“Murder Under the Oaks” (by Art Taylor)

Art Taylor debuted in EQMM’s Department of First Stories in 1995. He has gone on to win a Macavity and multiple Agatha and Derringer awards for his short fiction. The last time the Virginia author posted on this site, in March of this year, his EQMM story “The Odds Are Against Us” was up for the Agatha. It won that award and currently the story is nominated for the Anthony and Macavity awards, the winners to be determined at the Bouchercon World Mystery Convention, to be held in Raleigh, North Carolina October 8–11. This month, Art’s first book, On the Road With Del and Louise (Henery Press), a “novel in stories,” was released. A review of the novel (which incorporates two stories previously published in EQMM) will appear in our January issue. For this post, the author takes off his mystery-writing hat and dons that of anthology editor. It’s an interesting turnabout!—Janet Hutchings

For a second year in a row, Bouchercon, the World Mystery Convention, has produced an anthology of mystery stories, and for the second year in a row, a regular EQMM contributor has served as guest editor of the collection.

In 2014, for the Bouchercon in Long Beach, California, Dana Cameron selected and edited the stories in Murder at the Beach. This year, Bouchercon is in Raleigh, North Carolina, and the anthology shares the conference’s own title, Murder Under the Oaks, in honor of Raleigh being called the City of Oaks.

As a native North Carolinian myself, I was grateful to be invited to edit this year’s anthology—and what a learning experience it’s been, finding myself there on the other side of the process.

The anthology features several well-known writers, including many of this year’s Bouchercon guests of honor: Margaret Maron, Tom Franklin, Zoë Sharp, Sarah Shaber, Lori Armstrong, and Sean Doolittle. The blind submission process brought in stories from several well-known masters of the short story—Robert Lopresti and B.K. Stevens, for example, whose works are surely familiar to readers of EQMM and AHMM—and also delivered stories by up-and-coming writers already making their marks in a big way.

For those folks going to Bouchercon next week, I’d urge you to check out the official launch of the anthology on Saturday morning, October 10, with very short presentations by contributors in attendance and then a group signing. And let me stress that neither I nor any of the contributors are earning any money from the anthology; instead, proceeds from the anthology will benefit the Wake County Public Library system, a fine cause.

I’m hoping that folks will enjoy the collection that we’ve put together here—I’m very much looking forward to what readers think!—but in the meantime, I also wanted to share a couple of those learning experiences I mentioned above, reflections that stuck with me and that might be of small use or enjoyment to other writers and to readers as well. (And apologies here to my host, Janet Hutchings, who will likely find all of this underwhelmingly obvious—having experienced it all from an editor’s perspective for so long now herself!)

Trends Exist (And not simply the expected ones)

Serial Killers! The Paranormal! Zombies everywhere! . . . Um, actually, I didn’t get any of those myself. Perhaps there were indeed vast outbreaks of paranormal activity in the 150-plus submissions that the first readers encountered, but I didn’t see them in the batch of semifinalists I received—and I might well have welcomed them, since I’ve enjoyed stories in that direction by a number of fine crime writers. Instead, two other trends stood out to me. The first trend related to revenge tales—usually revenge against men who had done women wrong (sometimes awfully awfully wrong). The second were tales involving older characters—with a surprisingly large portion of the submissions I saw focused on the challenges of aging. This might prompt questions for you (as it did me): Were such trends in my semifinalist pile representative of the larger submissions (a proportional slice) or merely representative of some of the leanings of those first readers toward revenge tales and stories about aging protagonists, victims, and killers? Given that I saw these trends across both the invited contributors (those Bouchercon guests of honor) and the blind submissions, I’d expect the former to be true. What’s surprising is that this wouldn’t necessarily seem to be market-driven. (Zombies sell, so I should write zombie fiction, right?) Maybe it’s simply that mystery writers collectively circle around certain ideas of victims and injustice and justice, and these archetypal situations and stories seem promising—which leads to . . .

Innovation Counts

Related to the above, as I was reading a half-dozen tales about women exacting frequently painful revenge against men, it was easy for similar treatments of that same theme to blur together into one another. What rose to the top were the authors who did something different with a common idea—offering a fresh perspective, a clever approach, an unexpected twist. Similarly, those writers who generally took risks stood out. Fans of Zoë Sharp’s work will certainly appreciate “Kill Me Again Slowly,” a thrilling new story in her Charlie Fox series, but what excited me most was the opening scene—which brought together real-life figures such as Marilyn Monroe, Dorothy Parker, and Groucho Marx and restricted their dialogue to actual quotes attributed to each of them. Zowie! Refreshing and delightful. Writers, always push to stand out.

Your Style Is Like Your Signature

Much as I’m encouraging innovation and creativity to help writers make their work spark, I have to add an asterisk of sorts at this point. Except in special circumstances, it’s very possible that your personal style or trademark themes will shine through your work no matter what. I wouldn’t have recognized Margaret Maron’s story “Spring Break” as hers; she pointedly was trying something experimental here—a story told completely in dialogue. But the first of the blind submissions that I decided to accept, “#grenadegranny,” struck me with a familiar brand of humor, a sharp-witted conversational style, and a concern with economic issues that I felt like I recognized; so it wasn’t a surprise to me weeks later when the writer was revealed as Karen Pullen, another North Carolina writer whose works I’ve followed and admired. Who we are, how we write—maybe they’re inevitably intertwined.

First-time Writers Can Hold Their Own

Conventional wisdom might have it that the veteran writers are the more polished ones—they’re pros for a reason, right? But just as I’m often most impressed by authors in EQMM’s Department of First Stories, so too was I wowed here by some of the relatively lesser-known writers, including one author making her mystery debut in this anthology: J.D. Allen, whose six-part story “Grasshoppers” revealed an uncommon confidence right from the start. Many readers may well gravitate toward the bigger-name authors in an anthology like this, toward those authors they already know, but those readers would surely be doing themselves a disservice in that case. The rookies can indeed rule.

Technical Issues Can Be Trumped (And Fixed)

Finally, I guess it’s common sense that a writer’s submission should be the strongest it can be: polished to perfection in terms of character, plot, and prose—and free of typos too! (As with resumes, a single misplaced comma might undermine an editor’s confidence in a writer.) But what intrigued me about being in the editor’s seat here were those stories which had even serious missteps—a plot twist that wasn’t prepared for, say, or some unnecessarily muddied passages of prose—but whose storytelling overall kept me riveted and stuck with me long after I’d moved on to other submissions. Those tales lingered in my memory, something about them that transcended specific struggles. The most distinctive aspects of them kept tugging at me, wouldn’t quite let me go. And in turn, I ultimately didn’t let them go—but instead worked with several authors to address some of my concerns, find ways to build profitably on what was outstanding while at the same time smoothing away some of the rough spots—profitable for all of us, I hope, the readers especially.

More than anything, editing Murder Under the Oaks gave me a great opportunity—two, in fact. First, I got to celebrate a terrific group of authors who truly deserve all the credit here, and second, I earned a renewed understanding of the diversity of the mystery genre—and a renewed sense of how to serve readers. Crime fiction, as we know, covers a lot of territory—from cozy to noir, from domestic suspense to international intrigue, and from the whodunit to the caper tale to the police procedural and beyond. Different writers, different readers, different interests—and maybe the editor’s toughest job (mine, at least!) lay not just in delivering a fine batch of stories but also in trying to serve all tastes. Fingers crossed that our efforts worked.

Posted in Anthologies, Books, Conventions, Editing, Fiction, Genre, Guest, Publishing, Writers | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

“Hot on the Trail of a Minnesota Mystery” (by Susan Koefod)

Susan Koefod is the author of the Arvo Thorson mystery-novel series, from North Star Press, and also a widely published poet. She was a recipient, in 2013, of a $25,000 McKnight Artist Fellowship for writers. Just this week she received the news that her first YA book, a coming-of-age novel with an element of mystery, entitled Naming the Stars, will be published in September of 2016 by Curiosity Quills Press. Susan’s second story for EQMM will appear in this year’s December issue, on sale October 27. One would expect such a varied writing life to have many different sources of inspiration; in today’s post she talks about one important thread that runs through it all.—Janet Hutchings

Minnesota has a well-known reputation of “Minnesota Nice”—the natives friendly and helpful—but transplants quickly learn that while we smile, say hello, and are polite, we keep our distance. If you’re hoping we might drop over with a casserole when you move into the neighborhood, you better be patient. We won’t do that right away, possibly not even in the first six months, or even years after that. But we’ll always wave when you walk by. Just don’t expect us to ask you in.

Minnesotans consider it rude to be direct. If you ask us whether we like the meal we share at a restaurant—if a momentous occasion like that comes to pass—we’ll probably say, “It’s different.” What we really mean is, “I don’t like this.”

Minnesotans remain such a mystery to outsiders that you need to have the skills of a sleuth to get to know us. Let’s invent one for the sake of this post. We’ll call our detective Minnie Hartahknowya.

Minnie’s first lead comes in with the infamous Minnesota weather. The joke around here is that if you don’t like the weather, just wait fifteen minutes and it will change. She wonders where’s the humor in that joke after she spends her first winter in Minnesota, which lasts eight long months, but feels much longer. Every month but July has seen snow. She discovers that wind-chill is not something you endure for a mere fifteen minutes, hoping things will quickly warm up. Wind-chill means to keep your distance from winter or you’ll freeze to death. Padded by layers of parkas, sweaters, hats, scarves, and thick boots, a Minnesotan does not look very human outdoors in winter and there isn’t much time for a teeth-chattering chat before even the hardiest locals dash indoors.

Minnie wonders if brutal winters have taught Minnesotans they need to survive without much contact with other humans, possibly for three-quarters of the year. This seems too obvious, especially to a sharp detective like Minnie. She knows that mysteries earn their keep by throwing out false leads. If it’s too obvious a solution, it probably isn’t the solution.

So Minnie looks elsewhere, and analyzes the available physical evidence, going directly to the DNA. She learns that over 32 percent of Minnesotans have Scandinavian ancestry—most of us have Norwegian and Swedish heritage coursing through our veins.

Following the hard physical evidence, the sleuth quickly develops a hunch. And because she’s a character in a 1,500-word blog for short-story mystery-fiction readers and writers, she’s in a hurry to solve the case. She figures there must be something that connects this brooding Scandinavian ancestry, and possibly the weather (maybe that first lead wasn’t a false one), to mystery writing.

Next stop, the library information desk.

The Minnesota-nice librarian tells her that Minnesota is home to award-winning bestselling mystery authors, including Kent Krueger (his recent novel, Ordinary Grace won the Edgar, the Anthony, the Barry, the Macavity, the Dilys, the Squid, and the Silver Falchion), Ellen Hart (winner of many Lambda Literary Awards), Julie Kramer, Erin Hart, and David Housewright; newcomers Allen Eskens (winner of a Rosebud for his debut, and finalist in the Edgar, Anthony, Barry, and Thriller Awards) and Kristi Belcamino (also a first-novel finalist for a Macavity and an Anthony); and many more established and upcoming mystery authors.

Minnesota is also home to a Raven Award winning mystery bookstore, Once Upon A Crime, nestled in a thriving independent bookstore scene (over 50 in the Minneapolis area alone), a vibrant community of writers and readers, and one of the nation’s largest literary centers, the acclaimed Loft Literary Center.

Is there something deep in that Scandinavian heritage, so deep that it hitched along for the ride, crossing the Atlantic into Minnesota culture? Minnie browses at one of the library’s computers, noting an article by Nathaniel Rich of Slate reporting on the popularity of Scandinavian crime fiction. Speaking of Henning Mankell, Peter Høeg, and others, he said that what “distinguishes these books is not some element of Nordic grimness but their evocation of an almost sublime tranquility.” By sublime tranquility, he was referring to the bucolic settings of Scandinavian crime—something that is so pronounced that it appears in the titles of novels (Smilla’s Sense of Snow, anyone?). Is this at the heart of the Minnesota mystery?

I happen to be sitting nearby Minnie, working on a mystery blog post. I invite her to coffee at Fika, a cafe in Minneapolis’s American Swedish Institute. Fika takes its name from the Swedish tradition of “fika,” a coffee break with food.

She asks me about my heritage, the name Koefod. I tell her my husband has one hundred percent Scandinavian heritage and the name originated in the island of Bornholm (off Denmark), home to the most bloodthirsty Vikings, the Jomsvikings. I have some Swedish and Finnish heritage.

She asks me what inspires me as a native Minnesotan with Scandinavian ancestry in writing mysteries.

I tell her the varied landscape and moody climate inspired me as a child. I used to skip home from the bus stop, imagining myself as a character in a novel. To this day, that mix of moodiness and landscape inspires me in my work. My novels are set in a small Minnesota town along the Mississippi River. My detective has Scandinavian heritage. And there are many coffee breaks—fika—in my novels. I agree with her when she cites her personal evidence—which she’s felt as an outsider and learned as a sleuth—that it’s hard to get to know us.

I tell Minnie that even a Minnesotan’s friends and family don’t pry too much into each other’s personal business. A now close friend of mine told me it took me ten years to open up to her. The family continues to befuddle my Parisian-born sister-in-law. The writer in me follows those leads, wondering what motivates behavior, good and bad. Mystery writing is the natural outlet for such a passion.

Minnie thanks me for our interview and asks to have fika together in the future. After I give her the famed Minnesota Long Goodbye and make Minnesota mystery novel recommendations, I answer her invitation with a firm “maybe.”

Posted in Books, Characters, Fiction, Guest, History, International, Noir, Setting, Story, Writers, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“The Italian Butcher” (by Michael Berg)

Michael Berg made his EQMM debut in our 2015 September/October double issue, with “The Last Run,” translated from the Dutch by Josh Pachter.  A former television and radio host, interviewer, documentarian, and program director in the Netherlands, he set off on a new career as a crime-fiction writer in 2008 and has since produced seven novels, receiving the prestigious Golden Noose Award and a half-dozen nominations for other awards along the way. His latest thriller, Het meisje op de weg (The Girl on the Road) is due for release this fall. Broadcasting and crime writing are not the only fields in which the author excels, however.  He is also a composer who has written songs for radio, TV, and theater, including the music and lyrics for a children’s television series. In this revealing post he pays tribute to someone who helped him achieve success in his writing career.—Janet Hutchings

That evening my wife and I got very drunk. I’d just received a letter from a Dutch publisher informing me that they would like to buy my thriller. This was the news I was hoping for. I was almost fifty. Publishing a thriller before I reached fifty was on my bucket list and the reason I’d given up my very lucrative job in Dutch radio. I took the leap and moved to a small hamlet (in the middle of nowhere in southwest France) to become a writer. My colleagues thought I’d gone nuts. Did I really think I could write a book and get it published? And even if I did, was I aware of how little money a writer actually earned? For that misery, I would be giving up my professional career and all of the benefits that came with it. At the age when they, my ex colleagues, would retire and start enjoying their pensions, I’d be as poor as hell. Did I actually realize that?

Yes, I did.

But still I decided to follow my dream. I loved thrillers. Patricia Highsmith was one of my favorite authors. Could I write something like that? Probably not as good as she did, but I was sure I could write a thriller and—not hindered by any false modesty—I was convinced I would find a Dutch publisher.

The mail I received proved that I was right.

The next morning, with a huge hangover, I called the publisher. “Congratulations”, the man began with a pleasant voice. “You’ve written a great thriller. We’d be delighted to present your book next year, in the spring.” After another minute of additional compliments, he sighed deeply and proceeded to tell me that there were some things in the book that could, however, be better. Most importantly, I’d revealed the identity of the murderer too soon. He gave me a list of pages and sections that needed editing. If I could do that, he said, the book would be totally perfect. Of course I would do that, I answered.

I worked for another two weeks on the manuscript, repaired the suggested sections, and checked all pages to improve everything that could be better and smoother; this also made the story quicker. Finished, I sent the manuscript back to the publisher. Yes, this was excellent, was the reaction of the man after reading my revisions.

Job done, I thought. Now I could relax for the next few months and enjoy waiting for the moment when the book would be in the bookshops and I would celebrate my debut as a writer. Okay, by that time I would be a bit older than fifty, but still, my goal had been reached.

But . . . the book wasn’t done yet, the publisher told me. The manuscript would first be sent to the editor, some Dutch guy who’d studied Dutch literature, lived in Italy, and worked freelance for Dutch publishers. This guy’s job was to make the manuscript fit to print. He sounded like somebody who was going to do some final corrections. Nothing to get nervous about.

