“How I Got Hooked” (by John Lantigua)

John Lantigua is a journalist whose work has received two Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Prizes, a share of the Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism, and other awards.  His first novel, Heat Lightning, appeared in 1987 and was nominated for the Edgar Allan Poe Award for best first novel.  His well-known series starring P.I. Willie Cuesta began in 1999 with the novel Player’s Vendetta, and he continues to write about the Little Havana detective today. In fact, John’s recent stories for EQMM are all in the Cuesta series. Readers won’t want to miss “The Jaguar at Sunset,” in the March/April 2016 double issue, or “In the Time of the Voodoo,” which will appear later in 2016. In this post the author talks about his journey to the mystery field. Happy Thanksgiving everyone! —Janet Hutchings 

I’m sure devotees of the mysteries come to the genre in all sorts of different ways. Through schools, Edgar Allan Poe is an early experience for many of us, although that doesn’t always take. Some probably inherit a lasting taste for suspense from a parent or older sibling. At a relatively early age they discover stray Agatha Christies or Raymond Chandlers around the house. Maybe a person fractured a leg, was laid up and looking for a way not to die of boredom. Some kind soul brought round some Hillermans, Paretskys, J.D. Robbs or Daniel Silvas. I’ve noticed that Lawrence Sanders tends to hang out for years in the slush piles at country inns just waiting to trap the unsuspecting.

I got hooked in an unusual way and in an unusual place.

In the early 1980s, I was a correspondent for United Press International in the Central American nation of Nicaragua. The United States opposed the government there at the time and was soon supporting a rebel force that was attempting to at least weaken if not overthrow the existing order. Journalists from all over the world poured into Nicaragua, until at times it seemed there was one reporter for every Nicaraguan citizen.

Government leaders frequently called press conferences to denounce the rebels—and the U.S.—or to make other announcements. Because of the war, security at those events had to be very tight. Every piece of equipment carried by journalists—cameras, common tape recorders, large sound boxes used by television “sound men”—had be screened for bombs. That all took a lot of time, so that reporters had to be on the premises at least two hours before the conference was to begin.

I employed only a pen and notebook, had no equipment to inspect, and I was waved right into the conference space. A few other colleagues were also low tech and would join me there. We would chat a bit, but since we saw each other fairly often, the gossip lasted only so long. I soon decided to bring reading material with me in order to not waste hours of my life.

Since I was covering a nation in conflict, I was reading famous authors who had written about war: Tolstoy, Crane, Hemingway, James Jones, early Tim O’Brien. I tried to bring those works with me to read preconference, but it simply didn’t work. As the room filled up, it grew noisier and what I was trying to read was just too dense, too demanding to hold my attention in the rising din. I needed a book that was faster, plot-driven, more compulsively readable.

I cannot remember how it is that the first Ross Macdonald fell into my hands. And I can’t recall if it was The Goodbye Look, The Zebra-Striped Hearse, The Galton Case, or The Wycherly Woman. But the moment I opened Macdonald I was hooked. They could have held the press conference right around me and I wouldn’t have known it was going on. Well, almost.

I read a bunch of them. I sampled other authors as well, but it was Macdonald’s tightly-woven plots that really grabbed me. A couple of years later, still reporting in Nicaragua and other nearby countries, I decided that I knew enough about the Central American conflicts and also enough about mystery novels to write one of my own. My first novel was Heat Lightning, set in San Francisco, where I had once lived. It dealt with a murder in the Salvadoran community there, a killing with connections to the civil war back in El Salvador. It was published by Putnam in 1987, edited by Neil Nyren, who is now editor-in-chief at Putnam. It was nominated for an Edgar Award by the Mystery Writers of America and optioned by Columbia Pictures.

I’ve bounced back and forth between journalism and fiction writing ever since. I’m at work on my eighth book.

I recently reread The Galton Case. Macdonald is still magic.

Posted in Awards, Books, Guest, History, International, Politics, Readers, Setting, Story, Writers | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Dem Bones, Dem Bones . . .” (by Marilyn Todd)

Marilyn Todd is the author of sixteen historical novels and dozens of short stories, many of the latter for EQMM. Two recent collections of her tales are worth mentioning. Swords, Sandals and Sirens (Crippen and Landru Publishers) gathers, in print, primarily stories from her Ancient Roman series starring wine merchant Claudia Seferius. Untreed Reads will be bringing out a separate e-collection of the British author’s historical stories (title yet to be determined) in the spring of 2016. Marilyn’s fiction is often filled with the romance of adventure. But come to that, so is her life. She and her husband travel extensively, and they could hardly have chosen a more romantic place to call home—as you’ll see in this post. —Janet Hutchings

The novel pretty much writes itself. Couple move to France. They buy some land, build a house, and while it’s going up, unearth a body.

Except this isn’t fiction.

This happened to us.

Cognac (yes, that Cognac, where the world’s finest brandy comes from) isn’t exactly renowned for violence. More for tourists, weaving through its narrow cobbled streets and photographing its delightful half-timbered buildings, sipping coffee at a pavement café, strolling the quays beside the river, and sampling its smooth amber delights.

In fact, the best Cognac sees by way of aggression is water-jousting. Proof that Ancient Roman traditions are still alive and well, water-jousting is where opposing teams row hell for leather towards each other in shallow boats, the aim being that their lancer, balanced precariously on a special platform, knocks their opponent in the river. Thirsty work, stirring stuff, but not so competitive as to want to kill each other.

Having said that, we’re not exactly in the centre of the town. The plot we chose—a field, basically—lies at the edge of a village of just four hundred souls which, although only a short distance as the crow flies, is very much in the country.

And it absolutely reeks with history.

The ancient Gauls left few traces, certainly none round here. But shortly before we moved to our hilltop paradise, local archaeologists discovered a Roman bridge across one of the many arms of the little river that flows beneath the bluff just fifty yards from us. The Via Agrippa (think Roman interstate) passes half a mile away. And in winter, when the trees are bare, we can, if we lean far enough over the balcony without falling off, just about make out the slate roofs of a château, whose foundations date back to the Crusades. Not bad for a neighbour.

This idyll quickly became the inspiration for Scorpion Rising. Riddled with caves, perched on a rocky promontory shaped like an arrow head, and with a stream at the bottom with more arms than the goddess Kali, this was why we made this plot our home. And given that one of the castle’s many incarnations was a seminary for Catholic priests, it seemed only right that I continue the theme. In my case, with a college of nature priestesses, who kept men as sex slaves (down, boys!) in a compound at the top of the hill.

Right where our house was being built.

They say life imitates art, and while I was quietly plotting uprisings and murder taking place on that very spot, mechanical diggers had been in, foundations had been laid, bricks were going up—and my husband was busy clearing the land.

Which, in many ways, was a pity. Brimming with wildflowers and littered with fallen trees, it was a haven for wildlife. Keen-eyed buzzards perched on the poles, kestrels hovered overhead, and at one point a deer raised two fawns in the garden. But what was, not so long ago, part of a woodland and a field for sheep needed to be tidied. If only to let us to drive in! Bit by bit, Mr. Todd tamed the invasive tangle of brambles and shrubs, cut down grass that was chest high in places, and disposed of the chestnut trees rotting happily away into sawdust. Finally, he was free to tackle the four-metre high, three-metre deep, thirty-metre wide mountain of greenery that formed our front boundary.

Within no time, all manner of stuff began turning up. Rusted gates, iron bedframes, charred timbers, rubble, even a ploughshare, all bound together by fist-thick roots and tendrils of ivy. So when he spotted a lump of corrugated iron he wasn’t exactly surprised. Another contribution for the local amenity tip! But as he wrestled more branches, and more snakes, he realized it hadn’t been dumped. This was the roof of an old shed, that had once served as a woodstore, and the shed was still standing.

Instant echoes of Cold Comfort Farm. “Something nasty in the woodshed.” Whoohoo.

Over the course of the next few days, other items saw daylight for the first time in decades. Gloves, jacket, boots, socks, an old blanket. And with every new find, we’d try to imagine what illicit purposes this ramshackle shed might have been put to. Was this the local red-light district? A lovers’ tryst? Or, since the stuff turning up was purely menswear, evidence of cottaging in this village of just four hundred scattered souls?

To add to the intrigue, the woman who sold us the land was divorced, the husband apparently not seen again afterwards. Could this have been his hiding place? His refuge from nagging? Was that why he divorced her, he couldn’t take any more? Or did she divorce him, because he spent all his time in the woodshed, rather than working? Either way, Monsieur P. hadn’t been seen for over twenty years, and when a pair of boots turned up—well, talk about conspiracy heaven!

Then my husband came home and said, “I’ve found bones.”

You could have heard a pin drop.

Suddenly, all those jokes about Monsieur P. running as fast as he could after the divorce weren’t so funny.

Time to call in the cavalry.

Needless to say, what bones remained had been shattered beneath decades of rubble and junk, but there was certainly a skeleton in there.

The good news was, Monsieur P. was alive and well. That’s to say, it wasn’t his remains in the garden, and what a relief that turned out to be. The bad news is that some poor animal, most likely a wild boar—the skull was never recovered—had crawled in there to die. Certain pig bones bearing a worryingly close resemblance to human bones. (Remember that, next time you tuck into BBQ ribs).

We also learned that village life isn’t quite so tranquil as one might think. After the Revolution, when vast areas of France were completely lawless, there was a gang roaming this area, nicknamed Les Chauffeurs. Nothing to do with taxis or stretch limos. Chauffe is all about heat. Direct heat. These charmers would break into the homes of local peasants, tie them up, then hold their feet in the fire until they told them where their money was hidden.

Even today, very recently, a woman living alone was found dead in her home under suspicious circumstances. We’ve had burglaries, brawls, even helicopters searching for an inmate who escaped from prison forty kilometres away and felt our woods would make the perfect hiding place. Not.

Of course, the woodshed has gone. The land has been tamed. The buzzard showed its displeasure right down the patio doors, for a second I thought I’d blacked out.

Another mess for Mr. Todd to clear up.

Posted in Adventure, Books, Guest, Historicals, History, International, Setting, Story, Writers, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Communicating the Unfamiliar: Writing the Underbelly in Africa” (by Meg Opperman)

Meg Opperman’s first story for EQMM was published earlier this year, and she has another tale coming up for us in 2016. Both stories take place in Tanzania, a country the author knows intimately. A former Fulbright scholar, she’s a cultural anthropologist and Africanist by training, and has lived in Tanzania, Kenya, and Zimbabwe. She tells EQMM that her work as an anthropologist and researcher often informs elements of her fiction, but as you’ll see from her post, writing crime fiction based in other cultures presents unique challenges. Meg’s short stories have appeared in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, Weird Tales, and several anthologies, in addition to EQMM. She currently lives in the U.S. and writes a column (Write Side Up) for the Washington Independent Review of Books. —Janet Hutchings

I love to write crime fiction set in Africa. I’m particularly fond of Kenya and Zimbabwe, but my favorite country to write about is Tanzania. Why Tanzania? Because there’s so much material. An endless amount, really. That, and I’ve spent the majority of my adult life working on and researching various issues in Tanzania. Some story ideas I’ve actually witnessed firsthand, others are suggested to me, and other ideas I get from reading the Swahili and English newspapers. I particularly like crimes that would be unlikely to happen in the U.S., or at least wouldn’t happen in the same way. Those are an absolute delight to write. But the stories are also very challenging to get down on paper. And perhaps not for the reason you might think.

Africa is a huge continent. It is approximately two and a half times the size of the U.S. and currently contains fifty-five internationally recognized states (and a couple of unrecognized ones). Each country has its own language(s), culture(s), and socio-political environments. And don’t even get me started about the variation in landscape and how that can affect the setting for a story. When I taught African Studies, a sizeable majority of students came into my class calling Africa a country. I’m proud to say that none of them left my class under that misconception. But I still get asked on a regular basis whether there are cities in Africa (Hint: There are), and I’ve even had one student ask a very indulgent guest speaker whether she had ever worn clothes before coming to the U.S. (Hint: She had). For me, these are cringe-worthy moments, but I recognize that most Americans, me included, had almost no education about Africa—or any of its countries—in high school. I think I had to memorize some capitals for a geography quiz. But that was about it. I’d like to think it’s getting better—and really, it couldn’t get much worse—but I’m skeptical.

News organizations don’t help us fill in the blanks in our knowledge either, or at least not in a meaningful, well-rounded way. Much like in the U.S., the news coming out of Africa tends to be negative and sensational. Wars, famines, HIV, Ebola, malaria, female genital mutilation, and let’s not forget terrorism. When I look at that list, it’s amazing I ever spent time in Tanzania. Why not stay in safe, comfortable, first-world U.S.A.? Because, of course, that’s not the whole picture. Any more than it is when we listen to the news of horrible happenings in the U.S. Serial killers? Check. School shootings? Check. High rates of incarceration? Riots? Gridlocked Congress? Check, check, check. These are facets of life in the U.S., yet most of us wouldn’t define ourselves by these “benchmarkers.” Most likely we would say, “Yes, but . . .” and offer a more balanced account of life in the U.S. And there definitely are more balanced accounts on Africa. But we have to look hard to find them unless we’ve been lucky enough to spend lots of time with our boots on the ground.

Crime fiction, however, creates an uncomfortable dilemma when writing about Africa, because it generally focuses on the underbelly of society. Happy, well-adjusted, rational protagonists—and especially antagonists—do not a good crime story make. Focusing on dark desires, desperate situations, and conflict, conflict, conflict . . . well, now you’re talking. When Michael Connelly writes about LA, I love all the dirty little details and the big hidden secrets. I like that LA’s beautiful, colorful sky is often the result of smog. What a great analogy to get at the underbelly. Yet, I know that isn’t all of LA. Maybe only a small part. Most people go on their merry way, living their lives the best way they know how. Allison Leotta, a former federal sex-crimes prosecutor, writes about crime in Washington, DC. There’s gang violence, the sex-slave trade, and corrupt politicians (yeah, okay, that one is probably more fact than fiction). But having lived in the greater Metro DC area for almost a dozen years now, I can tell you that there are also many warm, generous people who aren’t actively strategizing how to cover up brutal crimes . . . unless they’re crime-fiction writers too. It leads to some interesting discussions on the Metro. But I digress.

Because so much of what we know about Africa as a whole is negative, it’s problematic for me to then add to that perception knowing that most Americans don’t have a well-balanced picture to begin with. This isn’t true of just countries in Africa, by the way, but is true of many places around the world where people seem very “Other” to us. And let me be clear on this: I wouldn’t have spent so much of my life on a country (Tanzania) and its peoples if I didn’t love and respect them deeply—warts and all.

So I continually ask myself, what’s my responsibility as a crime-fiction writer? Certainly not to get up on my soap box in the middle of a story. Too much of that quickly throws the reader out of the tale. I’m a storyteller first and foremost. But what about context? I do think providing context is key, so that the reader gains a little insight into why certain people do things a certain way. But that’s easier said than done. In a novel there is more space to play with the context, add it in piece by piece, a little here, a little there, but short stories don’t leave a lot of room for extras. Each word has to count. I don’t always feel as if I’m totally successful in making the unfamiliar, well, familiar. But I keep trying.

Additionally, my own academic work—which focused on human rights and violence in East/Central Africa—lends a very particular lens to how I approach a crime story. It certainly isn’t the only lens. Alexander McCall Smith takes a whimsical approach and tone to Botswana. His Botswana has an almost magical, going-to-the-Shire feel to it, which I love and visit often. I’m also a huge fan of Deon Meyer, a gritty, South African thriller writer who writes in Afrikaans, but is also translated into English. I adore his protagonist, detective inspector Bennie Griessel, and I enjoy reading Meyer’s understandings of race, class, and privilege in South Africa and how he weaves those dynamics into a killer story. McCall Smith’s and Meyer’s depictions of countries in Southern Africa couldn’t be further apart, and yet they both bring to their stories a note of truth that has earned them countless fans. I strive to write my own truth, my own stories that readers will enjoy.

For me, staying true to the story I’m telling has everything to do with character. Years ago, I wrote a first draft of a mystery novel set in Tanzania. At the time, I was so certain I was going to be a novelist—I would have laughed if someone had told me then that I’d become a short-story writer instead—that I rushed ahead and wrote the novel without giving much thought to who should be telling this story. Unfortunately for me, I chose the wrong protagonist. While there were some gems in that manuscript, it will remain in a drawer, never to see the light of day. It was discouraging, and I moved on, writing about other places, other peoples, leaving Tanzania behind.

Then one day, a character spoke to me. She said, “I have a story to tell,” and at first I didn’t listen, pushed her away. As most writers can attest, sometimes a character refuses to be ignored. This was the beginning of Mwanza’s finest, police constable Kokuteta Mkama. Her first story, “Twilight Ladies,” appeared in EQMM’s March/April 2015 issue. The crime was one that spun notions of gender relations and power on its head; a young woman mugging wealthy men. When I began writing, I realized that Mkama was pregnant and had a philandering husband. Tanzania is a polygynous society, where even Christian men may have more than one wife, so dalliances with outside partners are rather the norm. Girlfriends are called nyumba ndogo, small houses, and while no wife likes for her husband to stray, it is, if not expected, then at least not unexpected. Besides her family life, I quickly learned that Mkama is resourceful, tactful, and has an admirer. Her partner, police constable Lubadsa (he didn’t even have a first name in this story), is clearly sweet on her, although too decent to act on his crush with a married woman. I hadn’t intended that to happen, but again, I heard him whispering things in my ear. . . and probably sweet nothings to Mkama if I’d let him.

Jamhuri—finally, a first name!—Lubadsa kept talking to me long after “Twilight Ladies” was written, submitted, and accepted. He had a story to tell, too, and also refused to be ignored. Lubadsa’s character reveals himself in the upcoming EQMM story, “Murder Under the Baobab,” where his voice now tells the story instead of Mkama’s. Lubadsa is an honest man and a true gentleman. He wants to be an actual detective, which is still a relatively new concept in policing in Tanzania. Police are generally peacekeepers, not true detectives, but Lubadsa is determined to change that. When his story unfolded, I didn’t realize how perfect the juxtaposition between witchcraft beliefs and his own would be until I’d reached the end of the tale. That is all I will say on this story since it hasn’t made its debut yet and I don’t want to give anything away.

Even with my two protagonists talking to me, I still argue with myself a lot because while I don’t want to stereotype Tanzania as backward, superstitious, or violent, I also am unwilling to overlook its very real underbelly. Violence, crime, and cruelty are facets of life in Tanzania . . . as they are in the U.S. So my challenge is to also show the kindness, community, and humanity that exist alongside the crimes I write about without making it sound like I’m giving an African Studies lecture, and, at the same time, stay true to the story I’m telling. Mkama and Lubadsa are part of that truth, and as long as they keep talking to me, I’ll keep writing about them and their truths.

Posted in Characters, Fiction, Genre, Guest, History, International, Police Procedurals, Setting, Story, Writers, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“An Alias and a Dame” (by Jean B. Cooper)

Jean B. Cooper’s work first appeared in EQMM after a story she’d submitted to the Mystery Writers of America’s Fiftieth Anniversary Short Story Contest was named a finalist in the competition. EQMM published that story in the August 1995 issue and it went on to win the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Short Story of 1995. Jean has also been nominated for the Anthony Award and her stories have been anthologized in best-of-the-year anthologies and elsewhere. She talks about “genre” in this post, but her own work defies such categorization. She writes “literary” as well as genre stories and has won the South Carolina Writers Workshop Fiction Award and been recognized by the South Carolina Fiction Project. In recent years she has devoted much of her time to writing for theater. Her plays have been produced at Piccolo Spoleto and at Playwrights Horizons in New York City. We’re delighted to have a new short story by Jean coming up in our June 2016 issue—something not to be missed!—Janet Hutchings

Have you ever bought a genre car, genre houseplant, or genre drugs (don’t answer the last one)? Genre is a noun. So what is genre fiction? I don’t know, but I’m uncomfortable with the word genre as a noun or as an adjective—sounds like someone’s put on her fancy pants. I grew up in a South Carolina mill village. We said category, which has more syllables, but no particular attitude. How to categorize a story, for instance. I’m not talking about literary journals that publish someone who uses seriously the words sturm und drang to describe his angst, marriage, or circumstances. A memory of a writers’ group experience: I heard a literary mag editor say that he had a weight problem as a kid, and he might not publish a story if a fat person were in it. That fact was not in the mag’s writing guidelines. What I’m wondering about aside from that editor’s issues (sorry, a pun escaped) is is it a thriller, a cozy, a whodunit, a howdunit, or a justget’erdunit story? Maybe it’s a police procedural or a hardboiled crime. Is it a mystery story? There is so much overlapping. Science fiction does differ a bit, as does romance, but to me all stories are, for good or ill, love stories. Why categorize a story? One reason is that some editors must categorize for a target audience. I concede it may be fun to be part of a distinct and specific group, especially if you get to wear costumes. What is a mystery? All these questions! I’m getting dizzy, and you’re on the verge of The Big Snore. Hmmm. My four-year-old grandson walks behind my chair, so I ask him, with good reason: Grandchildren are smarter than all their elders.

“Sweetie, what is a mystery?”

“I don’t know.”

Exactly! The boy is brilliant. A mystery is something unknown. You knew? Stay with me. I’m out for a little spin, and, like Evil, I crave company.

I need an additional source or two for the meaning of mystery. My choice is Wikipedia, a name that to me sounds like a disease to put fear into the hearts of men, and into the hearts of women if I’m telling the truth. Truth? Please wait while I bite my tongue. Note to me: check Wikipedia on origin of idiom “to bite one’s tongue.” It’s probably Shakespeare. In the mill village, we did use “bite your tongue,” and the more succinct imperative “Hush up.”

Wikipedia is infallible, like all things Internet, but if I can’t find there the facts required, I make’em up. It’s the license and freedom of fiction without adult supervision. I love the word fiction, how it feels, how it has the velar “k” followed by the fricative “sh.” Say it . . . slowly. Feels sexy, doesn’t it? No? Really? Well, no offense intended, but see the above comments on the name Wikipedia. It’s a suggestion, and it’s speculative. It doesn’t mean I think you have Wikipedia. Not everybody gets it.

Due to my trying to help you, here’s another suggestion, gratis, because I’m a giver. If, despite all the news items, cautionary tales, true crime, short stories, and novels offering you saner counsel replete with examples, you intend to post your profile, or whatever it’s called, on one of those serial killer dating/matchmaking sites, and want to get some responses, feel free to use my personal relationship with the word fiction. Best not to let it be your lead. Try to sidle up to that aspect of yourself so you’ll sound not crass or weird, but mysteriously alluring. Also, you will come across as intelligent. Don’t go for erudite. Erudite is too too, probably involves some sturm und drang, and a lot of people might think you belong to an obscure religious cult. Okay, maybe that would depend on the dating site. In any event, no need to thank me or to hold me responsible for any disastrous results of decisions you make. I’m merely a writer, and like many writers I’m just putting the word out there so you might be reminded that our world yesterday, today, and tomorrow is lovely, kind, good, generous, beautiful, and deadly.

My unselfish interest in your life and safety took us off on a tangent. God made tangents as side trips for writers where a path emerges for the solitary traveler (without earbuds) to search out the creatures, characters, turns, and unexpected reaches of his very own mind. God, He/She, loves writers. You can look it up. There’s a book in which God spoke to writers. Actually it is a book of assembled books, and you could take an interest in these writings. Here’s a sample, and because this book has various versions and translations, I paraphrase slightly: This is what happened when Xerxes was king. That’s a pretty good opening sentence (it’s not strictly grammatically correct, but let it go). Not a gimmicky hook, but a simple declarative sentence to appeal to the inquisitive nature in all of us, the nature that is tantalized by a mystery, and yearns for answers to who, what, where, when, why, and how. I believe that inquisitiveness is a survival mechanism hardwired in us since man huddled hairy and wary in a dark cave and whispered, What was that noise? So, are you intrigued by an overheard assassination plot, a tale of a hateful scheme to commit genocide, an account of battles and revengeful acts, and (the author of the book, although unknown, was no dummy) the story of a brave, beautiful woman? Guess what, Xerxes is aka Ahasuerus. Already there’s an alias and a dame! Add one hundred eighty days of beauty treatments, two crafty banquets, and the description of home decorative elements. Then there’s a hanging, not a tapestry, but a “You won’t see him around no more” hanging. Did I mention there are some eunuchs? I like a eunuch.

Whew! That’s a story to rival any lengthy novel, yet it has ten short chapters. Everything I’ve listed is in it. If you haven’t guessed already, this story is the Old Testament narrative Esther.

To give the New Testament its due, I’ll suggest there would be fewer horror movies if it were not for the book of The Revelation to John. As a source for story titles, that book is a stand out.

Writers research history, poetry, music, philosophy, science, plus many other disciplines, faiths, beliefs, cultures, and endless minutiae to enhance their own work. Therein we meet true mystery. The creative process—there’s our mystery, but how does it work, this creating of people, worlds, times, and events? There are as many answers to that question as there are writers. I sincerely hope that mystery is never solved or answered definitively. The mystery of creative artistry is dear to me almost to the point of the love and need I have for the mystery of religious faith.

Back to literary genre (got on my fancy pants now—I look good. Oh, hush up). As a writer what I will do is follow the editor’s guidelines. As a reader I do not care about genre, because I don’t have to care. What I am interested in is good writing. I do not mean “make your college professor happy” writing (if you have a college professor do try to write as directed so you get out of that class with a grade that won’t wreck your GPA). What I want to read is the writing I cannot escape, writing with the pull that is visceral, emotional, dark, or perhaps so out there lunatic mad I cannot resist, whether it’s a horror tale, murder mystery, war diary, memoir, a beyond hilarious story like Michael Malone’s Handling Sin which I could barely read for laughing out loud until I had to rest before I could continue, and that is not an exaggeration. You may be astonished I’m including a cookbook, but here the unsurpassed M.F.K. Fisher comes to mind. When I encounter a work of style, form, honesty, slant, and recklessness, and most specifically an ear for how people really talk, you know, what we say when we are real, then I believe willingly in the covenant of the writer. I don’t mind that I will never be so good as the writers whom I admire. It is sufficient that they are kind enough to share their gifts.

I almost forgot. A form of “bite your tongue” is attributed to Shakespeare, Henry VI. It is actually there. I checked.

Posted in Books, Business, Editing, Fiction, Genre, Guest, Publishing, Readers, Setting, Story, Uncategorized, Writers, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Partners in Crime” (by Josh Pachter)

Josh Pachter hardly needs introduction to readers of this site. He has posted here several times, and his name is also seen frequently in the pages of EQMM, as both a translator for our Passport to Crime department and as an author of short stories (he has some four dozen stories in print). Today he talks about literary collaboration. EQMM has its roots in one of the most fruitful literary collaborations ever, that of Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, so the topic is right on target for us. As Josh mentions in his post, his most recent book-length collaboration is Styx with Bavo Dhooge, to be released by Simon & Schuster next week.—Janet Hutchings

November’s EQMM podcast will be me reading Bavo Dhooge’s “Stinking Plaster,” a story I translated for the Passport to Crime department of the magazine’s September/October 2011 issue. And on November 3—just in time to miss Halloween—Simon451 (a new speculative imprint of Simon & Schuster) will publish Styx, a zombie cop novel on which Bavo and I collaborated.

Regular EQMM readers may be aware that I’ve done quite a few translations of Belgian and Dutch stories for Passport to Crime, going back to Theo Capel’s “The Red Mercedes” in 2004—and in 1985, long before “Passport” became a regular feature of the magazine, I translated two of Janwillem van de Wetering’s Grijpstra and de Gier stories. (Just under two years ago, I contributed a post about translating to “Something Is Going to Happen.”)

Readers may also know that—in addition to my translations and solo stories—I’ve also written a number of collaborative stories for Ellery Queen (and other publications), and in conjunction with the “Stinking Plaster” podcast and the publication of Styx, Janet Hutchings has invited me this week to share some thoughts with you about my experiences with collaborative writing.

Thirty years ago, I came up with an idea for a short-story collection I wanted to call Partners in Crime. The concept was that the book would include some 15-20 stories, each written by two people working together, and that in each case I would be one of the two authors. To make things more challenging, I decided that the collaborative method would have to be different in each case. And to make things insanely challenging, I was living in Germany at the time, and this was pre-Internet . . . so all of the work would have to be done by exchange of transatlantic snail mail.

I approached a bunch of the writers I’d come to know through my membership in the Mystery Writers of America and attendance (in the ’70s, before I moved overseas) at various MWA cocktail parties and Edgar Awards dinners, and almost all of them agreed that the project sounded like fun. Sure enough, I wound up producing about 15 collaborative stories. At the time, the book never materialized, but most of the stories were published individually, three of them in EQMM.

The first Partners in Crime story to see the light of print was “The Spy and the Suicide Club,” which I wrote with the legendary Edward D. Hoch. When my first short story—written when I was 16 years old—appeared in EQMM’s “Department of First Stories” in 1968 and I was accepted for membership in the MWA, Ed and Pat Hoch took me under their wing, made sure I was seated with them at the Edgars, introduced me to dozens of established authors I was absolutely in awe of. Ed was the first person I approached about Partners, and he told me that he never wrote collaboratively but would make an exception for me, as long as I was willing to play by his rules. As it turned out, there was really only one rule: I would plot the story, and he would write it. He proposed that we use his Jeffery Rand character from the British Department of Concealed Communications and that the story have something to do with the existence of a Robert Louis Stevenson-like “suicide club.” I took it from there and plotted out a story, Ed used most of what I came up with, and the result was published in the January 1985 EQMM.

My second Partners story was written with another Ed—the unjustly not well enough remembered today Edward Wellen—and this one was the most fun of them all to create. In response to my invitation to work on a story collaboratively, Ed—who knew that before Germany I’d lived for several years in Amsterdam—sent me a two-line “filler” from a newspaper: European storks, according to the clipping, migrate back and forth between Holland and South Africa. Since diamonds are mined in South Africa and cut in Amsterdam, Ed proposed, perhaps our story could involve a migratory stork being used to smuggle diamonds from Africa to Europe. I wrote back to say that I loved the idea, and that, as it happens, one of my favorite Dutch words is ooievaar, which contains six vowels out of eight letters and means “stork.” What if, I suggested, I was to provide him with a list of my favorite Dutch words and their meanings, and he then crafted a plot for a story in which all of those words could be used? Ed loved wordplay and signed on eagerly, and I came up with a list that included such ridiculously unrelated terms as gaaieeieren (which has seven consecutive vowels and means “the eggs of a jay”), angstschreeuw (with its eight consecutive consonants, meaning “a cry of anguish”), zeeën (with a triple vowel, meaning “oceans”), Churchilllaan (with a triple consonant, the name of a street in Amsterdam), wolkenkrabber (literally “cloud scratcher” but the Dutch way of saying “skyscraper”), straaljager (literally “sunbeam chaser” but meaning “jet airplane”), stofzuiger (literally “dust sucker” but meaning “vacuum cleaner”) and on and on and on, some 30 of them in all. Ed wove the entire list into an outrageously complicated plot, I added a few additional wrinkles, we took turns writing alternating scenes, I came up with the groaner title “Stork Trek,” and Cathleen Jordan bought it for the July 1985 issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.

And so on. For EQMM, Stanley Cohen (who wrote Angel Face, one of the very best police procedurals ever penned by someone named neither Lawrence Treat nor Ed McBain) and I wrote a suspense story titled “Annika Andersson” (February 1993) and Jon L. Breen and I had fun with an Ellery Queen parody (featuring Celery Green and his father, Inspector Wretched Green), “The German Cologne Mystery” (September/October 2005).

Other stories appeared in other places. Michael Avallone, notorious as “The Fastest Typewriter in the East,” helped me write “Better Safe Than Sorry” (Hardboiled, Summer/Fall 1987). Joe L. Hensley and I sold “All That Mattered” to The Saint Mystery Magazine, which folded before it could run (or pay us for!) the story, but Joe later included it in his collection Robak’s Firm (Doubleday Crime Club, 1987). John Lutz and I introduced his series character Alo Nudger to my AHMM Zodiac Detectives Byrnes and Allen in “DDS 10752 Libra,” which was included in An Eye for Justice, the third Private Eye Writers of America anthology (Mysterious Press, 1988), and later reprinted in a high-school textbook, Detectives (Amsco School Publications, 2000). And Francis M. Nevins and I paired Byrnes and Allen with his series character Gene Holt for “Leo’s Den,” which Mike later adapted into a Dick Tracy story and sold (as “The Leo’s Den Affair”) to Max Allan Collins’ paperback original Dick Tracy: The Secret Files (Tor, 1990).

The one Partners story that involved some actual face-to-face time with my collaborator began when Dan J. Marlowe and I coincidentally wound up sitting side-by-side on a flight from New York to Detroit in the late ’70s. It shouldn’t surprise you that the two of us used our in-the-air time to plot out a short story—which, as our plane touched down, Dan extremely graciously told me I could have. I didn’t get around to writing it up at the time, but, when the Partners project materialized, I suggested we write it together, and we did. As “The Seven-Year Bitch,” it was published in the final issue of Hardboiled in 1990.

My only female partner in crime was the wonderful Patricia McGerr, winner of the French Grand Prix de Literature Policiere in 1952 and creator of the series character Selena Mead. Pat and I worked on two stories together, one a mystery and one a sort of science-fiction/fantasy—and both manuscripts were in her possession at the time she died in 1985. I contacted Pat’s sister, who was also her executor, and asked her to look for the stories and return them to me, but I never got them.

Decades later, I was absolutely thrilled when another wonderful woman—my daughter, Rebecca Kathleen Jones—asked me if I’d be interested in writing a story with her. Perhaps not surprisingly, I jumped at the chance. By this time, I was back in the US, living in Cleveland, OH, and Becca was an undergraduate at Middlebury College in Vermont. Working sometimes in person during her vacations home and sometimes by e-mail and phone, we passed ideas and eventually drafts back and forth and experimented with several different titles, beginning with “Somewhere Under the Rainbow,” switching to “Bearding the Lion,” and eventually settling on “History on the Bedroom Wall,” which is a quote from an Ani DiFranco song and the title under which the story was eventually published in EQMM’s “Department of First Stories” (September/October 2009)—making me the only person who’s ever been featured in that section of the magazine twice . . . 41 years apart!

Seeing my daughter’s name in print was certainly a high point of my half a century of writing crime fiction. The closest I’ve come to matching it was last month, when a story I wrote collaboratively with my wife Laurie Pachter appeared in the online edition of The Saturday Evening Post. Laurie writes nonfiction professionally and has long yearned to write fiction. The only problem, she’s always told me, is that she “doesn’t do plot.” I don’t know why it took me as long as it did to suggest that I plot a story and she write it, but that’s what finally happened. Laurie and I first “met” online, thanks to a well known dating website, and it was probably inevitable that our story, “Coffee Date,” is about a couple who also meet that way. (In our real-life experience, though, nobody at the coffee shop got murdered. . . .)

In December 2013, I got a phone call from American literary agent Peter Riva. Bavo Dhooge—whom, you’ll recall, I’d recently translated for Passport to Crime—was interested in the possibility of publishing his newest novel in the U.S. He’d sent it to Peter, who felt that this was a book that needed not just a translator but a collaborator. Peter sent me the manuscript, I read it and agreed that, though the story was fascinating and perfectly suited to the American market—a zombie cop tracking a serial killer, how much more high-concept than that can you get?—there were things about it which called for more active involvement on my part than simple translation. Peter and Bavo and I went back and forth for a while and came to an agreement about the business side of things, and then Bavo and I settled down to work.

Perhaps the most important way in which I served as Bavo’s collaborator has to do with Styx’s flow. Early reviewers have called the book “taut, atmospheric” (Library Journal) and noted that its “gritty, hard-boiled tone is spot-on” (Publishers Weekly). Translations often come across as antiseptic, sterile, and I think that’s because most translators are too caught up in the words and don’t pay enough attention to the feel of the source material. Given the liberty to collaborate on Styx, I used Bavo’s source text as more of a set of guidelines than a Bible, and I felt free to add elements of my own literary style to the creation of the English-language manuscript. Bavo gave me a pretty free hand, but we didn’t agree about everything—and the final vote was always his.

Bavo says, “Working with Josh is a very intense way of collaborating. Josh is not afraid to ask something, to put question marks, to try things out. He’s also very precise: Every word, every punctuation mark matters. Meanwhile, I’ve written 100 novels by myself, so, for me, this was a test in letting go. A writer is a control freak. When you’re writing a book, you have to be. But with Styx, Josh’s involvement gave the original novel something extra.”

Earlier this year, Wildside Press published The Tree of Life, which collected all ten of the Mahboob Chaudri stories I wrote (on my own!) back in the 1980s, most of which originally appeared in EQMM. Given the warm reception that volume has gotten and the good reviews Styx is getting, I’ve decided to resurrect my old Partners in Crime idea, and I’m working now on writing introductions to the various stories—and getting either my original partners (those who are still living) or an appropriate other person (such as Dan Marlowe’s biographer Charles Kelly and, for Ed Hoch, Janet Hutchings) to write afterwords to the stories.

I’ve also decided to produce a couple of new collaborations for the book, and I’m tossing around ideas with my dear old friend Les Roberts (who, since winning the first-ever St. Martin’s Press Best First Private Eye Novel contest in 1986 has produced an average of a book a year, mostly about Cleveland PI Milan Jacovich), my fellow Northern Virginia Community College teacher Kathryn O’Sullivan (who won the Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Novel award for Foal Play a couple of years ago and has followed up with two more books featuring Outer Banks fire chief Colleen McCabe) and the astounding Art Taylor (who lives about twenty minutes from me, and whose short fiction has won the Agatha, the Anthony, the Macavity, and three consecutive Derringer Awards).

The first of these new stories to be finished is “A Woman’s Place,” which I wrote with René Appel, the father of the Dutch psychological suspense novel. I’ve already translated four of René’s short stories (two of which appeared in EQMM and one in AHMM, plus one in a British anthology of international crime fiction) and one of his novels (The Lawyer, which an agent is currently shopping around to American publishers), but “A Woman’s Place” is very much a collaboration, not a translation.

About ten years ago, I decided to try my hand at writing a novel of my own. I set it in Amsterdam and called it Dutch T(h)reat, and I think it was a reasonably effective effort. I had no idea how to market a novel, though, and the manuscript has languished on my hard drive for a decade. When René and I agreed to write a story together, I dug out Dutch T(h)reat and sent it to him. “Do you think,” I asked, “this could be condensed into a short story?” Before I knew it, René had sent me a draft—in Dutch—from which he’d eliminated my first-person narrator and several other characters, cut out one of the two murders and the attempted murder (and the cat, and a lot of the scenes in which people are eating Indonesian food and drinking tea), and added in a brand-new clue which leads the police to the solution of the one remaining murder. We went back and forth about several new plot points I felt wouldn’t work for American readers and finally wound up with a draft that pleased both of us. That I translated back into English—and Janet has accepted “A Woman’s Place” for EQMM and will hopefully be able to publish it in time for me to reprint it in Partners in Crime.

So there you have it, the story of my life as a (writing, not Nazi) collaborator. I’m a pretty social person, so I actually enjoy collaborating more than working by myself, whether the process happens face-to-face or via email, snail mail, or smoke signals.

I expect there’ll be more solo stories to come, and I’m confident there’ll be more translations.

But I hope there’ll be more collaborations, because those are the stories which are the most fun for me to write!

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As in previous years, I came back from this year’s Bouchercon (Raleigh, North Carolina, October 8 – 11) to e-mailed photos taken by authors and friends at the convention, and with some tidbits of information I’d like to share.

Thursday’s opening ceremonies included presentation of the Barry, Macavity, and Derringer Awards. EQMM had two nominees for the Macavity for Best Short Story, Paul D. Marks’s “Howling at the Moon,” and Art Taylor’s “The Odds Are Against Us,” both from our November 2014 issue. (Craig Faustus Buck’s “Honeymoon Sweet,” from Murder at the Beach, an anthology edited by frequent EQMM contributor Dana Cameron, took home the trophy.)

Janet Hutchings and Paul D. Marks recording a podcast for his story

Janet Hutchings and Paul D. Marks recording a podcast for his story “Howling at the Moon.” Photo courtesy of Amy Marks.

The Derringers had special meaning for me this year, since not only did eleven-time EQMM Readers Award winner Doug Allyn win the Best Novelette Derringer for his story “The Snow Angel” but James Powell, an author with a long and notable career writing primarily for EQMM, was honored as the latest recipient of the Edward D. Hoch Memorial Golden Derringer for Lifetime Achievement. Unable to get to Raleigh for the event, Jim had asked me to read his acceptance speech, and to use my discretion in shortening it to fit the time available. As a barbeque buffet was waiting for the hundreds of people at the opening ceremonies, I cut a small portion of his remarks, but afterwards so many people told me they’d been interested by what he had to say that I thought I’d post the whole of his acceptance speech here. I’ve worked with Jim on several stories a year for nearly twenty-five years, so his wit and whimsy are endearingly familiar to me, but I hope readers who don’t know his fiction may be inspired by his remarks to dip into his stories:

“I am very grateful to the Short Mystery Fiction Society for awarding me the Edward D. Hoch Memorial Golden Derringer for Lifetime Achievement, all the more so because Ed and I were friends. He was a frequent visitor to Canadian mystery events. I recall one Crime Writers of Canada awards dinner where he and I were chosen to present the Arthur Ellis for best novel and in my share of the remarks I wondered why it took two short story writers to do the job and I think he found that amusing.

We all know his tremendous output of stories. But he was also a prodigious reader. Here our paths crossed again. I had been reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s travel writing including The Amateur Immigrant and The Silverado Squatters where Stevenson described his trip to America for his health and the long train trip across the country to California. Not long after, reading one of Ed’s stories I saw he had been reading about that trip too, only he had found a mystery story on the way where I had not.

Most of my reading now is history and biography. Someone once wrote that the time of your father’s childhood is a golden age for readers. Perhaps it is for writers, too. That would be the beginning of the Twentieth Century for me. But my principle creation, the Ambrose Ganelon family, takes me farther back into the Nineteenth. I enjoy reading about these times. But it also helps me to perform that great hat trick, the greatest fiction of all, to convince the readers you know what you’re talking about.

For example, another Holmes (not Sherlock but Oliver Wendell) describes in Our Hundred Days in Europe, in 1887, taking with him two new devices he thought the residents might be interested in, the safety razor and the luminous matchbox. This last handy object allowed you, waking up in the dark, to find a match to light the wall gas fixture. I had previously read, by the way, that Pierre and Marie Curie used to amuse their dinner guests by turning out the lights and passing a lump of radium from hand to hand around the table! I used the illuminated matchbox in an upcoming story in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.

I have mentioned elsewhere that my first professional published story 48 years ago was based on an incident I heard about that took place in Monaco on the Riviera. But I had only spent an afternoon there and was afraid of being caught in some matter of fact so I invented my own principality with its own history and people and streets and buildings. To date I have written some thirty or so stories about San Sebastiano, as I named it. It is said that even Homer nodded. (And I have probably nodded as many times as all the Simpsons put together.) But in case some nitpicker discovers a street that doesn’t run the way in one of these stories as it does in another I have also provided the principality with a geological fault. Thus I can say, ‘Oh, that was before the earthquake.’ Or something equally face-saving.

In the end all our stories must be too short. May yours be as happy as mine have been. Thank you again.”—James Powell, 2015 Edward D. Hoch Memorial Golden Derringer for Lifetime Achievement recipient

Among the old friends and key contributors to the magazine that I was able to catch up with at this convention were Bill Crider, fiction writer par excellence and longtime author of EQMM’s Blog Bytes column; Josh Pachter, versatile contributor of solo fiction, collaborations, and translations for our Passport to Crime department; and Carol and Marv Lachman, the latter EQMM’s indexer and the author of a number of nonfiction articles for the magazine.

from L to R: Linda Landrigan, Josh Pachter, Bill Crider, and Janet Hutchings. Photo courtesy of Josh Pachter.

from L to R: AHMM editor Linda Landrigan, Josh Pachter, Bill Crider, and Janet Hutchings. Photo courtesy of Josh Pachter.

Seeing this year’s lifetime achievement award winner, Margaret Maron, who began her career as a short-story writer and is still one of the top writers in the short form in the genre, honored for a body of work that includes Edgar, Anthony, Agatha, and Macavity award winning novels was especially gratifying. And there were two more awards ceremonies at which the work of EQMM authors was singled out: On Friday night, at the Shamus Awards banquet, Richard Helms’s “Busting Red Heads” (also nominated for a Derringer Award) competed with four other stories for Best Private-Eye Story, a title that went to Gon Ben Ari’s “Clear Recent History,” from Tel Aviv Noir. On Saturday night, two EQMM stories, again Paul D. Marks’s “Howling at the Moon,” and Art Taylor’s “The Odds Are Against Us,” and the AHMM story “Of Dogs and Deceit” by John Shepphird, were among the stories nominated for the Anthony Award—a very good night for the Dell mystery magazines! The Anthony went to Art Taylor, pictured here with his trophy.

Art Taylor with his Anthony Award. Photo courtesy of Kaye Wilkinson Barley.

Art Taylor accepting the 2015 Anthony Award for Best Short Story. Photo courtesy of Amy Marks.

Art Taylor accepting the 2015 Anthony Award for Best Short Story. Photo courtesy of Amy Marks.

The EQMM nominees lunch. Pictured from L to R: Elaine Helms, Amy Marks, Paul Marks, Art Taylor, Tara Laskowski, and Rick Helms.

The EQMM nominees lunch. Pictured from L to R: Elaine Helms, Amy Marks, Paul Marks, Art Taylor, Tara Laskowski, and Rick Helms. Photo courtesy of Amy Marks.

At Bouchercons, it isn’t always at the organized events or meals that interesting discoveries are made, and this convention was no exception. It was by the merest chance that I was sitting in the lobby of one of the convention hotels one afternoon when Jeffrey Marks, a writer I knew was working on a biography of Ellery Queen, happened to sit down near me and mention that he had just unearthed a mass of information in the Library of Congress about the discussions and negotiations that led to the launch of EQMM. To me, this was astounding news. I’d had no idea such documents existed, and as 2016 will be EQMM’s 75th anniversary year—a time for looking back as well as for celebration—it’s information we’ll be able to put to very good use.

Whether meetings are serendipitous, like my running into Jeff, or planned in advance, most Bouchercon goers seem to come away from these weekends with the sense that they’ve learned something—not to mention being convinced that mystery writers and those who work in the business are an awfully nice bunch of people! Certainly Raleigh left me thinking those things. —Janet Hutchings

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“Dutch Treats” (by René Appel)

René Appel was a professor of Dutch as a second language at the University of Amsterdam until 2003. But he has been writing fiction since the 1970s, a decade in which his output was mostly short stories for literary magazines. In 1987, he moved into the mystery genre with the publication of his first psychological-thriller novel, Handicap. Since then he has produced a new crime novel nearly every year. Two of the books were winners of the Golden Noose Award from the Dutch Society of Crime Writers: De derde persoon (The Third Person) in 1991 and Zinloos geweld (Random Violence) in 2001. René has also written two children’s books, three collections of short stories, a series of radio plays, three scripts (for TV and film), and a theater play. Several of his short stories have been translated into English, including two that appeared in EQMM. His bestselling thriller novel Schone handen (Clean Hands) is the basis for a feature film that was released just last month. In this post, however, René talks not about his own extensive body of work but about the history and development of the crime-fiction genre in his native land.—Janet Hutchings

The Netherlands is famous for painters like Rembrandt van Rijn, Vincent van Gogh, and William de Kooning, for Amsterdam and its canals, for the fact that half the country (protected by dunes and dykes) is below sea level, for the easy availability of soft drugs, for the mills and the wooden shoes (hardly anybody wears them anymore), for Gouda cheese, and so on. But unfortunately, my country is not well-known for its crime writers. The reason may lie in the facts that the production of Dutch crime novels started relatively late and that, for a long time, thrillers had a low status as a literary genre in The Netherlands—an issue to which I will return later.

The first Dutch crime story was published in 1900, which was rather late, especially compared to Great Britain. P. Tesselhoff, Jr.’s The Detective’s Success was a traditional police story: a corpse, a detective, a few suspects, and finally the solution. From that beginning, this kind of crime novel became dominant in The Netherlands. The most important authors were Ivans and Havank, who each wrote more than thirty books. Perhaps it is significant that both of them used a pseudonym.

Robert van Gulik published a series of crime novels more or less based on traditional Chinese stories and featuring Judge Dee, the first one in 1957. Van Gulik, who was a diplomat in the Far East, wrote them in English because he wanted as many readers as possible. He is one of the few Dutch writers who have been published in English, and some of his books (such as The Chinese Gold Murders) are still available. His stories are rather slow, which perhaps explains why they’re not popular today; they don’t fit the fast lane of modern life.

For a long time, the most popular Dutch crime writer was an Amsterdam police officer, Appie Baantjer, who—starting in 1963—wrote seventy novels with Inspector De Cock as a rather old-fashioned detective. Baantjer often published two books a year, and many people in The Netherlands bought only two books a year—both of them by Baantjer. Efforts to publish Baantjer’s novels in the USA (with, for obvious reasons, another name for inspector De Cock) have not been successful.

The Dutch author who has had the most success in the United States to date was Janwillem van de Wetering. Outsider in Amsterdam, his first book featuring police detectives Grijpstra and de Gier, was published in 1975. Van de Wetering lived for many years in Maine and wrote his books in English, subsequently translating them himself into Dutch. (A number of his short stories were published in EQMM in the ’80s, and one—“There Goes Ravelaar,” translated by Josh Pachter—was nominated for the Mystery Writers of America’s Best Short Story Edgar in 1986).

New types of crime novels were introduced in the ’60s and ’70s, and one author, Joop van de Broek, can be considered the precursor of this “new” crime writing with the publication of Parels voor Nadra (Pearls for Nadra). Following foreign examples, authors said goodbye to the traditional pattern of the whodunit with its “decent” murders and civilized detectives. Their books became more realistic and hardboiled, introducing social aspects or political issues. For example, Gerben Hellinga (initially writing under the name Hellinger; there was still at that time a preference for pseudonyms) introduced Sid Stefan as his main character in Dollars (1963). Stefan was an ex-con who’d been convicted of murder. He was fond of beautiful women, traveled a lot in different European countries, and got mixed up in a criminal case.

The type of crime literature known as faction also became popular, especially through the work of Tomas Ross. (This was another pseudonym, based on the name of the American crime writer Ross Thomas. The story goes that an employee at the Dutch publisher got the name wrong and mistakenly deleted the h from Thomas.) In his more than thirty novels, Ross generally takes a hot issue out of the headlines; for example, one of his books is about Prince Bernhard (now deceased, but then alive and married to our Queen Juliana), who was mixed up in a corruption affair concerning the buying of Lockheed airplanes by KLM, the Dutch national airline. Ross filled in the unknown or hidden facts in order to create an interesting story full of suspense.

Today, the landscape of Dutch crime writing is varied:

  • More or less traditional crime stories are still published, with hardboiled thrillers dominating the market. Social and political issues are addressed, violence and horror scenes are not absent, serial killers are common. (Think of such Scandinavian authors as Jo Nesbo and Stieg Larsson, or the American Karin Slaughter.)
  • Quite a few authors follow in the footsteps of Tomas Ross. One example is Roel Janssen, who wrote a book about the gold bars stolen by the Germans during the WWII occupation of The Netherlands.
  • Charles den Tex has introduced the “corporate thriller” to The Netherlands. In his Bellicher Trilogy, management consultant Michael Bellicher is “immersed in conspiracies, identity theft and surveillance systems in an era in which internet technology and age-old crimes converge” (according to Barry Forshaw in Euro Noir: The Pocket Essential Guide to European Crime Fiction, Film & TV).
  • Psychological thrillers have become very popular. In the ’80s, I wrote my first books in this subgenre, inspired by the work of Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Rendell. But in the first decades of this century a new wave of female authors is responsible for many bestsellers, beginning with Saskia Noorts’ Terug naar de kust (Back to the Coast) in 2003. In addition to Saskia Noort, the most important authors in this category are Esther Verhoef, Simone van der Vlugt and Marion Pauw. (Van der Vlugt’s novel Blauw water has been translated into English as Safe as Houses.) Their books are often labeled “literary thrillers.”

The mainstream “literary world” in The Netherlands has come to resent this label, and has in turn developed a negative attitude toward crime fiction in general. You’ll often come across comments such as “What are they thinking, these writers of thrillers and detective stories? They produce fiction without literary value, without any impact on the mind of the readers, without addressing philosophical or psychological themes, written in a simple style.” Such comments reinforce the boundary between high and low culture.

This attitude has in turn negatively influenced the position of crime writers in The Netherlands, and has had an impact on people who feel an ambition to write. If you want to be taken “seriously” as a writer in my country, you would be stupid to start writing crime fiction.

Recently, though, this has begun to change, perhaps because of the fact that some of the “literary thrillers” by Saskia Noort and others have become major bestsellers—in some cases selling over 150,000 copies, which is quite a lot in a small country like The Netherlands, with its just under 17 million inhabitants. The success of these thrillers has provoked jealous reactions from the so-called “literary” writers.

In addition to the books written in The Netherlands, there are also many Belgian authors who write in Dutch, such as Jef Geeraerts (recently deceased), Pieter Aspe, and Bavo Dhooge. Perhaps an EQMM blog about crime writing in Belgium would also be interesting.

As I said in the beginning, it has been difficult for Dutch crime writers to succeed in the English-speaking market. We have, however, found a promising foothold: Over the last decade, such Dutch authors as Theo Capel, Michael Berg, Carla Vermaat, and myself have seen our short stories appear in EQMM’s “Passport to Crime” department. We hope you’ve enjoyed—and will continue to enjoy—these tasty “Dutch treats” from across the Atlantic.

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“A Roadmap to Literary Mysteries” (by Bob Van Laerhoven)

Bob Van Laerhoven’s story “Checkmate in Chimbote” appeared in EQMM’s June 2014 issue and was read for our podcast series by his translator, Josh Pachter, earlier this year. The Belgian journalist made his fiction debut in 1977 as a short-story writer, and in 1985 as a literary novelist. More than thirty novels followed, some of them crossovers between literary fiction and the suspense novel.
He tells EQMM that as a journalist he explored trouble spots across the globe: Somalia, Liberia, Sudan, Gaza, Iran, Iraq, Myanmar, Mozambique, Lebanon, Burundi . . . to name but a few. During the Bosnian war, he was in besieged Sarajevo, and in 1995 he sneaked into Tuzla when the refugees arrived from the Muslim enclave of Srebrenica. His conversations with them resulted in the book Testimony to a Mass Murder.
Bob’s novel De wraak van Baudelaire won the Hercule Poirot Prize for best suspense novel of the year in Belgium in 2007. It appeared in English translation in 2014 as Baudelaire’s Revenge and won the USA Best Book Award for that year in the mystery/suspense category. His most recent book, a collection of stories with war as a background, is Dangerous Obsessions.
In addition to EQMM, Bob has contributed to English-language magazines such as Conclave: A Journal of Character and the UK literary magazine Wasafiri. Readers may want to look for his story in the upcoming anthology Brussels Noir from Akashic Books. In this post the multitalented author describes the journey he had to take to find his genre and his voice.—Janet Hutchings

It was 1977, I was twenty-four, my debut ten days old.

Proud as a peacock with a Napoleon complex, I sat behind a table, heaped with copies of my short-story collection High Voltage, in the big hall of the Antwerp Book Fair. Rows of people shuffled by. They threw themselves like lemmings on two bestselling writers of cookbooks who were sitting two tables further down the row. Even the ghastly, gas-inducing vegan recipes sold like hot dogs.

High Voltage did not.

After a few hours, my feathers had lost their color, my eyes had become glassy, and my mouth hung ajar.

A big-boned plump type—fortyish—with a lopsided smile that reminded me of Sartre, stopped before my virgin heap of copies. He raised both palms in my direction when he saw my hungry look for a buyer. “I work for the literary pages of De Standaard. We have received a review copy of your debut.”

I resisted the urge to comb my hair. Joedeloe, an interview in one of Flanders biggest newspapers!

“I’m Alex Braas,” the journalist said. “Young man, tell me, what is the most recent novel you have read?”

The Exorcist.” Strange question with which to start an interview about my book. The Exorcist didn’t need any more airplay, now did it? It sold a damn lot of millions.

“What did you think of it?”

“Suspenseful! Wow!”

“Mmm . . . But not really written with elegance and flair, is it?”

Huh? Flair? Elegance? From the novel, I only remembered the rotating, vomiting, and screeching head of what-was-her-name again? Who needed elegance when you had suspense, for Christ’s sake?

“Try to read other writers. Kurt Vonnegut, for instance, or E.L. Doctorow.”

“Why?” Never heard of these guys.

“You may have the stories, but you don’t have the style, son. That’s why you should read the stylists.”



Pedantic literary writers with page-long sentences drizzling cobwebs of words in my head?

“Overblown and baroque” Alex Braas had commented on my style.

