Monday, November 24, 2008

Happy Birthday, Scott Joplin

Appropriately enough, the west coast promotional tour for The King
of Ragtime concluded this past weekend at the 3-day West Coast Ragtime
Festival in Sacramento. The Festival is nonstop music from 9am to 11pm,
seminars (this year including a terrific talk by ragtime historian Ed
Berlin on new material that's come to light about Scott Joplin), dances,
reunions with friends, and CDs - and books - for sale. In short, a
three-day high.
The performers in the photos are 4 of my favorites. Guitarist
Craig Ventresco has long been a standout artist in early 20th Century
popular songs, ragtime and gutbucket-jug band music - he was featured on
the soundtrack for the movie "Crumb." For the past few years, Craig has
teamed with lovely rhythm guitarist-singer Meredith Axelrod, and I can
only hope this will be a longlasting relationship.
Frederick Hodges, at the piano to the left, specializes in novelty
ragtime (think Zez Confrey, Roy Bargy, etc.) and popular tunes of a
century ago, and when he teams up with Adam Swanson, to the right, the
place really rocks. Adam is a prodigiously-talented ragtime player,
researcher, and historian...and he's all of 16 years old. Whatever he
does when he grows up, I want to be around to hear it. If you think
"Take Me Out To The Ball Game" is a stodgy old tune, you haven't heard
Frederick and Adam rag it. Halfway home, it's still running through my
And I just realized: today is Scott Joplin's birthday, Nov 24,
either 1868 or 1867. Pause a moment to give a nod to one of the very
greatest of American composers, who died in 1917, thinking he'd failed
to achieve his goal of making ragtime a respected form of classical
music. Take a bow, Mr. Joplin, before you blow out the candles.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

From Venice to San Mateo

Monday, we changed plans to get more time in at Venice, looking and
poking around to help me create a vivid sense of setting for the third
ragtime book, now in process. Julie and Robert, firefighters at Station
63, were kind enough to give me the mother of all Venice maps, so we not
only could find our way around, but I'll be able to refer back to it as
I write the book. We found Brun Campbell's house, with the garage where
his wife banished him to play his piano, his barber shop, and a couple
of houses to serve for some fictional characters. The weather was
terrific, 85 degrees and sunny, so we walked out on the Venice Pier,
where a couple of women just in from Dallas, and excited about going to
see the Dr. Phil Show the next day, took our picture.
Yesterday, we drove to Los Altos, in the SF Bay Area, and visited
friends. We passed right by the trailer park north of Pasadena that had
just been burned to the ground. If you think you've got troubles...
Today, my event was at San Mateo's M is for Mystery, as always, an
enjoyable visit with Ed Kaufman, the man with endless enthusiasm. Now
up to Berkeley for a day with son Casey and daughter-in-law Maggie befor
heading on to Sacramento for the big ragtime festival.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A Ragtime Pow-wow

Here I am this past Sunday at Book'Em, in South Pasadena, enjoying
a post-event conversation with ragtime composer and historian Fred
Hoeptner. Fred has put together some interesting material on the
origins of both ragtime music and the word itself. In exchange, I gave
him a copy of my seminar from last year's West Coast Ragtime Festival,
where I presented new information on Brun Campbell, the real-life
Ragtime Kid.
One of the customers told me she didn't care for Scott Joplin's
music, but did like antique music boxes, and was interested in
medical-ethical concerns. So she left with copies of The Music Box
Murders and First Do No Harm.
Then Myra and I went down the street to Buster's, and enjoyed
four-star ice-cream cones. Book'Em and Buster's, a tough combination to

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Timing is Everything

I spent yesterday morning in Venice...California, where my sister,
Kate, took me to look over the haunts of Brun Campbell, the old Ragtime
Kid, who'll return to the trilogy in the third book, The Ragtime Fool.
His house still stands, as does his barber shop. How he ever fit a
piano in there is beyond me. He was quite a character.
Then, we went on to The Mystery Bookshop in Westwood, where I found
I had been lucky enough to have booked into their afternoon-long
celebration for their new owner, Kirk, complete with authors and food
galore. I had the 3 to 4pm hour, between Robert Crais & Gregg Hurwitz,
and Katherine Neville. Always great to see Bobby and Linda there, and
here I am with Richard, who helped me with the signings.
Afterward, we went to Santa Monica for dinner at Ocean Seafood,
then walked out on the Santa Monica Pier, a real time-travel moment, 50
years back in an eyeblink.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Mind the Ax and Helmet

Last night at San Diego's Mysterious Galaxy, Ragtime met Medieval
Noir, as Jeri Westerson and I interviewed each other about the
characters and setting of The Ragtime Kid and Veil of Lies. We also got
into a good deal of exchange over the nuts and bolts of writing, showing
again that no two writers seem to go about it in anything like the same
way. It's always a pleasure to see Gretchen and Bob, friends and
readers, at MG

Today, we take a breather (if you can call navigating the LA freeways a
breather), visiting music box-collector friends Mike and Marilyn Ames,
and Robin Biggins. Tomorrow, I go to Venice.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Do I Really Look Like Jimmy Carter?

Here's Lesa Holstine, interviewing me yesterday at the Velma Teague
Library in Glendale, AZ. Afterward, one of the audience asked me
whether anyone had ever told me I look like Jimmy Carter. She insisted
I was nearly his double, and asked me to sign for her as Jimmy Carter.
So I did, with a tag line, "aka Larry Karp." The customer's always
In the evening, at The Poisoned Pen, Barbara Peters led a spirited
and engaging discussion among fellow Poisoned Pen author Mike Bowen, the
audience, and me on The King of Ragtime and Mike's book, Shoot the
Lawyer Twice. Afterward, we all enjoyed Barbara's fabulous pumpkin
bread with rum-soaked raisins. (I got away with a loaf for the road).
While in Scottsdale, Myra and I had good, if brief visits with my
HS classmate Sue Todd and with Gene And Gloria Friedman, who introduced
Myra and me 51 years ago.
We're now on Route 8 (Myra's driving), on the way to Mysterious
Galaxy, San Diego, tonight.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

On the Road Again

I see it's National Novel Writing Month - - but for me, it's Novel Promoting Month. For the next couple of weeks, I'll be going to independent bookshops from Scottsdale's The Poisoned Pen, through California, then winding up at the West Coast Ragtime Festival in Sacramento. Follow me via the link at the right to my schedule.
I'll keep you posted from time to time via my trusty Sidekick.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

This is where I write my books

 This is where I write my books, the white outbuilding, down the hill from our house, separated from the neighbor's house by a wall.  No phone, no other people in the room, nothing else going on there, no distractions outside.  No excuses not to write.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

A Blast at Seattle Mystery Bookshop

     It's always a pleasure to start off events for a new book at Seattle Mystery Bookshop.  This is a quintessential independent mystery bookstore with the motto, "For mystery lovers who know what they want, and for those who haven't a clue."  They ain't whistlin' Dixie.
     For the debut signing of The King of Ragtime, I had a good time catching up with the old friends who showed up, and talking about mysteries to a bunch of new readers.
     Signed, dated copies of The King of Ragtime remain available (SMB, 117 Cherry St, Seattle; 206-587-5737, or

Monday, October 27, 2008

Take A Little Salt With Your Facts

     Many people say they never read fiction, because "it's not real. What's the point of it?" They'd rather spend their book time on history, "which really did happen."
     Is that a fact?
     John Stark, Scott Joplin's publisher for "Maple Leaf Rag," comes across in historical accounts as an honest and honorable man, blunt-spoken, hard-working, a pillar of society. But when I read in They All Played Ragtime (the widely- and rightly-acclaimed first comprehensive history of ragtime music) that Stark had married a New Orleans girl when he was 24 and she, 13, I had trouble representing Stark in The Ragtime Kid strictly according to history. Even allowing for the fact that the marriage took place in 1865, I couldn't help feeling there was a kink in Stark's nature no one had picked up on. So I decided to look further into the situation.
     In a 1915 military pension application, Stark stated his wife was 15 when he married her, and also that they were married in 1864 (contrary to every other document that's been uncovered), as opposed to 13, as reported in TAPR.
     John Stark's claim was supported by information on Sarah Ann Stark's death certificate, in which her son, Will, represented that his mother had been born on Oct 29, 1849. That would have made Sarah 15 at the time of her marriage.
     However, in an affidavit, sworn before a New Orleans Justice of the Peace on Feb 18, 1865, Mrs. Mary Casey gave consent to the marriage of Sarah Ann Casey, a minor of eighteen years, to John Stark. Another affidavit, signed the same day, before Justice of the Peace, M. Weisheimer (what a great name), bore affirmation by two witnesses that "they are well acquainted with John Stark and Sarah Ann Casey, and know them to be above the age of twenty-one."
     At that rate, I thought, the bride would have been menopausal by the time of the ceremony.
     But a copy from the New Orleans Birth Records Index stated that Sarah Ann Casey, daughter of William and Mary Eagan Casey, was born on Oct. 13, 1848. That would have made her 16-1/3 years old when she married Stark.
     Family recollections nearly a century after the event gave rise to the statement that Sarah Ann had been 13 at the time of her marriage. Stark's pension application was full of factual errors. Will Stark did not even know his maternal grandmother's name, and may never have known his mother's actual birth date. And the affidavits could well have been misrepresented to get around inconveniently-illegal youth on the part of the bride-to-be.
     So, once I decided to give the most credit to the Birth Records Index, which likely was filed reasonably soon after the baby's birth, the kink in my fictional John Stark vaporized.
     Not all history is carved in stone - and what is, we usually don't understand,anyway.


Thursday, October 9, 2008

A Very Satisfying Writer's Moment

     It's always nice when a reader tells me s/he enjoyed one of my mysteries, but some compliments really stand out.
     A woman home-schooling her thirteen-year-old son told him to read the first part of The Ragtime Kid, then report to her on the use of language in the material. When the boy finished that portion of the book, though, he didn't want to go on to his next assignment because where he'd stopped, a group of bigots seemed to be getting the upper hand, and he couldn't wait to find out what was going to happen. His mother agreed. A while later, her son ran up to her, waving the book, and shouted, "All right! Those sons of bitches got exactly what they deserved."
I'll be grinning for a while.

Friday, September 12, 2008


In its June 30 issue, Publishers Weekly printed the first review of THE KING OF RAGTIME. Here's what they had to say:
     Set in Manhattan in 1916, Karp's well-crafted second homage to ragtime (after 2006's The Ragtime Kid) charts Scott Joplin's race against time and the effects of a ravaging illness to secure his musical legacy. Joplin has written a musical play that he wants Irving Berlin to publish and produce. In the past, Joplin has accused Berlin of plagiarizing his music, but Martin Niederhoffer, a piano student of Joplin's and an employee of Berlin's firm, persuades Joplin to try Berlin again. When Niederhoffer and Joplin are seen fleeing the scene of a murder, they're forced into hiding while Scott's friend Nell Stanley, a musician, and her music publisher father try to find the real killer. Going undercover at Berlin's publishing company, Stanley proves to be a formidable detective, though her investigation uncovers some painful truths about both Joplin and her father. Karp's meticulous research helps create a vivid picture of the time and locale. Memorable, authentic characters are another plus.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Could Gandhi be a murderer?

Not that long ago, a thread on a mystery discussion group caught my attention. It had to do with historicals, and whether or not it was appropriate for a real-life person from the past who had no criminal record to be put into print as a murderer. With very few exceptions, most of the correspondents insisted that this should never be done, that it would be tantamount to a post-mortem smearing of the person's reputation. The majority opinion also held that such a course would make a story unbelievable, and that it would be not only immoral, but bad art as well.

I think a writer's primary obligation, one that overrules all others, is to be true to the story. In writing an historical, I do all I can to present known facts accurately - otherwise, yes, my readers will be distracted, and unable to remain in my fictional world. But I'd have no problem with a story which features a well-known historical figure as a murderer, so long as the motive for the murder is accounted for, and fits comfortably into the history.

Fictional people, no less than inhabitants of the real world, are never one-dimensional, and we all have at least a couple of pretty unsavory characters who sit on the boards of directors in our heads, and determine our thoughts and actions. Suppose that as a young boy, Gandhi witnessed a horrific attack by a British officer on someone he dearly loved. Not only that, the attacker contrived to get off scot-free. Then, when Gandhi reached his mid-teens, he was suddenly and unexpectedly presented with an opportunity to murder the attacker, and without even thinking about it, he did just that. Then, afterward, perhaps over years, as he considered the situation, he came to the realization that his act of revenge had done no one any good, that he'd lessened himself in his own eyes, and that an uncompromising pacifism is the only proper human course to take.

Or, how about an alternate-universe story? Suppose Gandhi's boyhood broodings, followed by his murderous response to the British officer set him on a course of violent opposition to the British occupation of his country? How might the world be different now?

To make it clear to readers what was real in my stories and what was made up, I write afterwords to my historicals. Still, I don't think any fiction writer can smear the reputation of an historical figure. In fact, I suspect that most of the subjects so portrayed might even be entertained by the idea of taking to the stage for a few hours to play murderer.