A couple of weeks later, the publisher sent the manuscript back to me. The editor had finished his work. It was up to me to now either approve or deny the suggestions the editor had made. The publisher assured me in his letter: As author, I had the final cut.

Okay, I thought. No problem.

When I opened the document and saw the first page, I couldn’t believe my eyes. It looked as if some raving drunk had attacked my text with pens in both his hands and left it a total mess. My carefully written manuscript was full of red and blue balloons filled with comments, corrections, and explanations as to why the original text wasn’t any good. I felt devastated and very depressed. As I started to have a quick look at the rest of the manuscript, things only got worse. More balloons, more colors, more remarks—ten to twenty on every page. One chapter of the book was completely deleted. What?! Why? I was in shock. My first reaction was to call the publisher and complain about this editor who had massacred my book. I’d written an excellent thriller, the publisher had said, or hadn’t I? I still couldn’t understand it. After a couple of drinks and a lot more cigarettes, I decided to wait before calling the publisher and first let the situation sink in.

The next morning, after a sleepless night, I started to read the comments in the manuscript. The more I read, the more I understood what the editor had done. He’d deleted all the things that were redundant or didn’t contribute anything to the story or to the suspense. I’d written a lot about the house in the French countryside that my heroine had bought. The descriptions of the region and the plush surroundings were rather poetical, but was poetry appropriate in a thriller? Perhaps for a few sentences, but definitely not a two-page poetical description of my heroine’s garden. Too long, too boring. The editor also cut out all sections where I’d explained things for a second and even third time to the reader. And the editor was damn right . . . as if the reader him- or herself was not clever enough to follow my intended hints.

I remembered reading books myself where the author had treated me, the reader, as an imbecile. I now realized, clearly, that the editor was spot-on in deleting a full chapter where nothing happened and that didn’t contribute anything to the story or the suspense. The editor had made the book better. I was so glad that somebody had had a close look at the manuscript. So, finally, I approved almost all of the suggestions/corrections.

Actually, what the man had done was the same as what I used to do when I was working as a chief editor for Dutch radio. Freelancers and I would listen to their productions together and I would offer my advice. “Do we really need this? I’ve heard this story before. Maybe we should put this section in the beginning to tease the audience.” Succinctly: eliminate the extraneous junk to make things better. I remembered the shock of freelancers when they first thought that somebody was killing their darlings, but at the end they were always happy with the result.

Every artist needs a butcher. A nice butcher, a professional butcher with good taste who is not afraid to criticize the artist; one who does his/her utmost to make a piece of art shine. Artists who work on their own tend to get blind. Somebody has to open their eyes.

My Italian editor took care of my first five books. We have never met. I never even knew his street address. We were not friends, but we both had the same goal: to produce the best book possible. My editor taught me how to write. After the third book, my manuscripts were not as full of balloons and remarks anymore—I considered myself a writer for the first time. In the last book he edited, the pages stayed almost as white as snow. This book should earn an award, the editor wrote at the end. A year later I won the Golden Noose, the most prestigious prize for Dutch crime literature.

Thanks to the Italian butcher.

Posted in Books, Editing, Guest, Novels, Publishing, Writers, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Desirable Trash” (by Philip Lowery)

Next week, when EQMM’s November issue goes on sale, Philip Lowery will make his debut as a published fiction writer. A civil engineer by day, he has long been a devoted fan of crime fiction, as is evident from this post. The talented new author was born and raised in the U.K., but moved to the U.S. more than twenty years ago, and is now an American citizen living outside of Philadelphia with his daughter. His surprising first story, entitled “Ninth Caller,” is something you won’t want to miss. —Janet Hutchings

I made a mistake this summer. Almost three thousand miles from home, I passed up the opportunity to purchase an old mass-market paperback, a TV tie-in novel, one of those short, rushed hack jobs that a publisher wants on the streets as fast as possible to cash in on the popularity of a hit series.

Seriously? One of those books?

I know what you mean.

As soon as I picked it from the shelf (the bottom shelf, as it happened) I began to have complicated thoughts. Why would I want a piece of junk like that? Surely it would be all adverbs and plodding dialogue, with plot twists paced to align with commercial breaks instead of dramatic arcs. Did I honestly see myself reading it? Did I have any expectation of even minimal enjoyment from the experience?

Or, these complicated thoughts went on, was this just a trophy for my own bookshelf at home, a collectible intended to remain unread? (And if so, when did I become that person?) Because this also happened to be a book by a favorite author, a book I hadn’t thought could possibly still exist in 2015. Even as I stood between the towering stacks, turning the near-orange pages with hesitant fingers, I didn’t really believe it. It was like finding out they had a unicorn available for adoption over at the animal shelter. Why wouldn’t I snap it up?

So went my odd reaction to finding this tattered treasure.

But you want to know who, and what, right?

The writer was Jim Thompson, the book a paperback original from 1967: Ironside. Yes, Ironside, the TV show, featuring the wheelchair-bound San Francisco detective. Apparently Thompson wrote these things for a few TV series—after a stint writing actual episodes for various other shows—as an income supplement when the novels weren’t bringing in much (or selling at all). No one could fault a writer for making a living any way he had to, of course. But as an admirer of his writing, my inclination was to discount any such piecework; after all, it couldn’t be one hundred percent pure Thompson. In fact, I had conveniently forgotten these books had ever existed, let alone kept a mental note to look for them in used bookstores.

My complicated reaction to stumbling across Ironside by Jim Thompson (and how strange title and author looked together on the cover) had its roots in my regard for the man as a novelist and my sympathy for the man as an unappreciated talent. It’s been well documented that Thompson had a varied and sometimes difficult life, endured a lack of critical acknowledgment during that life, and in suitably noir fashion was doomed to miss out on a resurrection of his works and reputation by dying before the rest of the world caught up to him—a trajectory full of the bleak irony that characterizes the novels themselves.

I am currently “working my way through” Jim Thompson, and so far have read about ten of his books. (For the sake of veracity, I checked; I’ve read nine.) Of those few, three have upended my understanding of what’s possible within the genre of noir and suspense fiction, namely The Killer Inside Me (of course), Savage Night, and Pop. 1280, the latter being an over-the-top masterpiece, in my opinion. Jim Thompson wrote many more books (more than thirty, says Wikipedia) so I have a long way to go. And I know, too, that the quality of his writing was variable (I believe that’s the charitable term), a result of deadline pressures and financial pressures. The man couldn’t catch a break, it seems, despite periods of relative success born of sheer hard work and productivity. I’ve already read a couple of the lesser novels, along with some that were just fine, and if nothing else there’s some compelling writing going on in all of them.

But I find myself a little reluctant to go all-in, to plumb the depths, in part because I’m afraid of what might happen to the great works in comparison. Will they seem less good? I worry. Will I see borrowings and repetitions, failures of execution that will throw a cloud over what I have considered up to now (in thrall to my squeaky fandom) to be breathtakingly courageous moves, bordering on if not embodying genius? Such are the worries of a diehard-fan-in-the-making, afraid to see the humanity and frailty, wanting to revere where reverence might be—who am I kidding? We’re human. Most definitely is—misplaced.

It doesn’t help that the commentary of others, coming on top of my own perplexed reactions to certain of his books, supports the presumption that all might not be well in Thompson country. Even the greatest of his admirers would have to admit that some of Jim Thompson’s writing is repellent; there’s no other word for it. Where cruelty and perversion might seem groundbreaking, bold, and revelatory in the safe hands of a writer at his peak, the same twists can come across as depraved, foul, and crass when deployed cynically. (It turns out, for me at least, that this is a pretty fine line.)

This is what I fear for the books yet unread. I will read them, I have no doubt, but I am pacing myself. I want to savor them—the good ones—but I know I might also need time to cleanse the palate, to forgive Jim his sins when I read a clunker or two.

Which brings me to these novelizations, or whatever they are; TV tie-ins, for God’s sake. Is this in any way a good idea? Do I need to own physical evidence that a great writer was reduced to hackwork? Isn’t it enough that I know his life was hard, that much of his work was written under financial and often physical duress? Do I really need to read a book I assume the guy didn’t want to write in the first place? I feel bad enough for him already . . .

Here’s the thing. Here’s why I know in forehead-slapping retrospect that I made a big blunder that summer day in the bookstore. I read the first paragraph of Ironside, standing there in the swirl of secondhand dust motes between the pillars of literature. And the very first sentence was one hundred percent pure Thompson:

“It was the kind of a place where if you didn’t spit on the floor at home you could go down there and do it.”

