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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That miniscule dot is Bahrain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Books, Characters, Fiction, Guest, International, Police Procedurals, Setting | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From “Black Rock:”

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

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


[1] Social ontology is generally associated with the work of John Searle, Margaret Gilbert, Raimo Tuomela and others and with the social ontology groups and centers at UC Berkeley and Cambridge.
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EDWARD D. HOCH’S “PAUL REVERE’S BELL”

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

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POETS AND SLEUTHS

Jeffrey Marks’s recent post about Frederic Dannay’s famed collection of mystery books closed by saying that in his later years, after donating his mystery collection to the University of Texas, Dannay began to collect books of poetry. Dannay, who was, of course, the founding editor of EQMM and half the Ellery Queen writing team, wasn’t just a collector of poetry, however. He wrote poetry as well as mysteries, and he shared that confluence of literary interests with many other great writers in the mystery field, beginning with the father of the mystery, Edgar Allan Poe.

In the 1960s Fred Dannay compiled a collection of mystery stories by famous poets entitled Ellery Queen’s Poetic Justice, which still has a place on the shelves in our offices. When I first discussed this topic, on the forum of EQMM’s Web site several years ago, it was still possible to access online an article by Martin Edwards called “Poets as Crime Writers.” Though it seems no longer to be available online, interested readers can find the piece in the Oxford Companion to Mystery and Crime Writing, edited by Rosemary Herbert. Martin Edwards remarks in that article that poets turned mystery writers are “presumably . . . attracted to a literature that shares with much poetry the importance of form and structure.” In his introduction to Poetic Justice, Dannay points to a similarity that appears to go deeper, and to have to do with substance as well as form: For him, both poets and fictional detectives are trying to make order out of chaos.

Among the poets whose stories Dannay collected in Poetic Justice were Sir Walter Scott, Dylan Thomas, Stephen Vincent Benét, Conrad Aiken, Ogden Nash, and Walt Whitman. Martin Edwards mentions several other important poet/crime writers, some from mystery’s Golden Age, in “Poets as Crime Writers,” but concludes: “No one, however, has worn the two hats of poet and crime writer more successfully than Cecil Day-Lewis. Under the pseudonym Nicholas Blake, he created the detective Nigel Strangeways, a character based on W.H. Auden. Blake’s finest novel is probably The Beast Must Die (1938), but he continued to write mystery novels until shortly before his death in 1972, despite his continuing commitment to poetry, which culminated in his appointment as Poet Laureate.”

As one would expect, there are many notable poet/crime writers who don’t get a mention in either Dannay’s book or Edwards’s article, including, from mystery’s classical period, Mary Roberts Rinehart. And if a new volume of Poetic Justice were being compiled today, it would certainly include the work of contemporary poet/crime writers such as John Harvey, Ken Bruen, and Peter Robinson.

The connection between poetry and crime fiction isn’t just that many poets have penned prose mystery stories or novels, however. Another intersection of poetry and crime writing is the mystery or crime story told in verse. The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the earliest known works of literature, was an adventure/suspense story told in poetic form. And the tradition of telling adventure/crime stories in verse, which continued through the ages, could be found even in EQMM until the 1990s through the work of John F. Dobbyn (who eventually turned to prose fiction). Mystery stories in verse are now mostly found only in books for children, but I suspect there might be more writers producing such poems for adults even now if crime-fiction publications existed that could easily accommodate the special typesetting needs of long poems (something not easily done in a magazine formatted such as EQMM is)—and, of course, if reader tastes still ran as strongly as they once did to verse.

Yet another junction of poetry and mystery occurs via some of mystery’s iconic fictional characters. Think of those fictional detectives who are portrayed as either lovers of poetry or writers of it: most notable in the former category Robert B. Parker’s Spenser and in the latter P.D. James’s Adam Dalgliesh. Contemporary writer Qui Xiaolong, born in Shanghai but currently a U.S. resident, followed in the tradition of the detective with poetic sensibilities when he created his poetry-reading Chief Inspector Chen—and it is really not so surprising that the author should have taken this direction when you consider that before turning to crime writing he was a translator of the poetry of T.S. Eliot, among others.

Now here’s a bit of a mystery—at least to me. By some estimates, the mystery/crime/thriller genre accounts for nearly half of all fiction book sales in the U.S. each year. Our genre is clearly one of the bestselling of all genres if that estimate is even close to accurate. Books of poetry, on the other hand, tend to fall into the least-purchased category, with most titles selling only a few hundred copies. If poetry and mystery have so many compelling crossing points, how is it that the rising popularity of the mystery book seems to have coincided with the slumping popularity of the poetry volume?

