Adventure is a mystery-crossover category that we haven’t discussed much yet on this blog, but we’re correcting that today. Sandi Ault’s series of novels featuring Jamaica Wild, a Bureau of Land Management agent, are chock full of adventure, as EQMM readers will discover in our August issue (mailing to subscribers in just a few days). It contains the series sleuth’s short-story-length case “Wild Justice,” and provides a good introduction to the novels, which have won both the Mary Higgins Clark Award and the WILLA Literary Award (presented by Women Writing the West). But Sandi Ault doesn’t just write adventure; she lives it. She and her husband live high in the northern Rockies of Colorado with a wolf “companion” and a Missouri wildcat. And that’s not all, as you’ll see . . . —Janet Hutchings
I don’t remember too many times in my life when I wasn’t sporting a fresh cut, scrape, bandage, cast, crutch, sling, splint, or barely-healed-but-still-visible wound. I am the only person I know who can claim six—yes, six!—head injuries (two in childhood and four in so-called adulthood) and still survived with the ability to count that high. This would all make sense if I were Evel Knievel or a member of Seal Team Six, a participant in the X Games, or possibly even in the cast of Cirque de Soleil. But no . . . I am an author. And one would think it would be hard to do all that damage while sitting at a desk typing, right?
I swear it: The writing has definitely contributed to my variety of badly healed bones, crooked digits, and scars. It is not so much the occasional rough dismount from the keyboard or the lifting of tons of books to shelve and un-shelve them in search of the one with that elusive but wonderful quote. Rather, it’s the research portion of my work that I blame. Because the WILD Mystery Series crosses over from mystery fiction into adventure, I tend to do the bulk of my research in the great outdoors. In the wild, to be specific.
Like the proverbial dilemma about the egg, I am not sure which came first: the adventurous research or the writing. I have pretty much done both ever since I was able. But I do know that when an idea for a story seizes me, it usually comes out of an adventure I have experienced firsthand, or one I am (hopefully not) dying to experience but will seek out as soon as possible—and lay it on the fact that I have a really cool idea for a book.
I often wonder how much this same thing is true of all of my comrades in the crime-fiction genre? Or is it just those of us who write adventure that have a broken bone, lost tooth or toenail, or big gnarly scar for every book and short story we’ve written? I know some of my pals who write police mysteries have done a lot more than the occasional ride-along. But do all those cozy writers sample poisons disguised by flavored teas (in safe doses, we hope) or try stabbing a pork roast with a knitting needle to see what the wound would look like? Just how far do we have to take this research thing to write credibly?
In my case, I have been accused of taking it too far, indeed. Right—or, perhaps better said: write—to the edge. But there again, which idea came first: the one for the adventure or the one for the adventure-based mystery? Or is a deadline just an excuse for another daring exploit, another trip to the back country, another risky mission out amongst the elements?
Alas, I can’t say. I don’t know the answer. What I do know is that I love to write about my adventures chasing hard-to-find petroglyphs and discovering ruins in almost-impossible-to-get-to places. And I love to have an idea for a plot and then go on an adventure to experience the setup firsthand. Even if I did crack my skull on the left side of my frontal lobe and pass out dangling from a rope ninety miles from anywhere, I was thrilled to discover the pristine ancient cliff dwelling I rappelled to in a remote and desolate canyon. And my close encounters with mountain lions, bears, and especially wolves in the wild have given me more joy than any Christmas could give any child. And when I chose to set Wild Inferno on a wild-land fire, and draw upon an exciting time in my life when I was a wild-land firefighter, all the firefighters I interviewed for that book echoed my reason for doing that dangerous job: When you are right on the edge, when you are staring death in the face, you are more alive than at any other time in your life. And so it goes with the job of researching for the WILD Mystery Series.
Not that I don’t pore over books and wear out my welcome with librarians too. What writer doesn’t? But a paper cut hardly rivals the time I shot out of the raft on the San Juan River in roiling whitewater. Or got chased out of a remote New Mexican mountain village by a mob of angry Hispanic Penitentes who didn’t like a white girl investigating their secret, sacred places of worship and burial. Or the encounters with rattlesnakes, scorpions, deadly heat, cold, snow, and horses that fall lame in the middle of miles of dry arroyos in the high desert with only enough water for one of us to make it—me, or the horse. Or the threats to me and my family for being a white girl in the middle of a culture-rich but closed-and-stricture-bound Native American tribe, trying to write as fast as I can before the People and all their cultural richness vanish amidst our cell phones and fast cars and 3D televisions. This is writing to the edge. To the edge of the knife of change, which cuts through all permanence and makes ribbons of that which it severs—ribbons that fly and fray in the wind and are worn to wisps of memory for a time, and then finally forgotten. Forgotten, but for the books written and the stories told. Only they remain.
I think for the whole time I have been writing adventure-based mystery fiction, I have actually had an ulterior motive: I have been hurrying as fast as I can to write about that which is so precious to me and is so rapidly vanishing. The Tiwa culture. Wolves. Mountain lions. Bears. Ruins, petroglyphs, the wild. To experience any or all of these, to savor them, to be humbled by them or to bask in them even for a moment is an indescribably precious gift to me, even if it might cost me my life one of these times when I am not so incredibly lucky as I have been up until now. And so I write right to the edge. Out on the rim of the cliff that holds the memories of the earth and its original people, the crude but amazing dwellings of the first Americans, the four-leggeds, two-leggeds, winged and crawling things, the swimmers and slitherers to whom this world once belonged. Out beyond the safety of four walls and a digital thermostat where violent weather, harsh elements, scarcity, and unpredictability can suddenly change the landscape and make your survival a questionable commodity. To the edge of desolation where I might not see another human being for weeks at a time, suffer the lack of comforts and amenities, but discover something within myself and about life that rivals all the riches of civilization.
To the edge where a line is crossed and I know that I can never come back the same—where I start to feel more at home among the wolves and the cougars and the bears and the rocks and the trees and the land, and I cannot fathom living anyplace where I can’t see for at least a hundred miles. Only then am I changed enough to come back in like a spy from the cold, back to civilization’s strangeness where I write about my experience. Only then can I write . . . to the edge.
Of course, there’s a cost to all this: Time works on me like all those other vanishing things. Lately, I am noticing aging joints that creak and ache and dull throbbing pains from old injuries. A slight hearing loss from shooting way too many firearms and being on the line during roaring wildfires. Recurring dreams peopled by speaking stones and singing trees that feel more real than the furniture in my living room. The occasional odd sensation that I am navigating the river when I am driving. No more can I wear summer clothing without a scar or two in plain sight. But in the light of my adventures, this is a cost I would gladly pay all over again.
Last week the Mystery Writers of America held its annual Edgar Allan Poe Awards banquet in Manhattan. Each year, writers come from all across the country to attend this formal dinner and the many parties, signings, and panel discussions that revolve around it. Mystery editors, agents, and publishers spend much of the week entertaining their out-of-town authors, and as soon as the New York events are over, it’s on to Washington D.C. for one of the most popular mystery conventions, Malice Domestic, always held the weekend following the Edgars.
My hands are pretty slow on the keyboard after so many days of nonstop conversation, so I’m only going to hit the highlights of that terrific week and let photos of a few of the parties, ceremonies, and gatherings do most of the talking.
It was a week of reconnecting with old friends in the business—too many to mention individually—and the photos we’re including here were donated by others, so there are inevitably a lot of people closely connected with the magazines who don’t appear.
For the Dell Mystery Magazines (EQMM and AHMM), the biggest event of the week is not the Edgar Awards banquet itself but the pre-Edgars cocktail party we host just prior to the banquet. We had some special guests with us this year. MWA’s new president, Charlaine Harris, and her husband, Hal Schulz, were in town for the festivities and made it to the Dell party before Charlaine was due to take up her MWA duties. And this year’s MWA Grand Master Award cowinner, Margaret Maron, and her husband, Joe, were back in New York and at the Dell party prior to Margaret’s investiture.
The purpose of the Dell pre-Edgars party is to honor writers of the mystery short story, including our Edgar nominees, and to present the EQMM Readers Awards. It’s a rare year when all of our Edgar nominees and all of the Readers Award winners can make it to New York. This year we were sorry not to have either Tom Piccirilli, author of the Edgar-nominated story “The Void It Often Brings With It” (EQMM 11/12) or Lia Matera, author of the third-place Readers Award-winning story “Champawat” (EQMM 9-10/12) with us. But Doug and Eve Allyn and David and Robin Dean were on hand, David accepting the second-place Readers Award for his story “Mariel” (EQMM 12/12) and Doug accepting the first-place award for “Wood-Smoke Boys” (EQMM 3-4/12). Also present, having come all the way from the Catalan city of Barcelona, were author Teresa Solana and her husband and translator, Peter Bush. Teresa’s Edgar nomination for her March/April 2012 EQMM story “Still Life No. 41” together with the recent publication of her third novel in English translation, The Sound of One Hand Killing, inspired the long journey—perhaps the greatest distance any Dell Magazines nominee has ever traveled for the Edgars. I speak for everyone at the magazines when I say we enjoyed welcoming them into the Dell fold.
After a late-night trip home following the Edgars banquet, it was time for me to start packing for the Malice Convention. This was a special year for Malice, its 25th anniversary, and since I was one of the attendees of the original convention all those years ago—a small gathering in a hotel in Silver Spring, Maryland—I didn’t want to miss it. A canceled flight and a late arrival notwithstanding, I particularly enjoyed this year’s convention, which featured, among other remembrances, the release of the nearly 500-page volume Not Everyone’s Cup of Tea: An Interesting and Entertaining History of Malice Domestic’s First 25 Years (Wildside Press), in which dozens of authors and others in the business (including me and my colleague Linda Landrigan) share experiences of Malice camaraderie and fun.
EQMM and AHMM each had a nominee in the field of five stories up for the Malice Domestic Convention’s Agatha Award: B.K. Stevens for her AHMM story “Thea’s First Husband” and Dana Cameron for her EQMM story “Mischief in Mesopotamia.” Dana was the winner, taking home her third Malice teapot in the short-story category. (Below, there’s a picture of her holding it at the table she graciously hosted at the banquet.)
Another Edgars and another Malice have come and gone, leaving us all tired, but happy to have reconnected with old comrades in the mystery community—and glad to have made some new friends too!—Janet Hutchings
EQMM has published many prolific short-story writers over the years, most notably Edward D. Hoch, who, in the course of his lifetime, sold more than 900 short stories. A tenth of that number would be a lot by just about anyone’s standards. Among those contributing to EQMM who have hit or passed the hundred mark are the late Donald Olson and, more recently, Brendan DuBois, whose fiction debut was in EQMM’s Department of First Stories in 1986. The latter is also a successful novelist, but one who clearly never lost his love for the short form. His latest EQMM story, “Breaking the Box,” will appear in our September/October double issue. An e-book collection of his stories is currently available through Amazon: See Tales from the Dark Snow. —Janet Hutchings
Gosh, how I do love libraries.
