“Bookends” (by Lou Manfredo)

Lou Manfredo’s stories for EQMM include a series of five classical whodunits set in the mid twentieth-century on Long Island (a series we were very sorry to see end!) as well as some of the dark crime tales for which he is perhaps better known. One of his noir stories, “Case Closed,” can be found in a volume to be released next week: The Best of the Best American Mystery Stories: The First Ten Years, edited by Otto Penzler. But the author is also a novelist, with three books out in a series starring Brooklyn cop Joe Rizzo (Rizzo’s War, Rizzo’s Fire, and Rizzo’s Daughter). In a starred review of Rizzo’s Fire, Kirkus Reviews called Rizzo “the most authentic cop in contemporary crime fiction.” After reading Lou’s account of how his own love for reading began, I imagine readers who haven’t discovered his fiction yet will want to do so, and we’ve got a new Manfredo story coming up later this year in EQMM. —Janet Hutchings

I suspect the most impossible of tasks would be to find a writer who had not first been a reader; a voracious one, more than likely.

I’ve recently had occasion to contemplate that while sitting at my writing desk, fiddling with a new ribbon for my Smith-Corona. (Yes, I confess: I write on an electric typewriter. I am a proud and defiant dinosaur). My eyes had fallen upon the bookshelf opposite my desk to what I consider to be my most valuable and cherished possessions: twenty-seven hardcover volumes of original Hardy Boys mysteries and a single hardcover of Follow My Leader by James B. Garfield.

Those books represent my first experiences with the magic of reading, the magic which, years after its discovery, transitioned me from reader to reader-writer. Each glaringly blank sheet of paper I now wind into my Smith-Corona is directly descended from pages of those childhood books and the defining significance of the manner in which they arrived into my life.

Growing up, I didn’t see too much of my dad. He worked two jobs, leaving at about nine-thirty in the morning and returning after midnight. I usually left for school before he woke and went to sleep long before he returned home. But we always made up for it by spending quality time together on weekends, and with the occasional special surprise.

And thus entered the magic when I would periodically awaken to the warm reminder that although I didn’t see him during the week, I did have a very loving father.

Sitting on the night table beside my bed I would find a package tightly wrapped in plain brown paper. My dad had placed it there after midnight. I knew what the package held: One of the very same Hardy Boys mysteries still, all these years later, neatly arranged on my bookshelf, most in their original dustcovers, some with the dollar-twenty-five price stickers still affixed.

The brown paper wrapping, deliberately placed by my dad, had enhanced the thrill of discovery. Which volume lay beneath this time? The Twisted Claw? Footprints Under the Window? While the Clock Ticked? The mystery, you see, began before I had even laid eyes upon the actual book.

Looking back, I eventually realized how much I had learned from those novels: things which remained deep in my psyche to be mined years later when I began writing short stories. I had experienced that tingling, cozy feeling a book, in particular a mystery, could instill in a young boy tucked away in his warm bed on a cold night, a circle of reading light the room’s only illumination. Nothing quite equals that.

I remember once raiding my piggy bank of quarters and dimes and heading to the neighborhood five-and-ten store. There I bought a shiny, thin silver flashlight and two batteries. That night, after my official bedtime, I tented myself under the bedcovers and, using my new flashlight, began reading my latest Hardy Boys treasure. It was a ritual I would repeat many times. Looking back on all my experiences in life—some fraught with actual danger—those early under-the-covers reading adventures remain among the most thrilling. The great rush of secret, warm excitement, so free of impurity or sin. Magic.

And then came Follow My Leader. That book was a gift from a family friend who, like my Dad, was an avid reader, always in the middle of a book, sometimes two simultaneously. Knowing that I was a newly recruited reader, she subtly nudged me to a broader experience. Follow My Leader is the story of a young boy about my age at the time, who is blinded in an accident. The story details his many struggles, failures, and ultimate triumph, culminating in his partnership with a seeing-eye dog he named, “Leader.” It is a sad, melancholy, and yet ultimately reaffirming story. The magic, I learned, could exist between book covers unadorned with exciting characters like Frank and Joe Hardy. My world had expanded beyond my Brooklyn neighborhood, beyond my age, beyond my circumstances. Magic.

And so finally we arrive at the point of this writing. My life has been bookended, you see, by two very special people: my dad with his imaginative delivery system and my beautiful daughter. When I was a boy, my dad conveyed that I was special to him. I was important. As an adult, my daughter managed to do the same.

You see, although I always safeguarded my Hardy Boys novels, circumstances had conspired to cause Follow My Leader to disappear into the foggy quagmire of time. It was simply gone. But apparently I had mentioned it somewhere along the line to my now adult daughter. A few years ago, on Christmas Day, a worn and well-read copy appeared, tightly wrapped in plain brown paper. She had tracked it down on her computer and bought it for me. I have never before, nor will I ever receive a more special or thoughtful gift.

And the irony had not been lost on either of us. My daughter utilized the very technology that I always avoid, to the extent modern demands will allow, in locating and purchasing the book; technology akin to that which now produces e-books. My childhood books sit a mere six feet from my desk, waiting. Occasionally, I slip one from the shelf and peruse it. I have actually reread some Hardy Boys from cover to cover over recent years. And they never fail to get the mysterious power of creativity flowing, and the magic—first experienced so long ago—returns with the familiarity of an old and dear friend.

I often wonder, what will sit on the shelf opposite the writer of the future? Perhaps obsolete, non-working electronic gizmos, their computer chips devoid of memory by the passage of time and inactivity.

But I know of one little boy who will someday have hard-copy books to hold and feel and smell; Hardy Boys and Leaders, Sawyers and Finns, Swifts and Rye Catchers, cowboys and pirates. Yeah, my grandson, just a baby now. I will be his first bookend. He’ll have to find the second on his own. Or, as in my case, someday he may luck out with an insightful, loving child of his own.

Want to do something special? Buy someone a book. A real book. Maybe, ten years from now, twenty years, thirty—they will hold it in their hands and think of you. And they’ll smile.

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“The International Association of Crime Writers Reveals a World of Crime Writing” (by J. Madison Davis)

The International Association of Crime Writers has had a pivotal role, over the past couple of decades, in facilitating access for crime-fiction fans to works in the field beyond their own cultural and national boundaries. Their efforts in encouraging translation, and in bringing together a network of writers and translators, helped to make possible EQMM’s own Passport to Crime department. This week we hear from J. Madison Davis, the current president of the North American branch of IACW. Last August he ended a five-year term as IACW’s world president. IACW is an organization of writers, and Jim (as he is known to us) is notable in the field, with eight novels in print, the first of them, The Murder of Frau Schütz, an Edgar Allan Poe Award nominee. A professor at the University of Oklahoma, he has written a column on international crime and mystery for World Literature Today since 2004. —Janet Hutchings

Like many, if not most, aspiring writers I started out to write the Great American novel. My conception of the mystery was very narrow. When my father finally bought a used television I was eight. Perry Mason, Michael Shayne, Peter Gunn, and The Defenders filled our screen every week in glorious black and white. I read voraciously and indiscriminately, picking up books for a dime at the local Goodwill and encountered Michael Gilbert’s Smallbone Deceased, an Agatha Christie or two, and others. I read the Hardy Boys whenever I could, and even remember reading a Nancy Drew, something boys didn’t do in those days–or at least didn’t want to be seen doing.

Sometime during elementary and high school, I became aware that I had a certain facility for writing, but never really considered it as a profession. After all, everybody knows it’s not a very good way to make money, and when you grow up at the bottom of the middle class, it doesn’t seem like a sensible way to earn a living. And, of course, when I got to college and actually took creative writing classes, I was indoctrinated with the notion that mysteries were some kind of inferior cousin to serious writing, which was the only kind of writing that mattered.

I realize now that many of my disagreements with my instructors in those days came from my attempts to insert such blazons of literary inferiority as murders, plots, twists, and definite resolutions. After all it was the end of the 60s and John Hawkes had declared plot and character the enemies of fiction. Nonetheless, I published several dozen literary stories in the many literary journals that existed then and will probably, unfortunately, never return in such profusion. Yes, I know, on the whole, no one read those magazines, and they didn’t pay anything except copies, but they kept me writing, got me a job teaching English, and kept me starting and restarting Great American novels.

It’s a long story how my first novel, the Murder of Frau Schütz got to publication, plucked from the slush pile at Walker. It may seem incredible at this point that I did not see my novel as a mystery. I knew there was a murder and the solving of it, but I didn’t yet appreciate the range and varieties of this genre loosely called the mystery. When my novel was submitted into the MWA’s best first Edgar competition, I didn’t think much about it. Many are called, but few are lucky enough to be contenders, and after all, I wasn’t really, ahem, a mystery writer. When I did get nominated, I was stunned, forced to confront the obvious: my head worked this way. I had always enjoyed Sherlock Holmes, Father Brown, and so many other stories of this type. I had been fighting my own inclinations. Suffering a crisis of identity, I read dozens of crime novels and saw their great variety and, yes, seriousness. How could I have so underestimated them?

A whole new world had opened to me, and the world was soon to open quite literally. I received an invitation to join the International Association of Crime Writers. They would be having a meeting in Gijón, Spain, at the Semana Negra, a week long celebration of the crime novel organized by Paco Ignacio Taibo II. I joined and made my arrangements arriving in Madrid, taking a long ride on the King of Spain’s personal train, which had been commandeered by Semana Negra to take all the writers to Gijon in the north. We arrived to a band greeting us with music by Nino Rota, which naturally made everything seem Fellini-esque. I was astounded that they were having an entire carnival complete with rides and concerts, but also stalls selling books.

It was unusual to hold panel discussions in tents next to a Tilt-a-Whirl, but the lack of pretension was refreshing. And I, who had been around a number of different kinds of authors, discovered that crime writers were friendly, generally unpretentious, and not worried about their place in the hierarchy of literature. My experiences among poets, “serious” novelists, and science fiction writers had been that they were constantly angry about the fact that they were not taken as seriously as they felt they deserved. Well, of course, they are not, on the whole, and most don’t deserve to be. I noticed immediately that the European writers were concerned that the crime novel was not given the respect that they felt it deserved in European reviews, and imagined that in America there was a paradise of respect for crime writing. I didn’t tell them that I was at a writer’s colony when my first novel was accepted. My announcement at the communal dinner was greeted with a silent frigidity until someone managed to say, “Well, I might write a mystery someday.” As if. As if it’s something you do with your left hand while your right hand is doing something meaningful.

I have always known crime writers to be supportive of each other, with very few exceptions. This held true on the international level. Some nations do not have a long history of crime writing and each one has its own particular tastes. Last year I was asked to do workshops in Romania, which under the Ceausescu regime had no crime—it was official—no crime. So there were novels about defeating bad guys from the CIA, but little along the lines of what we see commonly in our bookstores and have for more than a century. The French have their own extensive history of crime writing, but embraced noir in a way that even Americans didn’t. After all, they named the style and recognized the quality in writers like Jim Thompson while he was languishing in his alcoholism.

Perhaps the French recognized that it’s a noir world after all before the rest of us. And the hardboiled style proves to be the prevalent popular style globally. The Spanish writers I met just couldn’t “get” Agatha Christie and didn’t know what we Brits and Americans seemed to find in her writing. But Raymond Chandler was God. Part of this is that there is much more chance for social criticism in the noir novel. Spanish writers, French writers, Italian writers, Swedish writers are usually much more concerned with using their crime writing as a vehicle for social commentary.

Seeing the different ways that different writers approach similar subject matters is a benefit to any writer. The original purpose of the International Association of Crime Writers was to encourage communication among writers of different nations and particularly across the Iron Curtain. At the time I joined, writers in Eastern Europe were commonly jailed for the content of their writing. This still happens in the world, and we must never forget it, and never cease to oppose it until it ends. Each writer offers something unique and the culture each comes from enriches their offering. We learn from them; they learn from us. As Tony Bennett said, it doesn’t matter what you call the music, it only matters that it is good. Who knows what we will miss because we did not listen? Crime writing is a global phenomenon. Bookstores in Europe have all the latest bestsellers by American authors. The impact of writers like Stieg Larsson, Pierre Lemaitre, and Natsuo Kirino is significant here and growing. The EQMM “Passport to Crime” series became a reality partly because of the encouragement of the IACW, and has introduced us to many foreign authors.

Because of IACW, I have been to Gijon, Saragoza, Berlin, Frontignan, Zurich, Amsterdam, Antwerp, Oxford, Toronto, Reykjavik, and several other places. One time I hosted an international group in Norman, Oklahoma, which can be as exotic as any place you care to visit. But as interesting as places may be, people are more interesting. If I start listing the friendships and interesting conversations here, this blog would never end. There was a bowling match with the Czech police, a shooting match with the Spanish police, the visit to the bar—just the bar—in a Spanish brothel and the prostitutes so impressed to meet authors, the exotic art hotels in Amsterdam and Berlin, the absinthe in a Swiss author’s garden, shrunken heads in Oxford, and Bob Dylan in a bull ring.

“And thereby hangs a tale,” as Bill said. These and many more.

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“How I Do What I Do, and Why” (by Percy Spurlark Parker)

Percy Spurlark Parker’s fiction debut was a story for EQMM’s Department of First Stories in 1972. Since then he’s authored two published novels and dozens of short stories, which have appeared not only in EQMM but in AHMM, Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, Espionage, The Strand, Woman’s World, and a variety of anthologies. Although he is primarily a private-eye writer—and one of the original members of the Private Eye Writers of America—Percy also writes classical puzzle mysteries and pure suspense. His story “Some Flames Never Die,” in our January 2014 issue, for example, is a P.I. tale, while his upcoming story for EQMM, “Splitting Adams” (July 2014) is psychological suspense. I’m sure a lot of aspiring mystery writers are going to find what this veteran has to say about the process of creating a mystery fascinating.—Janet Hutchings

I have never professed to know all there is to know about writing mystery fiction, and as such I rarely try telling anyone how to write. I have, however, collected a set of guidelines, tips, truths, and half-truths over the years that seem to work for me. I shall be imparting those pearls of wisdom later in this piece for you to rummage through, take what you like, or just poo-poo the whole thing as the ramblings of an old man whose is still trying to get the hang of this writing game.

But let’s get to what got me interested in writing in the first place.

Back in the Stone Age, before there was the internet, before there was TV, there was something called radio. Every day after school I had my regular programs I listened to. Gang Busters. The Shadow. I rode with the Lone Ranger and Tonto; help solve cases with Richard Diamond and Johnny Dollar. The more intense the stories got, the closer my ear got to the radio speaker. I remember once I’d hit my head on a fire hydrant wrestling with a kid named Donny Boy. The result was a day-long splitting headache, to the point that I had tears in my eyes. I couldn’t tell my folks, they would’ve made me go to bed. No, I had to sit there and listen to my programs.

What kind of hold did these shows have on me? What would force a kid of eleven or twelve to go through all that pain, just to help put another bad guy behind bars?

When I asked myself these questions, the only answer that came to me was that it had to be in the writing. Sure there was the music, and the inflections in the actors’ voices. But someone had sat at a typewriter, created a situation; told the actors what to say. And in turn their words had kept me inching closer and closer to the radio, kept my heart beating faster, kept me struggling to identify the culprit, regardless if I had a headache or had to run to the washroom.

So, how was it done? My favorite radio programs were crime shows, and fortunately in those days there were at least a half-dozen pulp magazines on the stands at any given time. So, I began to read. I dissected story after story trying to identify the twist and turns the authors were taking me through. Whenever I’d get engrossed in a story and forget to dissect it, I’d read it again to see if I could detect where the author had gotten me to simply enjoy the piece instead of looking at it as a textbook.

Somewhere along the way I began to wonder if I could write a mystery story, not so much with the idea of selling anything, but just to see if I could do it. I’d experimented with doing my own comic book, but at that time I had visions of becoming an artist. When I started thinking about trying to write, I started looking for how-to books. I don’t believe I ever read an entire book, but I’d read the chapters on plotting, dialogue, and viewpoint over and over.

My turning point came when I was eighteen. I’d tried a few short stories at various magazines without any success. It was okay because my focus was still on becoming an artist. A cartoonist was actually what I was aiming for. I prepared a couple of strips and took them downtown to the Chicago Tribune to show off my handiwork. The editor in charge of the cartoon section showed me some of the artwork he was rejecting. To be kind to myself, let’s just say the stuff was only a hundred times better than what I had brought with me. Cleaner, neater, the artwork itself much, much better. I couldn’t complain.

The year before, I’d taken a summer art course at the Chicago Academy of Fine Art, and had picked up a few pointers. However, I figured if I was going to make a go of it as an artist I needed to get back in school. I needed an instructor right at my shoulder pointing out each error I made as I went along. But, if I was going to be a mystery writer, well, I could teach myself how to do it. Maybe that hit on the head as a kid did more than just give me a headache.

At any rate, twelve years later I sold my first story, “Block Party,” to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, which appeared in their April 1972 issue. Since “Block Party,” my published works haven’t reached the astronomical level I once thought they might, but I do have two novels and sixty-five short stories to my credit thus far. I’m still writing, so who knows what the final total will be.

Okay, now here are the rules that work for me.

When I start a new story, ninety-five percent of the time the first thing I do is write out a list of names. I do this for two reasons. First, as an aid to individualize my characters. I try not to have the names sound alike, or even began with the same letters, unless of course it’s a pivotal part of the story. Secondly, as I introduce a new character into the story, there’s a list of names readily available for me to choose from. The remaining five percent is the time I come up with an opening line first. On those occasions I generally sit back and tell myself, “Okay, you’ve got the hard part done. Now what?”

Another aid I use in individualizing my characters, especially if I’m introducing two or more, is I never describe their features in the same order. Height, color of hair, eyes; figure. That way it’s like going down a check-off list. And doing so, for me, seems to have the result of meshing the characters into one big lump. I may start with character A’s hair, the shape of character’s B’s mouth, the girth of character C’s waistline, and add a little something here and there as I go back to each character through dialogue or observation.

How about viewpoint? I usually stick to one person’s viewpoint in a story. The reader sees, hears, feels, and smells everything the narrator experiences. I don’t go into everybody’s head. I have trouble figuring out how that can be done in a mystery piece. The only way I’ve ever handled the All Seeing Eye, or omniscient viewpoint, is to divide the story into segments giving each character their own patch, therefore revealing only what they perceive as true as the story unfolds. I did this in “Woman at the Window,” EQMM June 2002. The story starts in a defense lawyer’s viewpoint waiting for an assistant State’s attorney to arrive before going in to see his client. When they enter the room the story goes into the woman’s viewpoint as she sits at her bedroom window watching children playing outside. She get increasingly agitated with the men being in her bedroom and wishes her husband would arrive to protect her. When the lawyers leave the room and step into the hospital corridor the story goes into the state’s attorney’s viewpoint. He is convinced the woman has killed her husband but has no knowledge of the act. He tells the defense lawyer the state will not be pursuing murder charges, as he looks back into the room at the woman, who is sitting there staring at a blank wall. I could not have told the story differently.

I also believe in showing, and not telling. He stood there, eyes wide, mouth partially open, head rocking slowly back and forth. As oppose to: He stood there confused.

I always play fair with the reader. I never pull a rabbit out of a top hat with the solution to the crime, when the reader didn’t know the protagonist owned a top hat in the first place. The reader should see everything the protagonist sees, and know everything the protagonist knows. And when the protagonist makes a wrong guess, if the reader is truly vested in the character, they’ll make the wrong guess too. As a sidebar, at some point in the story the protagonist should suspect the guilty party, dismiss the idea, and then come back at the end to prove that person is guilty after all. How about a second sidebar? When it comes to a solution, I generally have a part when the protagonist sees or hears something that brings the whole case into focus. Keeping in mind what I’ve said earlier, I always let the reader see and hear the same thing. But, it’s the part in the story where the protagonist essentially tells the reader what he or she has seen or heard has made a connection with something that went on earlier in the story, and the implied statement is, “Okay, I’ve figured it out, have you?”

I think most people read PI and detective fiction to match their skills with the story’s main character. I know I feel a sense of accomplishment when I can pick out the bad guy before the detective does. But, I’m absolutely overjoyed when the detective gets there before I do and points out all the clues that were right there for me to see, but that I’d missed.

As for my stories that don’t feature a PI or police detective, or some character that gets put into a position where he has to act like one, I go for the twist ending. For me it’s a matter of directing the story to its obvious conclusion, and then do an about face at the end. And hopefully the reader will say I didn’t see it coming, but now that it has, it makes sense.

That’s it. I don’t believe I’ve left anything out. Thanks for taking the time to read this.

Posted in Books, Characters, Editing, Ellery Queen, Fiction, Genre, Guest, Publishing, Setting, Story, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

LET’S LEAVE THESE THINGS TO THE FICTION WRITERS

Conspiracy theories seem tailor-made for fiction. They contain all the elements a great adventure story calls for: a David and Goliath-like contest (between members of the powerful cabal and the unempowered men or women who oppose them); life-or-death scenarios (as the underdogs attempt to foil organizations that will stop at nothing to protect their interests); a stark contrast between the good and evil players in the drama; and a maze of half-truths, lies, and deceptions that must be successfully identified as misdirections in order for the heroes to arrive at the truth.

It should all make for a good yarn, and yet I don’t end up buying as many conspiracy stories as I’d expect to. Not that there aren’t many excellent novels and stories belonging to the category. My favorite at novel length is The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton, and EQMM’s contributor Brendan DuBois excels at this type of thriller at short-story length, as does James Powell (in a much more humorous vein) with his stories involving the evil Dr. Ludwig Fong. But those are the good ones. The problem I have with many of the conspiracy stories I see is that they assume a cohesiveness among, and competence on the part of, the evildoers that’s not very believable to me. And that’s fine as long as the reader isn’t expected to take it all too seriously. But a lot of these types of stories take themselves very seriously indeed.

It’s possible, though, that I’ve simply become a little biased against the conspiracy story by the growing number of people in the real world who see evidence of vast worldwide conspiracies of one sort or another in every turn in the economy, change in social values, or personal misfortune. Conspiracy theories may make good fiction, but they’re generally lousy—and even dangerous—explanations for actual events. When I first posted on this subject several years ago, nine members of the Michigan Christian militia called “Hutaree” had just been arrested, accused of planning to kill a police officer and use his funeral as an opportunity for a terrorist bomb attack. The case was never proved and, as far as I know, the organization continues to exist, inspired by the millenialist belief that Obama is the Anti-Christ and head of a vast conspiracy involving law enforcement and an attempt to create a new totalitarian world order. This particular conspiracy theory might seem easy to deride, but how different is it really from some of the conspiracy theories surrounding the JKF assassination? Take away the Anti-Christ element and belief in a vast conspiracy involving law enforcement sounds a lot like the belief many have held that the C.I.A. and the Secret Service conspired in the Kennedy assassination. My point is that many perfectly rational people believe in conspiracy theories for which there is no hard evidence at all. It almost seems as if the attractiveness these sorts of explanations of events have is hardwired in the human brain.

I turned CNN on last week and one of the myriad theories I heard offered for what had happened to the missing Malaysian Airlines jet was that Muslim radicals had taken it over with the aim of flying it to Somalia (the implication being they might have succeeded and landed there). A map was displayed showing how it could have been done—and it looked consistent with the scanty evidence that existed to that point pinning down the plane’s location. This particular theory was offered by a professor at a respected college, someone in whom I’d have expected scholarly training to have created the habit of sticking to evidence. I’m certainly not qualified to comment on whatever science (or social science) might support such an idea, but really, it seemed to me he was getting way ahead of himself. I’m reminded here of the famous line from Sherlock Holmes: ”How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” I think we can add, while remaining true to Holmes, that before entertaining the far-fetched, improbable solution, the rational thing to do is surely first to eliminate—in Holmesian terms show to be “impossible”—the more likely and commonplace scenarios. Only then must we turn to—and perhaps accept as true—the improbable.

Yet as I watched the various commentators on CNN weigh in on the missing airplane I couldn’t help feeling that—the outcome in regard to loss of life being equal—many of the talking heads would rather one of the more colorful theories involving intricate planning and conspiracy, like a Somalia landing, turned out to be true. There was an air of suppressed excitement about it all and again, it struck me that people are naturally gripped by (and inclined to believe in) the improbable, complex schemes of which conspiracy theories are made—even when they know that there are very few proven instances of successful real-life large-scale conspiracies.

In fiction, for the sheer fun of it, I’ll go along with an author and pretend to believe in secret cabals whose members are capable of acting in perfect concert, with superhuman efficiency and unwavering purpose, over vast stretches of time and space. But in real-life the type of example we have of a proven conspiracy is Watergate—and what an incompetent conspiracy that was—political slush-fund cash found on the burglars, self-taping of incriminating conversations, and all.

Of course, Islamic terrorists have been tragically successful in some of their conspiracies over the past couple of decades. That might seem a strong counter-example to what I’m arguing. And it would be, except that terrorists are rarely secretive about their purposes. They often put out manifestos of their aims and quickly claim credit once a goal has been achieved. And one of the things that intrigues the human mind about a conspiracy, I believe, is the secretiveness involved not only in regard to a particular imminent event, but in terms of who is behind it and what their motives are. Conspiracy is better left to fiction because in real life human beings are just not very good at concealing such fundamental things about themselves for long periods of time, and in conjunction with others—at least, that’s how I see it.

It’s interesting that the conspiracy thriller, one of whose emotional elements is paranoia, has historically not only reflected its times (becoming popular during the seventies, for instance, perhaps as a result of Watergate) but may have a role in reinforcing the paranoia of an era. At least, some of those who have studied groups such as Hutaree have argued that there is a correlation between the popularity of conspiracy fiction and the spread of the kinds of beliefs that animate such groups—especially the belief that secret forces are working to create a new world order.

I said at the beginning of this post that I’d expect to be buying more conspiracy thrillers than I actually do, given the suspenseful elements of which they’re necessarily composed. Since I’m not a believer in real-life conspiracy theories, I think one of the keys to reaching me with fiction on that theme is to employ a bit of humor—write it with at least a little bit of tongue in cheek. But I will not offer that as a hard and fast rule, because I sometimes buy perfectly serious conspiracy stories, and let’s face it, a really good writer can make even a sceptic believe in his or her story.—Janet Hutchings

Posted in Editing, Fiction, History, Politics, Story, Thrillers, Writers, Writing | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

“It Don’t Come Easy” (by Greg Herren)

Greg Herren is not the first award-winning novelist who’s told EQMM that he finds the short story a more difficult literary form than the novel. Yet he has managed to add some short stories to a publication list that includes twenty-seven novels (under his own name and various pseudonyms). Two of those short stories were for EQMM, the most recent the upcoming (September/October 2014) “The E-Mail Always Pings Twice.” Greg’s most recent novel, Baton Rouge Bingo, is a Lambda Award finalist and the sixth in the Scotty Bradley adventure series. His most recent YA novel, Lake Thirteen, won a silver medal from the Independent Press Moonbeam Awards for Outstanding Young Adult Mystery/Horror. His many fans have reason to be glad that he didn’t permanently put down his pen after the distressing short-story writing experience he relates in this post.—Janet Hutchings

Writing short stories has never come easily for me.

Every writing course I took during the tragedy also known as my college career insisted that the road to becoming a successful writer lay through writing short stories. A small magazine publication here, a small literary magazine there, and we would slowly build careers as authors. Before long our reputations would grow, and then, and only then, would we get the opportunity to write novels. Short stories were simply tools to perfect use of language, dialogue, character, setting, and scene. The message being sent by my instructors was simple: “All great writers start by writing short stories, and no one can ever start out by writing books.”

This was hard for me, because I never envisioned myself as a writer of short stories. Growing up, I didn’t read short stories—I read novels. Occasionally, I would be required to read a short story for an English class, usually something like “The Minister’s Black Veil” or “The Lady or the Tiger?” Some of the stories I enjoyed, but for the most part, I didn’t really see the point to short fiction. I liked to read novels, and that was what I wanted to write.

I took a fiction-writing course my sophomore year in college. My professor was an avid Henry James scholar. His idea of teaching us how to write is something that still puzzles me to this day: he had us read Henry James’s short stories and try to emulate him. (To this day, I fail to see the point of trying to write like another writer; surely the most important thing for a writer is to develop one’s own voice?) After turning in our first stories, we had to go see him during his office hours to discuss them with him and get feedback. I was pretty confident when I went in to see him; hadn’t my high school teacher waxed rhapsodic about my talent?

I left his office seriously shaken. In a five-minute meeting, all he said was that my story was “horrendous and trite,” my characters “cardboard and unrealistic,” and my dialogue rang “completely false.” As I continued to shrink into my chair, he concluded, “Just turn in your stories, and I will give you a C. No sense failing you because you have no talent.” At this point, I mumbled something about having always dreamed of being a writer.

“Find another dream,” he said with a kindly, condescending smile, “because you’ll never be a writer.”

It took me years to get over that meeting.

As a direct result of that class, I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with short stories. I love to read them, hate to write them. It always astonishes people when I tell them I’d rather write a novel than a short story; I mentioned this on Facebook the other day and another writer commented, with a smiley-face emoticon, you do know you live in opposite world, don’t you?

Short stories are hard to write for me, and I get a much bigger thrill out of selling one than I do selling a novel (and yes, I know that’s weird). I’ve tried for years to diagnose why I have so much trouble writing short stories: is it hard for me to edit myself down to meet the length restrictions? Is it because that horrible professor still lives somewhere in my subconscious, chipping away at my confidence? Or am I simply missing the short story gene?

For many years, if I wrote a good story it was purely an accident or pure luck; my mind simply couldn’t wrap itself around the concept of beginning-middle-end that all of my writing instructors over the years kept pounding into our heads (after that first horrible experience, I bounced around majors and colleges, and would up taking fiction writing courses three more times with more success); it is something I still struggle with when writing a story to this day. I can do character, I can do dialogue and setting and scene and mood—but the plot? YIKES! Nine times out of ten, when I think I have a great plot for a short story, I start writing and the plot starts growing . . . next thing I know, I have an idea for a novel (my novel Bourbon Street Blues actually started as a short story; it happens more times than I’d like to admit).

I have well over a hundred short stories in files that I’ve never finished because I didn’t know how to properly end them.

Case in point: I am currently writing two short stories, called “The Ditch” and “The Scent of Lilacs in the Rain.” One is for a submission call for Halloween stories, the other is a story that’s been festering in my head for over twenty years and I am determined to finally get it written. (I wrote a really bad fifteen hundred word version about twenty years ago; recently I decided to take a stab at turning it into something.) I did manage to finish a first draft of “The Ditch” but am struggling with the other story. The deadline for submissions for the Halloween story is in a few days, and I doubt very seriously that I am going to manage to get it into the kind of shape where I’d feel comfortable letting someone else read it—and soon enough I have to get to work on my next novel.

But I do love reading short stories, and I keep trying to write them.

Maybe someday I’ll get this figured out.

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“Barcelona Transfer” (by Peter Bush)

Since the debut of our Passport to Crime department in 2003, EQMM has been regularly featuring translated crime fiction. In that time, we’ve been pleased to publish the work of a number of talented translators, and we’ve discovered, through them, how creative translation can be—and how skilled the translator must be as a writer. Peter Bush has been translating for us the stories of his wife, Catalan crime writer Teresa Solana, the most recent of which, “The Importance of Family Bonds,” will appear in our September/October issue. His work in the field of crime fiction also includes the translations of five Mario Conde thrillers by Leonardo Padura and Teresa Solana’s three Martínez brothers satirical noir novels. He will be in the U.S. starting March 17th to help launch his translation of Josep Pla’s twentieth-century Catalan masterpiece, The Gray Notebook. —Janet Hutchings

When I met Teresa Solana in a castle in Budmerice, Slovakia, I never imagined that within a few years, I’d be living with a woman who liked to kill—if only on paper. I directed the British Centre for Literary Translation in Norwich and Teresa was director of the Spanish Translators’ House in Tarazona. We were in the castle with colleagues from Europe to plan joint activities and the perennial assault on the EC Cultural Funding program. A voluble Russian dramatist and his entourage joined us at the barbecue by the bonfire and pursued me around the oak trees waving a manuscript of a play already translated into English. I never did find a stage for his drama, but soon we had shifted to Barcelona, quixotically resigning our full-time posts, to return to the life of the freelance translator. Teresa was about to give birth to our daughter and we could no longer live between two countries. In the run up to the big change she translated a French philosopher’s take on Plotinus and an American tome on how to deal with cancer, variety being the spice in a freelancer’s life.

Diaper-changing and breast-feeding were interspersed not by bouts of postnatal depression but by hours on the computer. Teresa had written at least three novels and a couple of short stories that I’d seen, narratives that had otherwise never shifted from her desk drawer: a family saga about a fruit and veggie seller near the market of Sant Antoni in central Barcelona, the tale of a girl working at a department-store check-out till that lurched into disquisitions on Homer’s Iliad. . . . Nothing to prepare me for Un crim imperfecte (A Not So Perfect Crime) that I was soon reading. In the three years I’d known her, I’d glimpsed no sign of any interest in noir, apart from the volumes of Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle resting on the shelves in her parents’ home. Borja and Eduard, her twin detectives, were thus born in Catalan, Teresa’s mother-tongue, and I insisted she take the book to Carmen Balcells who soon sold rights to Catalan, English, French, German and Italian publishers. So the translator would be translated, into Spanish by herself and into English by me.

Translating your wife has its advantages (I’ve yet to encounter any disadvantages). Before you ever get a contract, you have seen the novel come into shape, from first ideas and chapters to final revisions: they have been the subject of table-talk. All fiction has a very personal side, words, incidents and characters with specific resonances that are often lost on the reader and some of these I can pick up in Teresa’s fiction.

I begin when she has already translated the novel into Spanish. In the process she makes frequent changes, particularly in dialogue, because what works—wordplay and humor, especially—in Catalan doesn’t necessarily work in Spanish, so I have the advantage of being able to see these changes when I compare her two versions at a final stage in revising mine.

I’m currently translating a short story, “A Death in Barcelona”, by Josep Pla, about a death from typhoid in a boarding house. The story has an aura of mystery mixed with comedy in the most drab of places as the lodgers react to the death. It’s clear that some of the characters’ names have a symbolic import. The landlady, Esperanza Paradís, and later her pregnant daughter, is courted by three penniless boarders. Can I assume that my American readers will get the joke about their particular hopes of paradise? Maybe I can. But what about the two Swiss men who behave as orderly Swiss watch sellers should, except when they are drunkenly playing their violins in the early hours of Sunday morning. One goes by the name of Bransom and the other Pickel. Now is this Pla having a joke, naming his characters after Branston Pickle the famous English relish? I think it probably is—Pla had been in London, Leeds, and elsewhere and written about the peculiar eating habits of the English. I can again imagine that my readers will pick up the reference. But then why the spelling changes? Is this part of the fun—Pickel sounds more Swiss—or mistakes by Pla or his editor/typesetter? I feel it is part of the fun, so they can stay. Then what about the characters called Verdaguer and Albert, the surnames of two well-known Catalan writers? Is that a coincidence? Or aren’t they just common Catalan surnames? Unlikely, given Pla’s attention to detail, despite his professions of artlessness. . . . All considerations and choices in the everyday life of a literary translator! Here do I have any choice but to let the references ride? Footnotes are unwieldy and are not fun. Could I introduce something explanatory (but humorous) into the text? After all, the narrator is apparently the writer himself as student. Translators can do that kind of thing. Oh, let it ride! What I can’t do, is ask my dead author. Maybe my editor will have an opinion.

Meanwhile with Teresa, we can mull such matters over with the help of a glass of Rioja and a plate of jamón serrano . . .

Take her story “The First (Pre-historical) Serial Killers” where cavemen and women suffer a spate of killings. Who is wielding the club? The story has its Solanaesque comic twists and anachronisms with references to Sherlock and Sigmund and all the characters are named after medieval Catalan royalty. Simple translation of the latter might have been the answer. After all, Wilfred the Hairy would go down well, but not all are equally amusing and the inevitable crop of Berenguers (even another Verdaguer) wouldn’t mean much in Ohio. So I decided to move the story to England and name the characters and places after English royals and towns—Harry, Charles, Elizabeth, Philip, cannibals from Canterbury etc—and I even did an American trial run with Benjamin and Abraham but then decided that the English royals are always good for a laugh in the US. Did I consult the writer? Yes, I did and she agreed. In any case, translators should never be too reverential towards their authors . . .

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“Solving for Sherlock Holmes” (by Dana Cameron)

Readers of Dana Cameron’s Anna Hoyt stories for EQMM know that this Agatha, Anthony, and Macavity Award-winning author, who is also an archaeologist, has a special interest in historical fiction. In fact, even when her chosen setting isn’t historical, she’ll often mix in a bit of history—as in her November 2012 EQMM story “Mischief in Mesopotamia,” in which her series character Emma Fielding, vacationing in Turkey, encounters mystery related to ancient artifacts. But Dana’s work isn’t restricted to historical, traditional, or noir mysteries (all of which she writes). She has also established herself in the urban-fantasy genre with her Fangborn series, which has new entries at both novel and short-story length coming in April (see the novel Pack of Strays from 47North and the story “The God’s Games” in Games Creatures Play). She is also a contributor to the upcoming anthology Dead But Not Forgotten, whose stories all have their genesis in Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series—and in which Dana weaves a tale around the Harris character Pam Ravenscroft. Speaking of pastiches, I only just learned from the following post that Dana is now working on a pastiche featuring Sherlock Holmes—perhaps the most challenging of all characters created by another for writers to borrow and make their own. —Janet Hutchings

In the past few months, I’ve been overdosing on Sherlock Holmes, and with more than a seven-percent solution. Between attending my third Baker Street Irregulars and Friends Weekend in January, devouring the DVDs of BBC’s third season of Sherlock, preparing for a panel at Boskone entitled “Sherlock Holmes and TV,” and starting work on my own Holmesian pastiche, I’ve been wrestling with all things Sherlockian (including “baritsu”). Catching up on Elementary, rewatching Jeremy Brett, and watching Murder by Decree with Christopher Plummer and James Mason, has given me a lot to think about. Not just about Stephen Moffat’s treatment of female characters, who plays the best John Watson, or whether House is really a Holmesian show, but considering what goes into a good Sherlockian story. Does the story need to be strictly according the canon (the 56 short stories and four novels originally written by Arthur Conan Doyle) or can it contain allusions and references? Must the relationships be the same? What makes a movie or story “Holmesian?”

Most of the panelists at Boskone said a Sherlockian story absolutely requires an otherworldly, almost alien, detached Holmes with a ferocious brain. Some said you need a worthy opponent to showcase that brain. I agree with both, and suggested, as many Sherlockians do, that the friendship between Sherlock and John is what makes the stories immortal.

So far, as I’ve been working on this project, I’ve been intimidated by many things, but most especially this: How can I write a character who is Sherlock Holmes-smart if I am only Dana-smart? Sure, I used to play “deductions” as a kid, remembering the quote “you see, but you do not observe.” I used to mess with my classmates, remarking on the month of their birthdays (based on birthstone jewelry), the make of their parents’ cars (key chains with insignias), and the like. This was a lot of fun, but they were usually pretty annoyed when I told them how I did it, because it was obvious and no one likes a smartass.

But a pastiche requires more than that.

All problems can be broken down to their component parts, so I’m starting with the obvious. I know that Holmes is a collector of facts: I can make him expert in anything and everything, as long as it serves the story. But facts alone aren’t enough: I also need to ensure that there’s a good chance other characters won’t also know those facts or won’t link together the clues the way that Holmes would. I’ve also decided that it would be cheating to use tobacco ash or bee keeping or something else that’s shown up in the canon; it has to be fresh. It has to be mine.

Any Sherlock-type character has to be clever and quick. I suffer from what the French describe as l’esprit de l’escalier, meaning I only make the right connection or think of the right retort as I find myself at the bottom of the stairs, having left the party. But I have the writer’s friend—time—on my side and can take days or weeks to think up the clever part that might only take an instant in a story. Plenty of time for the spirit of the staircase to visit me.

But can I write in the character of Sherlock Holmes?

I tell myself, I wasn’t a werewolf, an 18th-century tavern owner, or a covert operative, and I managed to find ways to relate with those characters: Gerry’s idealism, Anna’s burning desire to survive, Jayne’s avenging sense of right and wrong. I can relate to the way Holmes observes people and behavior and class, even if I don’t know anything about his analysis of secret writing and ciphers. I can use the skills of my previous professional life in archaeology to create a crime scene and fill it with clues.

But it’s Sherlock Holmes

The remaining part of the puzzle seems to be in three parts.

Writing a Sherlockian pastiche is daunting to me because of the utterly iconic nature of the character. I know I can get around that by honoring the canonical details but making my take purely my own. I’m not trying to copy or improve on Conan Doyle’s creation—there’s no way I could hope to do either. I don’t want to compete with the character, merely play with the ideas he suggests.

That removes a lot of the burden right there. If I take elements I admire in the character of Holmes and expand on those, I can give them my own emphasis within the confines of the canon. For example, I’ll have to figure out my interpretation of the characters’ physical descriptions. To me, that would start with taking the various descriptions of Holmes and Watson et al, and looking through IMDB to see which actors I would cast in those parts. And then I’ll take something obscure that I do know about—perhaps the adventure will focus on a particular artifact or prehistoric earthwork—and make that part of the story. In the end, I’ll count it success if the story works as a mystery adventure and the protagonist feels like my Holmes in my world.

And then there’s the second step.

I’m going to cheat. But only in a manner of speaking, and only in the way that writers do.

Once I’ve laboriously figured out two or three serious deductions, I can add a few more that I won’t spell out. The character’s intellect will be established, but I won’t have to show the math every time, because, with any luck, I will have gained the reader’s trust. The writers of BBC’s Sherlock do this frequently: Sherlock deduces a character’s motives by listening to his story and then analyzing his clothing, bearing, etc. aloud for Watson or Lestrade. Later on, if Sherlock makes a completely wild assertion, say, deducing someone’s parentage from the state of his clothing, we accept that it is possible for him to come to that conclusion without knowing more.

The final step in solving for Sherlock Holmes is as elementary as it is important for any character: empathy. I find that no matter how neat a narrative I can construct, unless I love the characters for their flaws as well as their good points—and convince the reader of their veracity—the story just won’t work. That part will be easy.

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“The Devil Made Me Do It” (by Richard Helms)

Although he is primarily a novelist, with sixteen published books—the most recent the standalone thriller The Mojito CoastRichard Helms has made a mark in the world of short fiction too. His November 2010 EQMM story “The Gods for Vengeance Cry” won an International Thriller Award, and he’s also the winner of a Derringer Award from the Short Mystery Fiction Society. He’s the creator of the character Judd Wheeler, who stars in a third novel-length case, Older Than Goodbye, to be released later this year. His most recent story for EQMM, “Second Sight Unseen,” is coming up in our July 2014 issue. It introduces a new character,  Bowie Crapster, and already has, we’re told, a nearly completed sequel.  Given his large body of work in crime fiction, some readers may be surprised to learn that until recently the author also had an entirely different career related to crime: He was a forensic psychologist, and it’s that career and the insights he gained from it that he talks about here.—Janet Hutchings

Most of my bios begin by citing my nearly two-decade career as a forensic psychologist, as if that lends me some sort of credibility to write mystery novels and short stories.

I never intended to become a forensic psychologist. It wasn’t in my life plan at all. I actually went to graduate school because it was the height of the recession in the early 1980s, and there weren’t a lot of jobs available for a newly minted BA in psychology grad. As it happened, I had a choice. I was offered two possible paths. One was a PhD program in Public Health at the university where I received by undergrad degree. The other was a grad program in psychology in the North Carolina mountains. I eventually chose the latter, mostly because I’m basically lazy and the idea of spending a career lounging in my office doling out advice to septuagenarian blue-hairs with Generalized Anxiety Disorder held a certain appeal.

As John Lennon once said, “Life is what happens while you’re making plans.”

I got out of grad school in 1982, at the height of the Reagan-era cutbacks in social and human services. If I thought the job market was bleak in 1980, I was totally unprepared for the scorched earth that I surveyed as I hung up my cap and gown and tacked my degree to my bedroom wall. There were no jobs to be had anywhere. No cushy office. No anxious blue-hairs. Nada. I spent the first six months after getting my graduate degree working in a video store.

I did get a few interviews. The North Carolina prison system was looking for psychologists to work with inmates. Eventually, I was offered a job at a new prison in Troy, NC. All I had to do was get my letters of reference sent to the state guy in charge of prison psych services.

I dragged my heels for weeks, hoping that another job would pop up. I did get an offer from a mental health center in Caribou, Maine. I discovered that Caribou is about the farthest point north before you drop off the map and fall into Canada. The primary exports there appeared to be potatoes, broccoli, and alcoholism. I discovered that the mental health center there ran through psychologists so quickly, they had a standing help-wanted ad in the APA Monitor. I took a pass.

I finally found work in my field almost a year after finishing grad school, and in 1986 I was hired to be the clinical director in a twenty-four-bed locked facility for the most violent and dangerous teenagers in the state.

Yep. I skipped out on an adult prison job to wind up as the clinical director in a kiddie prison. Karma’s a bitch.

I was actually hired as a behavior analyst, which was sort of my specialty at the time. I walked in on the first day, and the administrative director welcomed me with open arms.

“At last!” he cried. “Our forensic psychologist has arrived!”

“Whoa!” I said. “I’m not a forensic psychologist. I’m a behavior analyst.”

“Not anymore,” he said. “We’ve rewritten your job description. Don’t worry, we’ll get you trained.”

Later that day, I attended my first sex-offender group therapy session, which was presided over by a wonderful woman who would later run the facility.

“Finally!” she said, as I walked into the room. “Our new sex- offender therapist has arrived!”

“There must be some mistake,” I argued. “I’m a forensic psychologist.”

How quickly we adjust to new titles.

I spent half of the next year working in the facility, and the other half jetting around the country to attend post-grad training sessions in forensics and sex-offender treatment. By the end of my first year there, I began to think of myself as a forensic psychologist, and that’s what I did for a living for the next seventeen years, the last decade as the court psychologist for a four-county area in North Carolina.

I retired from active practice in 2002. These days, I teach at a local community college. One of my courses is in Forensic Psychology, and all of my students know that I’m also a novelist and short-story author. Sometimes they embarrass me by bringing one of my books to class for me to autograph.

This is sort of a roundabout way of bringing up a question that one of my students posed to me in class today. We were talking about criminal profiling, and she wanted me to wax forensic on the Miranda Barbour case.

As I write this, it’s February 18th, and this case is fairly new. By the time you read this, a week or so likely will have passed. We live in a world where events spin to the tune of the twenty-four-hour news cycle, so by then we should know a lot more about this story, and I’ll either look amazingly prophetic or profoundly cynical. The good news? I’m cool with either option.

In case this is now last week’s forgotten headline, Miranda Barbour is the young woman who is accused, with her new husband, of luring a man named Troy LaFerrara to Sunbury, Pennsylvania, back in November by way of a Craigslist ad promising sexual favors for money. Once LaFerrara arrived, Barbour and her husband—a fellow named Elytte Barbour—allegedly murdered the man and left his body in an alley.

Miranda claimed in a newspaper interview that her husband wrapped a cord around LaFerrara’s neck, and she stabbed him multiple times. Her justification, she said, was that she told LaFerrara that she was actually underage, and he was still willing to have sex with her for money.

“If he would have said no, that he wasn’t going to go through with the arrangement, I would have let him go,” she said.

What makes this story truly interesting is Miranda Barbour’s statements after her arrest that she had killed more than twenty-two other people since age thirteen. Among other things, that would make her the youngest serial killer on record. She also claims to have been part of a Satanic cult in Alaska, where she became pregnant as a young teen and the cult forced her to undergo an abortion. Barbour’s mother has stated that later physical exams indicated no signs of an abortion.

“So,” my student asked in class today, “what do you think of her story?”

I told her I thought it was mostly baloney.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t doubt her admission to killing Troy LaFerrara. The rest of her tale sounds more like a bad mystery novel.

Not that there aren’t plenty of examples of murderers luring victims with online advertisements.

Kim Rossmo, a Canadian criminologist, has established four primary approaches by serial killers. Hunters actively leave their homes in search of victims, with a clearly established plan to kill someone before returning. Trollers don’t go looking for victims, but rather suddenly decide to kill when they encounter a likely victim. Poachers tend to be transient individuals who kill sporadically and opportunistically (people like Henry Lee Lucas, for instance). Finally, there are Trappers, who set out lures for likely victims, such as Craigslist ads, posts in social networks, and the like.

If we are to believe Miranda Barbour, she sounds like a typical Trapper in Rossmo’s classification system. And, if this turns out to be true, she wouldn’t be the first. One of the most famous was Richard Beasley, an Ohio street preacher who posted farmhand jobs on Craigslist, and then killed the men who responded. He wasn’t caught until one of his intended victims escaped and told the police. Beasley is awaiting execution in Ohio now.

Two issues in Miranda Barbour’s story raise red flags.

The first is her age. As I mentioned before, if her story is correct, she would be the youngest serial killer on record, male or female, as she alleges that her killing career began at age thirteen. While someone has to be the youngest, it’s difficult to imagine a set of life circumstances that would place a child on a sophisticated serial killing path at such a young age. Serial killings tend to be the product of obsessive-compulsive tendencies bound up with violent fantasies of revenge and a pseudo-Freudian defense mechanism of displacement, atypical of people barely into adolescence. While teenagers can be among the most violent of offenders, because they tend to operate mostly on emotion rather than reason, and have not yet developed the intrapsychic moral inhibitions that control behavior for most of us, they don’t tend to engage in the cyclical type of compulsive violence that we associate with serials.

The other intriguing but doubtful feature in her story is her repeated reference to her involvement in murderous Satanic cults, which she blames for most of her purported serial killings. The existence of such cults has been a romantic notion for decades.

Bill Ellis, a professor of English and American Studies at Penn State University, in an interview with Fox News, stated, “I don’t think there’s any compelling evidence that Satanic cults exist.”

He, along with other experts, say that such stories are the result of a “Satanic Panic” that began in the late 1970s, and continues—especially in evangelical and charismatic circles—to this day.

The underlying premise is always the same. Innocents are abducted by Satanic cultists and indoctrinated into an evil way of thinking that discounts human dignity and the value of life itself. In extreme cases, individuals have told stories of children being conceived and delivered for the sole purpose of being sacrificed on a Satanic altar, and the more lurid accounts claim that these murdered children are later cannibalized. As is the case with most myths, it is very difficult to disabuse true believers of their delusions, and this appears to be one of those cases.

The FBI conducted an extensive study of over 12,000 reported cases of illegal activity by supposed Satanic cults. The results of their task force study indicated no evidence whatsoever that such activity exists. Similar studies in Europe have come to the same conclusions.

So why would Miranda Barbour claim that The Devil made her do it?

At some level, it absolves her of personal responsibility. After all, if head-turning, pea-soup-ralphing demonic possession makes you kill someone, it really can’t be entirely your fault, right? It may also provide a basis for mitigating circumstances when her case eventually goes to trial. By continuing to spout delusions that have been discounted by scientists and criminologists—repeatedly!—she may begin to establish a case for diminished capacity or even an insanity plea.

And, it’s even possible that she believes her own deluded story.

According to Barbour’s own statements, none of her nearly two dozen murder victims were entirely innocent themselves. She has said that she only killed “bad people.” In that sense, she may see herself as some sort of avenging vigilante.

Barbour says she knows where all the bodies of her purported victims are buried. Between the time I write this and the time you read it, it’s possible that these bodies will surface, and I’ll have to eat the baloney I made of her allegations.

I’m betting against it, though.

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