“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.

Posted in Books, Characters, Fiction, Guest, International, Police Procedurals, Setting | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“Bach, Beethoven, and Bedlam” (by Gerald Elias)

Gerald Elias makes his EQMM debut in our September/October 2015 double issue (on sale August 11), with the story “Where the Buffalo Roam.” He is not a new writer, however; he’s the award-winning author of the Daniel Jacobus mystery novels, set in the world of classical music. As a former violinist with the Boston Symphony and associate concertmaster of the Utah Symphony, he knows that world well. He tells EQMM that he has performed on five continents as violinist, conductor, and composer. For the past decade he has been music director for the Vivaldi by Candlelight concerts in Salt Lake City. In his post he talks about his dual identity as writer and musician, and the points at which the two professions converge and diverge.—Janet Hutchings

Picture this: A hundred white-tie-and-tailed musicians whipped into a frenzy as the music cascades toward the thunderous climax of the finale of Brahms Second Symphony. First forte, then fortissimo. Then, would you believe it, fortississimo! And then the final, brilliant brass fanfare that will bring the concert to a breathtaking close. The maestro, under whose literal and figurative shadow I sit, flails with his baton like the frantic jockey mounted on the betting favorite who’s only running in fourth place as the horses thunder around the backstretch of the Kentucky Derby. I somehow summon the energy from my physical and mental reserves to make this moment as magnificently triumphant as Herr Brahms intended.

Guess what thought worms its way into my cranium at this moment of grandeur and exultation: How am I going to murder that son-of-a-bitch on the podium? He, who takes all the credit for great performances but none of the blame for the bad ones? Or that cellist who has been asking asinine questions for twenty-seven years for no other reason than to kiss Maestro’s ass? Or that bastard critic who unctuously deemed last night’s performance “pedestrian”? Or the violin dealer who informed me this morning that he no longer thinks the violin he sold me ten years ago was made by the eighteenth-century Italian maker he had originally thought, and is only worth half as much as I paid? Or our CEO who proclaimed at today’s orchestra meeting that management must regrettably cut our salaries (but will nevertheless continue to market us as a “world class” orchestra)?

Well, maybe I’m exaggerating. A little. But when I’m asked how I made the incongruous leap from the seemingly staid world of classical music into the tumultuous world of crime fiction, one reasonable response might be: With such an abundance of fertile material, how could I not? Long ago, after a particularly feisty rehearsal with Maestro, one of my Boston Symphony colleagues remarked, “A symphony orchestra would make the perfect setting for a murder mystery. One victim, a hundred suspects with motive and opportunity.” Little did I know how prescient his observation was.

You may be thinking, this guy’s a homicidal maniac! Perhaps, but I am not alone. When I was working on Devil’s Trill, my first murder mystery in the Daniel Jacobus series, and informed my orchestra colleagues that it would take place in the dark corners of the classical-music world, the first question that popped out of their mouths was, “So, how are you going to kill the conductor?” Notice that the question was not, “Are you?” but “How are you?” That the conductor was going to be killed was a given. Though I saved maestrocide for Death and Transfiguration, the fourth book in the series, there was no shortage of material with which to pen the first three. Maybe it’s the profession itself that creates a community of psychopaths, or maybe we were just born that way.

When I started on Devil’s Trill, I had no idea it was to be the first book of a series (five and counting). As the passion for writing morphed into a profession, I had an epiphany: Believe it or not, crime exists outside of the land of Mozart! Mayhem is everywhere! Thus I contracted a case of chronic crime-fiction-on-the-brain syndrome, and began popping out stories of murder that ranged from a brine-preserved cadaver in the Great Salt Lake to incest in a charming New England village. What a wonderful world it is, bursting with possibility!

“What prompted you to become a crime writer after a lifetime as a musician?” It’s a question I’ve often been asked, usually accompanied by head scratching. I’ve often asked it myself. Part of the answer is that it all comes from the same primordial urge to create something artistic, whether it’s aural or literal. There are differences, of course. As a performing musician one’s creative horizons are limited to the black and white dots the composer has scattered over the page. Playing music is more a re-creative process rather than a creative one. Further, as an orchestral musician, one is subject to and confined by the dictates of the conductor, whether they make sense or not. After thirty-plus years as a violinist in two great orchestras, the Boston Symphony and Utah Symphony, I’d had my fill of dictates. Even during my student days, when the conductor of the Yale Philharmonia harangued us, telling us we “sounded worse than cattle,” I wondered if this really was the career path for me.

As a writer, I have the freedom to write whatever I want, the only caveat being that it needs to be good enough and interesting enough to satisfy my publisher and the public. That license makes writing more like composing than performing. In fact, when I write I’m guided by two piquant, wisdom-filled dictums straight from the mouth of the greatest composer of the twentieth century, Igor Stravinsky: “Too many pieces of music finish too long after the end.” And, “Lesser artists borrow. Great artists steal.” Someday I hope to be a great artist.

Writing has advantage even over composing, in that once I dot the final i’s and hand my book to the reader (the audience), my work is done. A musical composition, on the other hand, requires a middleman—or middlemen or middlewomen—to complete the circuit: the performer. That’s a huge link, and there is a veritable graveyard of good music that has never seen the light of day simply because of the logistics getting it performed. And when it does get performed, all the composer can do is sit there with his fingers crossed.

One aspect of writing does present a greater challenge than composing. These days the vocabulary of music is so wide open—any boink, clang, or scrrrrrrrrrrrtch can be, and has been, portrayed as music—that no one can really say definitively whether a composer is doing anything incorrectly. With literature, however, every word must be in the right place and have the right meaning. So as a starting point, a story has to make sense! If I rearranged the words of that last sentence, and wrote: “Book so point as sense starting to has make a a!” you’ll understand what I mean, and I’ve performed plenty of music that has been just about that intelligible.

One of the pleasures of writing is that I can write whenever I want and how much I want. (Of course, when there’s a deadline my publisher might take exception to that statement.) If I have writer’s block or decide that I might even want to go on vacation, my brain continues to function and when I again take up pen and pad I can start where I left off. On the other hand, if I were to stop practicing the violin for a month, the return would be excruciating, both for me and for anyone within earshot, even though I’ve been working at this thing since I was in knickers. It would be a good week after opening the case and dusting off the fiddle before the old fingers moved the way they’re supposed to. And the older one gets, the weeks aren’t always so good. Playing an orchestral instrument, one is additionally subject to a grueling orchestra schedule with over two hundred rehearsals and concerts a year, which often corresponds more to the potential for selling tickets than to one’s personal biorhythms.

It is inevitable that over time every athlete’s strength, speed, and dexterity will begin to wane. It even happened to Derek Jeter. The same is no less true of musicians. At some point, we must embark a new path, and in this I’m guided by the wisdom of another Hall of Fame baseball player, Satchel Paige, who said: “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.” Indeed, even as I continue to perform music on as high a level as I can, I’ve embraced the realization that in the long term, a life of crime is the life for me.

Posted in Fiction, Genre, Guest, Novels, Setting, Story, Writers, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Location, Location, Location: Writing and Place” (by Elle Wild)

EQMM’s September/October issue (on sale August 11) contains a Department of First Stories debut that readers won’t want to miss, Elle Wild’s “Playing Dead.” Though it is the author’s first paid fiction publication, she is not a newcomer to the world of storytelling: She’s a filmmaker whose documentary about being a foreigner in Japan won several awards internationally. Japan is also the setting for her debut story, and in this post she talks about how setting shapes all of her writing, including her debut novel, Strange Things Done, which won the 2015 Arthur Ellis Award for Best Unpublished First Crime Novel and will be published by Thomas Allen Publishers in Canada in 2016. —Janet Hutchings

As someone who has lived in five countries to date and is currently on the brink of the next international relocation, I’ve spent a lot of time over the years thinking about the importance of place in fiction, and observing just how much a change in location can influence a writer’s work.

In fact, I would argue that the location of my childhood influenced the development of my imagination as a young person, and my obsession with the noir genre. I grew up on a farm in Southern Ontario in Canada, where there was little to do but read Edgar Allan Poe and watch PBS Mystery. The fact that we lived on eleven acres, outside of any town, contributed to a series of dark thoughts I had as a child. . . . The “what might happen if . . .” kind of thoughts that are triggered by isolation. What if bad people came for us and the phone lines didn’t work? What if I woke up in the night and I could just tell that something was wrong, that no one was home who was supposed to be home? Which neighbor would I run to? What would happen if I escaped to a neighbor’s, only to find their house dark and empty? What if no one heard me scream?

I still have recurring nightmares about the house I grew up in, even though I had a childhood filled with golden memories of summer days on the farm: the sweet scent of freshly cut hay, the mewing of newborn barn kittens, the throaty sound of bull frogs at the pond (where countless hours were spent terrorizing fish and tadpoles), and the magical glint of fireflies on warm nights. I find it interesting that the mind discards all of these fond memories during sleep and goes right for the darkest fears. It goes for noir.

In 2007, I was invited to be the Artist in Residence in Dawson City, Canada, in the Yukon. My residency began just before freeze-up. “Freeze-up” in Dawson is when the Yukon River freezes, the ferry is dry-docked, and the Top of the World Highway to Alaska closes, making it increasingly difficult to leave. The population of Dawson plummets at this point, as highways drift over and snow blows through the historic western town like tumbleweed. During my time in Dawson, I remember thinking, “What if something terrible happened and no one could escape?” This eventually became the premise of my debut novel, set in Dawson City. The story and the characters are infused with the landscape, as much as they are trapped by it.

“Neo-noir” is defined as a film or story “set in contemporary modern times, but showing characteristics of a film noir, in plot or style” (Collins English Dictionary). There is something appealing to me about the way neo-noir approaches location and subverts reader (or viewer, in the case of film) expectations. Rather than the shadowy streets of Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles, then, the reader might encounter the spooky halls of a Danish university, for example, in The Dinosaur Feather (Sissel-Jo Gazan). I especially enjoy this kind of international twist on a classic noir.

Lately I find myself writing about other countries that I have lived in. Japan features prominently. In 1998, I lived in a small fishing and surfing village called Iioka-machi, about an hour outside of Tokyo or forty-five minutes from Narita airport. To me, Japan is a place rich in contradiction, from the flashy neon colors of Tokyo at night to the bland grey towers of its daytime world. I have come away with the idea that in Japan (and this is, of course, a generalization and only my own opinion), appearances and presentation matter very much. For example, a person might spend more on wrapping paper than on an actual gift. (But I have to say, I have never seen such artful wrapping jobs. They were indeed a joy to behold, which I think is the whole idea. Perhaps the Japanese know that the idea of getting a gift is often better than the actual gift itself.) There is an emphasis on “calmness” that is evident in every Zen garden, koi pond, or tea ceremony. This makes the writer in me want to poke beneath all the soothing surfaces in search of chaos. I guess this is why I’ve returned to Tokyo as a location in my recent short story, “Playing Dead,” where a seemingly jovial urban tea party becomes a landscape with deadly undercurrents.

I’ve just finished a short story set in Santa Cruz, California, where I lived for three years. I love the way that Santa Cruz as a location presents natural tensions between California’s fun-loving, 1950s “Gidget” past, (that kind of teenage innocence captured in the bright pastel colors of its infamous boardwalk) and its modern predicaments of gun violence, budget shortages, state-park closures, and drought. I find that my characters become a part of their surroundings, intricately linked with their sense of “place.” In this particular story, the arid, barren landscapes of strip malls and the cracked, concrete parking lots of big-box stores reflect the characters themselves, their chapped lips and dry voices hinting at an inner, spiritual brittleness. What would happen, I wonder, if I took these characters out of Santa Cruz, and dropped them in, say, Portland? (A place made lush with rain.) Would the characters have the same fears and dreams? Could the story be the same? Personally, I don’t think a writer can change the location without changing everything. Change the location; change the character.

I’m trying to imagine relocating the characters from Gazan’s The Dinosaur Feather (a story about narcissistic graduate students competing for funding and the attention of their advisor, until he is found dead in his office). Would it work if the characters were students and staff at the University of Miami, for example? Of course not. The Copenhagen setting lends the story a moodiness that wouldn’t work in the sun-washed world of Florida—or at least, not as well. The fact that the characters are in Copenhagen helps makes it more believable that they are completely obsessed with their work and relentlessly competitive. It’s harder to imagine characters like this (at least, in academia) in Florida, as there are so many distractions, the weather being one of them.

At the moment, I’m living in the English countryside, about an hour and a half by train to London. The South West of England is a rich, fertile area, trailing ivy and wisteria. A genteel, traditional place still haunted by its wartime past and demonstrating nostalgia for its Victorian golden age. I can hardly wait to start my next novel, which will be set here. Will I be tempted to pull back the lace curtains and peer behind the shrubberies to see what black secrets I can find? Most likely.

What are you working on? How does the landscape influence the characters? Could you move your characters into a different space without changing your story? What setting do you think would work well for a modern noir?

As you read this and contemplate your answers—if everything goes according to plan—I will already be packing my life up into cardboard boxes, throwing things away (something I always seem to find liberating rather than distressing, which explains a lot about the number of address changes I go through), and shipping things abroad. I can’t wait to occupy my new space and meet my new characters in their corresponding fictional landscapes. I wonder what they’ll be like?

Posted in Characters, Editing, Fiction, Genre, Gothic, Noir, Setting, Story, Writers, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“‘Black Rock:’ The Making and Unmaking of the Social World” (by Steven Gore)

Yesterday EQMM’s August 2015 issue went on sale. It contains the first EQMM story by Steven Gore, private investigator, short-story writer, and author of six crime novels (the most recent of which is February 2015’s Night Is the Hunter). Steven posted on this site on March 11, 2015. He returns today with some ideas related to “Black Rock,” his new EQMM story.—Janet Hutchings

“Black Rock,” which appears in the August 2015 issue of EQMM, arose out of my longtime interest in what is called social ontology, the study of the manner in which the human world is constructed.[1] Social construction simply means the bringing into existence of practices and entities like political offices, corporations, wills, money, conspiracies, and churches. This creation can be a matter of conscious construction: Congress passes and the president signs a law creating the Department of the Interior. Or a matter of evolution: ancient storytellers evolving into modern historians. By whatever route, these practices and entities exist in the world not as natural facts, like plants, planets, or lions, but as what are called social or institutional facts, and rather than performing natural functions, like a heart beating to pump blood, they perform social functions, such as passing laws, binding people through marriage, and sentencing criminals to prison.

It certainly is the case that social facts and functions are dependent upon natural facts and functions: Trivially, if people didn’t exist, we couldn’t have presidents. Less trivially, if there wasn’t already in existence the natural, biological fact of mothers, we couldn’t have the social or institutional fact of motherhood, and if there weren’t the natural, human fact of lying, we couldn’t have crime of perjury.

Each of these practices and social entities, these formal and informal institutions, has duties and powers, what is called its deontology, and exists in a web of other social practices, laws, and regulations. A president has a duty to support and defend the Constitution and the power to veto legislation. A U.S. corporation has the duty to file a tax return and has the power to enter into contracts. And these powers and duties exist in a web of custom, law, and regulation.

In “Black Rock,” the protagonist recalls his graduation from the police academy and the police chief swearing him in:

By those acts and by that oath, I was no longer just a civilian. I had assumed a place in the world as a police officer, a man with a badge, with a duty to uphold the law and the authority to detain other civilians against their will. And with that transformation, and with my awareness of that transformation, I began to see other humans as having places, too, as living out identities: some earned, like lawyers; some chosen, like wives; some imposed upon them, like victims and sons.

Where there are duties, there are opportunities for betrayals and where there are powers there are opportunities for abuses. For example, a group of individuals file with their state the appropriate documents to create a corporation. They use the corporation—its rights and powers—to hire employees, to offer products and services, and to issue stock—and then abuse those rights and powers by committing securities fraud.

Investigations, in which I spent my prewriting career, focus on those betrayals and abuses embodied in the law in the form of frauds, counterfeits, impersonations, embezzlements, and other offenses. They take the form of determining from within a context—criminal, civil, regulatory, or corporate policy—whether some particular act counts as an instance of a violation of some statute or provision.

Moreover, what can be constructed can also be destroyed. Sometimes this occurs by means of a single deliberate, willful act in which a social fact or function is eliminated: Congress passes and the president signs a bill to disband a federal agency. Or, more broadly, a whole society can engage in a revolution that replaces a number of institutions at once.

An institutional fact can also be destroyed gradually. Its abuse over time will create a gap between the purpose and the practice: A political institution becomes corrupt with the members answering to their own greed rather than to those who elect them. The decision for the society then becomes whether to repair, revise, or eliminate the institution.