With that question piquing my curiosity, I would love to know how many of the devoted mystery fans who follow this site are also avid readers of poetry. . . . —Janet Hutchings

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“Woody, Clint, and Dutch: Three American Masters, Each With a Long-term Commitment to Crime Fiction” (by Kevin Mims)

If you read Kevin Mims’s last article for this site, you know that he’s something of an expert on the crime novels of the great pocket-paperback era. It turns out he’s also a devotee of crime movies; here are his picks for the three most important figures in that genre.—Janet Hutchings

Few American pop-culture icons remain active and relevant in their chosen field for very long. Most pop-culture icons are associated with a particular decade, even if they managed to put together a career that spanned a half century. We associate Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner with the 1960s. Nothing they did after the original Star Trek series was ever quite as important. We associate Olivia Newton John and Burt Reynolds with the 1970s. Writer Jean Auel was a 1980s phenomenon. Pearl Jam was a 1990s phenomenon. Only a handful of the artists who survived long enough to not only see this current decade but also to make an important cultural contribution to it were also culturally relevant in all of the previous six decades. That handful, you could argue, consists of only three men: Clint Eastwood, Woody Allen, and Elmore Leonard. Yes, I am aware that Tony Bennett recorded his first number-one record in 1951, but he has never had anywhere near the pop-cultural cache that Eastwood, Allen, and Leonard have all achieved. Likewise, writer Lawrence Block has a distinguished publishing career stretching all the way back to the 1950s but, alas, he is a household name only to connoisseurs of great crime fiction. The average American couldn’t pick him out of a lineup.

Elmore Leonard’s first published story appeared in Argosy magazine in 1951. If we argue that no one really hits the cultural big time in America until he’s discovered by Hollywood, then we can date Leonard’s true cultural relevance to 1956, the year of his first credit on the Internet Movie Database. Woody Allen’s first IMDb credit dates back to 1956 as well. Clint Eastwood’s first IMDb credit is from 1955. In essence, all three of these men first crept into the public eye within the span of about a year.

Eastwood didn’t make a big splash until 1959, when he began costarring in Rawhide, a popular Western TV series. Leonard’s first big splash came in 1957, the year that two of his Western stories were made into films, The Tall T (from a story called “The Captive”) and 3:10 From Yuma. Allen first gained pop-cultural relevance when he began writing gags for TV performers such as Sid Caesar, Phil Silvers, Buddy Hackett, Jack Paar, and Ed Sullivan in the mid to late 50s. Born in 1935, Allen was more precocious than either Leonard or Eastwood. He began selling jokes professionally while still a teenager. Eastwood was born five years before Allen and Leonard was born five years before Eastwood, but they all hit the big time in the same decade.

The decade of the 1960s was a big one for all three men, though it certainly wouldn’t prove to be the acme of any of their careers. Allen’s first feature film as both writer and director, Take The Money and Run (a title befitting at least half of Elmore Leonard’s crime novels), was released in 1969. Eastwood’s legendary collaboration with Sergio Leone began in 1964 with the release of A Fistful of Dollars. And in 1969 Leonard made one of the most important transitions of his career when he switched from being a writer primarily of Westerns to being a writer primarily of crime novels. That was the year The Big Bounce, his first crime novel, was published.

You could argue (many have) that Allen’s career peaked in the late 1970s with the releases of Annie Hall in 1977 and Manhattan in 1979. Other prominent Allen titles of the 1970s include Love and Death, Sleeper, Bananas, and Play it Again, Sam. But of Allen’s 24 Academy Award nominations, 17 have come after the end of the 1970s. Three of them have come in the current decade. His work in the 1980s included such masterpieces as Hannah and Her Sisters, Zelig, The Purple Rose of Cairo, and Crimes and Misdemeanors. I would argue that Allen, who will turn 80 this year, remains one of America’s most prominent, and relevant, filmmakers. His most financially successful film is Midnight In Paris, released earlier this decade.

Although the 1970s were huge for Leonard, his biggest decades were still to come. Four of the novels he published in the 70s (Fifty-Two Pickup, Swag, Unknown Man # 89, and The Switch) have been collected for posterity in a Library of America edition of his works. Likewise, four of his novels of the 1980s (City Primeval, Glitz, LaBrava, and Freaky Deaky) have received the same honor. The decade of 1990s was arguably his peak as a novelist. That was the decade during which he became celebrated by writers outside the crime/mystery genre. In 1995, Martin Amis reviewed Riding the Rap in the New York Times Book Review and declared that Leonard possessed “gifts—of ear and eye, of timing and phrasing—that even the most indolent and snobbish masters of the mainstream must vigorously covet.” Saul Bellow was also a fan. Two of Leonard’s best crime novels—Get Shorty and Out of Sight—were published in the 1990s, both of which became critically acclaimed films. It was also the decade in which he introduced the American public to Deputy U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens, inarguably his-best known fictional creation. Givens first appeared in the novel Pronto, but made his biggest cultural impact in the FX network television series Justified, which is based on the Leonard short story “Fire in the Hole.” Justified will almost certainly stand as Leonard’s most widely known contribution to popular culture (the series was developed for television by Graham Yost). Leonard’s novel Pronto, published 22 years ago, has generated a mere 152 user comments on Amazon.com. The TV series Justified has generated 15,984 Amazon.com comments, roughly 100 times more than Pronto’s total. The series debuted in March of 2010 when Leonard was still very much alive and active. He received a writing credit on four of the episodes. Although Leonard died in August of 2013, the series remained on the air until April 2015. To the very end it remained popular with viewers and critics alike.

It’s difficult to say which decade of his career was Eastwood’s most successful, but there’s no question that his most commercially successful production was last year’s film American Sniper, which earned $349 million dollars at the domestic box office. Most of that money was earned early in 2015, making this year arguably Eastwood’s most successful. Of his eleven Academy Award nominations, ten have come in the last dozen years.

Elmore “Dutch” Leonard, Clint Eastwood, Woody Allen. The three men share many attributes, both bad (messy personal lives) and good (tremendous critical and popular success), but there is no doubting that all three have shared a strong commitment to crime fiction that dates all the way back to the 1960s. In Leonard’s case, the commitment to crime fiction is self-evident. Most of his published oeuvre is in the crime genre. Likewise, Eastwood’s most iconic film role is the character of “Dirty” Harry Callahan, the San Francisco police inspector he played in five films between 1971 and 1988. And Dirty Harry was far from Eastwood’s only contribution to crime fiction. As a director he has brought the work of many noteworthy crime writers to the screen, including novelists Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane, and David Baldacci (Eastwood and Elmore Leonard collaborated on the film Joe Kidd, a 1972 western starring Eastwood, written by Leonard, and directed by John Sturges). Play Misty For Me, Eastwood’s directorial debut, was a crime thriller. His filmography bulges with work in the crime and mystery genres: Escape From Alcatraz, Tightrope, Pink Cadillac, The Rookie, In The Line of Fire, A Perfect World, Absolute Power, True Crime, Blood Work, Mystic River, Gran Torino, and so forth.

Ask someone to associate Eastwood or Leonard with a particular genre of fiction and they are likely to mention either the Western or the crime story, although Eastwood, at least, has done plenty of work in other genres such as the romance (The Bridges of Madison County), the spy thriller (The Eiger Sanction, Firefox) and the war film (Heartbreak Ridge, Where Eagles Dare, American Sniper). Ask the average American to associate Woody Allen with a particular genre and they are likely to answer “film comedy” or perhaps “romantic comedy.” What many people seem to overlook is the fact that Allen has written and directed more crime films than many directors who are far better known for their work in that genre. As I noted earlier, his directorial debut was the comic crime caper Take the Money and Run (technically his debut was What’s Up, Tiger Lily?, but that spoof is primarily an overdub of a Japanese film directed by Senkichi Taniguchi). His film Sleeper is the story of a man on the run from a gestapolike organization in a futuristic police state. Broadway Danny Rose is about a talent agent involved with the mob. Crimes and Misdemeanors, Manhattan Murder Mystery, Bullets Over Broadway, Small Time Crooks—the very titles of those films scream out “crime story!” The Curse of the Jade Scorpion is about a jewel theft, Match Point is a tale of illicit sex and murder, Scoop is a supernatural murder mystery, Cassandra’s Dream is a dramatic tale of murder and its aftermath, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger includes a character who plagiarizes a dead man’s unpublished novel, and Blue Jasmine deals with a woman’s struggle to survive after her wealthy husband is jailed for multiple financial crimes. Even when he takes an acting job in some other director’s film, Allen seems to be drawn to crime stories. In Martin Ritt’s film The Front, Allen plays a man who attracts the attention of the FBI and the House UnAmerican Activities Committee after he agrees to fraudulently represent himself as the author of TV scripts that were actually written by writers blacklisted for their ties to communism. In Alfonso Arau’s 2000 film Picking Up the Pieces, Allen stars as a butcher who murders his unfaithful wife, chops her body into pieces, and buries them in a New Mexico desert. In the animated film Antz, directed by Eric Darnell and Tim Johnson, Allen voices a character who is falsely accused of being a war criminal. In John Turturro’s Fading Gigolo, Allen plays a pimp. Even much of Allen’s lighter comedic fair has some element of criminality in it. In Magic in the Moonlight, for instance, the main character, played by Colin Firth, is a magician who is trying to expose a con woman, played by Emma Stone. In Deconstructing Harry, a distraught woman (played by Judy Davis) attempts to murder her ex-lover (Allen) by firing a gun at him. Mighty Aphrodite involves a prostitute and her violent pimp. Shadows and Fog involves the search for a serial killer. What’s more, Allen has spoofed detective fiction in numerous prose pieces written for the New Yorker. These include such comic gems as “The Whore of Mensa,” “Mr. Big,” “Match Wits with Inspector Ford,” “This Nib for Hire,” “How Deadly Your Taste Buds, My Sweet,” and “Above the Law, Below the Box Springs.”

Clint, Dutch, and Woody. Until recently, all three were still walking the earth and still very much an important part of the contemporary cultural scene. It’s curious that three men who spent so much of their lives crafting stories about lives cut short by murder would themselves live such long and productive lives. Dutch is no longer with us, but Clint and Woody remain professionally active to this day. With luck, we may get another decade or two of work out of them. Let’s hope that at least some of that work is in the crime genre. Few filmmakers have done it better.

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“Books to Die For” (by Jeffrey Marks)

Jeffrey Marks is one of the best-known contemporary biographers working in the mystery genre. After writing numerous short mystery-author profiles he produced his first book-length biography, Who Was That Lady?, in 2010. It chronicles the life of mystery writer Craig Rice, and the research for it inspired him to write about other authors from the same era in Atomic Renaissance: Women Mystery Writers of the 1940s/1950s. His more recent biographical works include Anthony Boucher, which won an Anthony Award and was nominated for an Agatha; a newly completed biography of Erle Stanley Gardner; and his work-in-progress, a biography of Ellery Queen, which he draws on for this post.
Like many dedicated fans, historians, and critics of the genre, Jeffrey also writes fiction. His recently published novel The Scent of Murder was a past winner of the yearly Malice Domestic Grant for unpublished writers.—Janet Hutchings

No man has done as much as Fred Dannay for the short form of the mystery since Edgar Allan Poe wrote “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” in 1841. Dannay is better known as half of the team who wrote the Ellery Queen mysteries as well as the first editor of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. However, another aspect of his life is equally important; his superlative short-story collection revolutionized the genre.

Dannay’s knowledge of the short form of the mystery was unparalleled. In part, this was because he possessed a stellar mystery short-story collection. Dannay was a born collector. In 1941, he determined that of the 360 known mystery short-story collections, he personally possessed copies of 300 of the books. He had his own group of collectors in every part of the country, scouring used bookstores for the volumes he didn’t yet have. However, Dannay did not collect just to own “a copy.” He collected to own “the copy.” As a result, his collection was one of the finest in the country.

Dannay wasn’t selfish about these works. He shared the content of his collection through a series of themed multiauthor anthologies, including Rogues’ Gallery and The Female of the Species. 101 Years’ Entertainment, published in 1941, was undoubtedly the best of the Queen anthologies. As well as being a collection of the best stories over the past century, the anthology included a brief narrative of the genre thus far.

His first forays in writing about the genre led to other works related to mystery short stories. By the 1940s, little critical research had been done and there was not much literary scholarship of genre fiction. The genre was still relatively young and had not received much respect from scholars.

Dannay used his collection to develop a bibliography of the mystery short story. The Detective Short Story: A Bibliography allowed others to look at what had been published and gave a description of each volume’s appearance. While not complete, the book was an important first effort in defining the works in the genre.

Dannay wrote to a friend:

Except for Scribner’s catalog and Bates’ and Carter’s article on the detective story, there is virtually no printed information available. Mine would be the first bibliography in the field—the first comprehensive attempt. It should become an important book—and because I think it will, I’m willing to go to the terrific trouble to do the job.

Dannay soon found that his ebullience over the collection and its uses had a downside. Booksellers who had heard of Dannay’s plans soon began increasing prices on the volumes he needed. While Dannay made good money writing as Ellery Queen, he did not have unlimited funds for the demands of his collection.

Dannay was not finished with writing critical works about his collection. Queen’s Quorum, which is subtitled A History of the Detective Crime Short Story as Revealed in the 100 Most Important Books Published in This Field Since 1845, which appeared nearly a decade after the bibliography, explained why these books were worthy of mention and contextually placed them in the history of the genre.

These two books helped enlarge academic scholarship on the mystery genre and led to biographies of many of the important authors of the twentieth century (including my works) as well as surveys on the genre and specific eras. In no small part because of these works, the mystery genre is now taught at many universities.

Ironically, the books that Dannay did not possess were first editions of his own novels. While he professed to be keeping copies of all of his own works for his sons, by the early 1940s Dannay had given away all his personal copies of The Roman Hat Mystery. As a result, he turned to others to look for and purchase copies of that title as well as the short-story collections.

For anyone who wants to see Dannay’s priceless works from our favorite genre, the collection was donated to the University of Texas in Austin in 1958 and now resides in the Harry Ransom Center at the university. A recent exhibition showed off the collection and some of the rarer pieces, which include:

  • Beeton’s Christmas Annual, from November, 1887 which published the first appearance of Sherlock Holmes, A Study in Scarlet. Now called the most expensive magazine in the world with a recent copy selling for over $150,000.
  • The Hound of the Baskervilles in the original dust jacket, one of the most pristine copies of the century-old book in existence
  • The original hand-written manuscript of the first Sherlock Holmes story, “A Scandal in Bohemia,” which includes letters from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s biographer, John Dickson Carr, regarding Doyle’s handwriting
  • Austin Freeman’s John Thorndyke’s Cases, the British edition from 1909 and the author’s personal copy
  • The Mysterious Affair at Styles, first edition signed by Agatha Christie. Christie was notoriously reclusive, and any edition signed by her is automatically rare. Unsigned first editions of her first book currently run $5000 or more.
  • Dorothy L. Sayers’s first novel, Whose Body? signed by the author to her parents, Reverend and Mrs. Sayers.

At this juncture, the sheer number of mystery short- story volumes produced means that Dannay’s collection could never be replicated. The prices alone would require the fortune of Bill Gates. And even then, many of the best copies of early works are now snatched up by museums, rare-book libraries, and dedicated collectors, leaving only a few lesser copies of the books available to collectors.

So what does a collector do once he gives away his life’s work? He begins collecting again. After donating his works to the Harry Ransom Center, Dannay, a poet himself, began to collect volumes of poetry. He continued to add to his collection until his death. The collection was sold at auction posthumously.

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“How to Read Disreputably” (by Kevin Mims)

Kevin Mims is a short-story writer and essayist whose stories have appeared in many literary magazines and in EQMM and AHMM. His essays have appeared in the New York Times and many other newspapers. He last contributed a post to this site almost exactly a year ago. He returns with a piece focused entirely on reading and readers. It will bring back some vivid memories for those of us who used to carry “pocket books” around in pockets or bags.—Janet Hutchings

When I was a lad I enjoyed reading in literary genres that were regarded as disreputable: crime fiction, sci-fi, fantasy, western, film novelizations, true crime, etc. Back then, serious books tended to be published in hardback editions and in so-called “quality” paperback editions, the latter being larger than traditional paperback books and printed on paper that wouldn’t turn yellow with age. Disreputable literature, on the other hand, was most commonly found between the covers of small paperback books. These were called “mass market” paperbacks or “pocket books” because they could literally be stuffed into the back pocket of one’s jeans. Thin collections of short stories by the likes of Ray Bradbury, Fredric Brown, Ernest Haycox, and H.P. Lovecraft were staples of my literary diet. Likewise, paperback novels by such luminaries as Alistair MacLean, Agatha Christie, Isaac Asimov, and John D. MacDonald could frequently be seen bulging in my back pockets.

One problem these days is that there are no disreputable literary genres anymore. Grown women unashamedly sit in the bleachers and read semiliterate soft-core porn (Fifty Shades of Gray) inspired by silly juvenile fantasy fiction while waiting for their daughters’ soccer practice to end. Grown men avidly read books that recast Abraham Lincoln as a zombie hunter. In the 1960s and 70s only nerds could be seen carrying around tattered paperback copies of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy novels. Now respectable businessmen and -women eagerly devour the latest installments of multivolume fantasy cycles by the likes of George R.R. Martin and Diana Gabaldon in an effort to stay one step ahead of the prestigious big-budget television miniseries based on those tomes. Many of these pillars of the community are reading their Fifty Shades books and Vampires vs. Zombies books on e-readers, which make it impossible for the person sitting across from them on the subway to determine if they are reading Stéphane Mallarmé or Stephenie Meyer. Thus you might conclude that one advantage of the e-reader is that it has made it possible to read disreputable literature in public without fear of being caught at it. But I don’t think this fact is important to most of those who use an e-reader. The truth is that few people these days are ashamed to be caught reading trashy books.

In the old days, reading a tattered, yellowing paperback bedizened with a lurid cover was a way of letting your freak flag fly. It allowed you to announce to the world that you didn’t give a damn about what the cultural snobs thought. And the beauty of it is that much of what passed as pop detritus back in the 60s and 70s is now actually recognized as a truly valuable contribution to Western culture. Tolkien’s fantasies are now taken seriously as literature. Likewise, genre writers such as Patricia Highsmith, Elmore Leonard, and Jim Thompson, who were mainstays of the pulp-fiction mass-market paperback racks in the 60s and 70s are now regarded as masters of the American idiom. Their books are now published in classy looking trade-paperback editions and their lives are the subjects of serious literary biographies. Time has vindicated many of my own freak flags. The snobs who looked down their noses at me as I read my paperback copy of Leonard’s Mr. Majestyk on a Portland, Oregon, bus back in 1976 now probably speak admiringly of Leonard’s pitch-perfect ear for the way America’s hustlers, grifters, and losers speak. But plenty of my paperback heroes still remain unappreciated. It seems unlikely that the literary snobs will ever embrace the likes of Fredric Brown or Ernest Haycox or Lewis B. Patten despite the many pleasures to be found within their prolific output of novels and short stories. That’s their loss. The point is that the cheap, yellowing, pocket paperback was a uniquely satisfying physical object. The spines tended to be stiff, which meant that it took a bit of effort to hold the book open. The pages tended to absorb odors, which meant that they sometimes smelled vaguely of cigarette smoke or the musty old garage in which the book resided before you bought it for five cents at a yard sale. Blocks of print were occasionally slightly askew on the page, so that one paragraph might be out of alignment with the paragraphs below and above it. Sometimes the print at the far left side of right-hand pages and the far right side of left-hand pages tended to get sucked into the vortex at the center of the book like light being sucked into a black hole. This forced the reader to hold the book with both hands and splay it apart like a mousetrap that one was setting. Occasionally the reader had to squint at the places where some previous owner’s sweaty thumb had washed away some of the printer’s ink. Sure, these imperfections were frequently annoying, but the hardship of reading a cheap paperback generally added to the sense of accomplishment one felt upon finishing the book. Cheap paperbacks could be not only intellectually demanding at times but also physically demanding. All of these physical demands are lost when one reads on an e-reader.

