“Sick Hazel” (by Liza Cody)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Characters, Story, Writing | 1 Comment

LET’S REMEMBER JERRY HEALY

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

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

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

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

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

Janet Hutchings

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

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

The Hook, The Setup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Transition to and from Screenplays

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

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

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

The Reveal

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

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

The Bottom Line

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

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

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

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

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

“When Character Counts” (by Brendan DuBois)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh.

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

Okay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again, don’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Start with your character.

And if all else fails, look in the mirror.

 

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

IT’S ALL ABOUT VARIETY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“The Mystery of Quest” (by Michael Guillebeau)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris and Michael Guillebeau

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“In Praise of Honkaku” (by John Pugmire)

For several years now—ever since EQMM lost its most illustrious contributor of classical mysteries, Edward D. Hoch (1930-2008)—I’ve been putting out appeals for more whodunits and “impossible crime” stories. Few writers in the U.S. or U.K. have responded with submissions that fall into that category. Currently, our most dependable contributor in that genre is the translator John Pugmire. The EQMM issue on sale now, November, contains a translation from the Japanese by Ho-Ling Wong of Norizuki Rintaro’s “The Lure of the Green Door.” It was adapted (put into smooth, literary English from a rough translation) by John Pugmire. John has been offering translations to EQMM since 2005, primarily supplying locked-room mysteries from France, which he translates himself, and more recently providing adaptations of rough translations by non-native English speakers.  So far, twelve such stories have appeared in our Passport to Crime section, and two more are in the pipeline. In 2010, John started his own publishing company, Locked Room International, and began publishing his translations of the novels of Paul Halter, the author of several of EQMM’s Passport stories and a writer often described as the successor to John Dickson Carr.  Later, he began adding novel-length translations of other authors; he tells us he is currently working on a Swedish locked-room classic. Locked Room International has so far published eleven novels, plus an omnibus of the works of Derek Smith, which drew critical acclaim. The Crimson Fog, his translation of Halter’s Le Brouillard Rouge, was named one of Publishers Weekly’s Top Mysteries of 2013. His next Paul Halter translation The Picture from the Past will be published later this year. In May 2012, John appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Miles Jupp in a Locked Room—a program exploring the type of mystery he loves. In the following post he discusses the current evolution of the form.—Janet Hutchings

I first read honkaku when I was in my teens, but I didn’t know it at the time, and it wasn’t called that then.

The book was John Dickson Carr’s He Who Whispers, one of the maestro’s most brilliant works, and I was hooked at once. I immediately bought as many of his secondhand paperbacks as I could find and afford. It was the first time I had read books that offered an intellectual challenge and an “aha” moment. They contained twisting plots, a surprising denouement and, in retrospect, fairly placed clues.

Such books are generally referred to as “Golden Age Detection,” which is a clumsy title because it refers not to the characteristics of the books themselves, but to a period of time. Nowadays, and in fact since the 1980s, there is a pithy word to describe the books: it is honkaku, which is a Japanese word meaningorthodox” or “authentic” (I prefer the former) in the sense of “fair play.” It came into being because of a revolt against the shakaiha or social school of crime fiction, which purports to reflect the nature of society and dominated Japanese detective fiction at the time.

Much of current Western crime fiction is either shakaiha or henkaku— which purports to reflect the mysteries of the human heart—or both, thus exploring both the state of society and the protagonists’ foibles, to the detriment of plots and clues. This, to my mind, is not detective fiction: It is fiction about detectives. Ruth Rendell and P.D. James are regarded as the modern “queens of detective fiction,” but they don’t write the way Agatha Christie and Christianna Brand did before them. I vividly recall reading a Henning Mankell book in which his detective seemed to spend most of his time obsessing about the number of times he urinated, but I don’t remember a single other thing about it. I think I fell asleep reading it. It was a bestseller in Europe, but was it detective fiction?

As Paul Halter, one of the few contemporary western writers specializing in honkaku, writes in 139 Pas de la Mort (139 Steps from Death): “. . . the mystery novel becomes the vehicle for a social message or for pursuing humanitarian and philosophical issues. . . . In other words, they want to change the world. By the way, there’s never any suspense about the identity of the culprit: it’s always ‘society.’”

