MYSTERY ART

I spent part of this week looking over comments on the Readers Award ballots EQMM received for the 2015 awards. One reader suggested that we institute an award for artwork—covers, interiors, or both. In general, I think honoring artists is a wonderful idea, although currently the terms of an award would be difficult to craft, since we have been shifting back and forth between photographs and paintings for our covers, and even the paintings we use nowadays (in this era of internet-available stock art) often are not original to our magazine. That said, we greatly value the contributions of our artists and photographers, and I want to devote this post to some reflections about mystery art/illustration.

EQMM’s earliest cover artist, and art director, George Salter, was one of his generation’s most distinguished illustrators and book designers. When his own original work wasn’t featured on our covers of the 1940s and ’50s, he brought in other top names in the field, people like Ed Emshwiller, who is probably best known in the world of science fiction, but who also did work for mystery publications. In 1954, Milton Glaser, an artist who would become one of this country’s most famous designers, debuted as a published artist with a cover for EQMM. In celebration of EQMM’s 75th anniversary there will be an exhibit at Columbia University’s Butler Library (mid September through mid November 2016), which will include some of this art. And our September/October 2016 cover will feature entirely new art by Milton Glaser.

Given that mystery magazines and books once used many of the same illustrators who worked in the science fiction field, it’s interesting that over time art appears to have become less important in the mystery field while maintaining its status in science fiction. One piece of evidence for the prestige artists enjoy within the science fiction fan community is that the Hugo Awards include not one but two art categories: Best Professional Artist and Best Fan Artist. Science fiction also has the Chesley Awards and the Spectrum Awards (winners of the latter published in a yearly art anthology). Mystery’s Anthony Awards, by contrast, include an art category only intermittently: By my count, just seven times in the history of the awards have Best Cover Art nominations been sought (the last time in 2009). Left Coast Crime, one of the smaller mystery conventions, instituted the Arty, a Best Cover Art award, in 2003, but I have not seen it listed as a category recently. There’s no question, I think, that mystery falls short of science fiction in its acknowledgement of the work of its visual artists.

Notice too that those Hugo Awards are given to the artist, rather than for a particular piece of art. I wonder how many mystery fans could even name an artist currently working in our field. Authors may know the names of the artists who worked on their own book covers, but there don’t seem to be many artist names that are generally known in our field anymore—certainly not in the way they were known in EQMM’s early days.

It’s good to be reminded that art was once more central to the mystery. A 2003 show at the Brooklyn Museum gathered a number of the few hundred paintings that survive from the pulp cover art of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s—a lot of it in the mystery field. Though most of the artists of that period were paid little for their work, painting over their own canvases once a cover had been shot to save the price of a new canvas, many enjoyed large reputations. Artists like Raphael DeSoto, who did many mystery covers, had their work booked a year or more in advance. EQMM’s George Salter had an international reputation and did book covers for a number of famous authors. I hope there will be another major show of that sort before long, so that a new generation will be made aware of the work of these classic genre artists.

For a number of years (roughly from 2003 to 2010) EQMM used reprints of classic pulp and early digest-magazine art for its covers. For a time, readers responded well, and we received an exceptionally large number of letters thanking us for bringing the work back. But in time, we began to get requests for a change, and I had to agree that it was due. In search of a new and distinctive look we transitioned largely to noir-style photographs inset in a solid background with type. And most recently, with the beginning of 2016, we have returned to full-cover art—mostly paintings—with a wider range of subject matter in the images than is typically found in pulp art.

It is tempting to think that mystery art reached a peak during those pulp and early digest-magazine years that it hasn’t been able to equal since. My guess is that it’s the themes and subject matter of that period that would come to most people’s minds if they were asked what typifies a mystery illustration. But there are many very talented artists working in the field today, and their work deserves wider recognition. One reason they often get overlooked may be that there isn’t a specific “look” that can be identified with the present day that also proclaims itself to be about mystery—not in the way that a dame in a bar, smoke rising from her cigarette, could do that on a pulp cover, anyway. You don’t even need the props of a gun or knife or poison once that classic scene is set.

I’d very much like to know what our readers’ views are about cover art, and which styles of art our readers like best. Please don’t hesitate to give us some feedback about our new cover look, and about what you find most evocative in a mystery cover. You’ll find a few examples here of EQMM covers from different periods of our history, and also some samples of the work of the artists who do interior illustration for us. Please weigh in!—Janet Hutchings

salter

Cover art by George Salter, 1940s.

emsh

Cover art by Ed Emshwiller, 1950s.

emsh22-EQ0154

Cover art by Ed Emshwiller, 1950s.

Cover art by Milton Glaser.

Cover art by Milton Glaser, 1950s.

Cover art, 1974.

Cover art, 1974.

Celebrity cover, 1980s.

Celebrity cover, 1980s.

Cover art, 1997.

Cover art, 1997.

Cover with photo inset.

Cover design with photo inset, 2012.

Interior art by Allen Davis, December 2015.

Interior art by Allen Davis, December 2015.

Interior art by Mark Evan Walker, August 2014.

Interior art by Mark Evan Walker, August 2014.

 

Posted in Awards, Business, Ellery Queen, Genre, History, Illustration, Magazine | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

“What I Know” (by Steven Gore)

Steven Gore last posted on this site on July 8, 2015, just as the EQMM issue that contained his story “Black Rock” was going on sale. The private investigator turned author of short stories and seven novels (the latest of which is White Ghost, from William Morrow, March 2016) returns today with some reflections about “the emperor of all maladies” and how it has entered into his crime fiction.—Janet Hutchings

The great crime novelist Ross MacDonald wrote about his protagonist, “I wasn’t Archer, exactly, but Archer was me.” So it is with Graham Gage, the protagonist of White Ghost (William Morrow, March 2016). Not only do Gage and I share the same sense of the world and walk the same moral landscape, but he knows the rough ground of crime and the hard people who make it so only because I traveled there and learned it all before him. And he knows how to live in the shadow of death only because that shadow fell over me first.

As I approached my seventh novel, it seemed to me it was time to display at least some aspects of what that life is like. And not for my sake, but for others who live, have lived or will live, or who will die, in that shadow. And what I learned over the last fifteen years of biopsies and chemotherapy, of examining rooms and hospitals, of radiology labs and infusion centers is that contrary to the mythology of panic and terror, of collapse and paralysis that surrounds cancer, we carry on. Except for those who have been inflicted with forms that are too disabling or who survive only weeks or months—we carry on: Mothers mother. Fathers father. Workers work. Sellers sell. Writers write. Doctors doctor. Liars lie. Cheaters cheat. Predators prey.

We are who we are and do what we do.

Regardless of what our initial reaction to the diagnosis might have been—rage, fear, resignation, self-estrangement, or self-pity—it fades.

Regardless of the promises we might have made to ourselves—to be kind or generous or Zen-like in our equanimity—we return to whoever we’ve always been.

Regardless of the ways in which we might have viewed ourselves—as patients, victims, sufferers, warriors, or survivors—in the end we rediscover who we’ve always been.