Some literary snobs argue that the greatest flaw of the e-book is that it can never replace the tactile pleasure of holding in one’s hand a really well-made physical book, a book bound with cloth covers, dressed in a beautiful glossy dust jacket, and printed on acid-free paper upon which the words have been set in an elegant typeface ideally suited to the subject matter. But my complaint is that the e-book cannot replicate the thrill of reading a disreputable genre novel in a disreputable format—i.e., a spavined old pocket paperback whose pages are yellowed and whose print is annoyingly small and whose cheap cardboard is so fragile that dog-earing the corner a few times is likely to cause it to break off like a piece of graham cracker.

Until just recently, when she graduated from high school, I used to escort a granddaughter of mine to various volleyball tournaments when both of her parents were otherwise occupied. The parents and grandparents who accompanied the athletes at these day-long (and sometimes weekend-long) events almost always brought along something to read during the long empty stretches between matches. Most of these adults were, unlike me, reasonably well-off suburbanites and they tended to prefer e-readers to actual books. I usually brought along old paperback books because they were easier to carry than hardbacks. I recall a time when I was amidst a bunch of volleyball parents who were sitting around reading during a break between matches. One of the parents, looking around at the others, began asking us all what we were reading. All of the other parents seemed to be devouring current bestsellers by the likes of Dr. Phil or Deepak Chopra or James Patterson or Sandra Brown. Everyone listened politely while each person described the bestseller she was reading on her e-reader. When it came my turn, however, I held up an old yellow-paged Avon paperback edition of Margaret Millar’s The Fiend. The book had been published in 1964. My paperback edition was a reprint from 1974. Its back pages advertised other popular Avon titles of the era such as Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull, I’m OK – You’re OK by Thomas A. Harris M.D., You & I by Leonard Nimoy, and The Brothers System for Liberated Love and Marriage by Dr. Joyce Brothers. The cover painting was a lurid montage containing an unsmiling woman in a bridal veil, a sad-looking little girl holding a glowering cat, and a shadowy man in a long coat, standing in a public park and eyeing the little girl with evil intent. Everything about the book screamed “cheap, sensationalist trash involving pedophilia!” But Millar’s novel, like almost all her work, is a well-written story of suspense far more interested in psychological portraiture than in cheap thrills. Written back when the sunny, upper middle-class suburbs of southern California were pretty much a literal embodiment of the American Dream, Millar’s book was way ahead of its time in its ability to demonstrate how even in these homogenous, upscale communities, marriages were falling apart, childhood was fraught with anxiety, and even the most ordinary of people could have terrifying tendencies hidden behind their placid outward appearances. I was eager to sing the book’s praises to my fellow readers, but before I could even say, “I’m reading The Fiend by Margaret Millar,” I was interrupted by someone who said, “Wow, that looks like a golden oldie.” Someone else observed, “My grandmother used to have a whole shelf full of old paperback mysteries like that.” Pretty soon everyone was talking about the boxes of old paperbacks their parents used to keep out in the garage, or their neighbor lady who was always buying bagfuls of old paperbacks at thrift stores and yard sales. Although it was almost certainly the best written and most intelligent of the books under discussion in that little circle of volleyball parents, no one wanted to hear about The Fiend. It was relegated to the status of nostalgic curiosity simply because of the format in which I was reading it. No one in that circle of parents was ever likely to read The Fiend because, even to this day, no e-book version of the novel is available. If you want to read The Fiend, you pretty much have no choice but to seek out a yellowing old paperback at a thrift store or from the box in the garage of the crazy old lady who lives next door to you. Although I was frustrated by the fact that I wasn’t given an opportunity to sing the praises of a great-but-sadly-neglected master of the American suspense novel, I was gratified by the reappearance of a feeling I hadn’t experienced much of since high school—the thrill of reading a disreputable book in a very public place, the thrill of letting my freak flag fly proudly. Crime novels are no longer a disreputable genre because, hey, no genre seems to be disreputable anymore. Scott Turow, Michael Connelly, P.D. James, Dennis Lehane, Kate Atkinson—no one is, or should be, ashamed to read the works of these very gifted crime writers in a public place. But, nowadays, no one is ashamed to read even the works of total hacks in public. The only way to make yourself appear disreputable these days is to grab hold of some cheap-looking old paperback. I’m not talking about one of the glossy-covered James Patterson or John Grisham bestsellers that reside on the spinner rack at the airport bookstore. Those are perfectly respectable these days. The covers are usually masterpieces of contemporary design and the words are printed on bright, white, acid-free paper. No, if you want to really experience the thrill of reading a disreputable book in public, you need to get hold of a lurid-looking paperback book published sometime in the 1960s or 70s and then whip it out in the grandstands of some high-school gymnasium or kids’ soccer park or public conveyance or sidewalk bistro. Only then will you get the kind of stares and odd remarks usually reserved for those who have toilet paper stuck to the bottom of their shoes. It is an experience that no e-reader will ever be able to replicate. I recommend it highly.

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“Crime Research: Behind the Facade” (by Howard Halstead)

Howard Halstead’s outstanding fiction debut, “Limelight,” was published in our Department of First Stories in January 2014. His second story for us, “A Dark Symmetry,” is featured in July 2015—on sale this week! Another Halstead short story, in which he brings his love of history to bear on a fictional creation, envisioning the world of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Moriarty, is forthcoming in The Mammoth Book of the Adventures of Moriarty. Before he turned to fiction-writing, the British author was already well known for books on history and true crime, under the name Howard Watson. Recent Watson titles include Twisted History and Secrets & Lies: Elite Fighting Units. His research for his true-crime books takes him on travels well off the tourist trail, as he reveals in this post.Janet Hutchings

Rome: It’s my fault. I’m looking for a story or at least some texture: a shard of the city beyond tourist queues, porticoes, and palisades, behind the facade. I have an excuse: I write both crime fiction and true tales from the dark side of history (which often amounts to writing true crime). And, like many writers on their travels, I’m looking for the gutter between the pages of the guidebook. I’m no better than the most guileless of tourist who points a camera through the window on a sightseeing drive-thru, feet never touching the ground. I’m just a different sort of culture-vulture, picking at the bones of the city, searching for tasty scraps.

So here we are again, Leanne and myself, in the wrong part of town, probably going the wrong way.

Disoriented by too many turns and too few signposts, we are lost. At the mouth of the alley, we stand momentarily. It is unlit except for the ambient light of the city and an unshrouded but weak moon. The deep shadows mask the unknown, but we are hungry and it is late, and surely this must be the right direction. The target, somewhere beyond this alley, is close but, for the last half an hour, has avoided detection. It is a truffle restaurant prized by locals, unregistered by guidebooks, and we only have a vague address. We are two pigs snouting the ground, being driven crazy by its proximity.

Leanne reaches out for my hand. What could possibly happen to us? We are not afraid of ghouls in the night. We stride purposefully into the darkness, feigning confidence. The pattern of the brickwork on the high wall to our right is just about visible; the shapes to the left, at the foot of shuttered warehouses, are heaped bags of rubbish, and our noses tell us they are wet with bin juice and peppered with dogshit. We walk on. The black deepens and the pattern of the brickwork is lost.

The alley is too long and seems to be curving away from our destination. There is still no square of blazing light or sound of blaring traffic to announce the main street. The aspic-preserved world of the Coliseum, Forum, and St Peter’s, tasted earlier today, seems distant beyond years. We should turn back. Of course we should. But still we walk on.

Leanne’s hand grips tighter. It is not a tweak of affection. I have held that hand for long enough to know that it is a warning. I turn towards her, ready to say something stupid and laugh her—and myself—out of any fear. But she is pointedly staring straight ahead, her face immobile. I look away and I see what she is now refusing to look at. Against the high wall, the moonlight reveals a girl’s face, at first seeming to float in isolation in the darkness. But now I see a gloved hand gripping her chin. The hand is not hers. A man, unshaven, long hair, black leather, thirties, is forcing her chin upwards with his left hand. His other hand holds a syringe.

We are just metres away. Our feet keep walking towards the strange embrace. The needle nears the pale exposed flesh of the girl’s neck. She can be no more than sixteen, seventeen. I want to shout but I don’t know the story. The who-what-or-why. And perhaps I am a coward after all. The girl keeps staring expressionless at the night sky but the man sees us as we draw level. The needle is poised. His eyes fix on mine. The remorseless expression is that of a man inured, a man immune to the thousands of years of Roman civilization and the rule of law. He is capable of anything. He seems to make a calculation and his eyes narrow. All my senses are primed. Fight or flight. I fear a flashing blade but it does not come. He simply smiles a cruel little smile. He turns back to his prey and we walk on.

We stare ahead and see nothing more, but we hear the girl’s small sigh and know that the needle has slipped into the vein.

Soon we are sitting safe in the restaurant, and it is all it promised to be, but the food is made tasteless by the sense of our own weakness and ridiculousness.

It is one of a series of events that have punctuated our research travels—in Amsterdam, desperately holding a mugger’s arm to stop him getting a weapon out of his hoody pocket; being saved from a band of thieves by mysterious, besuited, sunglass-wearing vigilantes on another street in Italy; in the Meatpacking District, before the whole area became a designer hotel-cum-gallery, wandering into an abandoned slaughterhouse and running straight out again, full pelt, having disturbed a criminal gathering and seen hands reach for hardware.

I blame myself, of course. And yes, I am a fool to place myself and my albeit willing partner in jeopardy. But, and I know this might be a stretch, I also blame Wilkie Collins for his depiction of the country house and the village of Frizinghall in The Moonstone, often regarded as the prototype for the mystery novel. I even blame Agatha Christie for the village of St Mary Mead, home to Miss Marple. And I certainly blame Raymond Chandler for his Los Angeles, Jo Nesbø for his Oslo, and Donna Leon for her Venice. In each case, these distinctive writers have pulled off the same trick that is vital to so much crime writing: they create a credible world, a place we can readily understand, and then they peel back the skin. They capture the genius loci—the true “spirit of the place.” And if the place is credible then the reader accepts that the otherwise incredible can happen.

I’m narcotically drawn toward the warp and weft, the texture of a place. Standing in the Hagia Sophia may help to disclose the incredible twisted history of Istanbul; walking along Abdi İpekçi Street, pocked by the designer shops that have made the high streets of the world’s major cities so homogenous, may reveal the city’s capital aspirations; but step off that street and walk parallel to it, just a hundred metres away, and you’ll find yourself teetering on the precipice of the third world on an unpaved road with decrepit residential buildings, broken scooters, and children playing in the dirt. It then becomes far easier to understand the ambitions and motivations of the shop assistant in one of those glamorous shops.

For me, the most satisfying crime novels capture the complex spirit of a place, which is perhaps necessarily entwined with the character of its people. And the quickest way to understand a place is to leave Main Street, to walk the back streets, to find the shadows, to eat and drink where the locals eat and drink, and sometimes that’s where the real story starts taking shape. Marlowe is “of” Los Angeles, the real city, not just Hollywood. Miss Marple is “of” St Mary Mead and all its intricacies beyond the village fete and manicured gardens. They understand the spirit of the place beyond the clinical cartography of the surface. They are the water diviners of the little known and little seen, detecting the underground streams.

And so to Kyoto. I had already written about the history of samurai, ninja, and yakuza, but had never felt close to understanding contemporary Japan despite filleting innumerable reference books, history books, documentaries, and Web sites. It had always remained “other,” steeped in stereotype, with a proper understanding of its culture escaping my remote reach. With a new project on the horizon, we flew the 10,000 miles to try and make the Land of the Rising Sun real but our initial day-to-day experience was of an unassailable wall of politeness. Politeness, civilization, and honour are the stereotypical building blocks of the British character, but compared to the Japanese we are just rude barbarians.

“It is an honour for me . . .” and “Gomen nasai, I’m so sorry, so sorry . . .” have formed the soundtrack to our travels, and bowing is even more constant than imagined, with car drivers lowering their heads to each other with stately grace. In an ancient wooden inn, where the Shoguns of centuries ago stayed, a kimono-wearing server spills a couple of drops of cha onto the tatami. Her flushed shame as she short-steps hurriedly from the room makes us fear that she is about to resign in dishonour.

The violence of the yakuza and POW camp commander seems a world away from what seem to be the safest city streets I have ever walked. Where is the undertow? Where are the rot, deceit, desire, and machination that are embedded in every human society, that make history? Where is real life beyond the politeness and order?

We take to the backstreets. We twist and turn and turn again without reference to maps, guidebooks, or GPS. We find ourselves on a very long, very narrow residential street, little more than an alleyway. It is deserted and we are lost again, but finally we have a glimpse behind the facade. Each local area has a little wooden street shrine, but the one we now pass is battered and includes a cracked orange plastic vase, a long-dead flower, and a ripped paper lantern. Above the shrine, washing is strung from windows and clotheshorses are overloaded on the tiny balconies of very cramped three-storey houses.

A motorcyclist tears down the narrow lane. His visor is pure black. He veers towards us but sweeps past at speed. We are forced to get the map out, a siren call for the criminally inclined. The map is no good to us. The lane doesn’t seem to be marked.

A young man is standing stationary, looking at us. He is just twenty yards away but there is no turning from which he could have appeared so suddenly and we have heard no door. He face is set, determined. He finally moves. His walk is direct. He is coming straight for us.

He bows slightly. “So sorry. Are you lost?” he says in perfect English.

He takes our silence as affirmation.

“I will walk you to the main crossing.” He repeatedly flicks the inside of his index finger with his thumb as he speaks.

We look ahead. We can see for at least 200 yards without any obvious sign of a crossing, main or otherwise.

“No, thank you,” Leanne says. “It’s too far. Please just point us in the right direction.”

“I’m so sorry, you don’t understand—as a Japanese it is my honour to help you.”

I detect the slightest of smiles on his otherwise expressionless face. Are we being played? He walks ahead and we follow. I’m sure I hear a quiet, high-pitched laugh, but when he turns his head back to us he seems emotionless. Still I hear the faint rasp of skin as he flicks his thumb against his index finger. My mind is racing. I hear that laugh again. This time I’m certain that I didn’t imagine it. Leanne looks at me quizzically, her senses alert. Her hand reaches out for mine and momentarily grips hard. It is not a tweak of affection. I have held that hand for long enough to know that it is a warning.

Anything can happen before we reach the crossroads.

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