In Japan in the 1980s there was a rebellion against such writing, led by Soji Shimada (whose The Tokyo Zodiac Murders is one of the masterpieces of honkaku) and a group of younger authors. That they succeeded in transforming Japanese detective fiction is evident from the plethora of writers practising honkaku today, the impressive sales volumes, and the prevalence of honkaku in the mangas (those graphic novels where everyone seems to be spluttering or perspiring). Which means young adults and even children are reading stories that challenge their minds. Can that be a bad thing? I know I was enraptured by such stories once I discovered them. Is there any greater literary pleasure than the moment when all the puzzling elements suddenly click into place?

Why hasn’t a similar rebellion occurred in the Anglophone world? Well, there is a handful of writers, like Paul Harding, Bill Pronzini and, potentially, Christopher Fowler and John Verdon, writing honkaku, and there is the occasional foray into the subgenre by other writers, such as Lee Child’s Running Blind, John Sandford’s Night Prey, and Adrian McKinty’s recent In the Morning I’ll Be Gone, but the most successful attempt has undoubtedly been the BBC’s TV Series Jonathan Creek. According to David Renwick, its creator, it was “. . . born of a desire to create a detective series with a populist appeal which would concern itself with the intellectual puzzle behind a crime rather than the more sensationalist ingredients that were currently in vogue.” In its prime it was attracting over seven million viewers, nearly thirty percent of the potential British audience. Yet there was no apparent attempt by literary publishers to capitalize on that success. To understand why, you need to have listened to BBC Radio 4’s May, 2012 program Miles Jupp in a Locked Room and hear a publisher who actually appeared on the program claim there was “no market for that kind of stuff”! Which must have come as a surprise to the 500,000 people who tuned in.

I firmly believe there is a yearning for intellectual stimulation and the potential readership is there, but publishers are inhibited by the attitude of academics and the vast majority of crime-fiction reviewers, who treat honkaku with disdain, without understanding it. One notable exception is Michael Dirda, who captured the attitude perfectly in his recent review of Locked Room International’s The Derek Smith Omnibus:

“By contrast, detective stories—whodunits, cozies, Golden Age puzzles—are commonly dismissed as utterly artificial and old-fashioned, mere entertainments of the most inconsequential and embarrassing sort. Who, besides spinsters, tweedy academics, and devotees of Masterpiece Mystery and Malice Domestic would bother with them?”

He continued with this insightful passage:

“In fact, like other fixed forms, such as the sonnet and the pastoral, the detective story should be judged according to the beauty and elegance of its execution. The elements may be traditional—the isolated country house, the body in the library, the commedia dell’arte company of stock characters—but their ingenious and artful combination is what creates masterpieces . . . They test our skill as readers, employing every form of misdirection in their clueing, yet at their best leave us satisfied that, had we been a little shrewder, we might have grasped the truth before the final pages.”

Robert Barnard in his perceptive A Talent to Deceive explained why the critics who sneer at Agatha Christie for not developing depth of character fail to understand the craft behind writing a successful honkaku mystery: If you are going to set a logical puzzle for your readers, you cannot enter into a deep psychological profile of any of the potential suspects, or you will either give the game away or leave the reader with a feeling of having been cheated if the suspect acts out of character. Hence the mental jujitsu whereby Christie deliberately sketched out her characters in such a manner as to allow the reader to form his or her own (inevitably wrong!) psychological portrait. In other words, academics and most literary critics make a fundamental mistake by judging honkaku novels by the standards of henkaku and shakaiha. In fact, they are contradictory and mutually exclusive.

I for one am dedicated to expanding the public’s awareness and appreciation of honkaku. My small company Locked Room International (www.lockedroominternational.com or www.mylri.com) has been publishing my own translations of Paul Halter’s and other French writers’ mysteries since 2010 and I intend to expand its scope by republishing forgotten classics from French, English, Swedish, and other sources. I’m working with Shimada-san himself on an anthology of Japanese short stories and with another friend on an anthology of stories from all over the world. And I fully intend to continue submitting honkaku stories to EQMM in the future.

