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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For The American Magazine by Stan Hunt, June 1949

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh! Here’s that recipe:

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

For FOUR Individualists

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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ARTISTS AND SAINTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wonder what others think. —Janet Hutchings

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“Visit Greeneland!” (by Kevin Wignall)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“My Owen Keane Moment” (by Terence Faherty)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A Sense of Place” (by Christine Poulson)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

“My Years in Prison” (by Bill Crider)

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay,” I said. “Who are they?”

“You weren’t told?”

“Told what?”

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

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

“That includes the prison faculty,” he said.

“Prison faculty?”

“You weren’t told?”

I hadn’t been told.

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

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

I hadn’t asked about hurricanes, either.

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

“What about hiring all the adjuncts?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is the whole history of “My Prisons.”

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

Posted in Adventure, Books, Business, Education, Guest | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Celebrate Independence Day With a Story

The Fourth of July is a time Americans celebrate freedom, but the date also marks an important ideological expansion of a war, since the Declaration of Independence made clear that the conflict was not simply an internal rebellion within the British empire, and it paved the way for France to enter the war on the Americans’ side. Whenever this date comes around I find myself thinking of Edward D. Hoch’s mystery series set during the Revolution, starring an intelligence agent for George Washington, Alexander Swift. The stories follow Swift’s investigations of that most notorious of all traitors (to Americans), Benedict Arnold. But Ed Hoch was an excellent researcher, and his portrait of Arnold is nuanced: He makes clear, for one, that Arnold was also a hero of the American Revolution, one who helped ensure an American victory at the crucial second battle of Saratoga.

One of the things that never fails to make a war mystery engrossing for me is dexterous handling of the many upheavals war creates in daily life: a skillful drawing of the contrast between life as it was and life as war has made it. Ed Hoch did a good job of bringing such contrasts out in his Alexander Swift series—particularly when the scene was New York City under British occupation. Another fine example of interesting treatment of the civilian side of war can be found in the BBC television series Foyle’s War, which focuses on murder investigations on the home front in WWII Britain. The term “cozy” may seem odd applied to stories set amidst bombings, espionage, and black-market racketeering, but this series also manages to capture much of the altered domestic life of its central characters. Carolyn Hart’s Pulitzer-nominated and Agatha Award-winning novel Letter from Home, set on the U.S. home front during WWII, features the heroine of a short story published in EQMM in March 1999, “Spooked.” That’s a “cozy” war mystery not to be missed, and in case you haven’t read it, our podcast of it is still available through The Mystery Place.

Of course, a lot of war mysteries focus on the larger events of such violent crises: espionage directly affecting the success of armies; issues relating to justice and the wartime suspension of civil liberties are common themes. What I look for in such stories is a good use of historical facts, especially those that aren’t too widely known—for example, the fact that the U.S. government appealed to the American mafia to convince its Sicilian counterpart to turn against the Nazis in WWII (something J. Robert Janes wove into his WWII-based fiction series). War certainly makes for strange bedfellows, turning avowed enemies into temporary friends and, sometimes, as in the American Civil War, friends and loved ones into enemies. Doug Allyn’s story “The Scent of Lilacs” (EQMM September/October 2010), about a family split between the Union and the Confederacy, is such a tale, and it won its year’s Edgar Allan Poe Award for best short story.

One of the reasons stories set in wartime continue to prove compelling—and why people often find them inspirational—is that the significance of seemingly small actions is magnified by war. A sort of black market can probably be found at any time in most large cities (at least in the form of unlicensed street vendors selling goods that “fell off the back of a truck”). In wartime, when the consequences of misappropriating goods are so much greater, such acts may carry the death penalty. Likewise, unselfish compliance with restrictions on trade and consumption can take on an almost heroic significance. I wonder, though, if the way in which so many contemporary wars is fought isn’t going to change the nature of the war story. Dixon Hill’s story “Dancing in Mozambique,” from our July 2010 issue, provided a harrowing portrait of war waged by mercenaries and the greed and pitilessness it breeds. It’s a riveting thriller, but certainly offers no profiles in courage.

Stories heavy in descriptions of weaponry tend to turn me off (though I know there’s a big audience for such stories, so I try to keep an open mind). But every once in a while in my EQMM reading I come upon something of a technological nature that I find absolutely fascinating. It was through Ed Hoch’s Alexander Swift story “King George’s Gold,” for example, that I learned that the first use of a submarine (or at any rate a submersible) in war was in the American Revolution, on the American side, in New York Harbor.

In celebration of the holiday, and courtesy of Patricia Hoch, you can read that story here.

Happy Fourth!—Janet Hutchings

Posted in Books, Fiction, Historicals, History, Setting, Story, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

“What Did You Just Say?” (by Frankie Y. Bailey)

Frankie Bailey’s first short story for EQMM appears in our July 2014 issue, and a podcast of the tale, which she read for us at the Malice Domestic Convention in May, will feature in our podcast series starting this Friday. The story belongs to the Lizzie Stuart crime-historian series, which includes five novels. Minotaur Books also recently released her new police procedural novel, The Red Queen Dies (2013), which is set in the near future. Booklist called the book a “strong start to a projected series.” The next in the series, What the Fly Saw, will be published in March 2015. Fiction-writing, however, is only one of Frankie Bailey’s careers. She is a professor of criminal justice at the University at Albany, and her knowledge of crime history is evident in this enlightening post.—Janet Hutchings

Place: Fast food drive-through in upstate New York. I swerve my car away from the drive-through window and jump out. As the guy in the window stares as me with mouth open, I reach through his window and grab him by the collar of his uniform. Dragging him toward me, I explain to him in cold, precise language exactly why “Here you go, sweetie” is not an acceptable way to complete a transaction with a customer. As he struggles in my grasp, I point out that if he had been observant enough to notice the gray in my hair, it might have occurred to him that I might be one of those Baby Boomer feminists who consider being called “sweetie” by a strange male a sexist insult. Or, if he called me “sweetie” because he did see that gray in my hair, he might have considered the fact that I am not his grandmother and might not be in the mood to be patronized after spending ten minutes in a fast-food drive through. And—although he might not have gotten this if he didn’t recognize my Southern accent—it might also have occurred to him that someone who grew up in the South, where a waitress calling you “sweetie” as she brings your order to your table can make you feel like you’ve gotten a great big hug, might be offended not only by his “sweetie” but by the bland way in which he’d delivered it. As his eyes bug, I tell him that he is no Southern waitress. And, by the way, buster, “Thank you” is what you say. Not “Here you go.” I let go of his shirt collar and dust off my hands. I get into my car and check my order to make sure I’ve been given salad dressing, utensils, and napkins. As the police car responding to the call about an assault in progress turns into the parking lot, I drive away. The cop barely glances at the calm-faced woman in the gray sedan leaving the scene of the crime.

Okay. This happened only in my Wanda Mitty daydream. The truth is, I didn’t even utter a sarcastic “You’re welcome, darling” in response to that “Here you go, sweetie.” I may even have mumbled “Thank you” as I accepted my bag through the window. But the exchange did provide food for thought (you may groan). I, who have never been in a fight, who shudder at the thought of causing a scene, had fantasized about “breaking bad” on a guy in a drive-through window. Back at the office, as I sat at my desk eating my salad, I began to think about acts of violence—real and fictional—that might grow out of an annoyance or perceived insult. That’s what you do if you’re both a criminal justice professor and a mystery writer. You think, “That’s really interesting. I should see what research has been done on that.” And then you think, “Hey, maybe I can work this into a story idea.”

Historically, “insult” has often been linked to “honor.” Edgar Allan Poe—raised if not born in the South—opens “The Cask of Amontillado” (1846) with these words: “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge.” Montresor, the narrator, never reveals the nature of the thousand injuries or the final insult. But he perceives himself as the victim of conduct that must be avenged. The nature of his retaliation (walling the unsuspecting and inebriated Fortunato up alive in a crypt) suggests the cunning Montresor is a madman. Even though he explains that he must escape punishment or the wrong will be unredressed, what rational man could carry out such a diabolical plan as his victim begs for mercy? Moreover, Montresor has engaged in private treachery. In Poe’s nineteenth-century South, a “gentleman” affronted by an insult and concerned for his “honor” might have been expected to challenge an equal to a duel or to deliver a sound caning or whipping to an inferior. From the perspective of the “culture of honor,” Montresor is a coward because he does not engage Fortunato in a public confrontation.

The tendency to link honor to manhood and insult to potential loss of reputation was not confined to the South. In the era between the aftermath of the Revolutionary War and the beginning of the Civil War, antidueling reformers waged a propaganda campaign aimed at upper class men in both South and North who engaged in duels that the reformers argued were ritualized murder-suicide. The reformers pointed to the infamous case of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr who met in Weehawken, New Jersey to settle their political and personal differences. According to the antidueling propaganda, Hamilton, who was killed, had committed suicide.

Whether the story that Hamilton had fired into the air rather than at his opponent was true or not, Hamilton might have both saved face and avoided the duel. During the negotiations leading up to a duel, the person accused of the insult could offer a carefully worded public (and published) apology offering his regrets about the misunderstanding. When men chose to fight, they saw the duel as an opportunity not only to avenge an insult, but to display their own sense of self-worth and courage by risking death. Whether fighting a duel—or engaging as lower-class men did in “no-holds barred” fights that resulted in the loss of an eye or an ear—nineteenth-century men were willing to fight to preserve status and reputation. In the twenty-first century, violence in response to perceived insult is still common, particularly among young men. In our modern world, an insult may result in a “war of words” among those who consider themselves too civilized for fisticuffs or weapons. But the connection between insult and aggression remains.

Writers know this. Since the birth of “tough guy” crime fiction in the 1920s, how many guys have walked into how many bars in how many books, short stories, and movies and gotten into a “beef” with some other guy? Sometimes the insult is related to clumsiness on the part of the offender (e.g., a spilled drink) or a remark to or about a woman. Sometimes one guy challenges the other guy’s right to be there. In crime fiction, insults happen and characters respond. Occasionally—if the insult comes from someone they know and cuts deeply enough, a character may respond with a carefully thought-out scheme.

Research on the topic suggests that if an aggrieved person has some time to “ruminate” on a public insult, the next person who gets in his or her way may suffer the consequences. Scholars call this “displaced aggression.” Back in 1945, writer Ann Petry depicted this kind of displacement in a short story titled “Like a Winding Sheet.” Although not genre fiction, the story ends in violence—domestic violence. The story opens with the line, “He had planned to get up before Mae did and surprise her by fixing breakfast.” By the end of that day—after the husband has suffered racial taunts from his white female supervisor and what he misinterprets as discrimination when he is told that he will have to wait for coffee in a restaurant—he is tense and angry. When his wife teases him about being grumpy, she inadvertently “triggers” his rage. He strikes her. He sees the blood on her face and realizes what he has done. But he goes on hitting her as he thinks that it is like “being enmeshed in a winding sheet. . . .And even as the thought formed in his mind his hands reached for her face again and yet again.” That’s the last line, but in real life, it would probably not have been the last incident.

In real life—and in fiction—the person who takes offense often perceives the sometimes-unintentional offender as attempting to humiliate and/or dominate. Power differentials, individual characteristics, and the setting come into play. With regard to violence, gender often trumps other factors. From the nineteenth century to the twenty-first, from Western frontier to urban inner city, being ready to respond physically to an insult has been an aspect of American masculinity. Women may anger, may respond to an insult verbally, but are less prone to physical violence. This, of course, is not to deny the juvenile girls and young women who do answer an insult with a punch.

I didn’t grab the guy in the fast-food window by his shirt collar. But my character in my story might do that and end up in jail. And then what? Or, he or she might go back to work and spend the afternoon ruminating on that insult and later have a confrontation with someone else. Of course, one intriguing aspect of an “insult” is that what one person perceives as an insult, another person may take as a compliment. Maybe what my character is annoyed about is that his friend or relative, someone he cares about, doesn’t realize she should be insulted. Maybe he takes action of her behalf . . .

I may actually get a story idea out of this. But that’s what writers do, isn’t it? We put the things that annoy us to good use.

Posted in Characters, Fiction, Genre, Guest, History, Story, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Talking The Talk” (by David H. Ingram)

David Ingram won the Mystery Writers of America’s Robert L. Fish Award for best short story by a new author for his January 2011 EQMM story “A Good Man of Business.” A subsequent story for EQMM, November 2013’s “The Covering Storm,” was selected for the 2014 volume of the anthology series Best American Mystery Stories. The author is not only a fiction writer (with a novel recently completed) but a book and movie reviewer. He’s had other work experience too, and he discusses one of the most interesting of his past jobs in this post. —Janet Hutchings

“I told you,” I said to McMullin, “you haven’t got anything on me or my client. You keep busting my chops ’cause you don’t have two clues to rub together.”

The big copper leaned in until his nose almost kissed mine. “You private dicks kill me, thinkin’ you’re special. Maybe I’ll throw you in holding until you lose the attitude!”

In novels, movies, and TV shows, confrontational scenes between police officers and citizens abound. It’s good drama; how many people would want to watch or read about the classic noir detectives or their modern equivalents having a nice chat with a police officer? However, it may have bled over into reality for some. When researchers looked into incidents where police officers were involved with violent confrontations, it was discovered that some officers accounted for nearly all the incidents, while others almost never had problems. The culprit, it turned out, was how the officers talked to the suspects. The language they used naturally led to violence.

Enter Dr. George J. Thompson, who received his B.A. at Colgate, a Master’s and Doctorate in English at the University of Connecticut, and did postdoctoral work at Princeton in Rhetoric and Persuasion. He was well acquainted with detective fiction as he wrote his doctoral dissertation on Dashiell Hammett’s five novels, and later published it as Hammett’s Moral Vision. After all that study and ten years teaching English, he left academia and became a full-time cop.

Thompson noticed some of the old hands in the department were always able to get a suspect to comply with just a few words. From his training he recognized they were using complex rhetoric, even though they couldn’t have explained what they were doing. For them, it was a natural gift. Thompson’s education experience let him break down these techniques so that they could be taught to anyone, and he developed the program called “Verbal Judo.”

It’s an appropriate name. Judo is relatively modern, having been developed in the late 1800s by Jigoro Kano. Before that, jujitsu was the main martial art in Japan, with its emphasis on blows that could be used to disable and even kill. Judo, whose name means “gentle way,” was created as a sport to build character. Kano took a scientific attitude in the design of judo. It involves deflection and parrying force rather than meeting it directly. Dr. Thompson had a black belt in the sport.

In 1982, Thompson wrote an article that was published in an FBI bulletin about police rhetoric and how it could be a valuable tool for officers. He received over 600 letters in response to the article. One of the letters invited him to give a talk to police and corrections officers in Abilene, Texas. He accepted, and at the end of his presentation, he received a standing ovation. The officers told him he had to do it as a regular course, so in 1983, he founded the Verbal Judo Institute and set about training officers in the techniques.

The purpose of Verbal Judo is to de-escalate situations so they don’t turn into violent encounters. The course is taught over an intensive two-day period, and it breaks down into five steps:

1)    Ask: Treat a person with dignity and respect. 85% of people will comply when they are asked nicely to do something. As Dr. Thompson put it, “Treat people well, regardless of their differences.”

2)    Set Context: Explain to the person why you are making a request or placing them under arrest. People want to know why something is happening.

3)    Present Them With Options: Give the person scenarios of what can happen based on their behavior. In effect, it makes the person responsible for what takes place. All people want to be asked rather than to be told what to do.

4)    Confirm: Get their acknowledgement of compliance, if possible. If the person’s still refusing to cooperate, the officer might ask, “Is there any way to get you to comply with this?” Rather than threats, people prefer options.

5)    ACT: Follow through with actions. If the suspect still won’t comply, then the officer may need to escalate to using force. However, most people want a second chance when they make a mistake. If the desired effect is presented as a way to get that second chance, it can defuse what could be an explosive situation.

Verbal Judo has become a required course in many jurisdictions and at police academies across the United States, as well as internationally. Officers have multiple force options, from hand-to-hand combat through pepper spray and Tasers and on up to firearms. But words are the only option that can increase the safety of officers, and they won’t lead to liability lawsuits or physical injuries. Words can also improve relations between the public and the police. These days, the police have to expect that their actions will be recorded by someone with a cell phone. If you search YouTube for arrest videos, you’ll see over 800,000 results. (A trainer in Verbal Judo was scheduled to do a presentation for the Los Angeles Police Department in March of 1991, but the trip was canceled because of the Rodney King affair that happened that month. One wonders what a difference training in Verbal Judo may have made in that situation.)

To give cadets experience in Verbal Judo, police academies such as the Police Training Institute at the University of Illinois incorporate extensive role-play into their studies. That was where I encountered the technique. For about a year, I was a role-player for P.T.I., acting out situations as a victim, witness, or perpetrator so the cadets could get experience in a controlled environment before their first street assignments. A training officer and a team of 6-10 cadets would watch as a couple of the trainees went through a scenario, and then discuss how they handled the situation. The role-playing would be repeated with variations until all the trainees had a chance to participate.

There were two situations in particular where cadets were helped by the Verbal Judo skills. One was Terry Stops, where the police are allowed to stop a person and check their identification if they think that person might have been involved in a crime that’s occurred. Using the Verbal Judo techniques can prevent the interview from turning into a confrontation. The other scenario where Verbal Judo can defuse an already charged incident is with domestic disturbance calls. During the role play, two cadets are dispatched to a report of a loud argument. If they were to become involved in the argument themselves it would defeat their efforts. Instead, the officers separate the combatants into different rooms (or take one outside) and get them talking about what triggered the fight. The cadets will then discuss what they’ve heard from each participant (while standing in such a way that they can keep an eye on both parties) and decide how best to proceed. If it was simply a loud argument, they might caution the couple to keep things under control, or have one of them leave overnight to allow time for tempers to cool. If physical violence was involved, usually they proceed to an arrest.

Dr. Thompson had an intense teaching style and picked up the nickname “Rhino” while doing the seminars in the 1990s. When he was introduced to two police officers who were scheduled to take the seminar, they said, “Oh, you’re the rhino!” Thompson asked what they meant, and the officers explained they’d asked an FBI agent who’d done the course what Thompson was like in class. The agent told the officers, “Imagine a Rhinoceros on amphetamines. . . . When you’re in his classroom, he’s in your face.” Doc Rhino trained over 175,000 law enforcement professionals himself and equipped teachers who’ve trained hundreds of thousands more. He passed away unexpectedly in 2011, but his work is continued by the Verbal Judo Institute, based in Auburn, NY. The institute has branched out to provide communication training for corporations based on Dr. Thompson’s teaching. Wherever negative stress can aggravate interactions between people, the skills of Verbal Judo can help.

Using Verbal Judo in a story won’t be as dramatic as the old get-in-your-face confrontations between cops and others in hardboiled novels and films, but this is one place where reality and fiction clearly divide.

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