Regardless of the ways we think the world has been changed and remade—brighter or dimmer, engaging or indifferent—in the end we find it is the same world and we are the same in it—

And we carry on.

All this should be obvious. And it certainly is, inside infusion rooms and radiation oncology departments and in all the other places where patients are diagnosed and treated. But outside, in fiction and in memoir, on talk shows and in films, and in the cottage industry of self-help and popular psychology, the mythology lives on. And White Ghost is partly an attempt to combat it.

The adversity Gage faces in the novel is more urgent than mine, a chronic and often treatable, but ultimately incurable form of lymphoma. The oncologist’s original prognosis of my time from diagnosis through treatments to death turned out to be overly conservative and I rode, am still riding, the prognostic bell curve, first traveling up and then down the sweeping arcs, and now along the thinning tail. Indeed, I worked for another nine years in scores of places around the globe before I reached the sort of moment in Gage’s life when the story begins.

But by then I was transitioning from investigator to writer and whatever discomforts I underwent in treatment were compensated for by my undergoing them in the company of my wife and in the comfort of my home. My commute was no longer to my office downtown, but only to a converted bottom-floor bedroom. My lunch, just a short climb up the stairs. A nap, just one more flight.

While there is never a good time to undergo cancer treatment, my two years began during a busy period. I was performing the final edits of the first Gage book, finishing and editing the second one, and writing the second Harlan Donnally novel. It also occurred while I was investigating a homicide that occurred ten years earlier, one of my last cases.

According to the local police department, a young man in his twenties, found dead in a basement, had been beaten by drug dealers a few weeks earlier and had died of his untreated injuries. During the intervening decade, no one had been arrested, no suspects even identified. The case was old, cold, and closed.

It had been many years since I’d worked in the tough parts of the Bay Area. My practice had developed into one that found me working more often in London, Kiev, or Chennai than in San Francisco, Oakland, or San Jose, and investigating this death meant for me, as for Gage in White Ghost, going to once familiar places and relying on people from the past to catch up to the present.

In searching the housing projects, skid-row motels, and drug corners for witnesses, I found myself surrounded by death, and not only because of the reminders provided by my continuing visits to the Stanford Cancer Center. Driving around those streets was like walking through a cemetery, one not made up of headstones and crypts, but of sidewalks and corners, streets and alleys, front steps and backyards, empty lots and abandoned houses, each a reminder that many of those in the generation I once knew and on whom I had once relied to get me to the facts behind the tales were dead.

As I was talking to an old-timer outside the liquor store at Eighth and Campbell in West Oakland, I thought of Stymie Taylor, a damaged man who’d spent much of his life in prison, but who many times knew someone or something that helped me get to the truth. I stopped in to visit his mother, who had been at his bedside when he died. By then she’d outlived four of her children. She told me Sunday dinners had become a time of empty chairs.

Driving past a drug-dealing spot in East Oakland, I thought of Henry Scott, a cunning man who’d done a lot of bad in his life. I saw him last when he dropped by my office about a dozen years ago. I’m not sure why he came to see me and I’m not sure he knew why either. I was long out of his world, but by his walk and his talk, I understood the place he still held in it. I told him if he stayed in the Bay Area, he’d be a dead man; and a couple of months later he was, shot down outside a bayside nightclub.

And there were many more. Way too many more.

I passed the corner flower shop near the Sixty-Fifth Avenue housing project, within gunshot distance of hundreds of murders in the previous thirty years, and I remembered a sign I’d seen in the window in 1986: Funeral Sale. There are so many things wrong with that phrase, so disturbing anyone would even think it, I’ll just let the image of that storefront speak the thousand words for itself.

I drove through the once infamous intersection of Ninety-Eighth and Edes where in 1989 I had been trapped as men shot at each other from opposite corners. At least I’d had my car’s sheet metal around me. The people running and ducking didn’t. Six rounds were exchanged in seconds, the gunfight was over, and the shooters fled, leaving nothing behind but lead and a memory.

Hairless, fatigued, pale, infused with chemotherapy drugs, and on the hunt for witnesses, I walked into the courtyard of an apartment building where I had been told one was living. It was also where years earlier a drug dealer had me at gunpoint. It struck me that if he’d pulled the trigger I wouldn’t have lived to die of cancer. I saw where I’d been standing and where he’d been standing, a dead strip of concrete on which there had occurred a live moment. I remembered his hand coming up out of his pocket and the look in his eyes.

They say cancer is the emperor of all maladies. At least on that day, it wasn’t. It was a man with a gun.

In the end, it had turned out to be just another day in the life. He went his way. And I went mine.

Ultimately, I located witnesses who told me that the men who had beaten the victim and inflicted the injuries that led to his death weren’t drug dealers at all: They were undercover police officers, and the homicide detective assigned to the investigation had known it almost from the start.

Based on the testimony of these witnesses and admissions by some of the officers involved, a federal judge later ruled that the department had engaged in a decade-long cover-up. In truth, the injustice went far beyond the death and the conspiracy. Not only did the detective remain in the homicide unit even after his role in the case became known inside the police department, but upon his retirement, the district attorney, the chief law enforcement officer in the county, hired him to work as an inspector in her office. And the lieutenant who supervised the officers, who was present at the time of the assault and who engaged in what the department admitted was an attempt to influence officers’ reports of the beating, was assigned to head the internal affairs unit and promoted to the rank of captain.*

I considered using the death of this young man as the basis of a Harlan Donnally novel, but unlike the mayors, city council members, judges, prosecutors, police chiefs, and city managers who served during these years, no reader of fiction would tolerate this kind of ending. And many of these endings have there been. The recent unjustified police killing of Laquan McDonald in Chicago is another. It, too, was followed by an attempt to conceal the truth. Not only the officer who did the shooting, now charged with murder, but five other officers on the scene claimed in their reports that McDonald “was aggressively swinging his knife and was moving toward the police” at the time he was shot. The video, to the contrary, shows he was walking away.**

The readers of my Harlan Donnally series understand my view of how law enforcement and political structures can develop in which these immoral and criminal practices become institutionalized, so I won’t repeat that here. But the issue does raise the question of the role of crime fiction in public discourse and returns us to the point of White Ghost.

I certainly had mixed feelings about taking it upon myself to try to demythologize cancer. A writer reflecting on his own illness in print, even in fiction and by way of a character, is uncomfortably like those politicians, sports figures, and celebrities who rush to afternoon talk shows the day after receiving their cancer diagnosis to exploit the mythology in order to prompt and then accept the public’s sympathy. I think that’s why I waited fifteen years and seven books before I decided to take this on. I finally concluded that I should make the attempt because, simply put, the argument was worth making and it was probably a good idea for someone with a little experience to make it. The bad news about having cancer for fifteen years is that you’ve had cancer for fifteen years. The good news is that you have time to learn a few things. And one of those things you learn is that those with cancer—whether investigators, plumbers, parents, programmers, or politicians, sports figures, and celebrities—carry on: We are who we are and do what we do.

Some of Gage’s thoughts in White Ghost are ones I had as I searched for witnesses, and they are at least some of the thoughts all cancer patients have as we carry on. Among other things, it meant thinking about time and what is worth spending it on and a reminder that the young man whose death I was investigating died at about the same time as I was first diagnosed. His life was stolen, beaten out of him by fist and boot, but mine remained—it still remains—my own to spend. And at least some of that time I chose to spend walking Graham Gage and Harlan Donnally, and their readers, through the landscape on which I have lived much of my life.

In the end, the decision to publish White Ghost was driven by the recognition that the connection between Gage and me in illness is not much different than the connection between Gage and me as private investigators: both inform my fiction, just as both have informed my life.

Writers are told to write what we know, and this is what I know.

* The death is well documented in court rulings and news reports: Northern District of California, Docket No. C 09-01019 WHA, The Estate of Jerry A. Amaro III; Geraldine Montoya; Stephanie Montoya, Plaintiffs, v. City of Oakland; E. Karsseboom; R. Holmgren; S. Nowak; M. Battle; C. Bunn; M. Patterson; T. Pena; Edward Poulson; Richard Word, Defendants. United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit, Docket No. 10–16152, The Estate of Jerry A. Amaro III; Geraldine Montoya; Stephanie Montoya, Plaintiffs–Appellees, v. City of Oakland; E. Karsseboom; R. Holmgren; S. Nowak; M. Battle; C. Bunn; M. Patterson; T. Pena; Edward Poulson; Richard Word, Defendants–Appellants. “Court-Oakland Cops Stonewalled Beaten Man’s Mom,” San Francisco Chronicle, July 28, 2011.
**  http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/06/us/officers-statements-differ-from-video-in-death-of-laquan-mcdonald.html: “At least five other officers on the scene that night corroborated a version of events similar to the one Officer Van Dyke, now charged with murder in the shooting, gave his supervisors: that Mr. McDonald was aggressively swinging his knife and was moving toward the police, giving Officer Van Dyke no choice but to start shooting.”
Posted in Books, Characters, Fiction, Genre, Guest, Thrillers, Writers, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Report from Baker Street” (by Steve Steinbock)

Steve Steinbock is well known to EQMM readers. He has been the magazine’s regular book reviewer since 2011 (relieved twice a year by longtime EQMM reviewer Jon L. Breen). In EQMM’s March/April 2010 double issue he debuted as a fiction writer with the story “Cleaning Up.” Most of his literary output to date, however, has been in the critical field. In addition to his regular EQMM column, he has written a variety of articles and conducted several interviews for our magazine. Steve is also an editor of note. His latest project is the recently released The Future is Ours: 31 Tales of the Fantastic by Edward D. Hoch (Wildside Press, TPB $14.99, HC $29.95), which contains science fiction, horror, and alternate history stories by one of the most important contributors in EQMM’s history. Steve’s introduction to the book completes a volume all Ed Hoch fans will want to have.—Janet Hutchings

I was in New York last week for the annual Baker Street Irregulars Dinner. I was invited on behalf of EQMM. For years, EQMM’s February issue has been a celebration of Sherlock Holmes, and each year, for the Baker Street Irregulars (BSI) dinner, we have provided copies of that issue for all attendees. The invitation came from Mike Whelan, the president of BSI, who said the organization wanted to show their appreciation to EQMM for our support of the organization and our enthusiasm for Sherlock Holmes.

I’m getting ahead of myself. There may be some readers unfamiliar with the BSI.

In Conan Doyle’s original stories, there was a band of street urchins, led by a boy named Wiggins, whom Sherlock Holmes would enlist to help in his search for clues. Holmes referred to the kids as the “Baker Street Irregulars.” In 1934, essayist/journalist Christopher Morley gathered a dozen or so men Holmes aficionados, including novelist Vincent Starrett and actor/playwright William Gillette, for a dinner in New York to celebrate the “Great Detective.” And the BSI, one of the world’s preeminent literary societies, was born.

Membership to the BSI is rather elite. Each year a few new members are admitted based on their scholarship, participation in smaller “Scion” societies, and dedication to all things Sherlockiana. Each new member is given a title or nickname taken from the Conan Doyle canon. This process is called “Investiture.” The BSI did not admit women as members until 1991.

It was quite an honor to be invited to the dinner, and so I was excited to attend.

I took a “red-eye” flight from the West Coast on Tuesday night. I’m one of those people who can only fall asleep in a bed, so the likelihood of getting any rest on the way to New York was slim. One of the challenges of arriving for an event so early in the morning is that hotels rooms are usually not available for checking in until the afternoon. In this particular case, very late in the afternoon. So I was terribly tired by the time I got into my hotel room. As I unpacked I discovered that the socks and underwear I’d set out for myself were probably in my closet back home, since they were nowhere to be found in my luggage. I also realized that my tuxedo trousers were probably in same closet, still on their hanger, and not with the rest of the tuxedo in New York.

I would have to do some shopping.

The Sherlockian weekend got off to a start with the Distinguished Speaker Lecture on Thursday night. This year’s speaker was playwright and screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher, author of the stage plays Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Suicide Club, as well as the screenplay for the 2015 film Mr. Holmes starring Ian McKellen. Hatcher gave a thoroughly entertaining talk about the various castings of Sherlock Holmes on stage, film, radio, and television. He told various personal anecdotes, including experiences working with Ian McKellen, and a time when the playwright had to step in and play the role of Holmes in one of his plays when the lead actor, for medical reasons, was unable to perform.

When I arrived, I was at first lost in a sea of unfamiliar faces. Peggy Purdue, curator of the Arthur Conan Doyle Collection at the Toronto Reference Library, whom I’d met and worked with several times in the past, helped me out by making a few introductions. But soon I spotted a number of old friends, including Terence Faherty, S.J. Rozan, Jan Burke, and Dana Cameron, all of whom should be familiar to EQMM readers for their short stories. Leslie Klinger, the attorney responsible for the “Free Sherlock” Supreme Court case was there, as was novelist Lyndsay Faye and Sherlockian scholar Peter Blau.

Friday evening I dressed up in my tux. My pair of black chino slacks went well with the rest of the tuxedo. I prayed that the lighting would be dark enough that no one would notice.

At the dinner itself, I found myself assigned to a table directly in front of the stage, seated with an impressive array of tablemates, including BSI President Mike Whelan, BSI Board members Tom Francis and Bill Vande Water, Jeffrey Hatcher who was the distinguished speaker from the previous evening, novelist/screenwriter Nicholas Meyer, and Pulitzer Prize winning Washington Post writer Michael Dirda.

To my left sat Bert Coules, a BBC playwright/producer who had adapted the entire Sherlock Holmes canon for BBC Radio. Coules’ credits also include radio adaptations of work by Val McDermid, Ian Rankin, G.K. Chesterton, and Ellis Peters.

The Program consisted of various rituals, songs, and speeches. Bert Coules spoke about Edith Meiser, an actress and maverick radio writer/producer who brought Sherlock Holmes to radio in the 1930s and 40s.