This is part of what is occurring in Ukraine, in the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych, a phenomenally corrupt politician, even more corrupt than my former client, ex-prime minister Pavlo Lazarenko. Yanukovych, Lazarenko, and those who preceded and followed them institutionalized corruption in Ukraine, which means the deontology of powers and duties that hold the society together politically was damaged and gaps had been created between purpose and practice of not merely the office of the president, but the parliament and every other government agency. So far the citizens, by overthrowing Yanukovych but leaving the institutions and almost all the other corrupt office holders in place, have chosen to attempt to repair them, rather than overthrow and replace them.

One of the problems is that reform-minded Ukrainians are relying on the corrupt to make those repairs. Yulia Tymoshenko, for example, one of the leaders in the overthrow of Yanukovych and the Orange Revolution before that, was central to the corrupting of government and business in Ukraine. Among other crimes, she paid Lazarenko almost a hundred million dollars in bribes in exchange for forty-percent of the natural gas market, from which she later made somewhere between five hundred million and a billion dollars. (It was her assistant who was appointed Acting President of Ukraine after Yanukovych fled to Russia.)

“Black Rock” does not take place on that kind of stage. It focuses rather more narrowly, on a police detective and his father. Its complexity arises not from the scale of the story, but out of moral struggle, the kind that emerges when conflicts between institutional facts and the social functions people perform come into play. In the story, the conflict is between the detective as son and as public servant.

The moral conflict arises because the deontologies of those social functions, the powers and duties, pull the detective in different directions. Indeed, throughout the story the reader, just like the characters, must confront a number of conflicting social functions: not just father, son, and police officer, but sister, aunt, guardian, wife, murderer, victim, and widow.

Contemporary literary crime writing usually responds to the disorders created by these conflicts either by the adoption of what is called the protagonist’s “own moral code” or by the protagonist’s flight into irony.

Conceptually, having one’s own moral code is a troublesome notion since morality is social. It concerns the relations between humans and the justifications we are prepared to offer each other, not one’s relation with oneself and how one justifies oneself to oneself. One can have one’s own moral code only by denying other humans their humanity. This is one of the reasons there is the association in crime fiction between those who claim their own moral code and violence—it cannot be otherwise.

At the same time, irony—in whatever form: resigned, bemused, grim, existential nihilistic—is an attempt to remove oneself from the social world and therefore also denies others their humanity. In the end, this removal is merely intellectual, a pretense and a fantasy, for the ironist relies on institutions and their deontologies just like any other member of society: When his car is stolen he doesn’t call a philosopher or writer of existential fiction, he calls the police.

That isn’t to say we can’t attempt to pry apart ideals from practices and practices from institutions in order to critique and judge them. That is what we call politics, sometimes revolution. This is, indeed, the move by which change is instigated in all sorts of social facts and functions. Think of Simone de Beauvoir’s claim: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman,” a play on the biological fact of being female and the social fact—the socially constructed fact—of being a woman in the social world, along with the further step of her attempt to change, to reconstruct, the deontology of that social fact.

“Black Rock” allows for neither an escape into one’s own moral code or into irony. It argues, if a short story can be said to argue, that no escape is possible, that we live in a common world, and we must be held responsible for our actions and there must be consequences, even if they are only the ones we impose on ourselves in recognition of the duties we owe to each other.

And, more fundamentally, it argues that by the actions we take both in doing wrongs and in addressing the damage we have done, we engage in a kind of self-revelation. We disclose, in Hannah Arendt’s phrase, “the agent with the act.”

From “Black Rock:”

In her eyes and in her silence Clare seemed to be asking what I was. I was certain she was thinking the answer would determine what I would do. But the truth was the other way around. What I did would determine what I was.

I’m not sure all readers will accept how the detective chooses to answer that question in the story, but at least he doesn’t attempt to escape from it.

[1] Social ontology is generally associated with the work of John Searle, Margaret Gilbert, Raimo Tuomela and others and with the social ontology groups and centers at UC Berkeley and Cambridge.
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In celebration of Independence Day, instead of posting an article this week, I’d like to direct readers to the full text of a story by Edward D. Hoch, from his Revolutionary War series starring Alexander Swift.  The tale, entitled “Paul Revere’s Bell” and originally published in EQMM’s March/April 2004 issue, is made available through the generous permission of Ed’s widow, Patricia Hoch. The stories in this series are among my favorites from Ed Hoch’s large body of work. Whether this case for Alexander Swift is new to you or remembered from more than a decade ago, I hope you’ll find it an enjoyable addition to your holiday. Happy Fourth of July!—Janet Hutchings

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