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

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

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

267 Broadway

267 Broadway

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

The view across Broadway: City Hall Park

The view across Broadway: City Hall Park

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

Mary Grant

Mary Grant

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

Deanna McLafferty

Deanna McLafferty

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

From the reference room

From the reference room

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

AHMM's dwindling hard-copy slush pile.

AHMM‘s dwindling hard-copy slush pile.

Paper manuscripts in Linda's home office.

Paper manuscripts in Linda’s home office.

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

EQ cards

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

EQMM back-issues archive.

EQMM back-issue archives.

AHMM back-issues archive.

AHMM back-issue archives.

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

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

“Gun Culture” (by Scott Mackay)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You pause.

You sigh once again at the blogosphere.

Let me explain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

photo by Joanie Mackay

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

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

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

We climbed glaciers where the crevasses were man-eaters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Clayton Rawson, a.k.a. The Great Merlini” (by Clayton Rawson Jr.)

Longtime readers of EQMM will know the name Clayton Rawson from the magazine’s masthead, where it appeared under the title “Managing Editor” for eight years, from 1963 to 1971. But that Clayton Rawson—not his son, who has penned this post—was a name in mystery circles well before coming to the magazine. In the late thirties and early forties, he authored four mystery novels about the world of stage magic, starring The Great Merlini. Two of the books formed the basis for movies, one of them employing the famous Rawson sleuth (see Miracles for Sale, 1939).
Managing editor Clayton Rawson was a man of many talents. As the focus of his writings on the world of magic must lead readers to suspect, he was himself a magician of professional standing. He was also a professional illustrator, who made his living in that career in Chicago for a number of years. He brought the knowledge gained in those earlier professions to EQMM, where he and editor Fred Dannay once designed an entire issue of the magazine to help a fellow magician with a trick (as explained in Josh Pachter’s blog post for this site “Looking Back on a Half-Century Love Affair with EQMM”). The issues of EQMM that came out during Clayton Rawson’s tenure speak to his skills as an editor; so too does the fact that he founded and launched the Mystery Writer’s of America’s newsletter (still in publication today), The Third Degree.
Clayton Rawson Jr. has followed a different road from his father’s, but despite not being a mystery writer, he tells EQMM he inherited the title his father shared with his fictional creation, The Great Merlini. And perhaps there is magic involved in his work too. He produces one-hour specials for the Fox News Channel—nearly eighty such documentaries over the past fifteen years, many of them, as he explained to us, “tied to anniversaries of historic events such Apollo 11, the JFK assassination, and D-Day’s 70th anniversary.”
Although he has not pursued a career as a mystery writer, Clayton Jr. has maintained an interest in mysteries and in his father’s legacy. He put together the photo montage he links to later in this post, incorporating book covers and drawings from his father’s files.—Janet Hutchings

Clayton Rawson, a.k.a. The Great Merlini. Photo courtesy of Clayton Rawson Jr.

I’m the youngest of my family and my father, magician and mystery writer Clayton Rawson, did most of his writing before I was born, but I did get to help him with his last short mystery story for EQMM: “The World’s Smallest Locked Room” (August 1971). I was a senior at New York University and living in Greenwich Village.  My father asked me to check out Washington Square North—just west of Fifth Avenue—to see if a townhouse where his magician detective, The Great Merlini, lived was still standing.

There is, to this day, a lovely row of townhouses to the east.  Most are NYU offices. To the west, some of the townhouses—including the fictional Merlini residence—had been torn down and replaced with an apartment building.  I’m not sure, but this may be the reason why that last mystery was set in the Rawsons’ hometown, Mamaroneck. I do know that the International House of Pancakes in Mamaroneck—where “The World’s Smallest Locked Room” is set—was one of my father’s favorite restaurants.  And, I do know that the story was written to win a bet.  It had been many years since a Merlini mystery had been published and my father’s close friend, the mystery writer Robert L. Fish, challenged him to write a new story.  Bob later told me he knew he’d lose the bet to my father.

It was great fun to grow up the son of a mystery writer and magician.  Every August for many years, my parents hosted a picnic at our home in Mamaroneck.  Guests included writers from the Mystery Writers of America, of which my father was a founding member, and a select group of magicians who were members of the other organization he founded: The Witchdoctor’s Club.  Both Fred Dannay and Manny Lee were usually there and so was Bob Fish, John Dickson Carr (he and his wife Clarice were also my Godparents), and a dozen or more other MWA members and as many magicians.

A highlight of the picnic was an evening of magic performed by The Witchdoctor’s Club members and The Great Merlini on the stage my father built in the backyard.  It had trap doors, spotlights, and curtains made by my mother.  The last of those shows featured the levitation seen in this linked montage.  My sisters were the “floating ladies” and my brother and I were behind the curtains.  Although today David Copperfield and Criss Angel perform amazing levitations, back in the sixties, no one did it better than The Great Merlini . . . a.k.a. Clayton Rawson.

 

Posted in Characters, Guest, History, Illustration, Magazine, Uncategorized, Writers | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Musings on the Egg and the Detective” (by Mark Evan Walker)

Mark Evan Walker has posted twice before on this blog, the first time about his work as an illustrator (he’s one of EQMM’s finest and most regular art contributors) and the second time in tribute to the fictional character Michael Shayne.  His knowledge of crime fiction is extensive and detailed, as you’ll see in this post that examines the role eggs—including recipes for cooking them—have played in crime fiction. Mark is not only a mystery fan and expert, he’s also a mystery writer, whose first novel, The Case of the Blood Red Stars, was published in 2011. —Janet Hutchings
This portrait of Hercule Poirot, wonderfully designed by Claire Counihan, is from the cover of Hercule Poirot’s Casebook by Agatha Christie, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1989 edition.

This portrait of Hercule Poirot, wonderfully designed by Claire Counihan, is from the cover of Hercule Poirot’s Casebook by Agatha Christie, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1989 edition.

In Agatha Christie’s novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Captain Arthur Hastings gives the first description of sleuth Hercule Poirot: “His head was exactly the shape of an egg, and he always perched it a little to one side.” So, the great detective’s famous “little grey cells” were encased in an egg-shaped vessel!

