“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attention Cornell Woolrich—continuing the theme of last week’s post and coinciding with the publication of a previously unpublished Woolrich tale in our current issue.—Janet Hutchings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

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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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“When Hesitation Knocks” (by Karen Harrington)

Karen Harrington’s first adult novel, Janeology, came out in 2008. She has since won awards and praise for three novels from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. The latest of them, 2016’s Mayday, received starred reviews from both PW and Kirkus Reviews. A short-story writer too, she makes her EQMM debut in the issue that went on sale this week, January/February 2021. You won’t want to miss it: see “Boo Radley College Prep.” This post from the Texas author contains a good piece of writing advice. —Janet Hutchings

My mother was a belly dancer. Not a professional—that might have been cool. No, adding to my schoolgirl angst, she was an agoraphobic who decided to take belly dancing lessons. Sure, I’m a writer, but I’m not making this up. The house went from quiet afternoons to loud Egyptian music and the chime of finger cymbals. She’d usher us out the door, push back the furniture and dance.

Neighbor kids would ask, “What’s that weird music?”

“What? I don’t hear anything?”

“It’s coming from your house?”

“Nah, I think it’s the apartments over there.”

I still marvel at this. Every single time I’ve thought about spinning this particular life detail into a fictional yarn, I hesitate. It’s strange. It’s revealing. It’s a risk.

In other words, it’s the good stuff.

It took years for me to have faith in this truth. In fact, I still hesitate, marinate in doubt and overthink all the reasons not to write about certain subjects. What life has taught me, however, is to just get my overthinking done faster. How? I recall a touchstone experience that has informed my writing life ever since it happened.

The event took place several years ago. I was invited to be on an author panel at the Pulpwood Queen’s Book Club annual winter event in East Texas. I suspect this event is one of the hidden gems in the book world. Over the years, I was lucky enough to meet authors like John Berendt, Fannie Flagg, Jeannette Walls, and one of my literary heroes, Pat Conroy.

One of the great blessings of my life will always be the unexpected friendship I struck up with Pat. On the night before the author panels began, the host of the event invited all the book club attendees to a dinner. All of the attending authors served dinner to the guests. We dined earlier, family-style, in the kitchen space of the Excelsior Hotel in Jefferson, Texas. Pat entered the room and sat next to me. The fangirl inside me shouted, Oh my gosh, that’s Pat Conroy. Pat Conroy is sitting next to me. At our table.

I locked eyes with author Kathryn Casey, who was seated directly across from me.

“Hello all,” he said to our table. “Just want to say one thing. It never gets easier.”

We were in awe. Pat talked casually about writing and food, two of his great passions. When the evening was over, he inquired about buying our books. We all said, “No, no, have them as a gift.”

“Madame,” he said to me, grinning. “When someone offers to buy your book, you say Thank you.” He was as genuinely charming as you hope your literary hero will be.

Later, he said to call him anytime I wanted or needed a blurb. I learned that he extended this kindness to every single author at the event. When his first book was published, he couldn’t get anyone to blurb it. So, he vowed to be supportive of emerging writers. And he was.

Over the next year, he followed up on how I was doing. (I admit to photographing the Caller ID of his name on my phone in case I woke up the next day and thought I’d dreamed it all.) He critiqued one of my manuscripts. He even called with a suggestion for a story he thought I should write. Then, I got a contract for a new book. It came time to gather blurbs. I hesitated.

The previous manuscript I’d sent him was adult fiction about a preacher’s son. But this new work? It was a coming-of-age story about a young girl who writes letters to Atticus Finch. While I suspected Pat might enjoy the larger story about the influence of To Kill a Mockingbird, I shuddered to think about him reading the scenes in which the character got her period.

Quelle horreur!

My mental ping-pong match went on for days. To send or not to send.

Pat Conroy was a real “mean what you say, say what you mean” human being. If he made a generous offer to read a work, he meant it. I sent in the galley and waited.

And I waited.

One day, the phone rang.

“Karen, Pat Conroy. It’s blurb time!” His familiar South Carolinian accent made me smile and sit up straight.

“Hi, Pat.”

“But first I want to tell you about something in the book.”

From past experience, I prepared to hear a gentle critique.

“I want you to know that the book was special to me because it reminded me of a special day one summer with my young daughters. One of them said, Dad, I got my period.”

I took a deep breath as I reveled in the unexpected.

He went on to say they all went down to the local store, all deciding what to buy, what not to buy, for the occasion. He said they all still remembered that day, that summer. And my story had conjured those memories of a sweet time in his life. He thanked me.

The thing I’d feared most was the thing that resonated with Pat, briefly transporting him back in time.

That’s what we want fiction to do. We want it to invite the reader in and bring their own experiences to the story. Author Jacqueline Woodson says, “The more specific we are, the more universal something can become. Life is in the details. If you generalize, it doesn’t resonate. The specificity of it is what resonates.”

I’m grateful to the late, great Pat Conroy for myriad reasons. Not the least of which is how he shined as model of how to treat others in this formidable industry. To think I almost didn’t send the book for a blurb. What a missed opportunity that would have been!

I try to transfer that lesson to my writing choices, too. I try to be fearless. If I’m on the fence about putting a character in a situation, that’s a pretty good indication that I should do it.

After all, the great mystery of what’s on the other side of the door in your story—or someone’s response to the tale—may only be revealed by its opening. Don’t let fear cause you to miss out on the unexpected. Let the characters walk up the frightening path. Let them risk it all. For me, I find that’s where the good stuff happens in life, and on the page.

So, about that agoraphobic belly dancer . . .

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“Crime Fiction and Twenty-First Century Policing” (by Jeff Soloway)

Jeff Soloway makes his EQMM debut with a story in the issue that goes on sale next Tuesday, January/February 2021. The story’s title is “The Interpreter and the Killer” and it stars a central character with a job we’re surprised we have not seen featured in crime stories submitted to EQMM before: a court translator. Jeff Soloway was the 2014 winner of the Robert L. Fish Award for best short story by a new American author, and he has since had stories published in AHMM, in two MWA anthologies, and elsewhere. He’s also the author of three novels in a series featuring travel writer Jacob Smalls. They are: The Travel Writer, The Last Descent, and The Ex-President. In this post Jeff takes up a subject that should interest every writer of crime stories—and readers of the genre too!—Janet Hutchings

My wife writes up cops for a living. For more than eighteen years, she’s worked for the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), New York City’s independent agency in charge of investigating citizen complaints of police misconduct. She began as a junior investigator and now manages a team of investigators, but the basics of her job remain the same. She and her team field complaints from New Yorkers, gather evidence from cops and witnesses, and report their findings. When she was hired in 2002, cell-phone videos were all but unknown, Rudy Giuliani had just finished up his run as mayor, and the city was still traumatized by the crime wave that had crested in the early 1990s. Since then, policing in the city has changed, in some ways dramatically, and so has my wife’s work. She’s now one of the longest-tenured investigators in the agency. Few people know more about the evolution of New York City policing in the new millennium. 

Like many devotees of crime fiction, I often find myself asking, after I’ve read (or written) a policing scene, how realistic it is. Unlike most, I can often get the answer from my spouse. Good police-procedural writers, and crime writers in general, tend to feel more of an obligation to reflect reality than other fiction writers. But reality is a moving target.

Richard Price’s excellent 2008 novel Lush Life begins with an unforgettable description of four plainclothes NYPD cops in an unmarked car, cruising the streets of the Lower East Side: “their mantra: Dope, guns, overtime; their motto: Everyone’s got something to lose.” They pull over cars for minor violations, but they’re really looking for an excuse to conduct a search and uncover drugs or, much better, illegal guns. In the novel, the team is called the Quality of Life Task Force, but in the real-life NYPD these roving plainclothes units were called, bluntly, anti-crime. 

These anti-crime units always generated civilian complaints. When my wife began her job, many anti-crime complaints came from encounters with pedestrians or street corner hangers-around. In later years, anti-crime units shifted tactics and those complaints dropped off. The predominant source of anti-crime complaints became the ever-popular car stop, as described in Price’s novel—an illegal left turn that leads to a full vehicular search and so on. But about four or five years ago, anti-crime tactics began to change yet again. A new kind of stop was generating complaints. When asked in CCRB interviews to justify a stop, officers might explain that the driver who had, say, failed to signal his lane change, was not simply a random young man who happened to be cruising through the neighborhood but was instead a man the police knew and were watching, someone who, for example, might recently been the victim of a stabbing and could well be out for revenge. The anti-crime teams had begun targeting specific people for pretextual stops rather than simply the general neighborhood population (though they continued to do that too). Today, any writer who cares about realism would have to avoid NYPD anti-crime entirely. This June, under pressure from activists and reformist politicians, the anti-crime units were disbanded completely. The opening of Lush Life was perfectly accurate when Price wrote it, but it was a snapshot in time, now no longer true to life. 

Narcotics units were another major driver of complaints in my wife’s early days. For many years, NYPD narcotics units depended on the buy-and-bust technique, in which plainclothes officers buy drugs from unsuspecting street sellers. In crime fiction and television shows, experienced locals can often smell undercover cops a mile away, but in real life, they’re not always so savvy, which is why buy and bust was so popular and also so dangerous. Surprise arrests of unsuspecting young men naturally lead to chaos, which leads to beatdowns. Complainants at the CCRB, many of whom were obviously drug dealers, would often tell some version of the same story: The complainant/dealer (almost always a man) would hand his goods over to some ordinary-looking buyer, who would then stroll away; some time later a different man, a plainclothes cop, would arrive and announce the dealer was under arrest. The dealer would have no idea he had just sold to undercover and often no idea why he was being arrested. He would think the arrest was a mistake, or an injustice, or was really for something other (maybe worse) than the obvious reason; and then he would run, forcing the cops to pursue. With adrenaline flowing on all sides, the dealer would get chased down and beat up, sometimes seriously—all for the crime of selling one small packet of drugs. Because these kinds of arrests are dangerous and exciting, they’ve been a staple of crime writing for years. But today my wife rarely gets these complaints. Buy and bust, in New York City at least, has been going the way of the phone book. Drug laws are changing, and the NYPD has evidently decided the arrests are not worth the violence.

But what has affected my wife’s job most dramatically is not tactics but technology, specifically, the rise of digital video—cell phone videos, security videos outside stores and apartment lobbies, and most recently, video from police body-worn cameras. All the encounters that my wife once had to recreate from testimony and imagination are now broadcast to her second by second, sometimes from multiple perspectives. 

It took the NYPD years to get used to widespread video. Initially, cops were often caught on cellphone videos insulting or cursing out civilians—minor but obvious violations of the rules—or manhandling them unnecessarily. Body-worn camera video caused even more embarrassment. When officers first started to wear cameras, they often forgot about them or forgot how they worked. NYPD body-worn cameras are always operating but are only officially recording when officers turn them on; however, when turned on they capture not only succeeding events but also 30 seconds of video from before activation. Many an officer behaving perfectly correctly after pressing the camera button was not quite so restrained in the prior half-minute. 

But today my wife fields fewer of those caught-on-camera discourtesies. Officers now understand they’re always potentially being recorded. In fact, they often behave with a politeness that would have been weird or even suspicious back in 2002. My wife has watched video of officers putting up with civilians shouting the foulest insults at them. Eighteen years ago, they might well have taken revenge.

This general change in attitude is what, in my opinion, has the profoundest implication for crime fiction. Crime writers often portray cops as citizens of their own nation, answerable only to their comrades on the force and their personal code of justice. But today cops know they can’t escape society’s judgment. Any interaction could become a viral video. Just as important, any interaction could later be thrown back in their faces. In my wife’s years on the job, only a handful of times has she seen officers break down and cry in the interview room, but those have almost always been just after they’ve been shown a video of their actions. Imagine being forced to watch the worst moment of your career or even your life on a screen and then having to explain it. To submit yourself to the judgment not just of a civilian oversight board (which, let’s face it, often has little real power to punish) but of the wider world, and yourself. Wouldn’t it change how you think about your job? 

I’m not sure crime fiction has yet reckoned with this change in policing. But it will have to.

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“Dorothy L. Sayers Reviews the Early Ellery Queen” (by Joe R. Christopher)

Dr. Joe R. Christopher is an Emeritus Professor in the English Department of Tarleton State University in Texas. He’s written scholarly books (including C. S. Lewis: A Biography), essays, reviews, and short stories (in both the mystery and science-fiction genres). In this post he discusses the reviews Golden Age mystery writer Dorothy L. Sayers wrote of the books of one of her contemporaries: Ellery Queen. These should be of interest to Ellery Queen fans, and to those looking for some good reads over the holidays. Nearly all of the Ellery Queen novels are available in e-editions from Mysterious Press/Open Road.—Janet Hutchings

Dorothy L. Sayers reviewed mysteries on a weekly basis for The Sunday Times from 25 June 1933 through 18 August 1935. Although there was some variation, she normally wrote about four novels in each column. Her reviews were not just of “you will enjoy” sort; she was concerned with the authors’ writing skills. It is not known specifically why she started or stopped her reviews, but a few biographical details are suggestive.

At the end of 1929, she had enough money coming in from her mysteries that she gave up her full-time job in an advertising agency. This gave her more freedom in time to focus on her novels—and related activities. She was greatly involved in the development of The Detection Club (a dining club of authors who wrote puzzle-based mysteries); they collaborated on books to support the Club—the first was Behind the Screen, with Sayers one of the authors, broadcast in June and July 1930, and published as a book soon after. In these years, Sayers edited her three-volume anthology of short mysteries—Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery and Horror (called The Omnibus of Crime in America), 1928, 1931, and 1934. And she was publishing some of her best Lord Peter mysteries during these same years that she was reviewing: Murder Must Advertise, (1933), The NineTailors (1934), and Gaudy Night (1935). But her next Lord Peter mystery appeared first as a drama, Busman’s Honeymoon, in collaboration with Muriel St. Clare Byrne (1937). And soon Sayers was off to writing dramas and essays and eventually to translating Dante. She started another Lord Peter novel, but never finished it.

In Sayers’ second column, 2 July 1933, she starts with The American Gun Mystery with her subtitle of “An American Nut Worth Cracking.” She spends her first paragraph quoting seven excesses of Queen’s style. Her first sentence: “Mr. Ellery Queen is determined to be literary or die.” One of her examples: “he was in a chair, his incredible bulk quiescent as poured steel.” “Nevertheless,” she continues, the book has “a rattling good yarn with a well-constructed mystery.” She mentions the setting (the rodeo on Broadway) and some other details. (The cousins invented the Colosseum sports arena of the novel.) Sayers comments about the plot: “As to the mystery, I frankly confess that I only guessed about half of it, and on due and sour consideration I am reluctantly compelled to admit that the author was quite honourable and that the stupidity was mine.” (She mentions the five earlier mysteries by Queen in passing, at least three of which she indicates she had solved before the dénouements.)

On 3 December 1933, she reviewed Barnaby Ross’s Drury Lane’s Last Case, the last of the four mysteries by Queen about a different detective under a different authorial name. It is a mixed review. The “crime is all mixed up with Shakespeare and bibliophily; and this is the weakest part of the book. … Mr. Ross does not seem to me to quite know his Shakespeare.” (Francis M. Nevins, in Ellery Queen: The Art of Detection [2013], says that the climax of the novel depends on Shakespearean ‘facts’ that Fred Dannay and Manny Lee made up out of whole cloth.” Perhaps that was what bothered Sayers.) To continue with her review: “His central mystification has been used too often before. . . .” But she ends up with some praise for the “mysterious events [which] have a real atmosphere of oddity” and “ingenious detective work.”

Seven days later, Sayers reviewed Queen’s The Siamese Twin Mystery. “Mr. Queen is fantastic, involute, supersubtle, concerned with abnormal psychology and physiology, exaggerative, baroque, [with] a uniformity of tone which tends to monotony.” After several examples of style and content, she switches directions: “What saves Mr. Queen is the basis of really acute and ingenious detective work on which he founds his plot, so that one forgives his extravagance for the sake of his fundamental brain-work.” And she ends with a statement that must have meant much to the cousins if they saw their British reviews: “If only he [Queen] would master the ‘art of sinking’ in prose, he would take the rank to which his intellect entitles him, as one of the supreme masters of the detective story.”

On 7 January of the next year, Sayers has The Ellery Queen Omnibus as her fourth title. (She starts off with Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express.) The Omnibus contains The French Powder Mystery, The Dutch Shoe Mystery, and The Greek Coffin Mystery. Sayers calls these “three of their author’s best-known novels,” but does not discuss them further. She does present a short history of the development of the meaning of omnibus and lightly praises the quality of the paper used in the book. One suspects that Sayers was hurried, and she picked a book that she didn’t need to freshly read for her fourth spot.

About a half year later, on 1 July 1934, The Chinese Orange Mystery leads the three books being discussed. She titles her column “Criminals Who Are Too Ingenious” and says of the killer in Queen’s novel, “for perverted ingenuity this murderer takes the absolute bun. . . . A little careless simplicity would have served his turn better.” She turns to the basic plot in terms of three questions: “Who killed him [the man waiting for a business interview]? How was the room entered and left again after the murder? And why was everything put back to front. . . . Well—I was completely led up the garden by problem No. 3, but I guessed the other two. . . .” And she added this about the writing: “. . . Mr. Queen, the author, shows distinct improvement in the direction of simplicity: he has toned down the elaboration of his literary style.”

On 3 March 1935, Sayers titles her review “The Adventures of a Highbrow Detective” and she reviews first The Adventures of Ellery Queen—the first collection of Queen’s short stories. “I am not sure that I do not like him better when thus short-circuited [that is, in short fiction, not novels]; for the mechanical limitations of the medium force him to control his besetting sin of over-writing. . . . His characters take after him in [being very intelligent], and one sometimes feels that they are fortunate beyond all reasonable expectations in finding a detective clever enough to interpret the ingenious and picturesque false clues and dying messages they leave behind them.” And again, “All these strange fantasies of bearded ladies and glass-domed clocks would be wasted on a mere forthright police constable, who would neither interpret nor misinterpret, but probably merely ignore them.” She doesn’t offer any close discussion of specific short stories.

Her final review of a Queen novel is of The Spanish Cape Mystery, on 7 April 1935. Unfortunately, it is brief—only five sentences. (What upset the balance in the review was that Sayers began with G. K. Chesterton’s The Scandal of Father Brown, and she wrote a celebration not of the specific book but of his Father Brown stories and their serious treatment of religion in mysteries.) About Queen’s novel, she says, “Mr. Ellery Queen seems to me to be sobering down a little. Fantastic he still is . . . but he is far less extravagant in language and behaviour than in, for example, ‘The Siamese Twins’ or ‘The American Gun.’” It is clearer in the review than in this selection that Sayers knowingly moves from Queen as author to Queen the character. She goes on: Queen “is suaver and less hysterical, and he has the right way with servants (always a test of breeding). In fact, I am beginning to like the man.” On that friendly note, her discussions of Ellery Queen, as author and character, can conclude.

If any reader wants to see all of Sayers’ reviews—of Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, Erle Stanley Gardner, Margery Allingham (the latter with only one review), of some authors that were well-known at the time, and of a large number that are not familiar at all—the complete reviews have been published by the Dorothy L. Sayers Society: Taking Detective Stories Seriously: The Collected Reviews of Dorothy L. Sayers, Foreword by Simon Brett, edited, with an Introduction and a Commentary, by Martin Edwards (Pereth, Scotland: Tippermuir Books Ltd., 2017).

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“A Love Poem to Japan” (by Francis M. Nevins)

Francis M. Nevins is one of the leading scholars of mystery fiction, having written the highly acclaimed Royal Bloodline: Ellery Queen, Author and Detective and Cornell Woolrich: First You Dream, Then You Die. He is also the author of six mystery novels and several dozen mystery short stories, and had the privilege of knowing Frederic Dannay (half of the Ellery Queen writing team) personally. Recently Mr. Nevins (whom we know as Mike!) was contacted by his Japanese publisher regarding a piece of correspondence between Fred Dannay and famous Japanese mystery writer Shizuko Natsuke.  He explains the background to it in this post.—Janet Hutchings

Today, almost a century after he was created as both character and byline by the first cousins Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, Ellery Queen remains a household name in one country above all others: Japan. He was so popular there that in 1977, a few years after Manny Lee’s death, Fred Dannay and his wife Rose were invited by Queen’s Japanese publisher to come to Tokyo for what amounted to a spectacular media event. Rose lovingly described that trip in the fifth chapter of her memoir My Life with Ellery Queen: A Love Story (2015), from which we learn that the most important mystery writer she and Fred met while overseas was Shizuko Natsuke (1938-2016), who was often called the Agatha Christie of Japan.

Recently my own translator, Masatoshi Saito, informed me that a letter Fred wrote Natsuki on his return home had been released by her estate and published in a Japanese newspaper, and kindly emailed me a copy of the original letter. Here it is.

Oct. 12, 1977

Dear Mrs. Natsuki:

Rose has already written to you, and by this time
you will have received her letter, and she will write to 
you again in answer to your handwritten letter. But in
the meantime I hasten to make clear one of the state-
ments you attribute to me. I did not mean that “sur-
prising start” is more important than “surprising end-
ing.”

What I meant was, particularly for the American
reader, that a surprising start is more desirable to catch
and hold the reader’s interest. A surprising ending is 
always good—when the ending is not only a surprise
but also wholly believable. The ideal opening and clos-
ing would be both a surprising start and a surprising
ending.

The concept of a detective story set against the
background of the problems of Japanese education
sounds like an important theme. It probably will be
difficult, as you say, but I am sure you can do it.
Rose and I talk of you and Kozo [Queen’s Japan-
ese publisher] often, between ourselves and to our
friends, and always with the most affectionate mem-
ories. Our trip to Japan was truly a poem for both of
us, a marvelous experience that we will never forget—
but I will let Rose tell you of our feelings. This letter
is only for the purpose of correcting one of the
detective-story impressions I gave you. And if my
correction is still confusing, please write and I will
try to explain further.

Whether Natsuki ever wrote that mystery with a Japanese educational background remains unknown. But we know from Rose’s memoir that in a speech he gave at one of the many banquets honoring him Fred referred to his visit as a poem. And on his return he actually wrote a haiku in memory of his visit.

Two Americans
Dropped from the sky to Japan
And their love blossomed.

In Japan “Thank you” is “Arigato gozai-masu” (with a silent u) or “Domo arigato.” Fred and Rose probably learned the phrases but they also said thank you in many other ways. Including these. And another “Domo arigato” goes to Masatoshi Saito, who made it possible for me to share Fred’s words with EQ’s many readers.

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“City Sagas” (by Kevin Mims)

Essayist and short-story writer Kevin Mims is a frequent contributor to this site. A popular-fiction aficionado—especially when it comes to paperbacks of the late twentieth century—he often provides insight into the intersection and development of genres. That’s certainly true of his post here: The books he references do appear to form their own genre—and it’s one that crosses frequently with the mystery.—Janet Hutchings

During the last three decades of the twentieth century, a pop-fiction genre arose that has never been given a proper appraisal, or even a name. I’m talking about books, most of them written by women, that chronicled the rise of an American city, usually as seen through the eyes of a single family or, in some cases, a single (long-lived) individual. Examples of the genre include Charleston and On Leaving Charleston by Alexandra Ripley (one of the genre’s grandes dames), New Orleans Legacy, also by Ripley, Seattle by Charlotte Paul, Palm Springs by Trina Mascott, Crescent City (one of New Orleans’s many aliases) by Belva Plain, Hers the Kingdom (which dramatized the early years of Malibu, CA) by Shirley Streshinsky, That Wilder Woman (also about Malibu) by Bruce Jay Kaplan, Biscayne (about Miami, FL) also by Kaplan, Days of Valor (which dramatized the rise of Knights Ferry, once the hub of Stanislaus County, CA) by Willo Davis Roberts, Paloverde (which chronicled the rise of L.A.’s mercantile, oil, and filmmaking sectors through the eyes of three generations of the fictional Van Vliet family) by Jacqueline Briskin, Vintage (about Napa, CA) by Anita Clay Kornfeld, Natchez by Pamela Jekel, Savannah (and its three sequels) by Eugenia Price, Maria (a novel about St. Augustine, FL, which spawned two sequels) also by Eugenia Price, Galveston by Suzanne Morris, The Immigrants (a novel about San Francisco, which spawned five sequels) by Howard Fast (fun fact: his brother Julius was the first ever recipient of the Edgar Award from MWA), Mendocino by Judith Greber, and Cape Cod (rather than a city, it covers all of Barnstable County, MA, but still in the ballpark) by William Martin. All of these books were published between the mid 1970s and the mid 1990s.

This genre—which, for the sake of convenience, I’ll call the American city saga—probably owes much of its viability to the success of James Michener’s massive historical sagas of place, the first of which, Hawaii, appeared in 1959. But whereas Michener’s tomes generally cover a vast subject—Texas, Alaska, the Caribbean, Poland, space, etc.—and often stretch thousands, or even millions of years into the past, city sagas tend to be much more tightly focused and compact. Sometimes these sagas cover just one important epoch in the history of a city. Belva Plain’s Crescent City, for instance, covers the years just before, during, and just after the Civil War. Palm Springs, on the other hand, begins in 1912, twenty-six years before the city was incorporated, and ends in 1987, a span of years that saw the area grow from a destination mainly for TB sufferers seeking dry desert air to its current status as a playground for the rich and famous. 

In the late 1980s, Signet books brought out a series of novels called Fortunes West, each of which chronicled the rise of a city in the American west: San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Cheyenne, and Tucson. The books were all credited to A.R. Riefe, an author I can find no information about and suspect was a publishing house pseudonym. The books are generally dull and lacking in style, suggesting they were written by a committee of researchers. The series seems to have been modeled after the more successful Wagons West series, published in the 1970s and 1980s to capitalize on the renewed interest in American history which the country’s bicentennial celebration inspired. Credited to Dana Ross Fuller (a pseudonym for James Reasoner and Noel B. Gerson), most of these books featured the name of an American state followed by an exclamation mark (Oregon!, Utah!, Nebraska!, etc.). I find the novels in series such as Wagons West and Fortunes West, which were clearly dreamed up in some publishing company’s marketing department, far less interesting than those standalone novels that are clearly works of passion by authors with a personal connection to the places they are chronicling. Trina Mascott is a longtime resident of Palm Springs, and her attachment to the city comes through in her novel about the city. Alexandra Ripley was born in Charleston, South Carolina, and her love for the city can be found not only in her novel Charleston, but even in Scarlett, the sequel to Gone With the Wind that she was hired to write by the heirs of Margaret Mitchell. Galveston by Suzanne Morris is clearly a passion project written by a Texas native with a deep interest in the history of the Lone Star State. 

City sagas generally have enough going on in their multifarious narratives that fans of just about any literary genre—romance, history, adventure, war, Westerns, etc.—can find something to enjoy in the genre’s best examples. While not all city sagas contain elements of the mystery novel or the crime novel within their pages, there are a number of notable examples that do.

***

NEVADA by Clint McCullough

Don’t be fooled by the title of this 1986 novel. This isn’t a vast historical epic that covers the entire history of America’s thirty-sixth state, from the era when it was populated mostly by its native Paiute, Washoe, and Shoshone tribes, through the years when it was a part of the Viceroyalty of Spain, and then on to its role in the Mexican-American War and its years as a part of the Utah Territory. A better title for this novel might have been A Tale of Two Cities, because the book mainly focuses on the rise of the gaming industry in both Reno and Las Vegas between the years 1920 and 1986. It doesn’t take much knowledge of history to realize that a story about the rise of the Nevada gaming industry is also going to be a story about organized crime. This novel is chock full of mobsters, hit men, protection rackets, and shady business deals. Had it been published in 1969, it might have rivaled The Godfather as the most popular mob novel of the year. Bugsy Siegel, Meyer Lansky, and plenty of other real-life crooks rub elbows with McCullough’s fictional creations. The main character is Meade Slaughter, a fictional casino magnate who appears to have been at least partially based on real-life casino magnate Bill Harrah. Harrah (1911-1978) was an honest man who managed to thrive in a largely corrupt industry. He was instrumental in the founding of Nevada’s Gaming Control Board in the 1950s, which eventually helped eradicate much of the industry’s corruption and its ties to organized crime. Fortunately for the reader, Meade Slaughter (as his last name suggests) isn’t nearly as squeaky clean as Bill Harrah.

PALM SPRINGS by Trina Mascott

Las Vegas, Nevada, and Palm Springs, California, have a lot in common. Located about 280 miles apart, each is a high-desert community situated in a valley ringed by tall mountain ranges. Neither city is very old. Palm Springs wasn’t incorporated until 1938. (Las Vegas was incorporated in 1911 but remained pretty much a whistle-stop for the Union Pacific Railroad until the state of Nevada legalized gambling in the 1930s.) Both cities draw plenty of celebrity visitors from the film and music industries of Southern California. In fact, so many celebrities have made their homes in these cities that Wikipedia keeps separate pages listing each city’s “notable residents.” Both cities are noted for their mid-century modern architecture. Although not as notorious for its mob links as Las Vegas, Palm Springs has been home to plenty of crime figures. 

Trina Mascott’s 1990 novel Palm Springs mostly avoids mentioning the city’s mob connections. But that doesn’t mean it eschews the topic of crime entirely. Though not as crime-ridden as NevadaPalm Springs has enough misbehavior in it to satisfy most fans of the crime novel. Ginger McKinntock, born in 1900, comes to Palm Springs from San Francisco in 1912. Her mother has just died and her fathert, largely broke, moves to the Coachella Valley because his late wife had inherited some acreage there. Ginger quickly falls in love with Palm Springs. Alas, her father quickly falls in love with a divorcee on the prowl and, after marrying her, moves with her to Pasadena. Unlike her two siblings—sister Ella and brother Neil—Ginger loathes Pasadena and longs to return to the desert. Eventually she will return to Palm Springs. Her family cuts her off financially, but she doesn’t care. She goes to work at the Desert Inn (an actual Palm Springs resort that operated between 1909 and 1967) and gets an education in the hospitality business from the Inn’s owner Nellie N. Coffman, a real-life historical figure. As the years go by, Ginger will become a prominent hotelier in Palm Springs. Her sister Ella will become a famous film star as well as a promiscuous husband-stealer. Brother Neil will become a filthy rich but extremely sleazy businessman. Lots of cocaine and other drugs will be bought, sold, and abused. Lots of kinky (with the emphasis on “kin”) sex will be detailed. The part of the book that crime fans will find most intriguing comes in the second half of the novel when one of the characters decides to have the wealthy girlfriend he lives with kidnapped by associates of his. He is a kept man but is rarely given much money to spend. His associates will grab his girlfriend and hold her in a remote cabin in the Coachella Valley. They will send the mastermind of this plot a ransom note but, with no money of his own, he’ll turn to his girlfriend’s wealthy family for the ransom money, assuring them that she will reimburse them after her safe return. Once he has the money, he and his two associates will divvy it up. The girlfriend will be released and reimburse her family. The mastermind will now have a large nest egg of his own, and nobody will be any the wiser. As you might expect, the plan goes dangerously awry. But even when the characters in Palm Springs aren’t hatching kidnap plans, the story twists and turns like a thriller. 

GALVESTON by Suzanne Morris

This city saga begins on March 1, 1877, and ends on December 26, 1920. Its nearly 500 pages are broken into three sections, each one narrated by a different female character. All three narrators are related by blood to each other, although their kinship is somewhat tangled and mysterious. The final section is narrated by Willa Frazier, the adopted daughter of Houston millionaire Bernard Frazier and his wife, Edwynna. On the eve of her wedding to up-and-coming Houston realtor Rodney Younger, Willa discovers a clue to the identity of her birth mother and then abandons her wedding plans to go off in search of the mother she never knew. This section plays out like a true mystery, with an amateur sleuth who uncovers clues, follows them, and then investigates various players in the mystery surrounding her conception, birth, and adoption. Near the end we get a scene very reminiscent of the conclusions of Agatha Christie novels featuring Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple. It’s the drawing-room scene where the detective explains how the murder was committed. In Galveston, the explanation runs for more than fifteen pages and contains decades worth of lurid incidents, including murder, suicide, extramarital affairs, unwanted pregnancies, secret adoptions, arson, a missing diary, and even the poisoning of a beloved dog. And even after all of that, the mystery isn’t completely solved. Willa and her informant must travel back to Galveston before they can tie up all the loose ends and find out what really happened to Willa’s birth mother. And through it all we learn of various fascinating episodes in the history of Galveston, including the fire that destroyed a beloved beach resort and the mega-hurricane of 1900, which killed more than 6,000 Galveston residents and remains the deadliest weather event in the history of the United States.

CAPE COD by William Martin

This may be the most ambitious of all the books under discussion here. The story begins in 1000 AD and concludes in the 1980s. The front pages of the novel contain maps and several helpful family trees. One thread of Martin’s story concerns itself with what may be the very first murder in American history, the death of Dorothy Bradford, twenty-three, a real-life pilgrim who came to America aboard the Mayflower in 1620 and died mysteriously in November of that year, possibly as the result of foul play (or suicide, or a tragic accident). Her husband, William Bradford, who eventually became governor of the Plymouth Colony, never mentioned her death in the journal he kept, which strikes some historians as suspicious. At any rate, poor Dorothy Bradford’s death is only one of the mysteries set forth in this massive novel. The main focus of the book is the ongoing, centuries-old feud between the Bigelow and Hilyard clans, two Cape Cod families that can trace their lineage directly back to the Mayflower. Another important plot thread concerns the search for the long-lost log of the Mayflower’s master, Captain Christopher Jones.

THAT WILDER WOMAN by Barry Jay Kaplan

Barry Jay Kaplan is a good writer. His novels Black Orchid (cowritten with Nicholas Meyer) and Biscayne are both highly entertaining, but That Wilder Woman (1985) is my favorite of his books. It is a fictionalized account of how Frederick Rindge and his wife, May, acquired the land now known as Malibu, CA, in the late 1800s and fought for decades to see that it remained largely an unspoiled wilderness area. Most of that fight was waged by May alone, for Frederick died young in 1905. In Kaplan’s novel the Rindges are called Emmett and Ada Newcomb.

Ada is the star of this story. She grows up in tiny Desideer, MI, a dreary farming community. Her father abandoned the family when Ada and her younger brother, Obadiah (Obie), were young. Her mother became mentally unstable after that and died a few years later. It was up to Ada to raise her brother and run the household. When Ada’s own schooling ended, she took over the running of the town’s one-room schoolhouse. But she wanted nothing more than to escape dreary Desideer and lead a more adventurous life. Alas, she lacks the wherewithal to pursue this dream. Fortunately, her hometown boasts one genuine celebrity, a female photographer whose work is famous nationwide. A photograph of Ada taken by this photographer somehow manages to appear in a Boston newspaper, where it catches the eye of young Emmett Newcomb, scion of a wealthy family. For health reasons (bad lungs), his doctors have recommended that he move to Southern California, preferably somewhere along the coast. Inspired by Ada’s photo, he decides to take a short detour on the way to California and stop in Desideer, where he asks Ada to marry him and join him on his great adventure. So anxious is Ada to escape that she doesn’t bother playing hard to get for very long. After a courtship of only a few days, Ada agrees to marry Emmett on one condition: after they are settled in California, Emmett must allow her to send for Obie to join them out west. Emmett has no objection to this condition, so off they go.

Alas, young Obie sees Ada’s marriage and departure as the worst of the three abandonments that have defined his life (his father ran off and his mother died young). Angry, he decides not to wait for Ada to send for him. He steals a gun and a horse and heads west. He plans to work his way west by hiring himself out as a cowboy along the way. But his psyche has become warped by all the hardship he has seen, and soon he becomes a murderous psychopath, killing primarily prostitutes (upon whom he is no doubt taking out the anger he feels towards Ada, on whom he has a dangerous and incestuous fixation). His trek west is interrupted by various crime sprees and long stretches in jail. The famous photographer from Desideer writes to Ada and lets her know that Obie left town a wanted man. After that, Ada loses track of him for years.

In California, Emmett finds his Shangri-La, a 13,500-acre ranch located upon the Pacific Ocean just west of Los Angeles. He uses his $200,000 inheritance to buy the place and then he and Ada set about establishing a working cattle ranch, The Malibu, on part of the land. The rest he hopes to leave relatively undisturbed. Sadly, various southern California business interests find it inconvenient having a large track of undeveloped land lying so close to Los Angeles. The Southern Pacific Railroad wants to run a rail line through the property. The state highway commission wants to run a highway through it. Various L.A. merchants want to establish a large shipping port along the coast of The Malibu. And the owners of smaller ranches adjacent to The Malibu want easements over the property so they can water their stock and move them to market. The Newcombs (like the real-life Rindges) find themselves besieged by eminent-domain lawsuits, class-action lawsuits, angry neighbors, opportunistic politicians, and even cattle rustlers. On top of all that are the wildfires that (to this day) plague the area.

So here you have all the elements of a great two-pronged saga. While Ada fights off various legal and natural threats to The Malibu, she is unaware of what is potentially the biggest threat of all—the psychopathic brother she’s lost track of and who, like an avenging angel, is slowly but inexorably moving west, determined to have his revenge against the sister whom he believes is the source of all his troubles in life.

***

Although the heyday of the American city saga has passed, good ones still get published now and then. Honolulu, a 2010 novel by Alan Brennert, is an excellent, fairly recent example of the genre. While not every city saga is filled with criminal activity, most contain at least a soupcon of it. History and mystery are two literary genres that play well together. So why not make your next staycation a trip to Palm Springs or Galveston or Nevada or Cape Cod. You’ll find plenty of rot beneath those beautiful facades.

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