“It Matters Who Killed Roger Ackroyd” (by Ray Bazowski)

Last week, EQMM’s March/April issue went on sale. In it is the Department of First Stories debut of Ray Bazowski. The professor of politics at Toronto’s York University had previously submitted this first work of fiction, “Mother,” under a different title and in a shorter version, to the 2019 Margery Allingham Short Story Competition—which it won!  Publication does not accompany the prestigious Margery Allingham competition and so the story made its way to EQMM. We think you’ll enjoy it. In this post the author offers some thoughts about writing not for the ages but for a contemporary market.—Janet Hutchings

Great literature, it is often said, is timeless. That may be so, but it pays to remember that authors always write for a particular audience—an audience of their contemporaries. How and why some literature transcends that audience and its time are questions that literary theorists have long debated. Somewhat less attention, however, has been paid to the question of why any particular work enjoys a favourable initial reception. This latter is a question that I have had to contend with for very prosaic and self-interested reasons. As a novice crime-fiction writer, I’ve found it necessary to consider not only what are the particular norms and expectations of the literary form, but also what kinds of stories are likely to find an audience today.

The demands of the genre seem pretty straightforward. The famed British writer, Margery Allingham, gave a succinct description of what makes for a successful mystery: “The Mystery remains box-shaped, at once a prison and a refuge. Its four walls are, roughly, a Crime, a Mystery, an Enquiry and a Conclusion with an Element of Satisfaction in it.” The prison she speaks of are the devices and conventions of the story in which detection of a crime is the centrepiece. But what of the refuge? Refuge from what? The question itself, I think, contains the clue to the popularity of crime fiction when it ascended to its classic novel form in the 1920s and 1930s with the works of writers such as Allingham, Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie, Michael Innes, and of course, the pseudonymous Ellery Queen, to name just a few.

To understand just why their literary efforts became so immediately popular, it is important to observe that the generation that was the audience for these writers had a common experience. They were witness, at whatever remove, to the Great War. This war to end all wars proved to be a phantasmagoria of horror—killing on an industrial scale such as had never before been seen. Which is why I think crime fiction had the appeal it did to this early audience. The horrendous scale of carnage during four years of futile trench warfare (not to mention the many more millions who died from the influenza epidemic at its conclusion) was almost impossible to comprehend. It was as if reason had abandoned the field to an inexplicably capricious and wanton force.

By contrast, the detective novel, with its stylized settings, its familiar characters, and its conventional crimes, has no place for the unfathomable. This, I suggest, was its contribution to readers demoralized by appalling events of the recent past. It presented killing on a human scale that is understandable, and importantly, that is something solvable, not, as in war, through the preponderance of brute force, but by the operation of intellect. It is likely no accident that the detective novel and newspaper crosswords gained popularity about the same time on both sides of the Atlantic. Both introduce the reader to a carefully crafted puzzle whose contours are reassuringly familiar and whose resolution the reader anticipates will provide a satisfactory conclusion to a labour of mind.

Of course, not everyone was a fan of the genre. For instance, Edmund Wilson in his much-cited 1945 put-down of crime fiction, “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?”, wasn’t shy in expressing his disdain for the form when he wrote that such literature is “a kind of vice that, for silliness and minor harmfulness, ranks somewhere be­tween smoking and crossword puzzles.” His patrician focus on style left Wilson grumbling about what he perceived to be a lamentable lack of artistry in the genre. And he attributed to its misguided readers a lazy intellect, or worse still, an addiction disorder.

It is surprising that for a critic so attuned to the historical interpretation of literature, Wilson did not attempt to extend that type of analysis to crime fiction in a more rigorous fashion. True, he did recognize that the interwar years had psychologically prepared its readers for formulaic detective stories.  According to Wilson, this historical period was characterized by generalized feelings of guilt in which responsibility for the ills and evils of the world could never be categorically demonstrated. The allure of crime novels, he concluded, was that in this fictional world where everyone is a suspect, the omniscient detective knows precisely where blame is to be attributed, thus relieving readers of those vague and unextinguished feelings of culpability for a malaise they cannot name.

The problem with this pseudo-Freudian explanation for the popularity of crime fiction is that it misapprehends the formula, or the prison walls as Allingham describes it. In the so-called Golden era of the genre which Wilson cavalierly dismisses, the backdrops for the stories were almost always crafted to appear ordinary. Not ordinary in the sense of realistic. These are after all literary contrivances. But they are contrivances that are made to feel familiar, whether they be a rural English village, a train carriage, a New York borough, or even an exotic locale that had been widely publicized by travel writers. This sense of acquaintance is also extended to the characters whose occupations and personalities were generally of the stock variety. These are people you are led to expect to see in the setting the author provides. It is in this ordinary, staged setting with its predictable characters that the crime takes place. It may well be that everyone, as Wilson suggests, must be regarded a suspect according to the formula. But he is wrong to imply that the tension in the mystery involves the supposition that all of us are capable of evil, a supposition that is finally overturned when the actual culprit is apprehended and shown to be uniquely malevolent. In fact, quite the opposite is the case. What is strikingly noticeable about the villains in most of the crime fiction of the period is how often their motives are themselves ordinary. And it is in this feature that its appeal can be found. The unnatural act of killing is made to seem natural because the motive is recognizable. The act of killing is thus humanized because it is so unlike the inhuman slaughter of war or the seemingly random stalking death of disease. It is precisely this humanization of killing which allows crime fiction to operate as the refuge Allingham identifies. In contrast to the threatening outside world, the inside world of crime fiction offers a safely contained drama about death. And it is this unspoken tension between outside and inside, I argue, which lends to the genre its distinctive appeal.

Crime writers have many different ways of managing this tension between outside and inside. In the noir variant of the genre, for instance, the outside is allowed to partially seep inside. This menacing outside, for example, the brutal world of gangsters or the corrupt world of officialdom, forms an essential part of the backdrop to the story’s central mystery. Interestingly, Wilson credits one noir writer, Raymond Chandler, with an agreeable artistry, lauding him for creating characters with depth and imbuing the detective story with a rich and compelling atmosphere. But in the end Wilson still criticizes Chandler for failing to come up with a conclusion worthy of the plot. Again, Wilson misunderstands the prison walls of the crime novel. Detection requires a resolution, however artificial, however facile. The power of the noir is not in the finale, but in the way in which the outside is brought inside, giving to the mystery that drives the plot its special kind of frisson.

Wilson thinks that what makes Chandler an exciting (albeit ultimately disappointing) writer is that through incident and ambiance he is able to bring to the surface the hidden horrors of the world. Though that’s not exactly what happens in a Chandler novel. The horror is not hidden; it is brought inside so that the reader can glimpse its dangers. Perhaps the best way to understand this creative exchange is to consider the conclusion to Chinatown, screenwriter Robert Towne’s homage to Chandler’s world. In the film, the detective, Jake Gittes, successfully solves the murder of Hollis Mulwray, the chief engineer of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, and former partner to Noah Cross, whose daughter, Evelyn, he had married. Nestled inside this detective mystery is a more complex story of incest, wealth, and power, signatures of a disturbing outside world where traditional moral strictures fall away. In the concluding scene, where Evelyn is killed while trying to escape her father’s efforts to reclaim his incestuously conceived daughter, the police detective who pulls Gittes away from the scene utters the memorable line: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” This obviously racist trope is meant to suggest that what had just happened is best left alone because, like other things that occur in Chinatown, it is inscrutable. Except for Jake Gittes and the viewer, the horror is entirely scrutable. That Noah Cross is able to get away with the murder of his former partner and recover his illegitimate daughter testify to a forbidding outside world where money is power, and where the powerful heed no rules other than those they will for themselves.

Among the many examples of how noir produces its literary effect, Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels, particularly the first two of the Berlin Noir Trilogy, stand out as especially notable because of how deliberately he designed the interchange between inside and outside. In having his hard-nosed detective solve more-or-less ordinary though vicious crimes in a setting the reader knows to be the site of an impending, world-transformative horror, the author accomplished something akin to breaking down the fourth wall in the performative arts by inviting the reader to ponder whether there is a difference or a continuum between human crimes and crimes against humanity.

I don’t know whether the schema between outside and inside offered here is helpful in understanding the diverse species of crime fiction now available to modern readers. I suspect it doesn’t work so well with procedurals that pride themselves on fidelity to the real world. Nor for those that directly mine psychological horror that once used to be referred to obliquely. Yet I think that the best of crime fiction still fulfills a critical role: it humanizes—which is not the same as saying it commends—the act of murder. In doing so, such literature leads us, unwittingly or not, to reflect upon our common humanity.

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“Am I and My Detective the Same Person?” (by John Lantigua)

John Lantigua’s fifth and latest Willie Cuesta novel, Remember My Face, was published in 2020 to rave reviews. A Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, John has been writing Willie Cuesta stories for EQMM for many years. In this post he gives readers (and Willie’s many fans) some insight into the character’s creation.  —Janet Hutchings

I have published eight novels in total, the last five of which star Willie Cuesta, the Miami-based, Cuban-American private eye. I’ve also published a dozen short stories protagonized by Willie, eleven of which have appeared in this very magazine. Over the years I have been asked a question by people who have read those books and/or stories:

“Are you and Willie Cuesta one and the same person?”

I’m sure other writers of series fiction have had to field this same inquiry. Not all, of course. I don’t know that Agatha Christie was ever asked if she and Hercule Poirot were one and the same. To begin with there was the missing moustache, not to mention the Belgian passport for Poirot.

But I figure Ross Macdonald, Robert B. Parker, Sara Paretsky, Laura Lippman, Walter Mosley, and other creators of iconic sleuths have heard some form of that same question. And let’s not forget Arthur Conan Doyle.

I don’t know what they answered, but I consider it a tricky question. As the author you are there at the birth of your character. You are mother, father—as well as literary obstetrician. But how alike is your DNA and that of your character?

If it will help, here is what I remember of Willie’s birth. It was 1997 and I was a reporter at the Miami Herald. I had published three standalone novels and had been learning as much as I could about Miami since moving here in 1992 with the express idea of creating a series character. I had decided that the first novel in that series would concern a Miami phenomenon known as the “Pedro Pan Kids.” They were 14,000 plus young people smuggled out of Cuba during the early years of communist rule there in the 1960s. They flew off the island to freedom, hence the reference to Peter Pan. This story was true and a treasured bit of lore in Cuban Miami, but most people outside South Florida had never heard of it.

For months, I interviewed the “kids” themselves, although they were now middle-aged. I also spoke with people who had helped design the smuggling operation and who also found foster homes and orphanages that could care for the children, while their parents worked to get off the island themselves. Eventually, most the parents did make it, but I decided to write a novel about a man whose parents had been murdered before they could leave the island and his efforts to find out who killed them.

So, I had the rudiments of a plot and my interviews had coalesced into a cast of characters. Among those characters I had my suspects; not a firm conviction of who the killer was but several folks who wanted to be considered, including old mafiosi, former Cuban casino operators, CIA operatives, etc. What I didn’t have was a hero.

I decided he would be a former Miami cop turned private eye and that he would be Cuban American. (I am half Cuban American.) I tried to picture him, but I didn’t know his name and without a name he remained out of focus. I assume it’sthe same for other authors of series; what you name your character feels very important because, hopefully, you will be living with her or him for many years.

I wracked my brain, going through many Latino surnames. Finally, a passage I had once read popped into my head. I don’t recall if it was Dashiell Hammett who said it, or someone writing about Hammett. But the idea was that fictional private eyes were much like medieval knights who went off to slay dragons and rescue damsels in distress. Those adventures were called “quests.” When I read that word the last name “Cuesta” was suddenly illuminated in my imagination. Cuesta is a fairly common Latin surname. It was perfect for a Latino sleuth. Moments later the first name “Willie” attached itself. “Willie Cuesta” was just right from the moment it sounded in my mind. I could suddenly picture him, and I have been writing about him for more than twenty years.

But the question remains: Are Willie and I the same person?

It is true that during all that time Willie only has taken cases that coincide perfectly with topics that I have found particularly interesting.: the aforementioned Pedro Pan kids, Colombian kidnapping rings, people-smuggling “coyotes” from Mexico, Argentine and Chilean military assassins hiding in the U.S., Cuban cigar counterfeiters, Haitian voodoo practitioners, etc. I don’t remember a moment when Willie’s conscience worked differently than mine.

I’ve also been told that Willie and I have the same sense of humor. We’re both divorced and single. We are attracted to the same ladies.

But we also have our marked differences. I’m six foot two and he is a couple of inches shorter. Willie is forever forty. I, alas, am not.

Willie has a brother who runs a great salsa club and a witchy mother who owns a botanica in Little Havana, selling all sorts of potions and religious articles. I have neither, although I have spent plenty of time in such establishments, especially nightclubs.

Willie has had to shoot a few folks in self-defense. I, so far, have not.

That said, I recently met a woman who expressed interest in getting to know me better. I handed her a copy of a Willie Cuesta novel, “The Lady from Buenos Aires” from 2007.

“Start here,” I said.

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“Plot” (by Robert Cummins)

Colorado-based author Robert Cummins has had a successful academic career, and has now turned his pen (which authored four books from MIT and Oxford Press as well as sixty articles) to fiction writing. His two novels—Hariq, a Cold War spy thriller, and The Finder, a detective mystery—are available in Kindle format on Amazon. He makes his professional paid fiction debut in our Department of First Stories of our March/April 2021 issue (on sale next week), and here he discusses plot and what it means in a mystery.—Janet Hutchings

If you look up ‘plot’ in the online Merriam-Webster dictionary, this is what you get (slightly edited):

Definition of plot
(noun)
1aa small area of planted ground a vegetable plot
ba small piece of land in a cemetery
ca measured piece of land LOT
2GROUND PLAN, PLAT
3: the plan or main story (as of a movie or literary work)
4[perhaps back-formation from complot: a secret plan for accomplishing a usually evil or unlawful end : INTRIGUE
5a graphic representation (such as a chart)

(transitive verb)
1ato make a plot, map, or plan of
bto mark or note on or as if on a map or chart
2to lay out in plots (see PLOT ENTRY 1 SENSE 1)
3to locate (a point) by means of coordinates, or to locate (a curve) by plotted points
cto represent (an equation) by means of a curve so constructed
4: to plan or contrive especially secretly
5: to invent or devise the plot of (something, such as a movie or a literary work)

(intransitive verb)
1to form a plot SCHEME
2to be located by means of coordinates the data plot at a single point.

The items in bold are the senses most relevant to mystery writers. Your plot (3a) may involve a character who plots (4, or perhaps 5) to do something, or a storyline that involves, but neither of these really gets at the concept that is relevant to mystery stories, the sense of “plot” in which mystery stories, some of them anyway, have ingenious or clever or complex plots, or transparent plots that allow us to figure out who done it and how and way way too soon, thus undermining the suspense.

“Suspense” isn’t really the right word here, though, suggesting, as it does, an anticipation of something bad or unwanted. A good plot, in the sense of the word I am interested in here, keeps us in the dark, or relative uncertainty about how things are going to turnout in a story that makes us care, for one reason or another, how things will turn out. But there is more to it than that. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn), as the title suggests, has no plot in the sense I am trying to isolate. We wonder (or even worry) whether Denisovich will make it through the day. There is no mystery here, although there is, or could be, an element of suspense, and there is no plot in the sense of the word I am trying to isolate, though there is certainly a story with a beginning, middle, and end that includes a kind of resolution—fragile though it is. Imagine a procedural in which we know from the start who did it, but are simply let through the process that actually identifies the culprit. One could say of such a story that it has no plot, or just that it has a really bad or disappointing one. A good plot keeps us guessing, and keeps us guessing because we want to know the answer.

Imagine a  How Done It in which we know from the start who did it and why. This could be a very engaging story, of course, hinging, for example, on character development/discovery. But it has no plot in the sense of the word I am trying to isolate. The only mystery that gets resolved is how it was done, and perhaps, how the character(s) evolve and change.

Here is a short list of fictional works of various lengths. I think you will find it relatively easy to pick out the ones that have a good plot. (If you haven’t read them, you should, but you can probably answer the question by reading a synopsis online.)

  • The Spy Who Came in From the Cold – le Carre
  • The Drowning Pool – Ross Macdonald.
  • Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • The Affair at the Bungalow – Agatha Christie
  • The Jewel That Was Ours  – Colin Dexter
  • Macbeth – William Shakespeare
  • Romeo and Juliet – William Shakespeare

To repeat, having a good plot is neither necessary or sufficient for being a good, or even a great, story, as even this short list illustrates.

I have heard it argued that plot matters less in movies or TV because it is possible to make up for a weak plot with great cinematography. But this misses the point, which is simply that a story that should have a good plot, but doesn’t, isn’t saved by great visuals or anything else. It doesn’t matter how beautifully the story was filmed if the story needs a great plot and doesn’t have one.

Consider the following two opening lines of a query to a literary agent:

  1. How far would you go to protect your daughter?
  2. How would a father who flips houses for a living go about protecting his daughter from a football star who is the son of the local crime boss?

Number two is going to need a good plot, whereas one really can’t tell from number one.

I am fond of mysteries in part because I love a good plot, and mysteries are more likely to have them than, say romance novels, currently the best-selling genre according to  Writers Write.

I would love to see a good definition of “plot” used in the sense I have been trying to identity. If you look online, what you will likely find is an identification of plot with story line, e.g., this one form seattle piSo, perhaps I am looking for something that doesn’t exist. But I don’t think so. When someone comments about a story—whether a short story or a novel—that it has a really great plot, I don’t think they are saying that it has a really good “storyline.” What could that mean beyond the claim that it is a really good story?  The stories in the list above all have good storylines, i.e., they are all good stories. But not all of them have a good plot. Nor should they. That’s not, for example, what Dostoevsky was after in Crime and Punishment.

So send me your definitions, or good reasons why there can’t be one, by commenting on this post with your thoughts.

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“Showdown: Levin vs. Goldman” (by Kevin Mims)

This week we have another essay by short-story writer and popular-fiction fan Kevin Mims. In it he deals with two giants of our genre (and several other genres!) and sets up an interesting comparison.—Janet Hutchings

Back in the early 1990s, Budweiser’s advertising team produced an attention-getting TV commercial that featured a group of twenty-somethings (i.e., members of Generation X) making up a bunch of binary competitions between various pop-cultural icons of their youth and then voting on a winner. “Ginger or Mary Ann?” one Gen Xer says to his friends, presumably asking them to pick which one of these characters from the TV show Gilligan’s Island they like best. They debate briefly and decide on Mary Ann. The next question is, “Mary Ann or Jeannie?” Presumably the questioner wants to know which of these two TV characters is the most desirable. When I first saw the ad, my only reaction was to ask this rhetorical question: “Who the hell would pick a shipwrecked Kansas farm girl over a blonde bombshell who literally has the power to make all your dreams come true with the blink of an eye?” But something about these imaginary showdowns lodged itself in my brain, and so, to while away the time while I sit in the dentist’s waiting room or travel long distances in my car, I have been creating similar showdowns for myself for the last thirty years or so. Except, being fonder of pop fiction than I am of television, my imaginary showdowns generally involve two writers who, for whatever reason, I view as being in direct competition with each other: Helen MacInnes vs. Evelyn Anthony, Scott Turow vs. John Grisham, and so forth. Today, I am going to let you witness this process in action, as I compare and contrast two of my favorite pop-fiction writers of the 1960s and 70s, Ira Levin and William Goldman. 

WHY THEY DESERVE TO BE PAIRED WITH EACH OTHER:

For one thing, they were generational compatriots, Levin having been born in August of 1929 and Goldman in August of 1931. Both men showed a lot of early promise but didn’t acquire huge fame until the mid to late 1960s, during which time they rose to prominence largely due to a famous Hollywood film to which they were intimately connected. Both men wrote best-selling popular fiction and were generally ignored by the serious literary community. Goldman was a hugely successful Hollywood screenwriter who tried but largely failed as a Broadway playwright. Levin was a hugely successful Broadway playwright who tried but mostly failed as a Hollywood screenwriter. Both men specialized in the writing of suspense novels/thrillers. Both men wrote dreadful sequels to their best novels (Brothers, a sequel to Marathon Man, is abysmal; Levin’s Son of Rosemary is ten times worse). Both men saw their novels turned into hugely successful mainstream films. Each man won two Edgar Awards from the Mystery Writers of America, Levin for the novel A Kiss Before Dying and the play Deathtrap; Goldman for the screenplays to Harper and Magic. Goldman wrote the screenplay for The Stepford Wives, a film based on Levin’s novel of the same name. Both men have close ties to Stephen King. King has called Levin “the Swiss watchmaker” of suspense novelists. King, like many others, dates the origin of the contemporary American appetite for horror novels to the success of Levin’s 1967 bestseller Rosemary’s Baby. Goldman worked on the screenplays for four films made from Stephen King stories: Misery, Dolores Claiborne, Hearts in Atlantis, and Dreamcatcher.

If any two pop-fiction writers of the late twentieth century deserve to be compared and contrasted, it is these two men.

INFLUENCE ON POPULAR CULTURE:

Both men had an immense impact on the American popular culture of their time, an impact that continues to this day. As mentioned above, Rosemary’s Baby is widely credited with giving birth (no pun intended) to the craze for horror fiction that blossomed in the 1970s with the popularity of such novels as The Exorcist, The Other, Carrie, etc. and positively exploded in the 1980s as writers like Stephen King, Anne Rice, and Dean Koontz rode the wave to bestsellerdom. The term “Rosemary’s Baby” itself has become a sort of universal shorthand for any creation with a demonic genesis, just as “Frankenstein” is now a universally acknowledged reference to any creation that turns against its creator. And the expression “Stepford wife,” is now a widely used term employed to describe a certain sort of vacuous, upper-middle-class housewife. In fact, “Stepford” is now used as a stand-alone adjective to describe all sorts of vacuous or superficial types of people and things. You’ll occasionally even find attractive but empty-headed politicians referred to as Stepford candidates. Plenty of great writers have failed to add so much as a single new word or expression to the English language. Levin added at least two, and arguably more. “The Boys From Brazil” is sometimes used to refer to any sort of copies of an evil original. And the novel The Boys From Brazil helped move the word “clone” from the world of elite scientific exploration to the public domain. 

Goldman, too, added memorable words and phrases to the popular lexicon. His screenplay for the film All the President’s Men used a phrase (“Follow the money”) which can be found nowhere in the book on which the film is based. “Follow the money” has become a widely used expression in all sorts of contexts, but usually in reference to figuring out who is behind a particular crime, or political movement, or commercial trend. His screenplay for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid made cultural icons of those two bandits and also added several popular catchphrases to the American lexicon. But it was his screenplay for The Princess Bride (based on his own novel) that really altered the way pop-culturally savvy Americans speak: “Inconceivable!” “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” “You’re trying to kidnap what I’ve rightfully stolen.” —to give a few examples. Few screenplays in history have produced as many iconic lines as Goldman’s script for The Princess Bride

In this category, however, I am going to give the edge to Levin. This may have something to do with the fact that I am a book snob who prefers pop fiction to pop cinema (although I love both). The very titles of Levin’s two most popular novels, Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives, have entered the American idiom. Most of Goldman’s contributions entered the idiom via the medium of cinema. Point: Levin.

PROSE:

To be honest, neither man was a brilliant stylist. They were both capable of writing dazzling dialogue, Goldman more so than Levin, probably because of all his screen work. But Levin was no slouch at dialogue, as evidenced by his play Deathtrap, which still holds the record for the longest-running comedic thriller in Broadway history. Goldman was rather modest about his own writing skills. In the book William Goldman: The Reluctant Storyteller, Goldman tells author Sean Egan that he doesn’t much care for his own writing. He adds, “I wrote a movie called Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and I wrote a novel called The Princess Bride, and those are the only two things I’ve ever written, not that I’m proud of, but that I can look at without humiliation.”

Goldman had an unfortunate habit of bragging about how quickly he wrote and how little he edited. He told one interviewer that he wrote his second novel, Your Turn to Curtsey—My Turn to Bow, in ten days. At the end of his 400-page 1984 novel The Color of Light, he appends a note explaining that the book was written between February 21 and May 31, 1983, practically begging anyone who reviewed the book to comment on its slapdash character. 

Despite the speed with which it was written, The Color of Light remains, along with Marathon Man, one of my two favorite William Goldman novels. I’m a sucker for novels about novelists and the world of the New York publishing establishment, especially when they contain various juicy pop-fictional tropes such as murder, plagiarism, and adultery.

If Goldman was often guilty of writing too much and too fast, Levin was sometimes guilty of the opposite literary sin. Some of his lesser concoctions—Sliver, Son of Rosemary—and even the more famous The Stepford Wives read more like movie treatments at times than novels. Many of the sentences in Sliver are mere fragments, set off by ellipses that don’t seem to be eliding anything but rather breaking the descriptions into individual film shots. Here’s Levin describing attractive young Kay Norris taking a bath in her luxurious new apartment (she is being secretly watched by the building’s supervisor via hidden cameras):

Lifted her leg from the water, watching the tiny leg, foam sliding from her heel . . . Arched her foot . . . watching . . .

Touched her toe to the tip of the chrome Art Deco spout . . .

Slid low in the water, foam islands breaking . . .

And so forth. This type of prose-as-camera-direction style makes some sense, given that much of the novel consists of a psychopath watching people via hidden cameras. But it still gives the book an undernourished quality. Nonetheless, when he really applied himself to it, as he seems to have done with Rosemary’s Baby, Levin’s prose could be both spare and evocative, simple and straightforward but also capable of capturing every important detail.

When it came to writing prose, neither man was in the same league as F. Scott Fitzgerald or Flannery O’Connor, but Goldman’s lapses were mostly sins of commission (he put too much in) and Levin’s were sins of omission. Truman Capote, who was one of the finest prose writers of the generation that produced both Levin and Goldman, was a huge admirer of Rosemary’s Baby and even provided a blurb for the novel: “A darkly brilliant tale of modern deviltry that, like James’ TURN OF THE SCREW, induces the reader to believe the unbelievable. I believed it and was altogether enthralled.” Who am I to disagree with Truman Capote? Point: Levin.

PLOTTING:

Both Levin and Goldman were excellent at producing plot twists. The end of Rosemary’s Baby produced one of the most memorable plot twists in all of American popular fiction. Stephen King has noted that Levin’s first novel, the mystery A Kiss Before Dying, contains one of the greatest plot twists of all time, not at the end of the book but smack dab in the middle, a disclosure that makes the reader feel as if the solid ground she thought she was standing on has turned to quicksand.The Boys From Brazil and The Stepford Wives deliver knockout plot twists as well. And Deathtrap has so many unexpected reversals that it practically serves as a meta-commentary on the art of the plot twist. This category would appear to be a clear win for Levin. But don’t count Goldman out too soon.

Marathon Man delivers a powerful plot twist about a quarter of the way in. The book goes on to deliver more clever twists and turns. Goldman’s novel Magic has a doozy of a plot twist at the heart of its devious storyline. The Color of Light, Control, Heat—all of these novels deliver their share of gut punches to the reader. Goldman’s screenplays are also filled with daring twists and turns. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is one of the few commercial Hollywood films in which (spoiler alert) both heroes are killed in the final scene. And of course, The Princess Bride, both the novel and screenplay, are filled with lively reversals and twists of fate.

Conventional wisdom has it that Levin was, along with Richard Matheson, one of the twentieth century’s greatest masters of the clever pop-fiction plot twist. But I’m going to go against that wisdom—sort of. I’m declaring a tie in this category.

PRODUCTIVITY:

This category has a clear winner. Goldman wrote or contributed to thirty-three produced screenplays. Wikipedia credits him with at least eighteen more unproduced screenplays, as well as a handful of stage plays, both produced and unproduced. He also wrote sixteen novels, several memoirs, and assorted nonfiction books. 

Levin wrote seven novels and ten stage plays. Only two of his stage plays were hugely successful, Deathtrap and No Time For Sergeants. Few if any serious critics would rank Levin among the greatest American playwrights of the twentieth century, but plenty of critics would probably rank Goldman among the greatest screenwriters of the twentieth century.

Mere fecundity isn’t necessarily commendable in a writer. What’s impressive about Goldman’s career is how many of his projects have become iconic–Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Princess Bride, A Few Good Men, Marathon Man, Mercy, All the President’s Men—these are some of the best known intellectual properties of their era. Point: Goldman.

ORIGINALITY:

Of course, many of Goldman’s most iconic works are adaptations of the work of other writers, including a novel by Ira Levin. His filmography also includes adaptations of works by such estimable writers such as Aaron Sorkin, Stephen King, Ross Macdonald, Donald Westlake, John Grisham, and David Baldacci.

Levin’s fame rests almost entirely upon the products of his own devious imagination, although Roman Polanski’s film adaptation of Rosemary’sBaby has helped contribute to that particular property’s continuing popularity. Levin’s work is original in two senses. It is original in the legalistic sense, meaning that he wrote it all himself. But it is also original in the literal sense, meaning that nothing quite like it existed until he got around to creating it. Rosemary’s Baby was like no American pop fiction that preceded it. Cloning might have been dealt with in earlier books, but The Boys From Brazil was the novel that put it on the pop-fiction map. Cyborgs, automatons, robots, and so forth were around long before The Stepford Wives, but Levin’s cunning combination of high-tech animatronic humanoids with ordinary suburban American living inspired not only later science fiction products such as Michael Crichton’s Westworld and Jordan Peele’s Get Out, but was also a brilliant critique of American consumer culture. Of course, Levin wasn’t immune to the influence of other writers either. Plenty of critics have pointed out that his hit 1978 play Deathtrap bears more than a slight resemblance to Anthony Shaffer’s 1970 play Sleuth. Still, Levin was one of the most singular plot-spinners of his generation. Point: Levin.

RANGE:

Both writers had impressive range. Levin wrote straightforward crime fiction (A Kiss Before Dying), horror (Rosemary’s Baby), science fiction (The Boys From BrazilThis Perfect Day, The Stepford Wives), suspense thrillers (Sliver), and comedy whodunnits (Deathtrap). He even wrote the book and lyrics for a stage musical called Drat! The Cat!

Goldman wrote science fiction (Control), fantasy (The Princess Bride), thrillers (Marathon Man, Heat), horror (Magic), a novel about the movie business (Tinsel), a novel about the book business (The Color of Light), and a variety of character studies and coming-of-age tales (The Temple of Gold, Soldier in the Rain, Boys and Girls Together, Your Turn to Curtsey–My Turn to Bow). His screenplays were even more heterogeneous than his novels. He wrote Westerns (Butch Cassidy, Maverick), mystery (Harper), political drama (All the President’s Men), horror (Magic, the various King adaptations), historical dramas (The Great Waldo Pepper, A Bridge Too Far), fantasy (The Princess Bride, The Memoirs of an Invisible Man), and more.

Point: Goldman.

AND THE WINNER IS . . .

There are several ways of determining this. If the genie played by Barbara Eden in Dream of Jeannie came to me and offered to let me go back in time and enjoy the career of either Levin or Goldman, I’d probably choose Goldman. I’d do this because, for one thing, he lived nearly a decade longer than Levin did. Also, though I prioritize popular fiction over popular cinema, it would be nice to excel at writing both, something Goldman did but Levin didn’t. I’ve seen only one play on Broadway in my life, thus I don’t know enough about the medium to envy Levin his success there very much. Of course, this is a superficial way of determining the worth of a writer. Fitzgerald was fairly miserable for much of his life. I have no desire to go back and relive his life, and yet his worth as a writer probably exceeds all but a handful of the writers of his era.

A better way of deciding this matter is to simply look at the works of the two writers and then determine who made the most lasting contributions to American culture. Goldman’s contributions to American pop culture were huge. But for my money the best thing either of these men ever produced was the novel Rosemary’s Baby. Truman Capote was right when he ranked it alongside The Turn of the Screw as one of the best American chillers of all time. If Levin had produced nothing else, his name would live on. If I could go back in time and take credit for just one of the imaginative products of either Goldman or Levin, I wouldn’t hesitate to choose Rosemary’s Baby. It is the only novel in either man’s oeuvre that is a genuine masterpiece.

Game, set, and match: Ira Levin.

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“The One-Month Retirement” (by Nick Mamatas)

Nick Mamatas is the author of several novels, including Move Under Ground, I Am Providence, and The Second Shooter. His short fiction has appeared in Best American Mystery Stories, Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, and dozens of other venues. He has also edited or co-edited several anthologies, including Haunted Legends, The Future is Japanese, Mixed Up, and Wonder and Glory Forever. Nick’s fiction and editorial work has been variously nominated for the Hugo, World Fantasy, Bram Stoker, Locus, and Shirley Jackson awards. His tale “Pink Squirrel” appears in our current issue. Here, he offers some reflections on the intersections between speculative fiction and crime fiction—both the genres and the general community.—Janet Hutchings

As it says in the little author’s note atop my story “Pink Squirrel” in the Jan/Feb 2021 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, I am a “widely published author of science fiction and horror”—note that widely published is not the same as widely read!—who occasionally ventures into crime fiction. In fact, in January of 2013, fed up with the many issues that plague the field of speculative fiction, I declared my retirement from the lectern at KGB Bar in Manhattan’s East Village. No more SF/F/H, just crime fiction and experimental fiction from Nick from now on! Take that, science fiction.

Three weeks later, in February 2013, my wife had an announcement of her own: we were having a baby. So I quietly unretired, but still work on crime fiction and publish whenever I can, usually in anthologies.

I can pretty consistently publish 5-10 fantasy or horror stories a year, and while nobody can make a living writing short fiction in any genre, a half dozen stories can certainly buy some vaccinations, a breast pump, or a crib from IKEA. There are still a dozen “good” science fiction or horror magazines, mostly online, that pay a nickel or dime a word, and a similar number of anthologies published every year than often pay a little more than that, and even someone as unwidely read as I can, with some effort, get in to some of them. The state of short crime fiction publishing is sadly more dire. This isn’t because the fiction itself isn’t vital, but because crime fiction lacks the very large penumbra of organized fandom that surrounds the speculative genres. Most of the magazines in that field are started by fans who want their writer heroes to love them, and a great way to get love from a writer is to give them money. Try it sometime, you’ll see. (And of course, there is nothing worse than an embittered romantic, which is what causes so many of the perennial problems in fandom that sent me running back in 2013.)

I remain interested in crime fiction because it offers a particular aesthetic challenge that goes beyond those of fantasy or science fiction. Fantasy/horror is almost easy to write—set up a situation, have something happen in the middle that complicates the matter for your protagonist, and then for a climax just [INSERT NUMINOUS EVENT HERE]. It’s not a cheap trick; the numinous is remarkably difficult to describe in a compelling manner, and even if you do it right you can still fail very easily. Use a fantastical image that’s well-known, and you devolve into cliché. Use one that’s too personal, and your story is incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t dreamt your exact dreams. The poetics of the ἀποκάλυψις—meaning revelation, not world-goes-blooey, but there’s often some of that too—make or break the story, and if that numinous moment doesn’t nag at the reader for hours, days, or in the best fictions years after the reader first encounters it, the story is a failure. But once you’re good at communicating the ineffable, you’re golden. 

Science fiction requires some level of scientific rigor. Rigor isn’t the same as scientific accuracy, however. You can have galactic empires of humanlike aliens and faster-than-light travel and towheaded slaveboys building robots out of scrap and there still being a slave economy even after a thousand obedient robots start running around and doing the chores—but all the implications of the scientific innovations have to be reflected in the in the emotional journey of the characters; they must be tied together like two strands of a double helix. This makes even the most absurd feats of engineering and basic errors of math palatable to readers; it doesn’t matter if FTL is impossible if the crew of the ship experience the breaking of the laws of physics as something special or interesting. The everyday becomes the wondrous.

The aesthetic challenge of crime fiction, at least for me, is different. Like science fiction, crime fiction involves a kind of rigor, if not exactly accuracy. There can be pseudoscience, like bite-mark analysis or dubious psychological motivations for some murderer’s choice of target, and extremely far-fetched situations or baroque death traps, but so long as the writer treats these set-pieces with consistency and follows a certain internal logic from beginning to end, the story can work. Good ol’ “fair play.” 

But fair play is a necessary but not sufficient condition for crime fiction. Crime is necessarily about some kind of social trespass; we’re always in new territory outside of our quotidian existence. Most crime in the real world is fairly easy to solve, and most criminal acts are transparently motivated. We like our sleuths eccentric, our crimes puzzles, our villains almost superhuman, because we need fiction to be more than prettied up police reports. We need a poetics of transgression, just as we do in fantasy. And the logics of fair play and the poetics of transgression have to be bashed together, the famous thesis and infamous antithesis leading to the superlative synthesis. 

Crime fiction requires the mind of science fiction, and the spirit of fantasy/horror. When I put my fingers to the keyboard to write my first crime story, it was like I’d never retired from speculative fiction at all.

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“This Death Called Strangeness: Some Reflections on Cornell Woolrich” (by R.T. Raichev)

R.T. Raichev, mystery scholar and author of the Antonia Darcy and Major Payne series, has written previously on this site about Agatha Christie, P.D. James, Sherlock Holmes, and others. Here, he turns his attention Cornell Woolrich—continuing the theme of last week’s post and coinciding with the publication of a previously unpublished Woolrich tale in our current issue.—Janet Hutchings

It was Frederic Dannay, one of the two first editors of EQMM, who coined the phrase “the long march of implausibility” in connection with the stories of Cornell Woolrich. If he didn’t mean that as a compliment, Dannay didn’t seem to have intended it as withering criticism either. He rather liked, published and republished Woolrich’s stories, even his later weaker efforts. Dannay’s words should be taken as a mere statement of fact: the main feature of a typical Woolrich plot is its air of overwhelming strangeness which is almost invariably linked to death. 

Consider the premise of the 1948 novel I Married a Dead Man: on a train a pregnant woman meets another woman, also pregnant, who is traveling with her new husband to meet his parents for the first time; just as the two women have started a friendly chat and the first woman has been allowed to put the second woman’s wedding ring on her finger . . . the train crashes, killing the young bride and her husband . . . the survivor then is mistakenly identified as the dead woman and warmly embraced by the dead husband’s bereaved family. . . .

Or the chain of events set in motion in Into the Night, the last novel Woolrich left unfinished at his death in 1968, which was completed by Lawrence Block and published in 1987: an unhappy, lonely girl tries halfheartedly to commit suicide . . . to her relief the gun jams . . . she tosses it on a table, causing it to discharge a bullet that flies through her window, crosses the street and kills another girl, one rather like herself . . . the girl proceeds to investigate her victim’s past and when she discovers that the latter has been treated appallingly by her husband she determines to expiate her crime by plotting the destruction of the husband. . . .

What are the odds of any of that happening? Very low, to put it mildly. And the likelihood? Negligible. But while the two sequences thus described strain credulity considerably, they are not impossible. Such events could happen, under certain circumstances—in one of those million-to-one chances. We turn the pages of a Woolrich story and we read on, we race on, anxious to discover how the author manages to pull it off.

Cornell Woolrich—the author of twenty-two novels and more than 200 short stories—is a mesmerizing raconteur who has the power to hold and propel the reader’s attention by playing on their curiosity, imagination and sense of wonder. He achieves this in ways none of his noir confreres, such as Chandler or Hammett, ever considered attempting. As it happens, Chandler—a professed admirer—commented on Woolrich’s liking for “artificial trick plots” which are full of “excessive demands on Lady Chance.” In that respect, oddly enough, Woolrich has more in common with Agatha Christie than with Chandler—think of the baroque clockwork plotting of And Then There Were None and A Pocketful of Rye, in both of which a number of theatrically choreographed killings depends on exquisite timing and devilish precision—one false step and the whole meticulously constructed edifice falls apart.

And like in those two Agatha Christie novels, events in Woolrich’s world unfold with the logic and inevitability of a nightmare; the situations he creates are more often than not surreally outlandish and mind-bogglingly melodramatic. Woolrich’s characters, on the other hand, are the very antithesis of extraordinary. They are believably and sympathetically delineated people with whom the average reader has no difficulty identifying.

The typical Woolrich protagonist is usually a man, a solitary figure who finds himself trapped in some impossible predicament, a haunted individual who either hunts or is hunted—and in the case of Jeff in the short story “It Had to be Murder” (filmed by Hitchcock as Rear Window)—he is both. Woolrich’s biographer Francis M. Nevins praises his gift for generating suspense by calling him the “Hitchcock of the written word.” Cornell Woolrich’s fictions are indeed highly, excitingly cinematic. According to recent statistics, there have been 108 films and TV shows based on them, the earliest in 1928, the latest in 2002.

It goes without saying that Woolrich writes not for uncompromising realists but for romantics who relish an escape from the tedium of everyday life into a parallel kind of universe which looks but only looks like the real one. It is a predominantly urban world, dark and twisted and fraught with danger, treachery, and all manner of malignant scheming. Eleanor Sullivan—Dannay’s successor as EQMM editor—identified a “nightmare New York world” as one of the themes that tend to repeat themselves in Cornell Woolrsich’s oeuvre. It is a New York that has the forlorn, menacing anonymity of an Edward Hopper painting.

II.

One of my personal favorites, set in the fictional “Michianopolis,” is the short story “All at Once, No Alice,” first published in Argosy Magazine in March 1940 and reprinted in EQMM in November 1951. Its plot centers round the mysterious disappearance of an attractive young woman—a set-up for which Woolrich seemed to have had a particular penchant as he used it in at least two more stories (“Finger of Doom” and “You Will Never See Me Again”).

The narrator of the story is Jimmy Cannon, a store clerk, who elopes with Alice Brown, a girl whom he hardly knows but is very much in love with. The two marry in a rushed ceremony presided over by a roadside justice of the peace, after which they go in search of a hotel. The story’s early paragraphs are lighthearted enough, even slightly comical, with Jimmy forgetting to pay the roadside justice his fee—but soon a sense of dread starts creeping in. All the hotels are filled up and the reason given is that it is the “three-day convention of the Knights of Balboa.” Who or what the Knights of Balboa are we are never told, but somehow a bizarre note has been struck and the departure from reality subtly set in motion. 

The reader’s unease deepens when at the newlyweds’ fifth try, the Royal Hotel, Alice is allowed to spend the night in a claustrophobically tiny single room with a bed that is “little wider than a shelf”—while Jimmy is consigned to a room at the local YMCA. Their parting—just for the night, as they think—is poignantly described:

The last I saw of her that night she was sitting on the edge of that cot in there, her shoeless feet raised to it and partly tucked under her, like a little girl. She raised one hand, wriggled the fingers at me in goodnight as I reluctantly eased the door closed.

The next morning Jimmy returns to retrieve Alice only to find that she has vanished without a trace, not only from her room but from the hotel register as well. Although she did sign it, her name is not there and the hotel staff claim that no girl of her description ever stayed with them. Dazed, distraught, out of his mind with worry, Jimmy seeks help from the police. The roadside justice of the peace is questioned, but says he has never laid eyes on Jimmy and has most certainly not performed his marriage ceremony. The people at the big house in Lake City—the prominent, rich Beresfords—where Alice supposedly worked as a maid—also deny her existence. Since Jimmy is unable to produce any proof of Alice’s existence the police dismiss him as “some sort of crank.”

“All at Once, No Alice” is one of Cornell Woolrich’s “annihilation stories. (Annihilation in the sense of complete obliteration.) It is also an audacious example of the curious sub-genre known as “paranoid noir—whose invention is attributed to Woolrich, though its plot is a familiar variant on the Lady Vanishes theme (the 1936 novel by Ethel Lina White made famous by the 1938 Hitchcock film).* The story is charged with undercurrents of fear, guilt, despair, and the intimation that the world is controlled by malignant forces. The first-person narration effectively conveys Jimmy’s feelings of terrifying disorientation and loss, his total alienation from those around him—

. . . people were bustling back and forth, casually, normally, cheerily . . . something was already trying to make me feel a little cut off from them, a little set apart. As if a shadowy finger had drawn a ring around me where I stood, and mystic vapors were already beginning to rise from it, walling me off from my fellow men.

— while “shadowy finger” and “mystic vapors” conjure up the spirit of Edgar Allan Poe.

The tone then gets darker:

I fought against this other, lesser kind of death that was creeping over me—this death called strangeness, this snapping of all the customary little threads of cause and effect that are our moorings at other times.

And darker:

The invisible fumes from that necromancer’s ring, that seemed to cut me off from all the world, came swirling up thicker and thicker about me.

The reader is now firmly, poetically—one may say, extravagantly—plunged into Poe’s realm. (Who would have thought a store clerk capable of such Gothic flourishes?) Jimmy also compares himself to “. . . someone in a dark room, crying for a match . . . someone drowning, crying for a helping hand.” The tone of the story veers between the morbidly lyrical and the homely mundane and that is another of the story’s idiosyncratic features.

Just when Jimmy loses all hope and appears to suffer a nervous breakdown, just when he is on the verge of committing suicide, the investigating policeman discovers a handkerchief with Alice Brown’s initials on it. The search for the missing girl is resumed and, ultimately, at the eleventh hour, they find her—as she is about to be murdered by her relatives. 

It turns out she is no mere menial but the sole heiress to a vast fortune—“the richest gal in twenty-four states”—in fact she is one of the Beresfords—her real name is Alma Beresford. (The elusiveness of identity is another recurrent motif in Woolrich.) The poor rich girl had been trying to escape from her lonely, stifling, prison-like existence, hence the maid masquerade. 

Her disappearance was in fact a kidnapping orchestrated by her greedy relatives who bribed everybody who had been in contact with her into a far-reaching conspiracy of silence. Their intention was to prevent her from getting married. Alma’s guardian, described as “vicious-looking . . . in a brocade dressing-gown” and later as “that silver-haired devil”, had paid “all kinds of money to hush everyone up . . . and destroy the documents, so it wouldn’t be found out.” The devious—and frankly fantastical—scheme involved keeping Alma insensate by means of opiates and procuring the dead body of a girl of similar age to bury in her place, so that Alma could be quietly disposed of later on, “at leisure.” 

After what Ellery Queen calls a “whiplash of surprise” beside an open grave and a shattered coffin, the story ends happily with Alma and Jimmy embracing, after which Jimmy starts making plans for a second—proper—wedding. And he issues an invitation to the investigating policeman to act as best man! Such an outburst of high spirits tinged with drollery is rare in Woolrich—but it is similar to the joyous conclusion of Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes.

* The rather creepy plot idea goes back to the19th-century urban legend known variously as “The Vanishing Hotel Room” or “The Vanishing Lady,” which has proved so popular as to inspire a number of various fictional treatments: at least two short stories (Nancy Vincent McClelland’s 1897 “A Mystery of the Paris Exposition”, Sir Basil Thomson’s 1925 “The Vanishing of Mrs Fraser”), a radio play (Cabin-13 by John Dickson Carr, 1943), two films (So Long at the Fair, 1950and the A Treacherous Crossing, 1953) and an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (“Into Thin Air”, 1957).

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“First You Read, Then You Write” (by Francis M. Nevins)

One of the highlights with which EQMM begins 2021, our eightieth anniversary year, is the presentation, in our January/February issue, of a heretofore unknown story by the great Cornell Woolrich. Woolrich wrote twenty-seven novels and scores of stories and won one of EQMM‘s Worldwide Short Story Contests. Forty films were based on Woolrich works, most famously Rear Window. The award-winning author of the biography Cornell Woolrich: First You Dream, Then You Die, Francis M. Nevins discovered the manuscript for this neglected Woolrich story at Columbia University. But I’ll let him give you the full account of how it came into his hands. Francis (known to us all as Mike) is a novelist himself and the author of a number of stories for EQMM.—Janet Hutchings

In memory of Alex Trebek we begin with a Jeopardy!-style clue. This iconic suspense writer appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine seventy-plus times, and now more than half a century after his death he’s in the magazine again. The question of course is: Who is Cornell Woolrich? Beginning with Volume 1 Number 1 (Fall 1941) he had a total of seventy-five stories in EQMM (or, depending on whether you count once or twice the tale published in two parts in two consecutive issues, seventy-six). Recently, with the publication of the January-February 2021 issue, the number has risen to seventy-six (or seventy-seven). There’s a story behind how this new story was unearthed, and it falls to me to tell it here.

Woolrich was a native New Yorker, born in 1903, to parents whose marriage came apart soon after they moved to Mexico where his father lived. He grew up there with his father, Genaro Hopley-Woolrich (1878-1948), but after he reached high-school age and returned to Manhattan to live with his mother and maternal grandfather, he never saw Genaro again. His earliest novels and stories, beginning in 1926, were not in our genre but somewhat  closer (well, maybe not all that close) to the work of the young literary idol of the 1920s, F. Scott Fitzgerald. In 1934 he began a fifteen-year period of white-hot creativity as the master of suspense, the Hitchcock of the written word. During the middle 1950s, with those years behind him, he set out to return to mainstream fiction with a series of stories about the birth, adolescence, maturity, old age, and death of a New York hotel from its opening night in 1896 till the eve of its demolition in 1957. Before these tales were published in book form as Hotel Room (Random House, 1958), the editors decided that each chapter in the collection except the first and last, which constitute a framing story, should have some link with an historic event: the end of World War I, the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, the stock-market collapse. This decision required the removal of the tales without such a connection. One of these, “The Penny-a-Worder,” was bought by EQMM founding editor Fred Dannay and published in the magazine’s September 1958 issue, the first of a dozen Woolrich originals in the magazine between then and 1970, two years after Woolrich’s death. Were there other such stories? And if so, what happened to them?

Woolrich’s will left all his literary rights in trust to Columbia University, where he had gone as an undergraduate in the ’20s (although he quit in his junior year when his first novel sold), and Columbia is also the repository of his papers. In March 2019 I was invited to come east and give a talk at the university’s second annual Dr. Saul and Dorothy Kit Film Noir Festival, which was devoted to the many movies based on Woolrich.  (You can find my presentation on YouTube simply by typing “Francis M. Nevins”—making sure you use quote marks so as to avoid a bunch of items that have nothing to do with me.) During the several days of the program, the Columbia library presented an exhibit of Woolrich papers, of which I was treated to a private viewing while I was in New York. Most of what was on display I had seen before, but two manuscripts were new to me. As chance would have it, however, I remembered something about one of them. Several years ago, Otto Penzler told me that he’d been offered a heretofore unknown Woolrich story, apparently one intended for but excised from Hotel Room. He remembered its first words and quoted them to me: “She came to the hotel alone. . . .” He had not bought the document and didn’t know what had happened to it. Now, in 2019, I was staring at the typescript of a story with the exact same first words.

After returning to St. Louis I asked the professor who had invited me to Columbia if he could possibly arrange for me to be sent a copy of that story. He did, and I liked it very much. And, thanks to the evolution of our genre “from the detective story to the crime novel” over the sixty-odd years since Woolrich had written what I now held in my hands, I thought it might interest Janet Hutchings, the present editor of EQMM, and emailed her a copy made from mine. Learning that she too liked it very much, I put her in touch with the agent for the Woolrich estate and a deal was made. If you have the first issue of the magazine for this year, you have the story—not under Woolrich’s awkward original title, “The Fiancée Without a Future,” but as “The Dark Oblivion.” Quite an improvement, yes?

A question may have crossed your mind as you were reading the last paragraph: What about that other Woolrich story in the exhibit? Well, I managed to obtain a copy of that one too, but it was hardly worth the effort. “The Fault-Finder” is not only a poor story—one of many such dating from Woolrich’s last years—but it isn’t crime fiction even in the broadest sense of that term. Since no one is ever likely to see this thirteen-page story, I have no qualms about describing it. The year is 1915, and a husband and wife are in the St. Anselm Hotel, preparing to set out on a vacation cruise across the Atlantic. (Woolrich doesn’t bother to mention that in fact all Europe was at war that year.) The woman keeps insulting and belittling her poor henpecked husband. Finally he goes out to a tavern across the street to drown his sorrows and stays there too long so that their ship has already left New York Harbor by the time he returns to the hotel. Furiously she orders him to call up the steamship line and demand their money back. Klutz to the last, the husband can’t remember the name of the ship they were to sail on. His wife berates him as an incompetent imbecile and tells him that they were booked on—have you guessed it?—the Lusitania. End of story. It’s perfectly consistent with the central insight of noir—in Hammett’s words, that we live while blind chance spares us—but that doesn’t qualify it as crime fiction or improve it as a story.

Woolrich may have written these tales a little before the publication of Hotel Room, or he may have written them a few years later, in the very early 1960s. What suggests this second possibility is that, along with copies of the stories themselves, Columbia had sent me a sort of cover sheet in Woolrich’s handwriting, the table of contents for a new and expanded version of Hotel Room, with the title of the book changed to Nine Nights In a New York Hotel and each story in the 1958 version retitled also. The most fascinating aspect of this sheet of paper is at the top: Woolrich writes his own name as the author, just as it was in the 1958 version, then crosses it out and substitutes his well-known pseudonym William Irish! Why did he do that? I think I can explain. 

After the breakup of his marriage to Woolrich’s mother, Genaro Hopley-Woolrich had had liaisons with many women, the last and longest being with Esperanza Piñon Brangas. Their daughter Alma was born in Nogales, Sonora on 17 June 1938, and, as far as I know, is still alive. “I learned I had a brother who was a writer when I was fourteen,” Alma said in a telephone interview in Spanish with the Argentine author Juan José Delaney. In 1961 Alma came up from Oaxaca to New Jersey to visit her father’s half-nephew Carlos Burlingham (1925-2004) and his family, staying with them for more than a year. Carlos wrote to Woolrich via his publisher, expecting that the son of his Tio Genaro would want to meet the half-sister he’d never seen. He received in reply a telegram from Woolrich’s attorney, of which Carlos gave me a copy. “He flatly refused to accept the fact” that he had a half sister, Carlos told me, and the attorney insisted that Genaro had remained faithful to Woolrich’s mother throughout his life. Once settled in New Jersey, Alma crossed the Hudson to New York in hopes of meeting her famous half brother. “But he wouldn’t receive me. . . . I remember that he sent out his secretary saying that he didn’t want to see me.” Woolrich never had a secretary. Juan José Delaney told me that the word Alma had used in their phone interview was secretario. It was a man who had turned her away from Woolrich’s door. That man had to have been Woolrich himself. I can’t prove it, but I know it. How could anyone have resisted the temptation to sneak a peek at his only living relative without revealing himself? If he had died without a will, his half sister, who speaks little or no English, would have inherited all his copyrights by intestate succession. To me that explains why on 6 March 1961 he signed a document leaving his rights and everything else he owned in trust to Columbia University. It also explains why, later in 1961, he legally changed his name to William Irish: it was a way of spitting in the face of his long-dead father. The table of contents page for that anticipated new edition of Hotel Room, with its conspicuous name change at the top of the sheet, almost certainly dates from around this time. That new edition of course never materialized, and the tale he called “The Fiancée Without a Future” never saw print until the beginning of this year.

Now that you know the stories behind that story, I hope that, if you haven’t already read “The Dark Oblivion“ in the January/February EQMM, you soon will.  

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2021, TWELFTH NIGHT, AND 80 YEARS

I’d intended to start this post with best wishes for Twelfth Night, which I always thought of as falling on January 6. These days I find myself checking a lot of my assumptions, however, and on consulting Wikipedia I found that “in most Western ecclesiastical traditions, Christmas Day is considered the ‘First Day of Christmas’ and the Twelve Days are 25 December–5 January, inclusive, making Twelfth Night on 5 January, which is Epiphany Eve. In older customs, the Twelve Days of Christmas are counted from sundown on the evening of 25 December until the morning of 6 January, meaning that the Twelfth Night falls on the evening of 5 January and the Twelfth Day falls on 6 January. However, in some church traditions only full days are counted, so that 5 January is counted as the Eleventh Day, 6 January as the Twelfth Day, and the evening of 6 January is counted as the Twelfth Night.”

How’s that for settling the matter? For those who observe the Twelfth Night holiday—and observe it today (or maybe tonight), not yesterday (or maybe last night)!—here’s my virtual glass 🥂 raised along with yours. 

Twelfth Night (considered as falling on the 6th) has a connection to mystery fiction that regular readers of EQMM are probably already aware of, since we mention it most years in our first issue of the year, which celebrates Sherlock Holmes, and that connection is that dedicated Sherlockians believe January 6 to be the birthday of the great detective. I’d once assumed (again, until I checked) that the  selection of this day, which was never specifically mentioned in the original writings, was due to the nature of the Twelfth Night holiday, for in addition to special feasts and songs, Twelfth Night has traditionally been a time for masking, concealment, and role playing—a time when everything is to be turned topsy turvy. This, of course, is exemplified in Shakespeare’s play written to be performed on Twelfth Night, and so titled. 

Although Twelfth Night celebrations vary depending on the country of origin, one of the traditions apparently common to most is the “king cake,” a dessert into which are inserted a bean and a pea. If a man discovers a bean in his portion, he becomes “king” for the celebration, while a woman who finds a pea becomes “queen.” It’s a kind of role playing that upturns the natural order, just as in Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night Malvolio believes that he can be transformed into a nobelman. Since mystery fiction involves discovering what is concealed, finding the truth beneath the false roles people play, and bringing order out of disorder, January 6 always seemed to me an appropriate birthday for the world’s greatest ficitonal sleuth. But it turns out that there was also a textual reason for the choice, according to the Baker Street Irregulars, the world’s oldest Sherlockian organization. 

The date was chosen by Christopher Morley, one of the founding members of the BSI, partly, they say, because Shakespeare was the author most often quoted in the original Holmes stories and because two of those quotations were from Twelfth Night. If this seems a thin foundation for establishing the date of Holmes’s birth, the BSI have solidified it with eighty-six years of birthday parties—mostly black-tie banquets in New York City—and by propagating their assertion that the great detective remains alive and well, bee-tending in his retirement, at the age, this year, of 167. 

EQMM’s fouding editor, Frederic Dannay, was a lifelong Sherlockian and an early member of the BSI. It was he who started the tradition of EQMM donating special Sherlockian issues to attendees of the yearly birthday bash. This year, for the first time in many decades, there will be no issues of EQMM beside the plates of BSI members, since, due to COVID-19, the 2021 banquet will be virtual. This fact did not, however, prevent us from packing our January/February 2021 issue with Sherlockian treats, including another in the award-nominated series of Holmes parodies by Terence Faherty, a stunning new Holmes pastiche by Australian Mike Adamson, an Ellery Queen pastiche with a Sherlockian theme by Josh Pachter, the translation of a story by classic French author Marcel Aymé featuring his sleuth O’Dubois, whom some refer to as the French Sherlock Holmes, and another episode in the popular Holmes on the Range series by Steve Hockensmith. The issue also inaugurates EQMM’s 80th year of continuous publication, which gives us two more reasons to raise a glass on this holiday that marks the official end to the holiday season.

To a happy new year! And to many years ahead (at least another 80!) in which we are able to share with you, our readers, the treasure of short mystery fiction. Cheers! —Janet Hutchings

Posted in Characters, Classic Mystery, Conventions, Ellery Queen, Genre, History, Holmesian | 5 Comments

What Are Your 2021 Literary Resolutions?

It’s easy to get out of the habit of sitting down to read these days, no matter how much I want to do nothing else. To help counter this, I’ve begun setting a goal of how many books I want to read per year. This year, my goal was 41, and I’m just one book away—since I have some in progress, I think I’ll make it! It was a good year for staying home and reading, if nothing else.

I also track the books by genre, background of the author, topic, form, etc., to help me decide what I want to read next. And it seems that every time I read one of our book-review columns—either The Jury Box or the web installments of Stranger Than Fiction—I have another book to add to my to-read pile. (I currently have about fifteen books out from Queens Public Library, but who’s counting?)

It’s been an overwhelming year, and I’m grateful to look over my list and think about what I’ve learned and the characters I’ve met. Next year, I’d like to read more Golden Age mysteries, mixing them in with new releases from diverse authors.

What are your mystery reading and writing goals for 2021?—Jackie Sherbow

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HAPPY HOLIDAYS FROM EQMM!

Dear readers, we’re wishing you and yours a happy, restful, and healthy holiday.

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