“Three Unique Variations on the Crime Novel” (by Michael Cowgill)

Michael Cowgill makes his professional fiction debut in the Department of First Stories of the current issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine (March/April 2019), with the story “Call Me Chuckles.” His short fiction had previously appeared in two small literary publications. He also writes comics; he’s a member of the comics collective The DC Conspiracy, and his comics work has been published in the comics newspaper Magic Bullet and in the anthologies District Comics and Wild Ocean. It’s clear from this post that the Virginia author is a devoted reader of crime fiction, so it is not surprising that he has now entered our field with his own writing.—Janet Hutchings

As a reader and writer, what happens to a character usually interests me more than what happens. I do enjoy a good “what happens” story, but when a crime or detective story does both, I take notice. Here, I look at three crime novels that play with conventions to create unique variations on detective stories.

I first read Robert B. Parker’s Early Autumn (1980) the summer between eighth and ninth grade. The TV series Spenser: For Hire had stirred an interest, and I picked up paperbacks of The Promised Land and Early Autumn. While the novel doesn’t have a dense mystery, Parker pushes against typical hard-boiled detective ideas and perhaps more importantly pushes Spenser as a character, starting a string of novels through A Catskill Eagle (1985) that does the same.

It begins in an almost blatantly conventional way. An attractive divorcée walks into Spenser’s office, wiggles, and flirts, while Spenser makes wisecracks to her and the reader. Patty Giacomin’s ex-husband Mel has taken their 15-year-old son Paul and stashed him away as a salvo in their post-divorce drama. Spenser takes the case, and by the end of chapter three, with a little leg work, a few more wisecracks, and a threat or two of violence, he’s brought Paul home.

Things start to turn as he observes Paul on the ride home, then at dinner at a Chinese restaurant. Paul answers questions with shrugs, wears ill-fitting clothes, whines, and doesn’t know how to order food. As Spenser later tells his girlfriend Susan, “The kid’s never been taught how to act.” A few months later, Mel sends two thugs after Paul, and Spenser moves in to keep an eye on him. Parker serves up a big action scene, and then the book makes its biggest turn.

Spenser temporarily takes custody of Paul, and they go to a cabin near a lake. He tells Susan “I’ll teach him what I know. I know how to do carpentry. I know how to cook. I know how to punch. I know how to act.” He wants to give Paul autonomy from his lousy parents. They run, lift weights, punch boxing bags, and build a new cabin. Spenser gives Paul discipline, but he also listens to him, gets him to express his interests, and encourages those interests even when they don’t interest him. Paul wants to see and possibly study ballet, so they go to a ballet.

The novel returns to the external near the end, but even that serves this more internal story of Spenser and Paul. In order to solve Paul, Spenser has to get his parents out of the picture. As he often does, he resorts to blackmail and a little more violence. Still, Spenser doesn’t so much save Paul from bad guys as save him from their effects. The process also tests Spenser’s relationship with Susan and defines or redefines his worldview, his code, sometimes calling it into question.

Washington, D.C. writer George Pelecanos has divided his work between detective series and more stand-alone urban crime novels, and I gravitate to that second category. His latest novel The Man Who Came Uptown (2018) starts like a detective novel but quickly becomes something else. Through the point of view of Antonius, a young man in trouble for an armed robbery, Pelecanos introduces investigator Phil Ornazian, and he seems like the protagonist—a detective, a solver of problems. He can’t solve Antonius’s problems, but in passing, he asks Antonius to pass a message to another inmate Michael Hudson.

Anna, a mobile librarian at the D.C. Jail, curates books for prisoners, and through her influence Michael has become an avid reader. Pelecanos describes the way the library system works in the D.C. Jail and the details of Anna’s job, and over time he shows her leading book groups and portrays her life in a gentrifying area of Northwest D.C.

It doesn’t take long to see Ornazian’s less appealing side. In chapter three, he and retired police officer turned bondsman Ward violently rob a pimp. They view it as a Robin Hood-like effort, stealing from a crook and giving some of the money to the prostitute who tipped them off. Ornazian also justifies it because it helps his family, but it looks ugly.

Although Ornazian’s efforts (strong-arming a witness) get Michael’s charges dropped, his other behavior stands in contrast to both Michael and Anna. Michael returns home to his mother’s house and finds a job as a dishwasher at a brick-oven restaurant in his changing neighborhood. He also seeks out books, thinks about his future, and keeps his head down. He even runs into Anna with her husband at the restaurant, and though they seem to have a mutual attraction, neither pursues it. His life seems headed in the right direction until Ornazian calls in a favor. He and Ward need a wheel man for their next job (robbing the owner of an underground brothel), and Michael can’t say no. At this point, Ornazian becomes the villain of the novel.

I won’t spoil any more, but Pelecanos uses this stage in interesting ways. He confounds our expectations of certain characters and, as he always does, creates a portrait of Washington, D.C., at a given moment, presenting the changing nature of a diverse, unique city and recognizing the complexity of those changes for ill and for good.

Like Pelecanos, Megan Abbott often focuses on a specific world, though it changes from novel to novel. In You Will Know Me (2016), she turns her attention on competitive girls’ gymnastics. That doesn’t sound like the setting for a crime novel, and unlike Parker and Pelecanos, Abbott performs a different trick. She starts with a more traditionally literary setting and subject—the suburbs and family—and gradually reveals the crime story.

She shows this gymnastics world through the eyes of Katie, whose daughter Devon has Olympic potential. Abbott introduces this all through Katie’s slightly drunken memories of a tiki party for the girls and parents of BelStars gym, then backs up to three-year-old Devon losing toes in an accident with a lawnmower. That accident leads to gymnastics, which leads to Katie and her husband Eric throwing themselves into supporting Devon at the expense of their time, credit, and son Drew. Coach Teddy of BelStars suggests to them Devon’s full potential, and they put her on that track. She has a slight bobble at a major event, and this slows her progress, so they decide to skip that level and go for senior elites.

Not long before qualifiers, tragedy strikes the BelStars community. A hit-and-run driver kills Ryan, the young, handsome boyfriend of Teddy’s niece Hailey. Nerves fray, cops ask questions, Hailey attacks Devon in the locker room. As the community reels, Katie in a way takes on the role of detective. Always slightly on the outside of the other parents because of Devon’s stardom, lately on the outside of Eric and Devon’s relationship, she observes, yet for a long time she misses the clues right in front of her.

When someone hands her a piece of damning evidence, Katie becomes a woman of action, and the clues reveal themselves: “It was as if Katie were wearing glasses for the first time in her life, the world suddenly brought into sharp focus.” One clue leads to another. She reads diaries, visits the accident scene, and even interrogates one of the gymnasts. Later, she confronts that girl’s wealthy mother, who wields her power and knowledge like hundreds of other wealthy characters in detective novels. In the end, Katie gets a confession from the guilty party.

Abbott writes all of this in crisp, sensual language, reinforcing the events and emotions with the sound of her words. She also stirs in Gothic elements: she references haunted houses; Drew contracts scarlet fever; Hailey comes unhinged at the funeral reception; Katie, Devon, and Drew all have vivid nightmares. The interrogation plays like a visit with someone locked in her own house. These elements and the slow unraveling of the truth have the tension a crime novel, yet Abbott never loses sight of her overriding theme: what parents do to protect their children.

One of my teachers said you create a new form every time you write a novel, and to varying degrees Parker, Pelecanos, and Abbott do just that. Abbott creates the most unique version, but all three make something different from the norm that could appeal to readers of both crime and literary fiction.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

“Chekhov for the Gun-Shy” (by Reed Johnson)

Reed Johnson’s fiction and nonfiction have appeared in many publications, including The Gettysburg Review, Meridian, New England Review, Narrative, and The New Yorker online. His first story for EQMM was November/December 2018’s “Open House,” which has been chosen for inclusion in Best American Mystery Stories 2019, edited by Jonathan Lethem. The author is not only a fiction writer but a scholar and teacher of expository writing at Harvard University. He holds a PhD in Slavic Languages and Literatures and an MFA in Creative Writing, both from the University of Virginia. In this post he brings some scholarly knowledge to bear on a topic that should interest both writers and readers of crime fiction (and fiction generally!). —Janet Hutchings

“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story,” Chekhov is said to have advised would-be authors. “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” Chekhov, of course, should know: as author of several hundred short stories along with plays like Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard, he is considered to be one of the few writers—perhaps the only writer—to create such a lasting legacy in two separate genres. Not only was Chekhov a great writer, but he was also an astute student and teacher of narrative forms, and this injunction—that is, to leave no pistol hanging on the wall unfired—has now come down to us repackaged in countless writing manuals as the dictum of “Chekhov’s gun.” If physics has its law of the conservation of momentum, then fiction has its own law, the law of conservation of detail, and Chekhov and his gun are usually credited with its discovery.

There is, however, one problem. Namely, exactly what makes Chekhov’s work so—well, Chekhovian, is the author’s apparent inability or unwillingness to follow his own gun-handling instructions. His stories are full of unrealized promises, of anticlimaxes and clear failures to deliver. The Russian critic Viktor Shklovsky described Chekhov’s anticlimactic denouements as nulevye okonchania, or “zero endings.” Which is to say that often nothing at all seems to change in Chekhovian story—we are returned to the beginning, back to zero. Indeed, the apparent violation of the author’s own law seems more egregious than even this: not only does nothing seem to change, but the story’s epiphany often hinges on this very failure to deliver the transformation that was telegraphed by the story’s plot. Chekhov clearly had little interest in traditional rules of storytelling, complaining that conventional endings demanded that, in his words, “either the hero gets married or shoots himself.” In his plays, a brace of old dueling pistols might hang above the mantle on stage, waiting for the moment when the hero might grab one and—to gasps from the audience—might turn it on himself and—click . . . click. The hanging pistol isn’t loaded, of course; why would it be? Chekhov’s actual gun thus only hangs on the wall for the purpose of making the reader, or viewer, believe that it might fire, and then, in the most dramatic fashion, fail to do so.

This is the deeper lesson we might derive from Chekhov’s work: an apparent nonevent, a failed moment of transformation, an anticlimax, might be just as powerful as the event, the transformation, the expected climax. For Conan Doyle, it’s the dog that didn’t bark. Or to transpose the technique into the visual arts, it is the negative space that gives form to the object. In the right writer’s hands, what doesn’t happen in story may be just as dramatic as what does.

Of course, our days are filled with these nonevents, which pass us by without fanfare or even notice. Every day on my way to work, I fail to be raptured up to heaven or accosted by giant trash-talking wallabies. Clearly, the nonevent has to be one that has been telegraphed or anticipated in some way, or else its failure to materialize holds little meaning to us. This is why the fictional narrative, and the mystery story above all, is not one story but two: The first is the plot as it actually exists on the page, and the second a sort of ghost plot that consists of anticipated but unrealized events—a chain of otherwise that exists in a sort of a continually evolving dialectic with the actual. Each of these two stories, real and ghost, gives the other its shape. For the critic Hans Robert Jauss, every story unfolds against the reader’s Erwartungshorizont, or “horizon of expectations.” In order to mentally parse the events of the yet-unfinished story, the reader anticipates the future meaning and implications of these events, adjusting as these expectations are borne out or fail to materialize. As the readers of this blog already know, misdirection and foiled expectations are the lifeblood of mystery and thrillers. A mystery is as good as its red herrings. And the best writers of suspense are skilled at making this horizon of expectations just as vivid in the reader’s mind as the events actually realized in the plot.

Genre, too, plays a critical role in defining this “ghost plot” of readerly expectations. The mystery writer, for instance, is forced to constantly innovate both within and against the conventions of the genre to avoid giving the mystery a predictable solution. But in writing against convention, the mystery writer must also contend with the way that these same innovations are themselves continually being incorporated into readers’ generic horizons of expectation. This game of anticipated reactions seems to echo the dizzyingly recursive logic of Wallace Shawn’s character in The Princess Bride as he prepares to drink a vial that may contain poisonYou expect me to expect that you will expect that I . . . , and so on. In this context, Chekhov’s gun is only part of the weaponry of a larger arms race. If we expect the gun not to go off, it should; if we expect that that it will, it surely shouldn’t.

But what about the gun that neither goes off nor fails to go off—neither a clue nor a red herring, not the crux of a climax or anticlimax, but a gun that simply hangs on the wall, dumb and inert? It may be that this unused and useless gun tells us something about character. After all, what sort of hero hangs guns on the wall as mere decoration? Perhaps a Chekhovian landowner, who keeps a brace of old dueling pistols above the mantle not because he expects to ever use them, but because they speak to some romantic nostalgia that is key to his character—the same part of him, say, that reads Dumas in Russian translation and drinks sherry and pontificates on the importance of lofty ideals even as he neglects the ragged tenant farmers on his estate. Chekhov, of course, was a master at using the telling detail to illuminate character.

Or perhaps these guns might say really nothing at all. Maybe the sheer randomness of their inclusion gives the illusion of a larger, messier world to which they might belong. The critic Roland Barthes calls this l’effet de réel, or the “reality effect,” the notion that a work’s verisimilitude, its illusion of real life, is sharpened by the inclusion of such small details, ones that serve no visible function in the development of plot or character. It is this excess or abundance, this lack of meaningfulness, that we associate more with reality than with story. In other words, here we have precisely the opposite lesson of Chekhov’s gun. The useless detail is useful, in other words, precisely because of its uselessness. Chekhov, too, understood this sort of gun, and filled his work with the unmotivated particulars of everyday life, the better to render its texture to the reader. And so too we have come to our own zero ending, our return to the world—all these fictional guns, just like real ones, may go off or fail to go off, or may even slay the reader while still hanging on the wall, not a single shot ever fired.

Posted in Fiction, Genre, Guest, History, International, Readers, Story, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment


One of the most common questions posed to editors is “What trends do you see in your submissions?” Over the years, I’ve noticed a few: the rise of contemporary noir, a fall in first private-eye submissions and then whodunits,  the increased use of first-person narration, the wider availability of translated stories. . . .

Recently, I’ve seen something that may not yet merit being called a trend but that has nevertheless caught my attention: an increase in “meta-ficiton.”

On June 5, 2018, Anthony Horowitz wrote a post for the blog Crime Reads called “The Detective Story as Meta-fiction.” In it he said: “I can’t think of a modern, populist crime novel that has used the tricks and techniques of meta-fiction”—though his own very successful recent mystery novels do, of course: the award-winning New York Times bestseller Magpie Murders and the subsequent The Word Is Murder. I was astonished by the virtuosity of Magpie Murders. It’s an amazing display of skill and craft. And that, after all, is partly what meta-fiction is all about.  Let’s consider Horowitz’s own definition of meta-fiction as “fiction in which the author self-consciously alludes to the artificiality or literariness of a work by parodying or departing from novelistic conventions and traditional narrative techniques.” To successfully parody or depart from conventions and techniques requires prowess in the use of those techniques, and when one considers that, often, meta-fiction also involves constructing a story within a story, as in Magpie Murders, considerable structural dexterity may be needed too.

As Horowitz points out, meta-fictional elements are nothing new in fiction generally, and in crime fiction, the gamelike relationship between the reader, who is trying to figure out the mystery, and the author and fictional detective who may be withholding or selectively revealing information, is in itself a meta-fictional one. The reader becomes, in a sense, a participant in the endeavor. But this, it seems to me, is something different from full-blown meta-fiction, in which the literary techniques and conventions themselves become part of the narrative. One of the finest examples of this that I can think of at short story length is the currently Agatha- and Edgar-nominated “English 398: Fiction Workshop” by Art Taylor, in which rules for constructing a work of fiction become the road map not only for the fictional offerings of the students in the story but for the real-life drama (and mystery) unfolding between the central characters—a professor and his student lover.

An aspect of meta-fiction that I have never been a fan of is the way in which it pulls the reader back from full immersion in the story. If we are never sure what is meant to be real—or if we are continually being reminded of the  artificiality of the construct—it isn’t easy, I think, for a reader to lose him or herself in the world of the story or to become emotionally involved with the characters. It isn’t only meta-fiction that has this drawback; as I wrote previously on this site (see Pull Up a Chair) the dinner-table mystery, in which all relevant action is revealed through characters recounting it secondhand, can leave me with a similar sense of disengagement. But of course, the main point of the dinner-table mystery is not to transport the reader to another realm—it’s to dazzle with a brilliant puzzle. And if it’s done exceptionally well, I can enjoy this type of mystery as much as any other.  With meta-fiction, the case is more complicated, because there is usually a “real” story unfolding along with the constructs that have been identified as artificial. In Art Taylor’s story, for example, there is real, immediate tension slowly building in the interaction between student and professor even as we are continually brought back to an awareness that what is happening between them parallels exactly the rules for structuring a short story. This is no easy thing to do. I was about to say that meta-fiction is not for the new writer, but then I recalled that this year’s Robert L. Fish Memorial Award winner for best short story by a new American writer could probably be classified as meta-fiction. In it, the husband of a mystery writer becomes obsessed with the question his wife is always asked: How does he die this time? (also the title of this excellent story by Nancy Novick). Eventually he rereads her books to discover scenarios she might be employing to kill him. What makes the book meta-fiction (from my perspective) is that at the end we are still not entirely sure whether it is really her agency that results in his demise or the playing out of circumstances set in motion by his obsession with her fictional plots.

As Anthony Horowitz suggests, there may not yet be many mystery novels using the tricks and techniques of meta-fiction, but among the short stories we’ve bought for the past fourteen issues of EQMM—from January/February 2018 through July/August 2019, there are seven that I can think of right away, and I could possibly add more if we were to expand the definition a little. In addition to this year’s Edgar-nominated Taylor story and Fish Award winning Novick story, there was the 2017 Glauser Prize winner that EQMM  published in translation in 2018, Thomas Kastura’s “Enough Is Enough”; Argentinian writer Luciano Sívori’s “The Final Analysis”; John Lantigua’s “The Revenge of the Puma” (in our current issue, March/April); “The Girl on the Bandwagon” by Martin Edwards (coming up in May/June); and “Murderer’s Row” by Chris Holm (coming up in July/August). This may not seem like a lot, but it’s more than I’ve seen in the past.  Perhaps it’s not the start of a trend in the field as a whole, but at least I have a new answer to that eternal question put to editors!

Posted in Fiction, Genre, Writers, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

“Finding Freedom, Finding Truth: The Impact of Jarvis Jay Masters” (by Batya Swift Yasgur MA, LSW)

Last month, Batya Swift Yasgur also blogged for this site, and I recommend that anyone who missed it take a look at that earlier post: It has some commonalities with this new piece. The author began her fiction-writing career in the pages of EQMM, with the Robert L. Fish Award-winning story “Me and Mr. Harry.” Her most recent story for us, “Poof,” is in the January/February 2019 issue.—Janet Hutchings

“Truth is stranger than fiction” is a well-known and well-worn cliche. But statements become cliches because they express something real. The intersection of truth and fiction has interested me ever since my early attempts at writing fiction (somewhere around age twelve). I was advised by well-intentioned teachers to “write about what I know” so that my fiction would have the “ring of truth to it.” My father used to encourage me to make sure my fiction had “verisimilitude,” and I dutifully did my best.

About twenty years later, I was employed at the Scott Meredith Literary Agency, reading and critiquing manuscripts submitted for potential publication. Some hapless author had submitted a novel with a twist that stretched the limits of credulity. I don’t remember the author, the plot, or anything else, but I did learn an important lesson that has stayed with me.

When I rejected the novel, citing its lack of believability, the author complained that what he wrote about actually does sometimes happen in real life. I showed the letter to my wise mentor and colleague, Barry Malzberg, who was also employed at SMLA at the time (and has powerfully conveyed his experiences there in his essay “Tripping with the Alchemist”). Barry said, “Reality can afford to be a lot less plausible than fiction, because reality has nothing to prove. There it is and that’s that. Fiction, on the other hand, must continually prove its reality to the reader.”

Let’s leave that aside for a moment and jump several more decades to my experience of reading a book called That Bird Has My Wings: the Autobiography of an Innocent Man on Death Row, by Jarvis Jay Masters (HarperOne, 2009). The book is the memoir of a man currently incarcerated on death row at San Quentin for a crime he did not commit.

If I were to invent a person like Jarvis out of my imagination and write a story or novel, readers would say that my tale lacked believability. After, all, people like Jarvis don’t exist in real life, right? But the truth is that Jarvis does exist. And he has a remarkable story.

Jarvis was convicted of armed robbery and incarcerated in 1981 at the age of nineteen. He did not kill anyone during that robbery. In 1985, a corrections officer was stabbed to death. While the murder was taking place, Jarvis was locked in his cell elsewhere in the facility, but was later accused of sharpening a piece of metal allegedly used to make the weapon that stabbed the officer. He received the death sentence in 1988 and was sent to death row in 1990.

Through his thirty-seven years of incarceration, twenty-eight of which have been on death row (an absolutely mind-boggling number), Jarvis has unwaveringly maintained his innocence. Multiple appeals have been filed and rejected. A habeas corpus appeal containing new evidence supporting his innocence has been filed. He has been waiting for six years for the appeal to be heard.

During his death sentencing, Jarvis was introduced to Buddhist writings and became a Buddhist practitioner. I came across his books because my own spiritual path is primarily Buddhist and I enjoy reading memoirs of people who have gone through spiritual transformations.

I was blown away by his story—the pain and brutality he endured as a child in his birth home, in foster homes, and in the larger juvenile system, the life of crime he embarked upon, his incarceration, the murder of the prison guard, his being framed as an accomplice to the crime, and his unjust sentence. Even more importantly, I was incredibly inspired by his spiritual journey and personal transformation from an angry young man to a Buddhist who is an asset to society beyond the prison. (For example, Jarvis corresponds with young people, helping to steer them away from a life of crime.) He describes more about his spiritual journey in his book Finding Freedom: Writings from Death Row (Padma Publishing, 1997).

Whenever I meditate and find myself complaining about how my knees or back hurt, or how I’m distracted by the sound of a car honking outside my window or two people arguing in the next apartment, I think of Jarvis. I picture him meditating in his cramped, tiny cell, to the background cacophony of other prisoners yelling and cursing, doors clanging, the stone walls and floor of his cell cold and unyielding and so much less hospitable than my own “meditation room,” with its soft colors and creature comforts.

I’m not the only one he has inspired, by the way. His current spiritual mentor is the bestselling Buddhist author Pema Chödrön. And Jarvis’s updated memoir will be published later this year, this time written by David Sheff, author of Beautiful Boy. He has a large worldwide following that goes beyond the Buddhist community.

After some years of carrying around a “mental Jarvis,” I decided to contact him through a website run by a group of his friends and supporters. They put me in touch with him and we began corresponding and talking on the phone. I now regard Jarvis as a dear friend.

I briefly wondered about whether any of his story could be adapted and fictionalized. After all, what better literary inspiration for mystery writing than an actual crime story, filled with drama, sorrow, injustice, and personal growth? And yet, as I continued to get to know Jarvis, I returned to the truth-vs-fiction motif that I had contemplated years earlier. Fiction can reach into the soul and bring forth a deeper truth about a person or situation. But the truth of someone like Jarvis can never be rivaled or augmented in any fictional work. And there is no need to do so. His memoir itself is a page-turner.

There is a spiritual practice (perhaps originating in Buddhism, but don’t hold me to that) to detach one’s feelings from the circumstances that created them so that one is simply sitting with the raw sensations or emotions rather than being mired in the surrounding narrative. Meeting the feelings directly, unmediated by Story, is an opportunity to release them and find healing.

If I look beyond Jarvis the person, with a history, a narrative, and a personality, and look at the qualities he evokes in me, I discover that they take on a life of their own that I am sure will find its way into my fiction at some point. I will find myself writing a story that ostensibly has nothing to do with Jarvis, but brings the themes of injustice, imprisonment, steadfast honesty, and spiritual resilience into a new context.

There’s another way that Jarvis inspires my writing. Jarvis penned both of his books. And when I say “pen,” I literally mean using a pen. He didn’t have access to a computer or even a typewriter. And because the hard plastic outer tube of a Bic pen could theoretically be used as a weapon, it was forbidden by the prison authorities. So the ink-filled soft inner tube of the pen was removed and Jarvis wrote his two books (and all his correspondence) by grasping the inner tube between his thumb and index finger.

That alone is quite a feat. I’m lucky if I can sign my name on a piece of paper, and am wholly dependent on my computer, with its seductively easy keyboard, spell check, and opportunity to change my mind a thousand times about a given sentence or word. Delete, retype, delete, retype, revise, begin anew, delete, and begin again. I can’t imagine writing an article or short story, let alone an entire book, without a computer.

As I write these words, my fingers flying over the keyboard, I think of how disgruntled I get when the computer is slow, the software goes awry, or the screen freezes. Then I compare my process of writing to that of Jarvis, laboriously moving his pen across the paper. I think of generations of great writers and how they produced their work. Did Arthur Conan Doyle—one of my early literary heroes—have a computer? Did Shakespeare have a typewriter? And I celebrate whatever technological magic I have instead of grumbling when it doesn’t work.

Here is the greatest truth I have learned from Jarvis: A person can be spiritually free, even behind bars. That doesn’t mean, of course, that I regard him as a cardboard saint who should be left to sit in beatific bliss behind bars while incarcerated for the rest of his life, merely because his spirit is soaring beyond his cell. Obviously, I will participate in whatever way possible toward his release. (His website and Facebook page have more information about that.) But in the end, I know that I too can find freedom from whatever oppresses me. That freedom will manifest in my writing and in all other facets of my life.

Posted in crime, Fiction, Guest, History, Real Crime, Story, Writers | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“The Case of the Belligerent Bookseller” (by Kevin Mims)

An inveterate reader of old paperback fiction in several genres, Kevin Mims is a regular visitor to used bookstores. An innocent enough avocation, one would think, but it turns out that currents of suspected mischief and deception run through even the used-book trade, thanks to changes wrought by the Internet. In this post the California author recounts some unexpected exchanges with such a bookseller. The well-known essayist and award-nominated short-story writer has posted on this site several times before, including last Wednesday.—Janet Hutchings

I never thought of myself as all that unusual among avid readers, but lately I’ve begun to wonder if I am not somewhat unique. My passion is fiction, and I read in every genre. I discovered long ago that a lot of what has been marketed as romance fiction is stuff that, had it been written by a man and aimed at a masculine consumer, would have been marketed as historical adventure. Zemindar, by Valerie Fitzgerald, is a thrilling adventure story set in India during the Sepoy uprising. The author is a woman and her story focuses primarily on its female characters, so the book has always been marketed as a romance novel. Likewise, Pat Barr’s Jade, which is a thrilling adventure tale set in nineteenth-century China, and Diane Pearson’s The Summer of the Barshinskeys, which is a tale of derring-do set during the Russian Revolution. If you are a macho man who wouldn’t dream of roaming the romance aisles of your local bookstore, you are going to miss out on some fantastic adventure novels. The same will happen if you never peruse the LGBTQ section of your local store. Boy Wonder, if you can find it, will probably be shelved in that section, even though it isn’t a “gay” novel. Its author, James Robert Baker, was gay, as are some of the characters in the novel, but the book is simply a flat-out, hilarious spoof of the film industry. The story moves like a speeding bullet and it contains some outrageously over-the-top scenes of sex (mostly heterosexual) and violence. It’s got more mayhem in it than all five Dirty Harry movies combined.

As a teenager, I sneered at the Gothic romance novels my mother seemed to purchase by the metric ton. All of them had cover art featuring a frightened young woman running away from a gloomy-looking manor house where only one light shone. When my mother drifted into dementia a few years ago and I could no longer communicate with her, I began shopping for old Gothic romance novels of the 1960s and 70s and reading them for insights into her character. I realized that these books were formulaic in the way that sonnets and villanelles and haikus are formulaic. That is, the formula works like the lines on a basketball court: it may constrain the performance, but it doesn’t dictate it. Although almost every one of the Gothic romances my mother favored were remixes of Jane Eyre and Rebecca, good authors were able to make these formulas seem fresh and new by working surprising changes upon the main theme. Diane Pearson’s novel Bride of Tancred was heavily indebted to both Jane Eyre and Rebecca, but it also included a fascinating portrait of Quaker life in nineteenth-century England, as well as of the relative powerlessness of women of the lower classes. The women who read these novels in the middle of the twentieth century were probably mostly smart and curious people who, like my mother, were constrained by the demands of both motherhood and wifehood. These novels generally took their readers to far off places—Cornwall, Scandinavia, Austria, Brazil, China. They also frequently took the reader to some distant historical era. They aren’t drecky sex novels like Fifty Shades of Gray. The best of them are intelligent and deftly plotted and chock-full of fascinating details about distant eras and exotic places. What’s more, they are almost always mystery novels, which may account for the fact that one of America’s most famous practitioners of the Gothic romance, Phyllis A. Whitney, won two Edgar Awards over the course of her long career and was given lifetime achievement awards from both the Mystery Writers of America and the Romance Writers of America. I love mysteries, and almost every heroine of a Gothic romance must solve one before she can find happiness.

Alas, my fondness for nearly every genre of fiction is apparently very rare. And recently it caused me a bit of grief. An acquaintance told me about a bookstore located in a town about thirty miles from my home. She said that the store was a real hole-in-the-wall. No signage out front. Located down a side street. And inside, she said, it was just a mess, a total jumble of mostly paperback books from the last four decades of the twentieth century. In other words, Shangri-La for a book-junkie like me. Naturally, I had to check it out. The first time I went there, I spent two hours in the store and never made it out of the classics section. I went up to the counter with a stack of about ten books and the proprietor treated me like a king. I told her I was a first-time visitor and that the store had been recommended by a friend. She took down my e-mail address, and said she would send me recommendations if she came across other books like the ones in my stack. I told her she would be seeing a lot of me because I buy a lot of books.

The very next time I showed up at the store, I spent hours perusing the shelves and finally took a stack of about fifteen paperbacks up to the counter. My stack included romance novels, Westerns, crime novels, horror novels, and other popular fictions. Most of them had been published in the 1960s, ’70s, or ’80s, decades whose fiction (and films and television) I have a nostalgic fondness for. I smiled at the proprietor and tried to engage her in chitchat, but she was much cooler to me this time. I couldn’t figure out why. Perhaps she’d had a fight with her husband that morning. I didn’t give it much thought.

A few days later I returned with my wife. After an hour or two I took another motley stack of old paperbacks up to the check-out counter. The proprietor—let’s call her Mary—looked through them and wrote down all the titles, something she hadn’t done before. Although she chatted with me a bit, she wasn’t especially friendly.

When I am visiting a used bookstore, I often take photos of some of the books with my iPhone. I can’t buy every book that looks intriguing to me, so I take photos of titles that I can’t quite bring myself to commit to yet. Then I go home and spend hours investigating these books online. I visit Amazon.com, Goodreads, Kirkus Reviews, and similar websites to find out what other people have said about these books. This, in fact, is one of my most enjoyable book-buying rituals. I love trying to figure out if a book is worth taking a chance on. Sometimes, the negative reviews will be what convince me to buy a particular book. If all of the naysayers write like semiliterate buffoons, I might find myself endeared to the poor beleaguered book. If someone gives a book a one-star review and writes, “This would have been a great book if not for all the graphic sex and foul language,” I’m definitely going to have to grab a copy. Sometimes just a total lack of reviews will be enough to convince me to give a book a try. That happened recently with Barry Jay Kaplan’s 1982 historical novel That Wilder Woman. When I went online I found no reviews of it on Goodreads, nothing at Kirkus, and nothing at Amazon. I bought it and read it and loved it. It now has a long glowing review at Amazon written under my nom de plumazon, Slade Allenbury.

But Mary didn’t take kindly to my photographing her books. She asked me what I was up to, and I explained it to her as I just explained it to you. Surely other people do this too? Well, Mary didn’t like it. She said, “Are you sure you aren’t going online to check out the prices?” I told her, “Don’t worry, I’d rather buy a book from you than from Amazon.”

She said, “Don’t treat me like some kind of fool. I know that you’re a book dealer. After you left last time, I looked up one of those books you bought and it sells for thousands of dollars on Amazon.”

This was news to me, since everything I had ever purchased from her had been a paperback in the $4 price range. “Which book was that?” I asked her.

“A book called Boy Wonder,” she snapped.

I accessed Amazon via my smartphone and, sure enough, there are some third-party vendors (private individuals using Amazon’s platform to sell books) asking crazy prices for used copies of Boy Wonder. The first one listed on Amazon was a trade paperback priced at $6,120! Another vendor listed a mass-market paperback copy at $121. Someone was asking $480 for a hardcopy. Of course, private vendors will sometimes ask outrageous prices for books on Amazon. That doesn’t mean that the book is worth the asking price. Often, if you look hard enough, you can find a copy elsewhere online at a reasonable price. While Mary stood there and glared at me, I accessed the website of the American Book Exchange (which is owned by Amazon) and found a used copy of the mass-market edition of Boy Wonder I had purchased from her listed for sale at $26.62. I showed it to her, but it didn’t seem to mollify her. That figure was still $22.62 more than I had paid her for it. I thought of just offering to give my copy back to her so she could list it at $6,120 if she wanted. But I had just read and loved that book and didn’t want to give it up. So I assured her that I had no idea that the book was valuable. “I just bought it to read,” I told her. “I have no intention of reselling it. I couldn’t even if I wanted to. I don’t have a resellers permit” (a necessity in California if you want to engage in the rare-book trade).

“Don’t lie to me,” she said. “You don’t buy books like a reader, you buy like a dealer. I’ve been selling books a long time. Nobody buys Westerns and romances and mysteries and horror novels like you do. Only a dealer buys like that.”

I assured her that I was just a reader who happened to love pretty much all genres of fiction. But she didn’t believe it. She always treated me coolly after that, despite the fact that I was dropping about forty or fifty bucks every time I visited the store. When I got home that day, I accessed Amazon’s website and looked up every book I had bought from her during the course of our brief relationship. Among the more than 100 books I had bought, a few were indeed fairly pricey. The forty-year-old Signet paperback of Tom Murphy’s Lily Cigar that I bought from Mary for $4 can’t be purchased on Amazon for less than $114, and one crazy fool was asking $1,099.99. But I didn’t buy the book as an investment. I bought it because it checked a lot of my literary boxes: it was a Western, a historical novel, an adventure novel, and a novel of California, all of which are favorite genres of mine. I bought a paperback copy of Raggedy Man, by William D. Wittliff and Sara Clark, because I vaguely remembered enjoying the film version of the story when I saw it several decades ago. If you look the book up on Amazon, the first copy you’ll see listed is priced at $705.41. But only a fool would pay that kind of money for it. Other sellers at Amazon have listed it for as low as $5, which is approximately what I paid for it at Mary’s store. Elsewhere among the dozens of books I’d bought from Mary were three or four that couldn’t be purchased for less than $25 or so. But just because some seller in Juneau, Alaska, is asking that price for a used book doesn’t mean he’s going to get it. Any halfway sophisticated book-lover with an Internet connection can probably track down a decent reading copy of Boy Wonder or Lily Cigar for twenty bucks or less if they try hard enough. No one in his right mind would pay $6,000 for a paperback copy of Boy Wonder when ABE lists a first edition of the hardback, signed by the author, for a mere $285. Mary was delusional if she thought the paperback copy she sold me was worth anywhere close to six grand. And in any case, Mary and her husband have been in the used-book business for decades. They ought to know how book pricing works. She is free to go through her entire inventory and fish out the valuable rarities if she wants. If she’s going to offer a book for sale at $4, why get mad when someone buys it at that price?

I figured that, in time, Mary would realize that I was just an avid reader of old paperbacks, nothing more, and that our relationship would once again become amiable. But after the Boy Wonder incident, Mary always treated me like a guy who had intentionally cheated her out of $6,120. Often she would follow me around the store. One time I snapped a pic of an old Gothic romance that she was asking $3 for. When I got home I found some enthusiastic reviews of the book online. I returned to the store a few days later to buy the novel but now it had been marked up to ten dollars. Mary told me, “I saw you looking at it, so I marked it up.” Fine, I thought, I’ll buy it on Amazon.

Early in my tenure as a customer at her store I had purchased several Diane Pearson titles from her. Mary’s was the only local bookstore I’d ever seen a Diane Pearson book in, and she had a lot of them. Pearson published only seven novels, but they’ve been printed in a bunch of different paperback editions with a variety of different covers and sometimes even different titles. My favorite is the novel Sarah, which is also sometimes published under the title Sarah Whitman. I bought copies of both editions from Mary just because I am a Diane Pearson completist. The next time I returned to the store, all of the Diane Pearson books had been removed from the shelves, leaving a large gap in the romance section. No doubt Mary was convinced I’d discovered some secret online black market where Pearson’s work was gathering vast sums of money.

After books, my greatest passion is for baking. I bake far more goodies than my wife and I can possibly eat, so I am forever taking baked goods to friends and acquaintances. In mid-December I baked some Christmas cookies, put them in a decorative bag, and decided to drive over to Mary’s shop and give them to her. By this time, my wife wanted nothing to do with Mary. “Every time you tell her you’re not a dealer and she refuses to believe you, she is essentially calling you a liar to your face,” Julie told me. I urged her to give Mary one more chance. “Come along with me,” I said. “I’ll bet these cookies will help convince her that I’m not a bad person.”

Reluctantly Julie agreed to come along. When we entered the store, I wished Mary a Merry Christmas (despite being an atheist) and handed her the bag of cookies. She took them from me but didn’t say anything. Mary’s shop had no public bathroom. When the need arose, I would walk to a restaurant across the street and use the bathroom there. On this particular day, the need arose and I told Mary, “Be right back. Gotta use the restroom across the street.”

“Gotta look up book prices in secret you mean,” she snapped at me.

Clearly the cookies hadn’t done the trick. Fortunately Julie hadn’t heard this exchange or she might have come unglued.

I returned to the bookstore a few minutes later and continued browsing. When I was finally ready to go, I had accumulated a stack of about ten paperback books. Julie had never before purchased a book from Mary. But, in an apparent show of goodwill, she handed me two books that had caught her fancy. I set all the books down on the checkout counter in front of Mary. She grabbed the books and began looking them over as if inspecting them for secret treasure maps or coded messages. Very ostentatiously she wrote down every title and author. During this display, another customer, apparently a regular, came up to the counter with a single mystery novel in hand. Mary looked him over and said, “Just leave three dollars on the counter, Joe. I can’t help you right now. These people are dealers and I’ve got to make sure they’re not ripping me off.”

Well, that was it for Julie. She glared at me and marched out of the store. I hung around another few minutes and then I paid for my books. As I was about to leave, Mary handed me back the bag of cookies. “I don’t want these,” she said.

I suspect that I’ll never return to Mary’s store again. Which is a shame, because I loved browsing her inventory. But with every visit I made, Mary became more and more hostile towards me. I considered us fellow travelers united by the fact that we are both lovers of old books. I was sure that we would eventually bond. But it never happened. To Mary, I will always be the guy who stole six thousand dollars from her.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

“America’s Most Overlooked Crime Novelist” (by Kevin Mims)

Short-story writer Kevin Mims received an International Thriller Award nomination for his 7/13 EQMM storyThe Gallows-Bird,and he has contributed fiction to many other publications, including AHMM. He is perhaps better known, however, for his essays and articles, which have appeared in the New York Times, on NPR, and elsewhere. The topics of his essays often gravitate toward crime fiction, about which he has extensive knowledge. In this post he talks about a writer even mystery-fiction afficionados often overlook.—Janet Hutchings

When crime-fiction aficionados gather to discuss the current state of the art, one name is almost never listed among today’s best crime writers: Joyce Maynard. But I believe it ought to be. Thanks to their Hollywood iterations, To Die For (published in 1992) and Labor Day (2009) are Maynard’s best-known novels. Both are flat-out American crime novels, as true to the genre as anything ever written by Patricia Highsmith or Jim Thompson. But they are not the only crime fiction Maynard has written. Her very first novel, Baby Love (1981), is steeped in criminality. The plot includes blackmail, kidnapping, a sex slave, torture, rape, the burning of an abortion clinic, the escape of a dangerous madman from an asylum, and murder. Curiously, the publisher chose to market it as chick lit. My Avon paperback copy carries this blurb from the New York Daily News on the cover: “Funny, sexy, and full of devastating insights.” The back cover promises the reader “a picture-postcard New Hampshire town” in which “young mothers and would-be mothers are trying to live out America’s TV and Top 40 fantasies.” It goes on to identify four of those young women – Sandy, Tara, Wanda, and Carla—and then tells us how motherhood or the prospect thereof has shaped their lives. Fine. All of that is in the novel. But the book description makes no mention of Loretta, a former toll-booth operator who is held prisoner by a psychopath for three years and used for sex. When she becomes pregnant, her tormentor murders her after first botching an attempted abortion. No mention is made of Ann, either, though she is the psychopath’s next intended victim. Baby Love is a tapestry that deftly weaves together the lives of a dozen or so citizens of small-town New Hampshire. I suppose it is a women’s novel as well as a literary novel, but it is also a crime novel, albeit one without a central mystery.

If Baby Love is a crime novel without a mystery, The Good Daughters (2010) is a mystery novel without a crime. The central mystery concerns the parentage of its two main characters, and it is as compelling and complex as any gothic novel by Daphne DuMaurier. (Fun fact: Maynard’s first name is Daphne; Joyce is her middle name.)

After Her (2013) is set in Marin County and is loosely based on the murders committed by a notorious California criminal known as The Trailside Killer. It is dark and disturbing and it evokes Northern California as well as any contemporary crime novel I know of.

Under The Influence (2016) is a dark novel about a woman whose life changes forever after she commits a relatively minor crime (DUI). She finds herself caught in the orbit of a wealthy couple whose crimes are even worse (think Chappaquiddick; think Bernie Madoff). It may be the closest Maynard has come to channeling the ghost of Patricia Highsmith. Like Highsmith, Maynard is more interested in the emotional violence humans can wreak upon each other than in the physical violence they wreak. Both Under The Influence and Where Love Goes (1995) are filled with people wreaking emotional violence upon those they are closest to.

Even Maynard’s nonfiction reflects her interest in crime. The true-crime book Internal Combustion (2006) is exactly what its subtitle says it is: The Story of a Marriage and a Murder in the Motor City. One of her best-known personal essays (“The One Good Man”) is about her frightening correspondence with an imprisoned killer.

So why is Joyce Maynard not considered a crime writer? I have a few answers, some benign and some not so benign.

ONE: Maynard writes well in a lot of different genres: journalism, memoir, young-adult fiction, mainstream literary fiction, crime fiction, and so forth. It’s hard to pigeonhole a writer who never pigeonholes herself.

TWO: She is a female. The crime-fiction genre has become more female-friendly over the last couple of decades as writers like Gillian Flynn and Tana French have been embraced both by fans of crime fiction and fans of serious nongenre fiction. There have always been excellent women writing crime fiction: Agatha Christie, P.D. James, Ruth Rendell, Sue Grafton, Marcia Muller, Highsmith etc. But most of these women made it easy for themselves to be recognized as crime writers by creating a crime-fighting character and then reusing him or her in book after book. It’s tougher to establish a reputation as a crime writer if you don’t return again and again to the same name-brand sleuth, such as Hercule Poirot or Kinsey Milhone. Likewise, many of today’s best-known crime writers specialize in a particular geographical locale. Carl Hiaasen writes about south Florida, Connelly writes about L.A., Tana French writes about Ireland. Maynard, on the other hand, has written books set in northern California, Detroit, New Hampshire, and elsewhere. She is a shape-shifter, and you can’t pigeon-hole a shape-shifter, which makes it more difficult to market her work.

THREE: Maynard tends to experiment with point of view in a way that is not commonplace in crime fiction. Generally crime novelists create a character like Harry Bosch or Lew Archer and then give us the entire story through that person’s eyes. That’s not how Maynard works. Baby Love has a dozen or more viewpoint characters. The narrative consists of numerous short sections, each one told from the point of view of one of those dozen or so main characters. All of these are rendered in third person. To Die For also jumps around among different characters, but all of its sections are narrated in the first person by characters possessing unique and quirky voices. Maynard seems to reinvent herself with each new book. In that regard she has more in common with Margaret Millar than with Kenneth Millar (Margaret’s husband, who used the pseudonym Ross Macdonald). I prefer Margaret’s books to Kenneth’s, but the conventional wisdom says that he was the better of the two. If you’re fond of the conventional, you may not like Maynard’s work.

FOUR: For all their darkness and disturbing events, most of Maynard’s work is also characterized by domesticity. Labor Day is as much about pies as it is about crime. It’s hard to imagine saying something like that about a Michael Connelly novel. Baby Love really does have a lot of babies in it (born, unborn, in the planning stage, etc.), but it also has a rapist, a murderer, and a reclusive writer who uses up impressionable young acolytes in much the same way as J.D. Salinger used the young Joyce Maynard.

Which brings us to FIVE: The Salinger Factor. J.D. Salinger is an idol to millions of American readers and thousands of American writers. And people generally don’t take kindly to those who expose the foibles of their heroes. Maynard did just that in her brilliant and painful memoir At Home in the World (1998). For telling the truth about the emotional abuse and mistreatment she suffered during the eleven months or so that she cohabited with Salinger, when he was in his fifties and she was a teenager, Maynard became the target of a great deal of wrath and critical abuse. The backlash was so strong that, even though she has continued to grow and improve as a writer, every new book she writes tends to get treated, by at least some critics, as an opportunity to once more scold Maynard for what she divulged in At Home in the World (see Caitlin Flanagan’s take down of Maynard’s 2017 memoir The Best of Us in The Atlantic, in which six paragraphs are spent revisiting At Home in the World and finding its author guilty of “over-sharing”). This type of treatment seems to be an occupational hazard for female memoirists. Every new Kathryn Harrison book provides an opportunity for certain critics to once again scold her for publishing The Kiss, a memoir of her incestuous relationship with her father. To critics like that, Maynard will never be cleansed of her sins.

On May 5, 2018, I—along with seven other aspiring memoirists and personal essayists—spent a day with Joyce Maynard, in the writing room of her Marin County home. The critique she gave me of my own material was helpful, but the assistance she gave to the only other male writer in the seminar was downright spellbinding. At the beginning of the day, the gentleman in question (let’s call him Mr. X) pulled up a pant leg and showed us the electronic monitor on his ankle. He informed us that he was serving time for a federal crime. He’d recently been released from prison but was not allowed to leave home except to go to work. He’d been granted a special dispensation by his parole officer to attend the seminar. During the financial collapse of 2008 he and some other real-estate investors had conspired to rig the bidding on houses auctioned at foreclosure sales. Mr. X (whose father was also a crooked real-estate investor) hoped to write a memoir about his experiences that would act as a cautionary tale for his son, thus ending the family’s cycle of criminality. As Maynard listened to the barebones outline of his story her eyes lit up and her imagination went to work. She grilled Mr. X as though he were the witness to a murder. She sketched out the details of his story on a whiteboard at the front of the room. After thirty minutes or so the whiteboard looked like something from an episode of Law and Order, with all the main plot points ringed in big circles, and arrows corkscrewing in every direction, to connect one point to another in a progression that would allow the story to build in the most dramatic fashion possible (“You might want to start with your own arrest,” she’d say, “and then go all the way back and tell about how you used to attend foreclosure sales with your own father back in the 1960s.”). Watching it happen, I felt as though I were present at the birth of a great American crime novel. I suspect that when Mario Puzo first began sketching out the idea that became The Godfather he was possessed of the same kind of manic energy as Maynard displayed up at that whiteboard. By the time she was done all of us in that room were eager to see Mr. X’s story in print.

Alas, the story isn’t Maynard’s to tell. Mr. X’s book may never come to your neighborhood bookstore. But there are probably quite a few Joyce Maynard titles at that store. It would be a crime to miss out on them.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

“Learning From the Dream Team” (by Cecilia Fulton)

A former prosecutor, Cecilia Fulton grew up in California but now lives on the East Coast with her family. She debuts as a professionally published fiction writer in our current issue (January/February) with the story “Father of the Corpse.” The story is told from the point of view of an expectant mother, and we were surprised to learn that the author herself has a new baby—a circumstance that has led her to some interesting discoveries about dreams, and ideas for fiction, as you’ll see in this post.—Janet Hutchings


My fourth child was born twelve weeks ago. Since then, I have not slept more than three hours in a stretch. Setting aside the blunt pain of sleep deprivation, this has been a revelatory experience for my writing.

In normal times, I am never certain of the origins of my material—and I have certain concerns about the sources of my crime fiction material. To be honest, in normal times, I am always anxious that I will never be able to generate or collect sufficient material. Nora Ephron was right, of course, that “everything is copy,” but everything is too much. There’s a need for discernment, selection, and—always—a measure of imagination.

Occasionally, I will read a news story, or witness a scene on the street, and file it away. As a prosecutor, I filled notebooks with thoughts and images drawn from my days in court. Those tidbits were never meant to be used in raw form; rather, they contain or convey an intriguing mood or element. They rest in my mind for a while, they are digested and processed so that they may bear fruit later. This week, however, as I looked through my archive—yellowing, brittle pages of newspaper containing stories about a man who died saving his horses, or a Beijing millionaire who built a replica of an ancient estate on a skyscraper roof, or my old diaries full of blather—I had to concede that no fruits had been borne of this practice in a long, long time.

Most often, my thoughts take an unexpected twist, and there it is—a character, a plot, a sentence. A critical mass of these unaccompanied ideas combine to form a story, but they often still feel like a motley crew, lacking that invisible, underlying bond to tether them together and push everything forward. Worse yet, I don’t know where to find more of them.

Also, some of the ideas that pop into my head are so grim, so disturbing, that they lead me to wonder whether they arise from insanity rather than creativity. This is particularly true with crime fiction. I have a lot to live for and I am no killer—so why and how do I think so much, in such variety, about death and killings? Should I be concerned?

And then, there’s the critical inner voice, the one who served me so well as a prosecutor, questioning every single unit of language and plot. She doesn’t hold back—but she holds me back.

I’ve been tired of this “process.” After I finished “The Father of the Corpse,” it was a relief to turn back to my nonfiction book project. I couldn’t bear to wait for my brain to give me occasional crime-fiction-worthy handouts.

It felt like my mind was withholding not only the matter but the machinery and gutsiness of storytelling, because my mind tells me stories—wild, gripping, often horrifying stories—every single night. I have had vivid dreams and nightmares as long as I can remember. I’m not suggesting that dreams or nightmares are useful material for stories—in fact, I think they definitely are not. But some part of me has the ability to do this. Why can’t I learn from that? Why can’t I harness it to serve my love for writing, especially crime fiction? Certain elements of my daytime life clearly have the power to trigger a story: what is that quality? Can I learn to recognize it in my conscious mind, as my real life is unfolding? Also, the brain does not just replicate these elements, it transforms them: dream scene are more potent and more economical than real life. How is this done? As for nightmares, how are they designed to enhance suspense, to create terror? What gives a dream story the power to generate new feelings, to change or intensify a state of mind well after the night has ended? Most importantly, what can I learn from the free-wheeling experimentation of my dream stories? How may I become less risk-averse in my work?

During the last three months, my friends, I’ve taken the elevator down to the basement floor. I have stepped out into the bare hallway, I’ve seen the door at the far end and I’ve heard the hum of the motors. This worker is about to seize the means of production.

I am jolted awake every few hours these days, so my brain lacks the time to engage in its usual cover-up. I’ve been thrown out of dreams in the middle of a scene, with an intact memory of the preceding scenes and an understanding of the core feeling or incident around which each scene was built. Sitting in the dark for twenty to forty minutes afterwards, feeding my baby, I’ve been able to go back and think about where it all came from and how the disparate items were calibrated to serve a bigger narrative.

While the building blocks were almost always unrelated, they each carried multiple themes and feelings. The brain found a common denominator (or two) and used them as thematic thrusters for the narrative. The scenes may still form a motley crew, switching locations and tones, or introducing new characters, but they are committed to serving the same narrative arc.

The violence of my nightmares is astounding, perplexing. Violence is not a part of my life, fortunately, especially since I left the DA’s office, so where does it come from? What purpose does it serve? Part of what makes these nightmares so horrifying, I realize, is the knowledge that such violence exists in the world in even more acute and distressing forms. In dreams or fiction, violence can be a rough call for empathy—or an easy trigger for a sense of relief that we have been spared.

I’m also examining the venues of my dreams—the condemned buildings, the campaign headquarters, the crowded pharmacies, the apartments without doors. What are the characteristics of a location that add to or detract from the larger theme? Dreams aren’t perfect—there are dissonant notes, contradictions, bumpy transitions. I learn from those as well. Even the nonsense dreams have been a productive target of study: while they may seem at first like failures of narrative, they actually and accurately document real-life feelings of chaos and befuddlement.

I believe there is more sleep in my future. In fact, we began teaching our baby how to self-soothe and put herself to sleep this week, a process that involves some amount of crying at bedtime. On the first night, as she sputtered and wailed for twelve horrible minutes, I thought about the fact that I was a willing cause of and witness to her anger—and possibly worse, her fear. Was this a betrayal? Was it excusable if it was for our own good, hers and mine? That night, during one of my short phases of sleep, I bore witness to a fictional murder: I was standing on a subway platform, watching through a hole in the wall as a woman with red fingernails directed killers toward their victim and then covered the corpse with a construction tarp. The killers saw me, found me, followed me, and taunted me with their weapons. I was jolted awake, with dread and helplessness pumping through my body like blood, my real life and exaggerated dream life working over different expressions of the same questions. What does it mean to be a good person? Is it possible to avoid causing pain to others? Can we learn without pain? Can we live without pain? Can you overcome fear without feeling fear?

With four children, a manuscript due in a few months, and a chaotic, perplexing political landscape, I am casting out any expectations of so-called normal times. I’m relieved to leave behind my reliance on the random appearance of ideas. I may not be able to rival the productivity of my mind’s dream team, but I will emulate their process: a relentless mining of daily life for the essential building blocks of crime fiction, amplification of core human feelings, and unrestricted experimentation. Confusion, guilt, fear, conscience, violence, control, moral ambiguity—the possible incarnations are infinite. I’m ready to work the machines and I’m no longer afraid of what may come out. I hope I never forget the lessons I’ve learned during these twelve weeks or those sweet moments of wakefulness with my last baby: sitting in the dark, nurturing an unconditional love, thinking with abandon and curiosity, watching lights turn off in the big city, loving life—and plotting my next crime story.

Posted in Fiction, Genre, Guest, Writers, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Murder Inc: Dorothy L.Sayers and the Allure of Human Removals” (by R.T. Raichev)

In four previous posts for this site, R.T. (Raicho) Raichev, who did his doctoral dissertation on the literature of Britain’s Golden Age of mystery, has examined aspects of the work of P.D. James, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, and Sherlock Holmes. This time he turns his attention to Dorothy L. Sayers. His own fiction, most of which belongs to a series starring mystery writer Antonia Darcy and her husband, Major Payne, is in the tradition of the Golden Age, but has a very modern edge. The Darcy stories have been appearing in EQMM for several years, and we have one you won’t want to miss, “The Mysterious Affair at Osiris House,” coming up in our July/August issue. The author currently divides his time between Dubai, where he works as a teacher, and London.—Janet Hutchings

English novelist Dorothy L. Sayers (1893 – 1957) during a rehearsal for her play Christ’s Emperor at St Thomas’s Church, Regent Street, 25th January 1952. (Photo by Keystone Features/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

If there had been any would-be murderers present at the Foyles luncheon at Grosvenor House in London in July 1936, they might have been able to pick up some useful tips as to how to commit the perfect murder.* The theme of the luncheon party was crime, which was not surprising given that the majority of the invitees constituted the creme-de-la creme of the British detective story-writing fraternity—or perhaps sorority would be more exact—of the period. When asked by a journalist how to commit a murder that would remain undetected, Dorothy L. Sayers, creator of Lord Peter Wimsey, responded that all you had to do was make sure the murder was never thought of as murder and was thus police-proof.

* In 1929 a stockman called Snowy Rowles overheard Australian crime writer Robin Upfield discussing the body disposal technique he planned to use in his novel The Sands of Windee, and copied it to commit three murders of his own, leading to what was at the time a hugely famous trial. Upfield was called to give evidence at the trial.

Sayers was clearly fascinated by the idea of the perfect murder as is evident from the fact that she made it the nexus of several of her tales. Blood of the wrong group is deliberately used for transfusion in “Blood Sacrifice” resulting in the death of the injured man who receives it, injecting an air bubble into a vein with a hypodermic syringe produces the symptoms of heart failure in Unnatural Death**, while “The Leopard Lady” introduces a creepy cabal that specializes in human removals. This last, in my opinion, deserves special attention as it shows Sayers at her most outrageously inventive, most fantastical, and most suspenseful. Lord Peter doesn’t make an appearance, nor do the police; detection plays no part, and the murderer gets away with it. For a story by one of the Golden Age Big Four, it is also remarkable in that it involves the cold-blooded killing of a child.***

** According to one Sayers biographers, this was an ingenious but medically very doubtful murder method, suggested to her by her familiarity with motor engines, gained from an affair she had with a car mechanic and motorbike enthusiast.
*** No child is ever killed in any other Golden Age story, at least I fail to find any—not until 1956 when Agatha Christie has a Girl Guide called Marlene found strangled in Dead Man’s Folly.

“The Leopard Lady” was published in the 1939 collection In the Teeth of the Evidence, though Sayers’s biographer Barbara Reynolds dates it back to 1928. Apparently it was conceived as the first in a series and it is a great pity that the project failed to materialize. The story starts with a man called Tressider—a name redolent of stolid respectability—who hears a mysterious voice in his ear suggesting the liquidation of his young nephew. If the boy is in the way, ask at Rapallo’s for Smith & Smith. We soon learn that in the event of the nephew’s demise, Tressider stands to inherit a fabulous fortune. We are also told that Tressider secretly dreams about the boy’s death and is now wondering whether the message was not “his own subconscious wish that had externalized itself in this curious form.”

Tressider is at a railway station. He has bought the Strand with the intention of whiling away a tedious train journey. He is surrounded by “utter strangers”: an elderly gentleman with a crooked pince-nez, poring over Blackwood’s, a militant woman, a dejected little man. This is a very English galere of comic characters, none of whom conforms to Tressider’s concept of a professional assassin, yet it has to be one of them who delivered the message. Sayers creates an atmosphere of unsettling uncertainty worthy of Hitchcock. The choice of magazines on the other hand smacks of a postmodern joke, the author hinting slyly that the strange events about which we are reading resemble the kind of stories that used to appear in Blackwood’s and the Strand. It was in the Strand that Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes adventures were first published, and Sayers’s sinister syndicate of Smiths could be seen as a somewhat absurdist, though equally lethal, version of Professor Moriarty’s criminal gang.****

**** In “The Empty House” Sherlock Holmes tells us that it was Moriarty who commissioned the powerful air gun capable of firing revolver bullets at long range, which was used by his associate Colonel Moran to kill the Hon. Ronald Adair. Holmes describes Moriarty as “the greatest schemer of all time, the organizer of every devilry, the controlling brain of the underworld.”

Tressider, at once reluctant and eager, begins to follow a trail of clues that lead him to the principal Smith, the head of Removals Inc. Smith***** is another incongruous figure: “stoutish . . . middle-aged . . . with chubby features beneath an enormous expanse of polished and dome-like skull.” He smiles “pleasantly” and speaks in a “clear, soft voice with a fluting quality which made it very delightful to listen to.” He brings to mind Dickens’s Mr Pickwick—which makes it all the more shocking when he starts discussing terms for the “permanent removal” of six-year-old Cyril. Smith seems to know everything about Tressider and his nephew who is also his ward. It is evident that Smith & Smith choose their prospective clients, having done their comprehensive homework on them. . . .

***** The name “Smith,” which Sayers gives to her professional murderers, is the epitome of cliched anonymity. Smith used to be one of commonest surnames in the UK. Interestingly, it is the complete antithesis to “Freke,” the outlandishly memorable name Sayers chose for the murderer in her first novel Whose Body? Shows how unpredictable Sayers could be.

The story has a grim inevitability about it. Tressider—from whose viewpoint most of the events are related—provides Smith with a specific piece of information concerning Cyril’s habit of “romancing,” which in turn decides the manner of the boy’s disposal. “Accidents will naturally sometimes happen,” Smith tells Tressider. “No one can prevent it . . .” At one point Tressider is “unnerved” and starts feeling ill. Sayers imbues Tressider with enough humanity to show that he is not some completely heartless monster, nothing like the evil uncle of Gothic literature, neither an Uncle Silas nor a Count Olaf, but he is weak, greedy, and amoral. He, it is revealed, has lost money in unwise investments as well as on the turf. Despite his misgivings, he yields to the temptation of murder for gain, which is also murder by proxy.

Sayers effectively treads a tightrope between whimsy and horror. Smith’s associates are three men, called, respectively, Smythe, Smyth, and Schmidt. The last-named is “the giggling man with the scanty red beard and steel-rimmed spectacles”—clearly a German, very possibly Jewish. It also opens Sayers to accusations of anti-Semitism. The fourth associate is female: a girl with slanting yellow eyes, like a cat’s. She is introduced as Miss Smith and the reader may fleetingly wonder whether she is the top man’s daughter. It is Miss Smith who kills Tressider’s nephew by feeding him poisonous potato-apples.

The fee for poor Cyril’s removal is £1000 (about £69,000 in today’s money—about $86,657), which Tressider considers rather cheap. He is then instructed to establish an alibi for the day of the murder and Smith obligingly suggests Scotland: “There is salmon, there is trout, there’s grouse, there’s partridge—all agreeable creatures to kill.”

Smith refers to Cyril with callous irony as “the young gentleman of great expectations.” The boy’s penchant for making up fantastic tales is not unlike that of the romancing children that populate the stories of Saki. But unlike Saki’s juvenile fantasists who are survivors, he perishes. Cyril likes to pretend “he’s had all kinds of adventures with giants and fairies and tigers.” When eventually he is approached by a yellow-eyed woman who offers to play with him, he immediately dubs her a “real live fairy” and the “Leopard Lady.” He tells his aunt all about his feast with the Leopard Lady in the grotto on the deserted grounds of a nearby country house. The aunt of course refuses to believe the Leopard Lady exists. When Cyril complains of a tummy-ache and eventually dies, the contents of his stomach are found to contain solanine, a deadly alkaloid present in potato-apples. The theory formed by the doctor, which Cyril’s aunt never questions, is that the boy picked the apples and ate them as part of one of his make-believe games. . . .

It is well known that Sayers was extremely erudite and exceedingly well versed in classical culture. We can also assume that she believed in evil in its theological sense—after all, didn’t she abandon crime writing in order to be able to spend her time translating Dante’s Inferno into English and writing her own play about Jesus, The Man Born to be King? She was clearly interested, in a way that transcends detective stories, in the ethics and metaphysics of why people do terrible things. Therefore it may not be too fanciful to consider “The Leopard Lady” in that light.

Sayers tells us that the yellow-eyed young woman “should have been called Melusine.” Melusine is a shape-shifting character from European mythology sometimes depicted as a serpent from the waist down. So we have the Serpent and the Apple fed to an Innocent in a garden whose splendiferous perfection brings to mind the Garden of Eden, to a disastrous end. . . . A re-imagining of the Bible story masquerading as a perverse tale of suspense? Is Mr. Smith then the Devil? Or is that altogether too fanciful?

“The Leopard Lady” was adapted for television in 1950 and was broadcast as part of the series Lights Out.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

“Every Person Is a Mystery” (by Batya Swift Yasgur MA, LSW)

Batya Swift Yasgur’s first fiction, “Me and Mr. Harry,” appeared in EQMM’s Department of First Stories in Mid-December 1994. It won that year’s Robert L. Fish Memorial Award for best short story by a new American author. We’ve  published several more of her stories over the years, including “Poof,” which appears in our current issue, January/February 2019. Batya is a therapist and former social worker as well as a writer, and her writing includes books in the health field and articles and other materials for healthcare professionals. It’s her penetrating characterizations that set her fiction apart, and this post reveals how her perspective on life—and especially people—informs her writing.—Janet Hutchings

The real mystery isn’t whether the jealous wife poisoned her husband’s mistress or whether the greedy accountant embezzled his client’s money. The greater mystery is why they might have done so.

The answers, of course, might seem absurdly obvious to the extent of being the oldest clichés in the book. The jealous woman wants to do away with the competition, or perhaps get revenge. The accountant has a wicked gleam in his eye, sparked by the flash of gold in his client’s bank account. What more do we need to know?

Everything. We need to know everything else about the person—most of which is unknowable. Why does one woman murder her husband’s mistress, while another ends the marriage? Why does one accountant embezzle money while the other eschews thievery?

There may be simple answers, psychological explanations. But ultimately, there are things that are unknowable. Because every person is a mystery. And every person has a story.

Seeing everyone as a mystery, someone with a unique tale, a narrative of joy or woe, of trauma or transcendence, has had profound benefits for me—literary, professional, and spiritual.

For starters, it has enabled me to withhold judgment. How can I know what forces have shaped this person? What hidden characters lurk in the basement of her unconscious or run through the corridors of his heart?

I remember the secretary of the Near Eastern Languages department where I got my Master’s, who was a stout, bespectacled woman with a flat voice and a monotonous demeanor. One of my friends remarked that she was the dullest person he had ever met. “I’m sure she has a story and there’s a reason she has become this way,” I said. To which he responded, “Then it would be a very boring story.”

My first reaction was, “That depends on the writer.” Think of the excruciatingly boring Mr. Martin, the protagonist of James Thurber’s “The Catbird Seat,” and how droll, entertaining, and wonderful the story is, and what unexpected behavior emerged from under his dull exterior.

My next thought was, “No one is boring—not if you get to know them.” And I began wondering about her life—maybe she wanted to be an artist but was forced into secretarial school and survived only by shutting off any interesting or creative part of herself. Or maybe she had an abusive father and survived by tamping down any affect, smothering every spark or passion, hoping to slide through life, unnoticed and quotidian.

Or maybe she was one of the thirty-six hidden Righteous Ones talked about by the ancient Kabbalists—people of unparalleled sainthood who grace the earth every generation. Who knows?

I don’t remember if I ever turned the department secretary into a story. I don’t think I did. But many of my other early stories, puerile attempts at being an Author, were built around characters who were indeed consciously fashioned after people I knew.

Over time, however, I became uncomfortable with relating to actual living people as “fodder” for stories. I was once at a weekend workshop and met a very well known author, studded with awards and accolades of all kinds, widely anthologized and praised. A few people were sitting around after dinner, and the conversation turned to a bitter feud between two people I had never heard of, but apparently everyone else knew who they were. As I listened, I found the feud very sad. But the famous writer was gleeful. She leaned forward, her eyes bulging, salivating over every juicy tidbit of gossip.

“Tell me more,” she kept saying, her voice slightly breathless. “This is going to make an amazing story!”

(I should add that I was so turned off by this ostentatiously vulturistic attitude that I had no interest in following up and reading her subsequent writings to see if she had, indeed, turned the feud into a story).

My interest in each person’s story melded with my growing desire to become a therapist. I wanted to uncover the individual’s inner story, to accompany the client on a journey to discover his or her own unexplored depths, the unconscious motivations underlying behavior, and the deeper mystery of their humanity, their sorrows and their resiliencies—and mine.

But my interest in writing people’s stories never fully dissipated. It finally found its home in memoir writing. My first foray into telling the stories of others was America: A Freedom Country, written for the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Society in 2001 and—sadly—as relevant now as it was then. I had the honor of traveling around the country and interviewing asylum-seekers and refugees, both in and out of detention.

One of the interviewees was an Afghan woman who escaped the Taliban and arrived in the U.S. seeking asylum, only to be put into detention. She became the subject of the next book, Behind the Burqa  (published by John Wiley in 2002), which is her story and also the story of her older sister who escaped from the Communists in Afghanistan decades before the Taliban came to power. Through the lens of their stories, I told the larger story not only of the two sisters but also of their family, the broader society ravaged by war and foreign interference, and the story of America’s treatment of people seeking shelter from danger and torture.

Writing Behind the Burqa necessitated giving myself over wholly to the stories of these two amazing women, to the events and, even more deeply, to their “who-ness” as it flowed through me, organizing into words on a page. It meant getting out of the way so that I could be a channel, rather than a creator, of those words.

What I discovered in the process was that their story was mine as well. I am not Afghan, I didn’t flee the Communists or the Taliban. But I deeply connected with aspects of the older sister’s relationship with her father, for example and the role that poetry writing played in the younger sister’s incarceration. Their struggle against the restrictions and oppression of their society resonated with my own spiritual journey as well.

So seeing the story in every human being informs my relationship with my clients, as well as my passion for writing memoirs.

And it must have continued playing a role in fiction writing. How could it be otherwise? But, with the exception of the lead character in “Cat Medicine” (coauthored with Barry Malzberg), which appeared in Ellery Queen in 1998 and was consciously fashioned after a woman I know who loves cats more than people, I can say that there is no linear connection between the characters in my stories and the people in my “real life.” My stories seem to emerge from some large cauldron, brewing and percolating in the hinterland of my unconscious, where suddenly an event—a newspaper article, a noisy neighbor—will turn up the flame and some unexpected and hitherto unmet persona will burble to the surface and demand that his or her story be told. “Poof,” which appears in the January/February issue of EQMM, is an example of a story inspired by a short news article I read about bullies. But I see elements of my own childhood as someone who was bullied, and my own personal struggles with guilt (rational or otherwise).

Ultimately, it all melds together. In Sanskrit, this is expressed elegantly and concisely in the word “Namaste,” translated as “The divine in me greets the divine in you.” The mystery in myself seeks to join the mystery in everyone I meet, real or fictional. My mystery is their mystery, their mystery is my mystery. We are all interconnected, all part of the greater Mystery of creation itself, threads is the larger tapestry of the Universe and All There Is.

Posted in Books, Characters, Fiction, Genre, Guest, History, International, Story, Writers, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Seventh Sense” (by Doug Crandell)

Doug Crandell makes his first appearance in EQMM with the story “Shanty Falls,” in our current issue (January/February 2019). We have another of his stories coming up soon. He is the author of the 2007 Barnes & Noble Discover pick, The Flawless Skin of Ugly People, as well as three other novels and two memoirs, and he has received a number of endowments  for his fiction, including one from the Sherwood Anderson Foundation. He’s also distinguished in the field of short fiction, having recently won Glimmer Train’s Family Matters short-story contest. In this post he talks about one of the roots of his writing, and what led him to crime fiction. —Janet Hutchings

When I was a child, we knew our grandmother’s brother had been killed, but the details were mostly hushed and vague. The secrecy of that awful fact set my mind aglow with possible explanations. I suppose the varied ways I heard the story told, by different narrators, stirred in me a desire to understand not only what had happened to my great uncle, but storytelling itself, the way one storyteller would choose details versus another. It was thrilling to listen, to see the images in my mind that were created with the spoken word. Later, as I began choosing my own reading materials, I found myself intrigued with family crimes, with the ways in which love gets entangled with temper, distrust and hurt. I couldn’t have used the phrase “character motivation” at the time, but I sensed grownups rarely knew why they did the things they did, and that only upon closer inspection did those reasons become clearer.

As a writer, I found a book early on called Movies in the Mind: How to Build a Short Story by Colleen Mariah Rae which resonated with me. Her advice to short-story writers to “dig the clay” and “tap the well” made sense to me. I often found myself thinking about the secrets in my own family, not just the large ones, but the smaller ones too, the kind that percolate just under the surface in our own subconscious and lead us places that in the real world may be off limits, but when filtered through fiction not only form fertile ground, but become crucial to our own understanding of personal motivation.

Of course, like many writers, I don’t pretend to know all the reasons I enjoy writing, and reading, but I knew that my stories often held mysteries, crimes, thrilling revelations. Most of those were linked back to my great uncle’s death, which, in the end, was nothing less than a murder at the hands of a sheriff’s posse. At the age of seventeen, Leonard and a few unnamed others left a note on the porch of a former county commissioner named Thomas Modesitt, stating his home would be blown up within twenty-four hours unless five hundred dollars was left in a culvert south of Cory, Indiana, at 9 PM that Tuesday night. Modesitt went to Sheriff Roy Tipton, who instructed him to wrap a stack of blank paper in a package and deposit this decoy in the culvert. Sheriff Tipton assured Modesitt a posse would be formed to catch those responsible.

As mystified as I was as a child about the circumstances, I found as an adult writer that my work was almost always influenced by what had happened, and how the story was transmitted from one generation to the next. Some relatives saw the crime as shameful, something that brought disgrace to the family, while others set Great Uncle Leonard’s young death as a tragic hero’s story, and still others simply told the story, using colorful language, specific details, and a narrative arc to keep the listener’s attention. I liked all the POVs, but that last one, where words were used to cast settings, describe sounds, faces, smells, and colors made the hairs on my arms stand up.

I found this focus on details in Rae’s Movies in the Mind book. One exercise I continue to use is the Seventh Sense. Rae asks writers to attempt to physically inhabit a character’s body, to stand, eat, drink a beer, and describe a sound from their POV. At first, it seemed silly to me, but then, more than twenty years ago, I tried it with my Great Uncle Leonard. I’d not yet researched or written about this specific family crime, but something about imagining how my seventeen-year-old distant kin from the 1930s would’ve have walked, how he might have run into an Indiana cornfield before being shot from behind, unleashed the deeply set identification I’d harbored of him after all the decades of hearing the story. It was as if I’d found a way, with Rae’s help and my great uncle’s guidance, to write “inside” a character rather than just putting on his or her mask while at the computer composing. The writing didn’t magically become easier, nor did every piece feel fully preformed, but I could move from my great uncle to others, getting inside their bodies and minds to more fully create stories.

As I wrote more and published short stories and novels, the family crime was always with me—not that it figured into every plot or character, but as some elemental trace of loss that was in the background. Curious, I started to search out other writers who’d been similarly impacted, some I knew personally, others I’d only read about. Of course, James Ellroy’s mother’s murder when he was just ten was the most prominent and there were other infamous ones as well, but what I became interested in were the lesser known writers like me who also carried around family criminal secrets. Some writers told me about their father’s severe gambling addiction, another relayed how the disappearance of an aunt on his mother’s side was taboo to talk about. There were stories of laundering money, a connection with the mafia, and two writers who both had domestic violence in their past to such a degree that relocation was necessary for safety. The topic intrigued me and shocked me as well; so many people trying to take tragedy and turn it into something useful, maybe not spiritually meaningful, but narratively so, which, in a way, can shine light on what it means to be human and not, inhumane and afraid.

One version of the story about my great uncle was my favorite. We’d been on a rare family trip back to where my parents had grown up in southwestern Indiana. It was for the funeral of a second cousin I’d never known. On a relative’s farm, after the funeral service, the adults began crowding into the kitchen, eating and talking, but then a splinter group formed in an adjacent room. The man telling stories was not my kin, and I’d never seen him before. He brought up the story and the others nodded their heads, slowly eating apple pie with cheddar cheese wedges from small saucers. I stayed back in a little alcove and listened. I knew the story, and so did the storyteller, and all the others, so delivery and detail would have to hold our attention.

The man spent time describing the specific color of green in the first few rows of the cornfield where Great Uncle Leonard rushed to avoid the shotgun blast. The man stood up and walked slowly about the room as he continued the story, and I couldn’t take my eyes off him. At one point, he paused, right before announcing what was in the box. “All that was in that damn box was curlycue papers.”

That choice of word, while I’d heard it before from my mother, stayed with me, and whenever I thought about the story from then on, I pictured my great uncle, a teenager, lying beside the decoy box as he died, face to the ground, blood at the base of his neck, as the little spirals of newspaper lifted, then sailed upward, some catching on high corn tassels, others drifting on to distant fields, carried as far away as the rich river bottoms. That singular word choice, chosen by someone I didn’t know, made me understand, much later, the power of a storyteller to recall details, even the ones we think we know.

Posted in Characters, crime, Fiction, Guest, History, Story, Writers, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment