“Crime Writing in Iceland? Really?” (by Ragnar Jonasson)

Unlike most of our Passport to Crime authors, who find their way to EQMM through their translators, Icelander Ragnar Jonasson submitted his own work to us. He had translated the first story he sent us (January 2014’s “Death of a Sunflower”) himself, and he wrote the second one (“A Letter to Santa”—just out in our January 2015 issue) in English. Ragnar is also the author of the Dark Iceland series of crime novels, set in and around the northernmost town in Iceland, Siglufjordur, which he tells us is “only accessible via mountain tunnels.” Rights to two books from that series, Snowblind and Nightblind, were recently sold to the UK publisher Orenda Books. Snowblind is due to be released in English translation in 2015 and Nightblind in 2016. The series is also published in Iceland and Germany. In addition to writing, Ragnar works as a lawyer in Iceland and teaches copyright law at Reykjavik University. —Janet Hutchings

Global peace index 2014. Guess what country ranked number one? Yes, Iceland. It also ranked as the number one most peaceful country in the world in 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008. . . . You get the picture. So this begs the question: Is it really possible to write crime stories set in Iceland?

Let’s also bear in mind that we currently have a population of 328,000 in Iceland. So the pool of suspects in any crime story is fairly limited!

Yet, people keep writing crime stories in Iceland—but this hasn’t always been the case.

The first Icelandic crime novel appeared in 1926, but in the following decades Iceland only saw a handful of books in the genre published—a total of seven novels between 1926 and 1950. Then, following quite a long period during which no crime thrillers were published, Viktor Arnar Ingólfsson (House of Evidence, The Flatey Enigma) started something of a trend in Icelandic crime writing. But it wasn’t until 1997 that crime fiction really took off. That was the year that trailblazer Arnaldur Indridason (Jar City, Silence of the Grave) published his first book. Until then, crime fiction had struggled to find readers, particularly because the general view was that Iceland could not be a believable setting for crime stories. Indridason really convinced us otherwise and, following 1997, there has really been no turning back, with an increasing number of titles published each year—and Icelandic crime more often than not topping bestseller lists.

Indridason very successfully entered foreign markets, including the English/US market, as have many of his colleagues, including Yrsa Sigurdardottir (My Soul to Take, I Remember You). In fact, Iceland has become such a popular place to set crime fiction that two English authors have set series there: Quentin Bates (Frozen Assets, Cold Comfort) and Michael Ridpath (Where the Shadows Lie, 66°North).

So, how can peaceful Iceland work as a setting for crime?

Firstly, there is one common belief about Iceland that isn’t necessarily true: “Iceland has no weapons.” Well, yes, we don’t have any military. And the police don’t usually carry guns (although there is some ongoing debate about whether to change that). But there are certainly weapons in Iceland. Historically a nation of hunters, people keep quite a lot of hunting weapons, including shotguns and rifles. According to some figures, there are approximately 60,000 weapons in Iceland—a lot when you bear in mind the fact that the population is 328,000. A few years ago, Iceland was ranked fifteenth in the world for the number of firearms per capita.

Secondly, crime writers have used some of the extremes of Iceland to their advantage to create an atmosphere of darkness and mystery. Darkness being the key word—Iceland gets very dark in winter and in some cases, in the northern part of the country, doesn’t see any sunlight for long periods throughout the winter months. The other extreme can also be useful for stories—the fact that summer has very, very long days, with midnight sun and bright nights. We also have weather to suit many types of crime stories: “It was a dark and stormy night.” Yes, indeed! In Iceland, you can get sunshine, rain, heavy storm, sleet, and snow—all in the same day! And let’s not forget the northern lights—murder under the northern lights is certainly an interesting premise.

Thirdly, writers in Iceland have been able to emphasize the setting, focusing, for example, on Icelandic nature, isolated small towns, or the area around the capital, Reykjavik. In terms of nature, the high mountains can provide a backdrop for murder, as can the large glaciers and volcanoes—many of which are still very active. The Icelandic highlands also offer an interesting setting, a vast area in the middle of the country in which it is very easy to get lost! Iceland is very sparsely populated; people mainly live in either the Reykjavik area or in smaller towns along the coastline, picturesque fjords surrounded by mountains. Some examples: Arnaldur Indridason’s recent Strange Shores is set in Iceland’s eastern fjords; Yrsa Sigurdardottir’s I Remember You is set in an isolated western fjord and her My Soul to Take in the area nearby a famous glacier, Snaefellsjokull; and Viktor Arnar Ingólfsson sets his Flatey Enigma on the small, picturesque island of Flatey.

Iceland is actually a place of extremes in more sense than one. We tend to collectively share some unusual hobbies. Every year, on a Saturday evening in May, the streets of Iceland are empty and everyone is glued to the TV, when the European song contest Eurovision is being broadcast live. We always proudly send a competitor from Iceland, certain that this is the year we will win. We haven’t won yet, though. The streets are empty when the Icelandic national handball team competes in major tournaments, and we are, once again, always sure that we will win the world championship title. We haven’t won yet. And right before Christmas, Icelanders buy lots and lots of books—the biggest titles probably selling between 20,000 and 30,000 copies (again, quite a lot per capita). We call it the Christmas Book Flood, and most new fiction is released in October or November, in time for Christmas.

Fortunately, Icelandic readers have become very supportive of homegrown crime fiction, enabling more local writers to focus on Icelandic crime, and the genre has found readers all around the world. We even have our own crime festival, Iceland Noir, in Reykjavik, held for the second time in November of this year.

Crime writing in Iceland? Really? The answer is yes. And hopefully we can continue to keep the momentum going, finding fresh and exciting new ways to create stunning crime fiction in this small and peaceful country.

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“The Beautiful Unfaithfuls” (by Olive-Ann Tynan)

Olive-Ann Tynan debuted in EQMM’s Department of First Stories in 2013 with the story “A Case of Harassment.” Her second story, “Accessory to Murder,” appears in our upcoming February issue.  Both stories are set in the author’s native Ireland, though she has not lived there for many years. She and her Italian husband live outside Rome and have two grown-up children. There she has worked as an editor for an English-language fortnightly paper and an Italian-language golf magazine. She is also a translator from Italian to English and she shares with us her thoughts on that art.—Janet Hutchings

Years ago, in my final year of convent school, the nuns brought us girls to Rome to see the Pope. We duly visited the Vatican, but were more interested in the Italian boys who swarmed around our bus as we went sightseeing. When we had the chance, we replied to their tentative English in Gaelic, our dying native language an obligatory subject on school curricula. The boys’ consternation was satisfying because they didn’t understand a word we said, but also off-putting because they believed Gaelic was English spoken with a funny accent. When, after our Roman week, we disembarked from the boat at Dun Laoghaire—back then airline deregulation still hadn’t happened and low-cost Ryanair still hadn’t overtaken European skies—my aunt who came to meet us told me a nun kissed the ground in thanksgiving we were all back safely on Irish soil. But that could have been a tall story, my aunt was good at those.

The point of this longwinded introduction is to explain that, being bilingual, translation becomes an automatic process. A similar switch occurred when I moved to Rome—a good many years after we nearly gave that poor nun a heart attack—and the inner translation chip switched to English/Italian. (By then the Irish language had become a lost one to me because I wasn’t speaking it anymore.) Learning Italian was like scaling Vesuvius: a tough trek with plenty of hard rocks to stumble on while climbing. A great big boulder was the Italian for “beyond,” would you believe actually three separate words with a crazy back translation meaning “at the of there.” When I’d achieved some level of competence—and al di là didn’t seem quite so crazy any more—I was ready to read two favourite authors translated into Italian. What better way to get to the top?

L’avessi mai fatto! (“It if I had never done!”) Hercule Poirot’s pate was still egg-shaped but it was a different kind of egg, his conversations with Hastings didn’t seem half as amusing and, worst of all, he failed to straighten the objects on his desk with the same finicky precision. Reading translations of the second author’s tales was an even greater disappointment, not a shiver did I feel. The House of Usher seemed deprived of its silent decayed menace, the fine subtlety of luring Fortunato to the Amontillado was absent, and the horror of the swarming rats and swinging pendulum didn’t penetrate through to my bones. I persevered, but couldn’t get rid of the feeling I was being cheated, robbed of an important part of my late childhood and teens. In the end, I decided I wasn’t having any more of this until I had a better knowledge of Italian and went back to the real thing. In the opening lines of “Berenice” I found consolation. “Misery is manifold. The wretchedness of earth is multiform.” What had been stolen was returned to me.

But there was also a downside, because that pesky chip in my head had me picking up pencil and paper. Dare I? I dared. Translating the first sentence into Italian, I wrote La miseria é molteplice.  It didn’t look too bad. But on second thoughts, miseria wasn’t quite the right word, referring as it does to material poverty rather than to woe and despair. Also, the phrase Porca miseria remains a pretty strong expletive, so to avoid the association, I needed a substitute word to maintain the sense of inert despondency. I came up with ‘anguish’, perhaps closer to the author’s intentions, and quite liked the sentence that then read L’angoscia é molteplice. But it lacked the dirge-like music of the original, maybe because the lovely alliteration was lost. To restore the figure of speech, I tried L’angoscia è abbondante, but it looked so grammatically awkward, I was sorry I’d written it. Twisting it around to Abbondante é la mia angoscia provided a more poetic tilt, but one that drifted away from the author’s intentions. I left the problem aside to simmer and passed on to the second sentence.  It seemed easy enough; L’abiezione della terra é multiforme. But was abiezione, ‘abjection’ quite the right word? I didn’t think it was, so it was clearly time to scrunch up the paper and throw it away and that’s what I did.

It’s easy to see that translators have a tough time of it, not least of which is getting over the lost in translation obstacle; a painful one because, more often than not, it just can’t be done. This came to mind recently while working on an Italian to English translation of a documentary, which included reference to a 1949 film, a classic of Italian neorealism. The film, Riso amaro (in Italian following capitals are dropped) starred Silvana Mangano as a worker in the rice fields of Northern Italy. In English, the title became Bitter Rice, a literal translation and a good one—except for the lost pun. Riso also means laughter and Bitter Rice, Bitter Laughter, although appropriate to the scenario, wouldn’t have sounded half as good.

But the greatest difficulty is the decision translators are faced with at the start; whether to opt for fidelity to the original text or discard fidelity in favour of style and current tendencies. In France in the 17th century, the phrase Les belles infedèles, literally ‘the beautiful unfaithfuls’, was coined to express the concept. Vincenzo Monti (1754-1828), Italian scholar, poet and translator, was criticized for his faithless Italian translation of Homer’s Iliad. Monti’s reply to the scorcher was “Preferirei una bella infedele ad una brutta fedele.” In French and Italian the adjectives ‘belle’ and ‘bella’ are also nouns meaning ‘beautiful woman’, and Monti’s preference for a ‘beautiful unfaithful’ over an ‘ugly faithful’ for many translators is the only way to go. It was true that Monti’s knowledge of ancient Greek was imperfect so that instead of working from Homer’s original text, he referred to later Latin translations. Nonetheless, his interpretations imbued Homer’s Trojan War epic with a new poetic unity so that even today, Monti’s Iliade is the one that wins all the kudos.

I often wonder how writers like Conrad and Nabokov were able to write so many works of fiction in a language not their own, but I suppose that’s genius. Conrad preferred to write in English rather than in his native Polish, while Nabokov wrote in Russian (that confusing Cyrillic script) and later took to writing in English. Swiss tennis player Roger Federer switches from German, to French, to English and back to German again quicker than it takes him to serve an ace, and he never seems never to stumble. Maybe the agony starts when getting to write down the words and stringing the sentences together. From my schooldays, I remember a teacher complaining that with all the English and Irish, we’d end up unable to write and spell properly in either language. And she was right. The trickiest words to get around are those insidious little prepositions: to, from, at, etcetera. In other words, the al di là conundrum. As for my spelling, not to mention the hybrid Italian-English words that keep popping up all the time, I can only exclaim Che figura! (and sometimes Porca miseria) while engaging in heated battles with my computer’s automatic corrector I’m very grateful to lose.

I always read with great interest the “Passport to Crime” stories on EQMM and wonder how each story was in the original language. If I know it, I sometimes try to see if I can pick up some clue from the phrasing and get back to the original sentence. One of my favourite “Passport” stories, published in the November 2013 issue, was written by Raphael Montes and translated by Clifford E. Landers from the Portuguese. It’s a language I don’t know, which luckily deactivates that wretched chip. Statement No. 060.710-67 is the perfect short story and, I’m willing to bet, a beautiful faithful.

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“Who Wrote the First Whodunit?” (by Steven Saylor)

Steven Saylor’s first novel, Roman Blood, introduced Gordianus the Finder, a private detective, of sorts, in ancient Rome. The critically acclaimed Roma Sub Rosa series now numbers a dozen novels, including two recent prequels about the younger days of Gordianus, who travels far beyond Rome to see The Seven Wonders (Minotaur 2013) and to rescue his beloved from the Raiders of the Nile (Minotaur 2014). Steven has also written numerous short stories about Gordianus, many of which first appeared in EQMM—including the very first, “A Will Is a Way” (March 1992), which won the Robert L. Fish Memorial Award for best first mystery short story. Steven tells us that his insatiable curiosity about the past recently put him on the trail to find the first whodunit ever written, and that this post grew out of a talk he delivered in June 2014 at the conference “From I, Claudius to Private Eyes: The Ancient World and Popular Fiction” at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv. I found his discoveries so fascinating that now I’m wondering when the first private detective (according to the Private Eye Writers of America “a person paid for investigative work but not employed for that work by a unit of government”) appeared in fiction—something that might reflect interestingly on Gordianus, who is surely one of the most notable sleuths to be found in the pages of historical fiction being written today.—Janet Hutchings

Where do we find the earliest beginnings of the mystery story in literature, and who wrote the first whodunit? The answer lies further back than Arthur Conan Doyle, or Wilkie Collins, or even Edgar Allan Poe, who often receives credit as father of the genre. Much further back.

One of the first authorities to investigate this question about precursors was Dorothy Sayers. In the introduction to her landmark anthology The Omnibus of Crime (1929), Sayers identified a short list of what she called the “primitives” of the genre.

From ancient Roman literature Sayers cited the story of Hercules and Cacus. Driving his cattle along the Tiber River, Hercules stopped to take a nap. While he slept, the monster Cacus emerged from his cave in the Palatine Hill and nabbed some of the herd. When Hercules awoke, he counted the cattle and realized some were missing. He followed the tracks of the missing animals, reached a place where the hoofprints abruptly stopped, and was baffled. In fact, the clever Cacus had led the cattle in that direction then dragged them by their tails backward into his cave. Hercules—no great detective, obviously—was stumped until he heard the mooing of the missing cattle, located the cave, and killed the thief.

Sayers cited this story because the villain’s scheme hinged on what she called the “fabrication of false clues”—the hoofprints that led nowhere. What we have here is not a full-fledged murder mystery, but only a rudimentary element of crime fiction making perhaps its first appearance as a literary device. How old is the story? Though set in a prehistoric, mythical past, our earliest examples of the tale (such as the one in Vergil’s Aeneid) date from the first century B.C.; the great historian of Roman religion Georges Dumézil avers that “the legend of the rather unfriendly meeting of Hercules and Cacus was certainly not very old when Virgil reinforced it by his art.”

Going back a bit further, from Jewish literature Sayers cited two stories about the Biblical hero Daniel. One is the oft-painted story of Susanna and the elders. Two randy elders spy on Susanna while she bathes naked in a pool; aroused, the old goats accost her and demand she have sex with them, or else they’ll say she was meeting a lover. Susanna refuses, and the elders accuse her of adultery. Things look bad for the bathing beauty until Daniel comes to her rescue. He insists that the elders be questioned separately, and sure enough, their differing versions don’t add up. Exposed as liars and false accusers, the elders are put to death, and Susanna is vindicated. Sayers cited this as the first use of “analysis of testimony.”

Daniel also put his detecting skills to work to expose some idol-worshipping priests. Each night a great feast was set out for the idol Bel, the sanctum was sealed, and in the morning all the food was gone, apparently eaten by Bel. One day, just before the room was locked for the night, Daniel lingered behind and surreptitiously scattered ashes on the floor. The next morning, the footsteps of the charlatan priests could clearly be seen; they had been entering by a secret door at night and consuming the feast themselves. Sayers cited this as the first use of “analysis of material evidence.” Clearly, this Daniel was a clever fellow; we might even call him a detective (if not a solver of murders), and see in the story of Bel an ancestor of the locked-room mystery.

The date of these Daniel stories? Though they’re set in the time of the Jews’ Babylonian captivity (around 600 B.C.), the written stories (in Greek, found in what Protestants call the Apocrypha) date from the second to the first century B.C.—only a little before the tale of Hercules v. Cacus.

Delving yet further back in time, from ancient Greek literature Sayers cited Herodotus, the Father of History, and his tale about King Rhampsinitus of Egypt and a thief who repeatedly robbed the king’s treasure house. I don’t think I’ll give away the exact plot, since I wrote my own version, imagining this as the type of story my Roman sleuth, Gordianus the Finder, would have enjoyed hearing. (That story, “The Tale of the Treasure House,” is in the Roma Sub Rosa collection The House of the Vestals.) Suffice to say, the story has elements of a locked-room mystery, plus a duel of wits between the king and the clever thief, a precursor to the suave Raffles. Sayers cited Herodotus’s story as an example of “psychological method of detection: plot and counterplot.” This tale is the oldest yet, since the Histories of Herodotus are dated to 450-420 B.C.

And there Sayers left the matter of the “primitives.”

A little more that twenty years later, in 1951, Ellery Queen, in Queen’s Quorum: A History of the Detective-Crime Short Story, cited the same examples from ancient literature, calling them the “incunables” of mystery fiction. (Incunabula: the earliest stages or first traces of anything; from an ancient Latin word for the straps holding a baby in a cradle).

Cover of Queen’s Quorum: A History of the Detective-Crime Short Story (1951)

Cover of Queen’s Quorum: A History of the Detective-Crime Short Story (1951)

Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee, the writing team known as Ellery Queen, were surely experts on all things to do with crime fiction, but their chronology for these “incunables” was a bit off the mark. Apparently assuming that anything Biblical must predate Hercules or Herodotus, they claimed that “the detective-crime-and-mystery story, like so many other forms of literature, had its genesis in the Bible . . . . The first detective . . . made his debut in the Apocryphal Scriptures [citing the stories about Daniel related above]. . . . The course of incunabular detection, having originated in ancient Hebrew literature, can next be traced through ancient Greek and Latin [citing Herodotus’ story of King Rhampsinitus and Virgil’s version of Hercules v. Cacus].”

As we have seen, the correct order for the writing of these stories, beginning with the oldest, runs 1) Rhampsinitus and the thief, 2) Daniel (exposing Bel and saving Susanna), 3) Hercules v. Cacus. If we’re talking about the setting of the stories, then the oldest would be Rhampsinitus (set in pre-Khufu Egypt), then Hercules v. Cacus (set before the founding of Rome), then the Daniel stories (set in the reign of Nebuchadnezzar).

As for the claim that Daniel was the first detective in literature, both Ellery Queen and Dorothy Sayers (surprisingly, since her Oxford education surely included the Classics) completely overlooked another candidate: Oedipus, King of Thebes.

The famous play by Sophocles that recounts the tragedy of Oedipus was first performed in Athens around 429 B.C.—centuries before those “incunables” about Daniel or Hercules were written, and perhaps even before Herodotus set down the tale of Rhampsinitus. Written fragments of the Oedipus story date back even further, to the very dawn of ancient literature, including snippets from Hesiod and Homer.

Not only is it likely that Sophocles’ Oedipus is the oldest of all the “primitives” or “incunables” cited here, it’s also a full-blown murder mystery with all the elements familiar to modern readers—a murderer, a victim, an eye-witness, and a detective who keeps delving for the truth until he’s opened the Pandora’s box of everyone’s shameful secrets.

I’m not the first to make this connection. The earliest such reference I’ve found is from a 1965 issue of The Tulane Drama Review, in which the Greek director and translator Marios Ploritis complained that another scholar was “obviously influenced by the old, ludicrous conception that Oedipus is the first detective story ever written.” Note that Ploritis called this an “old” idea even in 1965—though Oedipus wasn’t cited by either Sayers (in 1929) or Ellery Queen (in 1951). Ploritis also called it a “ludicrous” idea, but there he was dead wrong.

As the play begins, the city of Thebes is in the grip of a devastating plague. The only way to stop the plague is to discover who killed the previous king. It falls to the current king, Oedipus, to solve the crime.

But wait—how did Oedipus become king? Arriving in Thebes as a lone wanderer, he ended a previous plague by solving the famous riddle of the Sphinx (already showing off his mystery-solving skills); the grateful Thebans made him king to fill the vacancy left by the recently murdered King Laius. Oedipus even married the king’s widow, Jocasta. (We might call her a cougar, but the ruder MILF would be more accurate.)

Oedipus and the Sphinx (1808) by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres

Oedipus and the Sphinx (1808) by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres

As Oedipus proceeds to investigate the crime, the meticulous plot construction by Sophocles feeds us one bit of evidence after another, letting us know just enough to keep us (and Oedipus) guessing, right up until the moment when, with a gasp, everyone on stage and in the audience realizes that . . .

 

[MOTHER OF ALL SPOILER ALERTS!!!]

 

. . . the killer of Laius was none other than Oedipus himself—and Laius was his father. The ramifications of this revelation drive Jocasta to commit suicide and Oedipus to blind himself.

The ancient Greeks knew that Sophocles had pulled off something special. Aristotle in his Poetics gave Oedipus a rave review: “Of all recognitions, the best is that which arises from the incidents themselves, where the startling discovery is made by natural means. Such is that in the Oedipus of Sophocles. . . . These recognitions alone dispense with the artificial aid of tokens or amulets.” In other words, the reveals in Oedipus come not by pulling a rabbit out of a hat, but from step-by-step detective work, and are all the more powerful for being arrived at by a process of inevitable deduction.

Had Sophocles told the story in linear fashion, we would have seen the murder first and then the aftermath, knowing all along whodunit. Instead, he began at the end of the story and constructed a fully-realized murder mystery plot, working, so far as we know, from no previous template. Not only did Sophocles invent the whodunit; he was also the first to subvert the genre, even as he created it, by making the detective and the killer the same person. (As king, Oedipus is also judge and jury, exacting punishment for the crime.)

Twenty-five hundred years later, the first whodunit still ranks among the greatest ever written.

Posted in Ellery Queen, Fiction, Genre, Guest, Historicals, History | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

NEITHER LOST NOR FORGOTTEN

Permanence for the written word was a quest of authors and other lovers of books long before the rise of digital publishing, but the new publishing formats have exacerbated concerns about valuable works being lost or forgotten. For one thing, questions have been raised about the durability of the technology itself. Writing in The American Scientist, Brian Hayes said:

“One cause for worry among archivists is the impermanence of digital storage media. In this respect civilization has been going downhill ever since Mesopotamia. Paper documents cannot match the longevity of the Sumerians’ clay tablets, and magnetic media seem to be even more evanescent than paper. That’s disturbing news, and yet I suspect that relatively few disks or tapes have yet died of old age. Long before the disk wears out or succumbs to bit rot, the machine that reads the disk has become a museum piece. So the immediate challenge is not preserving the information but preserving the means to get at it.”

Important as these challenges of digital preservation may be, I suspect they do not number very high on the list of detractions many book lovers see in e-book-only publishing. It seems to me that what worries people most about the possible future dominance of e-books is their lack of a social dimension: the fact that you can’t pull them off a shelf to lend to a friend, or easily give them as gifts, or donate them to a library where they may either make their way onto the institution’s shelves or end up at a sale where they become the property of another reader, and the whole cycle begins again. Physical books make their way through the world, falling into unlikely hands, making connections, creating a trail—and that gives them durability in the public’s awareness.

The e-book, on the other hand, mostly stays in the possession of its original owner, archived for him (or her) by the retailer once a reading device has become overcrowded. Though there’s now some limited sharing allowed by Amazon—a book can be loaned one time, for up to fourteen days—this hardly gives an e-book-only title the life span it might have had in the form of physical copies making their journeys of many decades from hand to hand.

It’s worth considering, however, that a very similar downside perception has always attached to magazines as a publishing format, especially for fiction. A magazine generally has a shelf life—at least in stores—of a month at most. Most unsold copies are pulped, and though magazines such as EQMM and its sister publications all have a significant number of collectors, prior to the Internet it probably would not have been as easy to obtain a copy of a past issue of one of our magazines as it would have been to unearth a copy of most contemporaneous books of short stories. The Internet marketplace has changed that somewhat—you can find some very old issues of fiction magazines on the ’Net—but I am not interested in making a case for the life span afforded by our type of publishing on such grounds. I’d like to point to some of the other factors involved, the chief of which is the longevity of the magazines themselves.

In her February 13, 2013 post for this site, “Sifting Through EQMM Buried Treasures,” Sarah Weinman talked of finding a partial run of old EQMMs in a mystery bookstore and how the discoveries she made between those covers formed the basis for her anthology Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense. Included in the book are EQMM stories from more than a half-century ago. Although Sarah did not find the copies she perused through us, we were able to assist her with the book’s permissions—a job that is often a stumbling block for the inclusion of old material in new anthologies. And sometimes, our office, with its nearly complete archive of seventy-three years of publication, actually becomes the reading room and place of research for such projects.

Inside EQMM, January 1945.

Inside EQMM, January 1945.

I think every short-story writer hopes that, decades hence, a new anthology will pick up their long-unseen work. And I believe the likelihood of that happening is greater if the story first saw life in a periodical such as ours than if it originally appeared in an isolated book. Our magazines are a centralized source for a very large quantity of material, which makes the job of anthologists drawing from our titles less gargantuan than it would be if miscellaneous out-of-print books had to be mined for their projects. No doubt that’s why almost all of the early collections of one of the most prolific anthologists our genre has ever produced, Martin H. Greenberg, drew almost exclusively from our magazines. It may also be one of the reasons why today’s leading publisher of single-author mystery short story collections, Douglas Greene (who was recently honored with a collection of essays on his work: Mysteries Unlocked: Essays in Honor of Douglas G. Greene) has relied so heavily on EQMM’s backlist of nearly 900 issues for his books’ selections.

I can’t count the number of times short-story writers have said to me that although they are thrilled to see their work in EQMM, they long for the permanence that a collection of their stories would provide. I understand that feeling, especially when I see the high quality of production provided by presses such as Doug Greene’s Crippen & Landru. (And by the way, if you haven’t yet come across any of those beautifully designed books, you should check them out!) But at the same time, I wonder if the sense of permanence so many of us attach to the printed book isn’t misplaced. From a purely aesthetic standpoint it’s easy to see why authors might prefer print-book publication to either magazine or e-book publication. But the determinants of how many lives a work of fiction ends up having are many. A few years ago, the print market for anthologies of reprinted stories narrowed drastically, and EQMM was only able to continue to put out anthologies of its older stories because of the birth of the e-book market—a case in which technology extended many stories’ longevity. Contractual issues prevent us from bringing back EQMM’s archive of back issues in electronic format (which I would love to do!), but 2015 will see the start of a reissue in electronic format of the twenty-volume hall-of-fame collections Masterpieces of Mystery, Selected by Ellery Queen. (Details to come on this site in 2015.)

Unlike most other fiction magazines on the market when ours was launched, EQMM began its long publishing adventure printed on very high quality paper, between stiff covers. It’s unfortunate that over the decades rising paper costs have made that kind of production impractical. But even high-caliber paper is subject to the ravages of time. As you’ll see from the attached photos, the more heavily thumbed issues in our archive are starting to crumble. We have the most delicate of them encased in acid-free plastic bags, but my hope is someday to have them all scanned and archived electronically (another case of digital technology being a potential lifesaver for the written word).

Covers of EQMM, January 1945 and May 1944.

EQMM’s January 1945 and May 1944 issues.

I love the look and feel of print and the complex social interactions that printed books and magazines inspire; I hope our magazines always maintain print editions. But I’m also very thankful for the advent of electronic publishing and new digital technologies, because when it comes to achieving greater longevity and permanence for the written word, the more options we have, the better.

—Janet Hutchings

Posted in Anthologies, Books, Business, Digital, Ellery Queen, History, Magazine | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Sick Hazel” (by Liza Cody)

Liza Cody has been a groundbreaker throughout her career as a mystery writer.  Her debut novel, Dupe, brought her the 1980 John Creasey Award for best first novel, and it was especially notable for introducing the character Anna Lee, the first professional female P.I. in British mystery fiction. Anna Lee ended up featuring in a series that was later adapted for television. Another groundbreaking Cody series appeared in the 1990s, starring a female professional wrestler, Eva Wylie. For the past several years, Liza tells EQMM, she’s been interested in homelessness: “My latest book, Lady Bag, came out earlier this year and I’m working on a sequel. Lady Bag is indeed a bag lady and I’ve been interested in rough sleepers’ stories since homelessness became a common sight in the U.K. after the welfare system started to come unraveled in the 1980s.” The Anthony and Silver Dagger award-winning author’s last two stories for EQMM, December 2013’s “I Am Not Fluffy” and June 2014’s “A Hand,” also center around people left at the margins of society. But today Liza lets two such people speak for themselves, rather than through her fiction.—Janet Hutchings

Lately, I have spent quite a lot of time with homeless people, and I’ve learned, when they tell me a story, to neither believe nor disbelieve it. Because if they can be bothered to talk to me at all, probably, like me, they’ll be telling a story for money. And it won’t be a story of glamour or success. It will be about hardship, obviously—if you urgently need a few pounds from a stranger it won’t be because you’ve done well in life. It’s usually because, on top of a whole cocktail of problems, you’ve been handed a double scoop of bad luck.

What follows is Sick Hazel’s story—told to me in dribs and drabs over the five or six years I knew her before her death. You’d think that if she was street-tagged “Sick Hazel” it would be to distinguish her at least from a Healthy Hazel. Her boyfriend, for instance, is known as Scots Jacko in contrast to a couple of other Jacks who roam the same area. But as far as I know there wasn’t another Hazel of any description. She begins and ends with unanswered questions.

When I first met them, Hazel and Jacko were inseparable. They were trying to collect enough money for bus fares for the journey to the Casualty Department at our local hospital. They had a complicated day ahead of them. They needed money to go to the hospital, money to come back, money for another bus to their Benefit Office on the other side of town. There, they would have to summon enough energy to argue about having to register as job-seekers when they were both clearly too sick to work. And finally, they had to go home—yet another bus ride they would be forced to raise the money for. The reason they had to go to Casualty in the first place was because, having no permanent address, they couldn’t register with a local doctor.

It can be exhausting to be homeless—not a job for sick people.

They were an odd couple. Hazel was short, black-haired, and considerably older than Jacko. He was wiry, nervous, and red-headed. At first it seemed, because of her loud wet bronchitis, that he was looking after her. But in fact they looked after each other. It’s true that he was in better physical shape, but she was the one who could fill in the mountains of application forms required to claim social benefits. She was the one who could read the leaflets that were issued regularly to tell them the rules had been changed and that they no longer qualified for assistance in this or that category. She could read bus and train timetables. She remembered to say “Thank you” to contributors to their common cause. A very necessary talent because Jacko was better at demanding money than asking for it. His lack of social skills, coupled with his prison tattoos, meant that without Hazel he might have starved.

Obviously, at that first meeting, I wasn’t told that they both had AIDS. Which was why they both needed constant medical attention—a tricky prospect when you haven’t got a doctor, and when the nearest hospital is seven miles away. They were very bad at keeping appointments because, of course, they both drank “to keep out the cold.”

Hazel, the talker, was quite frank about Jacko’s illness—he’d been infected by a dirty tattoo needle—but it was a long time before she told me about hers. Her stories about the past featured a lot of campfires and guitars. She was a hippy and a festival drug-taker who seemed, almost without noticing, to have crossed the line from sleeping out under the stars by choice to sleeping rough in all weathers. But that was before she met Jacko. And here the story becomes slightly implausible. She told it to me in order to extract sympathy and money so it may be less than or more than true.

She was gang raped on the canal towpath by guys she’d been hanging out with and sharing bottles of cheap wine with earlier that afternoon. Scots Jacko was one of them. Three of the men ran away, but Jacko was so drunk he fell asleep in the weeds near where Hazel was lying.

When she woke up and saw him there she hauled him to his feet and pushed him into the canal. Then she had to jump in and save his life because, although the canal is quite shallow, he was too pissed to save himself.

When they’d both sobered up a bit he burst into tears and wept for two solid hours—out of remorse, she said. He swore that from that time on he’d look after her until the day one of them died. It was a romance, she told me.

Sometimes the stories I hear are so random and messy, so lacking in either reasons or consequences, that I simply have to accept what I’m told. It’s only novelists who string together causes and effects like bead necklaces, as if stories really need to be logical. We pick them apart, looking for flaws in logic, forgetting that, more often than not, real life isn’t like that.

Crime writers often feel they should think like the detectives or lawyers they’re writing about. Crimes, once committed, should start a chain of events that lead to a satisfying conclusion.

What should I have asked Hazel? Why didn’t you go to the police? All crime stories begin with help being sought after an offence. But if someone is too drunk, broke, degraded, and exhausted to seek help or justice, no cop, detective, or law is invoked and therefore there’s no story. Well, there is a story, but no satisfactory explanation or logical consequence.

Tough. I have now told you everything that Hazel told me. I had no right to prod or pry any further—I am not a detective. I didn’t even know if Jacko was the one who infected Hazel with AIDS, or if it was the other way round. The way she told the story, she was loved and cared for by her rapist and killer.

Then she died and Jacko has been alone ever since. Every time I see him in the street now he rolls up his trouser legs to show me the raw lesions. Every time I look there are more. Is he saying, “Look, this is what I deserve. This sickness is my redemption. Yes, I raped her but she’s still killing me”? Probably not, he’s not much of a talker or a thinker. He’s probably just saying, “I’m sick, give me money.” But when I give him money who am I supporting? Am I, a feminist, giving money to a rapist and a killer? Or am I just giving a sick man the bus fare to the hospital?

Nothing is clear and you would have to be more naive than I am to believe everything you hear and then to judge a man on that basis.

Jacko is even less satisfactory as a storyteller than Hazel was. I want far more shape, many more answers than I’ve been given. But I’ll just have to make them up for myself because I’m addicted to looking for meaning, to filling in gaps. However, more likely than not, if I’m trying to find my way towards some sort of truth, I will be proved wrong. Because, apart from random conversations and sometimes cooking at a homeless shelter, I simply don’t walk in that world. And Sick Hazel, as far as I know, didn’t read detective stories. So she didn’t shape her story to suit her audience. She just told it like it was. Or wasn’t. As I said at the beginning, I’ve taught myself to be neither a believer nor a disbeliever.

Posted in Characters, Story, Writing | 1 Comment

LET’S REMEMBER JERRY HEALY

This past summer, the mystery field lost one of its most beloved writers, Jeremiah Healy. Jerry had not written a book for several years, and as short as memories are in today’s book world, I suspect there is already a new generation of readers out there who don’t know Jerry’s work. One of the things that always struck me about Jerry’s fiction was how keen his ear for dialogue was. He would mark places in his manuscripts with “SIC” frequently, presumably to make sure an editor or proofreader didn’t correct grammar or smooth any quirks in speech that he’d worked hard to get just right.This always seemed to me to fit with Jerry’s personality: He was someone who listened to people, who paid attention to what they said—and not just the quirks in their speech, but the content of it. He was interested in knowing what others thought, and he always paid the greatest respect to everyone: You didn’t have to be “a name” in the field for him to stop and chat with you. He made all of us feel that what we had to say was important. I experienced this firsthand. Shortly after I became editor of EQMM I was asked to give a talk at a writer’s conference in Chicago. It was all nuts-and-bolts stuff, not the sort of thing that would interest an established writer like Jerry. But he made a point of attending, standing at the back of the room for the whole hour. When it was finished, he waited patiently until everyone else had exited the room and then he approached me and offered an analysis of what had been good about the speech and a few tips on how to communicate better in future. What he said was right on the mark, but far more important than that, to me, was that he’d taken time he could have been spending much more interestingly to do it. I don’t think I ever sufficiently conveyed to Jerry how much his attention to a new magazine editor giving a first speech from a podium was appreciated. I wish I had. He made me feel that I mattered and I hope he knew, even during those years when he’d retired from the mystery scene, that he continued to matter—to so many of us.

Last week I received an e-mail from Jerry’s partner, the mystery writer Sandy Balzo, saying: “Our fellow mystery authors, Brendan DuBois, Andi Shechter, SJ Rozan, and her sister Deborah have found a way of commemorating Jerry’s work and life that I think he would have absolutely loved.”

She quoted Brendan explaining their choice of a charity for donations in Jerry’s name: “Besides his work as an attorney and an author, Jerry was a U.S. Army vet, and was also a lover of dogs. We have therefore reached out to a service dog organization in Maryland that trains dogs to assist wounded veterans, and they will be thrilled to receive donations in Jerry’s name.”

What a wonderful way to remember Jerry. Here’s the information Brendan conveyed about the organization:

“The group is called Hero Dogs, and is based in Maryland. Their website is listed below. They are an IRS approved 501(c)(3) organization and operate entirely on donations.You can donate via their website, or by sending a check to Hero Dogs, P.O. 64, Brookeville, MD 20833-0064. But *please* ensure either by writing on the memo section of your check, or using the form on their website, that you’re making this donation in Jerry’s name. That way, Hero Dogs can track how many donations come in, so that they can be used in some way to keep Jerry’s memory alive in years to come. Please donate what you can, and please share this link. Thanks to all of you who were friends or fans of Jerry’s.” Hero Dogs: http://www.hero-dogs.org/

Janet Hutchings

Posted in Memorial | 1 Comment

“Words and Pictures: Short Stories, Novels, and Screenplays” by Paul D. Marks

Paul D. Marks made his EQMM debut in this year’s November issue with the story “Howling at the Moon,” but he has long been established in the field, and is the author of more than thirty published short stories. He is also a screenwriter and he tells EQMM he “has the distinction, dubious though it might be, of being the last person to have filmed on the fabled MGM backlot before it bit the dust to make way for condos.” Recently, he has turned more of his attention to novel-length fiction, and last year he added a Shamus Award for his 2012 mystery-thriller novel White Heat to his other credits as a crime writer. In today’s post he gives us a look at what’s involved in wearing the various hats of screenwriter, novelist, and short-story writer.—Janet Hutchings

The Hook, The Setup

As a former “script doctor,” I’m often asked by people who’ve never written a screenplay what the differences between screenplays, novels, and short stories are, since I’ve written all three. And I always turn the question back on them before I respond. They come up with a variety of answers and most are pretty good. But they almost never hit on what I consider to be the main difference. I can’t go into all the nuances, but here’s a sampling.

A lot of people come up with length as their first answer. Sure, print ’em out and stack ’em up next to each other and the shortest pile will be the story, then the screenplay, then the novel.

Another common answer is that screenplays and the movies made from them are visual. They are light and movement versus words on a page. And they do rely heavily on visual images (i.e. the famous waves crashing on the beach in the classic film From Here to Eternity, and the door closing on Diane Keaton at the end of The Godfather). But, when writing a screenplay, whether a romance or a mystery, one doesn’t have to go into a lot of baroque description of the scene. For the most part, and to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, a beach is a beach. In a novel you might describe the golden sands and foamy waters lapping on the shores, but in a screenplay it’s just EXT. BEACH – DAY, with very little description below the “slugline,” unless there’s something really important about this particular beach that needs to be pointed out.

People also say that novels can be internal, while screenplays are external. In prose, it’s easier to get into the characters’ heads and emotions. In a screenplay/movie, actors have to be able to show their internal emotions through dialogue, expressions, and actions, although on occasion there is a voice-over narrator, but that’s the exception. Screenplays/movies consist of what you can see and hear. Novels can be more complex, have more threads, subplots, and characters. Movies usually have an A and B story, novels can have A-Z stories. Look at some of those classic Russian novels or even L.A. Confidential. Ellroy’s book is very complex, with lots of characters and subplots. The screenplay was effectively condensed and tightened, while still keeping the essence of the novel.

Another major difference between a screenplay and a short story or novel is, of course, the format. Screenplays consist of sluglines, action, and dialogue. They are also highly structured, usually in the “three-act structure,” which also lends itself to mystery story and novel plotting, as it’s very tight. I often do a first draft of a story or novel as a screenplay—my “outline,” if you will. Even a movie like Pulp Fiction, which at first glance doesn’t seem to follow the three-act structure does, if you take it apart and reorder the scenes chronologically.

And while dialogue in all three forms should advance the plot and reveal character, in screenplays it needs to be short and concise and carry a lot of weight, or subtext. I once had a producer tell me that dialogue should read like “ten-word telegrams.” Maybe that’s a little exaggerated, but not much. And, of course, movie dialogue is written for actors to speak, which is very different from dialogue on the page of a novel.

There is also lots of overlap between the various forms. All tell a story, and all should have something compelling to interest us, characters we can relate to, a story that’s intriguing, a puzzle to solve, etc. I once heard someone say that all stories are mysteries, and if you think about it, they really are, even if not crime mysteries. But the one thing all three forms have in common is that they’re based on conflict, an overall story conflict and smaller conflicts of one kind or another in just about every scene. Even Disney movies have conflict. Without it your story is dead in the water.

The Transition to and from Screenplays

When I first started trying to write stories and novels, I had trouble with the transition from screenwriting. In fact, one person who read an early novel of mine said that it read (too much) like a screenplay. Maybe it didn’t have the INT./EXT. sluglines and other things common to screenplays, but it still read like one. My transitions were too abrupt. And I really needed to work on my descriptions, as in most screenplays they’re on the sparse side to say the least, and I needed to flesh them out. I also needed to delve more into the characters’ heads.

Another issue is that movies are most often told from multiple points of view and in novels these days that’s largely frowned upon. So when I first began writing stories I would write from multiple POVs in a single scene. I guess you’d call it the omniscient point of view and I had to wean myself off of that.

Another thing to keep in mind if you try your hand at a screenplay is that one script page equals one minute of screen time. And there is definitely an art to getting that right.

The Reveal

But none of these are what I would consider the main difference between a screenplay and a novel or short story. The main difference is that a screenplay is not the final product. Movies are a collaborative art and a screenplay is more like an architect’s blueprint, whereas the novel is the finished house, from roof tiles and exterior walls to carpet, pipes, and insulation. When you’re writing a screenplay, you are the architect, drafting the plan to give to other people who will add the plumbing, electric, and other elements. You are writing for an army of people. Everyone thinks of the director and the stars or actors. But you’re also writing for the greensmen, best boys, set decorators, hair and makeup, set dressers, art directors, cinematographers, costumers, etc. Every one of these people has to know what they’re supposed to bring to your script. So you have to write with all of them in mind. But you also have to write with a certain finesse that is movie writing and not novel writing, which means not a lot of elaborate descriptions of the glorious sunset. Just enough to give a feel for the scene.

Novels and stories, even with an editor’s input, remain largely the writer’s vision. In a novel or short story, you’re the director, art director, production designer, set decorator all rolled into one. In a screenplay you’re part of a team. Screenplays become movies, which are the vision of several entities—writer, director, actors, et al—while novels and stories are complete in themselves.

The Bottom Line

You can’t talk about only the writing when you talk about the differences between a screenplay and a novel or short story. You also have to talk about the business side of things—Show Biz—because it’s all intertwined.

When you write a Hollywood screenplay, you are not the captain of your own ship. Unless you’re going to raise the money and produce and film it yourself (more possible these days than ever before), you will be rewritten, because in Hollywood you don’t retain the copyright to your script once you sell it. And credits on Hollywood movies are determined by arbitration in the Writer’s Guild and not everyone gets screen credit. Also, if you go non-union, you don’t get residuals or royalties at all.

If you have an ego, write novels, because everyone in Hollywood gets rewritten. And don’t think you’re going to be the exception. Whether you write an original spec screenplay that’s bought or optioned or if you sell a novel to Hollywood, you will be rewritten and you most likely won’t have much say about what goes into the rewrites. Even a novelist as big and successful as Clive Cussler, who supposedly had a great amount of control over the script based on his novel Sahara, is so unhappy with the final result of that movie and the way the producers treated him that he’s suing them.

I eventually left screenwriting because I wanted to have more control over my stories and characters. I also got tired of my dad not knowing what I did because, though there might be up to three or so writer credits listed, there’s often an army of rewriters who don’t receive screen credit. And I wanted to be able to tell my stories my way and not have someone change them because they needed the story to fit a twenty-five-year-old actor instead of a forty-five-year-old actor. So now I write stories and novels and they’re exactly what I want them to be—well, close. And maybe one of these days Hollywood will come calling again and want to buy one of my novels . . . and then someone will rewrite me.

Posted in Business, Editing, Fiction, Genre, Guest | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

“When Character Counts” (by Brendan DuBois)

The staff at EQMM has always had a special interest in the careers of authors who have debuted in our Department of First Stories. Brendan DuBois is one of those special writers. His appearance in the Department of First Stories was in 1986, and he has gone on to write sixteen novels and more than 135 short stories (yes, that last figure is correct!). Pegasus Books published his latest novel, Fatal Harbor, in May 2014, and his next book, Blood Foam, will appear in June 2015, also from Pegasus.
Brendan’s most recent short story for EQMM was September/October 2014’s “The Very Best Neighbor”; we’ve got another of his stories coming up in February 2015 (“Leap of Faith”) and a couple more later in the new year. The New Hampshire author’s short fiction has also appeared in Playboy, AHMM, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, and numerous anthologies. He’s had stories chosen for both The Best American Mystery Stories of the Century and The Best American Noir of the Century.
Brendan’s stories have twice won the Private Eye Writers of America’s Shamus Award, and have also garnered three Edgar Allan Poe Award nominations from the MWA. There are not many writers who have excelled like this at both long and short fiction; in the following post, the author shares one of the secrets to his success. —Janet Hutchings

At some point in my writing career, I suddenly realized I had gone from the new kid on the block to . . . dare I say it? . . . an old, grizzled veteran of the mystery-writing field. Oh, I’m grizzled if I let my beard go, and even though I was born when Eisenhower was president, I still think I’m a young guy with lots still to learn. My first short story appeared in EQMM back in 1986, and yes, I still get a thrill every time a new one is published. Yet there I was, no longer the new kid with his nose pressed up against the glass looking in, but being inside the world of fiction writing, someone who’s not only been around the block once or twice, but who’s been around the entire neighborhood.

So what does this mean? Do I get a membership card in the Old Writers Society? Or a discount on printer cartridges at Staples? No, but it does mean I get asked lots of questions.

Sometimes, there I am, at a writing conference or seminar, gladly answering questions from fellow authors just breaking into the field, or who are still struggling to tell their story. I get lots of questions. Do I write from an outline or do I just let the story take me? What was my writing schedule? Do I write noir, hardboiled, cozy, soft-boiled, thriller, or any particular combination thereof? How did I get an agent? Does a writer need an agent? Do you write on a Mac or an IBM clone? How do you plot? Where do you get your ideas? How do you do research?

Lots of questions over the years, lots of answers provided, but I soon realized that my questioners weren’t asking me what I considered a vital part of mystery writing—any writing, in fact—namely, characters. The people that populate your story, the ones who talk, who act, who sometimes die and who sometimes solve a crime.

In my humble opinion, everything else in constructing— and then writing—a story is like building an arch. You can have your background, your research, your plot, your plot twists, all of them rising up into the sky, reaching for each other.

But if you don’t have that keystone of living, breathing and sympathetic characters, everything is going to come crashing down.

So put a lot of thought into your characters before breathing life into them and setting them loose on the page.

Oh.

I suppose you want me to tell you how to do this.

Okay.

Start off with the plot and who has to be there to tell the story. Usually I start with MC . . . no, not the rapper MC Hammer. My MC stands for Main Character. If there’s more than one, then MC1, MC2, MC3 and so forth and so on.

Then, get to the basics. You’re going to be a first-year anatomy student (or a failed medical student now working in a remote mountain laboratory), assembling different parts into a living, breathing creature. Think of people you know, or family members. Your neighbor’s braying laugh. Your brother’s thick hair. The store clerk constantly chomping on gum. Know the details of where they are, where they’ve been, and what they look like. Pretty soon you’ll have the characters you need.

But they’re still dead. Honest. You need that breath of life, that spark, that bolt of lightning.

And that’s when the hard/fun part comes up.

You have to ask yourself these most important questions: Who is this character, what is her background, and what drives her to do what she does?

And then, the most dangerous part of this process pops up: Cliche Corner.

We’ve all read them, and we might even have written them: the bitter ex-cop. The grieving widow. The schoolteacher who just knows the vice principal is a creep. The sweet old lady who’s secretly a stone-cold killer. The hit man with the heart of gold.

Don’t, don’t, don’t. That’s why they’re called cliches, because they’re easy to come up with, easy to use.

Again, don’t.

Reach way down inside and find out what makes your characters stand out, what makes them different, what makes the reader care about them. Look at yourself, brutally and honestly. Although most of us have a very high opinion of ourselves, there are always little dark places. The fury that comes while driving in traffic and someone cuts you off. The thoughts of committing injury (or worse) when you read about a criminal injuring a child or a pet. The dark satisfaction in realizing that you’ve managed to slip a deduction past the hardworking ladies and gentlemen of the IRS.

And also realize this: Even the worst person out there, the most vicious criminal or sociopath, he or she thinks there is a reason for what they are doing. It may not be logical, or make sense, but there’s a reason. Nobody acts in a vacuum, nobody does something for no reason at all.

Maybe you’re disagreeing with me. That’s fine. In writing—and especially mystery writing—there’s always room for challenges, for disagreements. That’s okay. But I’ll leave you with this—

Think back to the last couple of novels you’ve read. What stands out? The slam-bang climatic scene? The car chase? The tearful confession where All Is Revealed? The plot twist? Or plot twists? Or is it the character? Or the characters?

It’s been years since I read The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris, but it would only take seconds for me to recall the characters of Dr. Hannibal Lecter or FBI Agent Clarice Starling. Or Jack Reacher, in Lee Child’s very first novel, The Killing Floor. Or even Sam Spade in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon.

That’s what makes a story. That’s what stays in a reader’s mind.

Start with your character.

And if all else fails, look in the mirror.

 

Posted in Characters, Fiction, Genre, Guest, Readers, Story, Writers, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

IT’S ALL ABOUT VARIETY

If you’ve been following the postings on this site regularly, you’ve probably noticed how many different points of view there are about the virtues (or lack thereof) of various types of mystery. In fact, you might well wonder how EQMM has managed, for more than seven decades, to hold together a readership composed of so many seemingly incompatible types of fans.

In his post of September 24, 2014, John Pugmire employs three concepts borrowed from Japanese mystery criticism to categorize contemporary crime fiction: honkaku, for the traditional fair-play puzzle mystery; shakaiha, for the “social school of crime fiction”; and henkaku, “which purports to reflect the mysteries of the human heart.” He goes on to say: “Much of current Western crime fiction is either shakaiha or henkaku . . . or both, thus exploring both the state of society and the protagonists’ foibles, to the detriment of plots and clues. This, to my mind, is not detective fiction: It is fiction about detectives.” The post’s title, “In Praise of Honkaku,” tells us immediately which form John favors, and he adds later: “Is there any greater literary pleasure than the moment when all the puzzling elements suddenly click into place?”

Contrast this with what Michael Guillebeau had to say the following week in his post “The Mystery of Quest”: “For the kind of mysteries I choose, the drug of choice is meaning and quest and the struggles of the trapped and battered little people in all of us. I may read the first chapter of a mystery for the hook, usually a crime or at least a wrong that must be righted. But—make no mistake about this—I read every other page in a quest for meaning that I often can’t find in the three-dimensional world. W.H. Auden said it best when he said that every detective story is a mirror image of the Quest for the Holy Grail. . . . If you stop a mystery reader halfway along and ask why they’re turning the pages, they’ll talk about the hook, and tell you that they want to see who committed the murder, or see if the hero can save the damsel. But that’s the Holy Grail and not the Quest. Frankly, mystery readers don’t give a damn about the Grail, no matter what they say. . . . We read to feel—not see, but feel—what it’s like to fight every battle and stand for something noble.”

Here, clearly, we have two different types of fan, with Michael’s interest falling roughly into the combined categories of skakaiha and henkaku; the honkaku elements are described in his post as a sort of dressing. The type of story he prefers is most often found within the realm of private-eye fiction. As Carolyn Hart said, in her post “In Good Company”: “The private eye—whether we are talking about Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone or Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade—is the white knight who will never betray her or his code of honor. These books explore society’s ills and attempt to right society’s wrongs. These books are about the quest for honor. . . . [and are] very romantic in intent.”

As appealing as Carolyn makes the P.I. story sound, her favorite type of mystery (and the type she writes) has more in common with honkaku, though we can see from her post that she does not give quite as much emphasis as John does to the intellectual challenge of the puzzle: “What attracts readers to mysteries and why do I write mysteries? . . . Independence [of the protagonist], a battle for justice, and a puzzle. . . . But the mystery offers more. . . . Christie once compared the mystery to the medieval morality play. It is a fascinating analogy. In the medieval morality play, the trades-fair audiences saw a graphic presentation of what happens to lives dominated by lust, gluttony, sloth, and all the deadly sins. This is precisely what readers of today’s mysteries are offered in a more sophisticated guise.”

What Carolyn’s post focused on is yet another expectation that one large segment of mystery’s readership has: that the story will have “moral worth”; that justice and goodness will prevail. But this expectation conflicts sharply with what one finds at the very hardboiled end of the crime-fiction spectrum, where the point is more often the exploration of criminality than the triumph of good.

And as if these conflicting reader expectations in terms of content were not enough, there are also stylistic preferences to consider. In his post “Black Mask Magazine, Steve Fisher, and the Noir Revolution” Keith Alan Deutsch talked about the seismic change that occurred at Black Mask magazine with the transition from editor Joseph Shaw to Fanny Ellsworth—a “change from the objective, hardboiled writing promoted by Shaw . . . to the subjective, psychologically and emotionally heightened writing that came in vogue under her [Ellsworth’s] guidance”; a change which “led to creation of the film genre we now know as noir through the writings of Steve Fisher, particularly in his film scripts, and through the novels and short fiction of Cornell Woolrich . . . ” Keith quotes biographer William Brandon saying, in his book on Shaw, that Shaw preferred “good hard prose as against the spongy prose of subjectivity,” and adds that “action, not character, was at the center of Shaw’s aesthetic for exciting stories.” I think that rift in tastes regarding the manner in which hardboiled stories are told continues to exist today.

Though I sometimes hear it said (by people who are not and probably never have been regular readers of EQMM) that our magazine is primarily a venue for the traditional mystery and the pure suspense story, this simply isn’t true. The fame of EQMM’s founding editor Fred Dannay (a.k.a. Ellery Queen) as a writer of traditional mysteries has probably always colored impressions of his magazine. But it should not be forgotten that it was Dannay who “saved” Black Mask magazine for a time, incorporating it, when it ceased independent publication, as a department in EQMM; and a pundit once commented that Dannay had expanded the concept of the mystery so far that it seemed as if every great writer in history had produced at least one.

The mantle I assumed when I took over the editor’s chair at EQMM felt heavy in the beginning, especially as I’d come from a “discovery house,” where I’d had the freedom to bring a large number of new writers into print—the freedom, in other words, to create an editorial world of my own, largely from scratch. EQMM had a tradition to uphold—and a grand one at that. Distinguished as she was, I imagine my predecessor, Eleanor Sullivan, must have felt a bit of that weight herself, because there have been few other magazines as closely associated with their founding editors as EQMM is with Fred Dannay, who was once said, in the New York Times, to be “the best magazine editor ever.” Dannay wasn’t hired to run an existing magazine: The concept for the publication was his and he had a role in finding its first publisher. He had worked as an art director and he dominated all visual aspects of the magazine as well as its literary content; he was a well-known scholar and collector in the field who unearthed little-known treasures for EQMM; and he invented, with EQMM, a new type of fiction magazine—one that would look and feel like a book and strive for the literary quality of books, within a field of popular (as opposed to literary) fiction.

I have always felt that the magazine Dannay created must in a certain way remain his magazine; that is, it must maintain the essentials of his vision for it, or lose its identity. And yet each new editor, on inheriting a publication, must make it his or her own. The thrust of my own editorship at EQMM has always been to try to push the boundaries for what we include even farther out than where they were set by my predecessors. It’s why I started Passport to Crime and brought back Black Mask. Partly this is personal: I have catholic tastes, and want to share with readers the best that’s available of all the different forms I enjoy. But it also derives from a belief that what magazines like ours have uniquely to offer in a world that increasingly drives us all towards specialization is variety.

I won’t claim to know all of the reasons EQMM (and its sister publication AHMM) have succeeded while bucking the current trend toward specialization, but I can offer a couple of possible explanations. The first is that there really are threads connecting categories of mystery that appear at first glance to have little or nothing in common. I have often wondered, for example, whether the puzzle mysteries of the Golden Age would have proved as compelling as they were had they not been written in an age of capital punishment. There was, at least implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, a hangman waiting for the culprit at the end of many of the books and stories. In 4:50 to Paddington, Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple laments the end of that practice in the U.K.: “I am really very, very sorry,” she says, “that they have abolished capital punishment because I do feel that if there is anyone who ought to hang, it’s Dr Quimper.”

The pleasure of a Christie mystery may lie primarily in the intellectual challenge of the puzzle, but the existence of that hangman reminds us that the puzzle is about something of great consequence. You can’t remove the puzzle element of the mystery entirely from the context of what is vital to human beings and their notions of justice—or from a pressing sense of danger—and expect it to hook us. The prospect of the terrible retribution of the noose makes the killers in Golden Age mysteries dangerous. And an acute sense of threat is central to some of the books even without it: Can anyone read Christie’s Sleeping Murder without feeling dread over those “monkey paw” hands—hands that will stop at nothing to remove the witness on the verge of figuring out who he is?

Danger, and the suspense it generates, is an element in virtually all mysteries. So is some connection to justice. In Charles Willeford’s Sideswipe (spoiler alert!) the story ends with the sad-sack old man Stanley Sinkiewicz arrested for a capital crime. At least one of the arresting cops is happily cynical about this outcome, even though Stanley himself believes “I ain’t done nothing wrong.” Stanley’s partner in crime, who recruited him to finance a robbery that resulted in murder, “managed to keep me out of everything so I wouldn’t get involved,” Stanley tells them. Whatever we may think of the old man and his part in it all, his going to the electric chair hardly seems an entirely just outcome. It does, however, make for a memorable conclusion to a book that serves as an example of the type of hardboiled story I mentioned above, one in which it is the exploration of criminality and criminal characters, not the quest for justice, that is the engine for the story. Even so, could we imagine this ending having its ironic impact if we hadn’t been expecting a more just outcome?

I cannot, in the space I have here, mention all of the links I see between the various forms of mystery and crime fiction. Nor do I wish to minimize the tendency of fans of one form to pass over works that belong to another. That kind of niche blindness is encouraged by the marketing techniques of online retailers like Amazon, who invite readers to seek more of the same: People who bought this book also bought . . . But I suspect many people are getting tired of having profiles made of their buying habits, for this can only result in a narrowing of focus—an arrow pointing back at themselves, or to people just like themselves. Where is the opportunity in that to expand one’s tastes?

I’m reminded in this regard of a restaurant called La Mela that I discovered some time ago in Manhattan’s Little Italy. I’m told they now give patrons the option of selecting from a menu, but on the occasions when I visited this old-style, family-run Italian place you just took a seat and waited for platters of whatever they were serving to arrive at your table. In this era when YOUR CHOICE! seems to scream at us from every catalog and web page, and we’re encouraged to DESIGN YOUR OWN (the endless proliferation of choices needlessly siphoning away our time and energy), here there was almost no choice—and oh, how wonderful it was!

What EQMM offers readers is the literary version of that La Mela experience—a “kitchen” in which choices are made for the reader, and by means of which, we hope, tastes are sometimes broadened. The guiding principle is variety—we try to include between the covers of each issue stories from as many categories as possible—though that is not, of course, to say that there are no limits at all to what we’ll present to our guests. Just as I probably would not return to La Mela if a “Chocolate Cricket Torte” or some other dish made with bugs appeared in front of me, we know EQMM readers will not continue to subscribe if we push them too far beyond their literary limits.

This approach has worked for us, and it has also provided a lot of pleasure for me. Few things about my job make me happier than when I see one of our riskier selections get a lot of votes in our Readers Award poll—or when a reader writes to say, in effect: “I wouldn’t have chosen that story, but I did like it.” Such responses show us that we’re doing something for readers that no student of purchasing patterns can ever do: widening horizons. I hope this blog site, with its many different, and sometimes conflicting takes on what a mystery should be, does that too. —Janet Hutchings

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“The Mystery of Quest” (by Michael Guillebeau)

Michael Guillebeau debuted in EQMM’s Department of First Stories in May 2011 with the story “A Study in Detail.” He has since produced two more stories for EQMM (the most recent August 2014’s “Crimes of Passion”) and a first novel, Josh Whoever, that Library Journal gave a starred review and named a Mystery Debut of the Month. The book was also a Silver Falchion Award finalist. In Michael’s fiction we always find characters driven by passion, so it was not entirely a surprise to learn, from this post, where he thinks the heart of the mystery story lies.—Janet Hutchings

My name is Michael Guillebeau and I’m a mystery writer and reader. That feels like the confession of a recovering addict or a presidential candidate, but there it is.

For the kind of mysteries I choose, the drug of choice is meaning and quest and the struggles of the trapped and battered little people in all of us. I may read the first chapter of a mystery for the hook, usually a crime or at least a wrong that must be righted. But—make no mistake about this—I read every other page in a quest for meaning that I often can’t find in the three-dimensional world. W.H. Auden said it best when he said that every detective story is a mirror image of the Quest for the Holy Grail.

Now look at that last sentence carefully, because fully understanding that sentence is essential to mystery writing. If you stop a mystery reader halfway along and ask why they’re turning the pages, they’ll talk about the hook, and tell you that they want to see who committed the murder, or see if the hero can save the damsel. But that’s the Holy Grail and not the Quest. Frankly, mystery readers don’t give a damn about the Grail, no matter what they say. Every day, we read about murders and danger and crime in the newspaper, and we stack the paper in the recycling bin and go on largely unaffected.

But the lack of connection to the meaning of these things bothers us on some level, so when we read a good mystery story, we fight to be in the Quest itself. The Grail gives the Quest purpose and focus, but the nobility of the story—and the real reason we read mystery—must be in the Quest itself, if we want a mystery story to burn a hole in our hearts.

Dashiell Hammett wrote about the search for a statue of a black bird—but what we remember is the meaning of loyalty to your partner. Robert Parker wrote so much about the meaning of friendship between Spencer and Hawk and Susan that he was often accused of forgetting the mystery entirely.

Pull out an old Travis McGee mystery and skip all the parts about the rusty knight and why he cares, or read Harry Bosch and take out just one line, “Everybody matters or nobody matters.” See if you want to read another book like that.

So, while we mystery fans want Sir Galahad to hold the Grail in his hands on the last page, we read everything up to that page for the Quest itself. We read to feel—not see, but feel—what it’s like to fight every battle and stand for something noble. Where do we find the nobility? I’d argue that for us mystery fans the nobility is in the kind of people our heroes (and ourselves, at least in our fantasy world) stand for and with.

Six hundred years ago, an old poet named Hafez wrote a poem:

The small man
Builds cages for everyone
He knows.
While the sage,
Who has to duck his head
When the moon is low,
Keeps dropping keys all night long
For the
Beautiful
Rowdy
Prisoners.

As a mystery fan, my fascination is with the rowdy, beautiful prisoners, and the rusty, self-doubting knights who drop the keys and wonder what it all means. The ones who keep on taking the next step because they’re committed to the Quest even if it hurts and everyone stands against them. We want to journey with the people who are on quests no matter the opposition, and we want to stand with the hungry and the searchers. The beautiful ones too rowdy to put up with the crap we all put up with. That’s what I’m in this for.

There’s a non-fiction book out now, called The Happiness of Pursuit. The author set out to visit every country on earth by the age of thirty-five, for only his own personal reasons. He succeeded, and met a lot of other people along the way on other quests large and small. He learned a lot about the meaning of the human need for quests. His conclusion: That finding a quest, and pursuing it, is itself a major source of satisfaction and meaning in our lives.

And so, I think, that is what we mystery writers must give our readers: a quest, large or small, which has a meaning that is personal, driving, and immediate for our characters and the readers who become them for a little while. And that is why mystery stories bring satisfaction to my life, and why I write them.

I am Michael Guillebeau, and my largest and most satisfying nonwriting quest has been the raising of three kids. Other parents who have embarked on this quest know that mine, like theirs, was filled with heroes and villains and dragons and knights in very rusty armor and long dark nights filled with self-doubt.

One of those kids is Chris Guillebeau, the author of The Happiness of Pursuit. And the story of how a once dirty-faced, strong-willed little boy turned into that man is the biggest mystery I ever hope to encounter.

Here’s Chris and his proud papa with their books.

Chris and Michael Guillebeau

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