“Roads and Wilderness: Two Novels by James M. Cain” (by Zoë Z. Dean)

Zoë Z. Dean (a pseudonym for Kentucky writer Lauren James) debuted in EQMM’s Department of First Stories in November 2014 with the story “Getaway Girl”—for which she has just won the Mystery Writers of America’s Robert L. Fish Memorial Award for best first short story by an American author. The award will be presented at the Edgar Allan Poe Awards banquet in New York City, on April 29th. A lifelong mystery fan, the author once tried to find work in a private investigator’s office. Her Fish Award-winning story has distinct noir aspects. In this post, she talks about one of the writers from that tradition who had an early influence on her. A spoiler alert is hardly necessary in discussion of such classic works of fiction, but we’ll give it anyway: Endings are discussed in the following piece.—Janet Hutchings

I first read The Postman Always Rings Twice when I was in high school, and it looked as unprepossessing as a book possibly could: It was a library copy, dog-eared and with a broken spine, and barely a hundred pages long. It didn’t take me long to realize that it was slim the way an icepick is slim: it’s all in what you do with it. The specifics of the plot barely registered with me on that first reading, simply because I was so distracted by the fug of sex, murder, and fate.

It has that same unchecked, down-and-dirty intensity for me as an adult. Part of this stems from Cain’s strange outsider status in literature: Chandler and Hammett have been integrated into the fold of the familiar, but Cain, with his criminal heroes and hardboiled housewives, stands outside of it. “Rip me like you did that night,” in Postman, is one of those lines that eludes familiarity, no matter how many times you’ve read it. There are terrific Cain films, but the stories themselves still contain those hard little glints of the unexpected, and, more importantly, they still bite. They won’t be herded, although for the purposes of this post I’ll gamely don some thick gloves and try.

Part of what makes Cain compelling to me is his almost operatic sense of fatalism. It’s embedded in the title of The Postman Always Rings Twice and it runs throughout the book. “Runs” is the right word, because what Cain returns to again and again is the idea of the road that leads its travelers inexorably—and hopelessly—onwards to their one sure destination. Cora thinks that by killing her husband, she and Frank are getting off a road that “don’t lead anywhere but to the hash house” of unskilled labor and no money; instead, they find themselves on the road to death, helpfully marked by the blatantly unlucky signpost of a cat fooling around near a ladder. When their first attempt goes wrong, they console themselves with a different road, one they could travel endlessly, “just a couple of tramps,” but it’s inevitable—that title again—that of course they’ll come back to the crime and, in fact, the road.

Frank and Cora, despite everything, have their virtues, and you can sense throughout that Cain knows it, that he appreciates their ability to know the worst in each other and to forgive it. On the one hand, The Postman Always Rings Twice is a sordid little tale of adultery and murder where the very cleverness of the plotting ultimately does itself in; on the other hand, it’s a tragedy of doomed lovers, awful but recognizable in their passion and selfishness. If the ending of the story was going to happen the moment they lay in bed together and plotted murder, the brief seaside lull before it, in which they dream of a new life, is a gift Cain gives them: the temporary avoidance of the end of the road.

Fate is less kind to Walter Huff and Phyllis Nirdlinger in the meaner-but-more-refined Double Indemnity, but there’s less to be kind about: They’re not in love and they don’t need the money. Their love scenes aren’t visceral connections but encroaches—“I was trembling like a leaf. She gave it a cold stare”—and mundane talk about whether or not he’s made the pleats in her blouse uneven. Walter isn’t as honest as Frank—he’s confessing to his boss, after all, not to a priest—but even he has to admit that he commits murder largely for the thrill of testing his wits against the system: “And then one night I think up a trick, and get to thinking I could crook the wheel myself if I could only put a plant out there to put down my bet.”

“Straight down the line,” he and Phyllis repeatedly promise each other. Back-to-back with Postman, you already know what this means.

But Cain stretches his muscles in Double Indemnity. He makes the characters colder and less sympathetic, and he makes their fate in some sense more deserved—all of this arguably a simplification of the panting complexities of Postman—but it’s what he does with that fate that is strangest, and another reason why his work is, despite acclaim and the decades past its publication, not “normal.”

In the (excellent) film version of Double Indemnity, Chandler’s screenplay sensibly enough simplifies a particular detail of Cain’s text: Lola, Phyllis’s stepdaughter, sees Phyllis trying out mourning clothes before her husband’s murder, a fact that would surely be suggestive to the insurance company eager to prove her culpability. It makes sense and has the ring of the kind of real-world slip-up that would lead to an arrest. In the book, though, Phyllis isn’t just trying on mourning and playing at grief, she’s also playing at death, “with some kind of foolish red silk thing on her, that looked like a shroud or something, with her face all smeared up with white powder and red lipstick, with a dagger in her hand.” She’s not a normal femme fatale, hiding evil inside silk, she’s hiding a very deep and poisonous insanity inside a calm, icy veneer. Her motives are suddenly questionable, even further divorced from the comprehensible: It’s not about freedom or even greed. It’s about her transformation into a supernatural embodiment of death.

I can’t stress this enough: This is strange. It isn’t typical of crime fiction, now or ever, to subsume its concerns of death and fate into this level of literalized weirdness, and it’s especially unusual for noir. Femme fatales are “supposed” to banter, dress well, and kill out of selfishness; they’re not supposed to choose dread, costumes, and cultic mystery.

In a way, Cain was almost writing revisionist noir even as he was helping to invent the genre and establish its canon. Double Indemnity seems to argue that all the traditional noir motives of greed and lust don’t matter. It deliberately evokes Postman throughout, both in its ostensible framework and in its language of roads, but as a companion work, it’s curiously inverted. These aren’t characters on a road they can never get off, however much they want to; they’re characters who, in some crucial sense, willfully choose the dead end, and even celebrate it.

This is what I mean about how difficult Cain is to contain or to count on: He writes one novel and then, with almost exactly the same plot, he writes its opposite. I’ve been quoting from the Everyman’s Library edition of his works, and next after Double Indemnity is Mildred Pierce, a crime novel with no real crime, about the construction of a chicken-and-waffle restaurant, a passionately unbalanced mother-daughter relationship, and the Depression. At the very least, you can’t accuse the man of having been in a rut.

Fame tends to reward consistency, and Cain was never consistent, but it’s in his skewed, close-in, constantly-shifting take on the darkness of the human heart that we perhaps come closest to understanding the bewildering—and sometimes beguiling—variety of that darkness. That quality his work has of having no safe ground to stand on strikes me as essential to noir, and these two books, taken together, go some way of showing why.

Posted in Books, Characters, Fiction, Genre, Guest, Noir | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

“The Curious Case of the Novel in Stories” (by Art Taylor)

Art Taylor made his fiction debut nearly twenty years ago, in EQMM’s Department of First Stories, with the December 1995 story “Murder on the Orient Express,” but there was a long hiatus before he appeared again, and most of his work has appeared over the past decade. He has won an Agatha, a Macavity, and three Derringer Awards for his short fiction. Currently, two of his stories are finalists for this year’s Agatha Award. They are: “The Odds Are Against Us” (which can be read here), from EQMM‘s November 2014 issue, and “Premonition,” from the anthology Chesapeake Crimes: Homicidal Holidays. In September of this year, Art’s first book, On the Road With Del and Louise: A Novel in Stories, will be released by Henery Press. It belongs under the novel’s wide umbrella, but contains two short stories previously published in EQMM. In this post, the author, who teaches at George Mason University and reviews for the Washington Post, examines the literary structure and expressive possibilities of the “novel in stories.” —Janet Hutchings

Red Harvest remains my favorite of Dashiell Hammett’s books—both to read for pleasure and to teach in my courses on crime fiction at George Mason University. A corrupt community; secrets and lies; power struggles and power plays; moral quandaries and compromises—there’s a lot of stuff for students to dive into, a lot to discuss and explore.

It’s also a great book to analyze for style and structure, and at some point in our lessons, I always ask my students to consider the book’s shape against the classic ways we think about narrative: that old triangle of exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution most of us learned at some point studying Shakespeare in high school. But the trouble with charting Red Harvest in that way is that you end up not with a triangle’s peak but with a mountain range. The case that draws the Op into the story—newspaper editor Donald Willsson’s summons and then his murder—is solved by the end of Chapter 7: the murderer revealed (our climax) and then a brief falling action and resolution with the murderer arrested, other suspects cleared, and the Op going out for “breakfast-and-lunch” and “a shave and hair-cut.” Case closed.

Trouble is, the book has twenty more chapters to go.

You can play the same exercise with the next section of Red Harvest—chapters 8-14—by the end of which the Op ferrets out the truth about the intertwined tales of a fixed fight, a dead boxer, and the suicide of the police chief’s brother two years before. Another case (or two) closed, more justice served, and the next day the Op sleeps till noon.

Only thirteen chapters left now.

The secret behind this odd structure can be found in the novel’s genesis. Before Knopf released Red Harvest in 1929, Black Mask magazine published a slightly different version of the saga in four installments between November 1927 and February 1928: “The Cleansing of Poisonville,” “Crime Wanted—Male or Female,” “Dynamite,” and “The 19th Murder.” In his fine biography Shadow Man: The Life of Dashiell Hammett, Richard Layman describes Hammett’s early work on the book: “He organized his novel into discreet sections—fifteen thousand to eighteen thousand words each, and he considered it as four long, interconnected stories.” In his correspondence with Blanche (Mrs. Alfred A) Knopf, who bought the book, Hammett didn’t emphasize that they’d been published as stories; instead he said that the novel had already been “serialized”—a fine line maybe, but an interesting distinction, marking Hammett’s move from short-story master to landmark novelist.

Charting those narrative moves and peaks—overlaying the shape of the novel over the shapes of several short stories—always proves a fascinating exercise, and I don’t mean that solely in an academic way. As a short story writer myself, this kind of analysis of the shape and movement of plot provides an understanding of my own craft: the tactics and strategies and approaches that guide and inspire me.

To me, one of the most exciting trends in fiction today—hardly new but certainly still evolving—is the novel in stories and its not-too-distant kin, the flash novella or novella in flash. (You’ll sometimes see these phrases hyphenated: novel-in-stories, novella-in-flash. It’s personal preference here to skip the hyphens.) In each case, a longer work is built by the careful construction and arrangement of smaller components: a series of short stories or flash-fiction pieces coalescing to form something greater than the simple sum of its parts.

But defining what happens in that “coalescing” and what’s meant by “something greater” is the tricky part, of course. What differentiates a collection of short stories from a novel in stories? Is it just that all the stories need to feature the same characters? Is it that the stories have to be in chronological order, contributing to a larger plotline? Or maybe it’s something about a theme as the special connective glue?

A consistent cast of characters in a series of stories simply isn’t enough. We know that the twelve stories in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes don’t constitute a novel in the same way that The Hound of the Baskervilles does. Likewise, I just recently finished Rex Stout’s Three Witnesses, and while we get Wolfe and Archie in each of those three novellas—and while readers can find some resonance between the roles of the witnesses in each story—it doesn’t seem that the novellas interlink in any more organic or alchemical way.

While neither Hammett nor anyone else would call Red Harvest a novel in stories (for one thing, the phrase simply didn’t exist back then), the book’s origins serve as a rudimentary example for one of the most basic approaches to such a project: four short stories told by a single narrator, each with its own narrative arc, linked by chronology and characters, and serving as part of a larger, fuller narrative. But it would be limiting to say that a novel in stories requires tales to be so tightly connected chronologically or so relentlessly in the service of a single plotline. In fact, the beauty of the novel in stories or the flash novella lies in an author’s freedom not to be bound by chronology or perspective or relentless plotting and yet still to fashion something that proves cohesive to a reader in some complex way.

Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge—a baker’s dozen of stories loosely connected by the presence of the title character—offers a prime example. One of the stories, “A Different Road,” originally published in Tin House, was featured in the 2008 edition of Best American Mystery Stories, but the collection overall isn’t crime fiction, and the stories aren’t connected by any single plotline. Even more to the point, they’re not exclusively focused on the title character; though she steps to the forefront in some cases, she also takes a background role in others. And yet the intersection and juxtaposition of the stories offers both greater perspectives on and a more comprehensive understanding of the character and her world. A review in O: The Oprah Magazine called Olive “the axis around which these thirteen complex, relentlessly human narratives spin,” and the Washington Post’s review explained that “what you begin to realize, as these carefully crafted, individual pieces accumulate, is that together they shape the arc of a narrative, and that the narrative is nothing less than the whole of Olive Kitteridge’s life. A novel, yes, in stories.” (Tellingly, when I searched for the book in our own home, I found that my wife had shelved it in novels, not story collections—the place I first looked.)

Steve Weddle’s 2013 Country Hardball offers another fine example of a novel in stories, and its bold structure made it one of the most striking and successful debuts in my own memory. The storytelling is fragmented—individual stories jump to different times, different characters, different perspectives—so much so that it would be easy to call it simply a collection of stories loosely unified by place and a few recurring characters. But something more seems to be happening as the stories unfold.

In a recent email exchange, Steve talked more explicitly about the novel in stories as a form with rich possibilities: “To me, a novel in stories can be a great way to layer together narrative and character. A good novel in stories is one in which each story stands alone, but the stories create a larger narrative and inform each other when taken together.” Stories from Country Hardball can indeed be read in isolation from one another. The opening one, “Champion,” is a heartbreaker about a father and son and a confrontation that seems a triumph even when it’s not. “The Ravine” offers a two-person showdown taut with suspense, with only one person coming out the winner. “Purple Hulls” charts a tale of revenge and revelation amidst economic hardship and injustice. That’s just the first three stories, and I could go down the line, summarizing conflict and resolution for each, I imagine, right through until the final story, “Harvest.” The brilliance isn’t that this last story gathers together the loose plotlines and thematic threads for some final statement, but instead that the overall organization of these fragments offer a beautiful and unforgettable mosaic of both people and place (to borrow a metaphor from Madison Smartt Bell’s fine book Narrative Design).

Of course, not everyone is enamored of this form. In a 2011 essay in The Rumpus, “The Mysterious Case of the Novel-in-Stories,” novelist William Giraldi took to task the validity of this approach, particularly in terms of what he called “destination via narrative thread. Every story should rightly achieve its own destination, so a novel-in-stories ends up having several, whereas a novel can have only one.” Country Hardball offers a different perspective—and to me, a sharper one. Each of the stories standing alone can take you to its own destination, but together, this novel in stories also delivers you to a whole nother place.

I find myself excited and emboldened by these and other approaches. The May issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine includes my story “Commission,” the second outing for characters who first appeared in EQMM with 2010’s “Rearview Mirror,” and together, these and other stories will be published in September by Henery Press as my first book: On the Road with Del and Louise. I decided to return to Del and Louise simply because I liked them and was curious what happened to them next, but as I was writing “Commission,” I started imagining a series of other adventures they might stumble into and how those stories might unfold. I liked the idea of shifting tones from one to another (screwball comedy, tense domestic drama), varying the structures (some more straightforwardly dramatic, others folding in flashbacks to one of the character’s childhoods), or even playing with genre: a heist tale, a romance, a more traditional whodunit. But in a curious twist, I also realized that Del and Louise didn’t just have more stories in them—more crimes to commit, more conflicts to overcome—but that those individual stories could be part of a bigger story about a couple struggling (and sometimes failing) to make a fresh start, to make better choices and become better people, and to move toward building a family. When On the Road with Del and Louise comes out this fall, it’s going to have the phrase A Novel in Stories as its subtitle—really the only way I could tell their story as I envisioned it.

Mountain range, axis, mosaic—whatever the structure, maybe what sets a novel in stories apart from a collection of stories is some combination of intention and attention. You have to organize your stories not just in a workable order but with an eye toward a more significant overall design (character, plot, place, theme). You have to orchestrate carefully both the junctions and—perhaps more importantly—the disjunctions between your stories (shift in tone, perspective, internal structure). And even while you might have the aspirations of a novelist in mind, you also have to embrace fully the short story as a form of its own—its limitations, its challenges, its flexibility, and, yes, its many rewards.

Posted in Books, Editing, Education, Fiction, Genre, Guest | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 22 Comments

“A Break in the Order of Things: Coincidence in Fiction and in Life” by Steven Gore

Steven Gore is a former private detective who told EQMM he spent decades  “investigating murder, fraud, organized crime, corruption, and drug, sex and arms trafficking.”  He has been featured, for his investigative work, on 60 Minutes. The San Francisco Bay resident is equally distinguished as a fiction writer; he’s the author of six well-received novels, the most recent of which, Night Is the Hunter, was released by William Morrow last month. Publisher’s Weekly said of the book: “Gore not only puts a face on the difficulties of serving justice but also illustrates their immensity.” Steven is a newcomer to EQMM—his first story for us will appear in our August issue—but has already established himself in the realm of short fiction too, with a number of stories in our sister publication, AHMM. It’s hard to imagine that any writer could be in a better position than he is to compare real-life investigations to fictional ones.—Janet Hutchings

Readers of crime fiction are dismissive of coincidences: the chance meeting, the overheard scrap of conversation, the two plot lines that intersect halfway through a mistaken left turn. They are also disturbed and angered by them, because such devices seem to violate their experience of life, of the natural sequences of causes and effects, of actions and events, or at least the hope or faith in them and in their power to order the world.

Coincidence is, for readers, like chance is for the innocent victim caught in a crossfire between warring gangsters: The solid ground beneath their feet gives way. Life itself seems to have dissolved into a chaos of mere happenings and there are no answers to be found to the questions of why-then, why-there, and why-me.

For readers, coincidence and chance destroy their suspension of disbelief; for victims, their belief in a rational world. For readers, they are violations of the writer’s contract with them; for victims, they are quakes in the moral landscape.

To both, it feels unfair.

For investigators, on the other hand, coincidence itself can be the solid ground, but if and only if–like a high-wire walker ignoring the hundred foot drop–they don’t think about it too much.

How many crimes have been solved because a detective happened to have been assigned a similar case at the same time and noticed a pattern, or remembered the nickname of a victim from a case he handled years earlier that later provided a lead to a witness, or happened to have run through a building or down a side street while chasing a robber, scenes that would later suggest where evidence of a burglary might be hidden?

If it were not for these kinds of coincidences, many suspects, witnesses, and pieces of evidence would not be found and crimes would remain unsolved, perhaps even be unsolvable. Except investigators call it experience or street knowledge, not chance and coincidence.

And even though there might not be a why to it, coincidence is sometimes that upon which fairness, even justice, depends.

Rather than explanations, here are two examples from my career as a private investigator:

Shortly after I opened my private practice, I was contacted by a criminal defense attorney whose client had been arrested for aggravated mayhem. The victim had been badly beaten and lost part of his ear and underwent hundreds of stitches to repair his torn and slashed skin. The client, like the other three men arrested, denied that he was involved or even present. If convicted, under California law the client faced a mandatory sentence of life in prison.

The police report said the victim and two women had walked out of a bar and gotten into an argument with four men. The men then assaulted the victim and fled. Police located four men in a parking lot a mile away and detained them. The women were brought to the scene and identified all of them.

The client, held in the county jail without bail, told me he happened to be in the parking lot when four men drove up. He knew two of them and they began talking. One of the four walked off the lot and into the neighborhood. The police drove up, detained the four remaining men and brought the women to the scene. The client assumed he’d be released right then. He wasn’t.

Since the three others were claiming innocence, they refused to tell the client who the fourth man was, both because they were afraid he might cut a deal and inform on them and because they were afraid he might take revenge on them for informing on him. However, one afternoon in the jail exercise yard the client overheard the three talking and learned that the fourth man was nicknamed Boo, that he was a drug dealer, that he was about five years out of high school, and that his mother, name unknown, used to live in a pink apartment building on a wide street in Richmond, California.

I was faced with a number of problems: I didn’t know whether the client was telling me the truth about the event. I didn’t know whether he was telling me the truth about what he claimed to have overheard. I didn’t know whether Boo actually existed and, if so, had really been involved in the crime. And assuming everything the client told me was true, not only were there Boos by the dozen in Richmond, there were dozens of pinkish apartment buildings on the many wide streets in the city’s fifty-two square miles–larger than San Francisco. Moreover, there are many of shades of pink and too often what is described as pink turns out to be a shade of red or brown. Beyond that, even if I found the right building, I needed to find someone who knew Boo’s mother, which meant they’d also have to know her son’s nickname was Boo.

What were the chances of that?

Even as I sat in the interviewing room at the jail with the client I recalled that two months earlier, when I was still working for the county, I had been to a pink apartment on a wide street in Richmond looking for a witness. I drove straight out there and spotted a woman sitting on the steps and drinking a beer. I walked up to her, identified myself, and said, “I’m trying to get ahold of Boo’s mother.”

And she said: “Mary moved away about two weeks ago.”

No reader of fiction is going to believe it.

And something almost as coincidental: I later found she had gotten a traffic ticket in Oakland a few days earlier and the citation showed her new address.

Over the next few days I drove by that address until I spotted someone out front who matched Boo’s description. He was standing with some men about his own age and selling drugs over the low front fence.

I showed up the next morning, hoping to catch him still a little groggy and before his crime partners showed up. A woman who identified herself as his mother opened the door. The fear in her eyes suggested that Boo might be the one. I say “might” because it was likely she knew that Boo had been involved in other crimes and that someone, sometime would be coming for Boo. She stepped back and let me in and said, “I’ll go wake him up.”

I sat him down at the dining-room table, set out my recorder, and the story came out. (The various and contradictory reasons people talk to investigators and confess to crimes is a topic for another time.) He not only admitted to his part and cleared the client, but implicated the other three in a hit by hit, punch by punch, slash by slash account of who did what.

As I was leaving, his mother asked me what would happen next. I told her the truth: that the client would be released and her son would be arrested. I didn’t tell her he would be held without bail and she would not see him outside of a prison visiting room for the rest of her life.

Another example:

I was working on a case in Thailand. I had about a dozen people to locate and interview. The final one was evading me. Thanom was a real-estate developer educated in business administration in the U.S. and, of interest to me, a money launderer. I’d go to his office and be told he was at home. I’d go to his home and be told that he was at his office. I then started having people watch both those places. I tried the country club to which he belonged and the restaurants he frequented. I even tried to use intermediaries to set up a meeting under any conditions he wanted: public, private, even outside of Thailand.

But he knew he could wait me out. I couldn’t stay in Thailand forever.

As I was nearing the end of the two weeks I was in the country, I met an associate of my client for lunch at my hotel. We were sitting at a table in the coffee shop next to a bank of windows facing the swimming pool and trying to figure out how to snag him. After a few minutes, the associate looked over my shoulder and said:

“Thanom is right behind you.”

What were the chances of that?

A city of six and a half million people and he’s sitting two feet away.

Again, no fiction reader is going to believe it.

I got up and slid onto the chair next to him and blocked him in against the window.

Though a coincidence, it is actually, but only slightly, more probable than one might think. One of the reasons I chose that hotel was because it had an international business clientele and I would be less obvious in a crowd than otherwise, and the coffee shop was a favorite lunch stop for members of the Thai commercial and political class. That people like Thanom would show up there was inevitable, that Thanom himself would show was still unlikely, too unlikely to keep the faith of a reader.

It was a very short interview and I found out what I needed to know.

Six hours later I was high in the air, halfway to Hong Kong, and not looking down.

Posted in Characters, Fiction, Genre, Guest, Police Procedurals, Private Eye, Readers, Story, Writers, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

A FEW REFLECTIONS ABOUT SUSPENSE

A few days ago I received an e-mail from one of EQMM’s Passport to Crime translators, Josh Pachter. It contained a detailed synopsis of a story he proposed translating for us, but in the few lines of the e-mail preceding the synopsis, he commented that the story had “a twist ending I did not see coming.” As soon as I saw those words, I wrote back to Josh saying to go ahead, but that I would not be reading his synopsis. I didn’t want my pleasure spoiled. I wanted to be surprised too. In such cases, it is not, I think, the surprise itself that gives a reader pleasure so much as the suspense leading up to the surprise—like a present that has yet to be opened. And the more one comes to expect the unexpected from a writer, the more pleasure one will find, it seems to me, in all the ground-laying that leads up to those spectacular twists. (Conversely, of course, a writer with a reputation for such skillful sleight of hand can lose a following quickly if after holding readers on the edges of their seats for many pages, he or she fails to deliver an arresting turn of events.)

Suspense does not necessarily go hand in hand with the expectation of being surprised, however; it doesn’t even always depend upon not knowing what is likely to happen. Sometimes it is precisely the fact that the reader knows what may be about to happen while the characters do not that creates a story’s tension. Think of Alfred Hitchcock’s famous example of a bomb set under a table at which people are playing cards. The way to create suspense, he said, is to show the bomb and show the oblivious people, draw out that moment. “There is no terror in the bang,” he said, “only in the anticipation of it.”

I’m the sort of reader who really doesn’t like to know how a story turns out before I begin it; I even mute the previews of movies and TV shows, thinking they give away too much. But there are a lot of readers—I’m sure everyone knows someone like this—who skip to the end of a story or book before going back to read it through. I used to think of foreknowledge of the ending as fatal to enjoyment of stories billed as Suspense, but the more I’ve reflected on this, the more I see it isn’t necessarily so, even in my own case. How many times can someone watch the movie Psycho and still be on edge when Marion (Janet Leigh) walks into the bathroom to take her shower? Judging by the number of times that movie—and that scene in particular—get re-watched, I think you’d have to say a lot.

Why is it that even once we know what happens in that shower, or know whether Hitchcock’s bomb goes off, we can go back and re-experience the suspense of the previously unknown outcome? I think part of the answer may be that even though the mind jumps ahead to what’s already known, when we’re in the hands of a skilled writer or director, our emotions don’t. To respond emotionally when we see (or are made to envision) something devastating likely to happen to a sympathetic character is surely natural—it’s just instinctive. And it’s the suspense writer’s (or director’s) job to create a moment so real that we respond despite ourselves. In the shower scene in Psycho, Hitchcock achieves that partly with sensory detail. When Janet Leigh goes into the bathroom we hear as well as see the toilet flush, the water draining, the sound of the paper wrapper being torn off the soap, the spray of the shower water. By the time she turns her face up to the water, you can almost feel it.

In suspense fiction there’s an implicit contract most readers depend on the writer upholding: that at least some of the sympathetic characters will come out of their ordeal all right. (And is that so different from the reassurance some readers seek by turning to the final pages of a story first?) The fact that readers care about the fate of at least some of a story’s characters makes the building of suspense possible in the first place. Writers of suspense would have a hard job if readers approached their work with such trepidation that they were predisposed to maintain a self-protective emotional distance from all characters. It seems to me, therefore, that maintaining a high level of suspense often involves striking a delicate balance between what the reader can depend upon and what the reader cannot.

My refusal to read the synopsis Josh Pachter sent me last week may appear a dereliction of duty—after all, there is a chance I won’t like the story. And in fact, I generally require synopses of stories that are to be translated—and read them. But once in a while it’s necessary, I think, for those of us at the editorial end of this business to experience, simply as readers, the pleasure we’re trying to provide for our audience.—Janet Hutchings

Posted in Fiction, Genre, Readers, Suspense, Thrillers, Translation, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

“Preparing for the Audience” (by Michael Haskins)

A former journalist, Michael Haskins began his fiction-writing career in the pages of EQMM’s 2007 March/April double issue, with the Department of First Stories tale “Murder in Key West.” The central character of that story, Key West journalist Mick Murphy, was soon to star in the author’s first novel. He has since reappeared in eight more books, including one to be released March first, entitled Mick Murphy’s Law. He was also featured in the Shamus-nominated story “Vampire Slayer Murdered in Key West” (EQMM September/October 2011) and in the story “Hemingway’s Typewriter,” in this year’s January issue. The author has created in Mick a character with many parallels to himself. Both know the Florida Keys well; it has been Michael’s home for over a decade, and in addition to having served as information officer for the city of Key West, Michael recently became one of the organizers of the Mystery Writers Key West Fest. In such roles, he’s had to learn how to meet the public, and he shares some of his insights on public speaking here.  —Janet Hutchings

I’ve been asked to speak to the Friends of the Library in Marathon, one of the islands that make up the Florida Keys this month. It’s a great opportunity for a writer. Most of us are homebound, as we write alone, and some even shy when it comes to speaking in public.

Today, as the publishing world changes and the writer’s role expands, we must be willing and able to meet the public and entertain them with stories and backgrounds of our characters and ourselves.

Most of the audiences I’ve encountered consider my books, the characters in them, and me to be one. If they walk away bored, they won’t buy your book. If you’re able to entertain the audience with anecdotes that make them feel they’ve gotten an insight into you, your book, and your characters, they are more likely to buy and enjoy your book.

A little humor goes a long way in relaxing those listening, and it doesn’t hurt the writer to see people laughing with him or her instead of at. The humor should be personal. I like to work in an ex-wife story about using some of the ex’s uniqueness in one or more of my characters. Mentioning how upset she’d be knowing that she helped me create a character that’s loved/hated usually gets a laugh from the guys in the audience and snickers from the women.

The audience is there to listen and ask questions, so ask them questions too. Ask for a raise of hands of those who read fiction and then nonfiction, and you can always ask who’s there because they tagged along with someone. Get those people listening and you’ve captured the whole audience. Thank those who got dragged along for not falling asleep when you’re done. If you get a laugh, you’ve done well.

Set the scene with humor and the audience likes you. They not only like you, but many of the faces staring back at you will want to be you. Of course, by you I mean a writer. I often tell my son when he complains about the “trolley” full of tourists slowing traffic in Key West, that those people envy you, want to be you because they think that you live in paradise.

It’s not much different from how the public sees writers. One book or ten books, a writer is a writer and the public has its expectations. If they only knew the reality of a writer’s life!

How do you make it easy to stand in front of people at a book signing or a library gathering? If you have a simple answer, please let me know. It’s work, and today a necessary part of being a writer.

I have learned from standing in front of an audience wishing I’d checked to see if I spilt something on my shirt at lunch some things I’d call universal.

First, eat lunch afterward!

Second, there are stock questions you can expect and plan for. Have that humor set aside and waiting as soon as the question is asked.

This happens to every writer, I don’t care who you are. You’re at a party, a book signing, or library talk, someone is going to tell you they have a great idea for a story, but not the time to write it, so how about teaming up. Be gentle, be kind, but remind them that if they write one page a day for a year, they’ll have a 365 page book. One page!

But there are fun questions too! Here are some I seem to be asked at talks and book signings, and my answers.

Q: What made you want to be a writer? A: Murdering my ex-wife (women writers, feel free to change this to ex-husband) would get me jail time, as a writer I can kill her/him repeatedly and get paid for it. Smile as you say this.

Q: Where do you get your ideas? (It’s always good to tell the public occasionally “That’s a good questions.”) A: I get ideas from the short sidebar newspaper articles I read. They’re usually about the unusual and often go along with the “what if” theory of writing. Most people miss these stories, so when your book or short story is published, people wonder how you got that idea.

Q: What’s your writing schedule like? A: My answer today is different from what it was when I also worked at a steady job. I mention how I used to be up at 5 A.M. and write for an hour or two and then go to work. Today, I tell them, it’s up at 6 A.M. and I’m at work; I write longer because I am working at home.

Q: What’s your writing day like? A: I always begin with something about how what works for one may not work for another, so try to find the time/place/system that works for you. Me, I tell them, I write daily—Monday through Friday—and those days writing are more than sitting at the laptop. Writers write themselves into dead-end corridors all the time. Our characters take on a life of their own and don’t care what we had planned for them. How do I handle it? I wander around the house, talking (arguing) with my imaginary friends. I live in a stilt house (eight feet above the flood level is the law in the Florida Keys) so I often go downstairs, under the house that we’ve set up as another room for entertaining, maybe smoke a cigar and think. My wife calls it goofing off, but to my imaginary friends and me it’s as much a part of my writing process as the keyboard and editing. Giving a little personal information can endear you to your audience and they walk away thinking of you as a friend.

You have to find your comfort zone when meeting the public. You are serious about writing but you see the humor in your life. I found that the audience wants to find a similarity between us. They want to relate, and you should help them with your anecdotes.

Prepare. List items you want to talk about on an index card. Rehearse your talk, your humor in front of a mirror, with your significant other (I avoid my children, they are much too scary as an audience). Know what you want to say, in general. Choose a short chapter from your book to read and then go to the Q&A and have fun. If there’s a back story to the chapter you’ve read, give it to them before the Q&A. It’s another personal touch the audience takes home with them. If you are enjoying your time with them, they will enjoy their time with you.

What’s that get you? A good afternoon or evening, a growing fan base of readers, and you’ll be a little more relaxed the next time you get to stand up and introduce yourself. Lunch or dinner can follow as a celebration ritual.

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“Murder Most Entertaining” (by Lucy Ribchester)

Although she has had a number of stories in other periodicals, Edinburgh native Lucy Ribchester makes her EQMM debut in our March/April 2015 issue (currently on sale). Earlier this year, her first novel, The Hourglass Factory (Simon & Schuster, U.K.) was released to critical praise. The book is set in London in 1912, at the time of the suffragette movement, and it’s in the classical tradition she discusses here. —Janet Hutchings 

When I first heard the phrase “cosy crime” I thought it sounded like an oxymoron. No matter how twee the community in which the crime is committed, from St. Mary Mead to Midsomer, surely murder is murder. There is nothing innocuous or cockle-warming about being stabbed, strangled, or poisoned to a painful death.

Nevertheless it’s a subgenre that continues to enchant us the world over—upstanding, tea-drinking, God-fearing communities with all sorts of sinister secrets at their hearts, leading to violent demises of vicars and grand dames. Whatever it is about it there is no doubt we want to read about murder in a light, safe and entertaining way. When I sat down to write my first novel, The Hourglass Factory, although I didn’t necessarily want to write something too cosy, I was suddenly faced with the dilemma that must confront every crime writer from hardboiled P.I. creators to psychological chroniclers: How (and why) do you transform something as abhorrent as murder into entertainment?

Ignoring the argument that crime fiction puts an important squeeze on its fictional societies, forcing them to reveal their fault lines and true colours (because while I do believe that is true of many writers, that isn’t my goal when I sit down to write), there is the plain and simple problem of describing death in a way that keeps the reader hooked, while showing enough respect for the victim. How do you judge how much empathy we should have for them? How to judge the correct amount of horror to sit between thrilling writing and salaciousness?

I found that precedent helped. When trying to emulate your heroes you don’t stop to think too much about why they made their decisions—just paying attention to the tone of their descriptions and how they use murder in their plots is enough at first, like a sketcher trying to trace the shape of an existing drawing. Agatha Christie described her books as “puzzles,” Dan Brown has called his “treasure hunts.” Seeing the murders for their functionality in fiction rather than for the devastation of their real-life counterparts helps to create distance from the horror of what you are setting out to do.

Christie also was a master at choosing an odious victim—someone the reader is invited to hate (along with everyone else in the book). Brown’s and Jed Rubenfeld’s murders tend to happen to peripheral characters we don’t get to know very well. If the murder of someone we dislike or have not invested much in serves to take us on a symbolic journey that brings the world’s forces back into alignment by the end, then they have served as a sort of stand-in sacrificial lamb in the land of the book.

But when it comes to description, having a horror for what you are writing probably helps. Assuming your reader is a reasonable human being, there shouldn’t be the need to spoon-feed to them that what they are reading is repugnant. Christie favoured blood-lite deaths; poisoned darts, lethal injections, single gunshot wounds from small pistols. John Dickson Carr and Conan Doyle focussed on the intricacy and ingenuity of the deaths to draw attention away from their violence. But in novels where gore takes the fore, such as Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter books, the author depends on our repugnance—plays to it in fact—to take us to the edge of our terror thresholds, the very limits of our tolerance.

But although that sorts out some of the how, there is still the why. Why is crime fiction entertaining? I’m still not quite sure, but I know that as a reader, film-lover, and writer I’m glad it exists. I’ve always hated rollercoasters. The idea of being plunged upside down or thrown around, disorientated, discombobulated, hurt and dizzied has never held much appeal for me. Yet still theme parks continue to be a staple family pastime: a symbol of wholesome fun. Despite the discomfort of the ride it takes us out of everyday sensations, allows us for a few minutes to feel something extraordinary. Similarly crime fiction allows us to peep behind the curtain of things not usually seen or discussed, aspects of life that hopefully most of us will never confront in the real world—but which still exist.

Hitchcock once said that he was a very easily frightened person, and this he described as his “good luck in life. I’m fortunate to be a coward, to have a low threshold of fear, because a hero couldn’t make a good suspense film.” He advocated turning this fear outward, perhaps recognising how much he enjoyed being frightened: “You should make the audience suffer as much as possible.”

Perhaps at the end of the day entertainment isn’t always meant to be pleasant or pleasurable. We want to stretch the peripheries of the body and mind in all directions, not just the happy ones.

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“Saved by Ellery Queen” (by Russell Atwood)

When I first came to EQMM in June of 1991, editor-in-chief Eleanor Sullivan was no longer able to work due to illness and the magazine was being run by Russell Atwood, EQMM’s managing editor. Russell was anxious to get on to other things in his life, especially his own writing, but he stayed at the magazine for an extra couple of months so that I could learn the ropes before having to find a replacement for him. I’ve never forgotten the generosity of his staying on—but that’s the kind of person he is. His decision to go freelance and thereby make more time for his own writing paid off. Five years later, he appeared in EQMM’s Department of First Stories with “East of A” (June 1996), which subsequently was expanded into his first novel, of the same title, published by Ballantine/Fawcett. Payton Sherwood, the protagonist of that highly praised debut novel, appeared again in Losers Live Longer, from Hard Case Crime, and Russell tells us he is currently working on a third book in the series, Cheaters Never Quit. He has also produced numerous live-action shows, including Ghost Stories Live! and the Nickie, Jameson, and Fred Show, all of which are available for viewing on YouTube under his production name SidMartyLovecraft.—Janet Hutchings

I met Ellery Queen when I was fourteen years old, in January of 1979 at the dinner celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the first Ellery Queen novel, The Roman Hat Mystery. At the time my family lived in Massachusetts, far from Manhattan, but I’d read about the event in Chris Steinbrunner’s Jury Box pages of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. I badgered my father into taking me to New York City to attend this event (it would be my Christmas and birthday presents! I pleaded). My dad wasn’t a fan of mysteries himself—or even much of a reader; his limited selection of books consisted of Ted Williams’s autobiography and a coin-collector guide—but he took me anyway, God love him.

I’d become a fan of Ellery Queen watching the NBC series that starred Jim Hutton and David Wayne. It only ran for one season, produced by the creators of Columbo, Richard Levinson and William Link (themselves alumni of EQMM, having had their first fiction published in the magazine), but I believe from the very first I was won over by the moment when Hutton turned to face the camera and obliterated the fourth wall to present his famous challenge to the viewer: “Well, I now know who the killer is. . . . Do you? All the clues have been revealed.” I’d been brought up on TV, like most people of my generation, but this was the first time a television character had literally spoken directly to me (or at least that’s how it felt to me—lying on the living room floor with my chin propped up in the palm of my hands—he was talking to me alone).

My fascination with the “detective,” to begin with, probably stems from the fact that I was once falsely accused of a crime I didn’t commit. Or don’t believe I committed; I was only six years old at the time. During a pool party at my parents’ home in 1969, my mother’s diamond engagement ring went missing. She’d taken it off and left it on the kitchen sink’s drainboard while rinsing out some glasses and plates. About twenty-five friends and family were in attendance. It was late—about 9:30 P.M.—but I’d come down in my PJ’s to investigate the frolicking. I remember none of this myself, but it’s how the story goes: The ring was suddenly gone and I was accused of taking it (even now, I wouldn’t put it past me, I still love shiny objects). To this day, it has never resurfaced, but a family legend grew from it that I was the one responsible.

I never shook the mixed feeling of guilt and affront; for decades all I desired was just to know the truth. Even before I knew what a detective was, I wished one had been there: a Holmes, a Poirot, an Ellery Queen, someone to set the record straight. I’m only guessing now, but I believe that’s where my affinity with the amateur sleuth was born. Certainly after my first viewing of The Hound of the Baskervilles, starring Basil Rathbone, when I was ten, the detective became my hero for life. If only HE’D been there that night, I would not have been unjustly branded a thief for ever after.

I tried to be Holmes for many years after that, but I learned I had neither a feel for the violin or a knack with chemistry. I felt defeated. I’d never be Holmes. But then one night, I met Ellery Queen (not in person yet, but on the TV screen). He was a regular guy. Absent-minded, clumsy, unkempt, shirt untucked, and . . . a dreamer. He was me. So from then on, I was determined to become HIM.

I wanted to solve crimes just like he did every week. And I wanted unjustly accused people to come to me for help in proving their innocence. But in order for that to happen, I first had to write (and publish) detective stories Or else how would people know I was good at solving them? (Quick reminder: I was twelve-years-old. . . . It made sense then).

My first murder mystery involved a dying clue. A man was found shot in his library, limbs draped on the library ladder, his lifeless hand gripping a hardcover book. The house was surrounded by newly fallen snow, only the five inhabitants could’ve committed the crime. All family members. Wife, brother, brother-in-law, sister, and grandmother. The book he’d clutched with his last bit of life was: THE BASIC GUIDE TO ENGLISH GRAMMAR.

Well, of course, you can guess who the killer was once I tell you that on the spine of the book the last gilt letter was faded so the dying man saw the word: Gramma. He’d foolishly hinted to the old woman that he was planning on sending her to a nursing home, and she rebelled and shot him through the heart.

I submitted this story to Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and—naturally—it was rejected (I was a first-time teenager). But in seclusion, with concentration, aided by determination, I finished it.

And so about this time, I met my hero face-to-face. Frederic Dannay, who with his cousin Manfred B. Lee, created the character I had chosen to emulate: ELLERY QUEEN. He wasn’t the six-foot, four-inch Jim Hutton from the series. He was closer to the diminutive David Wayne who played Ellery’s father, Inspector Richard Queen. A brown-and-gray-bearded garden gnome with black horn-rimmed glasses. But he WAS Ellery Queen.

The speech he gave that night was all about his love of the genre. He and Manfred B. Lee had begun writing artfully crafted “whodunits,” but they witnessed the change that soon came to pass, and Fred Dannay—as editor of EQMM—bolstered and helped to advance writers who took the genre beyond the “guess-who’s-the-killer” formula.

Fred and Manny had begun writing Ellery Queen novels to mimic S. S. Van Dine’s Philo Vance books (The Canary Murder Case, The Bishop Murder Case, The Kennel Murder Case, etc.). But they lifted their heads and discovered there was so much more to be told in this field of writing. They became dissatisfied with the whodunit—but not with the puzzle. They realized the puzzle wasn’t merely solved by discovering who, but also how, and much more importantly why.

I only spoke with Fred Dannay for a short time that night in 1979, but that brief encounter has served me well ever since. For one thing: He was happy. He wasn’t six-foot, four-inch Jim Hutton in stature, but he was the man behind that character who had fooled so many die-hard fans with his play-fair puzzles.

Photo courtesy of Russell Atwood.

That night I also met the mutton-chopped sci-fi great (and also frequent contributor to EQMM) Isaac Asimov, who gave me the advice that writing was like having a hole in your head: “The more you pour out, the wider it gets and the easier it is to write. But as the hole grows smaller from less output . . .”

As I matured, my interest in mysteries waned, but my love of writing increased. In college I concentrated more on James Joyce, Flannery O’Connor, Stanley Elkin, and Wallace Stevens. I thought I’d become a “literary” novelist when I moved to New York City after graduating with a B.A. in Literature. But of all the magazines and publishers I submitted resumes to, the only return phone call I received was from Eleanor Sullivan, editor-in-chief of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. After a brief interview I was hired as her editorial assistant, a position I held for three years until her death. During my term as an editor at the magazine, I encountered again Isaac Asimov, who came once a month to oversee the editing of the magazine bearing his name—also in the same offices at that time. And best of all became friends with one of my favorite authors from the pages of EQMM, Edward D. Hoch, a man who delighted in the craft of confounding and puzzling people with problems in deduction, a soul-mate who is still greatly missed. It was also at this time, I met a young man—barely out of high school—who on the surface was a prototypical nerd, but who shared the same love of the bizarre and mysterious as I did when I was his age. Phew! Fortunately we became friends, because afterward Charles Ardai ended up as the publisher of my second novel LOSERS LIVE LONGER, under his imprint Hard Case Crime.

I’ll end this all by saying, there was a moment while I was Eleanor Sullivan’s assistant when I confronted her and challenged her judgment on some story, and blatantly asked her: “Well, why did you hire me if you didn’t think I was a good editor???”

She said, “Russell, the only reason I hired you was because you met Fred Dannay when you were fourteen.”

It humbled me, but also made me feel great. Ellery Queen had saved me after all.

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“A Brash Idea Becomes a Publishing Company” (by Lee Goldberg)

Lee Goldberg was already a well-known TV writer and producer and the author of two novels under his own name before he first appeared in EQMM in 2001. But that EQMM debut was also his start as a short-story writer. Since then he has had more than a half-dozen other stories in EQMM, most of them featuring the characters from the Monk TV series. Those stories were later incorporated into novels the bestselling author wrote for several years as tie-ins to the TV series. Lee Goldberg’s work has been recognized in the field with two Edgar Allan Poe Award nominations and two Shamus Award nominations. To date he has authored over thirty novels, including the Fox and O’Hare series, which he co-writes with Janet Evanovich. As if that were not already a very long list of accomplishments in our field, he has recently gone over to the other side of the desk, so to speak, and become the co-founder of his own publishing company. It’s a venture I’m sure many, like me, are watching with high expectations.—Janet Hutchings
Lee Goldberg

Lee Goldberg

All mystery writers have them—the cherished, often underappreciated, out-of-print books that we loved and that shaped us as writers. They are the books that made an impression on me in my teenage and college years and still feel new and vital to me today. They are the books that I talk about to friends, thrust into the hands of aspiring writers, and that I wish I’d written. They are the yellowed, forgotten paperbacks I keep buying out of pure devotion whenever I see them in used bookstores . . . even though I have more copies than I’ll ever need.

I’ve been at this long enough that many of my own books have fallen out of print, too. But I brought them back in new, self-published Kindle and paperback editions and, to my surprise and delight, they sold extremely well. It occurred to me that if I could do it for my books, why couldn’t I do the same thing for all those forgotten books that I love?

So, a little over a year ago, I started negotiating with the estate of an obscure author whose books I greatly admire but that never achieved the wide readership and acclaim that they deserved. I was in the midst of those talks when, at a Bouchercon in Albany, I told Joel Goldman, a good friend, mystery writer, lawyer, and a successful self-publisher of his own backlist, what I had in mind.

Joel got this funny look on his face and said, “That’s a business model. I really think we’re on to something.”

We?

It turned out that, like me, he’d been getting hit up constantly at the conference by author-friends who were desperate for his advice on how they could replicate his self-publishing success with their own out-of-print books . . . many of which had won wide acclaim and even the biggest awards in our genre. He’d been trying to think of a way he could help them out.

Now he thought he had the solution. What if we combined the two ideas? What if we republished the books that we’d loved for years as well as truly exceptional books that only recently fell out of print?

It sounded great to me. And at that moment, without any prior intent, we became publishers of what we considered to be the best crime novels in existence. It was a brash act . . . and that’s how, as naturally as we became publishers, we found our company name.

Brash Books.

One of the first calls I made was to Tom Kakonis, whose books were a big influence on me, to ask if we could republish his out-of-print titles. His thrillers, including Michigan Roll and Criss Cross, achieved that perfect, delicate balance between drama and dark, almost outrageous humor, without going too far in either direction. It’s a skill that Elmore Leonard and Tom mastered, and that I’d hoped to some day be able to pull off myself. (I’m still trying.) I read Tom’s books the first time for pure pleasure but then again . . . and again . . . to see if I could discover how the magic was done.

In the mid 90s, I sold my first hardcover novel under my own name, My Gun Has Bullets, to St. Martin’s Press and went to a Bouchercon with a bunch of bound galleys in my bag. I spotted Tom there and nervously approached him for a blurb . . . and to my astonishment, he not only agreed to read my galley, but a few weeks later, he gave me a great review.  Getting that blurb was almost as exciting for me as being published in the first place.

I’d never forgotten that experience. Or him. So naturally he was at the top of my call-list when we started this venture. And this time, he thrilled me again by saying yes to letting us republish his books. He also mentioned that he had a novel that he wrote some years ago, but had stuck in a drawer because he’d been so badly burned by the publishing business. I asked if I could read it . . . and he sent it to me. I was blown away by it and so was Joel. We couldn’t believe that a book this good, that was every bit as great as his most acclaimed work, had gone unpublished. It was a gift for us to be able to publish it. And that’s how, unintentionally, we decided to publish brand new books, too.

Tom’s unpublished novel, Treasure Coast, became our lead title when we launched in September 2014 with thirty books . . . from authors as diverse as Barbara Neely, Dick Lochte, Gar Anthony Haywood, Dallas Murphy, Maxine O’Callaghan, Bill Crider, and Jack Lynch, to name just a few. Now we’re on track to publish eight to ten novels each quarter, one or two of which will be brand new, never-before-published books.

It’s a business that’s very much a labor of love for us both. We get a bigger thrill now out of seeing new copies of our authors’ books than we do our own. The widow of one of our authors got teary-eyed over Brash’s editions of his out-of-print books because we were treating them the way he’d always wanted. We got tears in our eyes, too. We started Brash Books for moments like that and for Tom’s dedication in Treasure Coast:

“For Lee Goldberg, who may have rescued me.”

For me, that was coming full circle. I may have rescued him, but the example he set with his books helped launch my career . . . and now a publishing company, too.

Our goal with Brash Books is to introduce readers, and perhaps future writers, to great books that shouldn’t be forgotten and to incredible new crime novels that we hope will be cherished in the future.

And yet, to our frustration, our list still doesn’t include any books by that obscure, deceased author who brought Joel and I together in this brash publishing adventure. We’re still negotiating with that author’s estate. But we’re not giving up. I love those books too much to let go. I just bought two more of them at a flea market today. . . .

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MYSTERIOUS VOYAGES

These days I’m not much of a traveler; it generally takes a business commitment to get me to leave home. It’s not that I don’t like being in new—and even exotic—places. I do. It’s just that getting there is no longer any fun at all. The romance has all but gone out of the transit part of travel.

A few years ago I saw David Suchet as Poirot in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. How wonderfully it recreates the sense of adventure I used to associate with trains. In it, the director of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits says to Hercule Poirot that a train “lends itself to romance, my friend. All around us are people, of all classes, of all nationalities, of all ages. For three days, these people, these strangers to one another, are brought together. They sleep and eat under one roof, they cannot get away from each other. At the end of three days they part, they go their separate ways, never, perhaps, to see each other again.”

Of course, that train ride of Poirot’s was supposed to have taken place in the 1930s. But for at least a couple of decades after that, travel, especially aboard trains and ships, continued to have an aura of romance: people dressed for a trip if it involved a public conveyance, even a bus, let alone luxurious transport like the Orient Express. For most people, the journey was considered an event, not simply a means of getting from A to B. I saw a remnant of that about a decade ago when I took an overnight train from New York to Georgia. In my car there happened to be a number of elderly African-Americans, all dressed rather formally compared to the younger travelers in the car, and all conveying, by the courtesy of their gestures and remarks, a sense of pleasure in and attentiveness to their fellow passengers and the journey itself. You could imagine such a group forming the cast in a Golden Age mystery.

“Romance” in the wide sense in which Christie uses it in that passage from Murder on the Orient Express is a key component in many mysteries. The sense of possibility that comes from the newness of people, situations, and places can be, in itself, an engine for suspense. The reader comes to such a story expecting something unusual to happen, and maybe that makes the suspense writer’s job just a little bit easier. I think my interest in travel mysteries has to do with there being so few opportunities to find that kind of romance in the real world anymore. Most real-world travelers these days are hooked up to smart phones or tablets, or in some other way shut off in their own self-contained worlds, rather than attuned to the people around them—and to be honest, I’m no exception.

My trip to Long Beach in November, for the Bouchercon World Mystery Convention, served to remind me, however, that there’s sometimes a bit of intrigue and magic to be found even in contemporary travel.

Long Beach, I discovered, is the current home of the Queen Mary, one of the greatest of the transatlantic passenger ships of the nineteen thirties through the sixties. She’s slightly dilapidated now, as I discovered in my very brief visit aboard her, though she’s currently operated as a hotel and museum. But even though the ship could use a bit of sprucing up, there’s no way to miss how glamorous it must have been to take passage on her. Her size alone was enough to inspire my awe. Add to all of that that the ship is reputed to be haunted—ghost tours are one of the attractions—and you’ve got a perfect setting for a story of mystery, intrigue, or the supernatural. And in fact, in the ship’s heyday, several mystery writers incorporated this classic passenger ship into their fiction. Perhaps the most notable of these writers was Jack Finney, who, incidentally, got his start in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in 1946 with the short story “The Widow’s Walk.” Finney is perhaps most famous for his time-travel novel Time and Again, but his novel employing the Queen Mary, Assault on a Queen, was made into a movie starring Frank Sinatra.

After my visit to the Queen Mary, freshly infused with a sense of the grand adventure travel must have been back then, I made my way to LAX for a red-eye flight, expecting that the sundry irritations of contemporary travel would soon erase that pleasant daydream. I was not mistaken. Boarding a plane has become a lengthy and bizarre ritual in which not one’s social class exactly, but one’s “preferred status,” determines the order of boarding and guarantees a claim to the inadequate overhead luggage space. I mention this because it led to a minor incident with a surprising denouement. Ahead of me in the last boarding class was a young man who could possibly have been Middle Eastern. He spoke little English and seemed slightly anxious—a mood that became greatly pronounced when, on his reaching the door to the plane, a steward blocked the way and informed all of us that there was no space left for carry-on luggage and that all remaining bags would be tagged and transferred to the luggage hold. The young man refused to surrender his bag, arguing with the steward and holding up the rest of the line. I didn’t see how that finally played out as I was eventually waved through to my seat. But a few minutes later the young man appeared on the plane and took the seat directly across the aisle from mine. Despite the disruption, it looked as if we’d depart on time—until the steward came back and informed the young man that the captain wanted to speak to him. Apparently the captain was satisfied they weren’t dealing with someone dangerous, and preparations for departure continued—until an announcement was made that fuel had spilled on the runway and we’d all have to get off the plane.

I won’t bore you with the confusion surrounding our long wait in what was becoming the middle of the night. Suffice it to say that another plane in another terminal was eventually found for us and we were allowed to reclaim our carry-ons—none of which had yet been put in the luggage hold. Not hesitating to push and shove his way through the crowd, the young man who’d been so reluctant to relinquish his bag made it first to the new terminal, where he’d be sure, even in the fifth boarding class, to get the thing on board this time.

Again, I was not far behind him in line, and now his behavior was even more unsettling. Leaving his bag at the head of the line, he moved a few yards away and stood fidgeting and looking around him. The terminal was almost empty except for our flight by this time—around 1:30 in the morning. There was no sign that boarding was to begin any time soon. As I observed the man with the bag, I wondered if anyone else had an eye on him.

It was at this point that, in the near silence of the late-night terminal, there came the sound of a violin. And everyone seemed to turn as one. A passenger at the end of one of the lines had apparently opened his carry-on—a violin case—and begun a medley of classical pieces. Balm to his fellow passengers, and no one seemed to feel it more than the man with the bag, who entirely abandoned his luggage and moved a good thirty feet away to climb up onto a luggage trolley where he could watch the musician play. He listened for quite a while—we all did—until boarding was finally announced. I knew as soon as I saw him flock to the source of the music that the man with the bag was simply another tired and frustrated traveler. But it could have ended a different way—it could have made material for a mystery story. And that violin player? He added an element of romance that I hadn’t at all expected to encounter; when he finally came into view, filing past our line to board the plane, we could see that he looked more like a teenage rapper—leather jacket and cap on backwards—than a classical violinist. As Christie said, ”people of all classes, of all nationalities, of all ages . . . [who] cannot get away from each other . . . ” Put them together and it can make for some great surprises. —Janet Hutchings

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“Boredom, and Other Cures for the Modern World” (by Antony Mann)

Antony Mann is an Australian writer who grew up in and currently lives near Sydney. His work first appeared in EQMM in 2002. After a long absence he will be returning to our pages in the May 2015 issue with the story “The Greater Good.” That tale, like much of his work, reflects an offbeat and very distinctive way of seeing the world. In this post, Antony talks about creativity, and it’s appropriate, for he’s one of the most original writers currently working in the mystery short story field. His stories (one of which won the U.K. Crime Writers’ Association’s Short Story Dagger) have appeared in many different periodicals, and his short-story collection, Milo & I, published in the U.K. by Elastic Press, recently found a new audience when it was reprinted in Japan.—Janet Hutchings

I grew up in a house of books, in a city of libraries. It was my father who was the insatiable reader. Every Saturday morning the whole family would drive the two or three miles to the nearest shopping centre, buy our groceries at the supermarket, then head for the municipal library next door.

These were the days pre-computer, so you didn’t have much choice when you ventured into a library—you could come home with a book, or you could come home with nothing. I would gather up my Moomintroll stories, or novels about giant exploding fungus pods threatening to obliterate all life as we know it (I think I read that one four times), and Dad would grab his stack of WWII histories and his Rex Stouts and Agatha Christies.

It’s a cliche to say it, but back then, in the 1960s and 1970s, life was simpler. In the times before the advent of the personal computer, there were fewer distractions. I was by no means a bookish child, and I would always have rather been out playing football or riding my bike or exploring the bush with my friends, but life was also made up of a lot of empty spaces. There were no such things as play dates. Either your neighbourhood friends were around, or they weren’t. If you were left to your own devices when the day was sunny, you’d be out in the back yard, pretending to be that year’s football hero or practicing throwing darts at trees. If it was raining and you were stuck indoors, you could watch TV until your mum or dad kicked you out of the room, and then you had to fend for yourself. You could play a board game until your bickering with your siblings drove your parents mad, or you could find somewhere quiet and read a book.

It was in these quiet times that I read my Moomintrolls and my exploding fungus epics. Then, as I grew older, I began to take a passing interest in the books that my father was bringing home. I’ll tell you for free, I have a good working understanding of the causes and the course of the Second World War. But it was in these years of growing up that I also found Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. There was Ellery Queen himself, of course, and Lew Archer and Sam Spade.

There is no doubt that these heroes of mine have in some way informed my own crime writing, giving me a solid platform on which to at least try to build. But I wonder also about the other quiet spaces of my childhood, the ones in which nothing was happening. We had the time for nothing back then, you see. We could afford to be bored—or perhaps it was that our parents could afford to let us be bored. There was no expectation that every hour of every day would be filled with . . . something.

Nowadays, it feels sometimes as though we’re missing those empty times and spaces from our lives. There is always some new thing to occupy the hours, be it obsessively checking our e-mail or surfing the net, responding to texts, or playing those addictive little brain-sucking games on our tablets or smartphones. Our children must be entertained with the latest blockbuster film or DVD, or pacified by the newest electronic toy, or educated and enthralled by endless after-school activities lest their very brains atrophy through disuse. Our culture loathes the idea of a vacuum, and we are the creators of our culture. Which is a little frightening, because it was during those empty times and spaces that people used to learn how to create.

In 1958, Professor E. Paul Torrance began testing American children for creativity, in the same way that intelligence quotients had been measured for decades previous. Though assessing creativity remains an inexact science, the results are measurable. A high score on the Torrance test is an accurate predictor of growing up into an industry where innovation and creativity are crucial, be that entrepreneur, doctor, software developer, or writer.

In 1990, while IQ scores continued their inexorable rise due to enriched learning environments, for the first time Creativity Quotient scores began to trend down. They’ve been decreasing year on year ever since. Blame has been laid at the foot of overstuffed school curricula which leave no room for creative thinking, and the insidious intrusion of all-consuming technology into the lives of ourselves and our children.

Findings such as these correlate with other recent studies which reveal that being bored is actually a spur to creativity. It is these empty spaces where we have nothing to do which give rise to the ideas which, for we writers at least, are so important to our daily work.

Sadly, in today’s world there is no longer any need to be bored. We can always find diversion if we want it, and want it we do. We crave novelty, moving without pause for reflection from one bright thing to the next, never satisfied by the sparkly baubles of modern life. I feel it myself, the pull of this easy distraction, eating into my time. It almost seems these days that we must find a way to impose a kind of artificial boredom on ourselves, a way to provide the space in which ideas might percolate into our consciousness. The demands of modern life decree that we mark out and defend a quiet realm for our writing, but also for our reading and, indeed, for unadorned thinking. If we don’t, then like the children of the Torrance tests, our creative life will surely be diminished.

Those of us born before the computer age have an advantage over our children. We’re fortunate in that we learned back then what we need to remember today—how to make our lives simpler, how to be less the slaves to the frantic pace of the modern era, which threatens constantly to distract us from the things which matter. We have lived this simplicity —this boredom—before, and so we can find it again if we make the effort. It takes discipline, but it can be done.

Our children, though, the writers and readers of the future, are born into this new and frantic world. They have never had the experience of living in another time. It’s up to us to help them, provide them with an environment in which their creativity will blossom. And in doing so, we’ll be sustaining and nurturing our own creative impulses as well.

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