Sunday, July 10, 2011


Blurbs.  Nobody knows whether they work, and some people probably don't know what they are.

A blurb is a testimonial solicited by a publisher (or an author) that's printed on the front or back of a book, presumably to persuade a potential customer that the book is indispensable.

Sometimes, it's a celebrity blurb.  Oprah, by virtue of her Book Club's clout, is the ultimate celebrity blurb.  If Annalisa Montagnon's new novel A Fire in November's Heart  has on its front cover, "This book is a valentine to the entire world." -- Oprah Winfrey, Ms. Montagnon will probably sell a bunch more books.

(Ms. Montagnon and her book are imaginary, as are all the books and authors mentioned in this piece except for Agatha Christie and me.  What's not imaginary is the impact the blurb would be likely to have.)

Nonfiction blurbs usually aim at confirming the book's accuracy and importance, so they come from wonk names that are prominent in the field.  Admiral Prentiss G. Hardheart's Ice and Grit: the Submarine Battle for the South Pole might be blurbed with something like, "A hymn to the courage of our deep-sea warriors by a man who was there" -- Bill Clinton.  In the world of nonfiction blurbs, former presidents are the big "get," unless it's a biography of Selena Gomez or Veganism for Tots.

Most fiction blurbs are by writers who are more famous than the author of the book.  Thus, my books have been blurbed by T. Jefferson Parker, Larry Beinhart, Steve Martini, John Lescroart, and a bunch of very generous others.  Once in a while, writers of approximately equivalent commercial value will blurb each other.  "Lowell Hummell's The War on Aspen Way is the thriller of the year" -- Edward Lumpkin.  This can look suspicious when, six months later, browsers of Edward Lumpkin's just-released Dead Cold Zero learn that Lowell Hummell calls it "A rip-roaring roller coaster of a book."

By the way, the term "roller coaster" usually means that the blurbing writer didn't like the book and couldn't even be bothered to think of something persuasive.

So make way for the oddest blurb of the new millennium thus far, and likely to remain so.  Only one writer in the world has ever sold more than three billion copies of her books.  Only one writer has had virtually all of her eighty books remain in print since they came out, decades ago.  Only one fiction writer has outsold Chairman Mao.  So who do you get to blurb Agatha Christie?  Shakespeare's unavailable.  Nobody else comes close.

Apparently, you get me.  About a year ago, I had a call from Harper, asking me whether I'd write something nice about Agatha Christie.  I really only like Poirot, so I wrote something truthful (from my perspective) about Poirot and e-mailed it to them, and then forgot all about it.

And on Thursday, the book pictured above arrived by Fed Ex, and on the back cover, all by itself, was this:

Dame Agatha has sold more than three billion copies.  As of today, The Queen of Patpong is number 15,877 on Amazon.  What's wrong with this picture?

But I'm honored, and all I can say is that I hope my name produces a real spike in Dame Agatha's sales.  God knows she needs it.


  1. Wow! Recommended by Timothy Hallinan! I must try that woman whoever she is ;)

  2. The blurb you wrote for Agatha Christie may very well get you some new readers. But the favor might not be returned if Agatha wrote one for you.

    When I tell people that my favorite genre is mystery, more often than not the response is, "I don't read mysteries. I don't like Agatha Christie."

    I don't like Agatha Christie although I know that is blasphemy in the mystery reader group. I am looking forward to the end of the Poirot and Marple cycle on Masterpiece Mystery. Finally, we will get to see Aurelio Zen.

  3. Just suppose someone picks up that book, because of Agatha's rep, and sees your name, and voila! There you are. Agatha Christie's books sell that much because they are cozies, mainstream, and Masterpiece Theater has to do a lot for sales. I agree with Beth; I'm looking forward to new 'tecs on the show, but it doesn't hurt to be associated with Christie. I think it's cool for you, and I do hope you sell more books any which way.

  4. Hi, Dorte -- I'm so happy to have brought Dame Agatha the only person on earth who's never read her.

    Beth, the modern mystery genre really came out of Christie and her school, and fortunately it's come quite a long way out of it. But she set the mold for what I find to be an aggressively uninteresting subcategory, in which the puzzle is more important than the characters, and murder is often an excuse for us to mingle breathlessly with the upper classes. I think such books dishonor murder, which is always messy and almost always tragic, and I don't think it's anything that can be invited into an English country house and put into a rickety little cage in the corner. Having said all that, I like Poirot more than most detectives of that period. And you have to give Christie credit -- like James Patterson, she could think of three best-selling plote (plays, too in addition to books) before breakfast. It's a gift I'd like to have.

    Lil, it would be great to think this will build my readership, but it's hard to imagine most of Christie's fans crossing over to me. Well, she was a kind of genius in her way, and I meant what I said about Poirot; he's a great creation.

  5. I don't mind a bit of Aggie every now and then. Loved them as a kid and and I'm not sure I'd be here now if it wasn't for their books. My tastes have changed but there's a certain escapist, comforting pleasure to her mysteries, especially the Poirot ones.

    Nice blurb Tim. Maybe you'll also get the chance blurb Mao when he gets reissued. 'Mao's works are as difficult to endure as The Long March.'

  6. Mao could definitely use a boost. The Little Red Book is an ironic object in today's China, an ideological version of the vinyl record, both of which are prized by the wonky few and a matter of indifference to the rest of us.

    I agree that Christie and the better of her acolytes still constitute comfort reading. It's cold and rainy outside, but within the ancestral halls of Heffington House, it's cozy and mildly murderous. If there were meteorological symbols for murderousness, Christie's country houses would have half a blowgun or a hand bearing a butterknife.

  7. Personally, I go for those with the double blowtorch or a butterknife baring a hand.

    Congrats, Agatha is such a lucky lady to have you.