Despite recognizing it as such, even thinking, Look at that, he didn’t slum, even for a piece of crap like this, I re-shelved the book and went on with my day, not recognizing the early pangs of regret even as I moved downstack to the Donald Westlake section.

What a moron.

Jim Thompson wrote from an unusual vantage point—down there—looking up at the world, seeing it for what it is from an odd and disturbingly revealing angle. He saw the dark, venal, and ugly side of life in ultrahigh definition, with a clarity that was at times almost comically horrifying. That’s how he wrote; that’s the only way he could write, evidently, regardless of the project at hand, and that’s what makes him a treasure, hard as he might be to love. My misgivings about a “lesser” work—so prissy and fretful, so cautious of me—are pale and ridiculous in that fierce glare. How I wish I’d bought that book that day.

Of course, it has since dawned on me—after reminding myself that I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s but no longer actually live there—to check online. I was surprised to find listings for three copies of the book. Not a bonanza, by any means, but somewhat less rare than the unicorn I thought I’d cornered then allowed to escape. (Incidentally, I owe the Internet, in the form of Book Dirt Blog by Kelly Robinson, a further nod for providing the exact wording of the quote reproduced above; my own version of it, mangled by imperfect memory, contained two separate “something-something”s.)

Powell’s, in Portland, Oregon (the labyrinthine bookstore where this sorry tale unfolded) has an excellent website, and is one of the original online booksellers, as far as I know. Powells.com’s “warehouse” is basically the store itself, the place is so vast. I saw employees wandering the corridors of shelves holding baskets and tickets, filling orders at a strolling pace, the product most certainly touched by human hands. (What’s next, selling candy by the ounce, poured from big glass jars into little paper bags fastened with a twisty-tie?) I went to Powells.com in the hopes that the actual copy of Ironside by Jim Thompson, the one I’d held in my hands, might by some miracle be available still. According to the website, it was. (And it might be my good fortune that the online catalogue listed the book as Ironside by Jim Thompon, whoever he is.)

I gratefully placed my order, and now look forward to my second chance to read a deeply flawed potboiler flecked with pulp gold. And the next time I come across a unicorn made from cheap paper and smelling like grandma’s house, I will lasso that beast, wrestle it down to the register, and pay cash on the barrel, no questions asked.

Posted in Books, Bookshops, Genre, Guest, Noir, Novels, Writers | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

“A Belgian Mystery (Solved by Poirot Himself)” (By Hilde Vandermeeren)

Hilde Vandermeeren, a psychologist and former teacher, had authored some forty books for children (winning numerous literary prizes for them) before she wrote her first crime novel, When Darkness Fell, in 2013—and it won the Hercule Poirot Public (or “Readers”) Award.  A second thriller, The Witnesses, followed in 2014, and a third, Quiet Ground, in May 2015. The author’s EQMM debut is coming soon, in our March/April 2016 double issue. In this post Hilde discusses some of the obstacles women writers face in the field of crime fiction in her native Belgium.—Janet Hutchings

Belgium is a small country in Europe with three official languages: Dutch (Flemish), French, and German. It is well known for its chocolate, fries, and . . . the lack of female Flemish crime writers.

In my opinion, as a psychologist and a female Flemish crime writer myself, that last issue is worth some consideration. What are we talking about? In statistical terms: At this moment there are approximately forty male Flemish crime writers (more or less active) and only a handful of female colleagues. For the crime writers and readers among us: This smells like an interesting mystery that asks to be solved. Because my position—as an enthusiastic female Flemish crime writer—is not neutral, I called for help. And two wonderful characters created by Agatha Christie, who accompanied me during my teenage years, agreed to help solve this mystery. So I’m pleased to introduce the ingenious Hercule Poirot (a Belgian detective!) with his petites cellules grises* and the amazing Miss Marple.

We meet during teatime in a cosy pub in St. Mary Mead (England) and Hercule Poirot is using a white handkerchief to clean his chair before he sits down. Miss Marple has a very friendly smile when she arrives, but when we shake hands she says to me: “You seem to be nervous, Hilde.”

“Indeed I am, Miss Marple. I’ve never met two of my literary idols before.”

“Two?” mumbles Poirot. “There’s only one genius at this table.”

Miss Marple is wise enough to sit down without saying a word.

Poirot folds his hands, closes his eyes, and asks what exactly we’re dealing with. I tell them about the new case: The current lack of female Flemish crime writers.

“That’s not our problem,” says Poirot and he starts to rise. “And it’s absolutely not a matter of public interest.”

“My dear Hercule,” says Miss Marple, “it definitely is our problem. And it’s also a matter of public interest.”

“In what way?” asks Poirot.

“If Agatha Christie, our literary mum, had not had the opportunity to publish as a female British crime writer, then your petites cellules grises would never have impressed anyone.”

Poirot remains seated and takes a sip from his sirop de cassis before directing a flood of questions at me.

“How many female Flemish crime writers have appeared on TV programs over the past few years? I mean, other than local shows.”

“I think hardly any,” I say.

“But male Flemish crime writers did?”

“Only the famous few.”

“How many female Flemish crime writers have been interviewed by the press—I mean, besides the local press?”

“Again, barely any.”

“How many books by female Flemish crime writers have been adapted for screen?”

“As far as I know, not a single one.”

Thoughtfully, Poirot drinks from his sirop de cassis.

“How are people to know that female Flemish writers exist if the Flemish press doesn’t give them a voice? It’s a vicious circle,” he says.

“There are two Flemish awards for crime writers,” I say. “The first is the Hercule Poirot Award.”

“What’s in a name,” says Poirot.

“And the other is the Diamond Bullet (also open for Dutch crime writers),” I continue. “Winning such an award can really launch the carrier of a female Flemish crime writer.”

“Don’t make me laugh, my dear,” says Miss Marple. “I did a little research after you called me and what I found shocked me.”

“Tell me all about it, Miss Marple,” says Poirot.

“So far only 15.3 percent of the winners of the Diamond Bullet are female, and the Hercule Poirot Award does even worse: So far only 11.7 percent of the winners are female.”

“Seen statistically, since there are fewer female than male Flemish crime writers, it’s not surprising that the percentage of awards given them would be lower,” says Poirot. “But not that low, quelle horreur.”

“We are not totally without a chance,” I say. “In 2013 I was the only woman nominated for the Hercule Poirot Award and I won the Knack Hercule Poirot Public Award (a prize awarded by the public for the best Flemish thriller novel).”

“But in 2014 something strange happened,” says Miss Marple. “That year not a single woman was nominated for the short lists of either Flemish award: Ten male crime writers were nominated versus zero female ones.”

“Yes, it was that year that I honestly thought of giving up crime writing,” I say, “with no prospects at all as a female crime writer in Flanders. And besides, nobody cares.”

“I do,” says Poirot. “You mustn’t give up, Hilde. You are the first female Flemish crime writer who’ll publish a short story in EQMM. As a role model, you make us proud.”

“I heard something else that bothers me,” says Miss Marple. “It’s well known that most crime readers are female, but in Flanders all the important crime reviewers are male, is that correct?”

“Yes, and the members of the juries for the two major Flemish crime awards are also almost exclusively male.”

“I thought the Victorian Era had passed,” says Poirot.

“Conclusion: Female Flemish crime writers have too little support and face too many obstacles,” says Miss Marple.

“The mystery is solved, but the problem is not,” says Poirot.

“Thanks for the help,” I say. “It was really nice meeting you. Since my teenage years both of you have inspired me to write crime fiction.”

I tell Poirot how I cried all evening long, as a fourteen-year-old girl, after I finished Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case.

“Don’t be sad,” Poirot says. “People like me—I mean, people like Miss Marple and me—are immortal.”

“I know,” I say.

“So, Hilde, this is not a farewell,” says Miss Marple. “Some day we’ll meet again.”

She gives me a hug.

“Let us know when you receive one of the major awards, when your crime novels are translated, or when one of your stories is adapted to screen,” she says.

Instead of a hug Poirot gives me some thoughtful advice.

“Do what my petites cellules grises always do, Hilde: Never give up. Not even if there are a lot of obstacles in your way.”

I promise them to do so and there I’m standing, outside that pub in St. Mary Mead, waving them goodbye for a long time after they have already disappeared.

* little grey cells
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“The Joys and Challenges of Journeys to the Past” by R.J. Koreto

R.J. Koreto will make his fiction debut in EQMM’s Department of First stories in the December 2015 issue. The award-winning journalist and magazine editor chose a contemporary setting for that first published work of fiction. But what really inspires him is history and in 2016 his first novel, Death on the Sapphire, the first in an Edwardian-era series featuring suffragist-detective Lady Frances Ffolkes and her maid/bodyguard, will be published by Crooked Lane Books. It will be followed by another novel featuring Lady Frances, Death Among Rubies. In his post, the author shares with us the unexpected challenges he has encountered writing historical mysteries. —Janet Hutchings

The first rule of writing a historical mystery is keeping the characters in the same place. I realized this when writing my first historical mystery, set in Regency England. I backed myself into a situation that required my London-based protagonist to visit another city 300 miles away. Even considering he was a good rider on a strong horse, I suddenly realized I was sending him on a two-week round trip. It was a plotting nightmare.

What would happen to him in all that time? Was there any way to freeze all the other characters in London meanwhile? Wouldn’t it just be easier to keep everyone in London?

But I had gotten the historical writing bug, and happily jumped into the challenges and joys of creating characters who lived in another era. My next historical book is my upcoming Death on the Sapphire, which is set a century after the Regency, during the Edwardian period. Now, I was able to give my characters telephones, motorcars, and, best of all, fast trains all over the country. But there’s a lot more to keep in mind, even in turn-of-the-century England.

Let’s start with how people can die in a murder mystery. They can get shot, but with what? Semiautomatic handguns were around, but rare. A revolver was much more likely. Actually, guns were loud, heavy, and expensive. The nineteenth-century murder preference, I uncovered, was the garrote: quick, cheap, and silent. Indeed, the high collar of early constables, or “bobbies,” was designed to prevent such murderous sneak attacks.

“Bobbies,” by the way, is in honor of Sir Robert Peel, who founded the Metropolitan Police Service. The service’s early headquarters were in the courtyard of a building once used by the kings of Scotland as an embassy—hence the nickname it retains to this day: Scotland Yard.

But all is not murder. Even detectives have time for entertainment. Today we like to see a detective brooding in dark movie theater as he turns over the case in his mind. Fortunately, the Edwardian detective, I discovered, had the same retreat: The British film industry was already underway. The Charlton Heston Ben-Hur was actually the third movie version of the famous book. It was first filmed in 1907, using firefighters and their horses in the chariot-race scene. And although Edwardians didn’t have James Cameron, they did have real-life Titanic survivor Dorothy Gibson, an actress who played herself in the first filming of the nautical tragedy, Saved from the Titanic, in 1912. (Sadly, all copies were destroyed in a fire decades ago.)

Still, my protagonist, Lady Frances Ffolkes, is a little highbrow, and the golden age of such stars as Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford was still in the future. She preferred the “legitimate” theatre, and was lucky, living when George Bernard Shaw was penning masterpieces. She got to see the original production of Major Barbara. She even might’ve noticed a young actor named Edmund Gwenn, who later became well-known to American audiences for playing Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street.

I had to figure out what else Lady Frances did for fun. She danced, and in Edwardian times, that meant the waltz, which was popular and perfectly respectable. But it hadn’t always been that way. I delved into the history of social dancing: In the early nineteenth century, the waltz was risqué—men and women dancing so closely!

But the Edwardians faced their own scandalous dances. At the turn of the century, the shocking tango made its way from Argentina to Europe—clergymen even spoke out against it! And I imagined Lady Frances dabbing her brow with a lace handkerchief as she watched tango dancers—and considered learning it herself.

And as all this transpired, I had to make sure the vocabulary was correct. Without thinking, I had an Edwardian character refer to the “fallout” from a problem. Fortunately, I caught it before sending off the final draft. And I’ve had to be careful about where you use “OK”—and who says it.

At least those things can be looked up. More of a challenge are attitudes. For Death on the Sapphire I had to research the Boer War (1899–1902) in South Africa. Yes, there are plenty of accounts, and I know what public opinion was. But what would my characters feel? Perhaps Lady Frances looked at it the way many would look at the Vietnam War, half a century later: an imperial power fighting a citizen army in a distant land. I decided she would have pride in British and colonial fighting men and anger at the politicians who sent husbands, brothers, and sons overseas. Life was different in 1906, but attitudes on love and glory are timeless.

And in the upcoming sequel, Death Among Rubies, I introduce a lesbian couple. Lovers may look at each other the same way throughout history, but I had placed these two in a time where such a union couldn’t even be discussed, let alone admitted. Worse, a sheltered woman from a wealthy family would have no one to ask about her feelings, no place to look them up, even as she was pushed to make a suitable marriage. My characters see the fact that they found each other as a small miracle, but they would also be fearful at being uncovered. Still, lovers have a long literary tradition of fighting for their love since the days of Arthurian romances, and why should Edwardian same-sex couples be any different?

Those are some of the big issues, but as a writer of historical mysteries, I had to look at the small ones too. Take the relationship between a well-born lady and her maid. Historical mysteries love servant-employer pairings, after all: Lord Peter Wimsey had his Bunter, Albert Campion had his Lugg, and any aristocratic female detective had to have a lady’s maid. The trick is translating a kind of friendship that was common enough then but is unheard of today. How many lady’s maids, valets, and butlers do you know?

I decided that Lady Frances and her maid Mallow would share a lot of things—but not necessarily discuss them. Friendship was one thing, but the gulf of class distinctions was wide. It would be impossible for Lady Frances to hide the fact that she had a serious suitor, but it would be difficult to discuss him with her maid. On rare occasions, I imagined, both women might lower their guard briefly and forget they were mistress and maid, sharing confidences—but those would be exceptions. Their relationship, with no parallel today, provides endless fascination for me as I take them through one adventure after another. Yes, there is mutual respect and affection with an almost sisterly love, but feelings are shown more by a change of tone, a raised eyebrow, and a smile than by overt statements.

I learned a lot about Edwardian clothing, manners, weapons, and cars when researching my book. These are just trappings, though. Feelings of love, anger, hatred, greed and jealously never change. What differs is how an earlier society may address these emotions, and the criminal responses they may be driven to. Creating complex characters with believable emotions and motives was the hard part, I found out, no matter when they lived. The historical details are a piece of cake in comparison.

Sorry. That phrase wasn’t likely known to the Edwardians. Make that, “easy as pie.”

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Doctors and nurses make sinister villains in fiction, don’t you think? Most people, at one time or another, have experienced the sense of powerlessness that goes with having to put themselves in the hands of medical professionals. Although the Internet has been said to empower patients to make decisions about their own health, when something serious comes along, a leap of faith in the medical system is almost always required. It seems to me that when, in crime fiction, we encounter a doctor or nurse with murderous impulses lying beneath the caring façade, it touches on a primal fear of being helpless in the face of danger.

Medical mysteries make a lot of readers squeamish, and writers who revel in descriptions of appalling injuries or disease tend to turn me off too, even though there isn’t much of that sort that I haven’t read about before. Over the past fifteen years or so, since the debut of TV’s CSI, it seems to have become obligatory for crime dramas to display at least one corpse on an autopsy table per episode. Forensic pathologists and medical examiners have become stock characters of crime shows, as well as the stars of several bestselling series of novels, including those of Tess Gerritsen and, of course, Patricia Cornwell (whom many consider the originator of the forensic mystery).

Tess Gerritsen is, like one of her protagonists, Maura Isles, a medical doctor. There are several doctors among EQMM’s contributors, though not all of them write stories that could be classified as “medical mysteries.” Short-story specialist John H. Dirckx, for instance, rarely focuses on the medical aspects of cases for his series cop Cyrus Auburn. Former forensic pathologist Keith McCarthy, on the other hand, does; he’s produced several well-reviewed books featuring fictional pathologist John Eisenmenger. McCarthy’s mysteries intrigue me because his medical knowledge is arcane, and is matched by frighteningly believable characterization. You know more about the human body by the time you finish a McCarthy story or novel than you did going into it, and more about the human psyche, too.

McCarthy’s mysteries are generally classical whodunits, and his doctor is on the side of justice, but medical knowledge lends itself at least as readily to the thriller, and sometimes to the creation of an evil doctor—the best known of all, probably, Thomas Harris’s Dr. Hannibal Lecter.

The protagonist—or antagonist—in a medical thriller isn’t always a doctor, of course; it can as easily be a research scientist, a forensic toxicologist, a forensic anthropologist (as in Kathy Reichs’s books) or an infectious-disease specialist. But having a doctor in the starring role—especially one who sees patients—may humanize a story heavy on technical detail and scientific fact. Besides, a doctor—a good one—is already a kind of detective. As every fan of Sherlock Holmes knows, the model for Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes was Dr. Joseph Bell, a professor of surgery at Edinburgh University, and the chief characteristics of Bell that Doyle drew on were related to the doctor’s prodigious powers of observation.

It’s only to be expected that doctors would be good observers, particularly of human behavior, which so often impacts disease. What is surprising, to me at any rate, is that there are not more doctors who write mystery fiction. In our submissions, we must encounter at least ten writing lawyers for every doctor who confronts the blank page. Very often, lawyer crime writers weave corruption in their own profession into their plots; the dishonest or dissembling lawyer is a literary stereotype (one that draws many yawns from editors, by the way). Doctors are much more often portrayed as upright, dependable, compassionate. Yet it isn’t as if real life fails to provide plenty of examples of doctors who engage in crimes related to their profession, ranging from insurance fraud to sexual abuse and even murder. The most recent case that comes to my mind is that of the star M.D. Anderson oncologist convicted, in 2014, of the attempted murder of a colleague.

So why don’t doctors and other medical personnel feature more often in mystery fiction as villains? Is the perversion of a figure we’re sometimes forced to trust with our lives a possibility we simply don’t want to entertain, even in imagination? (Whereas everyone loves to be given a reason to hate lawyers?) Perhaps because it’s only rarely that I encounter an evil doctor or nurse in our submissions, I often remember such stories, especially those that display psychological subtlety. Of the dozens of stories that Edgar Allan Poe Award winner Peter Turnbull has written for EQMM, for example, one that has stayed in my mind for more than seventeen years is May 1998’s “Wee Betty Pope,” about a serial-killer nurse. Nevertheless, if I were asked to choose some favorite medical mysteries from EQMM’s archives, there’d be a number of the good-doctor variety too. They’d include Robin Hathaway’s Dr. Fenimore mysteries (whose central character was based on her doctor husband) and Ellis Peters’s medieval mysteries featuring herbalist Brother Cadfael, a sort of medical man of that time. (FYI, though both authors are deceased, both series have available novel-length entries.)

I’m always interested in hearing what books and series readers visiting this site like. If you have any recommendations for this category of mystery, I hope you’ll jump in.—Janet Hutchings

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“The Kerplunk Syndrome” (by Ed Wyrick)

After an absence of sixteen years, Ed Wyrick (who formerly wrote as E.L. Wyrick) returns to EQMM’s pages with stories in our upcoming December 2015 and January 2016 issues. The Georgia native is a retired high-school counselor and the author of the novels A Strange and Bitter Crop and Power in the Blood. His most recent book, My Reclaimed Life, is nonfiction and is due to be available in e-book format from Amazon next week. In this post Ed writes about an experience I suspect every writer has had at some time or other. —Janet Hutchings

After all these years, I was hoping The Kerplunk Syndrome was dead and gone.

It’s not.

Tim Berners-Lee developed the World Wide Web the same year I began seeking publication. That was in 1989 and the term “snail mail” didn’t exist. That’s all we had. Writers mailed queries and manuscripts via the United States Postal Service, and I discovered the Kerplunk Syndrome during that process.

I mailed about a hundred query letters for my first novel before Ruth Cavin, the legendary mystery editor at St. Martin’s Press, bought it. After about every tenth rejection from my query letters, someone asked for the full manuscript. I was continually working on the novel, so none of them received the same edition. I would reread my latest effort, being careful to keep the pages pristine, then put the five hundred double spaced pages in one of the special boxes I’d bought and apply the postage. I’d been rejected often enough to know how much postage I needed without using scales.

Then, I’d head to the post office.

These were the days before 9/11, so we could still put heavy packages into USPS drop boxes. I would take one last look at the address to be sure it was correct, make a sign of the cross over the box, even though I’m not Catholic, pull the little door down, and push the manuscript into it.


It happened every frigging time. The moment I heard the box hit the bottom of the bin, bells would ring and lights would flash, and I would suddenly realize why my novel sucked and what I needed to do to fix it. Because the manuscript was so heavy, it always went straight to the bottom. Believe me, once the manuscript is in there, it’s impossible to get out again.

So, I would go back to my front porch, drink my vodka, smoke my cigarettes, and wait for the mailman to deliver the next rejection.

Then came the big day. A phone call came instead of the “Sorry, it’s not for us” letter. It was Ruth Cavin and she made an offer. I said I’d get back to her after I talked to my agent. Problem was, I didn’t have one. I’d seen Robin Rue, who’s now at the Writer’s House agency, at a conference, so I called her even though the agency where she worked then had rejected my novel twice. This time I asked her to handle my contract and she agreed.

A month later, I was standing before the drop box again, only instead of a manuscript, I was mailing the signed contract. I dropped it in the box and . . . just damn!

The Kerplunk Syndrome.

It wasn’t nearly as loud as with manuscripts, but I heard it nonetheless. I suddenly panicked about all the details in the book. Did I get them right? I hurried home and began double-checking everything in the novel. It all looked good until the next day when I called a geology professor from the University of Georgia.

The setting of the climactic scene where the murderer was revealed was a cave in the foothills of the North Georgia mountains. I knew of several caves in Tennessee, but didn’t know of any in Georgia, so I had called the professor to verify they existed. I was absolutely certain he’d say the cave scene was just fine.

Not this time.

This time he said that while it was theoretically possible to have such a cave in Georgia, he knew of none like the one I described. And, since that was his area of expertise, in all likelihood there wasn’t one.


I was a high-school counselor at the time and was at school when I made that call. I hung up and hurried to the cafeteria’s mop room, a screened area on the loading dock, and smoked a pack of cigarettes while freaking out about the implications of having a climactic scene in a setting that didn’t exist. As usual, smoking cigarettes didn’t solve the problem.

As I was shuffling back to my office, head down and hands in my pockets, a teacher, who was also a friend, stopped me and asked if something was wrong. After I told him my problem, he said, “Make it a gold mine.”

“A gold mine?”

“Yeah. There used to be lots of them up there.”

I stopped at the library on the way home and found my friend was right. The north Georgia foothills had a bunch of abandoned gold mines. I rewrote the climactic chapter, made a few necessary corrections to set up the new venue, then mailed off the new manuscript.

This time, I didn’t want to take any chances. I went inside and handed the box to the clerk.

No kerplunk.

I anxiously waited for Ms. Cavin to call the whole thing off because she didn’t want to work with an amateur writer who’d sent her a flawed manuscript. I was pretty sure that would be considered a breach of contract.

The call never came and the manuscript with the collapsing gold mine was published. In the next three years, St. Martin’s Press published another novel, short stories appeared in EQMM and literary magazines, and I was on the cover of Writer’s Digest magazine.

Then alcoholism killed my burgeoning writing career.

Happily, I finally hit my bottom and got sober in 2002. Writing and alcohol had become intertwined, so it took a decade in sobriety to start writing again. When I began submitting queries after a fifteen-year hiatus, I found myself in a totally different world. Over the transom submissions to editors at major publishing houses were dead, and agents not only published their email addresses, most preferred using them over snail mail. Manuscript boxes are never sent through the USPS.

So is the Kerplunk Syndrome dead, too?

No way.

EQMM bought a story last fall, so I wrote another one and when I clicked the send button to submit it, there it was again—that moment of clarity when I realized the story must have a different last paragraph.

Yep, the Kerplunk Syndrome is alive and well.

It just sounds different.

The Klick Syndrome is as exasperating as ever.

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“From Page to Screen” (by John M. Floyd)

Edgar-nominated author John M. Floyd is a short-story specialist rather than a novelist. His stories have appeared in a great variety of publications, from our sister magazine, AHMM, to the Saturday Evening Post and Woman’s World. The Mississippi writer has occasionally contributed poems to EQMM, but his first EQMM short story will be appearing in our November issue (on sale September 15). In this post, he talks about his love of stories, in whatever form they take—long or short, print or film. More of John’s essays can be found on the blog site SleuthSayers, to which he is a frequent contributor.—Janet Hutchings

I’ve always loved fiction, in any form: short stories, novels, novellas, vignettes, plays, movies, fairy tales, whatever. Even as a kid, I devoured books—mostly adventure stories—and was happily hauled to the movies every weekend by my older cousins. I particularly remember a couple of books I read in my early teens that made a big impression on me: one was James Ramsey Ullman’s YA novel Banner in the Sky and the other was, believe it or not, Jack Schaefer’s Shane. Both novels had been around awhile by the time I read them, and both had already been adapted into feature films (Banner in the Sky became Disney’s Third Man on the Mountain), and when I got around to seeing the movies I found that—wonder of wonders—they were every bit as good as the books had been. Maybe because of that, I have long been fascinated by the process of adapting tales on the page to tales on the screen. Unfortunately, most of my experience there has been as a reader/viewer rather than as a writer; one of my story-to-movie efforts a few years ago came close to being filmed, but, alas, no cigar.

That brief involvement with screenplays did serve as an education, though, and it gave me a healthy respect for those filmmakers who are able to succeed in taking a good written work and creating from it a good movie. Often the two are unequal in quality. Now and then, adaptations actually turn out better (or more entertaining, at least to me) than the novels that gave them birth—Forrest Gump, Dances With Wolves, M*A*S*H, The Last of the Mohicans, The Godfather, etc.—but usually the opposite is true, which prompts the familiar statement “the book was better than the movie.” Examples of this are too many to try to list, but you know what I mean. Most books are better.

But occasionally, both the novel and the movie turn out great—as was the case with Banner in the Sky and Shane. Since I enjoy both the reading and the watching, I’m especially pleased when that happens.

Here are some examples of movies that, in my opinion, were as well-done as the excellent novels that spawned them: Jaws, The Help, The Grapes of Wrath, Life of Pi, Gone With the Wind, From Here to Eternity, Old Yeller, The Exorcist, Jurassic Park, The Prince of Tides, Lonesome Dove (actually a TV miniseries, but who cares?), Holes, The Princess Bride, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Hunger Games, the 2010 version of True Grit, and so on.

But wait—this is a blog about mystery fiction, right? So how about mystery/crime films that turned out to be as good as their novels were?

Several that come to mind are: The Silence of the Lambs, To Kill a Mockingbird, Presumed Innocent, The Bourne Identity, Goldfinger, Misery, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, No Country for Old Men, The Hunt for Red October, L.A. Confidential, Deliverance, The Green Mile, The Maltese Falcon, The Day of the Jackal, A Time to Kill, Rebecca, The Big Sleep, Out of Sight, Get Shorty, The Name of the Rose, and Mystic River. And yes, I realize some of these are cross-genre; espionage and paranormal elements somehow sneaked in or materialized while I was putting together the list.

There were also—and this gladdens my heart—some good movies made from good short stories: High Noon (from “The Tin Star”), It’s a Wonderful Life (from “The Greatest Gift”), Hondo (from “The Gift of Cochise”), Stagecoach (from “Stage to Lordsburg”), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (from “The War Party”), 3:10 to Yuma, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Brokeback Mountain, The Swimmer, and The Birds. Why are there so many Westerns? I have no idea. As for good mystery/crime adaptations from shorts, I can think of only a few: Rear Window (from “It Had to Be Murder”), Bad Day at Black Rock (from “Bad Time at Honda”), The Killers, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, Minority Report, and Duel.

Another observation, on the adapting of an original work into a feature film: If it’s a novel, the screenwriter has to take a lot of material out, and if it’s a short story he/she has to add a lot to it. For that reason, I’ve always felt that the best kind of fiction to adapt is the novella. Examples of good movies that came from good novellas: Stand by Me (from Stephen King’s “The Body”), Apocalypse Now (from “Heart of Darkness”), Silver Bullet (from Cycle of the Werewolf), Blade Runner (from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), The Old Man and the Sea, The Time Machine, Of Mice and Men, Lifeboat, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, Hearts in Atlantis, The Man Who Would Be King, Riding the Bullet, The Invisible Man, The Mist, A River Runs Through It. Again, relatively few of these fall into the mystery/crime category, but there are some: Double Indemnity, The Third Man, The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Hound of the Baskervilles, The 39 Steps, and maybe the best of all of them, The Shawshank Redemption (from King’s novella “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption”). Mysteries or not, I’m convinced these films worked well because the length of the source material allowed them to be transferred almost in their entirety from the words we loved to images we loved. Or at least that I loved.

One final point. It’s easy for me to sit here and analyze this kind of thing, at a safe distance and after the fact. What’s scary is that before and during each of these multimillion-dollar movie productions, none of the filmmakers—writers, directors, producers, actors, none of them—knew for sure if the project would be successful. Sometimes not-so-well-known novels made cinematic history (Die Hard, Dr. Strangelove, Fight Club) and sometimes hugely popular novels became box-office disasters (The Bonfire of the Vanities, One for the Money, Atlas Shrugged). I’ve been told that right up until the actual release of the movie Jaws, everyone from Spielberg to the smallest bit player suspected that it would flop. And, as screenwriter William Goldman pointed out in his book Hope and Glory, the great George Lucas—who produced the first Star Wars trilogy and the first three Indiana Joneses—also produced Howard the Duck. Anything can happen.

Maybe I’d better stick to short stories . . .

Posted in Adventure, Books, Fiction, Genre, Guest, Pop Culture, Readers, Story, Supernatural, Suspense, Thrillers | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“A Long Time Ago in an Emirate Far, Far Away . . .” (by Josh Pachter)

The author of more than four dozen published short stories and numerous translations, Josh Pachter has long been a valued contributor to EQMM. His stories typically have interesting settings, a result of his wide-ranging travels. In this post, he talks about the genesis of a series of stories he wrote for EQMM and AHMM several decades ago, featuring Mahboob Chaudri, a policeman in Bahrain. In addition to providing a look at how a fine series took shape, Josh’s post provides a fascinating glimpse of a country little known to many in the U.S. This month a collection of the Chaudri stories was released by Wildside in a print edition entitled The Tree of Life and as an e-book entitled The Mahboob Chaudri Mystery Megapack. Both editions are available from Amazon and from the publisher’s Web site.—Janet Hutchings

“I want you to go to Bahrain next,” my boss told me on the WATTS line connecting the University of Maryland European Division’s Heidelberg headquarters to the education office at the US Naval Station in Rota, Spain, where I was teaching during that summer of 1982.

“Bahrain?” I said. “What country is that in?”

“Bahrain’s not in a country,” David explained. “It is a country.”

The ten months I wound up spending in Bahrain changed my life in ways that ranged from small (I discovered the music of Michael Franks) to enormous (I met the woman who four years later would give birth to my daughter Becca). Among other changes, this was the year I “met” my dear friend Mahboob Chaudri.

My first published short story, written when I was sixteen years old, appeared in the December 1968 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Over the next six years—while I was graduating from high school in New York and attending and graduating from college at the University of Michigan—I wrote several dozen more stories, selling six of them to EQMM and five others to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. But then life got busy and I “retired” from writing crime fiction.

By 1980, I was living in Amsterdam and married to a Dutch woman. One morning on the tram, I spotted an ad for the UMd European Division in the International Herald Tribune, and I ultimately taught for them for four months in Germany and Greece that year and for three months in England in ’81, right as Prince Charles was getting married to Lady Diana. In ’82, Maryland sent me back to Greece, and from there to southwestern Spain, and it was while I was in Spain that I had the conversation with which I began this post and learned that my next assignment would be the island emirate of Bahrain, which is located in the Persian Gulf, right off the coast of Saudi Arabia.

I flew to the Middle East as the only passenger on a military cargo plane bringing supplies to the US Navy’s Administrative Support Unit in Manama, Bahrain’s capital (and only) city. The Department of Defense Dependent School System—which runs elementary and junior-high and high schools in locations where American servicemen and servicewomen are permitted to bring their families—had a school in Bahrain, even though assignments to ASU were in most cases what are called “unaccompanied tours.” Most of the students at the Bahrain School were the children of American and other-nation diplomats and bankers, and many of the wealthy Bahraini families also sent their kids there, since the quality of the education provided was superior to what was available on the local economy. At one point, the school had been a boarding school, but by the time I arrived it was open to day students only . . . and, as the University of Maryland’s sole faculty member in residence, I was given the dorm supervisor’s apartment in the otherwise unoccupied dormitory to live in.

Hold up your left hand, palm facing away from you, four fingers touching and thumb a little separated from the fingers. Now find that shape on a map of the Middle East, and you’ll be looking at Saudi Arabia (your hand) and Qatar (your thumb). Between your thumb and your fingers, you’ll see the blue of the Persian Gulf—and, if you look closely, you will (depending on the scale of the map) see a miniscule dot that you might easily mistake for a printing error.

That miniscule dot is Bahrain.

Actually, it’s only part of Bahrain. The country is an archipelago of several dozen islands, most of them uninhabited and too small to show up on any map showing more of the world than Bahrain alone. When I was there, in 1982, there were a total of 33 islands with a total area of just over 250 square miles; today, land reclamation projects have increased the number of islands to 84 and the total area to a little over 300 square miles. For the sake of comparison, Rhode Island is a bit over 1200 square miles in area, five times the size of Bahrain when I was there, and the city of Los Angeles, at 502 square miles, is double the size of the Bahrain I remember.

So it’s a pretty small place, and it was even smaller in 1982, and smaller still when you consider that the bottom half of Bahrain Island—the main island, the one that shows up on the maps, the one where I lived—was a military area (theirs, not ours) and off-limits to foreigners.

The population was also small, which meant that new arrivals almost automatically became celebrities. Within three weeks of my touching down, I had been interviewed on the national radio station and by both national newspapers, I had been invited to dinner at the homes of the American ambassador and the commander of the US Navy’s Middle East fleet, and I’d been asked to give a speech at the British Council. (The Bahraini who called to invite me to speak at the British Council spoke English with a heavy accent, and I was a little surprised when he told me that my audience would consist of about 100 bakers. As small as the country is, I couldn’t imagine that there would be a need for that much bread. When I arrived to give my presentation, though, I discovered that I’d misunderstood his accent, and the crowd that had gathered to hear me was in fact comprised of about 100 bankers. You might think there’d be even less need for bankers than for bakers in a country housing only about a third of a million people, but, since Bahrain doesn’t have any oil, the way it kept up with the al-Joneses was by becoming a haven for off-shore banking, and pretty much every major financial institution on the planet had a branch office there!)

It didn’t take more than a month of so for the novelty of my arrival to wear off, and once that happened there wasn’t really all that much for me to do in Bahrain. The suq—the ancient marketplace—was fascinating, and there was Sheikh’s Beach (which was for foreigners only) and the National Museum, the Suq-al-Khamis Mosque and the Al-Areen Wildlife Park and a few other sights. The State Department folks and the Bahrain School faculty had dinner parties and cookouts just about every weekend. I had my classes to teach, of course, and I became friendly with some of my students.

But by the time I’d been there for another month, I was spending a fair amount of my time bored.

And eventually I decided that maybe I ought to take this fascinatingly boring place where I was living and use it as the setting for a new short story, my first in ten years.

At that time, most of the members of Bahrain’s Public Security Force—the national police—were Pakistanis. Why? Well, as you probably know, Islam is divided into two sects—Sunni and Shi’a—and the members of one don’t always get on with the members of the other. The Bahraini government knew full well that a police force comprised of both Sunnis and Shi’as wouldn’t have worked well, and putting either group in charge while excluding the other would have been worse. So the Bahrainis came up with a creative solution and basically imported police officers from Pakistan, just as they imported hotel workers from Egypt and construction crews from Holland and so on.

Bahrain’s Pakistani police were all men, and many of them had wives and children back home in Pakistan. Their salaries—though low by Western standards—were high by Pakistani standards, and the men received free housing and meals, so they were able to send enough money home to make the long separations from their families economically worthwhile.

The Juffair Police Barracks housed about a hundred of these Pakistani officers, and it was located right next door to the grounds of the Bahrain School. So I got to know some of the men—not well, since they tended to be shy and private—but well enough to exchange small talk when our paths would cross.

When I decided to write a crime story set in Bahrain, I sat down with a small group of them and asked them many questions. What would be a good name for a Pakistani man? What would the names of his wife and children be? Where in Pakistan would he come from? The answers came almost faster than I could ask the questions—and I finally realized that they weren’t hypothetical answers. In fact, the men were telling me about themselves. So the Mahboob Chaudri I created for my story has the first name of one of them and the last name of another, the wife of a third, the children of a fourth, the home town of a fifth . . . and so on. When I finished my story, which I titled “The Dilmun Exchange,” I sent it off to Eleanor Sullivan, then the editor of EQMM. She bought it, and asked me to turn Mahboob into a series character. So I wrote a second Chaudri story, and a third, and I kept on writing them for a while after moving from Bahrain back up to Europe and settling in Germany.

As I’ve mentioned in this space previously, most of my stories begin with a title, and that’s what happened with my Bahrain series. During a visit to the National Museum, I got a look at the country’s most prized archeological treasure, a small carved bit of stone known as the Beer Drinkers, and that became the title of Mahboob’s second case, in which the relic is stolen from the museum while my character is right there on the scene. When I learned that legend has it that the Biblical Garden of Eden was located in Bahrain and that an old tree out in the desert is known as the Tree of Life, I put Mahboob on a camel and sent him out to discover a long-dead body buried in the sand. And so on.

Some of the stories had other origins, though. Because of my close connection to the Netherlands, for example, I decided for Mahboob’s fourth case to send him into Bahrain’s Dutch community. In 1982, a Dutch construction company was building a seven-mile causeway connecting the emirate to Saudi Arabia—the most expensive stretch of roadway anywhere in the world—so I blew it up and had Mahboob investigate the crime in a story I called “The Saudi Causeway.” (This one proved to be too long for EQMM, and Eleanor asked me to cut it down to about half of its original length. I suppose I could have done that, but I really didn’t want to, so I asked Eleanor how she’d feel about my submitting it to Cathleen Jordan at Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, which had been under independent ownership until 1975, when Davis Publications bought it and made it EQMM’s kid sister. Eleanor graciously agreed, and Cathleen also liked the story—but she was uncomfortable with the idea of my destroying an actual bridge that really existed in the real world, so she asked me to shift the causeway project to another Bahraini location. There’s only one other place where a bridge connecting Bahrain to the mainland could go, though, and that’s why the published version of the story is called “The Qatar Causeway.”)

All told, I wrote ten Chaudri stories between 1984 and 1991. Two of them (“The Dilmun Exchange” and “The Night of Power” were reprinted in Ed Hoch’s annual collections of The Year’s Best Mystery and Suspense Stories, and several others were listed in Ed’s yearly Honor Roll. Bill Pronzini reprinted “The Beer Drinkers” in his excellent The Ethnic Detectives anthology, where he called Mahboob “one of crime fiction’s most delightful new detectives.” Others were reprinted in other places.

Only one of the ten proved impossible to sell. It was called “The Sword of God,” and it pitted Mahboob and a cowboyish American senator on a diplomatic visit to the emirate against a group of Islamic fundamentalists who had kidnapped three nurses and a doctor from the Mission Hospital. Eleanor and Cathleen both liked it, but they agreed that it was too real, too torn-from-the-headlines, for their readers, who picked up EQMM and AHMM to escape from the news, not to have it rubbed in their faces. In retrospect, I think it was probably my failure to sell this one story that ultimately caused me to end the series and move on to other projects. (In 2009, British anthologist Maxim Jakubowski paid me to translate several Dutch crime stories into English for The Mammoth Book of Best International Crime, a collection he was editing. I agreed, and asked him if he’d be willing to consider one of my own stories for inclusion in the book. He agreed, I sent him “The Sword of God,” and he bought it—so it finally did appear in print, almost 20 years after I wrote it. Note to aspiring authors: Don’t ever throw anything away!)

This year, John Betancourt at Wildside Press encouraged me to collect all 10 of the Mahboob Chaudri stories into a single volume, which he’s publishing this summer in print as The Tree of Life and as an e-book titled The Mahboob Chaudri Mystery Megapack. And you can hear me read “The Night of Power” as August’s EQMM mystery podcast.

I enjoyed getting to know Mahboob Chaudri when I “met” him and wrote about him in the ’80s, and it was fun to get reacquainted with him, thirty years later, as I reread the stories while preparing the book for Wildside Press. If you should choose to listen to the podcast or read the book, I hope that you too will enjoy getting to know him—and his adopted homeland, the island emirate of Bahrain.

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