I grew up in Dover, a mill town near the seacoast of New Hampshire, which was fortunate to have a Carnegie library. It was one of those old-style Victorian buildings with lots of brick and stone and turrets, and I literally could spend hours in there, examining the shelves of books and magazines, some of which went back nearly a century. I remember to this day the sweet joy when I first got my adult library card, so I could go upstairs and away from the cluttered children’s room in the basement and enter Adult Land.
To this day, I still love libraries, and one of the things I truly love about libraries now is going out to speak to their patrons. I’ve talked to as many as fifty people at a library, and sometimes only five, but I always find the talks fun and engaging, since the audience is always made up of dedicated readers.
One recurrent theme, however, has been the magnitude of my short story output since I started getting published as a professional. I’m often asked, “So, how many short stories have you had published?” and when I run the number through my head and come up with the current count—which is now nearing 130—I often see shocked expressions on the faces of the audience, like I’ve been caught going through the collection box for overdue fines.
There are two follow-up questions when I toss out that number, the first one always being, “But why so many?”
And I often like to bounce that right back to them: “What makes you think I have a choice?”
Some laughter always results from that snarky reply, but here’s my explanation:
I love to write. Oh, there have been periods where the writing hasn’t gone particularly well, and a few idle times when my fingers feel fat and clumsy on the keyboard, and don’t get me started on the horrors of rewriting for the third —or fourth! or fifth!—time a lengthy novel that I thought was completed.
Yet most days, I’m eager to sit at my desk and get to work. Maybe I’m an outlier in the writing field, maybe not.
But once I started getting my short stories published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and then it’s cross-office rival, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, a revelation came to me, like a midnight lightning strike illuminating a landscape.
With short stories, practically anything is possible.
And that’s when my patient library audience looks at me like I’m one of those kooky and addled writers that they’ve always been warned about.
But let me explain.
When the outline, planning, and research is completed for a novel, and you start Page One, Chapter One, there’s a faint click out there as shackles are delicately snapped about your ankles and wrists. For better or for worse, you are chained for the next six months, eight months, a year, or even more, to that novel. Your point of view, the genre—hardboiled, suspense, thriller, soft-boiled, cozy, random vampires—and everything else, well, that’s been settled. You’re off on a long, long trip, and hopefully, you’ve packed enough grammar and energy to complete the journey.
But short stories . . . ah, such a difference.
I soon learned after getting published that I could let my imagination slip free. I could write from a first-person point of view, or third-person. My narrator could be eight years old. Or eighty. I could write from the perspective of a cop, or a criminal. Heck, after a while—and after growing up one of six boys in a nearly all-male household—I even wrote from a woman’s first-person viewpoint.
It was fun!
It was exciting!
And most importantly . . . it was short!
Meaning that I didn’t have that lengthy and bone-weary commitment that comes from writing a novel. Writing short stories allowed me to experiment, to try different voices and different styles, and write about all sorts of things. And after selling mystery short stories hither and yon—not too sure where yon is, but I’m sure I got a rejection slip from them at one point—I branched out and started selling science fiction, fantasy, and, on one memorable occasion, a Western, complete with horses, revolvers, and a dusty town in late 1890s Texas.
But I always returned to mysteries, for I found that experimenting—and succeeding—in a variety of voices, styles, and types of mysteries, gave me the confidence and knowledge to do the same when it came time to write that novel.
Currently my schedule has me working on a novel in the morning, and a short story in the afternoon. Again, I’m sure I’m an outlier, but I find that when I’m working on that lengthy beast that’s turning into a book, it’s fun and reassuring to step into the world of short stories, and to know that okay, Project A won’t be finished until winter, but at least Project B will be completed next week, and then I can start working on Project B2 (the story, not the vitamin).
So many times I’ve explained this to my eager listeners at libraries throughout my little state, which leads to the second question that gets thrown out there, after I explain my love and addiction to short fiction.
“But where do you get your ideas?”
Oh my, the number of times I’ve been asked that. It’s probably right up there in popularity with, “How can I get an agent?” and “Have you written anything I’ve read?”
But ideas . . . the ideas for novels, and for short stories, and for anything else, are right out there.
If you know how to look. And how to listen.
There’s a railroad that cuts through my town of Exeter, right near the downtown. It used to belong to the old Boston & Maine railroad, and now it belongs to Pan Am Railways. Many times I’ve been out running errands, picking up the mail, or taking our dog Spencer out for a romp, when the crossbars come down and the lights come on, and there comes that deep bellow of a train whistle, warning everyone of its coming approach.
Just the other day, as I sat idly watching the train clatter by, checking out the old boxcars and reading the even older faded names—Maine Central, Southern Serves the South!, Berlin Mills Railway—and scratching my dog’s head, I saw a couple of cars that were marked by graffiti. I’m definitely not a fan of graffiti or tagging or street art or whatever it’s being called these days, but something about the intricate lettering and images just struck me.
Scratched my dog’s head.
I looked at the passing graffiti-covered train cars, saw them as something more than just vandalized objects. I thought of them like an emissary from some urban landscape, where young men and women scrambled about dirty and dangerous rail yards to paint and mark the cars, only to see them disappear as they went all about the country.
And I thought of a young man, or a young woman, stuck in a rural town in upstate Maine, or out in Ohio or North Dakota, a young person with a hunger that they can’t quite identify, and then they see these marked rail cars going by, telling of a different world out there, inviting, dangerous, and seductive . . .
Then the train passed, the bars lifted, and I went on my way.
The idea stuck with me that morning, and when I got home, I just typed a couple of sentences in my Ideas file, and left it for now.
But there’s a story there. I just know it.
A novel? Doubtful. There’s a lot more that would have to be considered and dug out and outlined before I would even consider a novel based on that idea.