And I had put so much effort into penning horrible bloody scenes, accompanied by a lot of cursing, yelling, and groaning, wheezing, panting, screaming . . . Enfin, just like fights to the death in real life, for sure. I had made sure that Gothic blood dribbled from every page. I was also mighty proud to be ahead of my time: My heroines were faster, stronger, and smarter than my male characters. And they were all masters in a secret form of hapkido-ju-jitsu, jiehaaaa!

They were also full-breasted.

So, why should I become a stylist?

After all these years, I still remember the conclusion of that nasty journalist after a quasi-monologue of thirty minutes. “If you want to be a striking writer, in mystery or any other genre, you’ll have to find your own voice, and then refine it.”

Braas noticed my dazed expression, smiled thinly, and added, “You can only do that by self-control. But the question is: Do you have what it takes?”

He turned on his heels. I fought the urge to throw a copy of High Voltage at his egg-head.

The strolling crowd in the book fair swallowed him.

A challenge.

The troll had challenged me.


Thus, by ego, and ego alone, started my journey toward control over that elusive and hard to define “literary” genre. I read that it needed “complex characters, a multilayered plot, and a refined style.”

That was a whole mouthful.

Complex characters. Mmmm, I could always throw in some childhood traumas. Or a pinch of well-hidden madness. Bullied in youth. Raised by über-greedy parents. Shouldn’t be too hard.

Multilayered plot. No problem there. My plots were such multilayered labyrinths that even the Minotaur would get lost in them.

A refined style. Yikes, that was a tough one.

Do you have what it takes? bleated a small green devil in my head.

To gain time, I decided that I first had to determine which styles I liked.

Until then I had been an avid reader of action thrillers, and my ambition was to become a writer who took his readers on a roller-coaster of blood-curdling situations, spiced up with a bit of hanky-panky.

I had to change that. Gnashing my teeth, I laboriously began to read in different genres.

And was, after a few months, struck by lightning when I read Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five.

Vonnegut was the first to show me that suspense was a Medusa with a lot of heads, and that style could be one of them.


After a few years, I sensed that I was making progress, but there was still something that bothered me.

I looked up the meaning of mystery:

Anything that is kept secret or remains unexplained or unknown; any affair, thing, or person that presents features or qualities so obscure as to arouse curiosity or speculation; a novel, short story, play, or film whose plot involves a crime or other event that remains puzzlingly unsettled until the very end; any truth that is unknowable except by divine revelation.

Roughly sketched, the great stylists I had learned to admire—André Baillon, Irène Némirovsky, Franz Kafka, Graciliano Ramos, Thomas Mann, Gustave Flaubert, Curzio Malaparte, John Cheever, and many others—often lacked the mystery side I was looking for, and the action thrillers I read lacked in style.


I decided to exercise with short pieces that I called—a little prematurely—“literary mysteries.” I strived for compelling stories with captivating characters, and a strong literary style.

Those stories were a mess. I still felt the need to follow the rules of “action thrillers.” For instance, I wriggled myself into a thousand curves to “show” and not to “tell,” and as a result of that my style meandered from terse to lyrical, from clipped to a poetic singsong.

Then, by chance, I read Rites of Sacrifice by Windsor Chorlton.

At the end of the eighties, the English author Chorlton made waves with this novel, a mixture of suspense, politics, Tibetan demonology, and a riveting plot. Rites of Sacrifice was all I looked for in a literary mystery: a lean, evocative style, characters behaving like real people, and a mysterious background, populated with the shadows of Tibetan ghosts, but also by the all too palpable Himalayan Tibetans’ fight for independence.

The total package of the novel felt awesome. There was grand drama, there were cunning subplots, tormented characters, war, and hardship. And this sizzling cocktail was set in the majestic but lethal ice plateaus of the Himalaya.

Mystery combined with social and political upheaval with a dazzling background of the grimmest nature.

I felt I finally had come home.

I felt I could do this, write a book like that.

One thing I forgot, though.

Although the reviews were raves, Mr. Chorlton didn’t enjoy commercial success with his magnificent novel.

Too literary for most thriller readers.

And literary readers at that time still looked down their nose at “thrillers.”


This meant I had be patient and work harder.

Slowly, the atmosphere changed. I noticed it when I read Mascara by the South-American literary writer Ariel Dorfman early in the nineties.

Mr. Dorfman violated every rule for writing suspense novels.

His strange and convoluted tale was more telling than showing, and possessed only small amounts of dialogue. Nevertheless, the novel had an eerie atmosphere, full of suppressed violence, and a Kafkaesque sense of alienation and danger.

Not long afterwards, after having read, among others, The Cowards by Josef Skvorecký, Archangel by Robert Harris, and the novels of J.G. Ballard and William Boyd, I concocted my own definition of the literary mystery: novels you want to read more than once.

Hallelujah, I felt free, loosened all reins, and started to write without following any rule except those of my instincts, feelings, and longings.

I used diaries, letters, monologues, portions of “tell, don’t show,” in short: the complete set of tools that writers in the nineteenth century used to showcase their style and literary agility.

I felt challenged to surpass myself.

It cost me another five-or-so novels until I had perfected this mélange satisfactory enough to harbor the feeling that I had refined my voice.

It turned out that, at thirty-nine, this voice had built up an audience that was faithful and big enough to make me a full-time author in a small language community (Flanders has 5 million people).


Writing this blog text, ferreting through old material, I found another of my beginner’s books, a novella actually. A small Dutch publisher with a veined nose and an eternal scotch-breath edited it when I was twenty.

Forty-two years ago.

I had completely forgotten about it.

I blinked when I saw the title.

This Gory Memory of Mine.

I opened the booklet, read five lines, closed it gently.

And felt the urge to throw the copy at my dog’s head.

Instead I planted five kisses behind her lovely drooping ears.

Because I’m a literary mystery writer now.

And one of the main and most fascinating features of a literary mystery is that humans are very—and often quite strangely—unpredictable.

Posted in Books, Editing, Fiction, Genre, Guest, Novels, Passport, Readers, Story, Suspense, Writers, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Murder Under the Oaks” (by Art Taylor)

Art Taylor debuted in EQMM’s Department of First Stories in 1995. He has gone on to win a Macavity and multiple Agatha and Derringer awards for his short fiction. The last time the Virginia author posted on this site, in March of this year, his EQMM story “The Odds Are Against Us” was up for the Agatha. It won that award and currently the story is nominated for the Anthony and Macavity awards, the winners to be determined at the Bouchercon World Mystery Convention, to be held in Raleigh, North Carolina October 8–11. This month, Art’s first book, On the Road With Del and Louise (Henery Press), a “novel in stories,” was released. A review of the novel (which incorporates two stories previously published in EQMM) will appear in our January issue. For this post, the author takes off his mystery-writing hat and dons that of anthology editor. It’s an interesting turnabout!—Janet Hutchings

For a second year in a row, Bouchercon, the World Mystery Convention, has produced an anthology of mystery stories, and for the second year in a row, a regular EQMM contributor has served as guest editor of the collection.

In 2014, for the Bouchercon in Long Beach, California, Dana Cameron selected and edited the stories in Murder at the Beach. This year, Bouchercon is in Raleigh, North Carolina, and the anthology shares the conference’s own title, Murder Under the Oaks, in honor of Raleigh being called the City of Oaks.

As a native North Carolinian myself, I was grateful to be invited to edit this year’s anthology—and what a learning experience it’s been, finding myself there on the other side of the process.

The anthology features several well-known writers, including many of this year’s Bouchercon guests of honor: Margaret Maron, Tom Franklin, Zoë Sharp, Sarah Shaber, Lori Armstrong, and Sean Doolittle. The blind submission process brought in stories from several well-known masters of the short story—Robert Lopresti and B.K. Stevens, for example, whose works are surely familiar to readers of EQMM and AHMM—and also delivered stories by up-and-coming writers already making their marks in a big way.

For those folks going to Bouchercon next week, I’d urge you to check out the official launch of the anthology on Saturday morning, October 10, with very short presentations by contributors in attendance and then a group signing. And let me stress that neither I nor any of the contributors are earning any money from the anthology; instead, proceeds from the anthology will benefit the Wake County Public Library system, a fine cause.

I’m hoping that folks will enjoy the collection that we’ve put together here—I’m very much looking forward to what readers think!—but in the meantime, I also wanted to share a couple of those learning experiences I mentioned above, reflections that stuck with me and that might be of small use or enjoyment to other writers and to readers as well. (And apologies here to my host, Janet Hutchings, who will likely find all of this underwhelmingly obvious—having experienced it all from an editor’s perspective for so long now herself!)

Trends Exist (And not simply the expected ones)

Serial Killers! The Paranormal! Zombies everywhere! . . . Um, actually, I didn’t get any of those myself. Perhaps there were indeed vast outbreaks of paranormal activity in the 150-plus submissions that the first readers encountered, but I didn’t see them in the batch of semifinalists I received—and I might well have welcomed them, since I’ve enjoyed stories in that direction by a number of fine crime writers. Instead, two other trends stood out to me. The first trend related to revenge tales—usually revenge against men who had done women wrong (sometimes awfully awfully wrong). The second were tales involving older characters—with a surprisingly large portion of the submissions I saw focused on the challenges of aging. This might prompt questions for you (as it did me): Were such trends in my semifinalist pile representative of the larger submissions (a proportional slice) or merely representative of some of the leanings of those first readers toward revenge tales and stories about aging protagonists, victims, and killers? Given that I saw these trends across both the invited contributors (those Bouchercon guests of honor) and the blind submissions, I’d expect the former to be true. What’s surprising is that this wouldn’t necessarily seem to be market-driven. (Zombies sell, so I should write zombie fiction, right?) Maybe it’s simply that mystery writers collectively circle around certain ideas of victims and injustice and justice, and these archetypal situations and stories seem promising—which leads to . . .

Innovation Counts

Related to the above, as I was reading a half-dozen tales about women exacting frequently painful revenge against men, it was easy for similar treatments of that same theme to blur together into one another. What rose to the top were the authors who did something different with a common idea—offering a fresh perspective, a clever approach, an unexpected twist. Similarly, those writers who generally took risks stood out. Fans of Zoë Sharp’s work will certainly appreciate “Kill Me Again Slowly,” a thrilling new story in her Charlie Fox series, but what excited me most was the opening scene—which brought together real-life figures such as Marilyn Monroe, Dorothy Parker, and Groucho Marx and restricted their dialogue to actual quotes attributed to each of them. Zowie! Refreshing and delightful. Writers, always push to stand out.

Your Style Is Like Your Signature

Much as I’m encouraging innovation and creativity to help writers make their work spark, I have to add an asterisk of sorts at this point. Except in special circumstances, it’s very possible that your personal style or trademark themes will shine through your work no matter what. I wouldn’t have recognized Margaret Maron’s story “Spring Break” as hers; she pointedly was trying something experimental here—a story told completely in dialogue. But the first of the blind submissions that I decided to accept, “#grenadegranny,” struck me with a familiar brand of humor, a sharp-witted conversational style, and a concern with economic issues that I felt like I recognized; so it wasn’t a surprise to me weeks later when the writer was revealed as Karen Pullen, another North Carolina writer whose works I’ve followed and admired. Who we are, how we write—maybe they’re inevitably intertwined.

First-time Writers Can Hold Their Own

Conventional wisdom might have it that the veteran writers are the more polished ones—they’re pros for a reason, right? But just as I’m often most impressed by authors in EQMM’s Department of First Stories, so too was I wowed here by some of the relatively lesser-known writers, including one author making her mystery debut in this anthology: J.D. Allen, whose six-part story “Grasshoppers” revealed an uncommon confidence right from the start. Many readers may well gravitate toward the bigger-name authors in an anthology like this, toward those authors they already know, but those readers would surely be doing themselves a disservice in that case. The rookies can indeed rule.

Technical Issues Can Be Trumped (And Fixed)

Finally, I guess it’s common sense that a writer’s submission should be the strongest it can be: polished to perfection in terms of character, plot, and prose—and free of typos too! (As with resumes, a single misplaced comma might undermine an editor’s confidence in a writer.) But what intrigued me about being in the editor’s seat here were those stories which had even serious missteps—a plot twist that wasn’t prepared for, say, or some unnecessarily muddied passages of prose—but whose storytelling overall kept me riveted and stuck with me long after I’d moved on to other submissions. Those tales lingered in my memory, something about them that transcended specific struggles. The most distinctive aspects of them kept tugging at me, wouldn’t quite let me go. And in turn, I ultimately didn’t let them go—but instead worked with several authors to address some of my concerns, find ways to build profitably on what was outstanding while at the same time smoothing away some of the rough spots—profitable for all of us, I hope, the readers especially.

More than anything, editing Murder Under the Oaks gave me a great opportunity—two, in fact. First, I got to celebrate a terrific group of authors who truly deserve all the credit here, and second, I earned a renewed understanding of the diversity of the mystery genre—and a renewed sense of how to serve readers. Crime fiction, as we know, covers a lot of territory—from cozy to noir, from domestic suspense to international intrigue, and from the whodunit to the caper tale to the police procedural and beyond. Different writers, different readers, different interests—and maybe the editor’s toughest job (mine, at least!) lay not just in delivering a fine batch of stories but also in trying to serve all tastes. Fingers crossed that our efforts worked.

Posted in Anthologies, Books, Conventions, Editing, Fiction, Genre, Guest, Publishing, Writers | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

“Hot on the Trail of a Minnesota Mystery” (by Susan Koefod)

Susan Koefod is the author of the Arvo Thorson mystery-novel series, from North Star Press, and also a widely published poet. She was a recipient, in 2013, of a $25,000 McKnight Artist Fellowship for writers. Just this week she received the news that her first YA book, a coming-of-age novel with an element of mystery, entitled Naming the Stars, will be published in September of 2016 by Curiosity Quills Press. Susan’s second story for EQMM will appear in this year’s December issue, on sale October 27. One would expect such a varied writing life to have many different sources of inspiration; in today’s post she talks about one important thread that runs through it all.—Janet Hutchings

Minnesota has a well-known reputation of “Minnesota Nice”—the natives friendly and helpful—but transplants quickly learn that while we smile, say hello, and are polite, we keep our distance. If you’re hoping we might drop over with a casserole when you move into the neighborhood, you better be patient. We won’t do that right away, possibly not even in the first six months, or even years after that. But we’ll always wave when you walk by. Just don’t expect us to ask you in.

Minnesotans consider it rude to be direct. If you ask us whether we like the meal we share at a restaurant—if a momentous occasion like that comes to pass—we’ll probably say, “It’s different.” What we really mean is, “I don’t like this.”

Minnesotans remain such a mystery to outsiders that you need to have the skills of a sleuth to get to know us. Let’s invent one for the sake of this post. We’ll call our detective Minnie Hartahknowya.

Minnie’s first lead comes in with the infamous Minnesota weather. The joke around here is that if you don’t like the weather, just wait fifteen minutes and it will change. She wonders where’s the humor in that joke after she spends her first winter in Minnesota, which lasts eight long months, but feels much longer. Every month but July has seen snow. She discovers that wind-chill is not something you endure for a mere fifteen minutes, hoping things will quickly warm up. Wind-chill means to keep your distance from winter or you’ll freeze to death. Padded by layers of parkas, sweaters, hats, scarves, and thick boots, a Minnesotan does not look very human outdoors in winter and there isn’t much time for a teeth-chattering chat before even the hardiest locals dash indoors.

Minnie wonders if brutal winters have taught Minnesotans they need to survive without much contact with other humans, possibly for three-quarters of the year. This seems too obvious, especially to a sharp detective like Minnie. She knows that mysteries earn their keep by throwing out false leads. If it’s too obvious a solution, it probably isn’t the solution.

So Minnie looks elsewhere, and analyzes the available physical evidence, going directly to the DNA. She learns that over 32 percent of Minnesotans have Scandinavian ancestry—most of us have Norwegian and Swedish heritage coursing through our veins.

Following the hard physical evidence, the sleuth quickly develops a hunch. And because she’s a character in a 1,500-word blog for short-story mystery-fiction readers and writers, she’s in a hurry to solve the case. She figures there must be something that connects this brooding Scandinavian ancestry, and possibly the weather (maybe that first lead wasn’t a false one), to mystery writing.

Next stop, the library information desk.

The Minnesota-nice librarian tells her that Minnesota is home to award-winning bestselling mystery authors, including Kent Krueger (his recent novel, Ordinary Grace won the Edgar, the Anthony, the Barry, the Macavity, the Dilys, the Squid, and the Silver Falchion), Ellen Hart (winner of many Lambda Literary Awards), Julie Kramer, Erin Hart, and David Housewright; newcomers Allen Eskens (winner of a Rosebud for his debut, and finalist in the Edgar, Anthony, Barry, and Thriller Awards) and Kristi Belcamino (also a first-novel finalist for a Macavity and an Anthony); and many more established and upcoming mystery authors.

Minnesota is also home to a Raven Award winning mystery bookstore, Once Upon A Crime, nestled in a thriving independent bookstore scene (over 50 in the Minneapolis area alone), a vibrant community of writers and readers, and one of the nation’s largest literary centers, the acclaimed Loft Literary Center.

Is there something deep in that Scandinavian heritage, so deep that it hitched along for the ride, crossing the Atlantic into Minnesota culture? Minnie browses at one of the library’s computers, noting an article by Nathaniel Rich of Slate reporting on the popularity of Scandinavian crime fiction. Speaking of Henning Mankell, Peter Høeg, and others, he said that what “distinguishes these books is not some element of Nordic grimness but their evocation of an almost sublime tranquility.” By sublime tranquility, he was referring to the bucolic settings of Scandinavian crime—something that is so pronounced that it appears in the titles of novels (Smilla’s Sense of Snow, anyone?). Is this at the heart of the Minnesota mystery?

I happen to be sitting nearby Minnie, working on a mystery blog post. I invite her to coffee at Fika, a cafe in Minneapolis’s American Swedish Institute. Fika takes its name from the Swedish tradition of “fika,” a coffee break with food.

She asks me about my heritage, the name Koefod. I tell her my husband has one hundred percent Scandinavian heritage and the name originated in the island of Bornholm (off Denmark), home to the most bloodthirsty Vikings, the Jomsvikings. I have some Swedish and Finnish heritage.

She asks me what inspires me as a native Minnesotan with Scandinavian ancestry in writing mysteries.

I tell her the varied landscape and moody climate inspired me as a child. I used to skip home from the bus stop, imagining myself as a character in a novel. To this day, that mix of moodiness and landscape inspires me in my work. My novels are set in a small Minnesota town along the Mississippi River. My detective has Scandinavian heritage. And there are many coffee breaks—fika—in my novels. I agree with her when she cites her personal evidence—which she’s felt as an outsider and learned as a sleuth—that it’s hard to get to know us.

I tell Minnie that even a Minnesotan’s friends and family don’t pry too much into each other’s personal business. A now close friend of mine told me it took me ten years to open up to her. The family continues to befuddle my Parisian-born sister-in-law. The writer in me follows those leads, wondering what motivates behavior, good and bad. Mystery writing is the natural outlet for such a passion.

Minnie thanks me for our interview and asks to have fika together in the future. After I give her the famed Minnesota Long Goodbye and make Minnesota mystery novel recommendations, I answer her invitation with a firm “maybe.”

Posted in Books, Characters, Fiction, Guest, History, International, Noir, Setting, Story, Writers, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment