“The Not-So-Simple Art of Mystery Reviewing” (by Elizabeth Foxwell)

It’s our pleasure this week to present a post by a mystery reviewer. Over the several years during which this blog has been active, we’ve had only a couple of previous posts by members of that important profession. Elizabeth Foxwell reviews mysteries for Publishers Weekly, serves as managing editor of Clues: A Journal of Detection (the oldest U.S. scholarly journal on mystery/detective/crime fiction), and edits the McFarland Companions to Mystery Fiction series. She has received the George N. Dove Award from the Popular Culture Association’s Detective/Mystery Caucus for outstanding contributions to the serious study of mystery and crime fiction.  She is also a writer of short mystery fiction, and an Agatha Award winner, whose stories have appeared in several anthologies. Her post gives a concise overview of the history of critical analysis of mystery fiction.—Janet Hutchings

Mr. Poe is a man of genius. . . . . “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is one
of the most intensely interesting tales that has appeared for years. . .
—Review of The Prose Romances of Edgar A. Poe—No. 1,
Ladies National Magazine Sept. 1843: 107.

Although the beginning of the detective genre is traced to Edgar Allan Poe’s well-received “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), mystery reviewing as a specialty has a much more recent history, with EQMM in a prominent place. In Dreams of Justice (2005), Chicago Tribune mystery critic Dick Adler considered NYT “Criminals at Large” and EQMM columnist Anthony Boucher to be “the man who invented mystery reviewing” (3). In What About Murder (1993), longtime EQMM “Jury Box” columnist Jon L. Breen deemed Boucher and professor James Sandoe (in the Herald-Tribune) “the best reviewers going” (ix). Although Boucher certainly made a mark in a quarter-century of reviewing, some of those predating him were Freddy the Detective author Walter R. Brooks in The Outlook, as well as mystery authors moonlighting as reviewers such as Anthony Berkeley Cox (in several newspapers), Dorothy L. Sayers (in the Sunday Times), and Dorothy B. Hughes (in the Albuquerque Tribune, Los Angeles Times, and other newspapers). (Margery Allingham reviewed “New Novels” in Time & Tide for five years, but these reviews tended to be on mainstream rather than crime-influenced fiction, with the exception of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock.) In What About Murder, Breen also pointed out the contributions of Howard Haycraft’s EQMM “Speaking of Crime” columns of the 1940s and, in A Shot Rang Out (2008), noted the important role of mystery reviewers Avis DeVoto (best known for her work with Julia Child) and Lenore Glen Offord, as well as moonlighting author Frances Crane. New “Jury Box” columnist Steve Steinbock has noted the contributions of other “Jury Box” predecessors: locked-room master John Dickson Carr and Armchair Detective editor Allen J. Hubin. Publications such as Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and Booklist (mostly for the library market), as well as Mystery Scene, and the sadly departed Armchair Detective and Drood Review of Mystery (for mystery aficionados), have done significant work in providing a steady critical spotlight on mysteries. The moonlighting mystery author as reviewer continues with writers such as Louis Bayard and Daniel Stashower (The Washington Post), Dick Lochte (Los Angeles Times), and Paula L. Woods (The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times)

A reviewer, said critic and Saturday Review editor Henry Seidel Canby in “The Race of Reviewers,” is a “liaison officer”: “He explains, he interprets, and in so doing necessarily criticizes, abstracts, appreciates.” Mystery author Andrew Greeley, in “Who Reads Book Reviews Anyway?,” saw reviewers’ output in a much more negative light, charging it was “mean-spirited,” “self-important, pompous and supercilious—and almost always without credentials” (7). As Marvin Lachman discussed in The Heirs of Anthony Boucher (2005), writer Robert Randisi reiterated the concern about credentials (of professional mystery reviewers vs. fans who review), and former library director Gary Warren Niebuhr noted that some authors felt that they would be better reviewers than others because they would understand books from the perspective of craft. Surely most reviewers occupy the middle ground between Canby’s saint and Greeley’s sinner, trying to do a honest job while buffeted by accusations of arrogance, bias, ignorance, myopia, and dyspepsia and often compensated only modestly for their efforts.

Providing straightforward and sensible signposts for mystery critics, critic Gilbert Seldes (who wrote two mysteries as Foster Johns) stated in “An Outline of Mystery”:

I like my detective stories pretty plain—a mystery, its solution, and its development; and lean rather toward Mr. [T. S.] Eliot’s strict canonical ban on mystery stories which depend on other elements. But I am convinced that a writer who knew how could involve anything from sexual passion to a passion for higher mathematics in the folds of the story itself—and so long as the story held its own way, there would be no room for protest. (100)

Gilbert Seldes, 1932

Whether the mystery under review adheres to Seldes’s “plain” path as well as holds “its own way” are the crucial questions. In reviewing, I have been disappointed by mysteries with insufficient suspects so that an obvious perpetrator is presented, uneven plotting, the tendency to tell instead of show, resolution by coincidence instead of active detection—in other words, falling short in the elements that readers expect. As an editor, I have itched to reorganize sections, tighten up wayward prose, and correct faux pas (such as a character given the wrong name in the printed book). Given this cranky litany, readers may wonder: Why do I review?

The reason lies, I think, in anticipation. What delights await? What characters will I meet? How will the author dazzle me and pull the wool over my eyes? What might I learn? Veteran reviewer Oline Cogdill noted on the Mystery Scene blog the special pleasures of reviewing mystery debuts because of their freshness and energy, and I concur; I’ve recommended two debuts for starred reviews in my nearly 10 years of reviewing for PW because they offered new and accomplished approaches to storytelling within the mystery framework. As a cofounder of the mystery convention Malice Domestic, I have an affinity for traditional mysteries (with particular fondness for the historical mystery), but this does not mean that I cannot appreciate works with a harder edge. Cornell Woolrich’s “Walls That Hear You” (1934) and Ruth Rendell’s “The New Girl Friend” (EQMM 1983) continue to haunt me years after I read them. I admire Dashiell Hammett’s efforts to reflect the real world he saw as a Pinkerton detective in his fiction and Evan Hunter’s bold experiment with Candyland (2001) in which he wrote half the book as Hunter and the other half as alter ego Ed McBain. It is an impressive form of literature that can encompass a Lilian Jackson Braun and a Donald Westlake, an Ellen Hart and a Walter Mosley, and it is the job of reviewers to try to convey authors’ triumphs as well as their missteps if reviewers are to best serve mystery readers.

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“My Father and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine” (by Richard Chizmar)

Richard Chizmar is the coauthor (with Stephen King) of the bestselling novella Gwendy’s Button Box and the founder/publisher of Cemetery Dance magazine and the Cemetery Dance Publications book imprint. He has edited more than thirty anthologies and has won two World Fantasy awards and four International Horror Guild awards, among other honors. His fiction has appeared in dozens of publications and has been translated and collected in book form; his latest collection, A Long December, was recently published by Subterranean Press. Rich’s EQMM debut was in our March 1997 issue, but until we received this post we had no idea his connection to EQMM goes back much further than that! Don’t miss the new Chizmar story coming up in our November/December 2017 issue.—Janet Hutchings

I grew up in a family of readers. Three older sisters and an older brother, their choice of reading material ranging from the classics and poetry to Stephen King and Sidney Sheldon. Mom loved her Agatha Christies and Reader’s Digest condensed novels. My father was the most voracious reader in the house, and it was his eclectic tastes that most influenced the reader—and writer—I would one day become.

My father enjoyed a wide variety of material. Thick volumes of military history checked out from the local library. Nonfiction books about golf and airplanes and home or car repair. Glossy, oversized travel guides covering an array of exotic destinations, many of which he had visited during his years in the Air Force and many more he one day hoped to visit.

And then there were his favorites: mysteries by the masters, Lawrence Block and Dick Francis and Robert B. Parker. Spy novels by Robert Ludlum and John le Carré and Frederick Forsyth. Stacks of pulp paperbacks by folks like John D. MacDonald, Charles Williams, David Goodis, and Day Keene (almost all of these novels short and sporting nifty titles and even niftier cover art, so they quickly became my favorites as well), these tattered paperbacks usually acquired from the Swap Shelf located by the front entrance of the library.

But my father saved his deepest affection for his magazines. National Geographic. Popular Mechanics. Life. Newsweek. I remember many summer evenings when he would sit out back on our screened-in porch and snip out his favorite articles and collate them into various binders for further readings. I don’t know why, but it seemed like a magical process to me, and I was fascinated by the idea.

And then there was the granddaddy of them all: Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. I don’t ever remember my father cutting out pages from Ellery Queen’s. For him, I think it would have been like snipping out sections of the Bible. Instead, each new issue was quickly read and then neatly collected on a bookshelf in the corner of the den, not far from his favorite reading chair. He never subscribed to Ellery Queen’s (I never asked, but I suspect it because he didn’t want the mailing label to foul up the front cover). He bought each issue at a local book and magazine shop called Maxine’s, and I accompanied him on most of these trips. It was during those car rides that my father first taught me about the history of the magazine and many of its authors. He also told me about his favorite stories and encouraged me to try my hand at my own mystery tales (by then I was writing my own shorts, mostly monster and war adventures, and trying to sell them to my friends). I remember feeling happy and proud that he thought enough of my opinion to share those stories with me and talk to me like a grown-up. I remember feeling the early stirrings of an unbreakable bond that would last us a lifetime.

Years ago, I wrote a Story Note in an early collection of mine that described an idyllic childhood of fishing and hiking and playing baseball with my friends, my father inevitably parked in his car somewhere in the background or perched on the first-base bleachers, the lower half of his face obscured by a worn paperback or the new issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, his eyes peering over the front cover, watching over me. It was a scene I knew well from my childhood days, and a memory I still hold close to my heart today.

***

When I was a teenager, I had two favorite bookstores in the town I grew up in. The first was Carol’s Used Books, which was housed in a couple of trailers, sandwiched between a Dunkin Donuts and a pawn shop. I spent hours in that place, and I can still remember the exact layout (mystery and horror straight ahead and to the right), the sagging, carpeted floors, and the comforting smell of old books. Carol’s closed a long time ago. A used car lot stands in its place now. But I still have dozens of paperbacks on my bookshelves with the Carol Used Books stamp on the inside front cover, and that’s good enough for me.

The second store was called Maxine’s Books and Cards, and as luck would have it, Maxine’s was located right next door to Frank’s Pizza, just about the best pizza shop in the entire world. Maxine’s is where I first fell in love with comic books and later discovered Dean Koontz’s backlist and books by authors such as Bill Pronzini and Ed Gorman and Joe Lansdale. It’s where I bought my first Stephen King paperback and my first copies of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. It’s also where my father and I used to drive together once a month to pick up the brand new issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. For me, Maxine’s was sacred ground.

I never told anyone this—not even my father; some things you just have to keep to yourself—but I always dreamed of seeing one of my own short stories in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. It always felt like the Holy Grail of magazines to me—and not just because it was my dad’s favorite. It’s where the best genre writers contributed their very best work; you never got the feeling the magazine published trunk or throwaway stories. Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine was where the big boys and girls came to play.

Many years later, thanks to Janet Hutchings and Ed Gorman, my dream came true when my story “Like Father, Like Son” appeared in the March 1997 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.

I remember being so excited on publication day that I couldn’t wait for my contributor copies to arrive in the mail. Sadly, Maxine’s was long closed by then, so I drove to the next town over and picked up a couple copies from a magazine shop. I stopped at my parents’ house on the way home and gave a copy to my father. I sat in the den and watched him read my story, a hint of tears in his eyes. That was a good night.

***

My father is gone now. Cancer. During his final days, I often sat at his bedside and read to him. On his night table sat books by Ed Gorman and Stephen King, a copy of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and a stack of other periodicals. When we weren’t reading, we talked about life and the people we loved and good books we had read. I told him how my oldest son was devouring books and comics and starting to write stories of his own. We smiled and laughed and cried a lot. We remembered a lot. Those long weeks were the hardest days of my life, but I wouldn’t have traded them for anything in the world.

***

All these years later, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine is still here. A time capsule of fine words and memories. For that, I’m grateful.

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“Women Writers of Mystery” (by Leah Pennywark)

 

In September of 2016 Leah Pennywark appeared on one of the panels for EQMM’s 75th Anniversary Symposium at Columbia University’s Butler Library (available on YouTube and as part of our podcast series!), illuminating the discussion with her extensive knowledge of both EQMM and crime and detective fiction generally. She has recently completed a PhD in American literature with a particular focus on detective fiction. Her work is published in LIT: Literature Interpretation Theory and is forthcoming in Studies in American Indian Literatures. She tells us she’s currently at work on two articles: “the contributions of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine to the development of postmodern literature and the tradition of women’s hard-boiled detective fiction.” She is also planning a book on U.S. detective literature during the Cold War. Her post today centers on some largely forgotten early women writers in our field.—Janet Hutchings

I love mystery writing, crime fiction, and, especially, detective stories, from ratiocinative to hard-boiled, Sophocles to Margaret Millar, short story to tome, realist to postmodern. I’ve just read my first Megan Abbott novel, the retro noir The Song Is You, which got me thinking about the investigations that no longer appear so regularly on our bookshelves and some of the once-popular mysteries that are new to me. Thus, I offer a few of the stellar US and British authors from the past century and a half that I’ve been reading lately for a project on women writers of mystery. The following is not in any way meant to be conclusive or exhaustive—I’ve been given a word limit, after all.

Look at any bestseller or best crime fiction list from recent years and you’re sure to see plenty of women writers. The New York Times list of the ten best crime novels of 2016, for instance, includes S. D. Sykes, Clare Mackintosh, Lisa McInerney, and Louise Penny. Women have been writing mystery fiction since there was such a thing; witness, for example, Metta Victor (1831-1885), Pauline Hopkins (1859-1930), and Mary Roberts Rinehart (1872-1958). But an equal number of talented women writers have fallen out of favor or out of print, despite their skill and popularity during their era. When I look at my bookshelf, I see Poe, Doyle, Chandler, Hammett, Collins, Stout, Macdonald, and Himes. Of course, there’s also Christie, Highsmith, Sayers, Hughes, and a whole host of contemporary writers. But many other women mystery writers who came before the renaissance of women’s detective fiction that began in the last decades of the twentieth century with Paretsky, Grafton, and Muller, have been forgotten. Here I suggest just a handful of the many such closed cases that we might reinvestigate for their interest and relevance to contemporary readers.

I begin with Vera Caspary (1899-1987), best remembered for Laura (1942), in which a woman, presumed to be Laura, is found shot dead in her apartment. When Laura turns up alive she becomes a suspect in her own murder. Yet, Otto Preminger’s 1944 film adaptation of the book may be better known now than Caspary’s novel. Caspary’s work tends to feature independent career women. Her autobiography, The Secrets of Grown-Ups (1979)—nominated for an Edgar in 1980—reveals that she herself held a wide range of jobs from stenographer to advertising copywriter in addition to writing novels, short stories, plays, and screenplays. Yet, most of Caspary’s wonderful novels are overlooked today. Perhaps my favorite Caspary novel at the moment is The Man Who Loved His Wife (1966), brought back into print in a new edition in 2014. The Man Who Loved His Wife is a mystery, a thriller, and a detective novel, but unique to each of these categories. It isn’t until halfway through the novel that the potential crime—if indeed a crime has taken place at all—occurs. Readers don’t lack for possible suspects and each character has their own ideas about what happened and how. The novel cleverly shifts from one character’s perspective to the next, each equally limited. Caspary incorporates explorations of masculinity and femininity into murder mysteries in ways that are evocative of midcentury America and yet continue to resonate with today’s readers.

When we think about the origins of the fictional ’tec, Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin springs immediately to mind, though we might also recall Oedipus. An astute reader of EQMM once submitted an excerpt from Shakespeare’s Henry VI, published in September 1966 along with her letter arguing that Shakespeare anticipated the modern detective story in several important ways. But what role did women writers and ’tecs play in the founding of the genre? American Anna Katharine Green’s first novel, The Leavenworth Case (1878), is widely cited as one of the earliest women-authored detective novels. However, Englishwoman Catherine Crowe (1790-1872) was writing about female ’tecs more than thirty years prior to Green. In addition to drama, children’s books, short stories, other novels, and true crime, popular author and public figure Crowe wrote a bestselling detective novel, published just months before Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” appeared: Adventures of Susan Hopley; or Circumstantial Evidence (1841), later retitled Susan Hopley, or the Adventures of a Maid-Servant. It was her first book and popular enough to be adapted for the stage. The detective genre was still young in the mid-nineteenth century, but Susan Hopley is easily recognizable as an early iteration. Crowe’s narrative even anticipates the complex plots of Ross Macdonald’s Cold War–era Lew Archer novels with its multiple storylines, financial concerns, and family dynamics.

A personal midcentury favorite of mine is Cornell graduate Merriam Modell (1908-1994), best known under her pseudonym, Evelyn Piper. Though she’s now all but forgotten, her novel Bunny Lake Is Missing (1957) was made into a film by Preminger starring Sir Laurence Olivier in 1965. The same year, Bette Davis appeared in the film adaptation of Piper’s 1964 novel, The Nanny. In 1950, The Innocent (1949) was nominated for an Edgar. Piper was a splash in her day, and looking at Bunny Lake Is Missing, it’s easy to see why. The book follows one harrowing day in the life of Blanche Lake who is transformed from a naïve single parent who’s new in the big city to one tough mother when her daughter Felicia (“Bunny”) goes missing. Piper adopts some of the best strategies of the hard-boiled genre and makes them her own in her suspenseful domestic thriller. Her novel teems with the threatening denizens of mean nighttime streets. Piper’s handling of domestic and urban issues is masterful. While her male counterparts of the day drew a strict line between the private home and public world of the detective, Piper smashes them together in her hard-boiled heroine, rendering Blanche’s descent from bright 1950s optimism to its dark underbelly in haunting language that stays with the reader long after the last page.

I’ve just cracked the covers on the last two authors on my list: Catherine Louisa Pirkis (1839-1910) and Mabel Seeley (1903-1991). I’m looking forward to following the exploits of Pirkis’s gumshoe in The Experiences of Loveday Brooke, Lady Detective (1894). Brooke is a professional detective, perhaps the first of her gender created by a woman. Pirkis was a Londonite and prolific writer of short stories, articles, and novels. Like so many later gumshoes, Brooke is isolated, sharing little of her life with readers or other characters. She’s also quite skilled at observation and disguise. Pirkis’s lady ’tec and her cases return us to the essentials of the genre. Seeley’s popular midwestern mystery novels, written between 1938 and 1954, on the other hand, feature amateur investigators. The first book, The Listening House, was reprinted several times in the late thirties and early forties and translated into Spanish in 1943, Norwegian in 1948, and French, Swedish, and German in the 1950s. Her stories also appeared in EQMM, Detective Book Magazine, Two Complete Detective Books, and were anthologized by Ellery Queen. The New York Times reviewed several of her books favorably. Of 1947’s Woman of Property, for instance, reviewer Nash Burger writes: “Frieda, starkly and convincingly portrayed in Mrs. Seeley’s swiftly paced narrative, is very apt to be one of the most talked about heroines of this season’s fiction.” Seeley avoids cliché and sentimentality in stories that offer a window not only into midwestern American life in the first half of the twentieth century but also the enduring search for personal fulfilment, all within well-crafted whodunits.

Whether you like rural or urban mysteries, hard-boiled or hard-thinking sleuths, I hope something on this list will pique your interest and you’ll join me in rediscovering some of these standout investigations. Perhaps some cold cases should stay that way, but these mysteries are definitely worthy of your time and shelf space.

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DERRINGER FINALIST INTERVIEWS

Gerald So has interviewed the Derringer finalists on his site So, You Want to Chat?  Check out our nominees’ interviews here:

Doug Allyn for Best Novelette

Meg Opperman for Best Long Story

Hilde Vandermeeren for Best Short Story

Linda Barnes for Best Short Story

Joseph D’Agnese for Best Short Story

 

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“Morgue Attendance and the Hair in the Chimney” (by E. Gabriel Flores)

E. Gabriel Flores is a geography professor who has recently begun another career as a crime writer. Her first published fiction, “The Truth of the Moment,” appeared in EQMMs December 2016 issue, in the Department of First Stories, and was recently named the winner of the Robert L. Fish Memorial Award for best short story by a new American author. Many different experiences form a writer and perhaps those that enter into the inspiration for crime fiction are of a darker sort. In this post, we learn about one of the early jobs that stirred ideas in this talented newcomer.—Janet Hutchings

My early exposure to Edgar Allan Poe had nothing to do with it. Morgue attendant was not a job category I eagerly sought out, hoping to meet Quincy, M.E. or one of the other mystery-related coroners from fiction. My rationale was simple. I was a poor college student, and the job, advertised as “Hospital Monitor Clerk” paid a whopping 7 bucks an hour at a time when the federal minimum wage was $3.35. I needed money. That is why I took the job.

Monitor clerk? Didn’t sound too difficult. I hoped it was the kind of quiet, undemanding, paper-shuffling job where you could do your homework in peace—or even read a mystery story or two undisturbed. I was right. At least about the quiet part. And I did get a lot of mystery reading and homework done there. (Can you think of a better place to read detective fiction? I can’t. As long as the combination does not let your imagination get the better of you, but more about that later.)

For those who have not had the pleasure of working in a morgue, I would like to dispel some stereotypes. Unfortunately, I cannot, because what most people think of morgue employees, especially those who work the night shift, is absolutely true. We were a strange bunch, a multicultural island of misfit toys, united by insomnia and our lack of fear of the dead. My companions—the living ones—included a fellow African American woman, middle-aged, who had brain damage from a car accident; a thin, twitchy, thirty-something white guy who was addicted to cocaine; a fearless, tough-talking working-class white woman about my age who was supporting her younger brother; and a conservative fortyish white Christian man who thought that women should not work outside the home.

The others knew I was a kindred spirit from my very first night on the job. Lured into a dark “storeroom” on some pretense, my coworkers closed and locked the door after me. I realized it was an initiation ritual and felt along the wall to locate a light switch. I found myself in a frigidly cold autopsy lab, the shiny metal tables lined with basins of bloody organs from a recent procedure. More curious than squeamish, I examined all the jars of preserved eyeballs, fingers, and intestines that were arranged on shelves against the walls and waited patiently to be let out. After a half hour or so, the doors were opened by a smirking security guard holding a blanket. I wrapped up and went back to work, never mentioning the incident. I was in.

Our job entailed accepting bodies of deceased persons, taking custody of any personal effects, and then releasing the body to a funeral director or other authorized person. That same first night, I checked in the body of an elderly man, and was handed his personal effects. A pair of eyeglasses, a set of dentures, and his wallet. I had not been told what to do with these things, so I put them all into a drawer. The poor guy was probably buried without his glasses or dentures, since nobody ever showed up to claim them.

Dead people were either transferred down from the upper floors of the hospital, or brought in directly from the street by ambulance. What I learned during my time as a night morgue attendant is this; real life is not much like a mystery novel. It is more pedestrian, rather boring in fact.

First of all, most people in the US die of natural causes. Period. Few people die in dramatic accidents. And even fewer die from exciting violence meticulously planned in advance by nefarious characters. That is why murder is such a big deal—it really doesn’t happen all that much in real life. (I am reminded of the statistics on murder in the real Oxford compared to the numbers of people killed on the Inspector Morse show. That city has less than one murder a year, but on the show as many as eight people are killed in a given month, yielding a murder rate 10 times that of New York!)

Secondly, morgues are not scary, at least not for the reasons people think. Dead people don’t do much but lay there. My coworkers told urban-legend type stories of a body suddenly sitting up due to gasses being trapped or some such, freaking everyone out. But that never happened when I was on duty.

What made the job nerve-wracking was the living people, my coworkers. Yes, the job paid twice the minimum and people need to work for a living. But most of you reading this have never worked in a morgue, or even considered it as a possibility. People who choose a morgue job as a career are not like other people. I have already mentioned the lady with brain damage. She was a single mom, being kept on until she had enough time served to retire. Her coworkers were secretly covering up the fact that she could not track instructions, fill in the nightly reports, or monitor the video screens. She ate her lunch and listened to the radio, humming along to the songs she knew. Conversations with her consisted of cheerful but repetitive discussions of the weather and what her school-age son had said and done that day. I am not sure she was even aware that she was in a room full of dead people all night. Interacting with her in the morgue had a surreal, Hitchcockian quality.

Then there was the guy on cocaine. He would come over to my desk and stand beside me, staring down at me in silence while I did my work or read. One snowy night, he disappeared from the work area, to my relief. But it was only for about an hour. He returned, high as a kite, and proceeded to open up all of the windows in the place, letting snow blow into the room. I was far more afraid of him than of any dead person. I was friends with the night security police, one a young man and the other an older guy. I slipped out to warn them that they were to come running quickly if they heard me scream.

As it turned out, the people I got along best with and had the most interesting conversations with were the working class young woman and the conservative Christian fellow. We agreed on almost nothing politically, but learned a lot about each other’s point of view. The past year’s political events made me think about them, wondering how the country had gotten to the point where the three of us could not be expected to have civil conversations about anything.

Which brings me to the strange incident of the hair in the chimney. One evening I was getting ready to go to work and I noticed something strange about the fireplace in the living room of my apartment. It looked like something was hanging down from the chimney. I approached and got close enough to see that it looked like a thick hank of black and gray hair. I backed away. What could it be? Suddenly it hit me. There was a dead body stuffed up my fireplace, with head hanging down and the hair. . . . I left the apartment and headed to work early. I could not stay there with a dead body, so I went where there were . . . more dead bodies.

I called my two roommates, a Vietnamese government-policy student and a woman studying library science, and told them what I had seen. I expounded on what the thing probably was, a murdered woman’s skeleton leftover from the violent thirties, crammed up there for half a century and now slowly descending. Her hair just visible, clung to her mummified scalp.

They were, understandably, terrified, and we all agreed not to return to the apartment alone. Everyone would return together and see what was in that chimney.

I also told my friend at work, the tough young woman. She decided she would come home with me and look up the chimney if the rest of us were too chicken. I think she wanted to be the one who found the dead body in the chimney and got to talk to the newspapers and so on. When our shift finished, we headed over to the apartment. My other roommates were waiting, huddled together outside the building. We all went inside in a bunch, the four of us getting more frightened as we mounted the stairs to the third floor.

We entered the apartment, turned on the lights and stood there for a few minutes, staring at the six inches of greyish stringy hair, clearly visible, hanging down in the fireplace. My tough friend said, “Oh for heaven’s sake,” and marched across the room. She got down on her hands and knees and looked up the chimney. To our horror, she reached up and grabbed the hair and pulled out a handful. And snorted in disappointment. She showed it to us. “It’s just loose insulation, not a dead body at all,” she said, to our relief.

We all laughed at how worked up we had gotten about nothing and went out for a snack. “Hair in the chimney” became an inside joke for the four of us. I had a lesson in how, even though I had gotten used to the dead bodies of strangers lying around at work, I still did not relish the idea of having one hanging around at home.

However, there is a story rattling around in my head. It is about a woman who knew too much about a bootlegging operation. She ended her life upside down, suspended, in the chimney of an old apartment building. Decades later, a group of young college women living in the apartment investigate and, like Nancy Drew, solve the Mystery of the Hair in the Chimney.

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“Can Good People Do Bad?” by Paul Charles

Northern Irish author Paul Charles writes three series of mystery novels. The ten-book-strong DI Christy Kennedy series saw its latest instalment, A Pleasure to Do Death With You, published in 2012. A second series, set in Donegal, Ireland and starring Inspector Starrett, had its third entry, St. Ernan’s Blues, released in 2016, and the most recently launched series, set in modern-day Belfast, debuted in 2015 with Down on Cyprus Avenue. Paul’s first story for EQMM, from the DI Kennedy series, will appear in our July/August issue—and we’ll have another for readers shortly after that. In this post he reflects on the need for a crime writer to probe what lies behind a crime.—Janet Hutchings

Can good people do bad things or, fundamentally, are offenders just evil all the time?

Let’s take a simple example: Say someone risks road rage and the wellbeing (safety) of you and your fellow passengers, by cutting you—in your pristine Vauxhall VX4/90—up at a junction.

Understandably you’d be forgiven for thinking they were a rude, first-class pranny. At that point, you can do one of two things: You can immediately seek revenge by trailing them, perhaps honking your horn, gesticulating furiously and offensively, and causing mortal danger to the offender and their passengers by cutting them up at the next available or, even worse still, unavailable opportunity. Or, you could just think, “Oh, they must be having a bad day,” forget all about the incident, and continue to focus on what is currently on Radio 4.

If it’s the former, then perhaps I could politely suggest your retaliation would make you an equal pranny. It would show that deep down you are every bit as careless, reckless, ruthless as they were. Was their cutting you up at the junction, striking the first blow as it were, justification enough for your subsequent action? Does your action show that you no longer had the right to pass your original assessment of the offending driver?

If, on the other hand, you’ve chosen the more passive response, then is the “Oh, they must be having a bad day” justification enough for their behaviour?

Now let’s ramp this up a few notches on the offending scale.

If, say, your wife or partner cheats on you, or a business associate swindles you, or someone steals from you, does that give you the right to return the disfavour? For example, you may have something, a prized possession, perhaps even the aforementioned motorcar. You’ve worked hard to get it, maybe even, if truth be known, you couldn’t really afford it in the first place, but you broke your back and your bank account to purchase it.

Sidebar; I should probably mention here that I think the classic Vauxhall VX4/90—particularly in its majestic racing green with white flashes down each side—was the only UK-manufactured car that came anywhere close to the majesty of the classic American cars of the 1950s and 1960s. The American vehicles are some of the most beautiful objects I have ever seen. I should also mention here that I have never driven a car in my life. I think the closest I ever came was a golf buggy. (Coincidently, neither do I play golf.)

Anyway, someone sees this beautiful VX4/90 in your driveway. They share a passion for it, but can’t afford to find, buy, and lovingly restore their own. They do however feel, through their sense of entitlement, that they can steal yours. Are they to be viewed sympathetically as a victim of their circumstances and be forgiven? I mean, after all, they didn’t murder anyone, did they? In the instance of theft, what would you do? What could you do? What would you be forgiven (acquitted) for doing?

But say they did murder someone. Yes, what if we ramped up this thought process even further? In fact, let’s take it the whole way through to number eleven out of ten on our scale. What then? What if, for whatever reason, they deprived someone of their life? Their motive is not really important here, but it could have been: revenge; financial; jealousy; love or lack of love; or maybe even self-defence. What is important, however, is how you would be prepared to act in retaliation. How would their action affect your reaction?

Most of us would obviously seek justice through the courts. But what if their deed was just malicious? What if they were guilty of pure wickedness and they were just simply malevolent? What if it was a drug-related crime and they treated a family member or a loved one of yours in a depraved way before ending your loved one or family member’s life? What might you do then? What might you be capable of then, knowing that in these liberal times there was a very good chance they’d be back on the streets in a few years while you and your family members would mourn the loss of your dear departed for the rest of your days?

Every time I start work on a new mystery I find myself trying to unravel the basic mystery at the core of crime writing: what motivates a sane person to commit the most heinous of crimes by taking a human life. I want to understand, not because I want to make the murderer sympathetic, but because I want to try and paint a picture where, from their perspective, their actions are justified.

Now if we go back to the road-rage example for a moment, were they basically just a good person who was having a bad day? Perhaps they were merely in a hurry to get a sick relative to the hospital for urgent treatment? Or, were they just simply a happily, self-confessed, immoral person? If so, how did they get to that point? How do you ever get to the point where you wake up one morning and say to yourself, “Okay, enough is enough, so-and-so has got to go.”? And is the mind-set a lot different if the so-and-so is their wife, their husband, a parent or even both of their parents? Then, once you’ve made that commitment, resolve to kill them, what exactly is the thought process from there?

In the planning stages does a potential murderer ever give up, or do they get progressively buzzed by the ritual of death? If you murder once out of (from your perspective) necessity, does it make it easier, when push comes to shove, to murder a second and possibly a third person in order to protect your liberty?

As a murderer, are you ever concerned about the fact that in the USA 60% of homicides are solved, while in the UK 80% of murders are solved? As in, the odds are really stacked against you as a killer. Clearly those statistics are based on reported crimes, but what about all the crimes that are, for one reason or another, just not reported? How does that impact the above percentages? Would many more people commit murder if they thought they could get away with it, or do we have to thank the above success rates for the figures being what they are? I avoided saying, “as low as they are” because in the UK in 2015 just over 500 souls lost their lives at the hands (or weapons) of others and in the USA the 2013 figure was 14,000. These are certainly not “low” figures.

Year on year, though, figures in the United Kingdom and the United States of America are falling.

I’m also intrigued by whether or not the need/want/seed of murder has always been within those who commit the biggest crime of all by taking a life, or, if in an otherwise righteous life, something happens where, in a Liam Neeson or Charles Bronson classic-revenge-movie moment, the loss of a precious loved one causes something deep inside to snap and you are powerless to contradict your inner turmoil?

So . . . can good people do bad? Well, you’d have to think that anyone in the right circumstances—or perhaps that should be: anyone in the wrong circumstances—can react in a manner, which on consideration, they would have never thought themselves capable of.

Asking these questions and searching for the answers is what motivates my writing. Will I ever get any closer to understanding the mind of a murderer? Well, in a way I hope not, because maybe when you arrive at that point . . . well, the next stage doesn’t bear thinking about, does it?

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COUNTING THE I’S

Back in 2009 I received a note from a reader observing that more than half the stories published in EQMM that year employed first-person narration. It wasn’t something I’d noticed, mainly because there are actually several different viewpoints that fall under the umbrella of first-person narration, just as there are several possible viewpoints when a story is told in the third person. Most often, a first-person narrator is also a (if not the) central character in the story, and his or her personal observations, thoughts, and feelings are at the heart of the story. But in the mystery field we are very familiar with first-person narrators who are not the central character but serve instead as reporters of events—most of the Watsons of crime fiction fall into this category. We may be seeing the story through their eyes, but their viewpoint is often primarily that of a reporter; sometimes we end up not knowing much about them at all, and the viewpoint they provide is often more objective than the central character’s would be. Most of the traditional mysteries that cross my desk are written in the third person, but when a first-person narrator is used, it’s usually of the Watson variety, and the reason for this is easy to see. If a writer wants to challenge readers to solve a mystery, it’s important not to have all of the thoughts of the brilliant fictional sleuth available up-front.

Contrast that with American hardboiled private-eye fiction, where so many of the most revered works (those featuring Hammett’s Continental Op, Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer, and John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee, for example) have a first-person narrator who is also the main character in the story. In this type of story readers are not being challenged to compete with a “super-sleuth” detective who’s likely to be far ahead of them; they’re identifying with the P.I., who may be nearly as fallible as they are, and that identification requires really getting inside the character—seeing and feeling what he or she feels. There’s an immediacy to this point of view that appeals to many readers, and it also provides an opportunity for the writer to tell the story in a voice that belongs to an unusual character—often an eccentric and memorable voice.

There’s another type of first-person story often encountered in crime fiction, in which the narrator is unable to relate what happens reliably because of his or her stage of development, or a mental defect, or an untrustworthy quality of character—a story told by a child or a madman or a compulsive liar, for instance. Often called the “unreliable narrator,” this type of character can be found in some of the classics of our genre, the most obvious example being Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.”

With so many possibilities in the category, it didn’t bother me at first to think the first-person narrator was starting to dominate in our issues. And in fact, some stories told in what is commonly referred to as the “third person subjective” focus so completely on the viewpoint of a single character that there are limitations similar to the first person in the access readers have to the inner lives of the story’s other characters and to events not directly witnessed by the viewpoint character.

There’s another point of view that falls into the third-person category that is also similar to one of the possible first-person approaches, and that’s what’s often referred to as “third person objective.” Here the narrator acts as a kind of reporter, not offering conclusions or assumptions about the motives or inner lives of the characters, instead simply telling us what they do. In Writing Mysteries: A Handbook by the Mystery Writers of America, Loren D. Estleman says this about the third person objective: “The most restricting perspective, third person objective calls for the writer who writes for the printed page to surrender his greatest advantage: the ability to get inside characters’ heads. Shorn of his best mind-reading tools, he must define character entirely through action. . . . Dashiell Hammett achieved a powerful result by telling The Maltese Falcon completely from outside the skull of his protagonist, detective Sam Spade. It allowed Hammett to keep the reader guessing as to Spade’s motives and character until the denouement.” What I’d like to point out about this is that something very similar can be done with a first-person narrator who stays “outside the skull” of the other characters, acting as an observer who relates nothing more than the actions of the others. The difference would be simply this: Readers would be limited to descriptions of the actions the first-person narrator was in a position to witness. A third-person-objective narrator would have a wider perspective.

There are, however, some types of third-person narration that provide options with no parallel in the first person. The “third person omniscient” narrator enters into the mind of any character at any time and can see all of the action of the story. We rarely see this form of third-person narration in our submissions these days. Today it seems to be used more often to tell stories with a big canvas, where the scope of the tale, in both time and space, is large, and it would not be easy to use a single viewpoint character or a limited number of viewpoint characters. A good current example in the mystery field at novel-length does not come to mind right now, but Lonesome Dove is one example in a closely related field, the Western.

When I got that message from a reader back in 2009, the first thing I did was to go through some EQMM issues from 2009 and some issues from ten years earlier and compare the number of stories told in first person versus third person. What I found was striking. Thirty-one percent of the stories we published in 1999 were told in the first person: a percentage at least 25% percent lower than what I found in 2009. Inspired to look into this further, I checked one of the anthologies in the Noir series by Akashic books. A whopping 75% of contributions to that 2009 volume were first-person stories. Next on my checklist was the MWA’s 2009 anthology, where 45% of the entries used the narrative I. My conclusion, back in 2009 was that the third-person narrative, long assumed to be the dominant form, especially in genre fiction, had been superseded by the first person. But what, if anything, was the significance of this?

As we’ve seen, some third-person perspectives can be closer to the first person in respect of immediacy and intimacy than they are to other forms of third-person narration. Conversely, some first-person narratives can be distant and objective. Counting and categorizing stories according to pronouns alone doesn’t reveal much. Upon further consideration, though, I realized that our reader’s observation (and implicit complaint) probably turned primarily around the degree of emotional distance existing between the narrator (and hence the reader) and the characters in the story. In the type of first-person narrative in which the narrator is also the central character, there will, in many cases, be no emotional or mental distance at all between that main character and the reader, and readers will feel for other characters in the story according to how the narrator reacts, and think as he or she thinks. By contrast, in many stories told in the third person, an emotional and mental distance is established and either maintained or interspersed with more intimate views into the characters; the reader may not enter as fully or immediately into the inner lives of the characters in such a story, but the tradeoff can be a clearer vision of the characters and events. And readers may also enjoy hearing a voice that does not belong to a character in the story and which may lend insights out of the reach of any of the characters. To me, this is all more a question of focus (zooming in or zooming out) than of first versus third person. But if there is a trend toward one type of viewpoint dominating, it’s worth noting, however we describe it. As a reader, I enjoy different perspectives. I don’t always want to “experience” the action or the characters’ emotions as if they were my own. Sometimes I enjoy viewing it all from a distance; sometimes it’s nice to see it all up close at one point in the story and then be pulled back. EQMM has always tried to provide its readers with a range in terms of genre, theme, setting, and style, and viewpoint is another area in which we want to maintain variety. Since receiving that reader letter in 2009, I have noticed several posts online in which readers commented that they have no interest in any crime or mystery story that does not feature a first-person narrator who is also the central character. I’m not sure what lay behind the surge in popularity of this viewpoint when it was first brought to my attention. (In 2009, when I posted about this on our website, I wondered whether it could be tied to the huge popularity memoirs were enjoying at the time.) But eight years have now passed since my first look at this topic, and I think the trend, if indeed there was one, may be declining.

In the most recent MWA anthology, 2016’s Manhattan Mayhem, nearly two-thirds of the stories are in the third person. Another crime-fiction anthology I pulled off my local bookstore’s shelves, The Highway Kind, edited by Patrick Millikin, is split fifty/fifty between first- and third-person tales, as is the latest anthology from Britain’s Detection Club, Motives for Murder. EQMM can’t be taken, over the past eight years, as indicative of any trend in this regard, because despite my contention that the most important difference in perspective may be the nearness or distance of a story’s focus rather than whether it employs first- or third-person narration, I have tried, since receiving that reader letter, to make sure each issue is balanced in terms of employment of the narrative I. We want our readers’ experience with each issue of EQMM to be as varied as possible, and if we have to count I’s to ensure it, we will. . . . —Janet Hutchings

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“The Story Is Always King” (by Robert Shepherd)

 

Robert Shepherd has managed to carve out time to write fiction while working with organizations devoted to adoption advocacy and raising his own family of nine (including four adopted children). He describes himself as a voracious reader of all genres of fiction, especially mysteries, and his love of good storytelling is the theme of this post. Robert’s first published work of fiction, “Just Below the Surface,” appears in our current issue (March/April 2017). Readers who like a good yarn won’t want to miss it. —Janet Hutchings

Not to start this thing off on a sour note, but let me ask you a question: When was the last time you read a short story or novel that you concluded to be a complete waste of time? And, have you given any thought at all to your failed reading experience, or have you simply discarded whatever it was and tried to erase the matter entirely from your memory? I know I’ve done that myself a few times; tossed the piece aside, hoping to never be fooled into reading the likes of it again. But in fact, I know it will happen again; I’ll read something and curse myself thoroughly for once again wasting my time. Why, though? Why do some stories disappoint me? I believe the answer may be simple. It just could be that the content of what I read was simply not entertaining; that I was not swept away from reality for a while and taken down paths I’ve never seen before. And that, I believe, really is the job of a fiction writer: to entertain by removing the mundaneness of everyday life and replacing it with something irresistible and amazing. To give the reader a bona fide story . . . a real story—nothing resembling those everyday actions that we all carry out to the point of misery and boredom. Readers want something beyond their lives, they want to know what it feels like to do something that perhaps they are only in the position of dreaming about; something that will knock them off their feet. Something with thought, intrigue, and adventure. . . .

Who writes great stories? Who creates these fascinating scenarios, walking us into and through incredible circumstances that, in the end, leave us completely and thoroughly entertained?

Well, let’s go big right off the top. I will use a name that we are all familiar with to make my point.

Stephen King has got to be one of the greatest kidnappers of readers’ minds ever to have slapped ink onto the page. He takes you on a ride, his wild ride, through whatever strange and exceptionally uncommon experience he chooses to. We, as readers, jump in and hang on for dear life. We get so involved in his adventures that we sometimes wish we didn’t have to return to reality . . . at least I know I have. I’ve finished many S.K. novels and wished I could have more. For me and quite possibly for you, that’s simply because he delivers a great and well-crafted story. A story that is so inviting that we’d love to be a part of it again, and again, and again. And, in his case, we quite often do. I read “Rita Hayworth And The Shawshank Redemption” long before the movie version came out. And, oh my, what a movie! This great story was given life again and I return to both the short story and the movie quite often whenever I need a fix of superior storytelling.

There are some stories that are so absolutely fascinating that movies are eventually made of them that we can watch over and over again. Why are they chosen? Once again, the answer is the story itself. We want to see life translated into something we can fall in love with; whether in a movie, a T.V. show, or even a play. A great story will live, live, and live again. Consider the sequels to a great movie. They are written because the original story has touched an audience enough to demand a need for more. We hunger for more of a terrific and well-crafted tale.

I can tell you right now that if a movie came out that touched on all the things that the original movie The World According To Garp was unable to, I’d stand in line for hours to get a ticket. And even though I find it difficult to believe anyone could give life to John Irving’s wonderful lead character better than Robin Williams, I’d still be giddy to watch it.

Think about Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. Because of our love for her original story, created over a half a century ago, we salivated at the very mention of its coming publication.

Consider something you’ve read over the last year that you really enjoyed. If the writer were to write a sequel or even a prequel, would you read it? Of course you would; it was a great story and you want more.

I could list a dozen stories right here that I would kill to have just one more page written about. If they were to discover lost writings of Charles Dickens that gave us an entirely new adventure for David Copperfield, I’d probably go crazy waiting for its release. Or, what if Stephen King returned us to Derry and our favorite clown was back to his old tricks again? Can you imagine the riots in the streets until that book finally came out? Okay, I’m kidding about the riots, but you get the point . . . we’d go bonkers with anticipation. We love good stories.

Now when I use the word story, I’m not talking about something that we do everyday or see everyday. I’m talking about something larger than life! Someone getting kidnapped, or some sinister madman who has the world by the balls . . . something beyond our uneventful lives. And even though a writer may take something mundane, something we do every day, and write it in the most elegant of styles, to me, it still isn’t a story . . . a good one at least. Crafters of fictions and make believe need to take our minds on a vacation, a wild vacation. Somewhere we have not been before. Excite us, entertain us, satisfy our hunger for anything other than the familiar. And that, my friends, is no easy task, especially in a world where we are not so easily impressed or shocked anymore. We’ve seen it all. We have not done it all, but we’ve seen it all. So, there is a greater burden than ever for a writer to give us something we have not yet been exposed to. But maybe that’s not even entirely necessary. Maybe just more of something that we know works will do—something that expands on a concept or an idea that has already proven to entertain a vast audience. Look at Conan Doyle, Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie, and even Mickey Spillane. Those writers return us time and time again to a particular formula that never fails to pay off. That’s why I return to those writers and others I’m familiar with time after time; I’m a big chicken, afraid to try new writers for fear that I will once again be let down. I’ve gotten better at trying new and different authors, but must confess that I am still let down every so often and then it takes awhile for me to conjure up the courage to try someone new again.

I believe writers have an obligation to entertain and to lift their readers from this world for a brief period of time. If the story is not intriguing, then why spend the time to write it? And why waste the time of some unsuspecting reader? Now, of course, not every story can be a home run, but it sure as hell ought to be a base hit. I must confess, there have been writers I have given second and even third chances who have continuously struck out for me, and I will never allow them to go to bat at my home plate again. As a writer, I feel under pressure to come up with a story I’m certain is going to move the reader to turn the pages. Otherwise, I have no right to expect anyone to read my material. Above all, I want to entertain; I want to take readers someplace they have never been before. . . . When I’m coming up with a new story, I’m sometimes so excited to tell it that I phone my friends and let the cat out of the bag before it’s even finished to get their reaction. If I’m not excited about a story I’m writing, I don’t see how I can expect a reader to be. Dazzling style and a great vocabulary by itself just doesn’t cut it for me. The story! That’s where it’s at!

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“When Bob’s Your Uncle” (by G.M. Malliet)

G.M. Malliet is an American, but she favors England, where she lived for several years, as a setting for her fiction. Her debut novel, which appeared in 2008 and introduced series character DCI Arthur St. Just, won an Agatha Award and was nominated for the Anthony, the Macavity, and a Left Coast Crime award. A second Malliet series, starring a former MI5 agent turned vicar, was launched by Macmillan in 2011, and her standalone dark suspense thriller Weycombe is scheduled for release in October of this year. Also an author of short stories, G.M. Malliet has been described (Cleveland.com) as possibly “the best mystery author writing in English at the moment (along with Tana French).” Her work first appeared in EQMM in 2014, and a second story, with a brilliantly realized British setting, is featured in our current issue, March/April 2017. A third Malliet story, this time set in the U.S., will be  coming up in EQMM soon!—Janet Hutchings

While many call American-born Edgar Allen Poe the father of the detective story, and credit him in particular with inventing the locked-room mystery, it is no coincidence that the country that took this idea and ran with it is so isolated, so protected for long centuries from invasion except by sea. Even today the classic mystery has to do with the confinement of victims and suspects to a remote manor house, in the type of “we’re stuck here and the lights just went out” plot perfected by Agatha Christie in And Then There Were None. I would argue a small island, England in particular, is the ideal setting for mayhem and murder. Maybe that’s why I went there, as a fledgling mystery novelist, and long every day to go back.

*****

As an American who happens to write books set in Great Britain, the question I am asked most often is, “Why?” Meaning, wouldn’t it have been easier for you to use a North American setting and characters? The answer is yes, it most certainly would. I suppose my choice is even more unusual because I didn’t visit the UK until I was in my twenties. That is when my love of all things British took hold, authors of the Golden Age, particularly Dame Agatha, having ignited the spark long before. Martha Grimes, a fellow American who likes doing things the hard way, also was an inspiration, as later was Elizabeth George.

Had I set my books in the US, I could altogether have avoided email from UK readers politely asking me when I’m going to learn how to spell “colour” or why I wrote “fall” when surely I meant “autumn.” My books are originally printed in the US but sold to Little, Brown in the UK “as is;” it appears no one can be bothered to translate my books into English because they think I’m already writing in English, or at least close enough to make myself understood. Since I never reread my own books in any language, this lack of translation came as a surprise when alert readers in the UK began pointing it out.

Nowadays, I take care to write “mobile phone” when I mean “cell phone” and, yes, “autumn” for “fall,” but I have to leave the rest for others to sort out. It took me years to learn how to spell in Great British for my thesis and years to unlearn it afterward; what I’m doing now is at best a shaky bridge between the two worlds.

I have noticed that books by British authors generally have the spelling “corrected” for US readers: “s” for “c” in licence and “z” for “s” in criticise—“zed” being a whole other matter. British crime stories are extremely popular with American audiences, simply because nobody does their peculiar brand of polite havoc better. As Dorothy L. Sayers wrote, “Death seems to provide the minds of the Anglo-Saxon race with a greater fund of innocent amusement than any other single subject.” And a greater fund of invention, I would add. But she was talking about a particular type of crime novel. The puzzle mystery that would be almost impossible to carry out in real life is what excites the devotees of the true British mystery like me—not a random drive-by shooting or holdup. And that isolated setting is practically a requirement—an island, a ship, an airplane, a spooky mansion in a snowstorm—simply to eliminate the hackneyed passing stranger as a suspect. I have come to think the fame of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo can be credited in part to its fascinating protagonists and in part to its burnishing of Golden Age tropes.

*****

Occasionally I hear from readers who think I am British. That I am able to fool readers is not exactly a source of satisfaction, much less a goal, but I do take it as praise that I don’t get things too terribly wrong.

I lived in the UK in Cambridge and Oxford for five years. Oxford, in particular, is vivid in my memory. I shared a little crooked house on Ship Street in the heart of the city with two other grad students, one from London and one from Wales, and those gifted women were a delightful education in and of themselves. In theory, I was reading for advanced degrees, but in reality I was spending hours each day in coffee shops eavesdropping, fascinated by the way these people talked. I wanted to talk like that. I wanted to write like that, too, for the British are masters at distilling both the sublime and the ridiculous into a few masterfully constructed sentences. Even in casual conversation, the average British man or woman (whether upper or lower class, a whole other topic) can toss off lines, formed in perfectly calibrated and nuanced paragraphs, that can take me weeks to produce at the keyboard. And they manage to do this in a way that is so often amusing. Their particular gift seems to be for the subversive observation. Or the completely loopy but brilliant commentary that makes sense only if you’re willing to check your sanity at the door (cf. Eddie Izzard and all the Monty Python players).

How much of this verbal agility is a reaction to the UK’s island status only an expert could say. The English are not, after all, that far distant from France in kilometers, but in outlook, style, and temperament they are completely different—just ask either side. Nor is England at any great distance from the rest of Europe but it remains isolated, with the Brexit movement demonstrating the wish of many to stay that way—ta very much.

At the same time, the English language has become universal. There are political reasons for that, of course; I regret very much that the Cornish language of my ancestors, to give one example, has virtually disappeared.

I have tried in recent years to write a mystery novel set in the US. So far, no luck. I’ve found few settings here that interest me, and for the long haul of the novel, especially, the writer has to be engaged. Britishisms kept creeping in to my standalone novel until finally I gave up and changed the setting to England. For the traditional puzzle story that I love, only that small island will do.

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“The Bees Knees and the Cat’s Galoshes” (by Olive-Ann Tynan)

An Irish writer whose first work of fiction appeared in EQMM’s Department of First Stories in 2013, Olive-Ann Tynan has lived in Italy for many years. She currently works as a translator from Italian to English and was at one time editor for an Italian-language golf magazine. Despite her long immersion in another culture, she continues to find her native Ireland in the period of her childhood the most fertile soil for her fiction, something she talks about in this post. Olive-Ann’s latest EQMM story, “Alive, Alive-Oh,” is in our current issue, March/April 2017.—Janet Hutchings

Some years ago, I moved from Rome to a hill-town south of the city, and usually take the local train to reach the city centre as by car it could take more than twice the time, over two hours. It’s a run I enjoy because someone else is taking care of the driving, and I can gaze out the window and try to solve some plot problems in whatever I happen to be working on.

We meet several distracting landmarks on the way, both ancient and modern. We coast the runways of Rome’s secondary airport, Ciampino, busy with planes landing and taking off over our heads, and, a little farther ahead, the Capannelle racecourse where, among the galloping jockeys crouched low over their mounts, I spot a Dick Francis look-alike. Closer to Rome, the railway track cuts right through the huge arches of the Aqua Claudia aqueduct, its construction begun by Emperor Caligula in 38 CE, and completed by Emperor Claudius a decade and a half later. By then I’ve set aside the plot problem—not because of Caligula’s nasty reputation, or because he didn’t get his fair share in naming the sixty-four mile long aqueduct—but because I start thinking about the cat’s galoshes.

I will explain where the cat’s galoshes come in, but it may take a bit of time before I get there. Write what you know seems like pretty good advice but when it comes to warming up the keyboard, what I seem to know best is the Ireland where I was born and grew up. It’s disheartening that I can’t come up with a story about a misdeed that took place under the arches of that towering aqueduct and maybe one day I’ll be able to, but for the moment I can produce nothing better than a collection of dead sparks. Perhaps it’s because Rome’s monuments and ruins are somehow robbed of their aura because they fit invisibly into the daily humdrum scene. Anyway, by then, the train which I’m still on, is pulling into Roma Termini and I’m hoping that the taxi queue won’t be too long, or that a bus I might need to take, the one that stops near the ruins of Diocletian’s Baths, won’t be delayed.

So there it is. I must forget (hopefully only for the moment) water-carrying arches and the like, and succumb to that growing addiction with a less remote past, further narrowed down to a particular place and time slot—Ireland in the Sixties. (In “Alive, Alive-Oh,” in the EQMM March/April 2017 issue, the narrator’s heart and soul is fixed firmly back in that time, although the action takes place “today”). Call the addiction a kind of nostalgia because the early Sixties were illuminated by the Democratic candidate of Irish origin who became the 35th President of the United States of America. Maybe, too, the regression is a kind of necessary standing back to create the distance and perspective needed to sink into the writing process, to conjure up scenes as though viewed through a telescope that is also, somehow, a kaleidoscope. Or maybe it’s because the older one gets. . . but I’ll leave that one hanging.

Whatever the reason, the Sixties were to become a decade of huge change that came slowly to our city, a small one but still the third largest in Ireland. Ireland had its own currency that included a green pound note, (punt is the Gaelic for pound), a russet ten-shilling note, and higher denomination banknotes, including a purple one which I think was fifty pounds. Among the coins which on the obverse portrayed a Celtic Harp (like today’s Euro coins), we had the silver half-crown scaling down to the bronze farthing that later succumbed to inflation.

At home we had a chunky black Bakelite dial telephone in the hall that gave a wonderful thrilling ring, and a TV set not much larger than a laptop on which we viewed, in black and white, the six o’clock news in English and Irish, and series and shows like I Love Lucy, Gunsmoke, The Jack Benny Program, The Fugitive. We had coal fires in most of the rooms, and an Aga coal-fired range in the kitchen that stewed porridge overnight for breakfast. Delivered to our door, even on the frostiest of mornings, came unhomogenized, cream-topped milk in glass bottles, and we had the amount of clothes that fitted easily into narrow wardrobes. Was life tastier and easier back then? Yes. No. Maybe.

In any case, I’m stuck in that Sixties time warp, because it’s a comfortable place to be when I write. For instance, were I in Ireland right now and looking out the window, I would see that it’s raining or about to rain, and this is where the cat’s galoshes come in, because the characters will need to faithfully echo how we spoke back then. We young people had buzzwords which included our own particular version of that sometimes ironic accolade The bees knees and the cat’s whiskers, because logically in a country like Ireland you can’t let the cat outside without a decent pair of rubber overshoes. We said “Give me a buzz!” meaning telephone me and nothing more, and prefixed or suffixed weightier sentences with “Howsever.” Where the extra letter came from I don’t know, but the word carried heft and sounded good, and there it is waiting for some character to say it at the appropriate moment.

From back then, I remember a magazine article that deplored verbification of the noun “contact.” The transgression was viewed as a dangerous trend that could lead to the massacre of the English language, but in our group we used it as a verb all the time, and felt very up-to-date saying “Contact me!”, or “I’ll contact you next week!” In any Sixties story, though, the characters, both young and old, will need to beware verbifications, not because of crusty grammar pundits, but because many currently used verbified nouns hadn’t yet cropped up. So instead of feeling conflicted, John will be undecided or caught between two stools; instead of sourcing a required or missing element Jane will look for it; instead of being impacted by an external event Jack and Jane will feel strongly affected, and if they gain access anywhere it will be through a physical door or entry. (Who would have thought in our narrow world back then, that Captain Kirk’s awe-inspiring communication devices were to come into use and be a huge improvement on the imagined?)

To get the Sixties backdrop right, much of the time I’ll go by instinct; if a particular word or catch phrase sounds too modern—anything from the Seventies on—I’ll be wary of using them. If, on the other hand, I were to make a list of the examples that obligingly stick out the most, I’d include the verb resonate which will refer exclusively to sounds and not to emotions, the noun issue which will be pared down to fewer meanings such as promulgation or a legal point to be discussed, and only inanimate objects will be devastated. The phrase At the end of the day will be replaced with When all is said and done, but I’ll need to think up alternatives to Street cred, Thinking out of the box, and Comfort zone, all good expressions but in the context unusable.

Finally, and this is the obvious one, no calling anyone by their first name on short acquaintance, even if that someone happens to be only a few years senior; prefixed titles of respect, Mr., Mrs., Miss, etcetera, are a safer bet. And I’m sorry about this, but a Chairperson will have to be a Chairman or a Chairwoman, and You guys won’t include members of the gentle sex, which I suppose we were told we were back then.

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