As “buttah” is to Julia Child, I have often been struck by the curious and rather symbiotic relationship between the egg and the detective. They seem to be explicatively blended together, which may stir the question of which came first, the egg or the detective. In any case it took inquisitive minds (food detectives as it were) some millennia ago to discover what to do with the egg, and find creative ways over the centuries to complement its edibility.

Author Ian Fleming confided his own favorite meal was scrambled eggs, and also that of his creation James Bond. Bond often eats scrambled eggs for lunch rather than breakfast, sometimes along with Scottish smoked salmon. Traveling frequently as a spy, Bond takes time to enjoy his meals as “. . . a welcome break in the day, something to look forward to, something to break the tension . . .” (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Chapter 2), though Bond’s perfect breakfast on those occasions when he is at home in his bachelor flat in Chelsea is a single brown speckled egg boiled for precisely three and one-third minutes, served in a blue enamel cup with a gold band. Who says Bond is a snob?

Fleming delved into egg-centricity with a Fabergé egg in the James Bond short story, “The Property of a Lady.” Originally commissioned by Sotheby’s for one of their trade journals and later republished in Playboy Magazine, Fleming was so unhappy with his story he refused payment. Ironically, the Fabergé egg was incorporated as the central “McGuffin” to great effect by the scriptwriters into the plot of the 1983 film version of Octopussy.

In Thrilling Cities, a Fleming travelogue, one of the short stories entitled “007 in New York” contains a recipe for Scrambled Eggs “James Bond.” (Reprinted at the end of our article below.) But James Bond is not alone in eating eggs for lunch.

In the course of many a tough case, Mike Shayne can often be found sliding into a booth in a diner along Flagler Street in Miami, in the middle of the afternoon, to wolf down a plate of scrambled eggs, bacon, toast, and coffee. After the death of his wife Phyllis he sometimes makes breakfast in his apartment alone, or in the later books with his secretary Lucy Hamilton, where he usually eats at least half a dozen eggs scrambled himself at a sitting, accompanied by toast and one or two cognac-laced cups of Café Royale.

In the second Thin Man outing, After the Thin Man, Nora has a late night craving as they are going to bed. Nora turns the light back on: “What did you say?” Nick: “Hmmm . . .” Nora: “You say something about scrambled eggs?” Nick: “No Darling, you must be dreaming.” But later, as the festivities for scrambled egg-making begin in the kitchen, an important clue comes crashing through the kitchen window!

Author Rex Stout also loved scrambled eggs and eggs in general. So does his creation, the master detective, Nero Wolfe who is also a full-blown gourmet, and has a full-time gourmet chef, Fritz Brenner. The Wolfe stories are replete with culinary delights. In 1938’s Too Many Cooks, Wolfe accepts an invitation to speak at a gathering of Les Quinze Maîtres (the Fifteen Masters) a group of international chefs, and must travel far from his comfort zone in New York City to the wilds of West Virginia, and the mythical Kanawa Spa. There, the chefs prepare a menu upon which Nora Ephron quipped; “The best meal in English literature? The banquet in Too Many Cooks.” Yet jealousies prevail amongst the chefs, one is murdered, and Wolfe solves one of his most brilliant cases, despite being wounded himself and even discovering the secret recipe he covets for saucisse minuit! Even Agatha Christie was quoted as saying, “I must also reveal that greed and the general enjoyment of food is one of my main characteristics and the descriptions of the meals served and prepared by Nero Wolfe’s cook have given me a lot of pleasure and a great wish to have occasionally tasted these suggestions myself. Perhaps for that reason, I particularly liked Too Many Cooks.”

The novel was first serialized in The American Magazine, who put on a huge literary self-promotion show each spring, featuring celebrities, writers, and actors. Stout went on a twelve-city tour, speaking at an editorial luncheon in each city, with a menu culled from Too Many Cooks. A souvenir menu was included for guests, wrapped in a red box, which included thirty-five recipes from the book. It was limited to a thousand copies, and is a collector’s item today.

The original Dell Keyhole/Mapback paperback, illustrated by Gerald Gregg.

In 1973, Rex Stout and the Editors of Viking Press released The Nero Wolfe Cookbook, a comprehensive and entertaining compilation of recipes from the Wolfe cannon. It contains no less than nine egg dishes and an assortment of omelets and soufflés. Among the egg dishes are shirred eggs with clams, coddled eggs, oeufs au cheval (roughly translated as “eggs on horseback” though Wolfe’s version with paté is slightly more ostentatious than mere hamburger), poached, scrambled (of course!), and one of Wolfe’s favorites, eggs au beurre noir, the French translation being “eggs in dark (black or brown) butter”—rather appropriate for a private detective. Though, as Archie Goodwin tells us in The Father Hunt there is one type of egg that will never be tolerated in Wolfe’s brownstone: fried. Stout’s version of scrambled eggs requires considerable time and patience to make. He even suggests a stool to sit on whist gently stirring the eggs—the longer, the better—not less than forty minutes for perfection!

For The American Magazine by Stan Hunt, June 1949

Of course one can’t ignore some of the culinary mysteries and authors. Virginia Rich, being largely identified as the instigator of this subgenre of what are now affectionately known as “cozies,” with the widowed chef Eugenia Potter doing the detecting in three novels before Rich’s death and followed by Nancy Pickard with three more; Michael Bond, creator of Paddington Bear also writes a wonderful food-based mystery series featuring Monsieur Pamplemousse and his dog Pommes Frites (who can resist?) in eighteen novels, including the upcoming Monsieur Pamplemousse and the Tangled Web, to be released this fall. Since 2008, author Julie Hyzy has come up with the string of delightful, award-winning cozies, featuring assistant White House chef/sleuth, Olivia Paras. In 2010’s Eggsecutive Orders, a murder occurs after the victim eats food prepared by Paras’s White House kitchen. The Secret Service shuts down the kitchen, just as they are preparing for the annual White House Easter Egg Roll! Gad!

As an illustrator for Ellery Queen, I have had the pleasure of doing a couple of culinary related mysteries—the first for a story by Charlaine Harris, entitled “Dead Giveaway,” in which the major clue was revealed in illustration itself!

