“The Series P.I.—Some Pros and a Con” (by Harley Mazuk)

Harley Mazuk’s first published work of fiction appeared in EQMMs January 2011 issue. Normally a “first” is assigned to our Department of First Stories, but the tale was so thoroughly rooted in the old-style hardboiled tradition that we decided to publish it in the Black Mask section. That first story introduced series character Frank Swiver, and Frank returned in two more stories for EQMM. Before turning to fiction writing, Harley worked as a copy editor, writer, and managing editor in corporate communications for the federal government. He has recently signed a contract for the publication of his first novel, White with Fish, Red with Murder, starring Frank Swiver. He will also soon be reappearing in EQMM with the launch of a new series; watch for it in the September/October double issue. —Janet Hutchings

When I graduated college, I needed a draft deferment; I needed a job; I needed a ticket to Canada. What I had was a low lottery number, 1-A status for Vietnam, and a B.A. in English.

I did manage to get that deferment, and found an entry-level job in D.C. with the Treasury Department, my Salem Custom House. By the mid ‘90s, I was pulling the strings that made a large three-letter agency dance like Juliet Prowse in Can-Can, like Gwen Verdon in Damn Yankees. Then one afternoon, I stopped at a Walter Mosley book signing. A line of fans waiting for Mosley’s autograph wound through the store, practically out the front door. About three-quarters of them were young women. I thought it might not be so bad to write detective fiction and sign my name for the gals. I might even find it more rewarding than just pulling strings.

Some ten years later, retired, with a government pension, I finally tried my hand at private-eye fiction. I’m neither a “cool-headed constructionist” nor a “grim logician,” capable of turning out intricate puzzle plots, as Chandler puts it in “The Simple Art of Murder.” I figured my best bet to attract readers would be with lively, likable characters they might care about.

Many of the best-loved characters in detective literature are recurring or “series” characters. Nancy Drew and Maisie Dobbs, Inspector Ghote and Inspector Maigret, Tom Ripley and Hannibal Lecter all have their fans. I wanted to create my own recurring character, a series P.I. The protagonist in my half-dozen stories and two novels is Frank Swiver.

Frank grew out of my interests and beliefs, and out of what I liked about Hammett’s and Chandler’s P.I. characters—hard work, courage, dedication to the client, and a tendency to take the job, but not themselves, seriously. I started writing about Frank in 2005, in a novel, White with Fish, Red with Murder. By the time I’d finished I had a detailed character sketch for a private eye. Of course, I did write a two-page character sketch for Frank in the process, as I did for many of my characters. The sketch covered things like date and place of birth, height and weight, current home address, the location of his office, and make of his car. These are little things, but handy references for me so that the proverbial jezail bullet wouldn’t migrate someday from Frank’s shoulder to his leg. It was the novel itself, though, not those two pages of “driver’s license” info, that was the valuable character sketch. The novel told me how Frank talked, what sorts of women he liked, what he drank and how much. I knew from that book how loyal he could be, and what he might do if someone took a shot at him.

Frank and I spend many a pleasant hour sitting in the Black Lizard Lounge, sharing a bottle of wine. Carignan, Garnacha, or Zinfandel, it doesn’t matter much, so long as it’s red and from California or Spain. Sometimes when we’ve had a few, Swiver talks about Cicilia Ricci, a waitress he met at John’s Grill in 1933.

“Cici, now there was a dame. 5’2”, 95 pounds. My first true love. I’d just stopped in John’s for a nickel beer, but I paid with a piece of my heart. We were together the better part of a year, then she threw me over for that ex-bootlegger, O’Callaghan. He had dough, good looks, and a ready story.”

When Cici left him in ‘34, Frank went into a tailspin of heavy drinking. His old college pal, Max Rabinowitz, a lifelong Red, saw Frank slipping into darkness. Max cleaned him up and took him to a political meeting at Berkeley in 1937.

“I’d drink anything then. I sank so low. Max helped me pull out of it. Sometimes we both think it would have been better if he’d just let me sink.”

Before the night was out, they had joined the Abe Lincoln Brigade, and were off to fight in the Spanish Civil War. Max lost an eye to a shrapnel wound. Frank saved his life but fell victim to what we’d now call PTSD. He’d killed several men, fascists, at close quarters and the violence traumatized him.

“When we made it back to the States, I suffered terrible nightmares. Dark images I can’t think about. The drinking started again. Now it was wine. I’d picked up the grape bug in Spain. The nightmares persisted. I was on the streets. I began going to a Dorothy Day hospitality house. I went for the free meals, but I read, too. I listened. One day I realized I was a pacifist. Then the nightmares started to go away.”

Yes, Frank’s a pacifist. Maybe a story takes a violent turn, maybe it doesn’t. But if the going gets gashouse, Frank faces it with courage, . . . and non-violence. People ask why a pacifist got into shamus work. It’s one trade that takes little capital to start up.

“All I needed was a coat, a hat, and a gun. And I didn’t even use the gun.”

In White with Fish, I brought Frank and a newly-widowed Cici back together in 1948, fourteen years after she’d dumped him. Frank’s girl Friday, Vera Peregrino, didn’t like the way he was playing house with Cici. Vera walked out as his secretary, and wanted no more to do with him. That gave me a new story arc. Frank wants to salvage his relationship with Vera, win her trust back. As the writer, I give him every opportunity.

“Yeah? You’re not making it easy for me,” he says. “You’re always writing these parts for femmes fatales—”

“Don’t complain,” I tell him. “You know you love it. But you’re not going to get Vera back if you chase every new skirt that comes along.”

Frank Swiver is still suffering from the loss of his girl; he drinks too much. He’s traumatized from his war experience in Spain, and he’s a pacifist, trying to make it as a private dick. (Good luck to the poor client who walks in.) All this is background for every story, but I don’t need to re-write the background each time. I just portray Frank as a man who acts like a fellow with all that baggage would act.

It’s challenging to know what to leave in, what to leave out, but it helps to think of the stories as episodic, standalones. Those of you who enjoyed Art Taylor’s scholarly essay, “The Curious Case of the Novel in Stories,” should note, my series is not so closely linked as to be a novel. Still, I’m often surprised at how much explanation I can omit, and usually the story’s better for it. The action zings along when you skip that expository stuff and get down to business. The plot and the characters are manifest for the readers in action, not in exposition.

Writing a series featuring Frank is not just about Frank. John Huston could call on Warner Bros. featured players like Elisha Cook, Sydney Greenstreet, Mary Astor, and Peter Lorre. I don’t have such a cast of ace performers, but I do call on characters from books and stories I’ve written: Joe Damas, ex-forger for the Maquis; Max Rabinowitz, eye-patch-wearing, card-carrying attorney; Marcus Aurelius Wolff, sinister fat man and wine collector, and, of course, Vera and Cici. Sure, the fat man and the femme fatale are types, but Damas, Wolff, and Cici are intense and uncompromising. They’re not afraid to come in and get their hands dirty. When Wolff hauls out his sap, or Cici flashes her smaragdine eyes, they pull it off with authority.

These have been some of the advantages for me of working in a series–a fully fleshed-out private eye, an underlying character arc for continual development, and a stable of secondary characters ready to walk on and perform when I need them.

What are the limitations?

Well, to pick up on a theme Raymond Chandler entertained in a 1949 letter, a private-eye story may not be about the private eye. The P.I. is only a catalyst to stir up the other characters and the plot, but he leaves the tale as he was when he entered, unchanged by events. My protagonist can’t live happily ever after. He never gets the girl, never marries. (And this is not a bad thing for the noir writer.) The P.I.’s wants and desires carry over from story to story, book to book. For, as Chandler wrote in a review of Diamonds Are Forever: “beautiful girls have no future [with James Bond], because it is the curse of the ‘series character’ that he always has to go back to where he began.”

Sorry, Frank. But let me buy you another glass of the Louis Martini Monte Rosso Zin.

Posted in Books, Characters, Ellery Queen, Fiction, Genre, Guest | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

“It’s Not So Lonely Here in the Garret” (by Michael Wiley)

Michael Wiley belongs to a select group of writers who got their start in the Private Eye Writers of America/St. Martin’s Press Best First Novel contest.  The book, published in 2007, was The Last Striptease, featuring P.I Joe Kozmarski, and it went on to earn a Shamus Award nomination for best first novel. Two more novels in the Kozmarski series followed, including the 2011 Shamus Award winner A Bad Night’s Sleep. Michael is a professor of English Literature at the University of North Florida as well as a book reviewer and “occasional journalist.” He manages to juggle it all while continuing to produce both more books—his two upcoming titles, Second Skin and Tar Box (Severn House) are both thrillers featuring series character Daniel Turner—and short stories.  He first appeared in EQMM in December of 2014 with the story “Concrete Town,” and he has another story, “The Hearse,” coming up in EQMM soon.  How he does it all is a secret he shares here.—Janet Hutchings

Like many other book-loving kids, I believed that writers live solitary lives. If they were like Nathaniel Hawthorne, they would stay in their mom’s house until they were in their thirties, refining their craft, pounding out short stories. Or if they were like Joseph Conrad—parentless and adventurous—they would lock themselves in a ship cabin with a pencil and paper while storms howled around them. When they shimmied down a tree from their childhood bedrooms to meet with an editor, or passed a homeward-bound steamer that might deliver a manuscript to a publisher, they exchanged only a few words before disappearing back into the realms of the lone imagination.

I still believed in this myth when, as a would-be writer, I graduated from college in the early 1980s. I rented a studio apartment and furnished it with a mattress, a table, and two chairs (the second being for an editor if one ever stopped by to exchange a few words before abandoning me to my lone imagination), a stereo, a television, and a writing desk. The stereo and television disappeared in a burglary, but the thieves left my typewriter, so I was all right. I had a place to sleep, a place to eat, and, most importantly, a place to write.

But I didn’t write. Not much, anyway. I sat at my desk day after day and waited for writing to happen to me. I figured it must be happening elsewhere to others—in childhood bedrooms, in ship cabins, on the banks of a secluded pond, in garrets around the world. I spent two years in that apartment and completed three published articles, a handful of unpublished poems, and a couple of unpublished short stories.

Then I moved in with my girlfriend—now my wife—and, as happens, a new love replaced a love for writing.

I put my fingers back on the keyboard to write fiction again only years later when my wife and I started having children and all of the chaotic noise of existence meant I could barely think straight, much less put together a sentence. Oddly, though, I now had something to say—stories to tell. Surrounding myself with infants and toddlers and coming to understand the complex emotional and psychological business of life taught me how to write the kind of crime fiction I’ve always enjoyed. Yes, having children taught me how to write about murder.

My first, unpublished book manuscript, written in sleep-deprived incoherence, is now in a box, where it will remain. Then St. Martin’s published my second manuscript, The Last Striptease. And my belief in the myth of solitary writers collapsed.

When my editor called to tell me she would be publishing the book, she wanted to do more than exchange a few words before abandoning me to my lone imagination. At that time and in future conversations, she wanted to talk, really talk—about books, mine and others’, about the many writers she loved and thought I should read and love too, about the publishing process, about her own background as a reader, writer, and editor.

In our first telephone conversation, she also invited me to the Bouchercon Mystery Convention, held that year in Madison, Wisconsin. On that island in the middle of cornfields, I confirmed that my image of the writing life—at least the crime-writing life—had been all wrong. The writing life doesn’t look like an individual in a lonely garret. It looks like a party with a thousand close friends. At Bouchercon—and at any of the dozens of smaller crime-writing conventions held around the world—you can hang out at panel sessions with dozens of likeminded fans of crime fiction. And you can walk into the coffee reception first thing in the morning or into the bar at any time of the day or night and chat with a New York Times bestselling writer or a short-story writer who has published a dozen mysteries in the pages of Ellery Queen.

These people may spend their days and nights scheming of new criminal plots, but they are friendly and generous of time and spirit. There are exceptions, but the truly hard nuts are few. When I was passing through airport security in Anchorage, returning from another Bouchercon, the guards grabbed a woman I’d seen at the convention because she had concealed a pistol inside her jacket. But somehow—even in the post-9/11 anxiety—she convinced the guards that she had no ill intent, and they sent her on her way. Maybe Alaskan guards are used to such things. Or maybe they looked into the woman’s eyes and decided she was more interested in imagining murder than committing it.

In the ten years that I have been publishing crime fiction, I have talked at many bookstores, libraries, and other venues for book events, and at every one of them people have been excited about making connections with others who share an interest in crime, criminals, and crime detection. And when I’ve gone home after events, I’ve turned to social media to make more connections and continue the conversations.

It’s true that there are some J.D. Salingers among crime writers, as there are readers who would rather hole up with a book than spend an afternoon with Salinger. I’m guessing that most of us in our community have hours and days when we would prefer to bury ourselves alone in a mystery than see or hear from our friends.

And it’s true that, between events, when I’m in the middle of a manuscript, with a deadline still months in the future, I happily spend a lot of time alone. Like most writers, I’m self-motivating and sometimes even self-satisfied. I might get an occasional e-mail or phone call from an agent or editor, but most of my messages consist of spam promoting sexual aids or get-rich schemes based in faraway countries. And a lot of my calls are wrong numbers or requests for donations to one charity or another.

But even when I’m most alone I’m not really apart from the community. I hear the voices of characters from others’ books that have influenced me. I live among my own characters, too. And sooner or later an infant or toddler—or, in recent years, a teenager—will scream bloody murder because a sibling has committed some minor offense. Or music will turn on in a farther room. Or voices will come through the window from outside. And those will be the people—the voices and sounds—that make me imagine and that lead to the stories and books I write.

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The last week in April/first weekend in May is always our busiest time at the Dell mystery magazines. This year, it all got going a day earlier than usual. On Tuesday, April 28, we hosted a bagel breakfast in our new offices on Wall Street for those of our nominees and Readers Award winners who’d come into town in advance of Wednesday’s Edgar Allan Poe Awards. As always, it was a cozy, comfortable gathering, which began at nine A.M. —and continued into midafternoon! While AHMM editor Linda Landrigan and I were whiling away the day in pleasant conversation, senior assistant editor Jackie Sherbow was representing us at the annual Edgars Symposium. We joined her in early evening for the MWA’s Agents and Editors Cocktail Party, where we were pleased to run into many of our magazines’ contributors.

Wednesday, of course, was the big day. Our annual cocktail party, at which we present the EQMM Readers Awards, and honor the Robert L. Fish Award winner and nominees for the Edgar and Agatha awards, was held in the afternoon. Third-place Readers Award winner Miriam Grace Monfredo (“The Tavern Keeper’s Daughter, December 2014) was unable to travel from Rochester for the occasion, unfortunately, but second- and first-place winners Marilyn Todd (“Blood Red Roses, September/October 2014) and Doug Allyn (“The Snow Angel, January 2014) were present, along with Fish Award winner Lauren James (a.k.a. Zoë Z. Dean). Doug Allyn was also a nominee for the Edgar for best short story for his Readers Award winning tale, as was Brian Tobin, whose work commitments prevented him from attending, for “Teddy,” EQMM May 2014. In attendance at the party were several other Edgar nominees in other categories. They included John Floyd, for a story in The Strand, Francis M. Nevins in the critical/biographical category, Steve Hockensmith for best juvenile mystery, and Charles Ardai, winner of the Ellery Queen Award. You’ll find photos of most of them in the following selections from the cameras of Carol Demont and Jackie Sherbow in NYC, and Josh Pachter and Tara Laskowski at Malice.

The Edgars banquet this year was a star-studded event, with Sara Paretsky, incoming MWA President, as master of ceremonies and Stephen King presenting the Ellery Queen Award and then claiming the Edgar for best novel. Zoë Z. Dean’s Robert L. Fish Award (for “Getaway Girl” EQMM November 2014) was presented by past Fish Award winner Ted Hertel. The short-story Edgar went to Gillian Flynn for “What Do You Do?”, from the anthology Rogues. Congratulations to winners and nominees alike!

With the events in New York over, many writers, editors, and agents went on to Bethesda, Maryland for the Malice Domestic Convention. I had the pleasure, while there, of catching up with many of my favorite authors, including Charlaine Harris, Toni and Steve Kelner, Dana Cameron, Martin Edwards, Ann Cleeves, Josh and Laurie Pachter, EQMM’s fabulous reviewer (and author) Steve Steinbock, Doug Greene, Margaret Maron, Dorothy Cannell, Terrie Farley Moran, and many others, not least—and saved for last because he was this year’s short-story Agatha Award winner (for his November 2014 EQMM story “The Odds Are Against Us”)—Art Taylor, along with his wife author Tara Laskowski.

Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the short-story panel moderated by my colleague at AHMM, Linda Landrigan, but I understand it was an interesting and lively session. Congratulations to Art Taylor and all of the other Agatha Award winners, including the winner for best first novel, Terrie Farley Moran, who got the idea for the setting for that winning book from Dell Magazines’ own Christine Begley, Vice President for Editorial.

I wish we could have obtained photos of all of our guests, friends, colleagues, winners, and nominees, but we did capture a good number of them. Enjoy—and let us know if you have any photos of the events that you’d like to share.—Janet Hutchings

Kevin Todd, Sheila Williams, and Marilyn Todd

Kevin Todd, Sheila Williams, and Marilyn Todd

Sarah Weinman, S. J. Rozan, Jonathan Santlofer, and Katia Lief

Sarah Weinman, S. J. Rozan, Jonathan Santlofer, and Katia Lief

Peter Kanter and Barry Zeman

Peter Kanter and Barry Zeman

Zoë Z. Dean and Susanna French

Zoë Z. Dean and Susanna French

Linda Landrigan, David Dean, and Janet Hutchings

Linda Landrigan, David Dean, and Janet Hutchings

Linda Landrigan, William Burton McCormick, and Abigail Browning

Linda Landrigan, William Burton McCormick, and Abigail Browning

Richard Dannay, Janet Hutchings, and Otto Penzler

Richard Dannay, Janet Hutchings, and Otto Penzler

Doug and Eve Allyn and Peter Kanter

Doug and Eve Allyn and Peter Kanter

Abigail Browning and David Toth

Abigail Browning and David Toth

Larry Light and Meredith Anthony

Larry Light and Meredith Anthony

Abigail Browning, Christine Begley, and Carol Demont

Abigail Browning, Christine Begley, and Carol Demont

Joshua Bilmes and Trevor Quachri

Joshua Bilmes and Trevor Quachri

Richard Koreto, Marilyn Todd, and Dorothy Cummings

Richard Koreto, Marilyn Todd, and Dorothy Cummings

David Dean, Dale Andrews, and Liz Zelvin

David Dean, Dale Andrews, and Liz Zelvin

Joseph Goodrich

Joseph Goodrich

Charles Ardai and Ken Wishnia

Charles Ardai and Ken Wishnia

Sarah Weinman and Kate Stine

Sarah Weinman and Kate Stine

Kevin and Marilyn Todd and Jay Carey

Kevin and Marilyn Todd and Jay Carey

Tara Hart

Tara Hart

Terrie Farley Moran and Christine Begley

Terrie Farley Moran and Christine Begley

Francis M. Nevins

Francis M. Nevins

Parnell Hall and S.J. Rozan

Parnell Hall and S.J. Rozan

Kevin Egan and Meredith Anthony

Kevin Egan and Meredith Anthony

Emily Hockaday, Jackie Sherbow, and Deanna McLafferty

Emily Hockaday, Jackie Sherbow, and Deanna McLafferty

Marilyn Todd accepting her EQMM Readers Award

Marilyn Todd accepting her EQMM Readers Award

Doug Allyn accepting his EQMM Readers Award

Doug Allyn accepting his EQMM Readers Award

Crowd at the Dell Magazines Pre-Edgars Cocktail Party

Crowd at the Dell Magazines Pre-Edgars Cocktail Party

Sarah Weinman at the Edgars

Sarah Weinman at the Edgars

View from the Dell table of Stephen King presenting the Ellery Queen Award to Charles Ardai

View from the Dell table of Stephen King presenting the Ellery Queen Award to Charles Ardai

The Chocolate Edgar

The Chocolate Edgar

Josh Pachter, Art Taylor, Linda Landrigan, and Steve Steinbock in Bethesda

Josh Pachter, Art Taylor, Janet Hutchings, and Steve Steinbock in Bethesda

Deadly dessert at the Agathas

Deadly dessert at the Agathas

Art Taylor and Tara Laskowski at the Agatha banquet

Art Taylor and Tara Laskowski at the Agatha banquet

Art Taylor with his Agatha Award

Art Taylor with his Agatha Award

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Over the past few years EQMM has received a number of excellent stories from Japanese writers, and that has inspired me to expand on a post I made on EQMM’s Web-site forum four years ago, shortly after the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Everyone who loves mysteries ought to be at least a little bit of a Japanophile, since Japan’s mystery-writing tradition goes back almost to the beginning of the genre in the United States, Britain, and France—and since it is in Japan, more than anywhere else, that the puzzle mystery continues to give off healthy new shoots today. I’ve written elsewhere about the oddness of the fact that the only place in the world in which the novels of Ellery Queen have remained consistently in print is Japan, a country whose respect for tradition and order is about as far, culturally, from the New York of Ellery and Inspector Queen as could be imagined. Think of the Queen novel Cat of Many Tails, in which the whole city hovers on the edge of chaos over the work of a single serial killer, and compare that to the calm cohesiveness and cooperation one could observe in TV news reports of Japan after the harrowing earthquake of 2011 and the Fukushima leaks.

Japanese interest in Western mystery writing goes back to the 1880s, when the work of Poe, Doyle, and others began to appear in Japanese translation. The writer often called the father of the Japanese mystery, Tarō Hirai, wrote under the pseudonym Edogawa Rampo, which a little thought, or fast pronunciation, will tell even the uninitiated is a phonetic nod to the most important name in the pantheon of American mystery writers, Edgar Allan Poe. Edogawa Rampo had already produced some of his most famous work before Ellery Queen appeared on the American scene at the end of the 1920s. But once the work of Ellery Queen became available in Japanese translation, interest in his distinctively American version of the detective story took root and continues to exist in Japan to this day.

In 2004, EQMM first published the work of Norizuki Rintaro, a writer of the “new traditionalist movement” in Japanese mystery writing. Following in the footsteps of Ellery Queen, the writer-sleuth protagonist of the Rintaro books and stories bears the same name as the books’ author. And the author’s decision to cast a father-son/police inspector-mystery writer detecting team as the central players in his stories and novels further mirrors Ellery Queen—his acknowledged inspiration.

For a number of years EQMM has been commissioning translations of the Mystery Writers of Japan Award (Best Short Story) winners and runners-up. These awards are the equivalent of the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgars. For all the respect and reverence the Japanese have shown Western mystery writers, there has been relatively little reciprocal translation or homage. And this is a loss to Western readers, for Japanese writers have brought their own innovations to the classical forms established by American and European masters of the genre. In my own reading of Japanese mystery fiction I’ve discovered writers with an interest in more subtle aspects of human psychology than is typically found in American writers of the classical whodunit. The little I’ve been able to read in English translation convinces me there must be a treasure trove of material there waiting for American publishers. The only Japanese writer I’m aware of who’s gained sufficient entry into the U.S. mainstream to garner a major award nomination here is Natsuo Kirino, who received an Edgar nomination in 2004 for her novel Out.

But I think things are starting to change. As I mentioned, EQMM has an ongoing commitment to bringing as many of the Edogawa Rampo short-story winners into print in the U.S. as possible. And in recent years a new publisher, Locked Room International, founded and run by John Pugmire, a frequent translator for EQMM, has been making classical puzzle novels from a variety of other languages available in the U.S. Some of Locked Room’s titles are by Japanese writers, including Koga Saburo (a pseudonym of Haruta Yoshitame), a contemporary of Edogawa Rampo who trailed the father of Japanese mystery writing into print by only four months. 2015 sees Locked Room International’s release of the first English-language edition of Ayatsuji Yukito’s The Decagon House Murders. At around the same time, EQMM will publish the first English translation of Saburo’s short story “The Spider.”

Another writer of the Japanese neoclassical school, Soji Shimada, will see the re-release of an earlier English translation of his novel The Tokyo Zodiac Murders this year by Pushkin Vertigo. One of Soji Shimada’s locked-room short stories, “The Locked House of Pythagoras,” appeared in EQMM’s August 2013 issue, and another, “The Executive Who Lost His Mind,” is upcoming in this year’s August issue.

I don’t want to give the impression that all the good mystery and crime writing coming out of contemporary Japan belongs to the classical school. In 2013 EQMM published Nagase Shunsuke’s “Chief,” a nominee for the Edogawa Rampo Award. Like many of the other Rampo Award nominees we’ve seen over the years, its focus is more on societal issues, and how the police and others deal with social conflict, than on the solving of a puzzle. Reader engagement with the characters and their struggles is of central importance in such stories, and this trend in Japanese mystery writing parallels the currently dominant school of crime writing in the West.

Last but certainly not least, there is the Japanese psychological thriller. Some of the stories belonging to that category that have crossed my desk barely qualify as crime stories: no murder, no puzzle, no enacted violence. The brilliant story “Eighteenth Summer” by Mitsuhara Yuri, which first appeared in English in the December 2004 EQMM and which we later reprinted in the anthology Passport to Crime, centers almost exclusively around its characters’ inner lives. Yet out of that material of emotions, thoughts, and mistaken assumptions the author managed to craft a sensitive, suspenseful narrative that leads somewhere quite different from where the reader expects. It’s a shame that Mitsuhara Yuri’s work (and that of many other Japanese psychological-suspense writers) is not available in English. It seems to me that this is a subgenre of the mystery at which Japanese writers truly excel.—Janet Hutchings

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“I Am a Genre Writer” (by Margaret Maron)

Margaret Maron’s achievements as a mystery and crime writer have been recognized by all of our field’s major organizations. She is a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America, a recipient of the Malice Domestic Convention’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and the most recently named Lifetime Achievement Award winner for the Bouchercon World Mystery Convention. The many other honors her fiction has earned include the Edgar, Anthony, Agatha, and Macavity awards. Margaret began her writing career with short stories, and she has always continued to find time for the short form despite producing nearly three dozen critically acclaimed novels. Her most recent story for EQMM is May 2015’s “We on the Train!”; her most recent novel, Long Upon the Land, in the Judge Deborah Knott series, will be released by Grand Central Publishing this August. In the 1940s, when EQMM was launched, founding editor Frederic Dannay explained that one of his goals for the magazine was to show that the mystery was a genuine literary form. He’d have been pleased, I think, to feature Margaret Maron’s work, for it exemplifies the high literary standards that can be attained in the genre.—Janet Hutchings

I am a genre writer. I write murder mysteries. This means that I am often asked why I write mysteries instead of “literature”—as if one were slightly disreputable and the other stamped with the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.

Why should that be? After all, doesn’t all fictional writing fall into one genre or another?

If you find a horse, dusty trails, and handguns, then it’s a “Western.” If there are bug-eyed aliens, space ships, or alternate universes, then it’s “Science Fiction.” If it’s witty, funny, and everyone goes shopping, then it’s “Chick Lit.” Ghosts and vampires and spooky woo-woo? “Supernatural” or “Paranormal.” Ghosts and spooky woo-woo and heroines running around in wispy nightgowns? “Gothic.”

Other genres are Romance, Fantasy, Historical . . . the breakdown into subsets goes on and on. Only if it doesn’t fall squarely in one of those easy categories is it called “Literature,” which is neither more nor less important than any other genre and usually co-opts aspects of the others. There is excellent writing in this category; there is also pretentious navel-gazing.

It’s the same for all fiction. Every subset has its classics that have stood the test of time as well as the duds that were remaindered two weeks after their pub date.

I myself have always loved mysteries. Things happen in them. Conflicts are presented and then resolved. There is a crime (usually a murder), there is someone to solve that crime, and, in the end, justice must seem to have been done. The guilty are not always punished, the innocent do not always triumph, but one usually closes a mystery novel feeling satisfied with the outcome.

“But isn’t that formulaic?” I am asked.

“No more formulaic than a sonnet,” I reply. The sonnet form, fourteen lines divided into an octave and a sestet, dates from the thirteenth century. Dante and Shakespeare wrote sonnets, so did Seamus Heaney, so does Billy Collins.

It’s what a writer does with a form that keeps it fresh.

Edna St. Vincent Millay said it perfectly in a sonnet that begins “I will put Chaos into fourteen lines.”

Chaos, then order.

I grew up reading Nancy Drew, but I also read all the classics of the Golden Age: Christie, Sayers, Rinehart, as well as Rex Stout, Erle Stanley Gardner, Charlotte Armstrong, and any other mysteries my mother borrowed from the bookmobile that came out to the farm every month. The first mystery I ever owned though was Home Sweet Homicide by Craig Rice, which Mother bought at a used-book sale when I was ten or eleven.

Dinah, April, and Archie Carstairs, aged 14, 12, and 10 respectively, are the children of Marian Carstairs, a pulp writer who churns out a new murder mystery every two or three months, much like Craig Rice herself. When the next-door neighbor is murdered and a handsome bachelor police lieutenant comes to question them, the smart-alecky kids immediately think he would make a great husband for their mother. So of course, they decide to solve the murder themselves and give her the credit.

I loved that book and reread it at least twice a year for the next four or five years. It took me that long to realize that I wasn’t rereading it for the scenes with the kids, but for the scenes with the mother, who spent most of the book up in her room, pounding away on her manual typewriter. The whole idea of being a writer seized my imagination.

When I first began to write, I read lots of how-to books and tried several different forms before I found my voice. The usual advice is to write what you know, but I had a horror of taking off my clothes in public, which immediately precluded the coming-of-age novel that is often a novelist’s first book. I did not want to cannibalize my childhood nor smear my parents and relatives nor exaggerate any hardships I might have experienced.

It is a terrible burden to want to write and realize you have nothing to say . . . at least nothing you want to say in public. Yet, nowhere in all those how-to books did I ever see “Write what you like to read.”

Eventually it dawned on me that the mystery form would best fit all my needs. Even if I had nothing profound to say, I could write a story and perhaps earn a living if enough people found it entertaining. Over the years, I have gone from thinking I had nothing to say to realizing that there is nothing I can not say in this form. And because mystery novels are perceived by and large as entertainment only, this means mystery writers can fly beneath the radar and slip in social commentary, political ideas, and maybe even a little educational propaganda.

My books are set here in my native North Carolina, which used to be rural and agrarian, where landowners could do what they liked with their land because of the sparse population. As our population soars, it’s been hard for some of my fellow citizens to realize that new rules and regulations aren’t all bad.

In Shooting at Loons, I let my Judge Deborah Knott ask her friend Chet why his coastal community doesn’t have zoning laws to protect homes from having a fish factory built next door:

Chet shook his head. “People here are so adamantly opposed to any kind of government interference that they won’t allow zoning of any kind.”

“That’s crazy,” Deborah said. “Zoning’s the only way a community can control growth and have a say in what’s built.”

“Well, why don’t you just run on over and tell them that if you get a few minutes off from court?” Chet said with asperity. “You think people haven’t tried? Every time the county planners try to hold a hearing on the subject and explain how zoning would protect us, they’re lucky to get away with their lives.”

Here in NC, where tobacco is slowly being phased out, some farmers would love to grow industrial hemp, so in Hard Row, I had Deborah ponder why they aren’t allowed to:

“Hemp is a wonderful source material of paper and cloth and our soil and climate would make it a perfect alternative to tobacco. If it had first been called the paper weed or something equally innocuous, North Carolina would be a huge producer. With a name like hemp, though, our legislators are scared to death to promote it even though you’d have to smoke a ton of the stuff to get a decent buzz.”

Only three sentences tucked in between arguments for raising ostriches or shiitake mushrooms, but if enough readers get used to the idea that not all hemp is created equal, farmers may eventually be allowed to raise the industrial variety.

This is why I don’t mind being dismissed as a “genre writer.” As long as my books are published and read, I’m going to keep writing them, no matter what they’re called.

I will put Chaos in fourteen lines . . .

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“Hold That Thought” (by Dandi Daley Mackall)

Dandi Daley Mackall is the author of more than 450 books, many of them for children and young adults. In 2012, she won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Young Adult Mystery for her novel The Silence of Murder (Random House/Knopf). Her most recent novel is The Secrets of Tree Taylor. Many will also know Dandi’s work through the TV dramatization of her novel My Boyfriends’ Dogs, the most-watched original Hallmark movie of 2014. The multitalented author will make her EQMM debut in our September/October double issue. In this post she talks about a vital source of inspiration for fiction writers. —Janet Hutchings

I steal. And I’m not alone here. Every author I know steals—from faces glimpsed on a city bus, to names heard at dusk when suburban moms call kids in to supper, to the smell of a dusty barn, sunlight slanting through cracks in just the right way to make the dust dance.

But my most fruitful thefts come when I steal from myself. I’m a firm believer in capturing our own powerful and emotionally-charged moments and holding onto them, only to pull them out and let them morph in our fiction. My best scenes, and I suspect this is true for most writers, contain appropriately disguised moments I’ve lived through, intense memories that are frozen in my mind.

Sometimes nations, and even the world, have things happen that people will remember for the rest of their lives. Anyone who was alive when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated can tell you exactly where they were, what they were wearing, and who else was in the room with them when they heard the news. For another generation, it’s the space shuttle explosion that’s frozen in memory, with all the emotions of that day. And for most of us, the vision of the World Trade Center disaster comes back to us with strong emotions and details that won’t fade.

We all have our own personal frozen moments too—the trepidation of the first day of school; that first kiss; first heartbreak, first child, first family death. And when we call up those moments, we get details that don’t go away like other memories. They’re frozen, which can be a good thing, or a bad thing. For a writer, those moments are gems, gold to be mined at just the right time, in exactly the right scene.

There are a lot of ways to create suspense, but for me, the most effective way is to re-create suspense stolen from my past. I’ve purloined my own panic, experienced on a back street in Krakow, Poland, during the communist era, when the Curtain was Iron and I was hopelessly lost, driving well past the city’s curfew, an illegal printing press on the floor of my unreliable Renault. I’ve also stolen the less grounded, but just as intense, feeling of panic when I was lost a few years ago driving through Cleveland with a sick child in the passenger seat.

For years when I did school visits and Young Author programs, I stressed the importance of being a good observer, both for personal safety and for sharpening descriptive skills necessary for good writing. Dramatically, I told the (true) story of the dreadful month when I was the victim of a stalker. I’d spotted a white pickup at several points on my daily jog and hadn’t thought much of it, though I could see a man sitting behind the wheel, watching. Then came the phone calls, the omnipresence of that infernal pickup, and the final confrontation, involving a police rescue and capture. Awful stuff—but wonderful frozen moments.

During a Q and A session with seventh graders, one student asked, “Have you ever used that story about the white pickup truck?” I hadn’t. But the following week, I brought the moment out of the freezer and wrote a scene into my novel The Silence of Murder. Since then, I’ve used that angst in a scene where the narrator believes something terrible has happened to her best friend. And I’ve thawed the moment again for another novel, when my main character says yes to a marriage proposal, then seriously reconsiders. Tapping into suspenseful frozen moments can take us most places we want to go in our fiction.

Sometimes, we don’t even realize we’ve tapped into a frozen moment and stolen from ourselves until it’s too late to take it back. In the first chapter of The Silence of Murder, a mother delivers a slap to her son, and the son never speaks again. I had no idea where that slap came from until the first time I did a pubic reading from the book. I was so overcome with the memory of an event I hadn’t consciously thought of in decades that I had to take a break before finishing the reading. When I was a freshman in college, one night I ventured to a little market for munchies. The place was deserted, except for a young mother and her perhaps two-year-old son, who sat in her shopping cart and made faces and noises. As I recall, I made faces at him too, when Mom wasn’t looking. Mostly, Mom was yelling, screaming at him to shut up. As I stared at the shelves, debating crackers or cookies, crackers or cookies, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the woman’s hand sweeping backward, then hauling off to slap her son. The sound of hard hand on soft cheek echoed in the aisle. Then that silence, the air sucked from the building before the cry. And what did I do?

Nothing. I took crackers and cookies, and I left. Even then, I knew I should have done something. Said something. Given her a dirty look. Something so she’d know she didn’t get away with it.

I don’t know if I even gave that moment a thought the next day, the next month, the following years. But it was there, frozen like a brand to my cerebral cortex. Waiting.

I have one last frozen moment that came to fruition when I received the cheerful message that my story would be included in an issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. I can picture a Thursday when my parents returned from shopping in Kansas City, about an hour from my small country town. I can see my dad’s grin when I, in fuzzy PJs, met him at the front door. It was the grin that told me he’d bought the latest issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and that it would be okay, even on a school night, for us to stay up and read.

And now, one more imagined frozen moment. A girl in a small town waits for the September/October issue of EQMM, sees my little story, and . . .

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“And Then There Was Why: The Mystery in Mystery Fiction” (by Tim L. Williams)

Tim L. Williams’s short stories began appearing in EQMM in 2005. A number of them have gone on to be nominated for, or to win, major awards in the field. In 2011 he received the International Thriller Award for his EQMM story “Half-Lives,” and he is currently nominated by that organization again for his 2014 EQMM story “The Last Wrestling Bear in West Kentucky.” His 2013 story “When That Morning Sun Goes Down” (EQMM, August 2013) was nominated for the Edgar Allan Poe Award for best short story, and two of his earlier EQMM tales were nominated for the Private Eye Writers of America’s Shamus Award. It isn’t only in the mystery field that the Kentucky author’s work appears regularly, however. He is a contributor to many literary magazines and is a college professor as well as a writer. Last month, New Pulp Press brought out a collection of his stories called Skull Fragments (paperback and digital editions are available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other stores). Booklist, in reviewing the collection, described the author’s style as “deceptively foursquare with a poetic power for all that. There’s literary achievement here.” In his second post for this site, Tim discusses an aspect of fiction that literary critics often fail to acknowledge the presence of in works from our genre.—Janet Hutchings

A couple of years ago, at a professional conference, I ran across a friend from my undergraduate days, a fellow English major with whom I’d shared a number of Lit and Creative Writing classes. Feeling nostalgic for those long-gone days when nothing seemed more important than Cormac McCarthy’s refusal to use quotation marks and whether or not Minimalism was a dead end or a much needed corrective for the extremes of the 1960s Experimentalists, we decided to ditch the evening session and hit a local bar. For a little while, it was fun. Then, when we were both nearing our limit, this old friend mentioned that he’d “seen” a couple of my detective stories.

“Don’t you feel silly writing that stuff?” he asked. “I’d feel foolish if I spent my days explaining that Colonel Mustard killed Professor Plum in the library with a lead pipe.”

I’d like to say that I made a rousing defense of the genre, one so eloquent it sent him running to stock up on Chandler and Thompson, Hammett and Highsmith, Reed Farrell Coleman and Daniel Woodrell. The truth is I was so shocked, I don’t remember exactly what I said. Whatever it was, we parted ways a few minutes later, and wherever he is now I wish him well. Overall, he seemed like a decent guy. He just didn’t realize that the mystery genre isn’t as simplistic, orderly, and buttoned-down as its most dismissive critics have always liked to pretend. He didn’t understand that the real mystery in a mystery or suspense tale is never truly solved.

Depending on the manner of telling—what Stephen King refers to in Danse Macabre as the method of attack—we may learn who committed a murder, how it was done, the circumstances that lead to it, the trials and tribulations of the victim, the perpetrator, or the investigator. We had certainly better know the “motive”—greed, revenge, hatred, resentment, perversity, etc. But in the best of mystery and suspense fiction, no matter whether it’s cozy, hardboiled, or noir, the fundamental question of why can’t be answered.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying that violence in life or fiction lacks motive, but motive itself exists at the nexus of internal desire and external circumstance. The unanswerable “why” I’m speaking of is buried deep in our consciousness. One husband discovers his wife in bed with another man, checks into a hotel, and phones a lawyer. Another survives the shock, forgives his wife, and works to rebuild his marriage. A third reaches for a knife or a gun or a chopping ax and guarantees himself a spot on the evening news. All three had the same motive for killing a spouse, but only one did. This is the why that I’m speaking of, and it seems to have its roots in the mystery of personality.

Back in the mid nineties, my cousin woke on a July morning, made his wife and sons a rare weekday breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, and biscuits and lingered at the table before pouring a Styrofoam cup of coffee, kissing his wife, and heading out the door. Ten or fifteen minutes later, he stopped at a convenience store, filled a five-gallon container with gasoline, and bought a package of Dolly Madison chocolate-covered doughnuts. On the outskirts of town, he turned onto a gravel road that dead-ended at a repossessed farm, polished off the doughnuts, lugged the five-gallon can fifty yards into an overgrown field, emptied the gasoline over his head, and struck a light.

It didn’t make sense. He was happily married, had two sons he loved, and was nearing the end of his nineteenth year in the Air Force. He had never seen combat and had never been diagnosed with depression. Neither he nor his wife was having an affair. He’d recently passed his yearly physical.

But of course there were problems. He had debt, but nothing that hinted at financial disaster. He’d been frustrated at his lack of promotion. As he neared the end of his service, he seemed uncertain about the future and what he might do. Only a couple of years earlier, his mother had died. His childhood hadn’t been easy. We could say that the “motive” for his suicide was a mixture of grief, professional frustration, and worry for a combination of personal and financial reasons. A particular set of external circumstances reacted with his internal landscape and resulted in a horrific suicide.

But that doesn’t really explain it all, does it? He was one of four boys, all close in age, who experienced the same childhood and had similar genetic dispositions. Financially, he was better off than his older and younger brother, if not quite as prosperous as the oldest of the boys. The circumstances of his life were not more traumatic than those of his siblings. One had served in Vietnam and another had lost his two-year-old son. None of the other three attempted suicide. In the end, my cousin’s actions remain a mystery. We know what happened; we know how it happened, and we have the sketchy details of the circumstances that contributed to his death—the “motive” if you will. But the why remains unanswered. For me it is this unanswerable question that is the engine that drives the mystery genre. No matter how tightly plotted or how lifelike the characters, that question cannot be answered. In fact the more well-rounded and well-developed the characters, the more we readers feel that paradox and understand that the real mystery at the heart of mystery must remain unsolved.

I was a late-life baby, and my father and my uncle grew up during the Great Depression in a coal-mining town that was depressed long before the market crashed. To make matters worse, their father died when my dad, the youngest of the boys, was eleven. It fell to my dad and his brother, Ed, only two years older, to scrounge for themselves, their widowed mother, and baby sister. They were rough kids. One day, walking home along the railroad track, they spotted a friend of theirs, a boy my dad’s age, coming towards them. My uncle pulled a slingshot from his back pocket, nudged my dad’s elbow, and said, “I’m going to shoot Hubert’s eye out.”

And then he did. In one nearly fluid motion, he picked up a cinder, fitted it, pulled, and let fly. He never forgave himself. When I was a teenager and he was in his mid sixties, he would say, “It troubles me. Hubert was a good boy. I didn’t have no reason to do that.”

Violence certainly doesn’t hold the patent on irrational or inexplicable behavior. What is more mysterious than romantic love, religious sentiment, the desire to create art? Violence, love, religion, art. We are talking, of course, about aspects of life that help define what it is to be human, and of course, human consciousness itself is a mystery. If not, philosophy, religion, materialism, and a few dozen other “isms” wouldn’t compete to offer the solution to that particular puzzle.

No matter how skillful the writer and no matter which “category” he or she works in, there always remains the mystery of the individual at the core of the mystery novel or tale—something Poe made clear in “The Tell-Tell Heart,” and “The Imp of the Perverse.” If Colonel Mustard killed Professor Plum in the library with a lead pipe because he discovered the good professor was sleeping his wife—there you go, “motive”—why didn’t Captain Mayonnaise stab Professor Pedantic for seducing his? What about Justice Wargrave, that forerunner of both Dexter and Jigsaw, and Lou Ford, the cliche-obsessed lawman who is the grandfather of so many of the colorful psychopaths in modern noir? We are given details, explanations, and believable “motivations” for their action. But there are millions of boys who, like Justice Wargrave, are born with a cruel streak and a perverse sense of justice who don’t gather criminals on an island and murder them off one by one. Sadly there are thousands of children who suffer the same abuse as Lou Ford yet rarely speak in cliches and never beat to death hookers, church ladies, and bums. And it isn’t always about the villains. Why exactly is it that Marlowe feels the need to be a knight errant? Why is he so willing to accept every beating that comes his way in pursuit of justice in an unjust world? Those questions are never truly answered, yet any reader knows immediately that Marlowe is alive and breathing and unforgettable when he or she opens a Raymond Chandler novel.

An important thing to keep in mind is that mystery fiction is fiction for a reason that goes beyond make-believe characters and circumstances. At its core, all good fiction recognizes and probes the mysteries of identity and human consciousness. Simply identifying the traits and circumstances that lead to violent or creative individuals is the province of journalism, psychology, and sociology. Most of the traditional, hardboiled, and noir writers I know want more than that. In fact, a number of them are former journalists. Former is the important word. If these friends were satisfied with writing about how Colonel Mustard killed Professor Plum in the library with a lead pipe, they would have never changed careers, because at its core, that is what journalism does. It reports the facts and the circumstances of external events. Fiction has another concern. Henry James called it capturing the quality of felt life, and felt life is always complex, always mysterious.

For me, fiction is fundamentally about the unknowable yet powerful mysteries of life, and crime fiction, with its emphasis on the violent and the extreme, provides a shortcut to those mysteries. Perhaps no other contemporary writer has probed those mysteries as deeply, as well, and as often as Joyce Carol Oates. In her most powerful stories and novels, Oates binds her perpetrators, her victims, and her readers in a web in which each strand of action, motivation, circumstance, and connection disappears into mystery and yet remains as true, if not “truer,” than the life we experience every day.

To answer my old friend’s question, I often feel foolish, but never when I’m reading or writing in the crime genre. Like I said earlier, I was shocked and probably inarticulate in my response. I wish that I had nodded wisely, scratched the beard I didn’t have at the time, and said,

“Sure Colonel Mustard killed Professor Plum. But why do you think he did it?”

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John Morgan Wilson’s first novel, Simple Justice, which launched his Benjamin Justice series, won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best First Novel for its year of publication, 1996. Three other novels in the eight-book Justice series received Lambda Literary Awards. John also coauthored two whodunit novels with bandleader Peter Duchin. His first short story for EQMM appeared in 2003, and he has contributed half a dozen stories to our magazine since then. The latest, “Dial M for Marsha,” will appear towards the end of this year. Other stories by the West Hollywood author have appeared in AHMM and various anthologies. John’s versatility as a writer adds weight to the view he expresses in this post about rules and fiction-writing.—Janet Hutchings

In a world with no shortage of writers to tell you how it should be done, Ross Thomas was more inclined to let you find your own way.

I met him briefly in 1995, when he was making a rare public appearance through the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, where I taught an occasional nonfiction class. At the time, I was working furiously on my first novel and figured some advice from Mr. Thomas wouldn’t hurt.

Why Ross Thomas? Among other honors, he’d been awarded two Edgars—for Best Novel (Briarpatch, 1984) and Best First Novel (The Cold War Swap, 1966)—and had about two dozen mysteries, thrillers, and spy novels in print. His assured voice, graceful style, and wicked wit distinguished his work from the more conventional. He was also a pro, through and through.

“He was always at the top of his game,” his friend Lawrence Block recalled a few years ago in Mystery Scene, “and never wrote a bad sentence or a lifeless page, never created an unengaging character.”

That evening at UCLA, he made two comments that especially resonated with me as someone who’d always tottered on a tightrope between insecurity and confidence.

Asked about the importance of talent in achieving success, he replied that all an aspiring writer needed was “the ability to write a simple declarative sentence,” implying that it was more about what one did with his or her talent that mattered—finding the imagination, discipline, perseverance and chutzpah to make a go of it.

Number two?

“Write what you want to write,” Ross Thomas said. “There are no rules, absolutely none.”


My mother, a high school English teacher, often stayed up late marking up her students’ papers with her fearsome red lead pencil, from which no spelling, punctuation, or grammatical error was safe.

She slashed away at my assignments as well, highlighting problem areas without specifying the actual mistakes, demanding that I correct and retype the papers before I went to bed, no matter how late the hour or how exhausted I was. She also made me take a typing class during summer school—summer school!—then repeat it in the second session until I could type forty words a minute, with minimal errors. (Commas always bedeviled me and still do, something a psychiatrist might explain.) I was never the brightest student, but I managed to turn in essays and reports that were orderly, grammatically correct, and dutifully dull.

I didn’t fully appreciate her dictates until I was nineteen, a college dropout at loose ends in the cultural tumult of the 1960s. Almost by chance, I got the opportunity to cover sports for my local newspaper, where the gruff but good-hearted sports editor seemed stunned that a wayward teenager could type, let alone produce clean copy.

With the appearance of my first byline, I knew I wanted to write for a living. But I also realized how much I had to learn—and unlearn. That started with breaking some of the rules my mother and other well-meaning English teachers had drilled into me.

My new lessons came quickly:

“Kid, this is what we call an inverted pyramid—most important facts at the top, descending in order, because we trim for space from the bottom.”

“Cut the fancy wordplay, get into your story fast.”

“I don’t mind a sentence fragment now and then, if it works.”

“Tighten it up, punch it up, give it some life.”


A few months later, I returned to college as a journalism major, paying my way by writing for small newspapers and magazines, which had their own mandates about form, style, and content.

I eventually added an English minor, enrolling in two short-fiction classes. One was unabashedly commercial in approach, taught by a prolific pulp writer who set down inviolable rules about what qualified as acceptable storytelling in a checklist of sixty-seven dos and don’ts. The other instructor, warmer and more supportive, encouraged us to read widely, explore creatively, and not restrict ourselves to any one type or category of writing.

I finished several stories in each class—all unpublished—and gleaned useful ideas from both. But it was in the second course that I felt like someone had opened the cage and let me fly.


My first novel, completed in ’95, took the form of a traditional mystery, but went against the grain in other ways. The protagonist, unapologetically gay, was angry and abrasive, and given to discursive rants and disturbing bouts of violence. The specter of AIDS and grief hung heavily over the story. The final chapter, rather than being shorter and propulsive, was the longest in the novel, with three characters sitting at a table, talking.

A close friend, an aspiring mystery writer herself, warned me that my novel would never appeal to mainstream tastes.

“You’ll never make any money from a book like that,” she said.

What surprised me was not her frankness, but that she assumed I’d written my first novel concerned with how much money it would make. Surely many writers do, which is fine, but that was barely on my radar. My novel was dark, impolite, and certainly flawed, but it was good enough to get me a multi-book deal with Doubleday, and a start as a published fiction writer.

More importantly, it was the novel I wanted to write—the novel I needed to write—not one designed to meet someone else’s expectations.

In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott put it this way: “Write as if your parents are dead.”


A decade or so ago, I found myself on a crime-writing panel with two determinably best-selling authors to my right and, on my left, two newbies who’d written critically praised first novels more in a literary vein.

The author on my immediate right, a promotional dynamo, was ticking off the requirements for a bestseller—likeable hero or heroine, arch villain, shocking twists and turns, breathless pace, justice always served in the end, etc. The words “should” and “must” issued forth like bullets from a Tommy gun in a Mickey Spillane hard-boiler.

When it came my turn to speak, I suggested that not all writers are wired to follow formulas, or consider bestseller lists to be the Holy Grail. We each write for different reasons, I said, finding our rewards in different ways. Nor does everyone measure success by sales figures, I added, though it’s always nice when one’s book finds readers and makes some money.

I also pointed out that it’s possible to succeed commercially without fitting neatly into a genre mold. As an example, I cited Patricia Highsmith and The Talented Mr. Ripley, an “inverted” mystery featuring a fascinating psychopath who gets away with murder in the end.

I could just as well have mentioned other authors who’d written crime fiction with an individualistic stamp, and done quite well: Josephine Tey, Raymond Chandler, Graham Greene, Harper Lee, G.K. Chesterton, Ross Macdonald, Ruth Rendell, James Ellroy, Walter Mosley, Joyce Carol Oates, Joseph Wambaugh, Robert Bolaño, Jane Smiley, Jack Finney, Alice Sebold, Keigo Higashino, and countless more.

Oh, yes, and Ross Thomas.


By 2002, I was producing nearly a book a year, plus the occasional article and many hours of fact-based TV writing. I was making a living, but slipping badly into a creative rut.

So, thirty-five years after I wrote my first short story in college, I took a break and wrote another one.

Published in EQMM, it leaned heavily on L.A. noir tropes, and broke no new ground. But it was fun to write, and challenging, the compressed form demanding keen attention to every line, every word.

It was also liberating. When most of us sit down to write short fiction, there’s no contract, no deadline, no fiats about form, content, tone, type. Even in genre publications like EQMM or AHMM, which set certain boundaries regarding subject matter, the range of expression is remarkably broad. Since that breakthrough in EQMM, my short pieces there and elsewhere have ranged from light to dark, and some so personal and wrenching that I wept while writing them. Others were so offbeat for me they felt like an unexpected adventure in a strange land. That includes my latest for EQMM, a double murder mystery—or is it?—so deviously plotted that it took me weeks of revision to get it right.

That’s a lot of time to spend on a story of only a few thousand words.

Ah, but what a good time I had!

“Write what you want to write,” Ross Thomas said that night at UCLA, months before lung cancer ended his life when he was sixty-nine. “There are no rules, absolutely none.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Books, Characters, Fiction, Genre, Guest, Noir | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only thirteen chapters left now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Books, Editing, Education, Fiction, Genre, Guest | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 26 Comments