“The Mystery of Quest” (by Michael Guillebeau)

Michael Guillebeau debuted in EQMM’s Department of First Stories in May 2011 with the story “A Study in Detail.” He has since produced two more stories for EQMM (the most recent August 2014’s “Crimes of Passion”) and a first novel, Josh Whoever, that Library Journal gave a starred review and named a Mystery Debut of the Month. The book was also a Silver Falchion Award finalist. In Michael’s fiction we always find characters driven by passion, so it was not entirely a surprise to learn, from this post, where he thinks the heart of the mystery story lies.—Janet Hutchings

My name is Michael Guillebeau and I’m a mystery writer and reader. That feels like the confession of a recovering addict or a presidential candidate, but there it is.

For the kind of mysteries I choose, the drug of choice is meaning and quest and the struggles of the trapped and battered little people in all of us. I may read the first chapter of a mystery for the hook, usually a crime or at least a wrong that must be righted. But—make no mistake about this—I read every other page in a quest for meaning that I often can’t find in the three-dimensional world. W.H. Auden said it best when he said that every detective story is a mirror image of the Quest for the Holy Grail.

Now look at that last sentence carefully, because fully understanding that sentence is essential to mystery writing. If you stop a mystery reader halfway along and ask why they’re turning the pages, they’ll talk about the hook, and tell you that they want to see who committed the murder, or see if the hero can save the damsel. But that’s the Holy Grail and not the Quest. Frankly, mystery readers don’t give a damn about the Grail, no matter what they say. Every day, we read about murders and danger and crime in the newspaper, and we stack the paper in the recycling bin and go on largely unaffected.

But the lack of connection to the meaning of these things bothers us on some level, so when we read a good mystery story, we fight to be in the Quest itself. The Grail gives the Quest purpose and focus, but the nobility of the story—and the real reason we read mystery—must be in the Quest itself, if we want a mystery story to burn a hole in our hearts.

Dashiell Hammett wrote about the search for a statue of a black bird—but what we remember is the meaning of loyalty to your partner. Robert Parker wrote so much about the meaning of friendship between Spencer and Hawk and Susan that he was often accused of forgetting the mystery entirely.

Pull out an old Travis McGee mystery and skip all the parts about the rusty knight and why he cares, or read Harry Bosch and take out just one line, “Everybody matters or nobody matters.” See if you want to read another book like that.

So, while we mystery fans want Sir Galahad to hold the Grail in his hands on the last page, we read everything up to that page for the Quest itself. We read to feel—not see, but feel—what it’s like to fight every battle and stand for something noble. Where do we find the nobility? I’d argue that for us mystery fans the nobility is in the kind of people our heroes (and ourselves, at least in our fantasy world) stand for and with.

Six hundred years ago, an old poet named Hafez wrote a poem:

The small man
Builds cages for everyone
He knows.
While the sage,
Who has to duck his head
When the moon is low,
Keeps dropping keys all night long
For the
Beautiful
Rowdy
Prisoners.

As a mystery fan, my fascination is with the rowdy, beautiful prisoners, and the rusty, self-doubting knights who drop the keys and wonder what it all means. The ones who keep on taking the next step because they’re committed to the Quest even if it hurts and everyone stands against them. We want to journey with the people who are on quests no matter the opposition, and we want to stand with the hungry and the searchers. The beautiful ones too rowdy to put up with the crap we all put up with. That’s what I’m in this for.

There’s a non-fiction book out now, called The Happiness of Pursuit. The author set out to visit every country on earth by the age of thirty-five, for only his own personal reasons. He succeeded, and met a lot of other people along the way on other quests large and small. He learned a lot about the meaning of the human need for quests. His conclusion: That finding a quest, and pursuing it, is itself a major source of satisfaction and meaning in our lives.

And so, I think, that is what we mystery writers must give our readers: a quest, large or small, which has a meaning that is personal, driving, and immediate for our characters and the readers who become them for a little while. And that is why mystery stories bring satisfaction to my life, and why I write them.

I am Michael Guillebeau, and my largest and most satisfying nonwriting quest has been the raising of three kids. Other parents who have embarked on this quest know that mine, like theirs, was filled with heroes and villains and dragons and knights in very rusty armor and long dark nights filled with self-doubt.

One of those kids is Chris Guillebeau, the author of The Happiness of Pursuit. And the story of how a once dirty-faced, strong-willed little boy turned into that man is the biggest mystery I ever hope to encounter.

Here’s Chris and his proud papa with their books.

Chris and Michael Guillebeau

Posted in Adventure, Books, Guest, Readers, Story | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“In Praise of Honkaku” (by John Pugmire)

For several years now—ever since EQMM lost its most illustrious contributor of classical mysteries, Edward D. Hoch (1930-2008)—I’ve been putting out appeals for more whodunits and “impossible crime” stories. Few writers in the U.S. or U.K. have responded with submissions that fall into that category. Currently, our most dependable contributor in that genre is the translator John Pugmire. The EQMM issue on sale now, November, contains a translation from the Japanese by Ho-Ling Wong of Norizuki Rintaro’s “The Lure of the Green Door.” It was adapted (put into smooth, literary English from a rough translation) by John Pugmire. John has been offering translations to EQMM since 2005, primarily supplying locked-room mysteries from France, which he translates himself, and more recently providing adaptations of rough translations by non-native English speakers.  So far, twelve such stories have appeared in our Passport to Crime section, and two more are in the pipeline. In 2010, John started his own publishing company, Locked Room International, and began publishing his translations of the novels of Paul Halter, the author of several of EQMM’s Passport stories and a writer often described as the successor to John Dickson Carr.  Later, he began adding novel-length translations of other authors; he tells us he is currently working on a Swedish locked-room classic. Locked Room International has so far published eleven novels, plus an omnibus of the works of Derek Smith, which drew critical acclaim. The Crimson Fog, his translation of Halter’s Le Brouillard Rouge, was named one of Publishers Weekly’s Top Mysteries of 2013. His next Paul Halter translation The Picture from the Past will be published later this year. In May 2012, John appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Miles Jupp in a Locked Room—a program exploring the type of mystery he loves. In the following post he discusses the current evolution of the form.—Janet Hutchings

I first read honkaku when I was in my teens, but I didn’t know it at the time, and it wasn’t called that then.

The book was John Dickson Carr’s He Who Whispers, one of the maestro’s most brilliant works, and I was hooked at once. I immediately bought as many of his secondhand paperbacks as I could find and afford. It was the first time I had read books that offered an intellectual challenge and an “aha” moment. They contained twisting plots, a surprising denouement and, in retrospect, fairly placed clues.

Such books are generally referred to as “Golden Age Detection,” which is a clumsy title because it refers not to the characteristics of the books themselves, but to a period of time. Nowadays, and in fact since the 1980s, there is a pithy word to describe the books: it is honkaku, which is a Japanese word meaningorthodox” or “authentic” (I prefer the former) in the sense of “fair play.” It came into being because of a revolt against the shakaiha or social school of crime fiction, which purports to reflect the nature of society and dominated Japanese detective fiction at the time.

Much of current Western crime fiction is either shakaiha or henkaku— which purports to reflect the mysteries of the human heart—or both, thus exploring both the state of society and the protagonists’ foibles, to the detriment of plots and clues. This, to my mind, is not detective fiction: It is fiction about detectives. Ruth Rendell and P.D. James are regarded as the modern “queens of detective fiction,” but they don’t write the way Agatha Christie and Christianna Brand did before them. I vividly recall reading a Henning Mankell book in which his detective seemed to spend most of his time obsessing about the number of times he urinated, but I don’t remember a single other thing about it. I think I fell asleep reading it. It was a bestseller in Europe, but was it detective fiction?

As Paul Halter, one of the few contemporary western writers specializing in honkaku, writes in 139 Pas de la Mort (139 Steps from Death): “. . . the mystery novel becomes the vehicle for a social message or for pursuing humanitarian and philosophical issues. . . . In other words, they want to change the world. By the way, there’s never any suspense about the identity of the culprit: it’s always ‘society.’”

In Japan in the 1980s there was a rebellion against such writing, led by Soji Shimada (whose The Tokyo Zodiac Murders is one of the masterpieces of honkaku) and a group of younger authors. That they succeeded in transforming Japanese detective fiction is evident from the plethora of writers practising honkaku today, the impressive sales volumes, and the prevalence of honkaku in the mangas (those graphic novels where everyone seems to be spluttering or perspiring). Which means young adults and even children are reading stories that challenge their minds. Can that be a bad thing? I know I was enraptured by such stories once I discovered them. Is there any greater literary pleasure than the moment when all the puzzling elements suddenly click into place?

Why hasn’t a similar rebellion occurred in the Anglophone world? Well, there is a handful of writers, like Paul Harding, Bill Pronzini and, potentially, Christopher Fowler and John Verdon, writing honkaku, and there is the occasional foray into the subgenre by other writers, such as Lee Child’s Running Blind, John Sandford’s Night Prey, and Adrian McKinty’s recent In the Morning I’ll Be Gone, but the most successful attempt has undoubtedly been the BBC’s TV Series Jonathan Creek. According to David Renwick, its creator, it was “. . . born of a desire to create a detective series with a populist appeal which would concern itself with the intellectual puzzle behind a crime rather than the more sensationalist ingredients that were currently in vogue.” In its prime it was attracting over seven million viewers, nearly thirty percent of the potential British audience. Yet there was no apparent attempt by literary publishers to capitalize on that success. To understand why, you need to have listened to BBC Radio 4’s May, 2012 program Miles Jupp in a Locked Room and hear a publisher who actually appeared on the program claim there was “no market for that kind of stuff”! Which must have come as a surprise to the 500,000 people who tuned in.

I firmly believe there is a yearning for intellectual stimulation and the potential readership is there, but publishers are inhibited by the attitude of academics and the vast majority of crime-fiction reviewers, who treat honkaku with disdain, without understanding it. One notable exception is Michael Dirda, who captured the attitude perfectly in his recent review of Locked Room International’s The Derek Smith Omnibus:

“By contrast, detective stories—whodunits, cozies, Golden Age puzzles—are commonly dismissed as utterly artificial and old-fashioned, mere entertainments of the most inconsequential and embarrassing sort. Who, besides spinsters, tweedy academics, and devotees of Masterpiece Mystery and Malice Domestic would bother with them?”

He continued with this insightful passage:

“In fact, like other fixed forms, such as the sonnet and the pastoral, the detective story should be judged according to the beauty and elegance of its execution. The elements may be traditional—the isolated country house, the body in the library, the commedia dell’arte company of stock characters—but their ingenious and artful combination is what creates masterpieces . . . They test our skill as readers, employing every form of misdirection in their clueing, yet at their best leave us satisfied that, had we been a little shrewder, we might have grasped the truth before the final pages.”

Robert Barnard in his perceptive A Talent to Deceive explained why the critics who sneer at Agatha Christie for not developing depth of character fail to understand the craft behind writing a successful honkaku mystery: If you are going to set a logical puzzle for your readers, you cannot enter into a deep psychological profile of any of the potential suspects, or you will either give the game away or leave the reader with a feeling of having been cheated if the suspect acts out of character. Hence the mental jujitsu whereby Christie deliberately sketched out her characters in such a manner as to allow the reader to form his or her own (inevitably wrong!) psychological portrait. In other words, academics and most literary critics make a fundamental mistake by judging honkaku novels by the standards of henkaku and shakaiha. In fact, they are contradictory and mutually exclusive.

I for one am dedicated to expanding the public’s awareness and appreciation of honkaku. My small company Locked Room International (www.lockedroominternational.com or www.mylri.com) has been publishing my own translations of Paul Halter’s and other French writers’ mysteries since 2010 and I intend to expand its scope by republishing forgotten classics from French, English, Swedish, and other sources. I’m working with Shimada-san himself on an anthology of Japanese short stories and with another friend on an anthology of stories from all over the world. And I fully intend to continue submitting honkaku stories to EQMM in the future.

Posted in Books, Characters, Classic Mystery, Fiction, Genre, Guest, International, Writers | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Wrestling with the ‘S’ Word” (by Jim Allyn)

In mystery circles, and especially EQMM circles, you can’t say the name Allyn without everyone assuming you mean Doug Allyn, the multiple Edgar Allan Poe Award winner and record-holding EQMM Readers Award winner who for nearly thirty years has stood at the pinnacle of accomplishment in the field of short fiction. But Doug has an extraordinarily talented younger brother, Jim, who has contributed half a dozen stories to EQMM over the past decade. Jim’s high-powered career in marketing never left him much time for fiction, but he has recently transitioned to writing full time, and he’s currently at work on a novel. His November 2013 EQMM story, “Princess Anne,” will appear in the next volume of Best American Mystery Stories (October 2014), and his upcoming story for us, “Fall of a Fantasy,” is slated for the Black Mask department of our February 2015 issue. Readers who are not yet familiar with Jim’s work won’t want to miss those opportunities to discover him, and here’s a tip for any book editors reading this: The novel Jim is working on is an expansion of the hard-hitting, emotionally charged “Fall of a Fantasy.” My guess is, it’s going to be good.—Janet Hutchings

When I first started submitting crime fiction I was told that my stories were too sentimental. I was told that if I toughened them up, they would be marketable. I did, and they were. I’ve paid close attention to the “S” word ever since. If it’s handled well, it’s a dance. Lovely to watch. Satisfying and moving. If done wrong, it’s amateurish—awkward, potentially comical, and embarrassing.

Robert Frost wrote, “A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness.”

Think that’s true for mysteries and crime fiction generally, so much weight on the emotional content? Think it’s true for those who work in the hardboiled and noir genres where emotional distance is the standard and a lump in the tough detective’s throat has to be a sandwich? Or are a unique plot, a unique character, an angle, a twist the first orders of business, with the emotional base being pretty thin?

What Frost wrote about emotional inspiration is true for me most of the time. My “ideas” for stories are less ideas than emotional situations. I typically grow my stories from one or two emotionally charged scenes. If the story doesn’t have emotional roots, not only do I not want to do it, I can’t do it. Just can’t get into it. More often than not, then, I’m dealing with the “S” word from the get-go.

For my purposes, “sentimentality” refers to emotional responses inappropriate to a particular situation—too bland, too hysterical, too whatever for that character. Because some characters are genetically bland or genetically hysterical or genetically too whatever, it’s okay if they go over the top according to their particular trait. In general, though, the description “sentimental tale” is not a good one. Oscar Wilde once said that no one could read about the death of Little Nell in Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop without dissolving into tears . . . of laughter. That’s the big threat. That you’ll unintentionally turn something touching into something ludicrous.

In a 2013 New Yorker article entitled “Home Movies,” Margaret Talbot writes about her interview with Alexander Payne, who directed and co-wrote the screenplay for The Descendants, a film packed with emotions of every stripe. Talbot quotes Payne as saying, “I’m deathly afraid of being too sentimental.” Payne then cites a letter from Chekhov in which he says about another’s writing, “It’s too damn sentimental. If you want emotional effects, you have to place them against a cold background, so they stand out in relief.”

Good advice. Deciding whether a story has too much heart or too little is not easy. Clearly it’s a balancing act. Mining powerful emotions is key to powerful, memorable writing. Fortunately, my favorite part of writing involves wrestling with emotionally charged scenes and themes. I have a suggestion in this regard: Don’t worry about it until you have to, and that’s very late in the game, perhaps even the final edit. Sometimes emotion is the engine. Let it drive the story. Plot elements will rise up. Note them, but stay with the emotional push.

I very deliberately don’t guard against sentimentality when writing a first draft. No barriers, no fences, let it all hang out. Writers know better than most that from day one we all live in an idiopathic cloud of emotion. We breathe it in. We breathe it out. It goes where we go. It rules our dreams. So if there’s an emotional hue for the story, I try to let it come out naturally. If it’s sloppy syrup, I don’t care. It’s easier to edit and synthesize from sloppy syrup than it is to edit and synthesize from a blank page and amidst the debris you may have written something fine. After all, it’s your eyes only until you decide otherwise, so why blush?

When I get serious about editing, it’s time to be hard. Time to look for ways to be mean, to be cold. Excessiveness is the big risk, just plain laying it on too thick. Overcook and here come the belly laughs. After all, “hardboiled” is a genre. “Soft-boiled” isn’t. For me, it’s easy to be hard. But that doesn’t mean it’s always the best way to go. Am I after “bittersweet” or just “bitter?” To warm things up I lean toward an occasional poetic indulgence, toward a certain imagined beauty. It’s not really definable but often I develop a feel for what it is I’m after and can find it inside the pages of my raw sentimental tripe. A couple of lines salvaged from a whole page of copy is not unusual and those lines may be critical. I’m constantly amazed by how carving out copy helps a story. This is harder than it sounds because I tend to exaggerate the value of the pages I’ve filled. Literary gold, of course. “Less is more” works better for actors, but it also works for writers. Talking about a script she didn’t like, the actress Joan Allen said, “You can read it, but you can’t say it.” I read questionable copy aloud. Not only does it help the flow, overly sentimental copy will stick in my throat. It will make me cringe or make me laugh. If I can’t say it comfortably, I go back to work.

Unless I’m fortunate and can write the story quickly, which rarely happens, the emotional connection and current is difficult to maintain, especially if emotion was the starting point. When things flatten out with a story, I use music and movies to get the juices flowing again. With music, it’s very much a relaxing, meditative process. There’s always a group of tunes that seem to fit the action and the mood I’m after. This only works for the dramatic scenes. Doesn’t work for most of the story, which is just sweat and discipline. I just lay back and listen to the music, letting scenes play out in my imagination, often with new variations that I’ll jot down for review and possible use. It seems lazy but it’s actually work and it actually does work. Writing is hard. This is the fun part. Letting your imagination soar with a purpose and hopefully a meaningful result. Whether planned or spontaneous, my creative breaks from the PC always yield something.

An especially challenging factor in emotional scenes is that nothing much may be going on except talking heads. No action. That puts a premium on the writing of dialogue and describing small actions, such as facial expressions or body movements. Exemplifying this situation is a lovely bittersweet scene I like very much in the 1986 film Nothing in Common. Lasting just over a minute, the scene contains little action—just music and the expressions on the faces of the four actors. They’re obviously talking, but the dialogue is on mute. A sweaty, fit couple—Bess Armstrong and Mark von Holstein—are pushing their bicycles past a table at a busy outdoor restaurant. Sitting at the table is Armstrong’s high-flying old flame played by Tom Hanks. Armstrong spots Hanks and tries to hurry by, but he sees her and calls her back. Sitting with Hanks is his new, hot, very chic current girlfriend played by Sela Ward. Von Holstein is Armstrong’s current boyfriend—very straight, very solid-citizen, very much the nice guy every woman is afraid she’ll have to settle for. Sweaty faces, sweat-stained workout clothes as contrasted with the two sharp, slickly groomed executive types. Hanks introduces everybody and polite small talk ensues (all apparent, no dialogue). As they chat, Hanks reaches out and brushes damp dark hair away from Armstrong’s face. Despite his roving eye, it’s clear that Hanks’s fondness for Armstrong is genuine. She had been his girlfriend for years and his emotional pit stop for even more years. Also clear is that Ward and von Holstein are aware of the deep relationship that existed between Hanks and Armstrong, and that these two are unsure of where they stand and live in fear of being dumped.

As the two push on with their bikes, Hanks’s gaze follows them. They go a few steps and Armstrong stops, looks down for a moment, then looks back at Hanks, who is still watching her in a tense, awkward kind of way. This final look that passes between the two makes the scene. In her eyes you can plainly read the anger, regret, heartache that’s asking him, “How could you have ruined something so real and so wonderful?” You can see they both know it should have worked. If you’ve got one of those, it will ring a bell.

Flitting among the four faces, the camera says it all. It’s all there. All this in a little over a minute. Some 28 frames with 24 being solo head shots. I enjoy this scene because all the expressions of the four characters are captured perfectly. All unique, all perfect. Four faces with very different, readable emotional reactions to this chance meeting. It’s a good reminder that every character has feelings and all the feelings form the whole. The scene is touching because of all that came before. It’s good to be reminded of that too.

Writers don’t get to pass the responsibility for emotion to the actors, who in this instance do it wonderfully. No, the writer has to capture and convey the complex interplay of emotions. It’s especially tough for writers of crime fiction, where sentimentality can undo a story quickly and completely. Yet there are ways to do it. One way, perhaps the hardest, is to flirt with poetry . . . carefully. Consciously put the music to it . . . carefully.

Another way is to treat sentimentality like a pastel water color, letting it seep through the whole thing without warping the paper. Or come at it sideways. For example, in “Princess Anne” (EQMM, November 2013), sentimentality flows as lies from a serial killer’s lips. This psychopath is talking about how he loved and lost a little dog. A little dog whose grave he came to visit, a little dog that never existed (unbeknownst to the reader). It’s likely that anyone who ever loved an animal will identify with the sentiment expressed by this killer.

There were other ways to write this story, ways in which the grave of the little dog would have been less central. But those ways would not have allowed the mining of all the sentiment of both the family that cherished the supposed grave of the dog or the lies about it spun out by the killer.

Reviewing a plot, then, I always ask myself what part of the story touches the heart, and is there more—or less—that should be done with it.

Posted in Characters, Editing, Fiction, Guest, Publishing, Writers, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

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

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

267 Broadway

267 Broadway

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

The view across Broadway: City Hall Park

The view across Broadway: City Hall Park

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

Mary Grant

Mary Grant

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

Deanna McLafferty

Deanna McLafferty

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

From the reference room

From the reference room

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

AHMM's dwindling hard-copy slush pile.

AHMM‘s dwindling hard-copy slush pile.

Paper manuscripts in Linda's home office.

Paper manuscripts in Linda’s home office.

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

EQ cards

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

EQMM back-issues archive.

EQMM back-issue archives.

AHMM back-issues archive.

AHMM back-issue archives.

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

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

“Gun Culture” (by Scott Mackay)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You pause.

You sigh once again at the blogosphere.

Let me explain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

photo by Joanie Mackay

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

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

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

We climbed glaciers where the crevasses were man-eaters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For The American Magazine by Stan Hunt, June 1949

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh! Here’s that recipe:

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

For FOUR Individualists

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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