For the unusual and unlikely “Murder in the Pineapple Pit” by Amy Myers, featuring a chef/detective, I did the illustration from the body’s “point of view.”

Ironically, as I write this, my latest illustration assignment for EQMM, which will appear this Christmas, happens to be indirectly culinary related. . . .

But I digress as we were speaking about eggs. Which reminds me of Richard S. Prather’s Shell Scott mystery, The Scrambled Yeggs . . . ahem . . . and I would be remiss for neglecting Colin Dexter’s Sergeant/Inspector Lewis whose propensity for egg and chips at any time of day would frequently irritate his partner Inspector Morris, who of course preferred a liquid diet; but for now this discussion must be abated—

For some reason hunger is gnawing, the noon hour approaches and as eggs are one of this intrepid author’s favorites—I’m off to butter a pan!

Oh! Here’s that recipe:

Scrambled Eggs “James Bond” from “007 in New York,” Thrilling Cities

For FOUR Individualists

12 Fresh Eggs, Salt, Pepper, 5—6 oz. fresh butter

Break the eggs into a bowl. Beat thoroughly with a fork and season well. In a small copper (or heavy-bottomed saucepan) melt four ounces of the butter. When melted, pour in the eggs and cook over very low heat, whisking continuously with a small egg whisk.

While the eggs are slightly more moist than you would wish for eating, remove pan from heat, add the rest of butter and continue whisking for half a minute, adding the while finely chopped chives or fine herbs. Serve on hot buttered toast in individual copper dishes (for appearance only) with pink champagne (Taittinger) and low music.

Posted in Books, Characters, Guest, Illustration, Noir, Novels, Private Eye | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Those Wonderful Skeletons in Our Closets” (by Suzanne Arruda)

In a few weeks EQMM’s November issue will mail to subscribers. It contains “Deep Shaft,” the EQMM debut of Suzanne Arruda, best known for her Jade del Cameron adventure/mystery series set in post WWI Africa (published by NAL/Penguin).  Suzanne is also a co-author of Varmints Ink, a web-comic about a fictional zoo. She currently lives in the “Little Balkans” region of Kansas, a setting she employs in her upcoming historical suspense story for us. Suzanne can be found on Facebook as Suzanne Arruda Mystery Writer and as Varmints Ink Fanpage.—Janet Hutchings

 

When I was yet again a graduate student, I was introduced to an undergraduate who proudly informed me that her great (several times) grand-something-or-other was President Buchanan. I told her I was sorry. At the time, it seemed like an appropriate response. Having a president in one’s past seemed like a high bar to live up to, even if it was Buchanan.

I have since wondered what it would be like to have someone so notable in my ancestral tree, a Bavarian princess perhaps, or a great inventor, or yes, even a president (just not Buchanan). In my family documents, there is a line about one of my paternal grandfather’s ancestors who first came over from Great Britain. It appears he was forced to leave because of an illicit affair. I believe a clergyman was also involved in the story somehow, perhaps the cuckolded husband. Aha! Now there’s an ancestor with a story. That’s something around which I can weave a plot. Certainly someone might wish to kill him or the clergyman. I would suspect the cheating wife of the murder of either one.

If I search further back into my ancestry, into the realms of the dubious, I find a trace of Scottish. And certainly there are some famous Scots that anyone would love to point to in their family tree. Is there a William Wallace in mine? A Robert the Bruce? No. Eoin (John) the Lame was in a rival clan and sided more with the English. My ancestor fought and defeated “The Bruce” at the Battle of Dail Righ. John eventually found Scotland too hot for him and fled to England where one of his descendents would flee to the United States after an illicit love affair. Detect a pattern here? Get in trouble and run for it. Perhaps it’s because I write and love mysteries that I welcome these reprobates in my past.

But it doesn’t stop with my family. On my husband’s side is a forger. Seriously. His ancestors emigrated from the Azores Islands and a body needed a birth certificate to emigrate from there to either the USA or to Brazil. So this grandfather forged the needed certificates. Add someone desperate to flee (such as one of my ancestors) because of a murder, and you’ve got a plot. Hooray, I have a scalawag-in-law.

In the part of the country where I now reside, bootlegging was an honorable occupation during prohibition. It put food on the table, and a great many residents will proudly point to a bootlegging ancestor. I truly think that most people don’t think of those ancestors as dishonest as much as they might think the law had been dishonest. In other words, we aren’t necessarily admiring these ancestors as scalawags but as people who fought fate and strived to survive or make a living in the face of adversity.

Is it true then that we actually relish having a bad apple in our family tree? I’m not a psychiatrist—I don’t even play one on TV, but I do find the reprobates more interesting and certainly easier to live up to than the standard hero. They don’t set a high bar for behavior. We can look good by comparison.

But a person classified as a villain now might not necessarily have been a bad person in their own lifetime. For example, one friend had Tory ancestors during the Revolutionary War. At this point, we boo and hiss that alliance, but these people lost everything they had just by backing the wrong side, a side they believed was right. They had to start anew farther south. Another patriarch married beneath his station and was disinherited. This friend remarked: “Sometimes the interest isn’t that the person’s exploits are negative as such, but that they caused a sensation in a certain culture or era by going against the flow. Going against the society ‘norm’ will definitely make us sit up and take notice—perhaps cheering that person on.”

Some others do have people in their tree that were definitely outside the law. As an example, another friend had a member that rode with Quantrill’s Raiders and then with Jesse James. Now that entire band has been overly romanticized, but this lady knows her ancestral tree “leaf” for what he was. What she admires most is that, at his mother and sister’s request, he left his life of crime. One of the gang members murdered him for it. Sometimes rising above one’s past requires a heavy price.

Any of those family stories could be easily woven into all sorts of dire plots in which the ancestor could be either victim or accused, innocent or guilty. I asked criminal forensic psychologist, Dr. Paul G. Mattiuzzi, Ph.D what he thought about this appeal of scandalous rogues in our past. Dr. Mattiuzzi replied: “In general, people like to identify with others (including ancestors) who are famous or notable because it makes them feel important, special, unique, or significant themselves. It is easy to take pride in an accomplished family member. If the ancestor has notoriety, rather than fame, I think what people ask is: “What does that say about me and the kind of stock that I come from?”

Dr. Mattiuzzi added “People like to identify with the outlaw and the rebel, the nonconformist who didn’t choose to play by the rules. The people in your past are the characters in your life story or your personal mythology. Whether they are wonderful characters or not depends on the stories that are told about them and what you take from that. Who people choose to identify with says something about the individual. It also says something about how the story is told.”

So it seems what we actually admire are people with a sense of mystery about them. When we write or read mysteries, we want to be able to identify in part with the characters in the book. We want heroes who struggle with life rather than surmount all difficulties like a Greek god. And we generally prefer villains who had a touch of humanity about them, people that we can point to and say, “There but for the grace of God, go I.” We recognize those same characters in our own family trees.

From that perspective, even Buchanan could be a noteworthy ancestor.

Posted in Characters, History, Writers | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

ARTISTS AND SAINTS

A number of EQMM’s writers have also had successful careers as visual artists or musicians. When I first encountered cases of this, it seemed remarkable to me that two exceptional gifts should meet in one person. Then I learned of some of the more famous examples of that happening: Tennessee Williams, for example, became a successful painter, at least to the extent of selling some of his canvases in his lifetime; Kurt Vonnegut included his own drawings in some of his novels and went on to produce paintings that were exhibited in galleries in New York. A number of successful musicians and composers also write fiction. The examples that come immediately to my mind are in the current rock world: Check out Akashic Books, whose founder, Johnny Temple, once a musician with Girls Against Boys, has several fellow musicians on his publication list.

So does being accomplished in one art actually make it more likely that a person will be accomplished in another?

As I was considering this, years ago, a lecture by Flannery O’Connor entitled “The Nature and Aim of Fiction” came to mind. I dug it out and found what I was looking for: her discussion of “the habit of art” (as Jacques Maritain called it), which O’Connor explains as “a certain quality or virtue of the mind.” O’Connor assured her audience that there was no need to be scared off by this “grand idea.” On the contrary, art begins, she says, with common experience—with the senses: “the fiction writer begins where human perception begins.” That “habit of art” she refers to is partly a matter of the artist/writer acquiring the discipline to observe the world precisely. “Any discipline can help your writing,” she says, “logic, mathematics, and of course and particularly drawing. Anything that helps you to see, anything that makes you look. The writer should never be ashamed of staring. There is nothing that doesn’t require his attention.”

Several EQMM writers have told me that they practice other arts at an amateur level in order to strengthen their writing: learning to play an instrument so as to become more attuned to human speech and its rhythms; painting or drawing (as O’Connor recommends) in order to become a better visual observer.

The novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch linked the kind of discipline the artist has—the habit of striving to see the world accurately—to morality. In her view the struggle to see the world as it is, particularly where human individuals are concerned, is inextricably linked to seeing the world “justly or lovingly.” She says in her essay “The Idea of Perfection,” “I have used the word ‘attention,’ which I borrow from Simone Weil, to express the idea of a just and loving gaze directed upon an individual reality. I believe this to be the characteristic and proper mark of the active moral agent.” Later in that same essay she says that the “ideal situation” in which moral action occurs is “to be represented as a kind of ‘necessity.’ This is something of which saints speak and which any artist will readily understand. The idea of a patient, loving regard, directed upon a person, a thing, a situation, presents the will not as unimpeded movement but as something very much more like ‘obedience.’ . . . an obedience which ideally reaches a position where there is no choice. One of the great merits of the moral psychology which I am proposing is that it does not contrast art and morals, but shows them to be two aspects of a single struggle.”

I find this very interesting. Does it somehow imply that we should expect artists to be more moral than others? This can’t be what Murdoch intended. She begins the essay by reminding her readers that “an unexamined life can be virtuous” and that in any moral philosophy it must be possible to do justice to “both Socrates and the virtuous peasant.” Besides, we all know that the struggle to achieve perfection, in an art or in one’s life, can become perverted or corrupted and even, occasionally, lead to madness. (Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story “Young Goodman Brown” illustrates this well.) In addition, not all that we call art is equally focused on seeing and revealing reality. There’s a spectrum that runs from art meant solely for entertainment to more serious work, and it’s to the latter end of that spectrum, of course, that Murdoch’s comparison applies most clearly. But even with those caveats in mind, I find the idea that there is a “habit of art” and that that habit is not only common to all the arts but related to the struggle for just moral vision to be intriguing.

I wonder what others think. —Janet Hutchings

Posted in History, Illustration, Writers, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“Visit Greeneland!” (by Kevin Wignall)

Kevin Wignall is an accomplished short-story writer and has been contributing to EQMM for the past decade; his latest EQMM story, “The Messenger,” will appear in our December 2014 issue. Another of his stories, “Retrospective,” has just been turned into a short film with Charles Dance, which will be showing at the L.A. Short Film Festival tomorrow and at the Rhode Island International Film Festival on August 8th. Kevin is also the author of five adult novels and several young-adult novels, the latter under the byline K.J. Wignall. His 2004 novel For the Dogs is in development for a feature film. Publishers Weekly said of the book: “The names le Carré, Simenon and recent British mystery author Mark Billingham come to mind . . . .” In this post, the author connects his work and inspiration to another literary suspense icon, Graham Greene.  —Janet Hutchings

Although I also write books for young adults (as KJ Wignall), when I was growing up the genre didn’t exist. We moved directly from children’s books into the world of adult literature. One year I was trying to finish the Narnia Chronicles, the next I was hooked on Agatha Christie, and by the time I was about twelve my reading repertoire had expanded to include another of my early favourites, Graham Greene. I moved on from Christie (though I’ve revisited some of my favourites recently and wasn’t disappointed) but Greene stayed with me and became an influence on my own writing.

I was talking to my local indie bookseller a few weeks back and he pointed out that although he still sells a steady trickle of Christie mysteries, and continues to sell a reasonable number of Greene’s contemporaries—Waugh, Fitzgerald, Hemingway—he doesn’t sell a Graham Greene novel from one month to the next. He seems to have fallen out of fashion in some way.

Perhaps that’s because of the moral and religious concerns that predominate in a lot of his novels, which seem out of step with our times, particularly in novels which appear modern in many other respects. Greene was clearly troubled by the disparity between his private life and his own religious faith, and his preoccupation with that conflict can seem heavy-handed (for example, in The End of the Affair, which some people adore, but I don’t much care for).

I say all this really as a preamble to saying that you shouldn’t let it put you off. In many ways, Greene was one of the progenitors of the modern mystery thriller and there’s a huge amount of pleasure to be had from his books. Many of them have key elements of noir, particularly the complex protagonist who’s tempted to err and is then carried into dangerous territory as a result.

Likewise, modern political thrillers owe a huge debt to Greene. He was always keen to explore the shifting political landscape of the world in the twentieth century and often predicted developments that few political commentators at the time would have foreseen. It’s perhaps a sign of his skill in this area that The Quiet American, which I’ll come to shortly, was required reading on my South-East Asian Politics course at university.

My first introduction, though, was through a comic but no less prescient novel, Our Man in Havana, published in 1958. Set during the days of the Batista regime in Cuba, it centres on Wormold, a vacuum-cleaner salesman who takes a job with the British secret service to finance his daughter’s extravagant lifestyle.

Wormold has nothing to contribute, so he creates a world of fictional contacts and meetings, and sends detailed diagrams of vacuum cleaners, claiming they’re rocket launchers. It’s funny, though often tense, and predicted several aspects of the Cuban Missile Crisis a few years later.

But this satire on the intelligence service also seems oddly relevant today in the light of Edward Snowden and Julian Assange. It’s certainly no surprise that one of the great living spy writers, John Le Carré, was inspired by this book when writing his own 1996 novel, The Tailor of Panama.

At this point, I’d usually recommend mystery fans to seek out Brighton Rock, an early novel, and one that I read in my late teens. The opening, in which Hale is murdered, is worthy of a Hitchcock movie, and the searing exploration of small time gangsters in a seaside resort is never less than gripping. It’s bleak, too, and yet oddly, it was listed as an “entertainment” when it was first published in the US.

But in some ways, an even better introduction to Greene’s thriller credentials is This Gun for Hire (A Gun For Sale in the UK). For all the Greene I’d read, I hadn’t managed to get around to this one until a couple of the early reviewers of my first novel, People Die, compared it with Greene’s 1936 hit-man tale.

I’m glad I hadn’t read it before writing my own debut because I might have given up there and then. It covers what we now consider familiar territory—the cold-blooded killer for an antihero who isn’t obviously likeable, the hunter becoming the hunted—but for the time it was fresh and daring and still reads that way even now. Greene even takes the additional risk of making the antihero, Raven, physically unattractive, giving him a harelip which also adds to his difficulties when he’s on the run. It’s a fast, taut read and a great introduction to the works of Greene, particularly for readers who are less interested in the political.

But speaking of that, I said I’d come back to The Quiet American. It’s a novel which contains many of the Greene staples—an exotic location, a love triangle, issues surrounding Catholicism and divorce, political commentary—but he gets the balance spot on in this book and it’s a terrific thriller as a result.

The reason it got on to that university course I mentioned is that the novel—published in 1955, and set near the end of the First Indochina War—captures perfectly the beginning of America’s involvement in Vietnam. The fate of Pyle, the eponymous American, even foreshadows the way Vietnam would play out for the USA. It’s still got things to say about foreign policy today and should be required reading in Washington as well as in academia, but I recommend it here purely on the strength of its credentials as a first class and very human political thriller.

This is only a short piece, and I’ve only had time to talk about a few of the books. For people who like Le Carré, I could have pointed you towards The Human Factor, a later book, but one of the most underrated spy novels ever written. For those who like paranoia in their mysteries, I could have pointed you to The Ministry of Fear. Or there’s The Honorary Consul, a thriller with a kidnap that goes wrong, and the classic Greene characters, outsiders who’ve washed up in an exotic location.

But I want to end briefly on the subject of film, perhaps the easiest way to dip a toe into Greeneland. Most of his books were filmed, some faithfully (the recent Phillip Noyce adaptation of The Quiet American) some more loosely (the Alan Ladd version of This Gun for Hire, a book which has actually been filmed several times).

As is often the case, some of the films haven’t aged as well as the books, and I urge you to seek out Greene in print, with one exception. Although the author wrote the novella first, as base material for the script which he also wrote, The Third Man was always meant to be a film, and it still stands as a masterpiece of noir cinema.

It’s classic Graham Greene, from the love triangle and the moral complexity, to the great setting and the antihero you shouldn’t really like but still do anyway. The result is a film that’s bursting with iconic cinema moments, and if you haven’t seen it I can’t recommend it highly enough—as long as you remember who wrote it!

Graham Greene was an astonishing writer (if sometimes uneven—he wrote for money, and during a particularly lean period he actually wrote two books at once) who had a massive influence on twentieth-century culture, both in literature and also in film. I’m sure his time will come again anyway, because great storytellers also rise back to the surface, but he’s an author we should really take for our own in the crime and mystery community.

A sales director once told me that Graham Greene wouldn’t have found a publisher if he’d started out today. I disagree with that. He might have had some fierce editorial arguments, but he would have been published, and he would have been a crime writer.

Posted in Books, Characters, Guest, History, Novels, Readers, Writers | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“My Owen Keane Moment” (by Terence Faherty)

The issue of EQMM that has just mailed to subscribers (September/October 2014), contains Terence Faherty’s seventh EQMM short story featuring series character Owen Keane.  Entitled “Ghost Town,” it is a characteristically thoughtful case for the former seminarian turned sleuth. The New York Times once described the work of Keane’s creator, who is a two-time Edgar nominee, this way: “No guns, no gore, but plenty of intellectual guts.” As we discovered from this post, like his character Keane, Terence Faherty is an amateur sleuth with some good detecting genes. His latest novel, The Quiet Woman (Five Star Publishing), is a combination ghost story and romantic mystery.—Janet Hutchings

In my previous contribution to this blog, “Tips and Other Compensations,” March 13, 2013, I wrote about solving a mystery concerning my late father by using that mystery as the starting point for a story. This entry is about the time I solved a real-life, high stakes crime—and in a way that brought to mind my series protagonist, amateur sleuth Owen Keane.

Owen is a failed seminarian who investigates little human mysteries while looking for answers to large spiritual mysteries. He does much better with the former than the latter, but he soldiers on, so far through eight books and over a dozen shorter tales. (Owen’s most recent book-length outing is Eastward in Eden, 2013, and a new short story, “Ghost Town,” is part of the September/October 2014 double issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, which is now available.)

Owen is one of a long line of fictional detectives who encourage their opponents to underestimate them. Think Charlie Chan and Columbo. Actually, Owen doesn’t really have to encourage people to underestimate him, since he’s a true amateur, flying by the seat of his pants when he gets off the ground at all. As a result, the official police are prone to look on Owen with jaundiced eyes. But that’s just part of being an amateur sleuth, like the lousy retirement plan.

Now on to my real-life crime saga. My wife and I were vacationing in Texas one spring weekend when we received a phone call from a neighbor back in Indianapolis. A motorist had hit our mailbox very early that morning, hit it so hard that the box was flattened and the metal post was yanked out of the ground, cement root and all. The neighbor had gotten up in time to see a white SUV pulling away in haste.

“Mailbox?” I can almost hear you demanding. “Wasn’t this supposed to be about a ‘high stakes crime?’” Well, it was a very nice mailbox.

We got back to Indy a day or two later. We found the flattened mailbox as promised and the extracted post, which had been dragged across the lawn and driven into a flower bed. What we didn’t find was a note taped to our door or a message on our answering machine accepting responsibility for the loss.

I called the “neighborhood patrol,” a squad of moonlighting local policeman who looked after our development and a half a dozen others nearby. The patrolman I drew was tall and thin and very young. His regular beat was in a small town little way east of Indianapolis. When I explained what had happened, he had a two-word answer: “Joyriding kids.”

I objected. According to our alert neighbor, the box had been struck at two thirty in the morning, late for kids to be joyriding but right on time for an adult leaving a bar around last call. And our road was not a through street; it was a long cul-de-sac. Not the ideal joyriding route. No, I told the policeman, what was needed now was less talk about kids and more APBs.

The young man listened politely without changing his mind. The most he would do was write up a report for insurance purposes. While he was at it, I started cleaning up the debris in the front yard, since it appeared the Crime Scene Unit would not be arriving. Mixed in with the chunks of that very nice mailbox, I found pieces of what appeared to be an even nicer car. All the pieces were white, including the surround from a fog light. It was stamped with a single word: “Lexus.” The one exception to the white color scheme was a black piece of plastic that might have come from an air dam (the plastic apron under the front bumper that scrapes the curb when you park nose in). The fragment bore another clue, a tiny grid with months along one axis and years down the other. A marked box within the grid indicated that the air dam, if such it was, had been manufactured in June 2004.

At this point it might be a good idea to pause for a moment to think about what a tough life mystery writers have. If I wrote a short story in which a detective pokes through half a dozen pieces of broken car and finds amongst them one piece that gives the make and a second that gives the year of the car in question, the average reader would think me one lazy writer and start flipping ahead to the next story. And it’s no good insisting, as I’ve heard beginner fiction writers do in workshops, that such-and-such belongs in a story because it really happened. Unless you’re writing parody or fantasy, your fiction has to be more plausible than real life, as Tony Hillerman and others have pointed out, and there’s no use arguing about it. It’s even worse for writers of mystery fiction, who have to avoid obvious clues and eliminate coincidences—both common in real life—in order to satisfy their readers.

Luckily, I wasn’t writing a mystery that day; I was living one. I marched over to where the patrolman sat sideways in the driver’s seat of his car, his patent leather shoes on our driveway and a clipboard on his knees as scratched away at his forms. I showed him the fog light surround and the air dam fragment and told him he was looking for a white Lexus SUV, probably an ’04 or ’05, and he would find it in one of the garages between my house and the end of the cul-de-sac, based on the direction the car had been traveling when it wreaked its havoc. The deputy nodded politely and went back to his forms, declining the chance to conduct a warrantless garage-to-garage search. In retrospect, I can see that I was a fool not to have mentioned my Shamus award.

By the time he’d finished his paperwork and returned to his patrol, I’d decided—in the best traditions of my genre—to take matters into my own hands. I typed up a short note giving the time and date of the crime and the color and year of the car in question and promising that, if I didn’t hear from the interested party shortly, my next communication would reveal the make and model. I printed a stack of these and stuck one in each mailbox between my late one and the end of the street. Then I picked up my pipe and violin, figuratively speaking, and waited.

In a mystery story using this incident as a starting point, there would have followed a near fatal attack on the writer of the note. The SUV in question would have been fleeing the scene of a murder or some other serious crime on the night it hit the (very nice) mailbox, whose meddlesome owner knows too much and must be silenced. Luckily (again), this wasn’t a story. Within a couple of hours, I received a call from an insurance agent who had a client anxious to pay for a new box. Case closed.

Or not. A day or two later our front doorbell rang. Our caller was the young patrolman. He’d come, he said, to apologize. He’d spotted a white Lexus SUV with front end damage exiting the neighborhood that morning and had pulled it over. The driver, a local resident, had admitted running over the box, but had assured the deputy that his insurance agent had the matter in hand. When I confirmed this, the patrolman took his leave, but not before turning to apologize once more. “I should have taken you more seriously,” he said.

He may have wondered why I smiled so at that. It was because I suddenly found myself in a scene from an Owen Keane story, the scene in which the policeman or woman belatedly realizes that there’s more to Owen than meets the eye. I’d always enjoyed writing those scenes, but now I realized for the first time that Owen must enjoy them, too, that those affirmations might even be a little bit of what keeps him going, year after year.

I didn’t mention any of that to the young cop. I simply touched the brim of my fedora, figuratively speaking, and told him to be careful on those mean cul-de-sacs, or rather, streets.

Posted in Characters, Guest, Private Eye, Real Crime | 7 Comments

“A Sense of Place” (by Christine Poulson)

Christine Poulson’s first crime novel was published in the U.S. in 2004, and she has been contributing stories to EQMM since 2007. Before becoming a full-time fiction writer, she was an academic who wrote widely on nineteenth-century art and literature. During that period, she worked at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and at the William Morris Society at Kelmscott House, London. Later she was a lecturer in Art History at a college in Cambridge. The city of Cambridge and the surrounding Fens (whose atmosphere she describes as “unique and sinister”) provide the setting for her popular series starring Cassandra James. Her latest book, Invisible, is a standalone suspense novel, and it includes settings as various as the north Devon coast, Sweden, and Hong Kong. Nowhere does setting play a more important role than in her upcoming story for EQMM, “Roller-Coaster Ride” (December 2014), which was inspired by a trip to Copenhagen and the Tivoli gardens.—Janet Hutchings

All around dense woodland crowded in. The trees were mostly conifer and the foliage began high up, so that the bare trunks rose like columns. Beneath them lay lines of graves, marked by simple headstones. The place stretched out in all directions as far as the eye could see. It wasn’t a conventional cemetery with long open vistas. It was a forest in which you could wander for hours, a place so huge that it was patrolled by a courtesy bus, like the ones at airport car-parks.

We were in the Woodland Cemetery in Stockholm, a World Heritage Site, one of the masterpieces of the great Swedish architect, Gunnar Aspland.

My husband is an architectural historian and we were spending part of the summer in Sweden so that he could do research for a book on Aspland.

Our trip was supposed to be a holiday, as well as a research trip, but architectural historians are never really on holiday. And nor are writers. As my husband and I wandered among the graves—coming by chance on Greta Garbo’s, set apart and marked by a heart-shaped evergreen wreath—I knew that I would one day set a scene in a novel here.

Readers often wonder where writers get their ideas. They might be surprised to know that for some crime writers—and I am one of them—it is not the characters or the plot, but the setting that comes first.

P.D. James gave an interview in which she admitted that “the first inspiration is usually the setting. I have a very strong response to what I think of as the spirit of a place. I can be at a lonely stretch of beach or a sinister house or in a community of people such as a forensic science laboratory or a nurses’ training school and feel strongly that I want to set the book there.”

Ruth Rendell, too, is a past master of atmosphere and place. In A Fatal Inversion, which she wrote as Barbara Vine, three men in their thirties are forced to confront something that happened ten years previously, when they lived together in a commune in a Georgian mansion in Suffolk that they call “Ecalpemos.” The house and the sweltering summer of 1976 have remained in my memory longer than the characters or the plot, brilliant though they are.

A sense of place is important to me as a reader: I love to visit Tony Hillerman’s New Mexico, Donna Leon’s Venice, Andrea Camilleri’s Sicily, Martin Cruz Smith’s Russia, Magdalen Nabb’s Florence, Simenon’s Paris. Recently I’ve been enjoying Quentin Bates’s Reykjavik and Martin Walker’s Périgord, home of Bruno Courrèges, police chief in the little town of St. Denis. Judging by the success of these writers, other readers feel the same.

I realised for the first time while writing this that I particularly enjoy novels set in places that I’ve visited. I don’t read with a guidebook and a map beside me, but I love it when, for instance, I’m reading the Martin Beck mysteries by Sjöwall & Wahlöö, and I recognise places that I know. At one point Martin Beck has a highly desirable flat in the old town, which I covet. I don’t suppose a policeman could afford to live there now.

H.R.F. Keating famously wrote the Inspector Ghote mysteries without setting foot in India. Martin Cruz Smith had spent only a week as a tourist in Moscow before writing Gorky Park. Lawrence Block says you need go no further than the library to research your settings. I take my hat off to them, but to walk around a place in my imagination, I first have to walk around it in reality. I can’t recall ever sending my characters to places where I’ve not been myself.

And why would I want to, when research trips are one of the best parts of being a writer? I know Cambridge well—for seven years I lived and worked there—but we were living in the Peak District when I started to write the Cassandra James mysteries. I often went back to decide exactly where my fictional college, theatre, and library were located. I’d buy the local newspaper, visit museums, the botanical gardens, looking for places to set scenes. Wandering around I’d often get ideas for furthering the plot or bits of dialogue would float into my mind. I’ve even used bits of conversation that I’ve overheard in the street.

And it’s not just the locale. I have to know what kind of house my characters live in and how they furnish them. It tells you so much about them. After all, Travis McGee just wouldn’t be the same person if he didn’t live on the Busted Flush, a houseboat moored in Bahia Mara, Florida. Nero Wolfe couldn’t live anywhere but in that brownstone on West 35th Street. Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder lost something, I feel, when he fell in love with Elaine and moved out of that down-at-heel hotel in Hell’s Kitchen.

Many writers think long and hard about the houses that their principal characters inhabit. But I’d love to know how many of them actually draw floor plans as I do. Perhaps I’m an architect manqué. For the Cassandra James novels, I’ve designed a Cambridge college, a theatre, and an independent library. In the first, Murder is Academic, I pinched Cassandra’s house, the Old Granary, with its brick and weatherboarding, from a book called New Homes from Old Buildings, discovered in a second-hand bookshop in Stamford. But Falling Water, the house at the heart of my new novel, Invisible, was all my own work, even if I did lean heavily on Frank Lloyd Wright.

Situated on a lonely part of the North Devon coast, the house is Lisa’s sanctuary, but it is also where she grieves for her dead architect father and her lost lover. I had to know everything about it, not least because Lisa’s son, Ricky, is in a wheelchair and I had to know how he would get about.

The Swedish sections of the novel came much earlier. When we got home from my husband’s research trip, I pored over maps and guidebooks. Lying awake at night, I’d walk the streets of Stockholm. It’s not too much to say that I was obsessed with Sweden. I’d find myself brooding over the novel while I was cooking, or out for a walk, or on train journeys. I couldn’t decide: Should I set the Swedish scenes in midsummer when the days seemed endless and the nights barely deepened into twilight? Or during the short winter days when snow lay on the ground and night came early?

Finally, early one January, I went back to Stockholm and revisited the Woodland Cemetery. I could have guessed that there would be snow on the ground and evergreen wreaths on some of the graves. But I needed to be there to see the innumerable little lights flickering on the graves as the early winter dusk closed in beneath the trees. They were candles protected from the wind by lantern-holders. The dead had not been forgotten or left out of the Christmas celebrations. It was so homely—and so touching.

