“Forgotten Women” (by Kevin Mims)

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began keeping us inside, readers have been seeking alternatives to in-store browsing for their literary needs. Essayist, short-story writer, and prolific reader Kevin Mims (who has written for this blog many times on the subject of paperbacks and popular fiction) felt the lockdown restrictions particularly stifling to his book habits, as he routinely browses for “lost” or little-known books. In this post he talks about his solution for this and two works to which his search led.—Janet Hutchings

For years it has been my mission in life to seek out old mass-market paperbacks from roughly the 1960s to the 1990s in the hopes of discovering lost literary gems that deserve to be better known. I look for them at yard sales, garage sales, estate sales, and thrift stores. But mostly I seek them out at used-book stores. Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 and the state-mandated lockdowns that shuttered a lot of California businesses for three months forced me to find other ways of seeking out old books. Even during the pandemic, book lovers like me could still buy old paperbacks online at a variety of book-selling websites. But you can’t order a book online unless you are aware of its existence. And most online booksellers, like Amazon.com, don’t make any effort to promote old, out-of-print pop fictions.

So what’s an old paperback-fiction junkie like me supposed to do when the bookstores are all shut down? Happily, there is one really good source for those seeking the titles of old paperback novels that are unfamiliar to them. And that source is other old paperbacks. The front and back pages of many an old mass-market paperback are filled with lists that advertise other books by the same publisher. A while back, while researching an article I planned to write about automobiles in American popular fiction, I was reading (or, in some cases, re-reading) a bunch of pop fictions in which cars figured prominently, including such well-known titles as The Betsy by Harold Robbins, The Last Convertible by Anton Myrer, Dodsworth by Sinclair Lewis, and Christine by Stephen King. At the back of a mass-market edition of Jacqueline Briskin’s 1982 automotive-themed novel The Onyx, I found a few full-page ads for various other paperbacks put out by the same publisher. These included well-known titles such as John Jakes’s North and South, and David Niven’s three Hollywood memoirs (Bring on the Empty Horses, The Moon’s a Balloon, and Go Slowly, Come Back Quickly). But among these back pages I also found a full-page ad for a novel I’d never heard of, Kay McGrath’s The Seeds of Singing. The brief description of the book intrigued me. It was described as the story of two young explorers, Michael Stanford and Catherine Morgan, lost among the primitive tribes of New Guinea, in the years before, during, and after World War II. I love East-meets-West tales, such as James Clavell’s Shogun and Noel Barber’s Tanamera, and this sounded like something similar. I did my usual research, looking for reader reviews on Amazon.com and GoodReads. Like a lot of excellent but little-known novels, The Seeds of Singing had few online reviews, but those it did have were mostly ecstatic, written by people claiming it was “the best book ever” or “easily in my top ten of all-time list.” And so I ordered a copy of the book and, when it arrived, immediately began reading it. It was a fat paperback book, containing nearly seven hundred pages of fairly small type. The tiny type almost made me hope that the book wouldn’t be very good, so that I could abandon it after a few pages. But the book was good. In fact it was crazy good. I’m not saying that it compares favorably to, say, The Sound and the Fury, but as American popular fictions go, it was definitely a one-percenter.

After that, I began combing through the front and back endpapers of all the books in my massive collection of old paperbacks. Many of the books advertised there were well-known bestsellers at one time. I ignored these. I was seeking titles and authors I’d never heard of. From early March through early June of this year, I spent many an hour compiling lists of obscure book titles and their authors’ names. Then I would go online and see what information I could find about these books. The ones that intrigued me most were the ones I could find the least information about. How was it possible for a book to have received a widespread paperback release via a major publishing company such as Signet or Bantam or Fawcett Gold Medal and then vanish so completely from the public consciousness that even on the internet, a vast storehouse of nearly every fact of human existence, hardly any mention of it could be found?

I purchased 81 books from Amazon.com between March 1 and mid-June, most of them obscure old paperback novels. I purchased a few others from the American Book Exchange, which is also owned by Amazon.com. All of these were used books that sold for only a few dollars each. Alas, many of these books I was able to toss aside after reading the first 25 or 50 pages. It was clear that these books deserved their obscurity. Another dozen of the books I bought were good enough that I read them in their entirety and enjoyed them, but I wouldn’t call them lost classics. They were well-crafted works of popular fiction written by authors with a lot of talent but no real genius. Some of the books I ordered, I haven’t yet got around to reading. But a half dozen of the books I ordered struck me as being genuine lost classics, or at least near-classics of twentieth-century popular fiction. Most of these were historical novels, so I won’t bother describing them here. But two of them were mystery novels, involving murder and detection, as well as kidnapping, arson, and assorted other crimes. What’s more, the authors’ back stories are interesting, so a blog for mystery lovers seems like the perfect venue in which to celebrate them.

Both of these mystery novels were written by obscure female writers. Their names are Cecilia Sternberg and Jamey Cohen. These two authors are different from each other in many ways, but their writing careers share some eerie similarities. Each woman published only two books. Each woman’s entire literary oeuvre was published over a span of just a few short years. Sternberg’s first book, The Journey, was published in 1977. Her only other book, Masquerade, was published in 1979. Cohen’s first novel, Dmitri, was published in 1980, and her second, The Night Chasers, was published in 1981. Dmitri bears more than a passing resemblance to Josephine Tey’s masterpiece The Daughter of Time (voted the top crime novel of all time by the British Crime Writers Association and the forth greatest crime novel of all time by Mystery Writers of America). In Tey’s novel, a bedridden police inspector sets out to solve a historical mystery (whether or not Richard III murdered his two young nephews, the so-called “Princes in the Tower”). In Dmitri, several scholars at a California university (clearly meant to be Stanford but never identified) try to solve a different historical mystery: who murdered Dmitri of Uglich, the youngest son of Ivan the Terrible and thus an heir to the Russian throne. Cohen’s novel may not be on a par with The Daughter of Time, but it is exciting, crazily inventive, and very intelligent. According to the author’s blurb on my ratty old paperback, Cohen got the idea for the novel during her senior year at Stanford, during which she took classes in both Russian history and hypnosis. Early in the novel we meet fictional lovers Marina Kuryev and John Green, two college students who are both taking an elective course called The Psychology of Hypnosis. In class that day, Professor Sloane puts John into a hypnotic trance and then asks him to recall the day of his ninth birthday. John begins to speak to the class in the voice of a nine-year-old boy but, much to the dismay of the professor and the rest of the class, he does so in a language that is not English. Only Marina recognizes it as a somewhat archaic version of Russian. Which is a big surprise to Marina, because although she is a Russian Studies student and fluent in the language, John doesn’t speak anything but English. She informs the professor that John is speaking Russian, a language he doesn’t know. Eventually the professor lets Marina interrogate John, and she discovers that he has been regressed back, not to his own ninth birthday, but to May 10th in the year 7099. Naturally this confuses her, and Cohen ends the chapter with a sentence that sounds like one of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone introductions: “Without knowing it, she had advanced into the fourth dimension—time. Her destination: the year 7099. Her vehicle of transportation: a nine-year-old with a beguiling smile. Dmitri Ivanovich.”

Fairly quickly Marina realizes that John/Dmitri is using an old Russian calendar system to calculate the date, a system in which 7099 would translate into 1591 A.D. on the Gregorian calendar we use nowadays. Soon, via further hypnosis sessions with John, she learns that she is communicating with the real-life historical figure Dmitri of Uglich. The date is May 10, 1591, five days before Dmitri was actually murdered on May 15, 1591. Fairly quickly, Marina is able to convince Professor Sloane that John is actually in touch with this tragic figure. Over the next few days, they conduct several more hypnosis sessions with Dmitri/John, teasing out more details of Dmitri’s life. They hope to figure out who murdered him on May 15, so that they can warn him about it and possibly save his life (and perhaps dangerously alter the course of human history in the process). But the class is taught by two professors, Sloane and Zugelder. And Zugelder is one of the novel’s heavies. He believes (not without reason) that either John is a fraud, or else he is just channeling a story he was told long ago. Zugelder begins investigating John’s background (it turns out that John’s parents died when he was very young and he was put into the care of a Russian woman until he could be adopted by new parents). John, for his part, seems to be coming apart psychologically as the hypnosis sessions become longer and more intense. Professor Sloane wants to push ahead anyway in the interests of science. Professor Zugelder is concerned that the lurid nature of the experiment will cause the department head to take serious action against him and Sloane. He is furiously trying to discredit John’s performances under hypnosis. Marina, in love with John but also becoming more and more attached to Dmitri as the days go by, is torn. She wants to save Dmitri’s life but is fearful John’s mental and physical health might be seriously damaged if he is forced to continue undergoing hypnosis.

For a young author (she appears to have been born in 1957, making her just 23 when Dmitri was published), Cohen managed to write a novel that ticks an awful lot of pop-fiction boxes. Dmitri is a thriller, a mystery, a historical novel, a romance, and (quite possibly) a fantasy novel. It seems that the novel’s multiplicity of genres worked against it. What’s more, the publisher seems to have decided to market the book as a horror novel, one of the few genres to which it doesn’t really belong. The cover of my paperback copy features an ancient Russian sword dripping blood. Superimposed over the sword is the disembodied head of someone (presumably Dmitri but the picture makes the sex and age of the subject difficult to guess) wearing what looks like a cross between a crown and an army helmet. A blurb on the cover mentions “a young man caught up in the deadly grip of hypnotic possession . . . A novel of excruciating terror.” A blurb on the back calls the novel “a gripping, imaginative chiller.” The paperback was published by Signet, whose most profitable author at the time was young Stephen King. So it is understandable that Signet may have wanted to market every novel to King’s massive readership. Alas, it doesn’t appear to have worked. You won’t find a lot of reader reviews online at Amazon.com and GoodReads, but those you do find will be mostly ecstatic, and none of them refer to the book as a horror novel. One reviewer calls it “an unknown gem.” Another calls it “one of my favorite stories.” Several reviewers recall reading it when it was first published and being haunted by it ever since. I wouldn’t put it on a list of my 25 favorite pop fictions of all time, but I definitely enjoyed the ride. So much so, in fact, that after reading it I went online and ordered a copy of Cohen’s second novel, The Night Chasers. The Night Chasers has no reader reviews at GoodReads and only one at Amazon.com (“This book is my all-time favorite and I’m a fairly prolific reader. I wish this author had written more than two books.”). The Night Chasers deals with an American scientist who is researching gorillas in Africa and is able to communicate with them in American Sign Language. This was a fairly popular topic in the early 1980s. One year before The Night Chasers was published, Michael Crichton’s novel Congo, about an ape named Amy who could communicate via sign language, became a bestseller. The Night Chasers is an intelligent, ambitious, and well-written crime novel that involves terrorism and kidnapping and murder, but it unfolds at a slower pace than Dmitri. I prefer Dmitri, but both novels are worth seeking out. Who knows what other excellent thrillers Jamey Cohen might have produced if she had stuck with her writing career. Both of her novels reminded me of Crichton’s work. Dmitri prefigured Crichton’s 1999 bestseller Timeline, in which a group of contemporary academics find themselves transported to Europe during the Middle Ages. Alas, a few years after the publication of The Night Chasers, Cohen enrolled at Harvard Law School. According to an Internet search, she has worked for the past thirty years or so as an entertainment-industry attorney in southern California. The legal profession’s gain is a huge loss for those of us who love thrilling popular novels. But at least she is still alive and well and, if we’re lucky, perhaps she’ll return to writing fiction after she retires from the legal profession. We can only hope.

Alas, we cannot hope for any more novels from Cecilia Sternberg. She was born Augusta Cecilia von Reventlow Criminil, in 1908. Though born in England, she was raised in Switzerland. Her great-grandfather, Robert Whitehead, invented the Whitehead torpedo, the first truly effective modern torpedo. The invention made him rich and allowed his children to marry into some of Europe’s most aristocratic families. His great-granddaughter also married well. At the age of nineteen, Cecilia married Count Leopold von Sternberg, a Czech nobleman roughly two decades her senior who had served admirably in World War I. They split their time between a castle that he inherited in Czechoslovakia and a palace in Vienna. For ten years she lived a glamorous life of gala balls, weekend house-parties, and shooting parties, hobnobbing with some of Europe’s grandest grandees. Alas, a little something called World War II came along to disrupt this leisure-class idyll. The Count was anti-Nazi from the get-go, and his enmity towards Hitler increased when the Nazis seized his properties during their invasion of Czechoslovakia. He and his wife and children spent the war years living not very comfortably in an apartment in Prague. After the war the properties were briefly returned to the Count and his Countess, but in 1948 the Communists took over Czechoslovakia and it was time for the aristocratic Sternbergs, now virtually impoverished, to flee the country. Their journey took them to London, New York, and anywhere else where they could find an old friend or acquaintance willing to take them and their children in for a few days or weeks or months (they spent one whole summer at a Pennsylvania farm belonging to U.S. diplomat George Kennan). At their lowest ebb the Countess sold handmade jewelry on the waterfront in St. Petersburg, Florida, while the Count sat in his underwear on the porch of their nearby cottage, drinking wine and studying the Constitution of the United States. Eventually an Austrian friend found them a job managing a resort hotel in Jamaica, where they stayed for the rest of their lives. If all this strikes you as great material for a book, well, the Countess apparently thought so too. In 1977 she published an account of her fascinating life called The Journey. It garnered enthusiastic reviews but didn’t sell well. Reviewing the book for the London Times Literary Supplement, novelist Sybille Bedford wrote:

She is no research student, no outsider, she is eyewitness, observer (very noticing, never moralizing, judging seldom), participant—this is how it was, how we lived, this is what we were—the world she writes about, the world of the pre-1914 European upper aristocracy (die Hocharistokratie) and its survivors was simply that of her birth and workaday environment. The outcome is a curious and original book, very funny, a few times very sad. It is artless in a sense, unpretentious, a first book and evidently not by a professional writer and yet, I find, handmade by an artist. There is the transmutation of raw experience; the conjuring of flesh-and-blood people, often in a few lines; the coherent story (suspense story almost) and the construction, the sequence of events, is first-rate, professional—by instinct?

By this time, the Countess was approaching her seventieth birthday. You might think, having told the story of her fascinating life, Cecilia Sternberg would have nothing more of interest to say. But you’d be wrong. After writing an excellent but criminally underappreciated autobiography, she set about writing a thriller. And what a thriller it is (almost certainly it is the only crime novel in history written by someone whose last name at birth was Criminil).

The novel, published in 1979, is called Masquerade. I’ll try to avoid giving away too many spoilers, but I advise you to skip the rest of this review and just buy a copy of the book. You won’t be disappointed. The story opens in the summer of 1929. Eddie Livingston has graduated from Oxford and wants a career in Britain’s diplomatic corps. He has mastered several European languages but would like to improve his German. Alas, he’s too poor to go to Germany at the moment. His father was a historian who was working on a book about the Tsars and Empresses of Russia when he died. Eddie’s mother is trying to finish the book and get it published. While perusing the paper one day, Eddie sees a want ad seeking a British tutor for a fifteen-year-old student in Germany who needs to improve his English skills. The job pays nothing, but the tutor’s travel costs will be covered as will his room and board. The want ad was placed by the German boy’s English grandparents, a vicar and his wife. Eddie visits the vicar and learns of the boy’s odd history. His mother is the vicar’s beautiful daughter, thirty-five-year-old Elaine. Her husband was Paul Plevke, a German aristocrat of Russian heritage. After marrying Elaine he took her to live at Schwarzensee (“Black Lake”), his family’s Gothic castle near a small town in the German state of Schleswig-Holstein. Nine months later she gives birth to the couple’s only child, Alexander. World War I breaks out and Paul goes off to war with his faithful servant, a somewhat older man named Beck. Paul dies in the war’s early months, despite Beck’s heroic efforts to save his badly wounded master (at least, Beck claims to have made these efforts; later on we’ll have reason to suspect that Beck may have hastened Paul’s demise). Beck returns from the front with the news of Paul’s death. Paul’s mother, always referred to as the Tsarevna, because she is a distant relative of Catherine the Great of Russia, is despondent. She fears that Elaine will now want to return to England with Alexander (who was named after Catherine the Great’s grandson Tsar Alexander I). The Tsarevna conspires with Beck to keep Elaine and Alexander at Schwarzensee. She claims that Alexander will inherit all of the family’s wealth if he remains at Schwarzensee until he attains his majority. If he leaves before that, she will disinherit him. The vicar and his wife don’t actually know this last part of the story. They only know that they haven’t seen their daughter or their grandson in fourteen years. They want Eddie, under the guise of tutoring young Alexander, to try to convince Elaine to return to England with her son. This is a great setup and it covers only the first few pages of the book.

The novel is divided into two parts, each of which is roughly 150 pages long. The first half is reminiscent of a good Gothic-romance novel, but instead of an impoverished young woman who finds herself enmeshed in the ominous goings on in the creepy old isolated mansion where she has taken a job, we have a young man in that position. The novel also has echoes of the works of Graham Greene and Patricia Highsmith. Alexander Plevke turns out to be the most stunningly beautiful human being Eddie Livingston has ever seen, and he falls under his spell in a way similar to how Tom Ripley falls under Dickie Greenleaf’s spell in The Talented Mr. Ripley (like Eddie, Tom Ripley’s adventure begins when he is sent to Europe to try to convince a lost child to return home to his parents). Eddie also bears a resemblance to Henry Pulling, the narrator of Greene’s novel Travels With My Aunt. He is a somewhat shy and colorless English civil-service wannabe who finds himself being dragged across Europe by women much more adventurous and interesting than he is.

Schwarzansee turns out to be quite the house of secrets. The Tsarevna tries to order her life in the manner of her famous ancestor Catherine the Great. If, unlike me, you know a lot about Catherine the Great, you may be able to see some of the plot twists coming. Catherine often hinted that her oldest child, Paul I, was sired not by her husband, Peter III, but by her lover, Sergei Saltykov. Something similar seems to have led to the birth of the Tsarevna’s son, Paul. Peter III died mysteriously, and some believe his wife conspired to have him murdered. Something similar seems to have happened to the husband of the Tsarevna. When Eddie Livingston reveals this information to his mother back in England via a letter, she writes to him and tells him to look for a secret passageway into the Tsarevna’s bedroom. Eddie can’t understand why she thinks there might be one, but he investigates and, sure enough, finds one. When he asks his mother how she knew this, the mother (who is completing a book about Russian royalty, remember) informs him that Catherine the Great had a secret passageway that led from her bedroom to the quarters of her lover. Further complicating Eddie’s stay at Schwarzansee is the fact that he engages in a sexual liaison with Elaine, the woman he was sent to rescue. Fairly quickly, Eddie realizes he has made a mistake in coming to Germany and becoming enmeshed in the lives of the Plevkes. But he has a hard time extracting himself from it all. Elaine wants to marry him, the Tsarevna and Beck want him to help keep Alexander from leaving Germany, and Alexander wants Eddie to help him get to Oxford so that he can join the University’s famous Dramatic Society and achieve his dream of becoming a professional actor (his acting skills will be put to use frequently during the course of the novel). Eddie does eventually help Alexander get into Oxford, but only after becoming involved in a suspicious killing (the killer says it was self-defense but it looks like murder to Eddie) by placing the dead body in the driver’s seat of a vintage Mercedes Benz and pushing the vehicle off a cliff and into a nearby lake (the Black Lake that the castle is named for), where it disappears into the mud at the bottom (but will it stay there?). All this happens even before we reach the end of Part One.

Part Two opens about eight years later, in 1937. Eddie has achieved his goal and is now a diplomat assigned to the British embassy in Vienna. He is engaged in an affair with a lovely Austrian aristocrat named Princess Marie Therese. Alexander wrote Eddie frequently during his years at Oxford, but Eddie rarely responded. He is trying to forget the nightmare that was Schwarzansee. By 1937 Alexander is a renowned thespian. He has appeared in several Hollywood movies, but his true love is the European stage. One night, Alexander looks over the footlights and spies Eddie and his lover, Marie Therese, in the audience of a play he is performing in at a Viennese theater (Eddie had no desire to see it, but Marie Therese insisted). During an intermission, Alexander sends Eddie a note, requesting that he come backstage and visit him after the show. Eddie reluctantly does so, and once again Eddie finds his life unhappily entwined with Alexander. The Princess becomes infatuated with Alexander and hopes to make him her latest romantic conquest. Soon she and Alexander have gone off together to a grand chateau owned by the Princess and her husband, Prince Heinrich (the Prince knows all about her affairs and doesn’t care). Eddie is hurt by this but also relieved. Being in the company of either Alexander or Marie Therese exhausts him. Being in the company of both is damn near unbearable. Alas, Prince Heinrich (an aviator) flies his plane back to Austria a few days later and informs Eddie that a tragedy has occurred. A neighboring chateau caught fire a few nights ago and, in a failed effort to rescue the Jewish couple living in the chateau, Alexander was badly burned. His face has been horribly disfigured. The Princess is inconsolable but Prince Heinrich believes Eddie will have a better chance of soothing her than he himself does. So Eddie climbs into the Prince’s bi-plane and flies off to Czechoslovakia with him. There he finds that Marie Therese is literally out of her mind with grief. Her physician (a close relative of the Jews killed in the chateau fire) informs Eddie that he is going to tell the Princess that Alexander has died. He thinks it will be best for her if she doesn’t have to imagine him living on in agony, his face and his acting career in ruins. The physician assures Eddie that this is just a small lie, since Alexander is almost sure to die of his injuries sometime in the next few days or weeks.

But, of course, Alexander doesn’t die. In fact, Eddie has reason to question whether he was ever really injured in the fire at all. When Eddie finally sees him again, Alexander is so swaddled in bandages that Eddie can’t be sure what he looks like. What’s more, Eddie is told that Alexander’s vocal chords were so damaged by smoke that he can no longer speak. Eddie can talk to Alexander, but Alexander responds by spelling out his messages with Scrabble tiles, an amusing device that makes Alexander’s part of every conversation sound like text messages. But is that really Alexander under those bandages? And how did the chateau of the unfortunate Jewish couple really catch fire? Did someone deliberately set the fire in order to curry favor with the Nazis who are sure to be invading Czechoslovakia soon? And what about Alexander’s beautiful young nurse, Esther? She seems almost romantically devoted to him. Is it only because she is the daughter of the Jewish couple he tried to rescue, or is she also hiding some secret?

Cecilia Sternberg was a highly cultured woman. Her book is full of references—some implicit and some explicit—to various operas, poems, novels, stories, and myths. The fair Elaine, with her unrequited love for Eddie, is clearly based on Elaine the Fair, a maiden who falls in unrequited love with Sir Lancelot in Sir Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Arthurian tale The Lady of Shalott. There is also an amusing nod to the legend of how the famous Rabbi Loew of Prague created a Golem, a menacing mythological creature, said to haunt Prague to this very day. The Golem in Masquerade glows in the dark thanks to some phosphorescent paint that has been applied to his forehead, a touch reminiscent of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, wherein (spoiler alert) a large dog was covered with phosphorus to make him appear to be a supernatural devil dog. The book contains many references to Goethe’s Faust, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Mozart’sThe Magic Flute. Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence, and many other authors are mentioned by name. Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera is never mentioned by name, but it too seems to haunt Sternberg’s pages. It’s surprising that no one has ever made a film based on Sternberg’s novel, because nearly every page of it seems to call out for a cinematic or theatrical interpretation. Here is the narrator describing one of Princess Marie Therese’s grand balls:

I walked to the palace. Snow had begun to fall and it was very cold. Cars and taxis came and went incessantly as I approached. The enormous double doors—usually closed, only a small side entrance giving access to the courtyard—stood wide open. Through them the costumed and masked crowd flowed up the great stone staircase, carpeted in crimson for the occasion. In arched niches at intervals stood liveried footmen with powdered hair, holding aloft flaming torches. They stood as still as statues, while the gods and goddesses that ornamented the baroque balustrade seemed to move in the flickering light and to have come alive, the gray stone of their scantily draped bodies glowing pink like flesh, their welcoming outstretched arms seeming to tremble and stir as light and shade intermittently touched them. Somewhere in the distance an orchestra was playing from The Magic Flute.

On the first floor, where most of the big reception rooms were, all the paneled white and gold doors stood open so that there was an unobstructed view from one end of the palace to the other. One could see through a series of seemingly interminable of magnificent stuccoed rooms lit by thousands of candles in glittering chandeliers or silver candelabras. Their mellow light transformed the gaudy, tinseled costumes into beauty and authenticity . . . There was no end to the variety of costumes. Aidas and Tosca’s Butterflies, Lucias, Leonoras and Marguerites, fox-trotted, waltzed and tangoed with Toreadors, fur-draped Boris Godounovs, Don Giovannis and black-clad Mephistos . . . At midnight nearly everyone unmasked. Great steaming bowls of punch were served by the powdered footmen and the year 1938—that was to prove so fateful for Austria—was joyfully welcomed in.

You can almost feel the movie camera tracking Eddie as he glides through all that splendor.

Eventually Eddie will solve most of the novel’s primary mysteries. He will learn who really torched the chateau where the Jewish couple died and why they did it. He will find out who is masquerading as the Golem of Prague. He will learn who betrayed Marie Therese and her husband to the Nazis. Along the way, the reader will be treated to a variety of brilliant set pieces, including an attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler on Prague’s famous Karlsbruke, a bridge that is one of Europe’s architectural wonders. Somehow Sternberg, who had never before published a novel, managed to keep a plot that is as complex as the inner workings of a Patek Phillipe watch from veering off into utter chaos. She remained totally in control of her material right down to the delivery of the novel’s brilliant final line. Alas, she never produced another novel. She died on November 1, 1983, in Kingston, Jamaica, at the age of seventy-five.

Brilliant as it is, Masquerade is ranked number 3,072,279 on the Amazon bestsellers list. Mystery buff and writer J. Kingston Pierce maintains an excellent website devoted to crime fiction called The Rap Sheet. For years the website has run a series celebrating great but forgotten crime novels. I love the series, but I think it is quite a stretch to call many of its entries lost books. Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers, P.D. James’s An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, Elmore Leonard’s Swag, George V. Higgins’s The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Eric Ambler’s A Coffin for Dimitrios–as far as I can tell, none of these books has ever gone out of print, and all of them are easy to obtain. In fact, most of them are regarded as classics of the genre. Swag has been enshrined in a Library of America edition, which guarantees that it will never go out of print. The Friends of Eddie Coyle is at number 175 on Amazon’s list of the best-selling hardboiled mysteries, despite the fact that it’s also easily obtained in both new- and used- bookstores all across America. Masquerade, on the other hand, is a true lost book. And Jamey Cohen’s Dmitri, despite the fact that it has generated a handful of enthusiastic reviews at Amazon.com, ranks even lower than Masqueradeon the Amazon bestsellers list: 3,327,262. You can’t get much more lost than that.

The links between Cohen and Sternberg are curious. Cohen’s first novel and Sternberg’s only novel both deal with twentieth-century characters who are haunted by long-dead Russian royals. Hypnosis plays a big part in Cohen’s novel and a minor one in Sternberg’s. The protagonists of both novels attended elite universities and are multilingual. Sternberg’s two books were published during the final three years of the 1970s. Cohen’s two books were published during the first two years of the 1980s (technically, 1980 was the last year of the 1970s, but only pedants observe that technicality). Sternberg wrote her two books in the final years of her life. Cohen wrote hers in the first few years of her adult life. Both Dmitri and Masquerade languish way below the three-million mark on Amazon’s bestsellers list.

Neither of these forgotten women writers has ever gotten the attention they deserve. Their books remain out of print and largely unread. But if you love a mystery, you might want to seek out used copies of both Dmitri and Masquerade. They were written in an era when thrillers tended to be shorter and brainier than they are nowadays. Neither book has any graphic violence or sex, just good writing, devious plotting, and near-perfect pacing. If, as Josephine Tey insisted, “Truth is the daughter of Time,” perhaps there will come a day when these two books are finally recognized as the pop-fiction gems they really are.

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“Reading, Writing, and the Making of a Serial Killer” (by Jacqueline Freimor)

Jacqueline Freimor made a distinguished debut as a fiction writer in 1995 when she won the Mystery Writer’s of America’s Fiftieth Anniversary Short Short Story Contest in the new writers category. The story was subsequently published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. Twenty-five years later, in our current issue (July/August 2020), she is making her EQMM debut with the story “That Which Is True.” The intervening years saw stories of hers featured in a variety of publications, and she received two honorable mentions from Best American Mystery Stories for her work. In this post she answers indirectly—and very originally!— the question so often asked of writers: Where do you get your ideas? —Janet Hutchings

“A man becomes preeminent, he’s expected to have enthusiasms.” Thus speaks Al Capone, as portrayed by Robert DeNiro in one of my favorite movies of all time, The Untouchables, before he beats an associate to death with a baseball bat. That line is only one of many memorable lines in the film, but I hear it echoing in my head more often than the average person would think reasonable. I’m not sure why it keeps resonating with me. Maybe the reason is that although I’m not preeminent (or a man), I have a lot of what you might refer to as enthusiasms. And luckily, I get to explore them all as a writer of crime fiction.

Before I was a writer, I was a reader. I remember exactly when I learned to read, and when I say exactly, I mean the actual moment. It happened in first grade, in Mrs. Tannenbaum’s class, and we had been working our laborious way through the Dick and Jane primers—you know, “See Jane run! Run, Jane, run!”—when one day, just like that, the letters linked themselves up into words, and the words lined themselves up into sentences, and the sentences marched across the page into a story. I could read it. It made sense. The story wasn’t interesting—I knew that even then—but I didn’t care. I was beside myself with joy because I could read (“See Jackie read!”), and reading was the key that would unlock the mysteries of the world. Reading was the secret of life.

I became a voracious reader, insatiable, hoovering up every scrap of writing I saw. I wanted to know everything, even the stuff written on cereal boxes and street signs and clothing labels. I didn’t read for the usual know-it-all reasons, though, not to get good grades or to impress people at parties. In fact, as an introvert’s introvert, I would rather stick a fork in my eye than go to a gathering with more than four people. No, the reason I read everything, everywhere, all the time was that I wanted to know how it all worked, and why things happened, and whether anything made sense.

Spoiler alert: nothing made sense (and it still doesn’t, now more than ever). By the time I figured that out, though, I was an adult, and I had stopped envisioning life as a quest to complete a giant jigsaw puzzle and started thinking of it as a long (hopefully) walk through a seaside amusement park dotted with fascinating and diverting attractions. Pre-Internet, I read random entries in encyclopedias, which led me to other entries, which led me to others, ad infinitum, the information blossoming and spreading like ink spilled across a page. I read book indexes, too, for the unanticipated detours. For example, who wouldn’t travel to “Easter Island (Rapa Nui)” when they saw “creation myth chant,” “Pacific rat and,” and “sweet potatoes grown on,” as in the index to Christina Thompson’s Sea People? Then when the ultimate index, the Internet, did come along, I discovered that the intricately woven filaments of the World Wide Web could transport me from “funerary customs of ancient Egypt” to “The Battle of Bosworth” faster than you could say Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. The world, as they say, was my oyster. (And if you want to know who actually said that, Google it. Just kidding. It was Shakespeare.)

So I became a woman with enthusiasms. I’ve held a bunch of jobs—typist, typesetter, anthropology student, medical editor, music teacher—that have no obvious common thread other than providing me with an opportunity to collect interesting bits of information. These random factoids lie dormant in my psyche until new ones appear and glom onto them, and then, like molecules, the combinations keep forging and breaking bonds to create entirely new substances.

For example, a Marxist critique of class entwined itself with an entry in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders about erotomania, and then a checklist of the common characteristics of serial killers adhered to them, too, and voilà!—I had an idea for a story about an adolescent boy and how he found his sociopathic calling. I actually did write that story—my first—and sent it to one mystery magazine after another, but no one wanted it. Convinced that my enthusiasms had created a good story, though, and with nowhere else to submit it, in 1995 I entered it in the unpublished writers category of MWA’s 50th Anniversary Short Story competition—and it won first prize, which included publication in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. (This experience taught me an important lesson. It’s great to have enthusiasms, but enthusiasms alone are not enough. You also have to be stubborn as hell. But I digress.)

Since then, my stories have owed their lives to a number of different fixations. Cardiology, the death penalty, Holocaust survivors, the paintings of Edward Hopper, and the internal documents of the Brown and Williamson tobacco company are a few of my former obsessions that were transmogrified into stories. Three more recent interests—jury duty, the criminal potential of 3-D printing, and the “Queen Bee” syndrome in young girls—combined to create the story “That Which Is True,” which to my enormous delight has just been published in the current July/August issue of Ellery Queen.

I’m happy to report that I have only just begun to obsess. Right now, I’m writing a novella that explores stamp-collecting curiosities and the mechanics of nation-building as well as a novel that begins on New York’s Island of the Dead—all while plotting another novel that satirizes the cutthroat world of early childhood music education. Each project has nothing at all to do with the next, which is the way I like it. I get to indulge all of my enthusiasms, and I hope that readers will find them as fascinating as I do.

If not, there’s always that baseball bat.

Posted in Adventure, Books, Characters, Editing, Fiction, Genre, Guest, History, mystery fiction, Writers, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Keys to the Kingdom: Unlocking the Locked Room” (by Tom Mead)

British fiction writer and playwright Tom Mead has placed short stories with a variety of publications, including International Short Story Magazine, Lighthouse, Flame Tree Press, Mystery Weekly, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. He makes his EQMM debut in our current issue, with the story “The Indian Rope Trick.” Like much of the rest of his work, the story belongs to the “impossible crime” subgenre of crime fiction. A longtime fan of impossible crimes and especially of locked-room mysteries, Tom shares some of his favorite books and stories from that category with us in this post. We expect to have another post on this insufficiently discussed topic soon. —Janet Hutchings

It will come as no surprise that I’m here because I love mysteries. But more than that, my passion is impossibilities. There is something about a locked-room mystery that speaks to me in a way that no other genre does. It’s the intricacy of it; the meticulousness; the literary legerdemain. I tend to use “locked room” as an umbrella term for all impossible crime stories; stories where the question is not simply whodunit but how. (Not to be confused— though it often is—with a “closed circle” mystery such as Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express or the movie Knives Out, where only a handful of suspects could conceivably have committed the crime.)

A supposed failing of the Golden Age puzzle plot is its lack of psychological verisimilitude. For a good while it was fashionable for critics to disparage the old guard for a perceived lack of interest in their murderers’ inner lives. Critiquing any mystery on that basis misses the point entirely. While encountering a real life locked-room scenario is certainly fanciful (no more so than encountering a serial killer, of course), it is also a very potent piece of psychological symbolism. Perhaps that’s why some of the most remarkable poets of the twentieth century took an interest in the genre. I’m thinking in particular of Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis, who wrote mysteries—including impossible crimes—as “Nicholas Blake,” and Nobel Prize winner W.H. Auden, who was the first to point out the correlation between the archetypal Golden Age mystery and the Aristotelian concept of tragedy in his essay “The Guilty Vicarage.”

From the very beginning of a locked-room mystery, we are told that we are about to be tricked. And then we are tricked. It is a game or a challenge, but it is also an intimate psychological bond that can tell us a great deal about ourselves. It is similar to watching a horror movie: we do not want to be frightened, and yet, at the same time, we do.

But even this description is somewhat reductive. It is not simply the challenge that makes the subgenre great—otherwise a locked-room mystery novel would be no more engaging than a crossword or Sudoku puzzle. Another key component is atmosphere. At its best, the locked-room mystery entices the reader with its intrigue and unease—nothing is as it seems, after all. Often the works that I love the most are the ones that flirt with the uncanny or the supernatural. Mysteries which revel in the Gothic tradition. When done right, believe me, it is like magic.

In fact, there are plenty of correlations between constructing a fair-play puzzle plot and constructing a magic trick. That’s why I have made my own fictional detective a magician. In most respects he fits the Golden Age archetype. He is an aging retired conjuror with a knack for unravelling mysteries. A perfect foil for whatever weird and wonderful scenarios I can come up with!

It might seem like a paradox, but I think one of the best ways to gain an understanding of the human condition is by deceiving people. That’s why I love writing locked-room stories. You have to second and even third-guess your reader. You have to perceive your clues and suspects as your reader is going to perceive them. You have to lay traps. In essence, you need to get inside other people’s heads. That’s the challenge but also the thrill of crafting an impossible crime.

The pleasure also lies in coming up with new and startling impossible scenarios . . . then explaining them away. I have written a story where a woman appears to spontaneously combust while travelling alone in a cable car. One where a girl vanishes in broad daylight walking through a revolving door. One where a man is found decapitated in a locked tower room, lying on the bare floorboards in the centre of a pentagram. I hope that my own writing fits somewhere into the grand tradition I have described, but I freely acknowledge that it could not exist without the works and the authors I love.

Most readers with a superficial awareness of the subgenre know John Dickson Carr, the acknowledged maestro of the locked room. It’s fair to say that his body of work has influenced me more than anybody else’s. He is a virtuoso of misdirection, as well as an effortless conjuror of atmosphere. I don’t think it would be hyperbole to call him a genius. And there is a core crowd of EQMM favourites like Edward D. Hoch, Bill Pronzini and Clayton Rawson who have produced work of startling quality.

But as a student of the locked room, it has been a pleasure discovering how immensely diverse it is. There are hundreds of unsung heroes and heroines (past and present) whose work deserves attention. Matt Ingwalson’s hardboiled Owl & Raccoon novellas, for instance, or Hal White’s ingenious Reverend Dean mysteries; Gigi Pandian’s brilliant The Cambodian Curse, Orania Papazoglou’s Sweet, Savage Death or Barbara D’Amato’s seafaring Hard Tack. If you fancy heading back in time, there is Rupert Penny’s astonishing oeuvre waiting to delight you, or Clyde B. Clason’s, or Hake Talbot’s utterly remarkable Rim of the Pit. Then there are the scientific machinations of Arthur Porges or John Russell Fearn. Or French-language masterpieces like Pierre Boileau’s Six Crimes Sans Assassinand Stanislas-André Steeman’s L’Infaillible Silas Lord (which, incidentally, I am working to translate into English). Or the blood-spattered Daedalian tapestries of honkaku kings Soji Shimada and Seishi Yokomizo.

Looking at a list like that, it is almost hard to believe they all fit in such an apparently narrow subgenre. But they do. Though the tropes of the locked-room mystery are so well established, there is still plenty of scope for innovation. After all, the best are those which leave you breathless at their invention, but which also slot together so neatly that there could be no other conceivable solution. The only real “locked room” is a reader’s imagination. And ingenuity is the key.

If you are new to the subgenre and wondering where is best to begin, here are five titles I admire greatly to get you started. This is not a “top 5” by any means, just a selection of gems in dire need of mainstream rediscovery:

John Dickson Carr, He Who Whispers

He Who Whispers is the maestro at his most unabashedly gothic. A man found dead at the top of an inaccessible tower—could it be the work of a vampire?

John Dickson Carr, It Walks By Night

JDC’s early novels positively see the with malevolent atmosphere and this one, his very first in fact, borrows a particularly macabre motif from Edgar Allan Poe.

Paul Halter, The Picture From The Past

Paul Halter’s commitment to the traditional impossible-crime story is astonishing. He is certainly one of the most prolific contemporary authors in the subgenre, as well as one of the most creative. The John Pugmire translations from Locked Room International are a constant joy.

Helen McCloy, Through A Glass Darkly

This is a hauntingly surreal mystery with a neat and satisfying conclusion which, at the same time, does not quite dispel its atmosphere of creeping disquiet. McCloy had a fascination with uncanny doubles, and this novel is arguably her masterpiece.

Soji Shimada, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders

An utterly macabre triumph which defies description. It really must be read to be believed; fortunately, it is now readily available in English. Hopefully the first of many.

And since EQMM is a great bastion of short fiction, here are a few stories for good measure:

John Dickson Carr, “The Wrong Problem”

Carter Dickson (a.k.a. John Dickson Carr), “The House in Goblin Wood”

Paul Halter, “The Cleaver”

Edward D. Hoch, “The Problem of the Old Oak Tree”

Clayton Rawson, “From Another World” 

Happy reading, and welcome to the realm of the impossible.

Posted in Books, Characters, Classic Mystery, Fiction, Genre, Guest, Novels, Story, Writers | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Reader as ‘Murderer?’ Not Really.” (by Claire Ortalda)

A former journalist, editor, and teacher, Claire Ortalda has won various prizes and awards for her fiction, including the Georgia State University Fiction Prize. Her short story “Oglethorpe’s Camera” was included in the 2019 MWA anthology Odd Partners, edited by Anne Perry. The Psychopath Companion, her first novel, was short-listed for the Del Sol First Novel Prize. The California author has also written children’s fiction. With her writing experience (short fiction and long, adult and juvenile) covering so much of our genre, she’s the perfect writer to talk about some of the thorny issues surrounding violence in entertainment fiction. Don’t miss her first story for EQMM, “The Recipe Box,” either; it’s in our current issue, July/August 2020.—Janet Hutchings

We have all, recently, been witness to violent murder in the death of George Floyd. What implications does that tragic event have on our thoughts about one form of entertainment—the murder mystery?  What does it mean for readers and writers to repeatedly, enthusiastically, be “involved” in, to “witness” the violent taking of life?

I first began thinking along these lines months ago, when, for a novel-in-progress, I began research on support groups for families of victims of violence.  The websites for these groups are sobering and sad.  It was astonishing to me to see how many murders are unsolved. It was heart-rending to see the yearbook-style photos of the victims and to read the thumbnail sketches of the circumstances of their death.

Then I happened upon Murder Is Not Entertainment (MINE)SM , a program established in November 1993 by the National Organization of Parents Of Murdered Children, Inc. The tenets of this worthwhile group brought me up short because, indeed, as a mystery writer, I myself was writing about violent crime as entertainment, and as a mystery reader, consuming that kind of entertainment.

Certainly there has been a veritable explosion in the past few decades of reality-based crime shows.  A component in some of these is the participation of the victim’s families, who are, undoubtedly, so desperate for assistance in the apprehension of the murderer of their loved one, that they consent to this invasion of privacy, allowing, as well, a window into their grief.

I have watched many of these programs, putting myself into the detective’s shoes, as intrigued by the very puzzle-like nature of the investigation as I am by a well-crafted fictional mystery.  But is this exploitation?  Do we revel in the violence?  Why isn’t, for instance, a show or story about a clever fraud as fascinating as a murder?

Well, I think it can be, for those of us who like the puzzle aspect of mysteries, who have an unflagging interest in the psychology of the characters involved, who marvel at the confluence of decisions and events that bring people together in situations that become crimes.

Let’s take a typical Agatha Christie-type novel as an example, one with an aging or ailing patriarch or matriarch with sole control of the family money surrounded by potential heirs, all with varying reasons for needing their inheritance now.  Typically, the sequence goes thusly:  a murder is committed, then the sleuth interviews each of the suspects in turn. In these interviews, besides establishment of a real or fabricated alibi, the following may occur:

1) the character of the interviewee is illuminated to both reader and sleuth via the suspect’s appearance, mannerisms, and reactions to certain questions (nervousness, anger, dismissiveness, arrogance, prejudices);

2) the reader is “listening” and evaluating this suspect in light of what previous characters have said about this person (a complex assessment because the previous characters may have lied or been prejudiced against this person);

3) the interviewee may react guiltily or nervously as a result of the interview (immediately be seen calling somebody or leaving the house hurriedly, speaking sharply to someone, not allowing someone to speak, etc.) This usually occurs when the person thinks the sleuth is out of sight or earshot; and/or

4) both reader and sleuth may come to understand that the suspect is hiding another secret, unconnected to the murder, or is protecting someone else.

These are complex psychological analyses, often occurring in just a few pages.  No wonder mysteries are so endlessly compelling to the student of human nature, as so many mystery readers tend to be. Here, in fictional form, by the end of the book, the motivations and passions of the main characters are laid bare, something that very often does not occur in real life.  We are each a mystery to one another which is why this kind of probing and unmasking is so intriguing and, I would argue, the real impetus behind our fascination with murder mysteries. It’s not the blood that enthralls, it’s the mind behind the crime.  It’s the motivations and compulsions of diverse personalities.

I know. You are saying that these are examples of murder mysteries and yet I was arguing that any kind of crime compels interest.  One answer could be that murder, being the most extreme of crimes, serves almost as a metaphor for all crime.  Another answer is Aristotelian: tragedy is cathartic, purging the heart through pity and fear.

And now that we’re referencing the ancient Greeks, if we remember their original definition of comedy and tragedy, technically an Agatha Christie novel, for example, is . . . a comedy.

It’s a comedy by definition because it has a happy ending.   And it qualifies as having a happy ending because the good guy wins.  So despite the body count, truth (knowledge of who the killer is) and justice prevail at the end.  Just listen to the sprightly, upbeat music on the BBC version (Joan Hickson starring) of the Miss Marple books. It’s a cue to the viewer that all will turn out well.

Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, Sherlock Holmes, and others of their ilk are all examples of what mystery writer David Corbett, in his book The Compass of Character terms “traveling angels,”  which he defines as “A descendent of the knight errant [who] . . . roams from place to place . . . solving problems with a unique skill set, then moving on.”  And it’s another reason why mysteries in which justice is done, no matter how serious the book’s content, are comedies in the Greek sense.  This almost supernatural being, with few personal ties, enters the arena of tragedy, shrewdly untangles the web of deception, and brings that malefactor who would rend the fabric of society (the murderer) to justice, thus mending that society.  The “angel” then rides off into the sunset a là Shane.

In perhaps more realistic mysteries, especially the hardboiled novels of the 1920s and 1930s (more recently exemplified by the movie Chinatown), the traveling angel, the detective for hire, does not win against the forces of wealth and corruption.  But in Golden Age mysteries and most published today, justice is served, society is made whole, and that, I think, mitigates the fact that such a tragic act is consumed as . . . entertainment.

Finally, I don’t think we really have trouble discerning the fictional from the real. George Floyd was real.  And his death rallied the world against real-life problems in an effort to accomplish the same things most fictional mysteries do: make society whole.  And make it just.

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“Predicting a Pandemic” (by Kevin Mims)

Last week on this site I expressed the opinion that most readers are not yet ready to read stories about COVID-19 for entertainment. But as Kevin Mims notes in the following essay, a number of publications, including the New York Times, put out reading lists for the lockdown that consisted primarily of fiction turning around plagues of one sort or another. If you are in the mood to read about a pandemic, Kevin has unearthed an old thriller that sounds worth the excavation. Amazon appears to have a couple dozen used copies available, and I imagine there are a few around elsewhere too. Kevin Mims is a frequent contributor to this site who also writers short stories for EQMM and AHMM.—Janet Hutchings

Essays about what to read during this pandemic have proliferated online since COVID-19 seized control of our societies. On March 12, the New York Times published a listicle entitled “Your Quarantine Reader,” which recommended fictions such as Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain, David Koepp’s Cold Storage, Katie M. Flynn’s The Companions, Lawrence Wright’s The End of October, Justin Cronin’s The Passage, Stephen King’s The Stand, and of course Albert Camus’s The Plague. Among the titles recommended by Vulture were Daniel DeFoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider, Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.

Not all of these books parallel the current crisis especially well, but browsing through the titles reminded me of a political thriller/crime novel from 1977 that I did not see mentioned on any of these lists. I first read The Black Death years ago and had forgotten most of it. I picked it up again with the intention of writing a lightly comic essay about how poorly its authors had anticipated the effects of a pandemic on New York City. But I was taken aback by how much the story got right or nearly right. The book is a pot-boiler, of course, not an academic study, and so it is by no means accurate in every respect. For instance, in the novel, many of New York’s essential workers—cops, nurses, firemen, transit workers, sanitation workers—simply stage a sick-out rather than expose themselves to a deadly disease by performing their suddenly-more-dangerous jobs. In the current epidemic, as we know, the members of these professions have performed heroically. Nevertheless, I found it startlingly prescient in a number of important ways.

My dogeared copy includes no biographies of the novel’s two coauthors, Gwyneth Cravens and John S. Marr. I have since discovered from an internet search that Cravens is an experienced journalist whose work has appeared in Harpers, the New Yorker, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. In 2007, she wrote a nonfiction book entitled The Power to Save the World advocating the use of nuclear power as a solution to climate change. Dr. Marr, meanwhile, is a Harvard-trained epidemiologist who at one time served as director of the New York City Bureau of Communicable Diseases. In April, he appeared with Dr. Lloyd Novick on the podcast of the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice to discuss the COVID-19 epidemic. So, in retrospect, it is unsurprising that the authors brought a good deal of knowledge and sobriety to their joint literary venture. Alas, the U.S. paperback edition was given one of the more lurid covers of the era, featuring a giant rat baring its teeth and encircling Manhattan with its body and its tail. That artwork almost certainly deterred more serious-minded readers, but it has made the book a cult favorite among geeks like me who love twentieth-century pulp fiction. In any event, Cravens’s and Marr’s novel deserves to be read, not least because it offered an engrossing and well-informed picture of what would befall America (or, at least, New York City) were it to be caught unprepared during a lethal pandemic.

The story opens with young New York hippie Sarah Dobbs returning from a backpacking trip in California and discovering that she suffers from what she thinks at first might be a cold. As breathing becomes more difficult for her, she suspects she might have the flu. In fact, she is in the advanced stages of a pneumonia brought on by an as-yet-unidentified pathogen. The authors describe how the human body responds when it is invaded by a dangerous microorganism such as a virus or a bacterium:

She was already using a great deal of strength just to keep breathing. The air sacs of her lungs were brimming with the organism and the moist residue of her battle. Destroy, destroy, her body said, and tissues harboring the enemy were sloughed off and coughed up. Burn it out, burn it out, her body said, and her fever increased. Block it, seal it off, ordered the body, and capillaries began shutting down. The flow of blood through arteries now slowed, and her blood pressure dropped. She was starving for oxygen, and the tips of her fingers were turning blue.

She sets out from her New York apartment in search of the nearest hospital but falls unconscious in the street. Her doorman, an illegal immigrant named Domingo Ortiz, calls for an ambulance. She never regains consciousness and dies at the hospital. Because she was carrying no identification, and because she was a young hippie with weird scratches on her arms (another manifestation of the disease), she is initially assumed to be a drug addict who suffered an accidental overdose. It is not until the hospital lab returns the results of a sputum test (sputum is a combination of mucus and saliva found in diseased lungs) that the physicians in charge of the dead girl’s case realize that she didn’t die of an overdose but of a disease, and possibly a highly contagious and deadly one. Unlike COVID-19, which apparently originated in bats, the fictional disease that strikes New Yorkers in The BlackDeath originates in rodents (Sarah got it from a California ground squirrel, but rats are carriers too). But it is not the bubonic plague. Rather it is described as a “pneumonic plague,” because, like COVID-19, it attacks the respiratory system of its victims and suffocates them over the course of several days. Shortly after Sarah Dobbs drops dead, so too does a pimp named Flash, who accosted her at the Port Authority Bus Station when she arrived back in New York. Flash thought she might be a runaway and was hoping to enlist her in his stable of prostitutes. But Sarah (who, we eventually discover, is the teenage daughter of wealthy parents who live on Fifth Avenue) just brushes right past Flash, coughing in his face as she does so. Next to die is Domingo Ortiz, and then several of the doctors and nurses who treated Sarah when she was hospitalized. At about this time Dr. David Hart, the director of New York City’s Bureau of Preventable Diseases, takes charge of the investigation into just what it is that is killing off New Yorkers at an alarming rate. At this point the book becomes not just a thriller, but also a crime novel. It turns out that the disease didn’t arise accidentally but was developed by rogue elements in the government during the era of the Cuban Missile crisis. These rogues planned to work with the Mafia in south Florida in order to unleash the plague (Latin name Yersinia pestis) on Cuba in order to destabilize it and oust Fidel Castro. Here’s how one character describes the covert operation:

On November 2, 1963, a Mafia yacht dropped off two Cuban exiles on the Cuban coast near Havana. They were working for Executive Action, part of the AM/LASH CIA base in Florida, and they each carried two specially designed bulbs filled with the organism Yersinia pestis, or plague. They were to be picked up the following night, but they never reappeared. None of our assets in Havana ever learned what happened to them. The venture was known as Operation Visitation, and until tonight I had only heard stories about it—the records were supposedly destroyed. But now I am in a position to confirm that the action did take place and that those responsible are still highly placed in the government.

As you might expect, those highly placed U.S. government officials are eager to avoid being exposed as the original source of the current plague, which apparently made its way to America via Cuban exiles who were once CIA assets. And these officials will stop at nothing—including mass murder on an epic scale—to cover up their crimes.

As the virus spreads, the authors illustrate the ways in which epidemics strike various segments of society differently. The authors acknowledge that minority communities and neighborhoods are likely to be particularly affected because they are disproportionately poor, and that illegal immigrants might be reluctant to seek medical aid due to their undocumented status and fear of deportation. Page 39 of the paperback edition includes a chart of a hypothetical epidemic, which shows that men are more vulnerable than women and that the elderly are more vulnerable than the young, which seems to be the case with COVID-19 as well.

There has been some debate during the COVID-19 pandemic about the effectiveness of face masks and gloves, but the authors of The Black Death knew 43 years ago that those things are vital in fighting off disease. From page 44:

To a morgue attendant who waited in the doorway, Hart said, “Get the body to the Medical Examiner’s and make sure everyone who has anything to do with it wears masks and gloves.”

From page 54:

The two men looked at each other in silence. Then they went to a cabinet against the wall and took out rubber surgical gloves. They changed their masks . . . The attendant came back as they were finishing up. “That was fast, you guys. You usually take an hour.”

“Get the fuck out of here, Jerry,” Chakarian snapped.
. . . Put on a mask and gloves, you stupid bastard, and then come help us.”

Like the epidemiologists fighting COVID-19, the medical experts in The BlackDeath also understand the importance of tracking everyone who may have come in contact with a carrier of the disease. Dolores Rodriguez, an epidemiological nurse, tells her boss (and secret lover) Dr. Hart,

“I’ve been checking around the hospital. Counting the lab technicians exposed to the blood and sputum cultures, the stretcher attendants, the orderlies, the aides, the nurses, and the doctors, fifty-five people were exposed to Jane Doe [at this point Sarah Dobbs’s identity is still unknown] on Sunday. You can figure there were some people who rode up with her in the elevator from the emergency room—say three unidentified exposures there. Of all those exposed, I guess that at least twelve people had close exposure to the patient and thirteen had intimate exposure. On Monday, seventeen more were exposed, one closely and fourteen intimately. And then, after she died, five more had intimate exposure, including the morgue attendants. The grand total is about eighty-two, with seventy-seven identified.”

Hart thinks to himself: If those seventy-seven contacts Delores had identified had each made only one [additional] contact, that was one-hundred-and-fifty-four people exposed. And if each of those had made contacts . . . Oh, God. It spread so fast—in a breath, a touch, a sneeze, a handshake, a curse.

Also prescient was the authors’ understanding that, in an epidemic, ventilators would be in short supply.

Garson followed Hart as he moved swiftly through the corridor. “We don’t have enough personnel to handle all the cases that are coming in! Many of them need respirators and intensive care!”

Later an epidemiology nurse tells Hart, “They’re bringing in respirators from Queens, and they still don’t have enough to manage the intensive-care patients.” (Dictionary.com argues that respirators are face masks worn by medical professionals to protect them from diseases, whereas ventilators are devices that help patients breathe, but in 1977 it appears that “respirator” was the term for devices that help patients breathe—at least that is the term that Cravens and Dr. Marr use in the book.)

But perhaps most impressive is not what Cravens and Marr got right about the medical aspects of a highly infectious respiratory illness, but what they got right about how society—the media, politicians, and citizens—would respond to such a pandemic. At one point, Dr. Hart recalls an outbreak of smallpox back in 1948:

The city government ordered everyone in the five boroughs who had not had a recent immunization to have shots [and] everyone cooperated. President Truman had one before visiting the city. Over six million people vaccinated in two weeks. Now, Hart knew, there would be no return of the miracle of ’48. Decentralization, “community awareness,” an infectious distrust of government, and federal indifference would all work against any “war effort.” And the health department had been much bigger then . . . Now, thanks to successive budget cuts, the money and personnel to fight a major epidemic no longer existed.

Later in the book, Irving Kaprow, head of New York Mayor Syd Weinstein’s Task Force for Emergency Preparedness, tells Dr. Hart, “It’s about that statement of Imminent Peril. The Board of Health met and ratified it and passed it on to the Mayor. But now he’s changed his mind. He doesn’t want to deliver it. He’s afraid that if he asks people to avoid public transportation, there will be bad traffic tie-ups everywhere . . .  And he doesn’t want to say that it’s the plague or that we should be prepared for a serious epidemic. He thinks those are scare tactics.”

Shortly thereafter, Mayor Weinstein himself tells Dr. Hart,

“I don’t understand how this epidemic is a serious threat to the entire city when almost nobody is sick,” a reflexive response echoed in some quarters of social media even now. Weinstein is altogether more concerned about the devastating effects of the pandemic on the economy than its devastating effects on the human body. When Dr. Hart asks him to declare a State of Emergency, the Mayor replies: “I am extremely reluctant to do that on account of the fact that when a State of Emergency is declared, people get very excited. The law is that, in a State of Emergency, all insurance policies are automatically voided. The business community would go into a turmoil, which would have a ripple effect. The threat to property—”

At which point, Dr. Hart interjects:

“Goddamn it, your life is the best personal property you own! And the best way to protect it is to bring in the Guard, and even Army medical personnel, and solicit volunteer nurses and doctors. The resources of the Health Department have been exhausted. We are not sitting on our hands! We’ve been working day and night. The hospitals are barely able to manage, and the cases are still coming in. When I left Metropolitan Hospital a few minutes ago, there were sixty-two cases jammed into a small isolation ward. Many of them require intensive care, and special machinery that we’ll have to bring in from the other boroughs. And outside the hospital there’s a large worried crowd . . . Your Honor, I know that we can stop the epidemic right now, within the next few days, if we’re given enough help and cooperation. Politics has to be put aside; otherwise, more people will die in a mass panic—caused by conflicting reports and terrible rumors . . .”

The authors of The Black Death foresaw that a pandemic might create a rift between government officials and medical authorities and wove it into their plot, more than forty years before the current pandemic.The authors are also prescient about the unreliability of government statistics during the early days of a pandemic as health officials struggle to understand the behavior of this new pathogen. Fictional CIA Director Bryce Marks tells the men gathered at a security briefing:

“It’s difficult to determine true statistics during plague, because systems of reporting differ from country to country, and usually cases are underreported. This is partly because only confirmed cases are reported to the World Health Organization in most countries, and partly because many countries conceal cases for economic and political reasons. So we have no accurate picture of the extent of plague in the world, although WHO estimates that it is more prevalent by a factor of three than the figures show.”

At all levels of government, Cravens and Marr anticipated leadership more interested in restarting a frozen economy than in protecting lives. In one scene, the Secretary of the Treasury says, “I thought we had agreed that a stoppage of the financial and communications structure lasting beyond two weeks was unacceptable, given the economic disruption we’re currently experiencing.” In another scene, General Cosgrove, the President’s National Security Advisor, meets with his team and tells them:

“I have met with the President again today, and he has requested that we formulate specific response options to effect a speedy restoration of the critical financial, port-oriented, and general decision-making activities of New York City. The current disruption of the economy and world trade must end. We’re already under extreme pressure from all the nations in the free world, who are deeply concerned about their gold reserves—a total of eighteen billion dollars in gold bullion—in the Federal Reserve Bank in Manhattan . . . I suggest that we address ourselves to compiling action scenarios to present to the President.”

This excerpt also shows how deftly the authors were able to mimic the self-important jargon that marred so much of business and political communication in the 1970s (for instance, “address ourselves to compiling action scenarios” rather than “come up with a plan”) and which has only worsened in the years since. And just as some contemporary American pundits have insisted, despite a dearth of contrary evidence, that COVID-19 may have been developed as a bioweapon in a Chinese laboratory, the military personnel in The Black Death are determined to lay the blame on foreigners:

“I might add, sir,” Cosgrove went on, “that we can’t rule out the possibility that the New York outbreak represents the use of bacteriological warfare by a hostile power, and that further attacks are being contemplated.”

Later, CIA director Marks wants to play up this possibility in order to distract the public from the administration’s bungled response to the outbreak.

“Can we formulate a believable adversary action to help create an external focus of public outrage?” Marks asked.

“An overt statement on the part of the President suggesting that Cuba was responsible for the plague is a constructive possibility,” Cosgrove replied.

In speculating about how a dangerous epidemic might play out in New York City, Gwyneth Cravens and John S. Marr didn’t get everything right. But their forty-seven-year-old political thriller/crime novel was prescient on many levels. People who look down their noses at popular fictional genres—science fiction, mystery, thrillers, etc.—don’t realize that often times these books contain valuable insights into human nature and the ways that societies work (or fail to work). In times of crisis we’re often encouraged to turn to literary classics for guidance in how to behave and endure. But popular fiction can also fill this role. And sometimes it does so more accurately than even so-called “serious literature” does.

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Some years ago, my colleague Linda Landrigan, editor of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, gave me a copy of Good Poems for Hard Times, edited by Garrison Keillor. That may have been during the Great Recession, because I recall thinking, as I read it, that the collection was just what was needed. With a deadly pandemic, economic collapse, racial injustice playing out with tragic consequences, and violence erupting in cities all over the country, I think no one would quibble with calling this new period in our history among the hardest of times. The question that occurs to me is whether there is a type of reading that can help us through it.

One of the first instincts of writers is to write about what they are experiencing, and already EQMM has received several stories revolving around the pandemic. What some writers are ready to write about and what most readers are ready to read about can be different matters, however, and so far EQMM has not bought a pandemic story. For one thing, it’s my guess (an educated guess, based on many years with the magazine) that most of our readers, bombarded daily with news reports of the pandemic, have little desire to read entertainment fiction that rather than giving them a bit of respite from the situation brings it to mind yet again. Even so, I am reluctant to tell writers not to submit a story that involves the crisis. Years ago, after 9/11, I dreaded the submissions I knew we’d receive about the terrorist attacks. Two years after the towers fell, I was still resistant to reading anything that might trivialize what had happened by using it to support a clever plot or ingenious puzzle or the adventures of a popular series character—as writing entertainment fiction in such close proximity to a horrific event can sometimes do. But then a story came in entitled “A Sunday in Ordinary Time,” a story that I believe remains, all these years later, one of the best that writer Terence Faherty has produced. It depicted a shocked and devastated community in the immediate wake of the events of 9/11, but in a moving and sensitive way—a way that provided catharsis for the reader. I was glad, then, that I hadn’t decided simply to send back stories about the attacks. Now, as then, we will continue to read and give careful consideration to all stories that come in. I’d only advise those who have written about the pandemic and want to submit the work to us that it’s not a likely subject to find favor with EQMM right now.

If readers aren’t ready for stories about the calamities presently facing us, then what do they want to read? Maybe a much earlier upheaval can help answer the question. In James R. Benn’s article “The Crime Novels of WWII”, he notes how few of the big-name mystery and crime writers of the time dealt with the war, citing Agatha Christie as producing only one such book, and that single venture published early in the war;  Raymond Chandler making only a passing reference to the war in The Lady in the Lake and not touching the subject again until years after the war was over; Simenon never mentioning the war at all in his several books published during its course, and Dorothy Sayers essentially ceasing to write fiction after the start of the war.  It’s hard to say whether these writers found it too difficult to write about something they were so fully immersed in, impossible, perhaps, to gain the right perspective—or whether they were responding to a sense that their readers wanted to be taken out of the world of the encompassing conflict and transported to an entirely different place in imagination.  It’s certainly a common belief that readers crave “escapist” fiction during times of crisis, and it would not be a big stretch to suppose that some of the popular writers of the period were catering to what they thought their readership desired.

On the other hand, no writer—no good one, at least—is immune to catastrophes in the world in which he or she lives and works. The clearest example of this may be Ellery Queen. The two cousins who wrote under that pseudonym were as in tune as any writer ever was to the marketing of their work. Yet with the advent of WWII, their work began to transform into what is considered an entirely different phase. The Ellery of the earlier novels—aloof, stiffly intellectual, somewhat affected in mannerisms—began to be noticably humanized in my favorite Queen novel, Calamity Town, published in 1942. It was as if the disaster of war on such a scale, and its atrocities, had unconsciously necessitated the creation by the authors of a more compassionate central character. They didn’t need to write about the war directly in order to reflect the changes it made to virtually everyone.

To come back to the question with which we began—Is there a type of reading that can help us through our current situation?— I incline to two possibilities. One is so-called “escapist” fiction, which doesn’t directly depict the morass we find ourselves in the midst of but may well reflect newly forming attitudes towards life and society as a result of it. The other is fiction—or poetry!—that brings the reader cathartic release from the turmoil of confused emotions we must all currently be experiencing.

I’ve brought in poetry not only because it can serve to convey and release repressed emotion, but because it is usually short enough to be taken in fully during a time when many, myself included, are finding it difficult to focus on longer reading. Recently I said to a good friend, a former editor of both fiction and nonfiction, “I suppose you are using this time in lockdown to do a lot of reading.” She replied, “I’m not reading at all, I’m not able to focus on it now.” My job at EQMM necessitates a great deal of reading, which I have continued to do, but I understood entirely what my friend meant, for with the lockdown having unexpectedly given me a little more free time, I’ve picked up a number of books that I’ve long wanted to read, only to put them down again within minutes. The one thing I have been able to focus on for reading unrelated to work is poetry. Coincidentally, this month’s EQMM podcast is a selection of EQMM poetry—mostly humorous verse, but a few “serious” pieces too. I hope you’ll listen to it.

In closing, I wanted to include here a poem from Garrison Keilor’s Good Poems for Hard Times that struck me as a propos to the circumstance many of us are experiencing in lockdown, where what surround us are not people but things. It turns out that it is not possible to reproduce the poem on this site, as we cannot get the necessary permission in time, but the Poetry Foundation has obtained the rights to present the poem online and you can find it here. It’s entitled “Things” by Lisel Mueller.

What are you reading?

—Janet Hutchings

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“Too Many Answers” (by Toni L.P. Kelner)

Toni L.P. Kelner is a longtime contributor to EQMM whose appearances are not as frequent as we’d like (due, perhaps, to her commitment to multiple series of novels and her editorial work on short-story anthologies!). She is really two authors in one, often writing under a pseudonym. As Leigh Perry, she writes the Family Skeleton Mysteries. The sixth, The Skeleton Stuffs a Stocking, was released in fall 2019. Under her own name, she wrote eight novels in the Laura Fleming mystery series and three “Where Are They Now?” books. She has also coedited seven urban-fantasy anthologies with New York Timesbest-seller Charlaine Harris. Under both names she writes short fiction, including her story in EQMM’s current issue (May/June), “Rage Warehouse—Ire Proof,” and a forthcoming story in Shattering Glass. In this post, the Agatha Award winner focuses on short fiction and gives aspiring short-story writers some advice gained from her own diverse experience. —Janet Hutchings

I’ve got a problem when people ask me how to write short stories. Not only do I get this question from new and aspiring writers, but sometimes it even comes from novelists, because they’ve never written anything shorter than 70,000 words. Since I’ve published thirty-ish short stories, I really ought to have an answer. But I don’t. I have thirty-ish answers because the process is different every time.

Take my most recent two stories.“Now Hiring Nasty Girlz” was in the Jan/Feb issue of EQMM, and “Rage Warehouse—Ire Proof” is in the May/June issue, and the stories behind the stories could not be more different.

“Now Hiring Nasty Girlz” was a sudden-bolt-from-the-blue story. I was actually working on a different story with a similar title, when this one showed up in my head almost completely formed. In less than two weeks, I wrote it, shipped it to my beta readers, rewrote it based on feedback, and sent it toEQMM. Boom.

So I could tell people, “Wait for the muse to hit you upside the head and then write like crazy!” The problem is, that’s not really a good way to build a career.

So what about “Rage Warehouse—Ire Proof”? How long did it take to write? Would you believe twenty-two years? No, actually it was longer. I’d had the title in mind for a while, but it was twenty-two years ago when I actually started writing the story. Not that I worked on it every day of those twenty-two years, mind you, or even every year.

The first version was written for a project that never happened. I was trying to sell a linked collection of short stories, one for each month of the year, and wrote three stories of the fictional year. Unfortunately, the collection didn’t sell. I sold the other two stories elsewhere, but just didn’t feel that “Rage Warehouse—Ire Proof” was ready for prime time. Twenty years later, I gave it a fresh edit that I thought really strengthened it, and submitted it for an anthology. It was accepted, but there were contract issues so I took it back. A few months passed, and I dusted it off again and made more changes before sending it to EQMM. Where it was rejected. But there were suggestions for a rewrite, and since the suggestions were excellent, there was no reason not to try. Once more to the word processor, and after that edit, the story was accepted. And as of this month, published.

So I could tell people, “Never give up on a story even if it takes twenty years or more!” Again, that’s not a sustainable career path. Or maybe the advice would be, “Start with a fun title.”

I have done the fun title idea in other stories. I was coediting the anthology Many Bloody Returns with Charlaine Harris, and part of the deal was that I was to contribute a story, too. The theme was vampires and birthdays and I’d never done anything with vampires, and I had no ideas in mind. But when somebody asked what I was going to write, I popped up with, “How Stella Got Her Grave Back,” because it made me laugh. (Most puns make me laugh.) The rest was just devising a story to go with the title, and designing vampires that didn’t sound like every other writer’s vampires. Plus I threw in a smelly chicken farm, like the one my grandparents owned back in the day.

The advice from that would be, “Be careful what you say in public, because you might actually have to write that story someday.”

Then there’s “Pirate Dave’s Haunted Amusement Park” from Death’s Excellent Vacation, which was another anthology I coedited with Charlaine Harris. I had the whole story worked out in my head. Vampire working as a pirate costumed character at an amusement park realizes the place is under supernatural attack, and when he sniffs out a werewolf, assumes said werewolf is involved. Only the werewolf isn’t any of the guests of the park, but a tiny pocket pooch a guest smuggled in in her pocketbook, and the werewolf has nothing to do with the threat. Hilarity ensues.

I can safely tell you all those details because the story I actually wrote had nothing to do with what I just described. Okay, there’s an amusement park and a pirate and a vampire and a werewolf, but the setup is very different, the viewpoint character shifted, the plot twist changed, and . . . Honestly, it’s just not the same story at all.

The advice would be, “Don’t be afraid to trash everything you’ve got and start over.”

For “A Man Feeling Bad,” I was invited by editor Carolyn Haines to write a noir story about Mississippi Delta blues for the anthology Delta Blues. I knew nothing about the blues or the Mississippi Delta, and in fact had only passed through Mississippi en route to other places. But I did some research, and tried to get dark, and was pretty happy with the story. My other foray into noir and my one foray into horror went the same.

The advice? “Don’t be afraid to try something new.”

I’ve got stories based entirely on titles and where I just liked the name of the main character. I’ve got stories I pitched with no idea what I was going to do, stories based on existing characters, and stories based on events that happened to me. I’ve got stories that were written in a fevered pitch and stories that took decades to write. I’ve got stories that were rejected and sold elsewhere, stories that were sold and then had projects fall part, and stories that sold right away. What lesson could anybody learn from me?

This is all I’ve got. When it comes to writing short stories:

  1. Start with whatever inspires you, whether that be a title, an anthology invite, an odd fact, or a character you love.
  2. Write as long as it takes to write a good story.
  3. Rewrite as often as it takes to make a better story, even if it means starting over.
  4. Don’t give up on a story.
  5. If you’re sure the story is good, keep trying to sell it until it finds the right home.
  6. Listen to your grandparents’ stories—you’ll never know when details about chicken farm will come in handy.
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“Whodunit and Whoateit: A Perfect Pairing” (by Katherine Hall Page)

When it comes to the connection between cooking and mysteries, we can’t think of a more knowledgable author than Katherine Hall Page. She is often cited as one of the foremost writers in the culinary crime genre, and she is the author of twenty-five mystery novels featuring amateur sleuth/caterer Faith Fairchild. That twenty-fifth book in the Fairchild series, The Body in the Wake, is out now. Primarily a novelist, Katherine also writes short stories occasionally, and our current issue contains her first for EQMM, entitled “The End of the Line.”  The New England author’s fiction has been recognized with Agatha Awards for best first novel, best novel, and best short story, and she has been nominated for the Edgar, the Mary Higgins Clark Award, the Macavity, and the Maine Literary Award. Particularly relevant to this post, she also pens a cookbook series, which includes Have Faith in Your Kitchen (2010) and Small Plates (2014). Two things we know about the crisis caused by Covid-19: People under stay-at-home orders are reading a lot of mysteries and they are doing a lot of cooking. Below you’ll find some reading suggestions that will also point you to some recipes!—Janet Hutchings

Reading and food go together. Propping a book up to keep turning the pages while eating is one of life’s great, guilty pleasures—a necessarily solo activity unless those sharing a meal are similarly engaged or uncommonly understanding. Now, during the horror that is the coronavirus both reading and eating have taken on even greater significance. Many are alone in self quarantine or lockdown and are pairing comfort reads with comfort food for company. Mom’s mac ‘n’ cheese recipe along with rereading an old favorite. And maybe a glass of a witty Merlot. According to polls, we are turning to the escape and solace books provide as never before. For great numbers of readers this means mysteries, especially traditional ones with justice-served endings that grant a moment of relief. As P.D. James put it, “These novels are always popular in ages of great anxiety. It’s a very reassuring form. It affirms the hope that we live in a rational and beneficent universe.” Amen.

The history of the mystery goes back to Arthurian legends and Icelandic sagas, among others; but the history of the link between food and crime is more recent, unless we count retellings of accomplished banquet poisoners like Nero or the Borgias. William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863) wrote that “Next to eating good dinners, a healthy man with a benevolent turn of mind, must like, I think, to read about them.” If you combine this observation with the Baron De Mareste (1784-1867)’s Le mauvais gout mène au crime— “Bad taste leads to crime” some years prior, we get a sense of why culinary crime novels have been popular since their beginning. But which work marked that start?

Some cite Poe’s “The Casque of Amontillado” (1846) as the first culinary mystery. The narrator, Montresor, lures his already inebriated victim, Fortunato, into the palazzo’s cavernous wine cellars with the promise of tasting a rare vintage sherry. Montresor walls up Fortunato, still alive, in a convenient niche near conveniently stashed bricks. Presumably no Amontillado crossed the doomed man’s lips. The story is not one of detection but horror, and the wine plays a rather minor supporting role. Similarly, a comestible in the form of a Christmas goose assumes a role in Conan Doyle’s 1892 short story, “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle.” The jewel is discovered in its craw. The fowl is a fat one and there is an allusion to roasting it, but nothing to whet our appetites save Holmes’s inimitable method of detection.

Excellent as both these stories are, I’d differ and go to Rex Stout (1886-1975) and Charlotte Murray Russell (1899-1992) with Stout’s Nero Wolfe as the somewhat irascible father of culinary crime and Russell’s Jane Amanda Edwards the slightly more amiable mother. Fer-de-Lance, the book that introduced Rex Stout’s corpulent detective and his sidekick Archie Goodwin, was published in 1934; the year before Jane Amada, a self-described “full-fashioned” woman made her 1935 debut in Murder at the Old Stone House. Both Stout and Russell were born in the Midwest. Russell stayed and set the Edwards books in a thinly disguised version of her own hometown of Rock Island, Illinois. Rex Stout left and occupied a much larger stage, although his agoraphobic sleuth Nero Wolfe resided in, and seldom left, his Manhattan brownstone, tending his orchids and ordering meals from his personal chef, Fritz Brenner, of whom Archie said, “He could even make milk toast taste superb.”

Rex Stout’s masterpiece Too Many Cooks stands alone in the annals of culinary crime. Stout, in a rare departure, takes Nero Wolfe out of his NYC comfort zone to a resort in West Virginia, the setting for a gathering of the crème de la crème of international chefs—Les Quinze Maîtres, The 15 Masters.  Wolfe hopes to obtain a much desired, and well-guarded, secret recipe for Saucisse Minuit from one of the chefs. The fun and games prior to the first murder suggest a Food Network challenge. Chefs must identify dishes and ingredients while blindfolded. The plot is a classic locked-room one and is not overwhelmed by the food—no mean feat. When asked what was the best meal in English literature, Nora Ephron replied, “The banquet in Too Many Cooks by Rex Stout.”

The banquet, planned by Nero Wolfe, comes at the end of the book and is his impassioned defense of American cuisine, delivering a hearty slap in the face to the sceptical sophisticated chefs attending. Here are just a few of the delectable dishes, plates no doubt licked clean: Philadelphia Snapper Soup, Terrapin Stewed in Butter, Planked Porterhouse Steak, Boone County Missouri Ham, Creole Tripe, Lobster Newburgh, Beaten Biscuits, Sally Lunn, Pineapple Sherbet, and Sponge Cake. The definitive source for information on both the brilliant detective and his creator is John McAleer’s 1977 Edgar winner, Rex Stout: A Biography. Among Stout’s legion of fans were both Agatha Christie and M.F.K. Fisher.

Rex Stout published forty-seven Nero Wolfe mysteries as well as many short stories (in the pages of this magazine!), other novels, and plays. Charlotte Murray Russell, in contrast, published only twelve in the Edwards series and eight other mysteries. She started crafting the novels during the Depression to put food on the family table and ended her career in 1953 at age fifty-four saying she was tired of writing. She remained very active until her death at ninety-three, working at her Rock Island library and making notes for a memoir.

Russell’s female amateur sleuth was a breakthrough, combining a sharp sense of humor with equally sharp powers of detection and observation. Much more down to earth than Miss Marple, Miss Edwards nevertheless shares an uncanny ability to see through a tissue of lies—she calls herself, “old X-ray Jane”—as well as extrapolate village life to all human behavior.  A forty-something spinster, Jane Amanda is the head of a household consisting of a younger sister and brother. Her brother’s penchant for drink—one glass of wine sends him over the edge—and unsuitable women keeps Jane on her toes, not an easy task given her 180 pounds. And all of them the result of the mouth-watering food described in the series. Like Stout’s, Russell’s books are a celebration of American regional cooking, in this case midwestern comfort food. In books like Cook Up A Crime, the housekeeper Theresa’s chicken and dumplings, lemon meringue pie, fudge cake, and other staples may send readers straight to the fridge and pantry, especially as it contained an occasional recipe. Rue Morgue Press, 87 Lone Tree Lane, Lyons CO 80540, has reissued a number of Charlotte Murray Russell’s books and they more than stand up.

While many meals are consumed, and some described in detail, in Agatha Christie’s work, particularly in the Poirots, it is Dorothy Sayers who first comes to mind when cataloging culinary crime across the pond. The Documents in the Case may put one off mushrooms for life even as it introduces us to the world of fatal fungi. However, it is Sayers 1928 short story, “The Bibulous Business of a Matter of Taste” that showcases her knowledge of food and more especially drink. In vino veritas she notes in the tale, and Peter Wimsey unmasks his imposter by correctly identifying the obscure wines accompanying each course at a chateau in France before repairing to the library for a suitably venerable cognac with his host. Among Sayers’s many UK successors, Janet Laurence, a cookery expert, has created a chef, Darina Lisle, as knowledgeable in the kitchen as she is in detecting. The first in the series of ten books is A Deepe Coffyn (1989). Another favorite is A Tasty Way to Die (1990).

In the US, the culinary-crime pioneer who extensively included recipes in her mysteries was Virginia Rich (1914-1985). Like Rex Stout and Charlotte Murray Russell, her roots were in the Midwest, but after her marriage she went on to live in many places, spending the latter part of her life moving between the family’s working cattle ranch near Tucson, Arizona and the small Maine coastal village of Corea. Both provided settings for her work. She only published three novels: The Cooking School Murders (1982), The Baked Bean Supper Murders (1983), and The Nantucket Diet Murders (1985), but anyone writing in this subgenre owes her a debt. Rich set the bar high. Her amateur sleuth, Eugenia Potter, is a widow in her sixties and, while not a professional chef, more than knows her way around a kitchen. ‘Genia also enjoys a very dry martini, or two.

Virginia Rich’s books were unique not only for the introduction of so many recipes—outlined in the text and in detail on the endpapers—but also for the treatment of character and place. The mysteries are good puzzles, but it is Mrs. Potter herself and Rich’s depiction of her world that has made these books continuing pleasures—great rereads. The Baked Bean Supper Murders is a portrait of Down East life that had all but vanished even before the current pandemic—Grange Hall suppers, lobstering with just a plumb line and a compass, the post office as the main source of news, and Saturday night baked-bean family meals from the bean pot that had been sitting overnight on the wood stove. Rich’s recipes are also a celebration of American regional cuisine: Blueberry Buckle, Sour Cream Cole Slaw, Baked Ham, Molasses Cookies, Steamed Brown Bread, Lobster Pie, and dishes from the Southwest. After Virginia Rich’s death, her family asked renowned mystery writer Nancy Pickard to complete the manuscript for The 27 Ingredient Chili Con Carne Murders (1993). Pickard wrote two more in the series from notes Rich left: The Blue Corn Murders (1998) and The Secret Ingredient Murders (2001), providing readers with a happy total of six Eugenia Potter books.

Continuing the tradition and foreshadowing the plethora of culinary mystery novels that followed is Diane Mott Davidson, the author of seventeen Goldy Schulz culinary mysteries to date. She published the first, Catering to Nobody, in 1990. The book introduced Goldy, a recent divorcee with a young son, trying to make a living as a caterer in a small Colorado town. All Davidson’s books include recipes and like Rich, character and place are well represented at the table.

One of the most enduring nonseries classics in culinary crime is Nan and Ivan Lyons’ Someone is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe (1990). They wrote several others in the genre, but this is the piece de resistance and also quite tasty in the screen version, Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? (1978), with an outstanding cast—George Segal, Jacqueline Bisset, Philippe Noiret, and especially Robert Morley. One by one the chefs are dispatched in a manner that relates to his signature dish. Readers will never look at a duck press the same way again.

We are all cooking at home now and there are a number of mystery cookbooks that satisfy a wide variety of tastes. A few of my favorites are: Madame Maigret’s Recipes (1975), compiled by the noted French food writer, Robert Courtine, in honor of Simenon’s seventieth birthday; The Lord Peter Wimsey Cookbook (1981), Elizabeth Bond Ryan and William J. Eakins; The Sherlock Holmes Victorian Cookbook (1973), William Bonnell; and The Nancy Drew Cookbook, Clues to Good Cooking (1973), Carolyn Keene—this last notable for the “Dancing Puppet Parfait” recipe, a mix of apricot nectar, marshmallows, and whipped cream. Many contemporary crime writers have turned to the kitchen as well: Donna Leon, Lilian Jackson Braun, Patricia Cornwell, and Alexander McCall Smith.

In a sense, writing a mystery novel is like creating a recipe. Both have “ingredients,” and at the end of the process you hope to have something worth consuming, something done to a turn. Food is a way to define character in books and real life—we are known by what we eat. There’s Kinsey Milhone and her peanut butter and pickle sandwiches, as well as my friend Henry who won’t come within a mile of garlic!

Many nonculinary crime writers have featured food in some manner in their works, as the means to an end (literally) or an expression of their own and their character’s appreciation of the table. Robert B. Parker’s books are filled with descriptions of meals eaten and meals prepared. “When in doubt, cook something and eat it,” Spenser, his memorable P.I., said. I came across the line recently and thought it was an excellent mantra for these frightening days.

We are all in this together— “Living in the Now,” with a book and a plate in hand.

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“The First and the Last: In the Shadow of the Uncanny” (by R.T. Raichev)

A look at the first published short story by Agatha Christie—and at her last

Raicho Raichev’s story “Rassendyll’s Grave” appears in EQMM’s current issue, May/June 2020. A Golden-Age style mystery of the country-house variety, the story incorporates a fascinating twist to the form in that the house in question has been transported to modern Dubai, where the author currently lives and teaches. Raicho is an expert on Golden Age mysteries. He’s previously written several articles for this site about some of the key figures in the field, including Agatha Christie; this time he elucidates Christie’s short stories—specifically the first and the last. You may want to find copies of these and other Christie stories after reading the post. Also, don’t miss “Rassendyll’s Grave,” which forms part of the author’s series  starring mystery writer Antonia Darcy and her husband, Major Payne. The series includes a number of critically acclaimed novels, and we’ll have another short-story case for the pair later this year.—Janet Hutchings

Out of Agatha Christie’s 150-plus short stories, the very first to see the light of day was “The Affair at the Victory Ball.” It was published in 1923 in The Sketch in the UK and in The Blue Book Magazine in the USA. Fifty-one years later it was included in Hercule Poirot’s Early Cases published in 1974 by Collins in the UK and Dodd Mead and Company in the USA.

The milieu in “The Affair at the Victory Ball” is high-bohemia-meets-the-aristocracy, somewhat off Agatha Christie’s usual beat, while the affair in question is a mysterious stabbing at a costume party where all the attendees are dressed up as characters from the Commedia dell’ Arte. The victim is Lord Cronshow, “fifth viscount, twenty-five years of age, rich . . . very fond of the theatrical world” who is killed while wearing a Harlequin costume. That same evening Lord Cronshow’s fiancée, actress Coco Courtnay, who had been his Columbine, dies of a cocaine overdose—a death which Poirot eventually exposes as another murder in the guise of “an accident cleverly engineered.”*

The central puzzle depends on impersonation, specifically on the ease with which a “glittering Harlequin” costume can be worn under a “loose Pierrot garb.” The killer masquerades as his victim** with the purpose of confusing the time of the murder. It is an ingenious enough ploy and it could be deemed fair-play—so long as readers were able to visualize the commedia dell’ arte regulars and had the perspicacity to tumble to the bamboozling possibilities of their attire. Christie introduces her first least-likely killer by providing him with the kind of alibi that corresponds to the literal meaning of the word—at the time of the murder he appears to have been “elsewhere.”

The story is narrated by Captain Hastings. Whatever criticism may have been leveled at Hastings’s intelligence, he does an excellent job of it. He starts by reminding the reader of the mysterious affair at Styles and Poirot’s triumphant role in bringing it to a successful conclusion. He then presents us with the facts of this new case in a manner that is lucid and methodical. And while wasting no time on irrelevancies, he manages to be entertaining. Reflecting on Inspector Japp’s true motivation for enlisting Poirot’s help, he even rises to sardonic wit:

“. . . I, for my part, considered that the detective’s highest talent lay in the gentle art of seeking favours under the guise of conferring them!”

As part of his denouement Poirot attempts a reconstruction of the murder*** with the help of a set of China commedia dell’ arte figures belonging to one of the suspects. Some readers will be surprised that the killer gives himself away a little too easily, flying into a rage and snarling at Poirot (“Curse you, how did you guess?”) before he is put in handcuffs. The truth is that, apart from a green pompon, there is no material proof of his guilt, certainly nothing that would take him to the gallows. The story concludes with the little Belgian grandiloquently declaring the case “simplicity in itself” and the killer not “as clever as Hercule Poirot.”

The inspiration behind “The Affair at the Victory Ball” is believed to be the set of commedia dell’ arte figures that had been part of the decor at Agatha Christie’s family home Ashfield and which she had later brought to Greenway, her Devon country estate, where they can be seen in a glass-paneled cupboard. The figures also inspired Christie to write a series of poems, A Masque from Italy, a play, The Dead Harlequin, and, most famously, the collection of short stories entitled The Mysterious Mr. Quin, published in 1930.

Mr. Harley Quin (to give him his full name) is an elusive, semisupernatural character who tends to appear at opportune moments as though by magic, and then to disappear just as mysteriously—but not before he has been able to steer his friend, the corporeal Mr. Satterthwaite, towards some emotional problem or a conundrum of a detective interest that needs solving urgently. The stories in The Mysterious Mr. Quin are an effective blend of the rational and the mystical. At least one critic found Mr. Quin “as fascinating as Poirot” while The New York Review of Books recommends the book as “a rare treat for the discriminating reader.”

Sadly, this doesn’t apply to the very last Quin conte, which Agatha Christie wrote more than forty years later. Intriguingly called “The Harlequin Tea-Set,” it is also the last short story Agatha Christie ever wrote.It appears alongside stories by other crime authors in the anthology Winter’s Crimes 3 published by Macmillan in 1971. Agatha Christie was then in her eighties and, on the evidence of the last couple of books she wrote, her plotting powers were in steep decline. As is known from various biographical sources she had been using a dictaphone and that had had a further “loosening” effect on her writing. Not unlike Postern of Fate, the last novel she produced before her death, “The Harlequin Tea-Set” is altogether too muddled, rambling, and repetitious, and it teems with incongruities, irrelevancies and self-indulgences.

A long opening paragraph introduces us to the jaundiced views of the elderly Mr. Satterthwaite**** on the subject of modern cars which “broke down more frequently than they used to.” Quite unnecessarily, Harley Quin is given a little black dog called Hermes, clearly named after the winged herald and messenger of the gods, though one strongly suspects modeled on Agatha Christie’s beloved dog Bingo. A scarecrow called Harley Barley makes an embarrassing appearance and so does the ghost of Lily, the mother of the intended victim, “dressed in some pale mother-of-pearl colouring.” At one point the scarecrow rather dramatically, though for no apparent reason, bursts into flames. The middle-aged and respectable-looking Mrs Gilliatt rides a motorbike—which on one page changes to “bicycle.” Daltonism, or colour blindness, is mentioned early in the story’s ten-page exposition, but when the time comes for this important detail to be slotted into the mystery, the result is something of a damp squib.

There is a happy end of sorts, with Mr. Sattherthwaite managing to avert a murder by poisoning, though exactly how the killer might have hoped to get away with it is unclear. Conveniently the killer—rather, the would-be killer—commits suicide and Mr. Satterthwaite thinks it “best left that way.” He tries to explain why thus: “It’s an old house. And old family. A good family . . . A lot of good people in it . . . One doesn’t want trouble, scandal, everything brought upon it.”

“The Harlequin Tea-Set” is a story which Christie completists will no doubt treasure despite all its flaws, however it would be very wrong to recommend it as an introduction to The Queen of Crime. What the reader can take away from it is the reassuring country-house setting and the very English atmosphere of a particular “cozy” kind, much beloved by aficionados of the genre.

This is Mr Satterthwaite arriving at the house splendidly called Doverton Kingsbourne:

Tea was set out upon the lawn. Steps led out from the French windows in the drawing room and down to where a big copper beech at one side and a cedar of Lebanon on the other made the setting for the afternoon serene . . . two painted and carved white tables and various garden chairs . . . hoods over them to guard you from the sun . . . a soft pinkish-golden sky . . .

*This set-up is not dissimilar to the one in Lord Edgware Dies, which was published ten years later in 1933. Tho the puritanical Lord Cronshow with his “unusually strong views on the subject of dope” couldn’t have been more different from the dissolute and degenerate Edgware.
** Agatha Christie uses the ploy in the novels After the Funeral and Curtain— both Poirot cases, as it happens—and in the short stories “The House in Shiraz” and “The Companion.”
*** This rather theatrical device is employed by Christie to greater effect in the short story “Three Blind Mice” and her most celebrated play The Mousetrap. 
**** In one of the stories in The Mysterious Mr. Quin, Mr Satterthwaite’s age is given as sixty-nine. That was in 1930. Therefore he must be more than 110 as the events of “THQTS” unfold. Though perhaps one mustn’t be too pedantic.
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“Shelly Dickson Carr’s Bag of Tricks”

In the current issue of EQMM (May/June 2020) author Shelly Dickson Carr makes a very welcome EQMM debut! Shelly is the author of the novel Ripped, which won three Benjamin Franklin awards, and of a number of short stories, published in our sister magazine, AHMM, and elsewhere. What makes her EQMM debut particularly notable is that she belongs to the third generation of her family to contribute to EQMM. Sons and daughters have followed parents into print in our pages before, but I cannot recall a previous third-generation appearance. Shelly Dickson Carr is the granddaughter of the illustrious John Dickson Carr (dozens of whose tales appeared in EQMM), and the daughter of Julia McNiven, who had a story in EQMM in 1974. In this post she shares some writing tips, some gleaned from her grandfather and from another master of the genre, Colin Dexter, and some learned from personal experience. The writers among our readers should find them all useful.—Janet Hutchings

In this trying time of social distancing and scarcity and isolation and lack of direct contact with our loved ones during the coronavirus pandemic, it seems a bit odd to be talking about a bag-of-tricks. But so many writer friends have been reaching out, needing to stay connected, that when Janet Hutchings asked me to contribute to this blog, I thought I’d dig into my writer’s bag of tricks and share some tips. And because many of us are sheltering in place, here’s hoping this will be a bit of a distraction—it certainly is for me. Thanks, Janet.

As a starter, and because mystery writing is in my DNA, I shall share one of grandfather’s tricks and end with one that Colin Dexter shared with me in Oxford, England over tea at the Randolph Hotel.

 Bag of Tricks # 1—Blood on a Bandage: A John Dickson Carr Trick  

We all know that a detective story has red herrings and clues and must always play fair with the reader—all tropes familiar to crime writers. But have you ever heard of a BOB? A BOB is a trick my grandfather taught me: Blood On A Bandage. Simply put, if you plant a clue, especially an important one, it’s always best to have a visual image such as “red blood on a white bandage” immediately following the all-important clue. A BOB is a metaphor for something graphic or startling that will tug the reader’s mind away from the tip-off that you want the reader to forget. Nine times out of ten, the reader will remember the visual image of red blood splattered on a white gauzy bandage and forget the information proceeding it.

Next time you read a spy thriller, and a sudden bomb or startling explosion goes off,  reread the sentences or paragraphs right before the bomb exploded and you will likely find an important piece of information the author wanted to hide in plain sight.

Setting off a bomb is a wee bit heavy-handed in a short story where a visual but subtle image, given directly after a clue, is the best weapon in one’s arsenal of obfuscation. As an example, I randomly tugged out several old Ellery Queen Mystery Mags off my shelf and, thumbing through the top one, I’ve just found a short story by a favorite writer, Edward D. Hoch—missed by all who knew and loved him.

In Ed Hoch’s short story “The Theft of the Legal Eagle,” it is important that the protagonist/thief, Nick Velvet, remembers later in the story that a beautiful young woman named Silke has had an idyllic childhood, replete with midnight swimming and moonlight treasure hunts. Immediately after we learn about Silke’s treasure hunts, the author gives us: “She tossed her long silken hair, and he (Nick) wondered if her name or the hair had come first.” We are then given a sensual and visual image of Silke’s long, red-gold hair juxtaposed with her name. A subtle image to be sure. But our mind’s eye conjures up this beautiful young woman’s hair (as it relates to her name) and we forget about the treasure hunts of her youth—important to the conclusion of the mystery. Subtle, but in Hoch’s expert hands, pitch perfect.

The BOB trick is nothing more than a conjurer’s obfuscation, the legerdemain of a magician. Stock in trade for card sharks, con artists, and mystery writers everywhere. 

Bag of Tricks #2—Active Verbs

Always, always, always use active verbs. When I finish a manuscript, I check every page and substitute active verbs for inactive verbs. I also hunt out and eliminate every put, got, or was. He got into the car becomes: He climbed into the BMW; He slid behind the wheel of the Ford Truck; He lowered himself onto the front seat of the Jeep. Ditto every put. Sheput the key in the lock, becomes: She shoved the key in the lock; twisted the key in the lock; wriggled the key in the lock. The same goes for was and were. In short fiction, stagnant verbs must go. I keep an “active verb folder” with lists and lists of active verbs for those times when my mind gets stuck.

Settings are important in my stories, almost as important as my characters. If I don’t use active verbs my descriptions will ring flat. We are taught in MFA programs (at least I was) to eliminate or tighten our prose when writing settings because these descriptive paragraphs are what a reader will skip over. But if you read Delia Owens’s Where the Crawdads Sing or anything by Tana French or J.K. Rowling/Robert Galbraith you know how important descriptions are and how place and setting matters. How do these mega-talented writers make their settings jump off the page? A certain lyricism, to be sure, but also by using a plethora of active verbs.

When describing, let’s say, a wall in a room, inactive verbs will make that wall bland and boring, but active verbs will make that wall memorable. The use of active verbs such as: bracketed or wedged against the wall; dangling or expanding from the wall; partitioned by the wall; looping, skirting, anchored into the wall; perched upon a shelf on the wall; balancedfastened, set into, strewn against, flush to the wall. Looming large against the wall . . . stood a grandfather clock . . . or a towering statue of Aphrodite.

And if there are books on a shelf on that wall, make sure to have those books wedged, crammed, resting on the shelf. When a dish in that room falls to the floor, make sure the dish doesn’t just fall, but clatters, smashes or shatters against the floor; skitters across, clunks upon, crashes, thumps on that floor. And if your character puts a coffee mug on a table in that room, instead let him slam the coffee mug on the table or slide it across the table. Anything but put. Writers often feel hesitant about using active verbs, believing their prose will come across as forced, but trust me, the more active the verbs the more memorable the setting.

Bag of Tricks # 3—The Five Senses

This trick or technique is so simple, and yet we all forget to do it. I go over every page to see if I’ve used the five senses on every page. What my characters smell, taste, touch, see and hear grounds the reader in the all-important fictional reality.

The olfactory sense is my favorite because it packs the most punch. I know writers who try to have a sense of smell on every page. It’s difficult to do, but so important. The smell of mildew, laundry detergent, a wet dog, fresh paint, burnt popcorn; the taste of green apples, pumpkin pie, butterscotch toffee, dill pickles places the reader squarely in the fictional world we are building. I’ve had students ask me if I truly want them to go page by page and insert what their characters tasted, smelled, touched, and heard; and I say: yes, yes, and yes. It can’t be arbitrary, it has to be germane and organic to your story, but yes. She staggered into the haunted house and heard . . . a creaky floorboard, the yowl of a cat, the hiss of a radiator; and smelled mildew or cigarette smoke or . . . baby powder? Just remember there must be three out of the five senses on every page and lots of active verbs.

In a scene I was writing set in the nineteenth century, my first-person narrator is sitting on a train. It was a bland scene. However, an important clue needed to be presented in this train scene. I asked the same simple questions I ask my students when workshopping a piece: What is my character smelling? Tasting? Seeing? Touching? And how many inactive verbs can I substitute for active ones? Here’s what I struggled with, but finally came up with:

A sulfurous smell hangs in the air, and there’s a metallic taste in my mouth as if I’ve been sucking on copper pennies. Listening to the melodious chug of the train, feeling the bowstring vibration of its forward movement beneath my seat, the sun outside the train’s window hangs low across the horizon.

At the end of the page (I’ve italicized the active verbs) as my protagonist is glancing out the window: “A watermill flashes into view as the river snakes closer to the train. A deer jumps out of a thicket and scampers away at the blast from the train whistle. And there, swooping close to my window, a hawk hunts its prey in the scrubby brush next to the train.”

Active verbs: hangs, sucking, chug, vibration, flashes, snakes, jumps, scampers, blast, swooping, hunts.

And here’s another example: A student was writing a mystery set in present day amongst the Gilded Age mansions of Newport, Rhode Island. He had his heroine “walk past a statue of Trident in a circular fountain.” The heroine had just had a shock, so simply walking past the fountain in front of Rosecliff Mansion made for a bland scene. What active verbs could this writer enlist? How many of the five senses? We brainstormed the scene and he came up with:

“Bailey’s flipflops crunched over pea-stone gravel as she approached the front courtyard where a statue of Trident rose out of a circular fountain. Water gushed from Trident’s marble head, splashed from his curved fish tail, and shot up in a high arc out of the conch shell he was trumpeting. The roaring, gurgling sounds of water gave Bailey goosebumps, bringing home once again the reality that her best friend had just drowned in the waves off Sashuest Beach.”

Now, admittedly, that may be a bit over the top. But when brainstorming or workshopping a piece, the more over the top the better. You then pull back and weave it into a tighter scene. The point is, Bailey walking past a statue of Trident needs to come alive. We hear the crunch of Bailey’s feet on the gravel; we hear water gush; see it splash; get a sense of Trident’s conch shell trumpeting, and we hear the roar and gurgle of the fountain. We feel Bailey’s goosebumps. The way to make writing come alive is through the use of active verbs and the five senses. Easy peasy. But we as writers often forget those all-important five senses, the ones our fifth-grade teachers drummed into our heads.

I have many trick’s in my writer’s hobo bag. But I’ll end by relaying a bit of sage advice given to me by Colin Dexter who was mentioned in a previous blog post here by Paul Charles.

Before embarking upon a research trip to Oxford, I asked Rebecca Eaton, producer of Masterpiece Mystery, to introduce me to Colin Dexter—one of my favorite writers and the creator of Inspector Morse. This was two years before he passed away. We had tea, along with my brother (also a rabid fan) at the Randolph hotel. The three of us had a delightful afternoon, made especially so as Colin Dexter loved our grandfather’s books and said they had inspired him to write his own. Dexter’s memorable advice to me on writing: “Love your people and then do devilishly nasty things to them.” To which he meant: Take your most beloved characters and throw your worst at them. Be mean to your most cherished characters.

In this unprecedented pandemic when kindness and compassion and empathy are needed most in the world, our outlet for sheltering in place can be this: we can be awful to our protagonists. And then we can be even more devilishly nasty. They and we will come out of it. We shall collectively survive. And just as I am now sending you virtual elbow bumps, you can, in good conscience, send virtual elbow blows to your characters. Be safe and well my friends.

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