my first mystery-fan experience ever.
Kaitlyn: Since you’re originally from Seattle, how did you end up in Maine?
Steve: I’d been making my way counter-clockwise around the country. After college (in Seattle) I went to grad school and worked for a couple years in California. Then a job offer took me to Norfolk, Virginia, where I met my wife. She was originally from New England. We had no desire to be in Greater Boston, but Maine was the best of all worlds.
Kaitlyn: Since 1994, you’ve written reviews for at least two significant mystery journals. Before Ellery Queen, you were review editor for The Strand Magazine. How did you get into that end of the business?
Steve: As I said, I saw myself as a budding mystery-scholar. I had been reading a lot within the genre, and a lot of classical criticism about the genre. One night I was having dinner with a friend who, at the time, was the restaurant critic for the Portland Press Herald. We were talking about literature, and I mentioned how much I’d love to review books. One thing led to another, and I found myself doing mystery and horror reviews for the Maine Sunday Telegram. I did that for several years, and at the same time began working with AudioFile Magazine (reviewing audiobooks and doing interviews and feature stories) and The Armchair Detective (which folded two issues after I began writing for it; I swear it wasn’t my fault). Since that time I’ve written for most of the mystery magazines: Crime Time (in the UK), Mystery Scene, Mystery Reader’s Journal, etc. I’ve been very lucky as far as my writing gigs have gone.
I had been friends with Professor Douglas Greene (a mutual friend with Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson). He introduced me to some great writers. I became friends with the editorial crew at Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. When the film “Secret Window” (based on a short novel by Stephen King involving Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine) was being released, Ellery Queen hired me to do a series of articles and interviews with Stephen King, director David Koepp, and several of the actors. About a year later, Columbia University was celebrating the 100th anniversary of Ellery Queen, and I wrote a couple of articles and spoke at the centenary symposium at Columbia.
When book critic Jon Breen decided to step down after thirty-five years with the magazine, I got a call.
Kaitlyn: You’re published in non-mystery nonfiction and in short mystery fiction, but you review primarily mystery novels. When you sat down to write your first mystery, did you find it helpful to have read so many works of fiction with a critical eye or did knowing all the pitfalls just make it that much harder?
Steve: Yes. All of the above. I knew what made a good mystery work. I knew the nitty-gritty of plotting. But throughout the process I found myself comparing my writing to that of the authors whose work I admire. I have to say that my background was more of a blessing than it was a curse, but then again, my novel is still in the shopping stage, and my only published fiction is a story in Ellery Queen.
Kaitlyn: Can you talk a bit about how you approach a novel you’re going to review?
Steve: Every book is a promise. Whenever a reader picks up a novel, they expect it to be good, whether it’s a thriller, a psychological suspense novel, a noir private eye novel, or a mystery about food or cats. I approach each book on its own merit. I’d much rather read a well-written cozy about a crime-solving pastry chef with a talking cat than a half-hearted international thriller. What I look for is whether the book kept its promise to the reader.
Kaitlyn: With the rise of the ebook and ereaders, do you see the ARCs now sent to reviewers being replaced with electronic copies? Or is this already happening?
Steve: When I began reviewing, I got a thrill every time the UPS man drove up to deliver a batch of review books. I love books, and love adding books to my library. Publishers would send finished books as well as ARCs (“advanced readers copies,” also known as “bound galleys”), and sometimes even unbound manuscripts. I love them all. But after almost twenty years, my house is only so big. “Electronic ARCs” take less shelf-space, and make my job as a reviewer easier. It’s been a slow change, but bit by bit publishers are getting on board and sending me links to electronic editions rather than physical copies. As a book lover and antique book collector, I still love physical books. But as a critic, I appreciate being able to read ARCs on my eReader.
Kaitlyn: When you aren’t reading mystery novels, what do you read and why?
Steve: I review upwards of a hundred books a year. That’s a lot of reading. Whenever I’m caught up, I reward myself by reading a classic detective novel, usually by some obscure writer from before I was born.
Ironically, since I began reviewing for Ellery Queen, in spite of the increase in the number of new novels I read each month, I’ve found myself reading more non-fiction than ever before. I love linguistics, and am now reading The Language Instinct by Stephen Pinker and Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages by Guy Deutscher. Ironically, these two books take opposite views of the role of language in thought. I also read a good amount about religious history and philosophy.
Kaitlyn: What are you working on now?
Steve: Other than this interview? I’m planning my next Ellery Queen column, as well as beginning the long process of trying to sell my novel to agents and starting on a second novel. I’m also editing a collection of non-mystery short stories by the prolific mystery short story writer Edward Hoch. I am teaching a class on Kabbalah, and I have a great idea for another non-fiction book I’d like to write.
Kaitlyn: And finally, one of our favorite interview questions here at Maine Crime Writers: What question have you always wanted to be asked in an interview? And, of course, go on to answer it.
Steve: What’s on your bookshelf?
Let me see. Currently reading Brownies and Broomsticks by Bailey Cates (Cricket McRae). It’s a mystery about a pair of café/bakery owners who happen to have spells up their sleeves. Total fluff, but I’m smiling all the way through. (When a book reviewer doesn’t start skimming pages, it’s a really good sign). Then there’s Driven by James Sallis, November Hunt by Jess Lourey, Deadlocked by Charlaine Harris. Pulse by John Lutz, Broken Harbor by Tana French, and Bagpipes, Brides, and Homicides by . . . wait a minute, is that you? Kaitlyn Dunnett!
As I said several questions ago, I like to read oldies whenever a window opens up. The last one I treated myself to was Mr. Pottermack’s Oversight by R. Austin Freeman, a wonderful book by a contemporary of Christie who is sadly forgotten today. Freeman is a favorite of mine. Waiting in the wings right now are League of Frightened Men by Rex Stout, The Scarab Murder Case by S.S. Van Dine, and some Christie. My all time favorite mystery by a no-longer-living American author is Night of the Jabberwock by Fredric Brown.
Kaitlyn, thank you for inviting me to chat with you. I do hope we run into each other somewhere soon, without having to go to the airport!
Kaitlyn: And thank you for sharing your insights and experiences. And for the unsolicited plug for Bagpipes, Brides, and Homicides (in stores in August).