And that in the end was how I chose to have it in my novel.

 

Posted in Editing, Fiction, Genre, Guest, Setting, Story, Writers, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

“My Years in Prison” (by Bill Crider)

Bill Crider has worn many hats in his career as a writer, professor, and reviewer, but most of them have some connection to mystery fiction. His Ph.D. dissertation was on the hardboiled detective novel, and though he writes Westerns and other types of fiction, he has mostly focused on mysteries, creating the well-known Sheriff Dan Rhodes and P.I. Truman Smith series, as well as a cozier series starring college professor Carl Burns.  He is a collector of vintage paperbacks and regularly contributes reviews and commentary to a variety of journals and fanzines. EQMM readers know that he also has his finger on the pulse of anything related to mysteries in the blogosphere; he has written EQMM’s Blog Bytes column, which reviews several new sites each month, for many years. Bill’s latest novel, Half in Love with Artful Death, features Sheriff Dan Rhodes and will be available August 12.  Today he gives us a glimpse of a lesser-known chapter in his literary career.—Janet Hutchings

Some of you might not be familiar with the story of my time behind bars. So here it is.

In 1983 I accepted the job of Chair of the Department of English at Alvin Community College. My family and I moved to Alvin, which is located about thirty miles from Galveston, one week before the arrival of a visitor named Alicia. Hurricane Alicia, that is.

Alicia was my first big surprise, but when you’re coming into a new community and taking a new job, there are bound to be a few surprises, some of then not so pleasant. Alicia was just the first one.

The next surprises came the next week when I reported to the college. For the first time I got a look at the fall schedule of English classes. Many of them had the names of the instructors attached, but many more had simply “Staff” beside them. The former chair of the department was still on the faculty. He’d tired of the job and gone back to full-time teaching, but he was available for advice. I went to his office and asked him what was going on.

“You can fill your own name in for some of those classes,” he said. “The rest will be taught by adjunct faculty.”

“Okay,” I said. “Who are they?”

“You weren’t told?”

“Told what?”

“Part of your job is to hire the adjunct faculty.”

I hadn’t been told. And there was more to come.

“That includes the prison faculty,” he said.

“Prison faculty?”

“You weren’t told?”

I hadn’t been told.

“The college teaches classes in three or four prison units,” he said. “All the male instructors are required to teach at least one class there. You have to hire adjuncts for the ones that are left over.”

I believe it was at this point that he led me whimpering to the office of the dean, who said something like, “Well, I would’ve told you, but you didn’t ask.”

I hadn’t asked about hurricanes, either.

“I’ll tell you what,” the dean said. “I’ll give you a break. You don’t have to teach a prison class this semester. Since you’re new, you need to get your feet under you. You can start next semester.”

“What about hiring all the adjuncts?”

The dean smiled. “Oh, you still have to do that.”

The former chair took pity on me and dug out his list of the people he’d hired for adjunct work in the past, including the people he’d hired to teach in the prisons. After registration, I got on the phone and started calling. I got the classes staffed and relaxed until the next semester, which is when I went to prison for the first time. The class I taught was in a maximum-security unit, and there were five or six of us teaching there on Monday nights. The unit was one of the older ones in our district, a hulking brick building surrounded by a high fence that was topped with razor wire. We entered an enclosed area through a sally port with a gate that was closed and locked behind us electronically by the guard in the tower above us. He then opened the gate in front of us, and we went into the prison’s front yard. The lawn was neatly trimmed, and the flowerbeds clear of weeds. The stairs to the classrooms were not far from the entrance to the building, but to get to them, we had to go through a steel door. The guard checked our college ID and opened it. It locked behind us when we walked through. I was behind bars, locked in.

It was a strange feeling, but I didn’t feel threatened or uncomfortable. I never did while in the prisons, but then I wasn’t in the cell block. I went upstairs, checked in, and found my classroom. I think the former chair had told someone it was my first time, because when I looked at the blackboard, I saw that someone had written “BOO!’ across it.

The inmates had a good laugh when I saw the message, and so did I. And then we had class. It was like a regular class, except all the students were men, and they were all dressed alike in white cotton pants and shirts. And they all smoked. This was before the TDCJ banned smoking, and there was a lard can by each desk. The cans were the ashtrays. By the end of class firefighters could’ve done smoke drills in the room, and the cans were practically full of cigarette butts.

Although I taught in a couple of different prison units over a period of several years, there were never any dicey moments, not even the night when a big rainstorm knocked out all the power for a while. The prison, including the classrooms, was in complete darkness, as if I were in cave. I didn’t know exactly what to do, but I figured that cowering under the desk wasn’t the best course to take. So I just kept on talking about Samuel Taylor Coleridge or whatever the topic was that evening. When the lights came back on, nobody was creeping toward me with a shiv, and class continued as usual.

Later on, it was my department that led the way with having women teach classes in the prisons. One of my English Department members was the first, and in fact it was her idea. Many others followed her.

Some people preferred the prison classes to the ones on campus. One of the adjunct instructors I hired the very first semester in 1983 is still teaching there. He’s spent more time in prison than a good many of the inmates.

One reason people like the classes is that the inmates have usually read the assignments and done the homework. They don’t have much else to occupy their time. I recall, however, that at least once I felt like a failure as a teacher because the students were begging me to let them leave class early. I thought that I must be pretty bad when they’d rather go back to a cell than stay in my class. Later I found out that the NBA finals were going on, and they all wanted to go to the rec room to watch. I felt a little better when I learned that, but not much.

One of my best students escaped, not from my class but from the prison. They caught him after three or four days. This was several years after he’d been in my class, so I’m sure he didn’t learn any escape techniques from me.

As department chair, I attended prison graduation every year. One incentive to for students to graduate was that the ceremony provided an opportunity for a contact visit. Punch and cookies were served afterward, and the inmates could mingle with their families. I took my wife a couple of times, but she wouldn’t go again. She said it was too sad. It was supposed to be a happy occasion, but I could see her point.

This is the whole history of “My Prisons.”

Okay, that’s not true, but I’ve always wanted to steal that line from Mr. Thoreau. There’s a lot more to be said about teaching inmates, and maybe someday I’ll write about it.

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