Whodunnit All Over the World?

The Melville House International Crime series is ship-shape.

Just a little of the diverse evidence available.
Just a little of the diverse evidence available.

It would generate a mystery, albeit a sad mystery, to wrap up the July Is Crime Month series that Books Editor Robert Faires has created for the Chronicle without talking about the excellent indie publishing company called Melville House.

The "mystery" part would be The Case of What's Wrong with These Journos Who Don't Know Enough to Mention Melville House Among Their Posts on Noir and True and Crime Novels in General?


It would be a mystery so profound, even, that it would almost eclipse the personal mystery of What the Hell Happened to That Audio File of My Interview with Melville House Publisher Dennis Johnson?

Because the facts are these:

1. Dennis Johnson of NYC-based Melville House was in Austin on Tuesday, May 6, 2014 – to enjoy our city's ambience and engage in promotional visits to several of the area's fine bookstores.

2. I met the man at Bennu Coffee on East MLK and we had an excellent conversation about the love of books and the state of publishing in general, and about the origins of Melville House, and about the company's vigorous lines of vintage literary fiction and essays, paperback novellas, modern crime novels, and more.

3. I had the audio recording app on my iPad set to record our conversation for later transcription – for you, the bibliophilic readers of this Austin Chronicle.

4. Ain't a single goddam file now to be found, in all my archives, of my conversation with the affable and erudite Mr. Johnson.

As I said: A mystery – and a rather sad one. Because Johnson told me all manner of things: About how he and his wife (the sculptor Valerie Merians) started Melville House from scratch in 2001, when they were moved to publish Poetry After 9/11, a book of material culled from Johnson’s MobyLives book blog. About how much he hates – oh, hates – Amazon and what that online mercantile juggernaut is doing to independent publishers. About the thrill of publishing the American paperback editions of British author Derek Raymond's genre-galvanizing Factory series of crime novels. About Wolf Haas' novels about German ex-cop Simon Brenner. About the various other gems of internationally diverse crime fiction that Melville House is proud to showcase – books by Manuel Vazquez Montalban, Andrev Kurkov, Didier Daeninckx, Jakob Arjouni among them – in beautifully designed paperback editions.

[Item: In the article I wrote a couple years ago, after a friend had given me the Wolf Haas novel called Brenner and God, I mentioned the novelist David Peace, the man responsible for The Red Riding Quartet. Although Melville House didn't publish that acclaimed and disturbing quartet of criminal conspiracy and serial-killer horrors, they have brought out Peace's newest: Red or Dead, a novel about soccer coach Bill Shankly, the former Scottish coal miner who led Liverpool’s perpetually last-place soccer team to victory. It's a huge novel – in its hardcover size as well as its acclaim and provenance – and what I distinctly remember Johnson saying during our talk at Bennu was, with a rue-tinged chuckle and a shake of the head, "Yeah, we started the company with a book of poetry, and now we're kind of betting the farm on this long narrative about a soccer coach. Not quite the typical American business model."]

But let me tell you this: Whether you're someone who reads for entertainment or edification, you're going to love Melville House as much as Melville House loves books. And that's the sort of relationship (between a person and a publishing company, or a human and another human) that makes the whole world spin a little more smoothly, that puts a spring in one's step, adds contentment to the soul, and helps prevent all manner of crime – except the fictional kind, of course.

So, while you're rummaging through the MH catalog of literary goodness, contemplating how cool it would be to pull off a heist by stashing the loot in one of those Bartleby-inspired I WOULD PREFER NOT TO book bags that the publisher sells, you'd do well to heed a bit of relevant dating advice provided by John Waters. The advice is one of several quotations that are displayed at random across the top of each page on the Melville House website, and this one relays the transgressive director's most wise suggestion: "If you go home with somebody, and they don't have books, don't fuck 'em."


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