Posted in Books, Characters, Classic Mystery, Fiction, Genre, Guest, International, Writers | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“Wrestling with the ‘S’ Word” (by Jim Allyn)

In mystery circles, and especially EQMM circles, you can’t say the name Allyn without everyone assuming you mean Doug Allyn, the multiple Edgar Allan Poe Award winner and record-holding EQMM Readers Award winner who for nearly thirty years has stood at the pinnacle of accomplishment in the field of short fiction. But Doug has an extraordinarily talented younger brother, Jim, who has contributed half a dozen stories to EQMM over the past decade. Jim’s high-powered career in marketing never left him much time for fiction, but he has recently transitioned to writing full time, and he’s currently at work on a novel. His November 2013 EQMM story, “Princess Anne,” will appear in the next volume of Best American Mystery Stories (October 2014), and his upcoming story for us, “Fall of a Fantasy,” is slated for the Black Mask department of our February 2015 issue. Readers who are not yet familiar with Jim’s work won’t want to miss those opportunities to discover him, and here’s a tip for any book editors reading this: The novel Jim is working on is an expansion of the hard-hitting, emotionally charged “Fall of a Fantasy.” My guess is, it’s going to be good.—Janet Hutchings

When I first started submitting crime fiction I was told that my stories were too sentimental. I was told that if I toughened them up, they would be marketable. I did, and they were. I’ve paid close attention to the “S” word ever since. If it’s handled well, it’s a dance. Lovely to watch. Satisfying and moving. If done wrong, it’s amateurish—awkward, potentially comical, and embarrassing.

Robert Frost wrote, “A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness.”

Think that’s true for mysteries and crime fiction generally, so much weight on the emotional content? Think it’s true for those who work in the hardboiled and noir genres where emotional distance is the standard and a lump in the tough detective’s throat has to be a sandwich? Or are a unique plot, a unique character, an angle, a twist the first orders of business, with the emotional base being pretty thin?

What Frost wrote about emotional inspiration is true for me most of the time. My “ideas” for stories are less ideas than emotional situations. I typically grow my stories from one or two emotionally charged scenes. If the story doesn’t have emotional roots, not only do I not want to do it, I can’t do it. Just can’t get into it. More often than not, then, I’m dealing with the “S” word from the get-go.

For my purposes, “sentimentality” refers to emotional responses inappropriate to a particular situation—too bland, too hysterical, too whatever for that character. Because some characters are genetically bland or genetically hysterical or genetically too whatever, it’s okay if they go over the top according to their particular trait. In general, though, the description “sentimental tale” is not a good one. Oscar Wilde once said that no one could read about the death of Little Nell in Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop without dissolving into tears . . . of laughter. That’s the big threat. That you’ll unintentionally turn something touching into something ludicrous.

In a 2013 New Yorker article entitled “Home Movies,” Margaret Talbot writes about her interview with Alexander Payne, who directed and co-wrote the screenplay for The Descendants, a film packed with emotions of every stripe. Talbot quotes Payne as saying, “I’m deathly afraid of being too sentimental.” Payne then cites a letter from Chekhov in which he says about another’s writing, “It’s too damn sentimental. If you want emotional effects, you have to place them against a cold background, so they stand out in relief.”

Good advice. Deciding whether a story has too much heart or too little is not easy. Clearly it’s a balancing act. Mining powerful emotions is key to powerful, memorable writing. Fortunately, my favorite part of writing involves wrestling with emotionally charged scenes and themes. I have a suggestion in this regard: Don’t worry about it until you have to, and that’s very late in the game, perhaps even the final edit. Sometimes emotion is the engine. Let it drive the story. Plot elements will rise up. Note them, but stay with the emotional push.

I very deliberately don’t guard against sentimentality when writing a first draft. No barriers, no fences, let it all hang out. Writers know better than most that from day one we all live in an idiopathic cloud of emotion. We breathe it in. We breathe it out. It goes where we go. It rules our dreams. So if there’s an emotional hue for the story, I try to let it come out naturally. If it’s sloppy syrup, I don’t care. It’s easier to edit and synthesize from sloppy syrup than it is to edit and synthesize from a blank page and amidst the debris you may have written something fine. After all, it’s your eyes only until you decide otherwise, so why blush?

When I get serious about editing, it’s time to be hard. Time to look for ways to be mean, to be cold. Excessiveness is the big risk, just plain laying it on too thick. Overcook and here come the belly laughs. After all, “hardboiled” is a genre. “Soft-boiled” isn’t. For me, it’s easy to be hard. But that doesn’t mean it’s always the best way to go. Am I after “bittersweet” or just “bitter?” To warm things up I lean toward an occasional poetic indulgence, toward a certain imagined beauty. It’s not really definable but often I develop a feel for what it is I’m after and can find it inside the pages of my raw sentimental tripe. A couple of lines salvaged from a whole page of copy is not unusual and those lines may be critical. I’m constantly amazed by how carving out copy helps a story. This is harder than it sounds because I tend to exaggerate the value of the pages I’ve filled. Literary gold, of course. “Less is more” works better for actors, but it also works for writers. Talking about a script she didn’t like, the actress Joan Allen said, “You can read it, but you can’t say it.” I read questionable copy aloud. Not only does it help the flow, overly sentimental copy will stick in my throat. It will make me cringe or make me laugh. If I can’t say it comfortably, I go back to work.

Unless I’m fortunate and can write the story quickly, which rarely happens, the emotional connection and current is difficult to maintain, especially if emotion was the starting point. When things flatten out with a story, I use music and movies to get the juices flowing again. With music, it’s very much a relaxing, meditative process. There’s always a group of tunes that seem to fit the action and the mood I’m after. This only works for the dramatic scenes. Doesn’t work for most of the story, which is just sweat and discipline. I just lay back and listen to the music, letting scenes play out in my imagination, often with new variations that I’ll jot down for review and possible use. It seems lazy but it’s actually work and it actually does work. Writing is hard. This is the fun part. Letting your imagination soar with a purpose and hopefully a meaningful result. Whether planned or spontaneous, my creative breaks from the PC always yield something.

An especially challenging factor in emotional scenes is that nothing much may be going on except talking heads. No action. That puts a premium on the writing of dialogue and describing small actions, such as facial expressions or body movements. Exemplifying this situation is a lovely bittersweet scene I like very much in the 1986 film Nothing in Common. Lasting just over a minute, the scene contains little action—just music and the expressions on the faces of the four actors. They’re obviously talking, but the dialogue is on mute. A sweaty, fit couple—Bess Armstrong and Mark von Holstein—are pushing their bicycles past a table at a busy outdoor restaurant. Sitting at the table is Armstrong’s high-flying old flame played by Tom Hanks. Armstrong spots Hanks and tries to hurry by, but he sees her and calls her back. Sitting with Hanks is his new, hot, very chic current girlfriend played by Sela Ward. Von Holstein is Armstrong’s current boyfriend—very straight, very solid-citizen, very much the nice guy every woman is afraid she’ll have to settle for. Sweaty faces, sweat-stained workout clothes as contrasted with the two sharp, slickly groomed executive types. Hanks introduces everybody and polite small talk ensues (all apparent, no dialogue). As they chat, Hanks reaches out and brushes damp dark hair away from Armstrong’s face. Despite his roving eye, it’s clear that Hanks’s fondness for Armstrong is genuine. She had been his girlfriend for years and his emotional pit stop for even more years. Also clear is that Ward and von Holstein are aware of the deep relationship that existed between Hanks and Armstrong, and that these two are unsure of where they stand and live in fear of being dumped.

As the two push on with their bikes, Hanks’s gaze follows them. They go a few steps and Armstrong stops, looks down for a moment, then looks back at Hanks, who is still watching her in a tense, awkward kind of way. This final look that passes between the two makes the scene. In her eyes you can plainly read the anger, regret, heartache that’s asking him, “How could you have ruined something so real and so wonderful?” You can see they both know it should have worked. If you’ve got one of those, it will ring a bell.

Flitting among the four faces, the camera says it all. It’s all there. All this in a little over a minute. Some 28 frames with 24 being solo head shots. I enjoy this scene because all the expressions of the four characters are captured perfectly. All unique, all perfect. Four faces with very different, readable emotional reactions to this chance meeting. It’s a good reminder that every character has feelings and all the feelings form the whole. The scene is touching because of all that came before. It’s good to be reminded of that too.

Writers don’t get to pass the responsibility for emotion to the actors, who in this instance do it wonderfully. No, the writer has to capture and convey the complex interplay of emotions. It’s especially tough for writers of crime fiction, where sentimentality can undo a story quickly and completely. Yet there are ways to do it. One way, perhaps the hardest, is to flirt with poetry . . . carefully. Consciously put the music to it . . . carefully.

Another way is to treat sentimentality like a pastel water color, letting it seep through the whole thing without warping the paper. Or come at it sideways. For example, in “Princess Anne” (EQMM, November 2013), sentimentality flows as lies from a serial killer’s lips. This psychopath is talking about how he loved and lost a little dog. A little dog whose grave he came to visit, a little dog that never existed (unbeknownst to the reader). It’s likely that anyone who ever loved an animal will identify with the sentiment expressed by this killer.

There were other ways to write this story, ways in which the grave of the little dog would have been less central. But those ways would not have allowed the mining of all the sentiment of both the family that cherished the supposed grave of the dog or the lies about it spun out by the killer.

Reviewing a plot, then, I always ask myself what part of the story touches the heart, and is there more—or less—that should be done with it.

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“Behind the Scenes at 267 Broadway” (by Jackie Sherbow)

Jackie Sherbow is the senior assistant editor for EQMM and AHMM. This post will also appear at Trace Evidence.

My recent contribution to SleuthSayers, an inside look at the submissions process, had me wondering if people wouldn’t be interested in a literal inside view of our offices. So, come on in!

267 Broadway

267 Broadway

267 Broadway has been the NYC home of Dell Magazines since 2009. Its residents include the editorial staff for AHMM, EQMM, Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Dell Horoscope, and a variety of Dell’s puzzle titles. We work closely with our two other outposts, both in southern Connecticut (Milford and Norwalk).

The view across Broadway: City Hall Park

The view across Broadway: City Hall Park

When you arrive at Dell, you’re greeted by Mary Grant, our office manager, editorial assistant, and receptionist. She runs day-to-day operations here as well as provides administrative and editorial support to each department, and has been making lives easier for Dell employees for thirteen years.

Mary Grant

Mary Grant

The mystery team includes—along with myself and the editors—Deanna McLafferty, our Editorial Administrative Assistant. Along with working for all the other departments (yes, all of them), Deanna takes care of many day-to-day tasks for EQ and AH—anything you can think of on the administrative to editorial spectrum, Deanna has probably helped with it. You might recognize her as the kind soul who poured you a drink at the EQ/AH pre-Edgars Cocktail Party for the past couple of years.

Deanna McLafferty

Deanna McLafferty

To me, the reference room is the richest part of our floor, and a spot where you can easily lose a chunk of time exploring the multitudes of specialized dictionaries, encyclopedias, and other literary goodies.

From the reference room

From the reference room

This shelf is a strange one now for us, as it features the dwindling slush pile of AHMM after its switch to electronic submissions (which I also talk about in the SleuthSayers post). As a comparison, I’ll include a photo of older stacks, from Linda’s home office.

AHMM's dwindling hard-copy slush pile.

AHMM‘s dwindling hard-copy slush pile.

Paper manuscripts in Linda's home office.

Paper manuscripts in Linda’s home office.

Here are the card catalogs, which list all the authors and stories printed in the magazines.

EQ cards

And here are our back-issue archives, stored on shelves built specifically to fit our volumes.

EQMM back-issues archive.

EQMM back-issue archives.

AHMM back-issues archive.

AHMM back-issue archives.

And there you have it! Perhaps not as mysterious as you’d have thought, but chock-full of mysteries all the same.

Posted in Books, Editing, Guest, History, Magazine, Publishing | Tagged , , , , | 17 Comments

“Gun Culture” (by Scott Mackay)

Canadian Scott Mackay has been contributing stories to EQMM for twenty-five years, and a number of those tales have received favorable critical attention, including February 1998’s “Last Inning,” which won the Arthur Ellis Award for best short story. (Several other stories by Scott Mackay have been nominated for that award.) The author is also a mystery novelist, with thirteen books in print, eleven of them recently purchased by Audible for issue as audio books. In this post he talks about a mindset that’s particularly hard for a crime writer to let go of—even on vacation. Readers will find a new Mackay story in EQMM’s March/April 2015 issue.—Janet Hutchings

I was driving across the black-sand plains of Myrdalssandur to see the largest glacier in Europe, Vatnajokoll, when I pulled my rented Toyota Yaris to the side of the road to behold yet another of Iceland’s bizarre and compelling sights. Dark basalt columns rose from the black sand like teetering stacked coins. They looked like nightmarish tombstones to me. I couldn’t help thinking that even though Iceland has the lowest murder rate in the world—one in a hundred thousand—its jagged and raw landscape provides the ideal backdrop for one.

My wife and I undertook this daunting road trip a number of weeks ago, 2,436 kilometers around the entire country, every hundred meters bringing riveting vistas of craggy and picturesque starkness, snapshots of a land that, for a crime writer like myself, made me think of the dark and brooding subject matter of my trade.

We motored through numerous lava fields— solidified mafic flood fields with not a tree, house, building, or billboard in sight. I thought, what a perfect setting. My mind turned more and more to murder.

The macabre theme was further encouraged when, my wife taking the wheel, I dipped into a Reykjavik English newspaper, The Grapevine, while she negotiated a particularly expansive lava field, and I read an interview with Snorri Magnusson, one of Iceland’s top cops.

He talked about the missing. The missing and the murdered, it seems, overlap considerably in Iceland.

“Over decades and decades in Iceland, people have gone missing without anyone ever finding them. They just sort of disappear.”

The Olympic redundancies in Magnusson’s words aside (that people go missing, and no one ever finds them, and they sort of disappear) his statement struck me as a too-trusting investigational framework. He added nothing about the possibility that these victims might have been murdered. Also, when Snorri Magnusson made his statement to The Grapevine, perhaps he was thinking a lot like the rest of the population.

You see, many Icelanders blame at least some of these disappearances on elves.

You pause.

You sigh once again at the blogosphere.

Let me explain.

Though Iceland is a forward-thinking country, boasting the world’s first female democratically-elected head of state, a ninety-nine-percent literacy rate, and universal healthcare coverage, sixty-two percent of its highly-educated public believe in elves. So when a person goes missing, particularly in a lava field, where elves purportedly live, some say they were taken—these, apparently, are not nice elves.

How entrenched is the belief in elves? Recently, elf activists blocked the building of a highway from the Álftanes Peninsula, where President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson has a home, to the Reykjavik suburb of Gardabaer. No construction will go forward until the Supreme Court of Iceland rules on motions brought forth by activists who say not only cultural and environmental issues are at stake but also the plight of elves. The activists are particularly concerned about an elf church, really a lava formation, that sits on the site. The Huldufólk, or “hidden folk” as they are known, affect construction so regularly that the road administration often halts work so the public can grow convinced that the elves have had a chance to move on.

Is it any wonder, then, that many unexplained disappearances are blamed on the Huldufólk?

Without doubt the land itself lays claim to some of these missing victims.

My wife and I, for instance, had our own close call when we took a wrong turn trying to find Hengifoss, one of Iceland’s plentiful waterfalls. We ended up driving up a narrow mountain road to a snowy peak. No guardrails. No shoulders. The road was marked only by yellow pikes. The wind howled. Clouds moved in.

The clouds got so thick, I couldn’t see ten feet in front of me. At the top, we entered a tunnel a kilometer long, and it also was filled with cloud, and, more terrifyingly, was single-lane, shared both ways—I had to guess whether a car was coming from the other direction. We exited onto a sudden hairpin turn with no guardrail and vertiginous drops on either side. We could have easily gone over. My wife and I could have disappeared. Not gone fishing. Gone missing.

The Reykjavík Grapevine recounted how two boys, Oskar Halldorsson and Julius Karlsson, aged fourteen and fifteen, went missing on the night of January 14, 2013 in the lava fields east of Keflavík, on the Reykjanes Peninsula. January 14, as you might imagine in Iceland, is a night nobody should be out on, but there Oskar and Julius were, having fun up near Keflavík Airport.

The boys were last seen running and laughing down a street toward the lava fields. Local residents assumed they’d gotten into mischief and were running away. When they disappeared, some suggested the Huldufólk. Perhaps even the murderer himself suggested the Huldufólk. How sad that these two young boys should, to use Snorri Magnusson’s redundancies, just disappear, go missing, and never be found again. If it wasn’t murder, it had the same impact as murder. I pity the grieving families. I’m sure they didn’t believe the elves did it.

Of course, it’s possible that the boys could have gotten lost in all that lava—it goes on for fifty kilometers.

And it’s not only lava that’s easy to get lost in. Iceland has its deserts.

When my wife and I came to the Highland Desert of Eastern Iceland, where the landscape was eerily similar to pictures the Viking Voyager beamed back from Mars—rock-pitted sand in a panorama of dunes and ridges, a windswept frigid horizon, a sky that looked as if it were brightened by only the smallest of suns—I understood how easy it was to get lost in Iceland. In the Highland Desert, as if to discompose me further, I found, with nobody around for miles, a black statuette of a nineteenth-century fisherman twelve inches high, put there as if by the little folk—the elves having a little lost-at-sea joke.

photo by Joanie Mackay

In this dangerous land of fire and ice, police can’t be too concerned with murder because, miraculously, it happens only once a year. They have to be more concerned with protecting people from the land itself, the country’s true murderer.

We climbed the volcano, Grabrok, for instance, in sixty-kilometer-per-hour winds. The volcano climb could have made us statistics had not a lone Dutchman, white with fear coming down, warned us off the caldera.

We careened along gale-raked Atlantic-and-Greenland-Sea coastal roads in a tiny car that could have potentially been blown over the unrailed drops into the rocks below.

We climbed glaciers where the crevasses were man-eaters.

The land, then, is a genuine threat to Icelanders, as well as to tourists: the lava fields, deserts, mountains, and glaciers, not to mention the sea, kill a number of locals and tourists every year. Police spend most of their resources getting foolhardy tourists out of trouble from these beautiful but hellish spots. They are more a rescue organization than a law-enforcement one. And as crime is practically nonexistent in Iceland, and police focus more on rescue and not on actual lawbreakers, they have, over the years, like Snorri Magnusson, become trusting. Perhaps too trusting from my North-American perspective. They don’t even carry guns.

To further illustrate that trust, I relate an incident from near the end of my stay. It happened when I boarded my Icelandair flight home.

As I went through the security checkpoint, unbeknownst to me I had a knife in my carry-on—I thought I had stowed it in my check-in—a Swiss-Army knife with scissors, a can-opener, and a nail file, nothing too terribly dangerous, useful to a tourist like myself, but still a knife. The beeper sounded.

A young officer—the police run customs there—found the knife. He said he was going to have to confiscate it. With some disappointment—the knife had been a gift from my grandfather—I said fine. The officer then gave me a sympathetic glance and said he would talk to his supervisor. He came back and said I could keep the knife. I was allowed to board my Icelandair flight home, along with three-hundred innocent passengers, armed with a knife that looked somewhat like a box cutter. This trustful lapse left me wondering: Do they believe a murder suspect when the murder suspect says the elves took their victim?

Perhaps I go too far. This is not meant to be an indictment of Icelandic law enforcement. Quite the contrary. The young officer’s trust was a good thing. And if I’ve painted Iceland as a bleak and inhospitable land, it’s not entirely that way, for the south is often green and pastoral. I’ll never forget the night my wife and I stayed on a working farm near Brunnholl. The first sight that greeted us was a Nordic goddess of a young Icelandic woman with long blond hair. She was clapping some cows along a country road against a backdrop of mountain-girded glaciers. Iceland, in these moods, defies murder. And while in some of its Mars-reminiscent landscapes it might be the perfect setting for it, North America, statistically, is a much likelier locale for the grisly business of my trade.

Is it any wonder, then, that when those two boys, Oskar Halldorsson and Julius Karlsson, walk out into the lava fields on the night January 14, 2013 and disappear, go missing not fishing, and are never found again, I, coming from a gun culture, suspect foul play. In Iceland, they graciously point to the lava fields and suggest elves.

So I don’t indict the young airport officer for his trust. I applaud it. The failing is mine. It started, I think, with the Tylenol tampering incident years ago, escalated with the Bernhard Goetz/New York subway vigilante shootings, and matured with Columbine, so that my own mistrust, like that of so many North Americans, has hardened like lava hardens in Iceland.

It makes me think I want to come not from a gun culture but from an elf culture.

Posted in Fiction, Guest, History, International, Real Crime, Setting, Writers, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment