What the Mystery Genre Gets Right by W.W. Mauck

W.W. Mauck made his fiction debut in the Department of First Stories of EQMM’s November/December 2022 issue with the story “A Ghost for Marcy’s Garden.” In case you missed the story when the issue came out, the author recorded it for our November 1, 2022 podcast, which you can find here: link. In this post, he talks about what attracted him to the mystery genre. To illustrate his interesting observations about the form, he discusses Anne Swardson’s story “Uncaged,” from EQMM’s September/October 2022 issue. If you have not yet had a chance to read that story, we’d like to warn you to stop reading this post when you reach the point at which the story is introduced. Full plot details are revealed! —Janet Hutchings

I admit, the Mystery Genre wasn’t my first love. Like a lot of people, I grew up reading what interested me, and as a ten-year-old boy whose favorite cartoon was The Hobbit, I was naturally interested in fantasy and science fiction. Give me Lord of the Rings, the Ender’s Game saga, anything Harry Potter, and I was a happy kid.

Full stop.

Then I got older, grew some atrociously large, red sideburns, and my tastes became more complicated. Not to undermine the complexities hidden in fantasy and science fiction—there are plenty, obviously—but what I’m really talking about here is the satisfaction you have when your expectations are at once subverted and satisfied.

A number of devices fall into this category—twists, reversals, all forms irony, Chekhov’s gun and its many variations.

Yet only one word captures everything, and that word is the “reveal.”

Like in a mystery (or thriller, depending on the context):

Killer gets a call. It’s the police. He expects the call has something to do with his missing co-worker, as his co-worker’s body is lying on the garage table in front of him. Instead, the police tell him it’s about the stolen car he never reported. They towed it last Friday, the same day the co-worker was seen getting snatched outside her apartment. Since the co-worker’s residence and the tow-site are on opposite sides of town, the killer’s situation has now improved. He can make up any semi-plausible excuse, then use that excuse as his alibi, which will keep him off the police’s radar.

Naturally, further implications can be explored here, such as the next reveal, when, say, one of Chicago’s most intrepid police officers discovers the hoodlums responsible for stealing the car. But I think you get the point.

A suggested cause and effect. Behind the effect is a suggested cause that leads the killer and/or the audience to believe the police have found him out. The information that is then revealed at once subverts that expectation and satisfies the chain of events in a clear and logical way. Not to mention the irony, which is in itself a form of revelation, as the audience is brought in on the more-or-less ominous joke—to the killer, at least—that the police are speaking to the killer and yet are so very, very far away from understanding he is, in fact, the killer.

So, that’s one example. Situational irony, with the reveal nested in the information flow given to the characters and the audience.

(On a meta note, another reveal could be where I now reveal the name of the story/and or movie from which I’m pulling this example; that’d be cool, but I’m afraid it’s just whole-cloth).

Reveals aren’t only in mysteries; they’re in everything.

You see it in the unmasking of character motivation, character identity—think Star Wars, Darth Vader, and you’re on the right track—and especially in world-building.

But here’s what I’m getting at.

Having a good reveal is an important part of storytelling that often goes overlooked, in everything but mysteries.

In mysteries, stories live and die by reveals. The set-up can start anywhere, while the plot generally follows the same line: a question is raised, usually about a crime or a body—whodunit, howdunit, your typical suspects—and at the end the answer is revealed.

One might even call this event The Big Reveal.

And I love it, because there’s just no compromise.

While fantasy and science fiction can often get away with having poor reveals and remain solid stories, mysteries seldom can, which in my opinion makes for a better experience.

Think back to the last five books or short stories you’ve read and ask yourself which ones left you feeling most fulfilled. Then, afterward, if they were mysteries, ask yourself if they subverted your expectations in some way, gave you what you wanted, but differently.

I’d bet my bottom-dollar bill that they all did, because chances are, you wouldn’t have recalled those stories if they didn’t in the first place.

Still don’t believe me?

Check out the September-October issue of EQMM. (Spoiler Alert.)

In it, you’ll find the compelling story “Uncaged” by Anne Swardson. The premise is simple. As Leo Tolstoy once said, “All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.” In “Uncaged” it’s the second: set in Paris, just after the Occupation, a Henri Racine moves next door to the POV character, a twelve-year-old girl, and her family. At first, he seems a little creepy, licking his lips as he privately agrees to the twelve-year-old’s proposed tour-slash-jaunt into town. And never mind that he never asks her for her name, but merely refers to her as mademoiselle, which is in fact the only name we, the audience, are given.

But Mr. Racine’s ostensible creepiness is just a red herring. He travels with a canary, locked up in a small bird cage, and when young mademoiselle asks why, we learn some about his job and motivation.

“I find bad people,” he says. So obviously he can’t be all that creepy.

But here’s the rub. Mr. Racine is meeting in secret with the family housekeeper, Simone, who had a son, about mademoiselle’s age, whom the Nazis murdered during the Occupation. After being questioned, Simone tells the young mademoiselle that it was mademoiselle’s father who was responsible for her son’s death. There’s even a picture of the father in uniform, with his Nazi buddies. Proof. So now the full truth of Mr. Racine’s visit is revealed: He’s a Nazi hunter, and the Nazi he’s hunting is the young girl’s father.

Damn!

We might have put that together when the girl’s mother suggested Mr. Racine might be a “Jew”—or perhaps when we learn that Mr. Racine finds bad people—but now the situation is unequivocal.

And it comes just in time for the final scene, when, after secretly freeing the canary, the young mademoiselle lures Mr. Racine to the balcony, and like she did with the bird, sets him free (metaphorically, one might add, from his obsession to hunt Nazis). And there we have it—the Big reveal, whereupon we discover that this seemingly innocent child is just as ruthless and evil as her father, even if her motivations are somewhat lightened by her desire to protect her family.

Double-damn!

Reveal-on-top-of-reveal, and that’s discounting the constant question-and-answer juggling that Anne Swardson so artfully performs throughout the story.

Could we have seen any of this coming? Maybe, but I definitely didn’t.

The point is, the most-obvious ending, where the Nazi hunter wins, is subverted in a rather ironic—there’s that word, again—way, which satisfies the reader’s desire for a logical conclusion. Because, unfortunately, the good guys don’t always win, and sometimes the greatest threat to a person really is a child’s ignorance (or in mademoiselle’s case, undeveloped empathy).

This is what the mystery genre gets right. And that’s why you’ll be hard-pressed to find a single popular mystery story that doesn’t involve some kind of reveal, where the writer turns the reader’s expectations upside-down.

Okay, okay, maybe I’m preaching to the choir here.

I’m just a guy with an undergraduate in English literature who reads and writes by day and does what amounts to data-entry by night.

I make no illusion that I’m the authority in this matter.

But it’s in this one concept that I’ve learned to love mysteries, and it’s how I’ve come to believe that reveals are the core element that makes a mystery worth reading.

And, if you’re reading this, chances are that you too have a taste for mystery, and if there’s one thing folks who love mystery don’t lack, it’s a strong understanding of twists and revelations. Because, again, it’s the lifeblood of the genre. Every story has some level of reveal in its telling—I would even argue that good reveals are essential to all good stories, from the development of the plot, all the way through to the climax—but mysteries make a point out of portraying them.

Without that unexpected answer to that single burning question, a question you may not have even known you were asking, a mystery story falls flat.

So, I haven’t lost my love for fantasy and science fiction, but I do find I’m much more inclined to pick one of those stories up if there’s a little bit of mystery involved.

Though I can’t place the quote right now, I once heard someone say mysteries are about looking forward and backward at the same time.

If that’s true, I believe it’s in the reveals, where this past and future converge, where the audience extracts the most meaning from a story. It’s also often where biases go to die, and where the writer attempts to lay bare a story’s most intriguing, entertaining secrets for all to see and, hopefully, to enjoy.

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The Short Story Then & Now (by Tom Tolnay)

Tom Tolnay is the author of dozens of published short stories, both literary and genre. He’s had two dozen stories published in EQMM over the years. One of his literary stories, “The Ghost of F. Scott Fitzgerald,” was a winner of the Literal Latte short story contest and was later made into a film that was shown at festivals in Hollywood, Toronto, Savannah, and Woodstock. He’s in a good position, since he straddles the literary-genre divide, to make some observations regarding it. His latest short story collection is the just-published Reading Old Books: A Farce in Two Novellas (from Atmosphere Press—Austin, Texas).  —Janet Hutchings

In his renowned 1846 essay, “The Philosophy of Composition,” Edgar Allan Poe declared: “There is a distinct limit . . . to all works of literary art—the limit of a single sitting.” If any written work is too long to be read at one sitting, he wrote, “we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression. . . . If two sittings be required, the affairs of the world interfere, and every thing like totality is at once destroyed. . . .” Poe went on to say he could find no advantage counterbalancing the loss of unity of impression.

Even before beginning to write a short story, Poe said, he knew the general route he would follow in its development, and even how the story would end. Many writers today might eschew such an operating principle. Thomas McGuane referred to how he gets to where he’s going in a story as his “long-way-around-the horn” approach. Louise Erdrich said her story “Shamengwa” circulated in her mind over several years, and that she’d lived with it so long that by the time it was published in The New Yorker she’d begun to believe it had actually happened. Regardless of how a writer gets to where she’s going in a story, not knowing initially how she will get there might be counted as one of the satisfactions of writing and reading a short story: the gradual discovery of where you’re being led as the words, like clusters of grapes, ferment and transform into wine. 

A short story defines itself anew each time one is written, even though it will share elements and attitudes with many other published stories, and even though each story is being funneled through the precincts of one class of story or another. In all genres of fiction, the opening paragraphs are merely the first steps in the writer’s journey to somewhere or other in the ever-expanding spectrum of experience, with various approaches to craft and artistic strategy employed along the way. Of course each of these environments—each genre of fiction—is capable of shaping, narrowing, broadening, or layering the experience of the story by surrounding it with the traditions, as well as the limitations, of the genre in which the writer happens to be working. 

In a mystery story, the reader can expect a crime to be committed, often but not always (some would say preferably) murder, frequently (though not always) with the official involvement of a police detective, private eye, insurance investigator, or talented amateur sleuth in pursuit of an erratic sociopath, a career criminal, or an ordinary citizen who, beneath a law-abiding facade, is capable of the most heinous atrocities. Of course there are numerous sub-genres in the mystery/crime realm and collectively these offshoots help to broaden this genre’s terrain while continuing to respect its fundamental attributes and satisfy readers’ expectations. This “comfort zone” that the roughly defined rules of each genre create might explain in part why some readers become fiercely loyal fans of a particular genre. 

Whether or not we are willing to accept the idea, the literary short story is yet another genre with its own particular dictates. But its abiding principles don’t seem to remain quite as locked in as some would say they are in other genres. In part that may be because literary stories are subject to academic fashions more than genre stories are. There are trends in the literary field that by all appearances are set in motion not by the tastes of the reading public so much as by the editors, critics, and scholars who shepherd this more rarified realm of fiction. Because of changes in attitudes over the decades, one suspects that some “serious” stories published in the last century would not be considered “literary” by today’s arbiters: They are silently accepted as such primarily because of their place in the history of literature.

Many editors of university literary periodicals state unequivocally in their calls for submissions that they do not want to see “genre fiction” surfacing in their submission systems. Few seem willing to accommodate the idea that literary fiction is a genre in its own right, and that it often intermingles with other styles of fiction. The fact is, though, that many of the world’s greatest literary figures—Jorges Luis Borges and William Faulkner among them—successfully wrote engagingly, and seriously, in genres other than literary. And of course, while Poe is revered as a world literary figure, he is credited with having invented the detective story via stories like “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.”

Because fashions in literary stories seem to fluctuate more over time than those within other genres, the components of their inner machinery are more difficult to nail down. Or so one might conclude from stories appearing in today’s literary magazines and the few mass-circulation magazines still publishing “serious” fiction. In his blog on writing, author Nathan Bransford asked this question: “What Makes Literary Fiction Literary?” The answer to that question seems to alter periodically, and often depends upon who is answering it. Bransford approached this conundrum by separating fiction into commercial and literary and focusing on “plot.” Notwithstanding the bias against plot among some editors in the realms of academically approved fiction these days, Bransford wrote that plot exists in literary as well as commercial fiction; the difference, he said, is that plot is more difficult to detect in “serious” fiction. In commercial fiction, he continued, plot tends to lie on the surface—how a character interacts with the world around him—while in literary fiction the plot tends to unfold beneath the surface and is often more concerned with what goes on in the minds of characters than in their observable actions. 

Late in the last century a host of literary editors championed a trend wherein stories which presented a clear ending were summarily rejected; their printed fictions were much more likely to trail off into a vaguely suggestive, sometimes baffling oblivion. Randall Jarrell notoriously observed that the short stories published in The New Yorker at that time didn’t end so much as stop. While some modern literary stories do end in a straightforward manner, others seem to avoid the taint of resolution as if it were a communicable disease. Why? To some degree, one suspects, it’s because resolution simply isn’t fashionable in literary short fiction even now. Of course in some way this is a reflection of every day in life—events occur and involve us without it ever being possible to tie a conclusive knot. Occasionally years may pass before we understand, if we ever do, the true “ending” of a particular experience we have lived through. So why not in fiction as well? Besides, a brush stroke of ambiguity toward the conclusion can certainly add energy and depth to a story. 

More than a few editors in the present literary realm also appear to admire stories in which time sequences are interrupted, where flashbacks are shuffled like a deck of cards, and multiple motivations are layered on top of existential debris. Protagonists surface at different ages, disappear for a time, and reappear at other points on the psychological as well as geographical map. This predisposition for the juggling of time, location, and situation—often irregardless of whether the majority of readers will be up to the task of making sense of these shifting elements—may be the result of the contemporary literary no-no of linear fiction. But surely there should remain sufficient elbow room in the broad spectrum of respectable, serious fiction to accept writers who relate stories that are insightful and beautiful in a sequential manner. After all, don’t human beings continue to live out their lives straight ahead, one incident after another, with a beginning, a middle, and an end?

What we call “short stories” today began in an oral tradition, of course, and it’s reasonable to believe that for the most part such storytellers told their tales in a sequential manner. Raymond Carver remains high on the list of modernist short fiction writers, with his minimalist approach to tale-telling. Nevertheless, Carver confessed he was drawn toward traditional methods of storytelling: “one layer of reality unfolding and giving way to another, perhaps even richer layer; the gradual accretion of meaningful detail; dialogue that not only reveals something about character but advances the story.” While Carver avoided making all of what was going on in his own stories observable on the surface—the Iceberg Theory of fiction, where ninety percent of the substance remains underwater—he professed an affinity for the straightforward narrative in short fiction: “If the reader loses his way and his interest, for whatever reason, the story suffers and usually dies . . .” 

Another pattern that continues to surface in some literary magazines is a preference for stories in which nothing much actually happens, in which there is little in the way of action or interaction between characters outside the mind and in which the introspective narrator squats within a psychological enclosure of his own construction. And then there is “experimental” writing—a barrier that sometimes seems to be have been consciously erected against readers not willing to work hard at deciphering a story. To certain editors, it appears that the more convoluted the sentences, the more arcane the word choices, the more worthy the story. To quote Carver again, these are the kinds of stories in which “method or technique is all.” Admittedly some of these experimentalists are capable of performing remarkable linguistic acrobatics, but too often the performance ultimately lies still-born on the page. “I believe in the efficacy of the concrete word, be it noun or verb, as opposed to the abstract or arbitrary or slippery word—or phrase, or sentence . . . words that seem to slide into one another and blur the meaning.” This again from Carver who, like Hemingway, revealed much of what was going on in his fiction through omission rather than the piling on of language. 

A variety of literary fashions have come and gone since the days when fiction writers were expected to create characters who come alive on the page. That paradigm went hand-in-hand with credibility: characters who readers believe (through an author’s creative artifice) are actually living the drama within a story. Too many of the characters on the page today—from the smallest literary magazines to the most widely circulated—come across as bloodless. Could this be one of the reasons the vast majority of literary short stories today are published in periodicals that have no more than a handful of readers? Duotrope, an online database of small literary publications, estimates at least 4,700 presses are bringing out digital and/or print periodicals, many of which include short fiction in annuals, semi-annuals, tri-quarterlies, quarterlies, and “occasional periodicals.” Selling so few copies, non-funded journals often don’t make it past the first couple of published issues. By contrast, some of the longest surviving magazines publishing short fiction (EQMM, AHMM, Analog, Asimov’s, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Weird Tales, for example) are those classed as “genre”—as opposed to “literary.”

That brings us back to Poe, who was not only the father of the mystery story but one of the most famous literary writers of his time. Could part of the reason that a number of the so-called genre magazines have survived while all but the most illustrious of the literary magazines continue to go under be that genre stories have retained their focus on the reader and on leaving the reader with the kind of “unity of impression” Poe thought so important?

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It Takes a (Chinese) Village (by SJ Rozan and John Shen Yen Nee)

EQMM’s current issue (January/February 2023) contains a collaboration between Edgar, Shamus, and Anthony Award-winning writer SJ Rozan, the author of eighteen novels and more than eighty short stories, and entrepreneur, producer, former Senior Vice President at DC Comics, and former Publisher at Marvel Comics John Shen Yen Nee. John was born in Knoxville, Tennessee to a Chinese father and a Scottish-American mother, an ancestry that probably had a role in his coming up with the concept for his collaboration with SJ. I will let them tell the story of the process by which their contribution to our current issue, “The Killing of Henry Davenport,” and the novel that will follow in 2024 came about. I feel certain you won’t want to miss this intriguing new series.  —Janet Hutchings

SJ: In Nov. 2020 I got a call from my agent, Josh Getzler. He’d just spent an hour on the phone with a man named John Shen Yen Nee, who was looking for a couple of writers for collaborative projects. One project sounded perfect for me; would I talk to John? Now, this was six months into the pandemic, quite awhile pre-vaccine. I was talking to the walls. A live person with a project? Of course I’d talk to him!

What John said, in a conversation that lasted more than an hour, changed my life. We started a collaboration, which has so far resulted in the short story “The Killing of Henry Davenport” in the January EQMM, and the novel The Murder of Mr. Ma, coming in spring 2024. There’ll be more of both. The essence of John’s idea is here, in John’s words (though the conversation, as you can imagine, was wild, circling, and far-reaching).

John: Chinese Americans can be faced with a cultural double life. Many learn the history of China through stories, people, myths, and anecdotes. But non-Chinese Americans often only know China as a rival power or as an exotic faraway land.

Encountering the unfamiliar, people can try to frame it in familiar references. In relation to Chinese culture, we hear “so and so is the (insert famous comparison) of China.” Naturally, then, the very real seventh century magistrate Di Ren Jie is known in the West—when he’s known at all(—as “the Sherlock Holmes of China.” Likewise, Chinese author Lao She emerges as “the Charles Dickens of China.”

These shorthand labels create immediate comprehension, but strip away cultural context and diminish their subjects. The individual is posited as a mere Chinese shadow of a luminary Westerner. There is even an implicit sense of derivation, despite the Chinese figure often predating the comparison by an era or three.

Both Lao She and Judge Dee were real people, who lived 1200 years apart. Each is worth engaging with as more than mirrored Westerners.

Judge Dee is based on Di Ren Jie, who lived from 630-700 CE—the early Tang Dynasty—and served as a magistrate. In the West, Judge Dee was popularized by Robert van Gulik, a Dutch sinologist and diplomat. He translated classic works about Judge Dee from Chinese, and expanded the canon of Judge Dee through a series of original novels in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Fans of the mystery genre are long familiar with van Gulik’s two dozen Judge Dee titles. Recently, Hong Kong director Tsui Hark rekindled interest in Judge Dee through his Detective Dee film series.

Lao She was the pen name of Shu Qing Chun, a Manchu Chinese intellectual who navigated wildly turbulent times. Born during the Boxer Rebellion, he died in the Cultural Revolution. He was an active member of the May Fourth movement (not the Star Wars meme, but the Chinese anti-imperialist, anti-colonial movement born on May 4, 1919). In 1924, Lao She was teaching in London when he wrote Mr. Ma and Son, the story of an immigrant father and son who, at every step, wrestle with an England simultaneously gripped by fascination with Chinese cultural artifacts, and fear of a yellow peril.

Despite living centuries apart, Judge Dee and Lao She arrived in Western literature within the same twenty years.

So let’s consider for a moment Sherlock Holmes as the Judge Dee of the West, and Dr. Watson as his Lao She, and turn our attention to the “originals.”

SJ: I mean, Wowee, right? Was there any possible way I could resist this? Or any reason to?

John’s thought was to co-write a novel—the start of a series—set in London in 1924. He’d provide plot and cultural context. I’d do the actual writing. Dee and Lao would investigate, eat, dash around London, meet all kinds of Britons, and do a lot of Kung Fu fighting. (Holmes and Watson, though they appear in “Henry Davenport,” have no part in The Murder or Mr. Ma.) I loved the thing. But—London, 1924? Luckily I knew my van Gulik, but Lao She, whom I’d heard of but never read, and in whose voice, as the chronicler, the book was to be written? Plus, John’s plot involved the Chinese Labour Corps in France during WWI. The what? And Bertrand Russell. And Ezra Pound. And opium. For me to get up to speed required huge amounts of research.

Good thing I love research.

And good thing my collaborator knew just what I needed. A flood of books poured in, sent by John. History, novels, biography. A few of Lao She’s books, not easy to find in translation these days. I read like crazy.

I also told a couple of people what I was doing and they had help to offer. My cousin Dick, with his encyclopedic film knowledge, made me a list of London-set sound and silent British films of the twenties and thirties. I streamed them all. Laurie King sent a box of maps and photo books. Another friend suggested reproductions of old Sears catalogs for furniture and clothes, so I ordered some. And all on my own I discovered coloring books. Rabbit holes presented themselves right and left, and I went down all of them. I watched Season 3 of “Peaky Blinders,” and all seasons of “Frankie Drake,” and the Downton Abbey movie, for the cars and clothes.

We also needed a Kung Fu consultant. Many readers know how I hate to write action scenes and how long each one takes me; but even someone who loves it would have a hard time with an art as specialized as Kung Fu. I was complaining about this shortcoming of mine at a party to a friend, and another friend said he didn’t mean to interrupt but he’d studied Kung Fu and he thought maybe his Master, Sifu Paul Koh, would be interested in the project. So I got in touch with Sifu Koh and boy, was he! He teaches here in NYC Chinatown, and he got what we were trying to do right away. He choreographed some wonderful fights.

If we hadn’t been in the middle of a pandemic I’d have zipped off to London. But you know, it might be better that I didn’t. What’s left from 1924 is something here, another thing there, and a few more in other places—buildings and streets embedded in a changed landscape. The Depression, the Blitz, post-war redevelopment, the more recent real estate scramble . . .

The 1924 London of Dee and Lao is a London of the mind.

My mind, and John Shen Yen Nee’s.

And the minds of everyone in the village.

Thank you all.

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Groundhog’s Day (by Bill Bassman)

Bill Bassman makes his debut as a professional fiction writer with the story “Errand for a Neighbor” in our current issue, January/February 2023 (see the Department of First Stories). He’s a software engineer and a former teacher, and he tells EQMM that he’s a lifelong fan of crime fiction, although the closest he ever came to real detective work was a year as health inspector for the city of Philadelphia. Authors come to fiction writing as a result of varying impetuses; Bill explains one of the things that pushed him in that direction in this post. I hope it brings a smile to readers on this winter day. —Janet Hutchings

Groundhog Day is coming. Are you ready? No need to answer. For most of us the last two years has seemed like an unfunny remake of Groundhog Day, the movie. But, to me Groundhog Day portends another event more pertinent to fiction writers: April Fool’s Day.

At this point a critical reader is probably thinking: I don’t get it. What’s the tie-in?

First, for fiction writers every day is April Fool’s Day, and, on April Fool’s Day almost everyone has at one time or another created fiction.

Now, for the tie-in. Years back, I don’t remember what year, but it was sometime after e-mail came into common use in work environments, I woke up to a clock radio announcing that it was Groundhog Day. At least I think I did, maybe I was just remembering that scene from the movie. (Do fiction writers generally have trouble distinguishing experience from illusion?)

It was a clear cold day, with just about the right amount of fresh overnight snow for a perfect cross country ski through the cemetery down the street, but there was a problem. It was Tuesday and they hadn’t yet declared GHD a national holiday. I donned my ski togs, but stopped off at the laptop on my way out to send the following email to my boss (a Moldovan immigrant with a very austere sense of humor).

To: Vasile

            From: Bill

            Subject: Working from home today

            Hi Vasile,

            I won’t be able to make it into the office today. There’s a mob of Beavers blocking my front door. They’re holding up signs protesting Groundhog Day. I tried reasoning with them. The big brown guy (or girl) at the head of the mob was holding a sign with a crude drawing of a groundhog inside a circle with a slash through it. Under that, in sloppy red crayon, it read: What’s so Great about Groundhogs?

            In response to his placard, and in what I thought was quite a reasonable tone, I said, “Groundhogs can predict the future.”

            He showed me an imposing pair of incisors and replied, “Big f-ing deal. Ever see a groundhog build a decent dam?”

            From the rear of the mob somebody thrust up another sign saying Rodent Equality NOW. Then they all exposed chisel sharp front teeth and started chanting vulgar anti-groundhog epithets. So, I was forced to retreat inside.

            I’ll be working on that multi-threaded algorithm for handling multiple input signals for version 3.1.0.12. Call if you need me.

I hit “Send” and two things occurred to me. First, I had just told an elaborate lie in the form of a story. Second, such a fib would have been more appropriate for April Fool’s Day. Worse than that. How was I going to follow that one up when it actually was April Fool’s Day?

It turned out that last question didn’t need an answer. Vasile, it seemed, had a better sense of humor than I expected. He fired me, which set me on an entirely new path. Telling elaborate lies for a living. (Luckily, I had a good severance package.)

So, where’s the mystery? To me, it could be why the hell I felt compelled to write and, especially, to send that email. On the other hand, life is a mystery that no one has yet solved to my satisfaction.

Hope everyone has a happy new year.

Bill

P.S.

Some of the above is actually true. I think.

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Confessions of a Repentant Sesquipedalianist (by Sean McCluskey)

Sean McCluskey makes his fiction debut with the story “The Soiled Dove of Shallow Hollow” in EQMM’s current issue (January/February 2023). He tells EQMM that he is a federal agent on a fugitive task force in New York and that he appeared briefly on a reality show about it, experiences that convinced him he much prefers fictional to real crime. We’re glad he does, because his is a very original new voice in the field. In this post he talks about his struggle to cut unnecessary words—a battle most writers will have had to wage at one time or another.  —Janet Hutchings

I have a problem: I write too much.

I don’t mean prolific. That’s a problem I’d pay cash money to have. I mean literary logorrhea. I mean never using one word when five will do. I don’t want to kill my darlings—I don’t even want to hurt their feelings.

The first step is realizing you have a problem, but I never did. I had it pointed out to me in grade school. In that benighted era, book reports were handwritten, in cursive, on ruled composition paper. Ten lines per side, and you could only write on the front. Two pages long, no more, no less, fill up every line.

My friends hated it. “Two pages? What am I supposed to say about Where the Red Fern Grows for two goddam pages?” We were foulmouthed fourth graders in a Catholic school; God was always on our minds. I hated the page count, too, but for the opposite reason. How in the hell—again, Catholic school—was I supposed to cover The Mystery of Cabin Island in two measly pages? It’s 178 pages long, including illustrations, and like all Hardy Boys books it’s packed with plot twists and character development. Two pages wasn’t even enough for my warm up.

So I cheated. Our composition paper had a horizontal dotted line bisecting each text line, to help distinguish between upper and lower-case letters. I chose to misinterpret this as two separate lines, turning a pair of pages into a quartet. Still a bit cramped, but at least now I had room to dig into some subplots and focus on character traits.  Frank, dark-haired and serious, in stark contrast to the blond, impetuous Joe. Problem solved, thought I.

The nuns didn’t buy it. They’re kind of a rules-oriented bunch, and my masterful exploitation of a loophole didn’t get past them. They knew damn well how much space was on those pages. Every one of them glided around holding a ruler, after all. “If you can’t say it concisely, you don’t really understand it,” as one Bride of Christ advised me. I didn’t think pointing out that the King James Bible isn’t exactly a model of pithiness would cut much ice with her, so, like Cain when questioned by God about the whereabouts of Abel, I reluctantly conceded the point.

But in my heart, the sin still lurked. It was going to take more than a nun to forgive me my trespasses, and lead me into the light of succinct brevity. It was going to take someone a whole lot less holy.

It was going to take a writer. A genre writer.

My personal savior was Keith Thomson. He’s a novelist, non-fiction author, and painter. One of those annoying types who excels at every artistic pursuit he pursues. When I first encountered him he’d just published a spy novel, and to market it, he decided to hold a contest. An espionage-themed short story contest, in which he’d read the entries and pick the best. The winner would get a pen. A spy pen, with a built-in digital audio and video recorder. Brothers and sisters, I wanted to win that pen.

But like all the best spy stories, the contest itself had a twist: the entire entry could be no longer than two hundred words.

Forget it, I thought. That’s barely enough space for the set-up, never mind the payoff. No way I can tell a story in less space than one page of a paperback. A man’s got to know his limitations. Regretfully, I put the thought aside.

But the pen. The spy pen. I wanted it.

More than that—I needed it. For work, I told myself. I wanted to whip it out for an interview. “Don’t worry about taking notes,” I’d tell my partner. “I’ve got this. It records, audio and video.”

My partner would be incredulous. She’d have a question. Not a sensible question, like Why don’t you just record it with your cellphone? No, she’d have an admiring question: Where’d you get that awesome pen? Sharper Image? Amazon? CIA?

“I won it,” I’d say. “Writing contest—no big deal.” But here’s the thing: It would be a big deal.

The only writing is rewriting, Ernest Hemingway said. And he’s the man who—allegedly; apocryphally—wrote a whole story in six words. By that standard, 200 words felt like an expansive canvas. So I started writing. And re-writing. And re-writing the rewrites. Hacking, carving, whittling, contracting, lopping off dialogue tags entirely, and giving my characters dialogue so terse they made Abraham Lincoln (the fella who penned the 271-word Gettysburg Address) look like Edward Everett (the guy who dropped the 13,607-word bloviation that preceded the Gettysburg Address). In fact, no offense to the Great Emancipator, by Keith Thomson standards, Honest Abe was 71 words worth of long-winded. No spy pen for him.

And in the end, after all my labors, I wrestled it down to 200 words on the nose. I polished it up and fired it off. Keith Thomson read them all, rendered his verdict, and on a Wednesday in July, I clicked on an e-mail to learn my fate.

Second place.

My prize was an official KGB identification booklet, a pocket-sized hardback with a red cover, naturally. Looks authentic to me: Cyrillic letters, rough paper, and utilitarian-bordering-on-totalitarian design. Might even come with preferred parking at the Kremlin—I’ll let you know if I ever get there.

But maybe the real prize was what I learned about myself, in the tradition of all those toy commercials disguised as cartoons I wasted my misspent youth on. Maybe it was learning that the power was in me all along, and all I had to do was want something bad enough. Approval, publication, readers, or even a pen that records audio and video. Digitally, no less.

Did it work? Well, by way of example, I was told that this blog post should be 1,000 words long. You can count ‘em if you want to.

PS—Another confession: Janet Hutchings, Ellery Queen’s inimitable editor, actually told me this post could be any length I liked. I heard those words, and I felt the sin uncoil in my heart, just a little bit. But I stood strong, brothers and sisters, yes I did. Hallelujah, amen, and good night.

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HAPPY NEW YEAR FROM EQMM!

All best wishes for 2023!

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HAPPY HOLIDAYS FROM EQMM!

Warm wishes to you and yours from all of us.

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2022 EQMM READERS AWARD BALLOT DEADLINE EXTENDED!

The EQMM Readers Award ballot deadline has been extended to January 19, 2023! Find more information in the November/December 2022 issue. Make your opinion about the year’s issues and next year’s heard!

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Travel Ban (by David Dean)

David Dean made his fiction debut in EQMM in 1990 and is a two-time winner of the EQMM Readers Award. His best-known series character is Police Chief Julian Hall.  A new Dean character will debut in EQMM’s March/April 2023 issue: “alienist” Dr. Beckett Marchland. That series is set in England. The author is recently returned from the U.K.—a trip that inspired this post. His reflections on travel and fiction writing complement last week’s post by Josh Pachter, but that is entirely coincidental.  Don’t miss the newly released second collection of David Dean stories from Genius Press: The Wisdom of Serpents and Other Stories of Tragic Misunderstandings. Most of the stories were first published in EQMM and all are outstanding!  —Janet Hutchings

(David Dean at Stonehenge)

In 2020 Americans experienced a ban on international travel, as well as restrictions on the domestic version—the Covid pandemic had put the kibosh on moving freely about the cabin. It was short-lived, but unique to my experience, and I didn’t like it. I certainly understood the why and what-for of it—this was serious business with dire consequences for far too many people—but it chaffed. It made me want to travel. Such is my contrary nature. So, as a substitute, I wrote and read . . . a lot—armchair travel both active and passive.

As I was writing this blog, I went back to check on what I had written during this time and found that three out of the five stories I’d penned took place wholly, or partly, in another country. Almost everything I read was set elsewhere, as well. I didn’t actually start out to do that, it’s just what happened.

Some people love to travel; others most definitely do not. This simple declaration applies, I think, also to writers of crime fiction—some writers love to travel, while others would just as soon stay home even without a travel ban. Readers of crime stories—almost all stories for that matter—enjoy fiction that takes them places they’ve never been or, conversely, they may be familiar with, but get to see through a different lens than that of their own experience. Rather than Istanbul or Paris, it might be Buffalo or Savannah, or any other city you might call home. If you’ve never been there, you might find it a pretty interesting place to visit, if only between the pages of a book or magazine. It’s certainly going to cost a lot less money.

Some writers travel to write, plopping down anywhere that catches their fancy and drawing inspiration from their new surroundings—Hemingway and Michener come to mind. Graham Greene (one of my personal favorites) traveled, at least initially, as a foreign correspondent and later as an MI 6 agent during World War II. In his down time he churned out novels and short stories that spanned the globe. Even Agatha Christie would shake off the dust of her beloved Devonshire from time to time to visit Egypt, Iraq, and other countries wholly different from England.

My own love of travel was inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, a book that contained all the necessary ingredients to fire my childhood imagination—a boy hero, a sea voyage, pirates, treasure, murder and even a fort to defend (boys of my era often built forts of no strategic significance for the sole purpose of defending them). So you can see how the spark was struck with me. The reality I found as an adult was more sobering.

Travel today—especially by aircraft—is not the carefree experience it once was. Airports no longer beckon as gateways to comfortable aircraft, personable attendants, on-time departures and good food. I’ve been alive long enough to recall those halcyon years, if only in a vague, hazy manner, that grows dimmer with each flight I take. Even so, I do love exploring the destinations once I’ve staggered off the plane, which is the point of the journey in most cases. Yet, I don’t travel to write. I just want to go someplace different and I most certainly don’t want to spend time sitting in front of a computer screen while I’m doing it.

That doesn’t mean that I never end up writing stories inspired by impressions of where I visited and the people I observed there. That’s happened quite a bit, though I never set out to derive a story that way. Something would percolate to the surface months, or years, after my return and, unbidden, suggest itself. Hence, I have stories set in Mexico, Belize, Ireland, England, Germany, Bosnia and Michigan (it was foreign to me). The lion’s share, however, take place in New Jersey where I have spent most of my adult years.

One of the challenges of short mystery fiction is locale. The writer isn’t given many pages in which to describe the surroundings. Novelists have huge canvases to splash the setting across, while we short story writers must labor to create a Faberge Egg.

This becomes an advantage, however, when writing about some place that you’ve never been. A little, in this case, is better than too much. I’ve snuck one or two of these through without anyone becoming too annoyed, I think. It’s risky though and takes a lot of research. My story, “A Season of Night,” in the May/June 2021 issue of EQMM took place upon the frozen Arctic Sea of the 1830s. It wasn’t possible for me to travel back in time and I wasn’t going to the Arctic in any event. I love both travel and my craft, but I was stationed in Germany for three and a half years during my army days and that was enough of the cold white stuff for me, thank you very much. Fortunately, there’re tons of books and research on the subject of early polar exploration and even photos of some of the efforts.

Crime fiction is often very dependent on its sense of place and mood to be successful. There are many writers of the short story form that excel at this with their ability to create scenes imbued with ambience and authenticity. So good that we, as readers, never question whether what they’ve depicted is accurate or true. What they’ve done is good enough, probably even better than the location that inspired it. In just a few sentences the setting, the mood, and the time are deftly crafted and the reader snared and on edge.

(Bill McCormick in Iceland)

A domestic example of this is the late Paul D. Marks’ “Bunker Hill” short story series. A gifted writer and frequent contributor to EQMM, he was as adept as Raymond Chandler at establishing an LA Noir ambiance with a few strokes of the keys, often blending the Los Angeles of the forties and the present in his tales. On the international front, VS Kemanis and William Burton McCormick have made the Baltic region of Europe a more familiar place and a fascinating one for short crime fiction readers. Marilyn Todd creates evocative settings for her readers spanning two continents, with stories ranging from Greece and France, to Alaska and Arizona and doing a little time travel while she’s about it.

(V.S. Kemanis in Paris)

(Marilyn Todd in Tennesee)

My friend and fellow writer, Josh Pachter, best known perhaps for his Ellery Queen pastiches, wrote an intriguing series of stories set in Bahrain and featuring Pakistani detective Mahboob Chaudri. Josh has traveled the world teaching communications skills, among other subjects, to Americans stationed abroad and lived for nearly a year in Bahrain in the 1980s. His lodgings in this case were next door to a police barracks. With his own communication skills, and a very outgoing personality, he got to know many of the officers there and from that experience grew the Mahboob Chaudri tales. These stories are delightful, and the setting is as memorable as it is authentic.

(Josh Pachter in Spain)

R.T. Lawton, whose stories of a family involved in the opium trade in the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia, makes for both fascinating reading and armchair travel. R.T.’s knowledge of the area and its illicit drug trade are informed by his career as a Federal Law Enforcement agent—hard-earned knowledge translated into intriguing stories. He doesn’t stop there, however, but has series set in Paris, Chechnya, and other such exotic places where foreign speech prevails to this day.

(R.T. Lawton in Mexico)

Writers such as I have mentioned here all excel at not only transporting us into the uncertain and unsettling world of short crime fiction, but also to places that we’ve seldom, if ever, visited. They also all happen to write in the English language.

But there are others who do not that can also offer tantalizing glimpses into their own unique world of crime fiction. Through EQMM’s Passport To Crime department we are presented stories from writers who call India, Japan, Belgium, Bulgaria and many other nations home. Josh Pachter—a practitioner of the black art of translation—once again springs to mind. Through his efforts, and those of other literary wizards, I have been introduced to such fine writers as Anne Van Doorn of the Netherlands, the Romanian author Bogdan Hrib, and Rubem Fonseca of Brazil, to name but three who have contributed to EQMM. These writers may be setting their stories in their own familiar homelands, but it’s a brief, thrilling visit to a foreign country for the rest of us, and an introduction to a culture we may never have the chance to experience otherwise.

Travel bans and restrictions may reappear someday, as they have done for various reasons throughout history, but we, as readers and writers, need not be dismayed. So long as writers keep writing, and readers keep reading, there will never be a restriction on where we go, or when we arrive; every flight will be comfortable and on time, our destinations fascinating and peopled with interesting characters. As for the in-flight meal, you can have anything you like.

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Passport to Crime Fiction (by Josh Pachter)

Over many decades, Josh Pachter has been an invaluable contributor to EQMM as a writer, anthology editor, translator, go-to person for information on EQMM’s history, and general friend of the magazine. When I heard that he would be traveling and teaching mystery and crime fiction courses in Europe this fall, I asked him to do a post for this site about his classes, his adventures, and the EQMM authors he visited. I’m sure you’ll enjoy this account of his past few weeks and the many photos of people whose work you’ve seen in EQMM.  And I raise my own glass to Josh’s toast at the end. —Janet Hutchings

(Laurie and I on the way Amsterdam)

Regular readers of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and “Something is Going to Happen” may remember that I’m a big fan of golden anniversaries. (If you don’t, see “Looking Back on a Half-Century Love Affair With EQMM” and “Fifty Years After the Fair.”)

Well, this August I completed my fiftieth year in what was when I began the education business but has over time devolved into the education business, and I celebrated by retiring from my faculty position at Northern Virginia Community College’s Loudoun Campus. I was worried about making the transition from full-time teaching to not teaching, though, so I decided to ease into my retirement . . . by looking for a one-semester half-time position somewhere in Dutch-speaking Europe.

In the 1980s, when I lived for several years in Amsterdam, I translated a couple of Janwillem van de Wetering’s Grijpstra and De Gier stories for EQMM. Twenty years later, when Janet Hutchings launched the magazine’s “Passport to Crime” department, she asked me to find and translate more stories by Dutch writers, and I was happy to introduce readers to Theo Capel, René Appel, Carla Vermaat, and Tessa de Loo. In 2011, I decided to branch out a bit and Googled my way to Bavo Dhooge, a Flemish writer who in the first ten years of his career produced over sixty novels—and has since added more than forty more! Flemish and Dutch are not the same language, but they’re very similar—and, since only about two million people can read Flemish while twenty-two million read Dutch, most Flemish authors write in Dutch.

Through Bavo, I met and subsequently translated more of Flanders’ crime writers—Bob Van Laerhoven, Hilde Vandermeeren, Bram Dehouck, De Paepe & Depuydt, Pieter Aspe, Dominique Biebau—and, when Laurie and I visited Bavo in Ghent in 2015, we fell in love with the city, which is almost as charming as the much better known (and therefore much more crowded) Bruges.

(With Bavo Dhooge in Ghent)

(With Herbert De Paepe and Christa Verspeeten in Ghent)

So when the University of Ghent invited me to spend the fall of this year teaching two courses (as opposed to my usual five), I jumped at the chance. They offered to cover my airfare, give me a furnished visiting-faculty apartment, and pay me enough of an honorarium to keep me in Trappist beer and fine chocolate for the length of my stay. In return for that, I would teach a masters-level course in “Writing Short Crime Fiction” on Monday afternoons and a bachelors-level course in “Reading Short Crime Fiction” on Tuesday mornings, with about twenty students in each group. That meant I’d have a five-and-a-half-day weekend every week, which would give me plenty of time to enjoy traveling around northern Europe.

I don’t usually teach either creative writing or literature. (To be honest, I’m not really sure it’s possible to “teach” creative writing.) For the last fifty years, I’ve taught a range of communication-studies classes, mostly interpersonal communication, public speaking, and film appreciation. So I spent most of the summer figuring out how the heck I might make courses in writing and reading short crime fiction worth my students’ while.

The writing class was the easier one to develop. A couple of years ago, Dutch author René Appel and I co-edited the Amsterdam Noir anthology for Akashic Books’ “City Noir” series. (I have, by the way, translated several of René’s stories for “Passport to Crime” and one for AHMM, and we collaborated on a story called “A Woman’s Place” for EQMM.) When I pitched the idea of a Ghent Noir volume to Johnny Temple, Akashic’s publisher, he agreed that he would in principle be interested in a Ghent addition to the series, so I structured my writing class around the idea that each of my twenty students would spend the semester writing a crime story set somewhere within the Ghent city limits, with the five best stories forming the core of Ghent Noir. And, if there turned out to be more than five worthy stories, I could propose the others to Janet as possibilities for “Passport.”

(The Begijnhof, the setting for “A Woman’s Place,” which Rene and I co-wrote [EQMM Sep/Oct 2017)

For the reading class, I put together a PDF file divided into ten chapters, one per week of the semester. Chapter topics included “The Origins of Short Crime Fiction” (Poe, Conan Doyle, Chesterton), “The Golden Age—The Ladies” (Christie, Sayers, Allingham), “The Golden Age—The Gentlemen” (Queen, Carr, Boucher), “Private Eyes” (Hammett, Chandler, Estleman), and so on. Many of the stories I included had to be typed from PDF sources, and I spent long days at my keyboard transcribing them and adding footnotes explaining unfamiliar Americanisms and Britishisms to the file’s more than nine hundred pages.

I should note that many of the authors I included are well known to the readers of EQMM, such as Stanley Ellin, Art Taylor, Brendan Dubois, Barb Goffman, and David Dean. Because the majority of my students would be Flemish, I also included a selection of my “Passport” translations. (I actually speak Dutch and offered to teach my courses in that language, but because UG also welcomes international students, I was asked to teach in English and to limit the readings to English-language material.)

So, Laurie and I flew to Amsterdam on September 8 and spent two weeks visiting some of our favorite places in The Netherlands (where we had breakfast with René Appel) and Belgium (where we met up with Herbert De Paepe, who has contributed two stories he co-wrote with Els Depuydt and one solo story to “Passport to Crime,” and his girlfriend Christina). On the 24th, we returned our rental car, Laurie flew back to the US, and I took a train south to Ghent to begin my fall semester.

(With René Appel in Amsterdam)

My first class session was on Monday afternoon, September 26, and when I walked into the classroom I found, to my horror, not the twenty creative-writing students I’d been told to expect but fifty-four of them! Then, the next morning, my twenty-student literature class turned out to have forty-four students enrolled.

(My “Writing Short Crime Fiction” class)

(My “Reading Short Crime Fiction” class)

There go my five-day weekends, I realized. Instead of tooling down to Paris and other fun destinations, I was going to be spending a lot more time grading short-story drafts from one enormous group of students and critical reviews from another almost-as-enormous group of students than I’d been led to expect.

I did, however, go back to Amsterdam for my first five-day weekend (since my apartment wasn’t going to be available until early October) and stay with the very talented Christine Otten and her family; Christine hasn’t written a story for “Passport to Crime” yet, but she had a chillingly dark one in Amsterdam Noir. And I was also able to meet two-time EQMM contributor Anne van Doorn for a couple of cappuccinos at a sunny café in Hilversum, a pleasant town half an hour from the city.

(With Christine Otten and her husband Hans Krikke in Amsterdam-North)

(With Anne van Doorn in Hilversum)

Even after the student assignments started coming in, I was able to have some fun during my three months in Belgium. Kurt Sercu (who runs the world’s most extensive website dedicated to Ellery Queen) invited me to spend a weekend at his and his wife Martine’s beautiful home in Sijsele, a village just a few miles from Bruges, and took me on a guided walking tour of that city’s less touristed neighborhoods. Several of my colleagues and I took a “field trip” across the Belgian/Dutch border to the little town of Philippine, which is (deservedly!) famous for its mussels. Laurie came to visit me in Ghent for a couple of days in November, and then the two of us took the Eurostar to London for a long weekend (at the end of which I had a delightful lunch with EQMM contributors Paul Charles and Tom Mead). “Passport to Crime” author Dominique Biebau showed me around the charming city of Leuven. And I did a Memory Lane weekend in Nürnberg, where I lived for eight years during the 1980s and where my daughter Rebecca K. Jones (herself an EQMM contributor and, earlier this year, debut novelist) was born.

(with Kurt Sercu in Bruges)

(With Kurt and Martine on the Belgian coast)

(By the giant mussel statue in Philippine with colleagues)

(Dominique Biebau in Leuven)

(With Paul Charles and Tom Mead in London)

(With Laurie in London)

Meanwhile, three of the Flemish authors I’ve translated for EQMM guest-lectured in my classes: Els Depuydt talked with my creative-writing students, Herbert De Paepe talked with my literature students, and Bavo Dhooge visited both classes. (And I had very pleasant dinners with each of them.)

(Interviewing Els Depuydt in my writing class)

(Herbert De Paepe talking to my Reading Short Crime Fiction class)

As if all that didn’t add enough EQ flavor to my overseas adventure, it was while I was in Ghent that Crippen & Landru published The Adventures of the Puzzle Club, which collected for the first time all five of Frederic Dannay’s and Manfred B. Lee’s Puzzle Club stories plus all five of the Puzzle Club pastiches I wrote over the past few years for EQMM. The book’s byline, “by Ellery Queen and Josh Pachter,” was a mic-drop moment for me, bringing me at age seventy-one all the way back to the teenager I was in 1966, when Mary Ryan, my ninth-grade English teacher, introduced me to the pleasures of what I have since come to think of as the EQniverse, a universe of which I have been a very happy citizen for fifty-six years . . . and counting!

Speaking of counting: it’s late November as I write this blog post, and I am counting down the days until I finish my semester at the University of Ghent and return to Virginia to begin my delayed retirement.

Although I won’t be teaching for pay any more, I intend to continue offering enrichment courses in crime fiction and film history as a volunteer for the Lifelong Learning Institute of Chesterfield County and the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Richmond.

I also intend to continue editing collections of short stories, translating Flemish and Dutch authors for “Passport to Crime,” and writing new stories of my own.

I figure I’ve probably got a few thousand miles left on my tires, and I plan to keep on driving as long as my engine holds out and the scenery remains interesting.

Happy holidays, everyone! If you’ve got a beverage close at hand, I hope you’ll raise a glass and join me in wishing for peace on Earth and good will towards all creatures great and small!

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