But a short story . . .
Because with short stories, anything is possible.
Even if the sweet people in the libraries don’t quite believe you.
EQMM’s August issue, which mails to print subscribers a few weeks from now, contains a story set in French Polynesia—often said to be the most beautiful region in the world. Entitled “The Lethal Leeteg,” the story forms part of a series of police and private eye tales that author Hayford Peirce has been writing for EQMM for nearly twenty years. The series’ two continuing protagonists, Commissaire Tama and private eye Joe Caneili, are unforgettably distinctive creations—as notable as the stories’ exotic location. Hayford Peirce also writes science fiction, with work appearing in our sister publication Analog Science Fiction and Fact since 1975. It may be of interest that this master of conveying a real exotic locale is known in the science fiction field for his well-imagined settings. His latest novel is Dinosaur Park (Wildside 2010).—Janet Hutchings
“Write what you know” is probably the hoariest piece of advice given to aspiring authors in English classes and writer’s workshops. But for every writer, or teacher, who apparently believes this, there seems to be an equal number who find one reason or another for pooh-poohing the notion.
In my own case, I’d always vaguely wanted to be a writer—a published writer—first of mystery stories in the grand manner of Ellery Queen and John Dickson Carr, which I discovered at about age ten, and then, after coming across science fiction at fourteen, science fiction novels or stories like those of Robert A. Heinlein. A few years after that, I was enthralled by Evelyn Waugh, the great English satirist, and by Raymond Chandler, the master of hardboiled prose. All of these writers would inspire me to sit down at a typewriter and to pound out a page or two of reasonably decent prose. But, of course, as a teenager, I didn’t know anything about the world.
So what could I write about? I would think of an opening paragraph, maybe, or a character, and that was about the extent of it. Even for modest short stories that I grandiosely envisioned at EQMM or Astounding Science Fiction, two or three pages were the most I could ever manage. I had a beginning but no middle and no end.
So I finished prep school, and then college, and then was fortunate enough to be able to move to Tahiti, commonly thought of as being “paradise,” in 1964, when I was twenty-two. Ten years passed. I amassed thousands of mystery and science-fiction novels, which I read avidly. Then one day, when I was thirty-two, all of a sudden I did think of something to write about. It had nothing to do with life in Tahiti, being a whimsical science-fiction story, but it did contain elements of things I knew about, wine and tea and European politics. I wrote it quickly, sent it off, and soon got a check in the mail. So now I was an official published writer!
But thinking of ideas for stories still was difficult. Even though I was living in Tahiti, where preposterous “only-in-Tahiti” type things were happening all around me on a daily basis, I could never quite put together all the elements needed to tell a complete story. Just knowing about Tahiti wasn’t quite enough. Then one day I caught a brief glimpse of a television show about an April Fool’s joke of someone claiming he was finding gold nuggets in the stomachs of fish caught in the nearby lagoon. With a little difficulty, I managed to plot an entire story, a rather grim one actually, beginning with that as the kernel. And, since I did have Tahiti all around me, I decided that I would try to be as evocative of its lush and exotic surroundings as possible—this was back in the mid 1980s, when Polynesia was still mostly an idealized notion to most Americans. So this is how I began the story:
“Easter Sunday in Tahiti: hot, dry, and clear. A light breeze stirred the leaves of the trees that towered over the blacktop road that wound through the district of Tiarei: mangos and breadfruits, ironwood and mahogany, an occasional avocado or chestnut, and everywhere the graceful arc of the coconut palm. A pitiless sun in a cobalt sky lanced through the foliage to dapple the road, and with it the Tahitian families on their way to church in long white dresses and dark blue serge suits with double-breasted lapels handed down from their grandfathers. Hedges of bougainvillea and hibiscus lined the road, often hastily-cut fence posts that had taken root and flowered in the impossibly fertile soil, their gaudy flowers lilac and orange, pale rose, deep red, creamy white, flaming yellow. Ginger, opui, frangipani, a dozen kinds of banana trees struggled for sunlight and survival. Even at nine in the morning heat waves shimmered on the road ahead, and over everything lay the scent of coffee beans and vanilla, mixed with the cloying odor of drying copra.”
Overdone, probably, but I sold the story, and it set the tone for all the others I’ve laid in Tahiti over the following twenty-eight years. Stories about Commissaire Tama, the Chief of Police, are written in the third person, and I can indulge my descriptive fancies as much as I want to evoke the exoticism of the Islands. Stories narrated by Joe Caneili, my American ex-Foreign Legionnaire, now a private eye, are somewhat more restrained on the lit’ry side. But even here, inspired by Raymond Chandler and all his myriad of imitators, I try to flesh out the story with word pictures of the world Caneili lives in:
“The lunchtime traffic had gridlocked at the intersection in front of the cathedral, so I skipped deftly through it and walked the short block down to the waterfront. This was a four-lane road that ran along the U-shaped harbor of Papeete. Cool-looking shade trees were planted down the middle, arching over on either side. There were shops and travel agencies and restaurants on one side, a parking lot, and the oily water of the harbor on the other.
I could feel my brains sizzling in the heat as I walked across the unshaded asphalt pavement of the parking lot down to where half a dozen small fishing boats were tied up. Across the harbor a big black Russian cruise ship was docked in front of the long, low customs sheds, and a gray destroyer of the French navy was cleaving through the harbor waters on its way to the pass and the open ocean. Hung across the horizon behind all this activity was the jagged silhouette of distant Moorea, looking like Hollywood’s notion of what a tropical island backdrop should be.”
But more important to my stories, I think, than exotic settings and colorful vegetation are the exotic people and colorful activities they get up to. Some of these activities, of course, probably do happen in the United States from time to time—but are seldom noteworthy enough to make the newspapers. In Tahiti they’re all just part of the daily routine that people laugh and gossip about.
One of my stories, for example, revolves around an incident that I first heard about around 1962, when I hadn’t yet moved to Tahiti but was there on school break. A well-known American of the forties or fifties, the story goes, the honorary American consul even, fell deathly ill one day and was rushed to the hospital. Miraculously, he recovered and eventually returned home. Some weeks later a Chinese carpenter knocked on his door—with a wooden coffin by his side. “Who,” said the carpenter politely, “is going to pay me for this coffin that I was told to make for your funeral?” At which point the horrified consul clutches his heart and falls down dead.
A great story. True? Parts of it, I think. But certainly enough to get me started on a story of my own.
Another one involved someone who lived out in the countryside with various family members buried in his/her own little graveyard. Dire events caused the person in question to believe that a recently buried grandfather was causing the trouble—so he/she dug up the coffin to chastise the angry spirit by hiding it elsewhere.
Another Caneili story begins when he returns home for lunch and discovers that his modest bamboo rental house has burned to the ground. His landlady, who lives in the house right next door, has set fire to her own house—because she was mad at her husband over some trifling matter. Tahitians really did set fire to their own cars or houses when they got mad at things. . . .
Interesting people have lived in Tahiti, or visited, over the years: Marlon Brando; the restaurateur Don the Beachcomber; Edgar Leeteg, the black-velvet artist; James Norman Hall, author of Mutiny on the Bounty—all of these and many more are part of the local lore. And ripe to have stories in some sense crafted around them.
Even now, nearly forty years after selling my first story, it still isn’t easy to conjure up new ones—but at least I have a background, the “old” Tahiti of, say, the timeless 1980s, in which to set them. . . . Because, just as the advisors say: I am writing about what I know.
I spent the week before last doing jury service on a medical malpractice case. After decades immersed in fictional recreations of trials and courtrooms (what mystery editor hasn’t encountered barrelsful of successors to Perry Mason), it was enlightening to see how a real trial is conducted. Although this was not a criminal case, it brought to mind, for me, some recent developments in criminal law.
Back in 2010, when my AHMM counterpart and I were blogging on our website, I did a post about discoveries in neuroscience and speculated on how they might eventually affect the concept of personal responsibility for criminal acts. I decided to revisit that post and see what new information on the subject has become available over the past couple of years.
According to a November 2012 article in U.S. News and World Report, a survey from Duke University shows that “the number of cases in which judges have mentioned neuroscience evidence in their opinions increased from 112 in 2007 to 1,500 in 2011.” And defense attorneys are increasingly bringing medical evidence such as brain scans into court in cases ranging from murder to sex crimes. Having spent the better part of a week in a courtroom looking at medical diagrams, X-rays, charts, and records, I feel I might have experienced something of what the criminal trial of the future will look like. But the extent to which such medical evidence will—or ought to—affect jury verdicts in criminal cases will probably be a hotly debated subject for a long time to come.
When I posted on this subject in 2010, I had just seen a segment of an ABC Nightline Prime series called Secrets of Your Mind, in which evidence for a “murder gene”—actually several “murder genes”—was examined. According to one of the neuroscientists interviewed, James Fallon, scientific opinion is closing in on three factors that may be determinative of whether someone ends up becoming a violent criminal: 1) the existence of a brain defect in which the orbital cortex, the area of the brain now known to be the center for conscience, is “turned off”; 2) the presence of one or more of the ten genes known to put someone at high risk for violence; and 3) a childhood environment of abuse.
The first two of these factors—the biological ones—are the most controversial, but scientist Fallon was confronted with an unexpected confirmation of his research in his own family history. After discovering brain defects and the various genes associated with violence in a number of incarcerated murderers, Fallon learned—to his shock, I’d imagine—that he was descended from generations of murderers, including the notorious Lizzie Borden. And, perhaps more disturbing, a scan of his brain revealed the very same “turned off” orbital cortex that he had found in prison subjects, which, given his family history, certainly seems to lend credence to the theory that biological factors play a significant role in whether someone will commit violent acts.
On the other hand, Fallon himself is not a criminal, despite having the crucial brain defect and the genes associated with violence, so it might be tempting to think that in the end nothing can be made of this “hard” science in predicting how someone will in fact behave or, more importantly for our legal system, in relieving anyone of responsibility for criminal behavior. Many will still want to argue that what it all comes down to in the end is free will; that it may be harder for someone with such a condition of the brain, or for someone born with certain genes, to live a life without violence, but that they are, nevertheless, able to choose one path or the other.
I’m certainly not going to try to come down one way or the other on that question, but the very fact that more defense attorneys are bringing physiological evidence of a predisposition to violence into court should tell us that public opinion on this subject is changing. Lawyers choose their evidence according to what they think will convince a jury. One thing that impressed me at the end of the trial I just participated in was how interested the attorneys were in finding out why we members of the jury voted as we did, even down to details such as whether we liked it when one of the expert witnesses turned to face us as he testified. They were thinking ahead to other trials, keeping a finger on the pulse of the kind of people who will be deciding their future cases.
But enough about real trials; what interests me as a mystery editor is how crime and mystery writers will come to terms with what could turn out to be a profound change in the way we assign responsibility for crimes. It seems to me that a fundamental assumption behind the traditional mystery is that everyone has it in them to become a murderer. The fact that some commit such acts and others don’t—the way that “evil” enters into or is resisted in a life—is what the whole business of mystery writing seems to me to touch on in one way or another. And yet new scientific discoveries seem to be pointing in a different direction, telling us that we do not all start out alike. That some are born with brains that heavily predispose them to commit heinous crimes, and conversely that others are unlikely to commit such crimes no matter what circumstances confront them—and no matter what qualities they do or don’t cultivate in themselves.
Of course, deterministic theories of human behavior are nothing new, and free will is one of those concepts it’s probably impossible for a society to do entirely without. But I’d guess that at the very least, if the science connecting violent crime to certain brain defects holds up, there will be changes in how we view many of the perpetrators of violent acts. Perhaps we’ll punish less harshly those who were predisposed to crime by their physiology—even if we allow that they had a measure of choice.
Fiction is sometimes ahead of far-reaching changes in a society’s attitudes, but I haven’t encountered many mystery or crime stories that wrestle with this new science. Have you?—Janet Hutchings
With the U.S. tax filing deadline just days away, what could be more opportune than some advice to writers from former tax accountant turned full-time mystery writer Jim Weikart? In the early 1990s, it was my privilege to acquire and edit two novels by the New York author, books written while his other occupation was still in full swing. Kirkus Reviews praised the books, calling the stories “richly engaging” and their tax-accountant sleuth “a truly novel hero.” If tax season has put you in the mood for some deadly tax puzzles, the novels are still available on Amazon (see Casualty Loss and Harry’s Last Tax Cut). The author has also produced a number of short stories, which have appeared in both EQMM and AHMM. Look for the latest of them, “The Samsa File,” in the September AHMM.—Janet Hutchings
The Writer’s Wife
The IRS auditor asked the writer’s wife if what the writer did was his hobby.
My heart was in my throat: This was the key as to whether the $15,000 writing loss would be allowed on the tax return. I would defend his position as a professional writer, but I hadn’t prepared the wife for this brazen direct attack and I had to sit silently hoping she wouldn’t destroy our case with one word: “Yes.” (The writer was missing, unable to face the emotional rigors of a tax audit.)
“A hobby is something you have fun doing, right?” she asked.
The IRS auditor conceded the point.
“Then, no, it’s not a hobby,” the wife said, following the comment with an ironic laugh.
The $15,000 loss was allowed, no further defense was needed from me.
Share the Pain, Share the Gain
Since something like only 4% of writers actually make money writing that leaves a lot of us out there not making a profit. Yes, “profit” is the key word to “being in business.” OMG did I just say that! Oops, wrong, bad, like an urban legend. The truth is that, “intending to make a profit” is the key phrase to “being in business.” Profit motive, not profit. Get the difference?
So there you have it: 96% of writers who, if they only choose to conduct themselves as a business, could deduct their writing failures against their day job income. Like the writer whose wife said, “No, it’s not a hobby” established the loss for her writing husband.
It’s one of the only ways to get government support for a struggling writer in America. Think of it as applying for a grant through tax loss.
Okay, maybe you do enjoy writing. The IRS rules specifically say enjoying what you are doing doesn’t disqualify it from being a business. Besides, once you’ve “enjoyed” figuring out the opening paragraph that’s going to make everybody read to the last page, which you’ve also written, isn’t there going to be a dark maze along the middle way where maybe you think of shooting yourself?
Whether you enjoy it 200% of the time (yeah, yeah), or are driven by demons who force you to write, as long as you have an intent to make a profit and conduct yourself as a business the IRS is compelled to allow your business losses.
Do you think the IRS is going to tax you when that mystery sells like a Lee Child? You bet. You’ll be paying a couple hundred grand for some nut holding the rotors on a military helicopter somewhere. So why not choose to conduct yourself as a business before your Lee Child-like book comes out? Why not make the IRS share the pain too?
Proud to be in the 96%
I retired from my New York tax firm (which served a lot of writers) recently to live in Asheville, NC, and develop my own “intent to make a profit” writing business. Editors may apply for the mystery I’m circulating, Tax Dead, so that I can establish my profit motive with their rejection letters. And I will soon have a second mystery, Lost Souls, ready for the rejection circuit.
Some years ago at a Malice Domestic, I had lunch with a fellow writer who had suffered a paralyzing spinal injury and was confined to a wheelchair. I blathered on about the business of writing as a way to save on taxes. She listened to me with a great deal of patience. When I finally shut up she looked me right in the eye and said, “Jim, there’s nothing in this world that I’d rather do than make enough money to pay taxes.”
I’ve spent much of my life advising writers on how to live less taxing lives. But in the end, that writer in a wheelchair was right. Paying more tax is a measure of your economic success. Okay, I leave you with that.
You can set up your mystery writing business correctly by searching for “IRS Definition of Profit Motive.” You’ll find ten factors beyond profit that will help you make your mystery writing a business.
Laura Benedict’s first fiction publication was in EQMM in May of 2001. Since then, she has become a successful novelist with two dark suspense novels (Isabella Moon and Calling Mr. Lonely Hearts) to her credit, and, most recently, a modern Frankenstein novel, Devil’s Oven. Her favorite area of the genre is one we haven’t covered much before on this blog—the Gothic. The truth, however, is that this author is a creative and knowledgeable contributor to many areas of fiction. She originated and edited the Surreal South Anthology of Short Fiction series with her husband, author Pinckney Benedict, and together they have started their own publishing company, Gallowstree Press. Some of Laura’s choices for the best in Gothic fiction coincide with my own. We hope others will jump into the conversation with their favorites.—Janet Hutchings
I’m a homebody. What a lovely, old-fashioned word that is for someone who has little ambition for leaving her own doorstep. In astrological terms, I’m a Cancer. We’re known for being moody and in need of constant reassurance and intimacy. We’re suckers for security, which can make our worlds sometimes very small.
My favorite kind of fiction is dark and intimate. But I’m old enough that I had early twentieth century adventure stories pressed on me in the form of big anthologies and gift sets. From them I read Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, Jack London’s Call of the Wild, Robinson Crusoe, The Three Musketeers, et al. (Sometimes I think my relatives were disappointed that I wasn’t a boy. No one ever gave me Anne of Green Gables.) They were stories of wanderlust, honor, and testosterone. Finally, a very clever person gave me a set of Edgar Allan Poe, a huge anthology of Sherlock Holmes stories, and a pile of Nancy Drew books. It felt like such a relief after all that tromping about the world looking for treasure.
Classic mysteries operated on a scale I could appreciate. They were stories that always felt within an arm’s reach, and required of me more thoughtfulness than dangerous action. It makes sense that I should prefer them, given my personality. Stevenson’s Treasure Island was fine, but I much preferred his The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and stories like The Story of the Young Man with the Cream Tarts, which takes place primarily inside a gentlemen’s club.
Then I discovered Gothic novels and I knew I was where I belonged. I confess that—unlike many girls—I wasn’t primarily drawn to novels like Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Du Maurier’s Rebeccca for the romance. Sure their bold heroes were attractive to a preteen girl, but it was the architecture that seduced me. For the most part, they took place in elaborate, soaring houses that had stood as unchanging witnesses to centuries of human (and sometimes superhuman) drama. They were full of hidden rooms and passages and secrets to be discovered. I chased through them with the often-timid heroines, wondering at strange lights in distant windows and the sounds from ostensibly abandoned rooms. I saw ghostly faces in mirrors, and listened to the threatening sea crash against the rocks, as faithful servants told me of dreadful shipwrecks. (Okay, Wuthering Heights was nowhere near the sea, but you get the idea.) Every Gothic house had at least one deep, mysterious secret, and it was my sworn job to help the hero or heroine find out what it was.
Rebecca is a twentieth-century novel, but I’d almost put it in a class with earlier Victorian and pre-Victorian Gothics. The naïveté of the narrator gives it a rather antique feel, despite the lurid nature of some of the discoveries she makes. For me, it serves as a kind of bridge to more modern Gothic novels.
I once described a dream in which my house was on fire to a friend who has an interest in dream analysis. “Oh, that’s easy,” she said. “You’re the house, and the fire is your sexuality.” Reader, I was mortified! While that was the last time I volunteered any of my dreams for analysis, I found Freud’s image of the house as one’s inner psyche compelling. And it works as a very powerful symbol for the human in fiction.
It’s easy to imagine a house (or even a very tiny community) as a conduit for human desires. There’s a theory of literary criticism that describes something called Female Gothic, which gets very deep (and messily) into the way nineteenth-century Gothic novels helped express the common fears, frustrations, and awakening sensuality of women through architectural symbolism. I get it. But I’m just a writer who approaches her work as a craft, as well as a reader, and not a grad student in English Lit, so I’m not going to belabor the symbolism stuff because I’ll just get myself into trouble.
Shirley Jackson is a favorite of the symbolism crowd. Coincidentally, she is a favorite of mine. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a chilling narration by a selfish young madwoman who essentially imprisons the few remaining members of her family in their ancestral home. “Merricat” Blackwood (whose family name could be homage to the fantasy/horror writer Algernon Blackwood) brings ruin on everyone around her, and the house itself is burned so that the remains of it resemble a castle. The Haunting of Hill House appears to be a straightforward ghost story, until one looks closely at the character of Eleanor Vance. She not only falls in love with the house, but she actually wants to become a living—well, dead actually—part of it.
(Now, this may sound a little strange, but I can imagine becoming part of a house. One night, as I lay trying to sleep in my house all alone, I had a kind of out-of-body experience in which I could see every room of the house at once, could see outside from any window, and could hear the tiniest movements of the creatures living in the walls. I felt such an amazing sense of control. Of power.)
Joyce Carol Oates is a contemporary writer who writes—among myriad other genres—astonishing Gothic stories. Her collection, Mysteries of Winterthurn, is one I turn to again and again, particularly the tale, The Virgin in the Rose Bower. In it, the grand historic house, Glen Mawr—complete with attic, dungeon, and an ironically named Honeymoon Room—abets the brutal acts of murder and deceit perpetrated by its inhabitants. (There is a hint of the supernatural, but a human could easily have committed any of the crimes.) “The Virgin in the Rose Bower” is also the title of the trompe l’oeil mural in The Honeymoon Room. With its devilish putti, strange taloned creatures, and leering androgynous angel, it is quite possibly the most plot-affecting piece of fictional art since the portrait of Dorian Gray.
I love that. It’s a single mural, on a single wall. The house’s inhabitants might see it, touch it every day. It can’t go anywhere. It doesn’t threaten hundreds of thousands of people. No war is ever likely to begin over it. Yet it is absolutely central to the high drama of a few people’s lives. With that painting as a clue, the young detective Xavier Kilgarvan is able to unlock the terrifying, altogether human mystery at the heart of Glen Mawr, and the discovery informs the rest of his life and career.
It’s not surprising that Gothic stories set in great houses seem like an artifact of literary history. Fortunately, they pop up from time to time in both novels and film (I’m thinking of The Others and, more recently, The Woman in Black, from Susan Hill’s novel.) but are often set in the past, for good reason. Our American culture has become much less home-centric over the past half-century. The world stage is constantly on our television and computer monitors. It’s enormous and ever-changing, refocusing. Our attention is always elsewhere. My own son’s life is filled with activities that take him away from home at least five days a week, for most of the hours in a day. My husband spends most of his week on campus, teaching. While I was raised by a mother who didn’t work outside of the home, most of my friends were not, and almost none of the parents of my children’s friends are home during the day. I am an anomaly, doing a job that allows me to be in my house, cognizant of every dog bark, cat sneeze, and attic creak. My life is decidedly undramatic, unromantic, and certainly not mysterious, which is why I spend a lot of time reading and writing about situations that are far more stimulating. But I am deliriously content.
For a homebody like me (no, let’s not even think about the word agoraphobe), my job is perfect. My current project is a big Gothic story about a single historic Virginia house that has seen far more than its share of devastating crime. I’m excited about the prospect of moving back in time with each volume of the story, deepening its intensity and sharpening the drama through new and recurring characters. It’s like being able to explore endless universes from a single, cozy vantage point.
Ellery Queen thought the historical mystery the hardest of all to write. But he must have been drawn to the form, because he produced some of our genre’s most memorable stories involving history, such as “The President’s Half Disme,” and included many historical crime stories by others in EQMM. Since the 1990s, Amy Myers has been one of our best and most frequent contributors of historicals. She mentions several of her EQMM stories in the following post. At least one of them can be found in an e-book (“Murder of a Distressed Gentleman” is in the collection That’s the Way He Did It); and at least eight of the historical novels involving her most famous sleuth, Auguste Didier, whom she talks about here, are soon to be released in e-book format by Headline.—Janet Hutchings
What do a late-Victorian master chef, an eighteenth-century country parson, and a mid-Victorian chimney sweep have in common? Answer: Auguste Didier, Tom Wasp, and Parson Pennywick are the sleuths in my historical mystery stories, which I’m very proud to have had published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine over the years. I also write in the contemporary field, but the historicals have a special place in my heart.
Why? I think it’s because history itself is a mystery. When I carry out research I feel I’m burrowing into the exciting but mysterious unknown, so when (like Alice in Wonderland down her rabbit hole) I arrive in this strange place I first have to get to know my way around and then people its landscape with my characters. That sets the stage for curtain up. Then, in the words of the immortal Ellery Queen himself in The Roman Hat Mystery, “are introduced a theatre audience and a corpse,” the latter being my contribution, the readers’ the former. At least I hope there’ll be readers! Quite a few of my stories haven’t made it past rehearsal stage. I once burrowed deep for a story based on Cleopatra’s Needle and even deeper for one on whether Shakespeare was Shakespeare, but the curtain never rose on them.
That’s another thing about history. If you try too hard to seek out its mysteries it sometimes becomes coy and refuses to “work” for you. Luckily, the research can be so rewarding that it becomes an enjoyable end in itself. If I had never burrowed into the great Shakespeare debate I would never had discovered the theory about the 17th Earl of Oxford. Personally, I see no reason why Shakespeare couldn’t just have been Shakespeare, but it was fascinating nevertheless.
Like Ellery Queen in his novels, historical settings set a challenge. His challenge is to the reader and mine is to me, the author. Will history prove friend or foe today? I wonder when I’m working on a story. Will my plot work amicably with the historical facts or will they fight each other every inch of the way?
Once, on a bad day, I discovered that King Edward VII couldn’t possibly have been in Kent as my story demanded, because having consulted the court circular column in The Times for that day I found he was opening something or other in the North of England. Oh, bother! Should I ignore it? No, I’d never look at the story again without feeling guilty. On a good day, however, history can decide to smile on you and produce a few ideas of its own that actually enhance your plot or take it in a new exciting direction. For two days on which I required His Majesty to be in Paris, I discovered that not only had he indeed been there, but his movements, as The Times recorded rather crossly, were unknown to the press. Suited me down to the ground. I knew exactly where he was.
I do my best to play fair by history. I try my hardest to check every detail that the reader could assume is historical fact and if I can’t get to the bottom of one of them, I omit, avoid, or write an author’s note about it. After all, history plays fair by me, as my favourite ideas have sprung from historical oddities that have stuck in my mind from various sources. They don’t always demand to be used right away; some prefer to lodge peaceably within me until I summon them forth to spin a web around them.
In this way Auguste Didier met the Distressed Gentleman in the Strand (“Murder of a Distressed Gentleman,” EQMM May 2008) and the Rightful King of England (“The Rightful King of England,” (EQMM November 2002); there really was a rumbustious Judge and Jury Club in a London pub of the 1860s (“A Case for Judge and Jury,” EQMM September/October 2002); and I couldn’t resist a recipe in a nineteenth-century cookbook for the King of Oudh’s Curry (“The King of Oudh’s Curry,” EQMM July 2011). As for “The Pilgrim,” (EQMM July 2005), the original Becket’s tomb in Canterbury Cathedral did indeed display a huge ruby called the Regale of France, which was appropriated by King Henry VIII during the period of the dissolution of the monasteries, given to his daughter Mary to wear round her neck, and was then never heard of again. It didn’t seem too far-fetched to write a story in which the ruby’s history covered several centuries after that.
As many other writers used to writing novels, I was at first very nervous about writing short stories, particularly when I read all the well-meant advice on how to do it. Write a twist in the tail? Me? Panic. How does one do that? Answer: I still don’t know. I’m never sure when I write a story that I’ll get a punchy ending, but somehow the pen (and yes, I still use that historical utensil for the early stages of my work) usually writes it for me, once I get going.
Or perhaps that’s just history again playing fair to see I make a reasonable stab at presenting it to the public? I’ll never know about punchy endings, but what I do know is how much I like happy ones—by which I mean seeing them in the great Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.