Since this year marks twenty-five years since women were fist admitted into the Baker Street Irregulars, there were several entertaining presentations celebrating women’s roles in the organization.

It was also during the dinner that I was invited to the lectern where I was given a plaque. It reads:

A Tip of the Deerstalker
to
Ellery Queen
Mystery Magazine
For many decades our friends at EQMM have
published a special Sherlock Holmes issue early
each year and donated large numbers of copies for those
attending The Baker Street Irregulars Weekend. How
prescient they have been in recognizing the truly
amazing longevity of literature’s most enduring and
popular character. Also, we fully appreciate EQMM’s
reviews of our Baker Street Irregulars Press titles.
with gratitude
The Baker Street Irregulars
January 15, 2016

My voyage home turned out to be as venturesome as my trip there. A light snow fell on New York City on Sunday morning. It wasn’t a lot, but it was enough to delay my departure from JFK by two hours. Six hours after that, I arrived at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport just in time to miss my connecting flight. And so I spent the night at SeaTac, wandering the empty terminals, pausing to read, work, and sip coffee. It gave me plenty of time to consider my takeaway from the BSI Weekend.

I was struck by the membership’s intellectual demography. This was a group that consisted largely of academics, attorneys, business executives, and other professionals, all of whom possessed a playfulness as well as a strong attraction to the workings of the mind, as demonstrated in the Sherlock Holmes stories.

The attendees also demonstrated a profound dedication to the literature of Sherlock Holmes and to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. This was a very literary group, to be sure. But their focus was Doyle and Holmes, the stories, the characters, and the world of a London lit by gas street lamps and echoing with the clap-clap of hansom cabs.

My final observation about this group and their organization was attention to history. I don’t mean the history of late-Victorian and Edwardian England, although that is certainly something that the attendees appreciated. I mean to the sense of history of their organization. The entire event was punctuated by rituals, songs, and retrospection. One of the major activities of the Baker Street Irregulars is archiving their own history, and they do this with joy through oral histories, photographs, and preservation of documents. I had the impression that the BSI’s exclusion of women members for its first 57 years was for reasons of sexism or male chauvinism—not entirely, anyway—rather it was out of respect for tradition. This respect for tradition even came through as various speakers talked about their own defiance of tradition in 1991 that led to the change in the BSI’s membership policy.

I hope to return to some future BSI event. I also plan to explore local Sherlockian gatherings. Most importantly, I’ll look back to my first BSI dinner with fond memories of warmth, mental cogitation, and a love of a very specific history.

Posted in Awards, Books, Characters, Conventions, Fiction, Genre, Guest, History, Holmesian | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“Drunks on Character” (by Suzanne Berube Rorhus)

Suzanne Rorhus got her start as a writer in EQMM’s Department of First Stories in May 2013. Since then, her work has appeared in several anthologies, including Memphis Noir. Her next EQMM story, “Cletus Vanderbilt and the Theft of Lord Ashbury,” scheduled for March/April 2016, is very different in style and mood from her earlier piece for us; it’s a humorous tale, set in her native South.  Suzanne is an alumna of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. In this post she deals inventively with several topics of interest to writers—and to readers as well.—Janet Hutchings

Charles Dickens, Aristotle, and Elmore Leonard walked into a bar. Charles removed his top hat and ran a hand through his white hair. “What weather!” he said. “I could use a drink.”

Rollo, the joint’s bartender for the last thirty years, hailed them. “Well, look who the wind swept in! You three look like the setup to a lousy joke.”

“Go polish some glasses, Rollo,” Charles said. “Are you going to serve us or not?”

“Sure, sure, just sit anywhere. No need to get snippy.” Rollo turned his back on the group and focused his attention on the football game displayed on the small television mounted over the bar.

“That Rollo. He’s such a character,” Aristotle said, seating himself at a small, battered wooden table in the corner.

“He never changes,” Elmore said. “Such a card.” After sitting, he reached for a cocktail napkin from the dispenser on the table and used it to wrap up the wad of gum he’d been chewing.

“Is that your definition of a character?” Charles said. He removed his pocket handkerchief and rubbed a spot on his chair. “That he be unique and never change?”

“Well, that’s a useful definition for a stock character like a bartender,” Elmore said. “He needs to be drawn in a few quick strokes. He needs to be real enough, even though he isn’t worth more than a line or two to the story.”

“Who are you calling worthless?” Rollo said. He approached the table bearing a tray laden with their usual drinks; beer for Elmore, ale for Charles, and wine for Aristotle. He passed out the drinks, sloshing each one.

“No one says you’re worthless,” Elmore said. He wiped up the spilled beer with a handful of napkins and tossed the sodden mess onto the center of the table.

“Though in fact you are,” Dickens amended.

“But your part in the story’s drama is so minor as to be nonexistent,” Elmore said. “A flat character like a bartender, unless the story is about a bartender, is more comparable to a piece of furniture than a person. Similar to a hat rack, he is worth describing but not worth dwelling on.”

Rollo wiped a tear with the back of a massive paw. “That’s kind of harsh, don’t you think? Calling me a hat rack? I have a mother, you know. I have friends. I won third prize in the science fair in fifth grade. I’m a person, not a hat rack.” He sniffled then snorted up the phlegm that threatened to leak from his nose.

“I’m sure you are an interesting person once we get to know you,” Charles said. “And maybe, just maybe, you could be the protagonist of your own story someday. But in our story, you’re just background noise. The purpose in sketching you lightly is to give the impression of “person-ness” without wasting a great deal of space. Like the tip of an iceberg, see?”

“So I’m a waste of space and a huge hunk of ice? In addition to being a hat rack? I hope you gentlemen weren’t planning on ordering a second drink. Your custom isn’t welcome here.” Rollo stalked off, leaving the three men staring at his back.

“Well, you’ve done it now, Charles. You’re a regular Scrooge. Why’d you have to go and hurt his feelings?” Elmore took a long pull on his drink.

“You’ll need to apologize,” Aristotle said. “I wanted to order appetizers.”

After further urging, the two men persuaded Charles to follow Rollo to apologize and to place their order for hot wings, a soft pretzel with honey mustard, and mozzarella-cheese sticks.

Once Charles was out of earshot, Aristotle turned to Elmore. “Is it me or is Charles becoming crankier with age?”

“Not just you. His character arc is diving right into the toilet.”

“I guess that makes him the protagonist,” Aristotle said. “If you are saying that he is the one who most changes during this narrative.”

“Hogwash,” Elmore said. He scooped up a handful of peanuts and shoved them into his mouth. “I’m the hero of my own story.”

Aristotle selected a nut. “We are all the center of our own universes, are we not? Even Rollo believes that the stars and planets revolve around himself.”

Charles lowered his considerable bulk onto his chair. “Happy now? He hugged me, can you believe that?”

“Did you catch The Big Bang Theory?” Elmore asked, eager to change the subject. “I’ve been watching reruns. Last night I watched the episode where Sheldon Cooper waxes poetic about the value of science.”

“Ooh, I missed that one,” Aristotle said.

“It’s a classic. Sheldon said science ‘tears off the mask of nature and stares at the face of God.’”

They paused their conversation while Rollo tossed the baskets of food onto the table. A chicken wing flew out and bounced off Aristotle’s knee, leaving a smear of wing sauce on his toga.

“Isn’t Sheldon an atheist?” Charles asked. He pulled a hunk of pretzel from the napkin-lined basket and dunked it in the mustard before shoving it into his mouth.

“I like the statement” Aristotle said, “but as much as Sheldon hates the humanities, I could argue that it applies to literature as well. Science looks at the face of God as it smiles on the physical world, but literature shows the face of God as reflected within the heart of man.”

“But as an atheist, Sheldon would deny that man is created in God’s image,” Charles said. He waved a second piece of soft pretzel, showering himself and his companions with drops of mustard.

“Which begs the question,” Aristotle said, rubbing his face with a napkin, “do writers create characters using a mirror or a lamp? Is a created character a secondhand reflection of reality or a revealed aspect of reality?” Aristotle chose a mozzarella stick and carefully dipped its tip into the marinara sauce.

“That’s pretty deep, Aristotle,” Charles said. “The mirror or the lamp? I’m going to need another ale.” He waved at Rollo, who studiously ignored him.

“I go for the reflected reality method myself,” Elmore said. “My characters represent real people I’ve met. Each character is an amalgamation of several different people who exist in the real world. I watch people carefully and observe how they react to various situations. My characters are real because they reflect real people.”

I’m not sure I agree, my dear boy,” Charles said. “My characters aren’t based on real people. They resonate with readers because they ARE real people, illuminated on the pages by me, granted, but existing in their own right. Take Miss Havisham, for instance. Do you really know anyone who has sat for years in her wedding dress because she was jilted at the altar? Come on, think about it. Day and night, for years? Does she put that filthy thing back on after she bathes? Does she sleep in it? Miss Havisham is unique, as are we all. She isn’t an amalgamation of anything. She is a person, flawed in her own way but given life by her creator. Me.”

“So you’re God, in other words?” Elmore asked. “I never visualized God as having mustard stains on his suit jacket.”

Charles brushed at the stain in question. “Writers are like gods, no heresy intended. We create people, worlds, entire universes from nothing. Writers not only write about what is, but also about what could be.”

“True,” Elmore conceded. “And like God, we are responsible for the internal logic of our universes. Characters must have internal logic as well. You said so yourself, Aristotle.”

“That characters must be consistently inconsistent? Yes, I believe that, whether the characters come from the mirror or the lamp. They need to be ‘true’ to themselves.” Aristotle waved a thin finger in Rollo’s direction.

“Yes, sir?” Rollo asked.

“Another round, please,” Aristotle said. He sipped the last of his wine.

“Coming right up, sir.”

“The aim of art, though, is to represent not the outward appearance of things but their inward significance.” Aristotle gestured, trying to demonstrate. “What matters is how things should be or could be, not how they are.”

“Wasn’t that Plato’s big beef with literature?” Elmore asked. “He said it was a poor imitation of reality, which is itself an imitation of how things really are, which is something only the gods can know.”

“Plato, dear Plato,” Aristotle said, shaking his head. “With all due respect for my teacher, he got some things wrong. Literature helps us understand real life by imitating it. Just as the child learns to be an adult by imitating adults, so do we learn about human nature by studying imitations of other humans. Characters, in other words.”

“Remind me to tell Plato you said that the next time I see him,” Charles said, drinking a healthy swallow from his second beer. “He’ll write you up in one of his dialogues and beat you to death with it.”

“Exactly my point. His dialogues were themselves an imitation of reality. Where does he get off knocking literature?”

Elmore stroked his chin thoughtfully. Finding a spot of mustard there, he licked his finger. “Plato taught history and stuff. Doesn’t history teach us about human nature? Some of my favorite crime stories have that ‘ripped from the headlines’ quality to them.”

“History is merely a mirror, reflecting what has occurred. Fiction, on the other hand, sheds light on the significance of what has occurred. It is only through fictional characters that we can spend time in another person’s mind. How bleak and desolate a world it would be if we were confined only to our own heads!” Aristotle tapped his brow. “Literature allows us access to the mind of the writer and the minds of his characters. Art can take the events described in history, filter them through the writer’s consciousness, then display them through characters to give them deeper meaning. The reader sees the ‘why’ and the ‘to whom,’ not just the ‘what happened.’”

“You can’t just flop a character down on the page,” Elmore said. “One of my writing rules is to avoid detailed descriptions of characters. Or of places and things, actually. You’ve got to leave out all the parts that sound like fancy writing, because readers tend to skip them anyway.”

“You need some description,” Charles said. “Otherwise you have people just talking inside a black box.” He snaked a hand inside his vest and scratched an armpit. “Anyway, a good description should tell you something about the character.”

“Meaning only ugly people can be criminals?” Elmore said. “That’s stupid. Plenty of attractive crooks in prison.”

“Take Tiny Tim,” Charles said. “He is, well, tiny, and he’s disabled to boot. Those aspects of his description represent his vulnerability. Scrooge wouldn’t worry as much about Bob Cratchit’s strapping teenage son. The story would be different if Tiny Tim were a barrel-chested youth dashing about the countryside filled with youth and vigor.”

Elmore held up his hands placatingly. “Easy, pal. No need to get your knickers in a twist. I’m not one of those critics who think your characters are one-dimensional.”

Charles jumped to his feet and roared, “One-dimensional? How dare you, sir?”

Elmore laughed. “Come on, you have to admit that Scrooge had no hobbies other than being a miser. He didn’t collect stamps, for example. At least the miser in Silas Marner got to play with his gold coins. Scrooge just had entries in a ledger book.”

Charles slapped his hat onto his head. “You are such a connoisseur of misers? I’ll leave you with the check then. Good day!” He stomped out, slamming the door behind him.

“Such a hot temper,” Aristotle said. “But you do him a disservice, you know. His characters are created with great care.  Each is realistic, meaning each acts while wearing the mask he must wear to comply with what society expects. Their natures are revealed to the reader through their speech and actions.”

“We’ll have to agree to disagree on that, my friend,” Elmore said. He tossed a few bills onto the table and drained the last of his beer. “I have to go. It was good catching up with you. We’ll have to do this again sometime.”

He left Aristotle sitting alone, sipping his wine and watching the game on TV.

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“Faster, Miss Marple! Kill! Kill!” (by Catherine Robson)

Catherine Robson’s accomplished debut fiction, the short story “Just Desserts,” appears in EQMM’s January 2016 issue, in the Department of First Stories. The Southern California native is a lifelong fan of the mystery in all of its forms, as is evident from the following post. She also has a longstanding interest in classic cinema, and once worked in the film industry. Her current novel-in-progress, set during the time of the Hollywood blacklist, draws on her knowledge of both. —Janet Hutchings

When I was eleven, my brother took me to a Russ Meyer film, unbeknownst to my parents, of course. It was Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! That evening ranks in my memory with seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Women in Love, as moments of awakening that were at once disturbing and ecstatic. There was a huge world out there beyond my very conservative and rather repressed family, and I wanted to explore it. Decades later, I came upon an article about Meyer and it started me wondering just what his outré films might have in common with my favorite genre and with authors like Agatha Christie.

The theories about why we love mysteries are legion. My own reasons have always had something to do with the comfort of having resolution and some measure of justice, for a few hours at least, in contrast to real life where we have precious little of either. But now that I’ve lived a bit and have reached “a certain age” there’s a deeper allure in the pages of mysteries: the chimeric nature of the characters that inhabit them, the revelations of secret motivations and misunderstood actions, the characters we hate whose hidden virtues are revealed, Snape-like, in their final moments, and the heroes who turn out to be false.

The noir incarnations of the mystery are, not surprisingly, just my cup of tea, or acid. As I write my mystery set during that very noir era in our recent past, the Red Scare and the blacklist, the similarity between political delusion and self-deception was always on my mind, and deception and illusion are the heart and soul of mystery.

Perhaps I love this aspect of the mystery because I’m such an incompetent judge of character. I remember taking a personality test decades ago and rating a zero on the judgment scale. It was not a mistake. Being analytic to a fault combined with an overweening imagination has meant that I am skilled at seeing both sides of an issue, and also at fabricating a myriad of excuses for a friend’s lies or a lover’s betrayal. It also makes it hard to decide what color to paint the bathroom. While some project their shameful, shadow selves onto others unjustly, I’ve tended to do the opposite, assuming that most people share my better qualities and can be trusted to act accordingly, a prescription for disaster. Calling a lout a lout is not easy for me. In that respect I’m the perfect mystery reader, always ready to nibble at each red herring and gasp at each revelation of truth.

Mysteries are an apologia for the confusing and illusory nature of human beings, and for that reason I find great comfort in them. Unlike other species who are remarkably dependable as a whole, humans are unpredictable, whimsical and inconsistent. When I pick up a good mystery, I know I’ll find a kindred spirit, either in the narrator, the protagonist, or another character, because they will share my questions, ambiguity and confusion.

Of course, talking in general about mysteries is a bit absurd, so varied and unruly are its incarnations. From Hammett, Cain, and Chandler, to Christie and P.D. James, I’ve been an omnivorous consumer. If there is a common denominator it may be that, more often than not, there is a body. Even people like me who are dedicated pacifists, animal and human-rights advocates who take every spider outside and donate indefatigably to charities, seem drawn to a genre filled with corpses and violent offenders. In terms of depth psychology, this makes perfect sense, of course. Our shadow selves want a voice lest they wreak real-world havoc, another benefit of fiction in general. As a writer, I’ve discovered that no matter how quaint or innocuous my initial ideas are, every short story or novel seems to gain a body along the way. For this reason, I will probably never become a children’s book author. It’s for the best.

As for Russ Meyer, king of the sexploitation film who, as far as I know, never wrote a cozy, and Agatha Christie, whose Miss Marple nevertheless dealt with similar themes of sex and violence, their settings, styles and effects on their audiences couldn’t be more different. My taste lies firmly with the latter, but then I prefer 1940s peplum suits and a strong cup of tea to leather pants and whiskey.

Yet, Russ Meyer with his Amazonian lasses, and Agatha Christie with her decorous and tasteful protagonists, have both brought us victims who rise triumphant from oppression and wreak the kind of vengeance about which we may fantasize but which we, quite rightly, do not allow ourselves to seek. So, Faster, Miss Marple! Deduce! Deduce!

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HAPPY NEW YEAR FROM EQMM

Cover of EQMM, January 1985

Cover of EQMM, January 1985

Cover of EQMM, January 1987

Cover of EQMM, January 1987

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HAPPY HOLIDAYS FROM EQMM

Festive Wall Street

Festive Wall Street

The New York Stock Exchange

The New York Stock Exchange

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OUR DIAMOND ANNIVERSARY YEAR

Last week, EQMM January 2016, the first issue in our 75th year in continuous publication, went on sale. I hope you’ve seen it!

In celebration of this diamond anniversary year, special features are planned for each of the 2016 issues. Before we close out 2015, I’d like to give you a preview of some of what’s coming up . . .

Our January issue opens with a reprint of a classic Ellery Queen story—one new to EQMM!—and in all subsequent issues we’ll be bringing out treasures from our own archives. They include February’s Robert Arthur tale, which won EQMM’s third-annual contest (1948) in the best Sherlockiana category; March/April’s reprint of the original story William Faulkner entered into EQMM’s first-annual contest in 1946; the story editor Frederic Dannay was often heard to say had made him famous, the first English translation of the work of the great Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, which we’re reprinting in May; and an award-winning tale by EQMM’s beloved longtime contributor MWA Grand Master Edward D. Hoch, for the June 2016 issue. (We’ll announce more From Our Archives stories as their issues get closer.)

Several themed issues are ahead too, including March/April’s nod to a goal stated in the manifesto for EQMM: “to raise the sights of mystery writers generally to a genuine literary form.” Many of the stories in this jam-packed spring double issue are by writers with feet in both the mystery genre and the world of mainstream literature. In May, in commemoration of the “All Nations” issue of August 1948, we bring together stories from all continents but Antarctica, most in translation, all revealing how interconnected the world of crime fiction has truly become. June 2016 celebrates the Mystery Writers of America with stories exclusively by writers who have won one of the MWA’s awards, the Edgar or the Robert L. Fish Award. In July, authors who got their start in our Department of First Stories claim the spotlight; even if you didn’t see their EQMM debuts in years past, you’ll know who most of them are now! August is dedicated to EQMM’s past editors, with articles about the lives and editorial contributions of Frederic Dannay, Manfred B. Lee, and Eleanor Sullivan, plus a short story in which Fred Dannay stars as sleuth, in a case involving Dashiell Hammett.

And September/October? That’s the issue we’ve chosen to correspond to “Fall 1941,” EQMM’s first issue—therefore, the designated “anniversary issue.” We’re going to keep to ourselves for a little while longer some of the special contents of that issue, except to say that its cover is a new work by famed American artist and designer Milton Glaser (whose first published art was a 1954 cover for EQMM) and to let you know that the scene will be set by an article from Marv Lachman on the world of 1941—the literary setting and the wider environment into which EQMM emerged, on the brink of the America’s entrance into World War II.

A number of nonfiction pieces in the 2016 issues focus specifically on EQMM’s history. What has made this especially exciting is that information not previously available to us was unearthed recently by Ellery Queen biographer Jeffrey Marks at the Library of Congress, including the original contract for EQMM (between Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee and The American Mercury Press) and the transcript of an oral-history recording in which EQMM’s first publisher, Lawrence Spivak (best know as the founder of the TV show Meet the Press) talks frankly—and surprisingly—about how the idea for EQMM came to him.

In addition to the year’s special issues, our anniversary celebration will include a two-month EQMM exhibit at Columbia University’s Butler Rare Book and Manuscript Library, from mid-September to mid-November 2016. The library’s excellent curators have a wealth of edited manuscripts, correspondence, and art to choose from, and we hope those in reach of New York City will stop by and have a look.

Also coming up is a half-day symposium hosted by Columbia University in September 2016. Stay tuned here for the date, topics, and participants—we should have it all finalized soon.

It’s due largely to our intelligent readers and talented writers that we’ve reached this happy milestone in the magazine’s history, and as we close out another successful year (something I find a little bittersweet!) and launch into 2016’s celebrations, I want to thank all of you, on behalf of all of us at EQMM, for coming on this journey with us.

Happy holidays! —Janet Hutchings

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“A Great Book, but Please Don’t Read It” (by W. Edward Blain)

Ted Blain (whose fiction byline is W. Edward Blain) has been a contributor to EQMM for twenty years this month, having debuted for our magazine with December 1995’s “The Director’s Notes.” “The All-Nighter,” his latest EQMM tale and his first locked-room story, will appear in our March/April 2016 double issue. Though Ted is primarily a short-story writer, he is the author of two mystery novels, the first of which, Passion Play (Putnam, 1990) was nominated for a best first novel Edgar Allan Poe Award in a year when the competition included the first novels of Walter Mosley and Patricia Cornwell. For twenty-five years Ted has been the chairman of the English department at Woodberry Forest School, in Madison County, Virginia. When he isn’t teaching or writing fiction, he’s often directing plays. His post paints a vivid picture of how literature first got hold of him.—Janet Hutchings

Last week I received an email from a former advisee, now a college freshman, who said that he was compiling a personal reading list and wanted to know what books have changed my life. As an English teacher, I get these requests fairly regularly, and I always comply despite how daunting I find the task. The more I read, the more I recognize that the relationship between text and reader is frighteningly personal. I love The Scarlet Letter, but I didn’t read it until I was thirty years old. If that novel and I had met when I was, say, eighteen, our relationship would have been bristly. I know my eighteen-year-old self, and he would have resisted even the most eloquent blandishments of Hester Prynne, Arthur Dimmesdale, and Roger Chillingworth. He still sometimes murmurs an objection when the Puritan children exclaim, in language that no living child has ever uttered, “Behold, verily, there is the woman of the scarlet letter, and of a truth, moreover, there is the likeness of the scarlet letter running along by her side! Come, therefore, and let us fling mud at them!”

So I’m invariably cautious when I recommend a work to another reader, particularly to a younger one. I teach high-school seniors, and when we read Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk or Pride and Prejudice or Henry IV, Part 1, I remind my students that they do not represent the target demographic for these writers. High-school readers are eavesdropping on a conversation intended for others, and they should remember not to blame the book if they struggle to follow it. With trepidation, therefore, I sent my advisee two titles that had spoken to me in my youth. One was Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, which I read for the first time at seventeen, and which awed me with its mingling of humor and profundity, its exhilarating revelations at the end, and its resilient and principled protagonist. The other title was Franklin W. Dixon’s While the Clock Ticked, Number 11 in the original Hardy Boys series. Ironically, however, I told him not to read the latter novel, even though I love it and unashamedly cite it as a book that changed my life.

We might consider the Hardy Boys series to be comparable to the upper register of sound waves, those that we lose the ability to hear as we age. The books in this series belong to a large family of works that speak intentionally and solely to the young. I met the Hardy Boys when I was nine years old. Until then books to me were thin, broad folios with lots of illustrations and minimal text. Here, however, delivered into my naive hands by an older cousin while I recuperated in bed from the flu, was a bound volume that looked like the kind of book read by grownups, a thick quarto consisting almost entirely of text but with a teasingly lurid jacket depicting two boys bound and gagged as a sinister adult stepped out of a secret hiding place behind a grandfather clock. I opened it. I began to read. And, somewhere early in Chapter One, that book changed my life. I forgot about the flu, forgot about the bed, forgot about the noise coming from my sister and brother elsewhere in the house. I was fully immersed in the adventures of two intrepid brothers, boys who never argued with each other the way that I did with my siblings, but who pooled their talents to solve nefarious crimes while putting their lives at risk. Almost from the moment I started to read that book, I experienced the kind of ekstasis that writers from Sophocles to Stephen King have generated in their audiences. As soon as possible I went back and read every single Hardy Boys adventure in order of appearance. I knew nothing about the Edward Stratemeyer Syndicate, and I had no idea that Franklin W. Dixon was a pseudonym for Leslie McFarlane and others who fleshed out Stratemeyer’s plot summaries to create the series. I knew only that Frank and Joe Hardy were as real as any friends and that their world was one that I never tired of entering.

When I sit down to write a story and everything is working right, I return to that trance-like experience of being somewhere else. I’m not the first writer to call it going inside, and while it’s not always easy to get there, it’s excruciating to be yanked out of that place prematurely. A pinging email, a phone call, the neighbor’s kid practicing his trumpet outdoors—any innocuous interruption can be exasperating. The movie Trumbo delivers a heartbreaking scene during which Dalton Trumbo’s sixteen-year-old daughter confronts her father for working through her birthday party. He’s not willing to stop writing even for a minute, not even to watch her blow out her candles, and when she does interrupt him, he explodes. When I watch that scene, I sympathize with both characters. Of course the daughter deserves to have a shred of attention from her father on her birthday if he’s there in the house and healthy. But Trumbo the writer had gone inside, and he was furious at being pulled out.

I’m forever grateful to the Hardy Boys for introducing me to the intensity of that inner life and, in the process, for schooling me in the elements of crime fiction. But while I still have all those Hardy Boys books on my shelf, I can no longer bear to read them. The prose is cringingly stilted; the characters, flat; the plots, ridiculous; the villains, obvious and cliched; the dialogue, banal. No matter. These books served their purpose. They taught me to love reading, and they taught me how to tell a mystery story. When I was an undergraduate English major, revering The New Yorker and dreaming of becoming its next John Updike, I was afraid to write fiction because I sensed that my work would never be as good as the stuff I was reading. I think lots of English teachers suffer from the malady of comparing themselves to the immortal writers they love and teach. How could I ever write a novel like Tom Jones? How could I ever write a passage like any paragraph in Faulkner’s “The Bear”? We know that we’re never going to create another Heathcliff or a Milkman, so we quit trying to write anything at all. That’s a mistake. The Hardy Boys remind us that the primary purpose of reading is to take the reader elsewhere, and if the entertainment happens to take the form of a murder mystery, there’s no need to apologize. Catch-22, I realize years later, is a mystery novel—the mystery of Snowden’s death in the back of the plane, the mystery of Orr’s disappearance at sea, the mystery of Yossarian’s struggle to survive in a bureaucracy that wants to absorb his soul. And what are Hamlet and Crime and Punishment—two works that my students read as “eavesdroppers” last year—if not studies of murderers and the detectives who are on to them? Half a century ago Clifton Fadiman described Oedipus Rex as the strangest murder mystery of all time, one in which the detective isn’t even aware that he himself is the murderer. Maybe not all mysteries qualify as great literature, but they can lead us to read the deepest, greatest mysteries, the ones we never tire of revisiting, even when we know whodunit.

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“The Good, the Bad, and the Criminally Stupid” (by Rob Brunet)

Rob Brunet turned to writing crime fiction after running a “digital-media boutique” for twenty years. His short fiction and reviews have appeared in a number of publications, including the Toronto Standard, Shotgun Honey, and the latest Bouchercon anthology, Murder Under the Oaks. His first EQMM story, “The Hunt,” appeared in the February 2015 issue and readers will very shortly see another tale from him in our pages. 2016’s February issue, on sale next month, contains “Skinny’s Beach.” Like Rob’s previous story for us, it’s evocatively set in the Kawarthas, in rural Ontario.  What impresses me most about Rob’s work is his keen sense of place; his settings play almost as important a role in his fiction as his characters do.—Janet Hutchings

One particular pleasure in writing crime fiction is the opportunity to deliver justice on the page. Think how often you’ve heard a variation of, “Be careful not to tick her off or you’ll wind up murdered in her next book.” But if your writing centers on the criminal’s story, as mine often does, you don’t want to be constantly slamming your characters. And even authors whose protagonists live firmly on the right side of the law work hard to make criminals real and believable—with motivations readers can understand even if they’d never empathize.

I spend a lot of time hanging around in my mind with the kind of people I’d rather avoid in real life. Part of my job is getting to know them, figuring out what makes them tick, and how they rationalize their actions. It could be that’s what makes me look at real criminals a bit differently than I otherwise might. I’m not talking about truly evil people—who I realize do exist—but people who find themselves in situations that drive them to do things they otherwise wouldn’t. Or for whom the line between right and wrong has been shifted a bit off-center based on where they live and what they’ve experienced.

Before someone picks up on the fact I’m Canadian, and suggests I must be somehow preternaturally polite and tolerant, I think a quick examination of Canadian crime might be in order. We’ve got our fair share of dark and nasty types, whether you want to talk serial killers, fraud artists, bikers, or street thugs. I won’t start listing them here because they don’t deserve the attention, but a quick online search will be enough to convince people our reputation for rough edges isn’t limited to the hockey arena.

And while one particular big city mayor stole international headlines a couple years ago with antics that would have been deemed unbelievable by any crime-fiction editor, he found himself in good company. Or, bad company, rather. At the time, about a half-dozen other mayors across the country were under investigation or facing charges for everything from raiding the municipal piggy bank to running long-term kickback schemes tied to organized crime. Yeah, we’re all pure as driven snow.

I’m not trying to equate municipal corruption, or the partying antics of our political elite, with the kinds of crime that lands even Canadians in maximum security, but when I’m looking for fodder for a short story or my next novel, the newspaper coughs up inspiration by the bucket load.

And behind each of those stories is a person who made choices, moral or otherwise.

Like the guy who whacked his neighbour—and we’ll never know for sure why—with a baseball bat. He might have got away with it had he not returned to the scene of the crime a few days later to steal what he could from the dead man’s rural home. The car, in particular, looked like it was worth a few bucks. He took a buddy along with him because, as any good thief will tell you, four arms are better than two. When asked before a judge why he’d knocked off his one-time friend, the man explained that he’d taken his bat to defend himself against the man’s dog, and the dead man was just . . . unlucky.

Tell me there’s not a story in that.

If the killing was deemed manslaughter, and I believe it was, the killer is likely out of prison by now. And if he’d like to stay out, he’d be well-advised to give up on thieving. Or any crime where success is based on good decision-making skills.

Of course, apart from the more-accomplished cat burglars, bank robbers, or fraudsters, sound judgment isn’t something a lot of criminals seem to possess. And even the best of them can mess things up pretty bad.

One of my favorite failures in Canadian crime lore happened a couple years ago west of Toronto. Five seriously committed bank robbers spent several nights breaking into a bank vault. Working after bank staff had gone home for the day, they accessed it through vacant office space upstairs. They used acetylene oxygen blowtorches, sledgehammers, and concrete saws to cut through two feet of reinforced floor. They were smart enough to disable electronic security systems and eventually got their hands on the loot.

But what happened next was more like a Guy Ritchie flick.

It seems there was a secondary alarm inside the vault itself—something they’d failed to disarm. Fair enough, nobody’s perfect. The cops showed up and were bewildered. The building was secure, with no evidence of broken glass or movement inside. Still, something had tripped the alarm, so after bank staff showed up and everyone agreed something bad must have gone down, they called in the canine unit.

In no time, the police dog tracked the burglars to their hiding spot. And yes, that’s the right name for it. Like any bunch of kids playing neighborhood hide-and-seek, the bank robbers had hidden themselves up a tree. Beside the bank parking lot. You can imagine them shushing each other among the branches as the cops ran their building checks. Maybe they were planning on going back to work once the heat had cooled? I mean . . . all those safety-deposit boxes . . . all their planning . . . maybe they didn’t want to give up.

The worst part? The tree they were hiding in was next to a railroad track. You know, one of those lines that cuts through a neighborhood that would have let them disappear into the night without walking down the road where, understandably, they might have feared running into a cop wondering what they were doing there, all dusty- and sweaty-like in the middle of the night.

But, who knows. Perhaps these guys were novices. Out-of-work construction workers—a bit of an oxymoron in hypergrowth Toronto these days, but whatever. Maybe they were just a bunch of regular guys looking to make a quick buck so they could send their kids to one of them fancy private schools.

Far less excusable is a major fail by people who call themselves professional outlaws—or, rather, the police call them that. The same week those earnest bank robbers got caught up a tree, two serious bad guys with motorcycle gang ties escaped from a jail north of Montreal via helicopter. No comedy here. This was serious action-thriller material. They swung from a rope dangling from the stolen chopper and were swept away to deep forest north of the city.

Pretty impressive so far. Except what happened next suggests the planners ran out of napkin to write on. Because once in cottage country, they approached a cabin, kicked its occupants out, and . . . and what?

You can imagine the conversation.

“Hey, guys. Welcome to freedom. We brought beer.”

“Great, what’s the plan.”

“Plan?”

“You got us out. What next?”

“Next? Talk about ungrateful. You know how hard it is to hijack a helicopter?”

“Yeah, but where are we gonna go?”

“We ordered pizza. Should be here any minute. The kind you like.”

Within hours, they were back in custody. Not that the people they kicked out of the cabin had anything to do with the police finding them.

Stories like this make me curious. What is it that makes criminals, petty or otherwise, take the kind of risks most of us manage to avoid? What would the world be like if more of the bad guys were smarter? Is it only the dumb ones who get caught?

And when so many of them create situations where they’re bound to fail, is it really all that bad if a few of them get away? For the next story, I mean. We all need material.

Posted in Adventure, Characters, Fiction, Guest, International, Pop Culture, Real Crime, Story, Writers, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments