“Mystery and the Poetic Form” (by Janet Hutchings)

Of all the many forms of mystery and crime story that EQMM has published over the past eighty-one years, the story in verse is the rarest. And it’s not because poets don’t write mystery stories (and vice versa). EQMM’s founder, Frederic Dannay (half of the Ellery Queen writing team) was profoundly interested in poetry: He wrote poetry and had an extensive poetry collection. And he was far from alone in being a mystery writer/poet. As I noted in a 2015 post for this site, Dannay compiled an anthology entitled Poetic Justice in which he included mystery or crime stories by famous poets such as Sir Walter Scott, Dylan Thomas, Ogden Nash, and Walt Whitman, to name a few. But to say that someone is a poet who also writes mysteries (or a mystery writer who also writes poetry) does not necessarily imply that such a writer has produced a mystery in verse form. Many poets don’t focus on long-form narrative poems at all, let alone narrative poems in which the story is a crime or mystery.

Fred Dannay never missed an opportunity to mention how many Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners EQMM had published (mostly reprinted, actually!). Neither do I. One of those Pulitzer Prize winners was Stephen Vincent Benét. Benét’s Pulitzer Prize was for poetry—for his book-length narrative poem John Brown’s Body. But even though Benét clearly had the skill and desire to tell complete stories in verse, as far as I’ve been able to determine, he never wrote a mystery story in verse. He did, of course, write prose short stories, most notably “The Devil and Daniel Webster.” He also wrote at least two short stories that fall squarely into the mystery genre, one a locked-room mystery entitled “The Amateur of Crime,” the other “Floor, Please,” one of his earliest stories, which found its way into a pulp magazine in 1924. Both stories were reprinted in EQMM in the 1940s. It’s a somewhat curious thing, to me, that Benét appears never to have combined his loves for narrative poetry and the mystery. But then, one can see that it might prove exceptionally difficult to tell a locked-room tale in verse, since there are many prosaic details about time, place, and the whereabouts of suspects that need to be worked into such a story.

At first glance at least, the crime subgenre of the mystery would seem to lend itself a little more readily to verse form. It’s not only that there is less need in most crime stories to establish to precision particulars of timing and the placement of persons and objects. It’s that the crime story often turns on the emotional impact of what occurs, and poetry can enhance the emotional impact of a narrative. However, in my brief search for crime or mystery novels in verse form, I came up with only one notable example, the 1997 Edgar nominated Who Killed Mr. Chippendale by Mel Glenn, and that book is a YA rather than an adult novel. I’m sure there must be many more examples, and perhaps readers of this blog will help me out by pointing me toward some.

When it comes to mystery short stories in verse, EQMM would expect to see a good portion of whatever is being written. And we don’t see many. Since 1979 John F. Dobbyn’s crime/adventure verse stories set in the Yukon have been featured intermittently in our pages, most recently in the September/October 2021 issue. And coming up in our March/April 2023 issue is a noir story in verse by Michael Wiley. The latter has been expanded into a five-story, fully developed mystery since the original tale was submitted to us and purchased (although the original story stands entirely on its own). EQMM would normally like to follow up with publication of the subsequent stories in a connected sequence that we’ve started, but the whole of this sequence has become too long for us. We have tight space constraints to begin with, and verse requires quite a bit more space than prose for an equivalent word count.

Which brings me to one of the reasons I had for taking up this topic today: to ask if any of our readers knows of a book or magazine publisher well suited to this area of the mystery. We like being able to present the occasional verse story in EQMM, but from a formatting as well as a space standpoint, we are not the ideal publication for the form. Our layout is basic and meant to maximize the use of space, whereas it often matters a great deal with poetry how it is laid out on the page—and what overall look is conveyed.

It seems to me that the mystery in verse could become a burgeoning area of our field if enough of the right publications existed—assuming, of course, that there’s an audience for such mysteries out there. I’m guessing there might be. Fred Dannay thought there was a natural affinity between what poets and mystery writers (or at least their fictional detectives) try to do, and that is to make order out of chaos. We live in confusing, disturbing, chaotic times. Times that seem just right for a powerful intertwining of the emotional impact of poetry and the clarity of the detective.

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“Life Doesn’t Always Work Out” (by Michael Z. Lewin)

Michael Z. Lewin is the winner of the 2021 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Private Eye Writers of America, and he’s been writing private-eye novels and stories, as well as other types of crime fiction, since 1971. He’s known for two popular series, one starring Albert Samson and the other the Lunghi family of detectives. His most recent novels are Whatever It Takes and Men Like Us. Mike is also a prolific short story writer and a longtime contributor to both EQMM and our sister magazine, AHMM. You won’t want to miss his new story collection, Alien Quartet: Four Albert Samson Stories, or his story coming up in our next issue (November/December 2022), “Two, Four, Six, Eight.” It’s real crime, not fiction, that’s on the author’s mind in this moving post.  —Janet Hutchings

I am too young, obviously, even to think about writing a memoir of my life and work for my children and grandchildren. But in not-thinking about such a thing it’s occurred to me that instead of describing, painstakingly, what has happened to me, it might be interesting to consider what might have happened to me instead.

I’m thinking first of a friend I made in the seventh grade (which made me 12, for those of you less familiar with US school sequencing.) I don’t, in fact, remember when I first met Jerry, or began to hang out with him, but in the eighth grade graduation picture he is there, taller than everyone else, smiling for the camera. In it he has a blunt face, like Roger Federer’s, and is not especially handsome (were any of us at thirteen?)  But his appearance in the picture vividly connects for me with the ambitious, brave and inventive guy I knew him to be in high school and later.

Inventive? As a sixteen-year-old he wangled an arrangement with the local morning newspaper to bring local election results to them. This meant getting the voting results from polling stations’ machines, and driving downtown to the Star offices to turn them in.

There were too many polling stations for Jerry to cover quickly enough himself, so he recruited me to do a few—and perhaps other friends who could drive.  We made a little money and saw the inside of a newspaper office . . . Not every high school kid gets to do that.

Brave?  For reasons I never asked or knew, Jerry “collected” the license plates of police vehicles, with particular interest in those driven by plainclothes cops.  (Are the motivations spurring any collector understandable to the rest of us?)  This “hobby” even led him to sneak into the police parking lot beneath headquarters in downtown Indy to write down plate numbers.

I put such a collector into a book once, a kid being caught there. But without consequences: the appearance in my book just a gift to Jerry. Because as well as plate numbers he collected more general info about the city police, and later provided me with the floor plan of police HQ that I used when I began writing my Leroy Powder novels—Powder being an Indy cop.

And ambitious . . . Jerry did not aspire, as far as I know, to be a policeman.  His longterm target was to become Governor of Indiana. And as part of that plan he resolved that I would become his campaign manager . . . Perhaps writing crime fiction gave me the requisite deviousness.

But while waiting to become thirty—the age of eligibility—he went to college in Indiana and then off to Detroit to work for General Motors. There, during the introductory training program, the head of the company came in to ask the new recruits how they were doing and whether anything could be improved.

Unlike the rest of his intake, Jerry wrote several pages spelling out what was working well and what wasn’t and submitted it.  The result was that he leaped up the “freshman” corporate ladder to join the team that went to company branches assessing the efficiency of their performance.

By now I lived in England, and he came to visit us in the seventies at the end of a European vacation.  He talked again of his plans to become Governor.  I was still in the mix.

And that’s what I’m thinking about in this non-memoir episode.

Jerry was one of those guys whose ambition and charisma you believe in.  So I figured he would become Governor—with or without my lack of experience in the political process. (Hey, perhaps I’d have learned quickly.)

But think about it.  Maybe, under Governor Jerry, Indiana could have become a more socially empathetic State. Poor and disadvantaged people might have been given sympathetic and comprehensive help to find their way, or just to survive.

Because once upon a time Indiana was a leader in socially sympathetic legislation . . .

In 1799 the US government enacted a “poor relief” law requiring local counties and townships to care for people who couldn’t care for themselves, designated as “paupers.” These people were to be auctioned off. Members of their community bid for the paupers services by saying how little money they’d need from government to feed and clothe the pauper. Whoever bid the least won the pauper, and his or her labor—not exactly a recipe for good treatment. Paupers including children who’d lost their parents and had no relatives who’d take them in were subject to auction.  This happened throughout the US and its territories.

In 1813—three years before statehood—the Indiana territory legislature did pass a law that required impartial justice to rich and poor, “regardless of race.”

But it wasn’t until 1834 that Indiana became the first State to ban the enslavement that resulted from the practice of pauper auctions.

Hoosier historians may be able to update me, but in years of writing books and stories set in Indiana, I can’t remember another genuinely caring piece of legislation that Indiana paved the way with.  When I moved to Indy in 1948 there were still lines on the floors of busses to designate seating areas by color.

Just think what Governor Jerry and I could have done.  If he was lucky and forceful enough to get himself elected despite my running his campaign, there would have been no limits.

Except it didn’t happen. And not because I refused to interrupt my writing career.

Jerry’s visit to England was the last time I ever saw him. He was murdered in Detroit in the mid-seventies. He was robbed and his body set alight in a vacant lot. The murder was never solved.

My point here is to underline that real crimes—as opposed to the fictional ones—affect real people.  And murders affect more than just the victim.

These truths are explored in a lot of the darker crime fictions, while being skipped over in so many of the lighter forms of this genre.  I don’t mind books and stories that don’t go all serious on us—there are many kinds of entertainment and education to be had in mystery fictions, even in mine. But please, don’t treat crime, real crime—including small crimes—casually.

Anyone whose home or even car has been broken into—whether anything was taken or not—knows that the disturbing effects of such things are real, and they last.  And more “serious” crimes . . . Lordie.  How does one get over them?

In response to Jerry’s murder I wrote a novel about a crime writer—not remotely me, of course—whose friend was murdered. This fictional and big-headed writer thinks his special understanding of crime ought to enable him to solve the murder. Even to do it better than the police, who strike him as incompetent and puzzlingly resistant to accepting his help.  Spoiler alert:  he can’t help and he doesn’t solve it.

I, at least, didn’t try flying to Detroit to “contribute.”

In my first crime novel, Ask the Right Question, my private eye has a best friend named Jerry Miller.  That was the name of my real life friend.  And in real life he ended up murdered.  I’ve never used the whole real name of someone I knew in a book again.

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“What is a Thriller?” (by Kevin Mims)

In today’s post, Kevin Mims, a frequent contributor to this site, takes a stab at defining one of the broadest of entertainment genres—the thriller. Each year, when EQMM makes its submissions for the best-short-story award given by the International Thriller Writers, we have to make judgment calls as to what counts as a thriller and what does not. It never seems to get easier, but Kevin’s take on the subject is interesting. —Janet Hutchings

One of the most difficult popular fiction genres to define with any precision is the “thriller.” For the last half century or so, when publishers or p.r. reps or reviewers have applied the word “thriller” to a novel, it has usually been done to convey to potential purchasers that the book is fast-paced and suspenseful, a novel you “won’t be able to put down.” Such books are also sometimes called “page-turners” or, if they contain some aspect of supernatural horror, “chillers.”

On her self-titled blog, Savannah Gilbo, a so-called “book coach,” has compiled a helpful list of “Ten Things Every Thriller Novel Needs.” But even this list leaves room for some quibbles. For instance, Gilbo lists “a crime” as the first element that every thriller novel needs. I disagree with her. I consider Peter Benchley’s 1974 novel Jaws to be one of the greatest thrillers of the twentieth century, but it isn’t a crime novel. The villain of Jaws isn’t a criminal; it is a force of nature. Likewise, I consider Michael Crichton to be one of the preeminent thriller-writers of the last sixty years, but in many of his novels— Timeline, Jurassic Park, Sphere, The Lost World, Disclosure, The Terminal Man, The Andromeda Strain, etc.—crime is not a major part of the plot. The 1962 novel Fail-Safe, by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, is one of the greatest thrillers of the Cold War era but it isn’t a crime novel. It is about a series of technical and procedural failures that causes the U.S. to accidentally target the Soviet Union with warplanes carrying nuclear weapons that could wipe out all of Moscow and its environs. The 1958 airplane thriller Runway Zero-Eight, written by Arthur Hailey and John Castle, tells the nightmarish tale of what happens when the pilot and co-pilot of a passenger jet flying across Canada are stricken with a case of food-poisoning and can no longer fly the plane. Early on, foul play is eliminated as a cause of the food-poisoning. This is a thriller with no bad guys and no crime. But it is nonetheless riveting.

So, if a thriller isn’t necessarily a mystery or a crime novel, what is it? I would argue that, at the very least, all thrillers need a relatively brisk pace and a great deal of suspense. They also need relatively high stakes. Ira Levin’s 1967 novel, Rosemary’s Baby, is widely regarded as one of the best American thrillers of the twentieth century. The stakes are high: a young pregnant woman tries to prevent a satanic cult from sacrificing her unborn child to the devil. Levin does a good job of ratcheting up the suspense, so that the final one hundred pages or so of this relatively short (218 pages in paperback) novel fly by. The book has been justifiably described as a horror novel and a novel of psychological suspense. It is also a crime novel as well as a mystery. But, for me at least, the term “thriller” seems almost tailor-made for books like Rosemary’s Baby. This is clearly a book meant to be gobbled up in a sitting or two. Though it is a horror novel about Satanism, Levin doesn’t delve too deeply into the history of Satanism or its impact on world culture, the way that Anne Rice’s novels often stretch back centuries in order to explore vampirism or witchcraft.

Here are some of the other novels from the same approximate era that I would categorize as thrillers: William Goldman’s The Marathon Man (despite also being a crime novel) and Magic (despite also being a crime novel and a psychological – as opposed to a supernatural—horror novel), Ken Follett’s The Eye of the Needle (despite also being a spy novel, a war novel, and a historical novel), James Grady’s Six Days of the Condor (also a spy novel and a crime novel), Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives (also a sci-fi novel and a social satire), Stephen King’s Carrie (also a horror novel), John Farris’s When Michael Calls (also a crime novel), The Day of the Jackal (also a crime novel), Trevanian’s The Eiger Sanction (also a crime novel and an adventure novel), and Mary Higgins Clark’s Where Are the Children, A Stranger Is Watching, A Cry In the Night, and The Cradle Will Fall (all of which are also crime novels).

Do I have a foolproof formula by which I can separate the thrillers from the crime novels, or from the horror novels, or from the spy novels? No, not really. What Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said of pornography is true of me and the thriller novel, “I know it when I see it.” Or, perhaps more accurately, “I know it when I’ve read it.” Many fans of the genre say that a ticking clock (or a hard-and-fast deadline of some sort) is a necessity for a good thriller. I don’t think a ticking clock is an absolute must for a thriller, but I do prefer thrillers that take place over a relatively short period of time. Andrew Klavan’s 1995 novel True Crime (the source of the 1999 Clint Eastwood film) is a classic of the ticking-clock thriller genre. It is the tale of a crusading journalist who has just a few hours to find evidence that will prove the innocence of a man scheduled to die in the state’s gas chamber for a murder he didn’t commit. Many of Michael Crichton’s novels unspool over a short period of time. Rising Sun covers just three days. Congo unfolds over the course of thirteen days. The Andromeda Strain covers a span of just five days.

Are suspense novels and thrillers the same thing? I don’t think so. I think of Patricia Highsmith as a writer of suspense novels (which are usually also crime and/or mystery novels). Although her novels sometimes provide thrills, they are generally much more slowly paced than traditional thrillers. Graham Greene called her “a poet of apprehension.” Her novels are full of tension and unease, but they often move very slowly (by intention). Highsmith didn’t write “page-turners,” she wrote “slow burners.”

Although John D. MacDonald was capable of writing good thrillers—such as Cape Fear—his best-known works, the Travis McGee novels, are detective stories rather than thrillers. Thus I think of MacDonald as a crime writer or a detective novelist. The same is true of Ross Macdonald and his Lew Archer books. Crime writer (or mystery writer, or spy writer, etc.) is not a lesser designation than thriller writer; it is simply a different designation. I consider Lee Child and Harlan Coben to be thriller writers, even though crime and mystery permeate their works. I consider Thomas Harris to be a thriller writer, even though his books all deal with crime. Although her books contain plenty of crime and mystery, I consider Mary Higgins Clark to be a writer of thrillers. The same is true of Tess Gerritsen.

Now let’s talk a bit about the various subcategories of thrillers. Michael Crichton was said to specialize in techno-thrillers. The term seems fair to me, even though some of his thrillers (such as The Great Train Robbery and A Case of Need) contain nothing that would strike a contemporary reader as cutting-edge technology. Tom Clancy was a writer of political thrillers or military thrillers. Clive Cussler has been described as a writer of nautical thrillers (although that term doesn’t describe all of his books). Robin Cook is the master of the medical thriller. The Genesis Code, John Case’s 1997 novel of cloning and international adventure, has been described as a bio-medical thriller. That sounds about right to me.

And then of course there are Scott Turow and John Grisham and all of their fellow lawyers-turned-bestselling-authors. When Turow’s Presumed Innocent first hit the bookstores in 1987, the publisher could have promoted it as a “legal novel” or a “courtroom drama,” appellations that had been applied to earlier bestsellers such as The Caine Mutiny or The Anatomy of a Murder. But, by the 1980s, “thriller” was the term of choice for the kind of books that were known to keep pop-fiction junkies sitting up all night in their armchairs. And so the publicity department for Farrar Straus & Giroux promoted Presumed Innocent as a “legal thriller.” It might not have been the first use of the term, but it was the first time the term was applied to a cultural juggernaut, a book that, in its way, would become as seminal as Rosemary’s Baby or The Day of the Jackal or Jaws. Four years later, when John Grisham, a lawyer like Turow, broke into the big time with his second novel, 1991’s The Firm, the appellation was just waiting there to be exploited. As it happened, Grisham would go on to be the most successful author of legal thrillers (as measured by book sales) of the twentieth century and (so far, at least) the twenty-first. Of all the subgenres of thriller, the legal thriller is probably America’s most popular, thanks in large part to Grisham.

I have written before about my prejudice in favor of short thrillers. If I were appointed America’s czar of popular fiction, I would decree that no book longer than 400 pages could be labeled a thriller. Sadly, I have no such authority. What’s more, I must concede that, over time, I have grudgingly begun to appreciate the long thriller. Stephen Hunter’s nearly 500-page novel Dirty White Boys is one of the most thrilling novels I have ever read. The Thomas Harris thrillers The Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs are both over 400 pages long and I wouldn’t want them even a sentence shorter. My admiration for these and a handful of other very long thrillers has convinced me that it would be foolish to impose an arbitrary limit on the length a thriller novel can run.

Let me close with a list of authors whom I believe deserve to be categorized as thriller writers. This list is purely subjective, obviously. For instance, it contains far more male writers than females ones. This isn’t because men write more thrillers than women. It’s because I read more thrillers by men then women. The authors on this list might just as easily be categorized as crime writers or horror writers or fantasy writers or science fiction writers or adventure writers. Few of them confined themselves to a single popular genre. But, if forced to categorize them, I’d place them in the thriller genre, as hard as that genre may be to define. Here we go:

Ira Levin

Michael Crichton

Richard Matheson

Thomas Harris

Robert Harris

Stephen Hunter

John Grisham

Ken Follett

Frederick Forsyth

Dean L. Koontz

Mary Higgins Clark

William Goldman

Dan Brown

Lee Child

Harlan Coben

Robin Cook

The writing team of Lincoln Child and Douglas Preston

Gillian Flynn

Allan Folsom

David Morrell

Nelson DeMille

Tess Gerritsen

Alistair MacLean

John Katzenbach

James Rollins

Trevanian

F. Paul Wilson

Jack Higgins

David Wiltse

David Martin

Feel free to recommend other thriller writers in the comments below. The above list emphasizes authors who wrote multiple thriller novels. It doesn’t include authors such as Patrick Suskind, who wrote Perfume, one of the most unusual thrillers of the twentieth century, but no other true thrillers. James Dickey wrote two great thrillers—Deliverance and To the White Sea—but he’s better remembered as a poet than as a novelist, so I left him off the list. Walker Percy’s 1987 novel The Thanatos Syndrome is a bio-medical thriller, but all of his other novels are mainstream stories of life in the American south. Norman Mailer’s 1984 novel Tough Guys Don’t Dance is a great thriller. But it’s the only true thriller in his rather extensive bibliography. There are plenty of other one-off thrillers out there, books whose authors either produced only one thriller or, in some cases, only one really good one. Perhaps I’ll devote an entire essay to them at a later date. Until then, stay safe, keep reading, and have a thrilling time.

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“The ‘Art’ of Writing” (by Twist Phelan)

Twist Phelan is the author of the Finn Teller spy novels and the Pinnacle Peak mystery series (both for adults); her latest book, Snowed, is her first middle-grade mystery, due for release this fall. She’s also a short-story writer whose honors include two ITW awards and Canada’s Arthur Ellis award for best short story. Many of her stories have had their first appearance in EQMM. She’s got a haunting one, “The Kindness of Strangers,” in our current issue (September/October 2022). If you’ve been following her work in EQMM, you’ll know that Twist produces a wide range of types of stories—something she discusses in this post. —Janet Hutchings

My mother was a lifelong modern and contemporary art groupie. As a kid I was taken not only to museums and galleries, but almost as often to artist’s studios—warehouses, garages, stone quarries, furnaces, lofts, even a tent in the forest that smelled of mildew and cat.

Mom, a scientist by training, was fascinated by creativity, particularly how art was made. She liked hearing artists talk about their process—where ideas came from, how a piece was planned and executed. Several painters and sculptors became friends. Some became famous; most did not. On occasion an artist would give or sell her work, which decorated the houses my family grew up in. I didn’t really appreciate what hung on the walls or was tucked into the corner of the family room until I started visiting museums and galleries on my own, where I recognized a few names on the wall labels.

I’m big into eavesdropping (or, as writers call it, doing research). During studio visits, the artists were usually kind enough to give me some materials to play with. While I dabbed paint onto canvas, made armatures out of wire bits, glued together wood scraps—and once started a small fire using a shard of stained glass—I listened.

I remember one abstract artist describing how he’d carry around a scene or idea in his head for weeks, even months, until he felt ready to paint it. He’d start with a sketch, adding enough detail until he thought it would be a sufficient guide. Next, he’d work out the color palette, mixing pigments until the hues were right. Then he’d prepare a very large canvas and go to work, spending long days and sometimes nights in the studio. (I saw more than a few sleeping bags in artist’s workplaces.) He’d first lay down what he called the bones of the piece, the paint strokes that would be the basis for the work. The next pass would include secondary shapes and the addition of color. The final stage was adding details until he knew the painting was finished.

Some sculptors worked from sketches or a maquette (small-scale model of a larger work), others preferred taille directe, going straight to carving the chunk of wood or stone, Once a sculptor had me stare at a large cube of marble for several minutes. “What do you see?” she asked. “Just rock,” I admitted. She saw more—on our return visit months later, a large mountain lion was emerging from the stone block. “I just chip chip chip away what doesn’t belong,” she said, paraphrasing Michelangelo, when I asked her how she did it.

I liked seeing mixed media artists work, assembling cloth, paper, wood, paint, and found objects until the arrangement was right. “Sometimes I want to emphasize color,” one explained. “Other times, it’s shape or texture. You work until the piece shows what you want to highlight.”

Visual art and writing have their respective advantages. A picture can indeed be worth a thousand words—that is, a complex idea often can be more effectively demonstrated by a single image than a written description. Such is the power of the graphic! But while a photograph or painting can perhaps better convey a scene, words usually excel at describing the action taking place before, after, and therein. The best prose constructs the setting in your imagination, allowing you to paint your own picture of what is happening. And a story needs a lead character reacting to a catalyzing event to set off the action, while a piece of art may by inspired by something the artist experiences or imagines, the specifics usually unknown by the viewer.

Even though what they depict may differ, visual art and writing are similar when it comes to their creation. Both require talent, the learning and practice of technique, the development of the creator’s particular style or voice. Both benefit from uninterrupted time during creation. Both are usually better if started with a plan—ranging from an idea of the beginning and ending to a detailed outline in the case of a story; preliminary sketches to a precise model for a painting or sculpture—developed through multiple passes, and finished with a unique take in the big-picture sense of things. Searching for the right word or phrase matters as much as mixing the right shade of color; narrative style is as important as brushstrokes. And both writers and painters usually end up spending more time than they want to staring at a blank page/canvas.

My time spent around artists apparently has blurred the line further for me between making art and writing; I begin each short story as though I were creating a painting or sculpture. (Perhaps this is why visiting art museums is a favorite way to recharge my inspiration.) Word count determines the medium I use as a model.

I think of a long-form story (ten thousand words up to novellas) as though it were a triptych painting—three large canvases filled with shapes and colors, quiet broad strokes and busy details. Each act is one of the panels; as with the painting, not complete without the other two. Both are often embellished with inside jokes, surprises, and twists that require concentration to discern; layered tales in a limited space, often suggesting more beyond their parameters.

My shortest works—around two thousand words—are like sculptures. The story usually arrives nearly fully formed in my mind. I quickly put it down, in full, on paper before I lose it, ending up with a block of words without paragraphs and sometimes even sentence breaks, XXX substituting for a description or character name here, the right word there. It’s like a piece of marble with a finished sculpture hiding inside. I then edit edit edit away until it’s honed to the essential, revealing just the story, including its final devastating paragraph, the unexpected yet inevitable ending, the twist or reveal that lingers. Like a sculpture, a very short story still has to support its weight, be anchored around its center of gravity. Its negative space—the words that were cut or never put down in the first place—defines its boundaries and brings balance and focus. Stop too soon with the red pen and the end result lacks refinement. Cut too much and you can ruin the entire work.

My stories in the six- to eight- thousand-word range most resemble mixed media works. Some elements (voice, character, plot, theme, prose, setting, imagery) are emphasized over others, but in the end everything comes together in perfect balance. This freedom to choose what is highlighted and what is consigned to the background is very useful when one of the goals is misdirection!

Finally, there’s the title. I craft it to be a maquette, giving a hint—and more, to be understood after the story is read—of what the larger work is about. Triptych painting and novella, sculpture and very short story, mixed media and character/plot/theme-driven works—is creating art and fiction writing more alike than not?

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“Easter Eggs for Everybody!” (by Leigh Perry)

An Agatha Award winner and a multiple nominee for many other awards in the mystery field under her real name (mentioned in this post!), Leigh Perry makes her pseudonymous EQMM debut with the story “The Skeleton Rides a Horse” in our current issue (September/October 2022). Over the years, she has contributed a number of stories to EQMM that fit squarely within the genre, all under her real name; her mysteries under the byline Leigh Perry employ paranormal elements—perfect for our fall issue. I hadn’t realized until reading this post that a number of the author’s previous EQMM stories contain Easter Eggs. I’m looking forward to revisiting those stories to locate them. —Janet Hutchings

In reading over some of the recent entries here at Something Is Going to Happen, I noticed that quite a few EQMM contributors cite works of literature that inspired them: John Dziuban and Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, Mark Harrison and Nick Hornsby, Art Taylor and Chekhov, David Dean and Robert Louis Stevenson. And as it happens, I also drew inspiration for my recent EQMM story from a mystery novel.

In “The Skeleton Rides a Horse,” a murder investigation takes place at a convention for fans of the classic Western TV show Cowtown, but that show doesn’t exist outside the pages of Who Killed the Pinup Queen? by Toni L.P. Kelner. The character Ruben Timmons and his Cowtown Companion also show up in the Kelner book. There’s just one thing that keeps this story from being a legitimate literary homage: I myself am Toni L.P. Kelner. I wrote a number of books under that name before morphing to Leigh Perry for the Family Skeleton series. So I think that makes my use of Cowtown more of an Easter egg than anything literary.

To be clear, I’m not talking about dyed hard-boiled eggs or even the plastic kind with candy tucked inside. I’m going by the Wikipedia definition: “An Easter egg is a message, image, or feature hidden in software, a video game, a film, or another, usually electronic, medium.” In my case, it wasn’t so much a feature or message as it was a joke, but I didn’t really expect anybody to laugh at it other than me. In fact, many of my writing decisions are made to amuse myself. I hid a lot of Easter eggs in “The Skeleton Rides a Horse.”

The most obvious egg is the fact that there are three men named some variation of Mark, so they’re known as the Marks—a cheap reference to the Marx Brothers. Their descriptions are based on Groucho, Chico, and Harpo, too. Most of the character names in the story came from the Marx Brothers Western Go West,and the cranky horse my protagonist rides is named after the Marx Brothers’ mother. (Why did I pick on the Marx Brothers? My reasons are complicated, but they made sense at the time.)

This is, for better or worse, this is not the first time I’ve loaded a short story with Easter eggs. In “Skull & Cross-Examinations,” an EQMM story about a lawyer aboard a pirate ship, I named characters after real and fictional lawyers. I don’t know if my husband’s grandfather or Rex Stout would have appreciated the shout-outs, but they would probably have not found them actionable. In my carnival mystery “Sleeping With the Plush,” the characters are named for the authors of my favorite carnival memoirs. And to demonstrate that I have absolutely no shame, when I used a lingerie shop setting for “An Unmentionable Crime,” I named characters Frederick and Vicky for Frederick’s of Hollywood and Victoria’s Secret.

I do have an important rule for hiding Easter eggs, mind you. Finding an Easter egg or bit o’ trivia must not be necessary to the enjoyment of the story. You don’t have to recognize that Melody is a character in Go West to read “The Skeleton Rides a Horse” or know that pirate Nathaniel Parker is named for Nero Wolfe’s favorite lawyer to solve the mystery in “Skull & Cross-Examinations.” If a reader catches a reference, that’s lovely, but it isn’t important to anybody but me. Plus there’s a bonus. Planting Easter eggs actually helps me during the writing process.

You see, writing a piece of fiction requires me to make choices about the setting, character names, murder weapons, placement of clues, back stories, first person versus third person, ad infinitum. Using Easter eggs helps me make some of those choices. For instance, once I decided to use Cowtown references, I already had stuff I could use as background and plot points. The details of that imaginary show, the existence of the book Cowtown Companion, pompous sayings from the Cowtown code, and the idea of a TV-Western-themed dude ranch in Massachusetts all came from my book. Those were the bits and pieces I started with to create the rest of the story. References to the movie Go West gave me the idea of an IOU of some sort being involved, and established the Groucho-inspired character as not being entirely trustworthy.

Of course, in looking over my notes for the story, I’m reminded of lots of things I didn’t use. Go West had a romantic subplot I thought about emulating, I was originally going to use more characters from Who Killed the Pinup Queen?, and the Marks were going to be brothers at one point in the story’s genesis. I jettisoned all of that without prejudice. I mean, I love my Easter eggs, but Easter eggs that don’t serve the story are like the one my sister and I missed that one year and found in a hollow under a tree months later—they really stink!

So if you read any of my short stories, be aware there will likely be Easter eggs hidden among the pages, but unlike the hardboiled kind, missed Easter eggs won’t affect your reading of the story.

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“When a Single Murder Seems Quaint” (by John Dziuban)

John Dziuban is a recipient of the Ginny Wray Prize in Fiction, awarded yearly for the best writing by a student at Purchase College in White Plains, New York. His nonfiction has appeared in several online publications. His first published work of fiction, “Down the Mine,” appears in EQMM’s current issue, September/October 2022. Like most writers, John is also a devoted reader of the form of fiction he writes, and he was lucky enough to inherit a remarkable collection of mysteries! It forms his topic for this post. —Janet Hutchings

These are dark times we’re living in. No sh*t, Sherlock. Climate change, global pandemic, political upheaval, and mass murder are black clouds, both literal and metaphorical, flashing unavoidably before our screen-strained eyes. In the context of all this tension, and when mass death has become below-the-fold-news, is a single fictional murder in a story still relevant? I think so, jaded as I am. How about you? For me, it’s all in the humanity.

A few years ago, my wife Silvia’s Aunt passed away suddenly. As the family went through her possessions in the cavernous pre-war Upper West Side apartment where Aunt Liz had lived since before Watergate, my gaze naturally kept returning to the books that occupied the entire twelve-foot living-room wall. I’d skimmed the spines many times during visits, hadn’t ever had a chance to really dive into them, but I knew this: they were every one of them mystery novels. Not a Stephen King horror book in sight, none of that nasty Thomas Harris “psychological thriller” stuff for Aunt Liz, nope. Just straight up mysteries. (Oh, the conversations I never had with her. Oh, how I wish she could see my name in the pages of Ellery Queen.)

When the collective gaze of the family came to the wall of mysteries and the inevitable question of what to do with all those books was raised, my response was loud and immediate, practically Pavlovian: We’ll take them! Never mind that our suburban starter home was very small and completely out of shelf space. This collection was a family treasure, at least through the eyes of that family’s shortest-tenured member.

So, we did take them. We pulled them all down from the wall, boxed them up, walked them down the many flights of stairs in that elevator-less apartment building, packed them in the car, and drove them home. As I unpacked them, dusted them off, and placed them alphabetically on the brand-new set of shelves that our living room was hardly big enough for, I got to take a close look at every single one. Every bit of salacious jacket art and all those titles, leaving no pun unturned (Murders and Acquisitions anyone? Yes, please and thank you Haughton Murphy, best-selling author of the Reuben Frost Mystery series).

In doing all this work, I fell in love with this strange and hyper-specific library, got to know dozens of titles, covers, and authors, dating from the 1960s to present. Many names popped up over and over: Sue Grafton and her alphabet series, tragically lacking book Z, Robert B. Parker posing on the back flap with his dog, but none of them spoke to me quite like one of the oldest series in the collection: a set of slim, black paperbacks bearing the distinctly un-American names of their co-authors, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, a Swedish duo who began publishing their Martin Beck series of mysteries in 1965. I had no idea how to pronounce those names, still don’t quite even after enlisting the help of a friend who grew up in Sweden, but upon reading I did know this: I wouldn’t stop until I’d read all of them.

A bit of research will tell you that these books are considered the genesis of “Scandinavian Noir,” and I don’t know about you, but when I hear those words, I think of bleak settings, bleak characters, bleak writing. Not so in the Martin Beck world. Cynicism? Yes. In boatloads numerous enough to fill a fjord, but these books are full of a dark joy. Sjowall and Wahloo’s jaded eye falls on every character, group and place that they go. Location of murder? Dirty tourist trap. The hippies that protest in the streets? Hopeless young idealists who haven’t had the rose-colored views beaten out of them yet. The police who beat up the hippies in the street? Dumb brutes spoiling for a fight. Even Detective Martin Beck himself isn’t safe. He’s a terrible husband, who, over the course of the books, slowly moves further away from his marital bed. Literally: in one book he and his wife share a bed, in the next they have separate beds, in the next he sleeps on the couch and so on. He’s not even a particularly good detective! He spends the majority of the pages bumbling around town without the slightest clue as to who might have done the crime, eventually falling into the solution by chance.

As I read and thought about the authors’ writing (and my own, as any writer does) it struck me that these stories of single murder, perpetrated by a single, seemingly sane individual felt somehow quaint all these decades since the books were published. And what a terrible thought that is, what a terrible reality to face. As a writer who hopes to publish books (agents, publishers: johndziuban@gmail.com) somewhere along the lines of these mysteries, murder stories, noirs, is it even possible to make a story about a single death fly? It must be. Does anyone care? Surely someone. How do Sjowall and Wahloo make me care? It’s the humanity, stupid.

In the first book the titular character Roseanna is dead before the first page, but they spend the subsequent pages filling that character in. Telling me why it’s a tragedy that this pretend person is no longer with us in 1965. They show me pictures of her and let the people who knew her react to her death, tell us about Roseanna’s hopes and dreams. And goddamnit of course the loss of a single life by murder is a tragedy. Why the hell wouldn’t it be? Because it happens every day? Because we’ve all seen streaming video of lunatics killing dozens with automatic weapons in schools, theaters, and grocery stores? Am I so desensitized? Are we mystery obsessives obsessed with death? I don’t think so. Show people statistics and you’ll get a ho-hum. Show them a character and they’ll care. The obsession is not with death, but with life, with what is no longer there.

I haven’t yet finished the entire Martin Beck series, but I certainly will and you could do a lot worse with your time as well. Every time I see their covers or think of their fully formed characters, I think of Aunt Liz too and how much I wish she was still here to talk about these stories. I’m thankful for her thousand pounds of mysteries on my wall, and I wonder if she’d agree with me that we’re obsessed with life rather than death. I choose to believe that she would.

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Summer Reading (by Mark Harrison)

By this week or next, nearly all public schools will have reopened, bringing an end to summer vacation for kids and with it the end to summer reading—both assigned and voluntary. For fifteen years, writer Mark Harrison’s day job has been in education—for the past ten years as a special education teacher. There may still be time for some kids to squeeze in a little summer reading, and this post contains interesting ideas for it based on Mark’s own experience. For adults in search of a late-summer read there’s Mark’s own debut story, “Dogs in the Canyon,” which appears in the Department of First Stories of our current issue (September/October 2022). Don’t miss it! —Janet Hutchings

The Killer Angels held such promise.

After having spent the previous summer with Gulliver’s Travels and Don Quixote, I had finally been assigned something of interest, a novel that was more Fletch than Pride and Prejudice. The mystery, I assumed, was set in Florida, at a private country club that housed a senior golf league known as the Angels. A private investigator would be hired by the club to investigate which of the Angels was murdering its other members, just like Matthew Scudder in A Long Line of Dead Men.

The Killer Angels was no mystery, though. It was a historical novel written by Michael Shaara, set during the Civil War, focusing on the Battle of Gettysburg. 

Mr. Green said it would be a good read, but it wasn’t, at least not for me.

I wanted more Lee Child, not more General Lee. 

Schools don’t really do mysteries, though, not even during the summer. You won’t find much Chandler or Connelly or Parker in the English Department’s book closet, though I once saw a copy of Early Autumn tucked between O’Brien and Poe.

“Too much plot,” a teacher once told me. “Not enough meat on the bone.” 

Better to assign a 518-page novel about the history of philosophy (Sophie’s World), which is what happened to me. 

“A Novel About the History of Philosophy.” That was the book’s subtitle.

The story itself was fine. I learned a lot about Kierkegaard and Descartes, Spinoza and Hume—more so than I probably wanted to—and I understood its purpose as a foundational text, especially when paired with Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.   

But I didn’t enjoy it.  

I always figured that if I had the opportunity to assign summer reading I would say, “Just read whatever you want.” I wasn’t being lazy or glib and didn’t mean to come across as disinterested or indifferent. I believed in summer reading, but it wasn’t important to me if the student read Stargirl, The Chocolate War, or The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Better, I thought, to give students a choice and let them select whatever book they wanted, of any length, from any genre. If it were short, there was a chance that the student might read another book, especially if they enjoyed the first. A shorter book might serve as a gateway to something else by that author or to someone else whose stories were similar. 

That’s how it works. 

All I wanted was for my students to read and to eventually enjoy reading.

That, to me, was the point of summer reading, especially for students who struggle to read. I couldn’t imagine forcing one of my students, at sixteen, to struggle through 1984 after reading, in succession, Lord of the Flies, The Odyssey, and Brave New World. It seemed cruel. I had no problem if a student wanted to read a graphic novel, a romance novel, or a science fiction novel. If she grew up on Encyclopedia Brown and Nancy Drew, perhaps she would have discovered Lois Duncan and read Ransom or I Know What You Did Last Summer.

As a teacher, it didn’t make sense to assign a novel that wouldn’t be read. I knew that there was no way my students were spending their free time reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks or Of Mice and Men.

Not happening.

But when it came to assigning summer reading I turned out to be no different than anyone else. I didn’t say “read anything.” Instead, I selected a specific book, recommending High Fidelity by Nick Hornby. 

Everyone likes music, right? 

Well, thirty students claimed to have read High Fidelity when they returned to school in September but the actual number was closer to two. 

Thank you, Sarah, and thank you, Matthew. It would have been a long and painful class discussion without you, though the fault was entirely my own. Perhaps I overestimated the interest a sixteen-year-old would have in a thirty-five-year-old’s top five breakups, lead-off album tracks, and novels, The Big Sleep chief among them.   

I haven’t bothered making any recommendations for summer reading since High Fidelity, but with the end of summer approaching, I’m often reminded of Hornby’s debut. I even went to our school library just the other day to see if we had it. We did, though I almost missed it, its cover different, the novel buried on the bottom row. Finding the book was a comfort in part, affirming its place as a potential high school text, but I felt embarrassed flipping through its pages, half-wishing there was a more sanitized version. 

There isn’t, at least not to my knowledge, but in skimming through the text, I wondered what Rob Fleming, the book’s protagonist, might recommend if it were August 15th and he was looking for one last book to read. What would he have offered as a Top 5 if he were going on vacation and could only list crime novels and mysteries? The Friends of Eddie Coyle (George V. Higgins), The Bat (Jo Nesbo), Small Crimes (Dave Zeltserman), The Goodbye Look (Ross MacDonald), and Defending Jacob (William Landay)?

I’m only kidding about Defending Jacob, which, for the last eight years, has been a running joke in our house, my wife recommending it whenever I finish a book and am in search of something new to read. Maybe an early Peter Swanson novel would be more fitting, something like The Kind Worth Killing

I just finished reading Swanson’s Nine Lives, which was good, inspired by Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.

I’ll probably give his novel Before She Knew Him another read when I’m on the beach this month. With any luck, I won’t see any children racing to complete their assigned reading. I’d prefer to see them reading whatever they want to read, even a magazine. 

I suppose that if they have to read something like Breakfast at Tiffany’s, they can always watch the video.

George did.

And I’m pretty sure that’s what Matthew and Sarah did.

There’s no character named Jack Black, kids.

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When Strangers Meet (by Art Taylor)

Art Taylor made his fiction debut in EQMM’s Department of First Stories in 1995 and he’s gone on to become one of the most celebrated short-story writers in the crime/mystery field. He won the Edgar for his EQMM story “English 398: Fiction Workshop”; he received the Agatha Award for Best First Novel for his novel-in-stories On the Road With Del and Louise (a book largely composed of stories from EQMM); and his short stories have also earned multiple individual Macavity, Agatha, and Derringer awards, as well as an Anthony Award. Readers can find a number of standout stories in his latest collection, The Boy Detective & The Summer of ’74 and Other Tales of Suspense. What some of our regular readers may not know is that Art is also a teacher of creative writing and an associate professor of English at George Mason University. This post brings together some insights derived from his writing and teaching. It also gives some background to his story “We Are All Strangers Here,” which appears in our current issue (September/October 2022). —Janet Hutchings

My story “An Internal Complaint” (EQMM, June 2007) took direct inspiration from Anton Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Dog” (1899), explicitly echoing that famous story of infidelity and its consequences.

In “An Internal Complaint,” Philip—an aspiring writer studying Chekhov’s story to hone his craft—begins to suspect that his wife is having an affair. The story shuttles between 19th-century Russia—Philip’s retelling of scenes from the perspective of the cuckolded husband of the lady with the dog—and present-day North Carolina as Philip begins surveillance on his wife and her lover. (The manuscript title of “An Internal Complaint” was “Episodes from the Story of Evgeniy von Diderits,” which editor Janet Hutchings wisely asked me to change; the ultimate title is drawn from a key passage about the title character’s deception of her husband.)

While “An Internal Complaint” broadcasts its connections to “The Lady with the Dog,” my latest story for EQMM—“We Are All Strangers Here” in the September/October issue—owes an equally strong debt to Chekhov, even if the inspiration is so indirect there’s zero chance anyone would recognize it.

The Chekhov story in this case is “In the Cart” (1897), in which a schoolmistress is driven back to her village after collecting her small paycheck in town. Along the way, she has brief conversations with her driver and reflects on her late parents and estranged brother. She meets a local landowner and wonders what it would be like to be married to him, then dismisses the idea. She stops at a teahouse, where some of the patrons are drinking vodka; the driver reprimands them for speaking vulgarly. Back on the journey, they have to cross a river, the driver nearly tips the cart, and the schoolmistress gets her boots wet. While stopped at a railway crossing, she glimpses a woman on the train who looks like her mother, and she begins to cry, but then has a passing moment of happiness in which she imagines that the hardships she’d endured might have been a dream—before the driver calls her back to reality and they return to the village.

(If you’re waiting for what happens next, I’m sorry. That’s it.)

In “We Are All Strangers Here,” an attractive woman is sipping an amaretto sour in a hotel bar when a man claims the open seat beside her, obviously hitting on her. She surprises him by admitting that she’s married, then admitting she’s grateful for some diversion from her husband. Soon, the conversation turns to the subject of open marriages, and when the two of them are joined by another young woman, there’s a hint that the encounter might evolve into a threesome.

I’m skipping a key bit of information here—strategically, for reasons I’ll explain in a moment. But I’m pausing to emphasize that it might be tough to connect that schoolmistress in the cart to a woman in a bar chatting about open marriages. Not once does Chekhov’s schoolmistress consider a ménage à trois with her driver and that landowner.

Though both women do reflect throughout their respective stories on their lives—where they’ve come from, where they’re going—the connection between the stories is more structural, with all credit to George Saunders and his terrific craft book A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life.

While I’ve taught fiction workshops for many years at George Mason University and feel like I know a few things about the craft of short fiction, Saunders’ book proved an eye-opener—pointing me toward new perspectives on crafting character, plot, style, and structure and inspiring my own work in the process.

The first section of A Swim in a Pond analyzes “In the Cart” one or two pages at a time—twice as many pages of analysis after each printed page of the story itself. That analysis tries to chart what readers know at each point in the story, what they might be curious about, and what they might expect from the next step of the schoolmistress’s journey. Importantly, from a writers’ perspective, Saunders also explores how Chekhov builds on and twists (“exploits” even) those reader expectations at every turn. For example, the meeting with the landowner suggests that this story might become a romance of sorts, saving the schoolmistress from her accumulating disappointments, emotional and financial both—but after weighing this idea, both character and plot move in a different direction, to the story’s great credit.

Building on this analysis, Saunders writes more generally, “A story is a series of incremental pulses, each of which does something to us. Each puts us in a new place, relative to where we just were.”

Thinking about that analysis, thinking about short fiction as a series of small segments which deliver information, build reader expectation, and then move in unexpected directions with awareness of potential reader expectations . . . all that led me to try this out myself, systematically—an exercise that eventually became “We Are All Strangers Here.”

The key bit of information that I strategically withheld above is also one that I strategically withheld within the story—at least til the end of the opening scene, where I hope it provides a nice jolt of surprise. After that, I tried to take this new information and complicate it further, then parcel out fresh reveals, with their own fresh complications, a bit at the time. To quote Saunders again, I hope that each subsequent section of my story does indeed offer a new “incremental pulse” and bring the reader to a surprising “new place” in their relationship with and understanding of the characters.

Another writer at the EQMM blog explored this same idea in a different way—also with reference to Chekhov. In “Chekhov for the Gun-Shy” (an essay now regularly on my syllabi at Mason), Reed Johnson talks about the idea of “ghost plots” and writes that “the fictional narrative, and the mystery story above all, is not one story but two: The first is the plot as it actually exists on the page, and the second a sort of ghost plot that consists of anticipated but unrealized events—a chain of otherwise that exists in a sort of a continually evolving dialectic with the actual.”

We often think of stories as a series of escalations: a character in a crisis or quandary facing increasingly steep troubles as the plot works toward its climax. (Google “Lester Dent’s Master Plot Formula”) But Saunders and Johnson emphasize that in addition to wrangling with plot and character, we writers also need to maintain a focused awareness on the reader and on the various potential readings of our story in order, in Reed’s words again, “to constantly innovate both within and against the conventions of the genre to avoid giving the mystery a predictable solution.”

I know there are other writers in our genre who are fans of Chekhov and draw inspiration from his work—Travis Richardson stands out, for example, with his excellent “Chekhov Shorts” project—and Saunders’ book draws also explores stories by Gogol, Tolstoy, and Turgenev to explore other aspects of short fiction writing: the pattern story, for example, and the importance of what’s left out as much as what’s included in a short story.

All this may seem very far from modern mystery and suspense fiction, but sometimes appearances deceive . . . which may be a clue to reading my own new story as well. And hope you enjoy! 

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My Cup Runneth Over (by David Dean)

Most of the many stories author David Dean has contributed to EQMM over several decades have been contemporary. Many are cases for his series policeman Julian Hall, and readers can now find several of them in the collection Tomorrow’s Dead, just released by Genius Books. Prior to publication, the book won second place in the Public Safety Writers Association’s Writing Competition, in the unpublished-story-collection category. Several more collections of the New Jersey author’s stories are forthcoming, but readers will not find in them many examples of his historical fiction. That genre is one he’s turned to frequently only recently. In this post, we get a glimpse of what spurred his interest in the historical crime field. Readers will find the first in the new series he discusses here in the March/April 2023 issue of EQMM.  —Janet Hutchings

In a previous post on this site entitled “A Day in the Life of the Creative Writer”—which reads like the biography of a squirrel—I wrote of the perils of distraction. Writing can be hard work (at least for me) and I am always looking for a way out of it.  Just this morning, I took off twenty minutes to meet and greet the crew of a septic system company who’d arrived for reasons you don’t want to know.  But this is a blog about creative ideas, not so much the actual donkey work of writing.  This is about the fun part.

I’ve been writing since 1989 so I’ve managed to have a few ideas for stories along the way, some have even referred to me as “prolific.” I’m hardly that, I think. That mantle is better worn by such stalwarts of the short crime fiction world as John Floyd, Michael Bracken, and Brendan DuBois—astoundingly creative and fertile minds. I’m more of a plodder. Yet, when you’ve been writing for over thirty years, that plodding can add up to some considerable mileage, and mileage requires ideas.

Most writers would agree, I think, that almost any story you can dream up has already been written in one form or another, so the challenge lies in somehow making this plot your own.  It’s not that writers are endlessly plagiarizing, but more that they’re reimagining through their own unique lenses the material that has filtered down to them through the ages. 

Additionally, if you write within a particular genre of fiction, you’re somewhat bound by the conventions that govern them.  Luckily for me, I write crime fiction—some horror—but mostly crime—and it’s a very forgiving genre.  It’s a house that contains many mansions, to paraphrase a passage in the Bible—cozies, historicals, impossible crime puzzlers, classical whodunits, noir, police procedurals, literary (Crime and Punishment anyone?); even science fiction (Crime Travel), the aforementioned horror (“The Tell-Tale Heart”), and Westerns (nearly every one of them) frequently feature a crime or crimes. You might even say that it’s a transcending genre.  The very suggestion of a crime may qualify a story for inclusion.  So crime fiction writers are given a lot of latitude.

Still, it ain’t easy.

Whenever an idea leaps forth, I snag it as quickly as I can by jotting down a sentence or two about it in my Big Book of Ideas. This book—an actual notebook—has become hoary with age, as have I.  Whenever the well runs dry, I dig it out, flip through its crumbling yellow pages, focus on one jotting and ask, “What the hell did I mean by that?” 

Fortunately for me, there’s usually some other scribbling that reveals its genius and I’m saved to write another day.

However, about two years ago I hit a patch that stretched before me like a hike through the Mojave in midsummer.  I’d gone dry.  So I did what I normally do and consulted the BB of I, but its words remained indecipherable and no comfort was to be found there. I ask She Who Walks In Beauty—my wife of many years, Robin—and She suggested household chores and other unfinished, or never taken up, tasks in order that my mind might relax and thereby be fruitful.  I recoiled from this idea as unnatural to my particular creative processes.  Time went by.

I considered the wisdom offered me once by the gifted Doug Allyn, who had suggested during a discussion on this very topic that I revisit some of my older stories with an eye to reworking one from a different angle.  At the time of our meeting I found this quite useful.  But in this instance, when I trolled through my bibliography I came away with zilch . . . nada . . . nothing.  So I took to reading. If I had nothing to write I might as well read some things that I had never had a chance to read before, as well as some that I had, this time bringing to them a more mature perspective.  Such was my state of affairs. 

Then came the epiphany that I had been awaiting.  Not just from the classic novels and short stories that I’d been reading, but also from a book that was much more modern, and if not a classic yet, certainly one with a cult following.  But more on that in a moment.

Deep in the night, as SWWIB serenely slumbered at my side, even as I tossed and turned in my anguish, the answer was provided.  Like the Sphinx’s riddle, it posed a question—If so many great stories were lying about in the form of dusty classics such as I was reading and were, more importantly, in the public domain, what need I of new ideas?  The heavy lifting had already been done! All that was needed was to—as Doug had suggested of my own work—come at them from a different angle! 

Having just completed reading The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, my mind began to percolate. That story contained a crime; in fact, several of them. What if I revisited it using not only the characters original to the tale, but introducing characters of my own creation as well as historical ones of the period? What if there was a mysterious Mrs. Hyde who feared for her husband’s health and sanity at the hands of Dr. Jekyll?  What if she reached out for help to another doctor, one who specialized in the vicissitudes of the human psyche? Enter Dr. Beckett Aquinas Marchland, alienist.

I’m not the first to use this particular method of constructing a story, of course. If only I were that original a thinker! Nicholas Meyer had done so with his homage to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes in The Seven Percent Solution. But the writer who sparked my particular creative resurgence was Kim Newman who wrote the imaginative and entertaining Anno Dracula, published in 1992.  This is the modern novel I referred to earlier.  Newman blazed the trail that I subconsciously followed with what has become the Marchland series, and the premier story, “Mrs. Hyde,” will debut in EQMM next year. 

Something similar was also done by writer Alan Moore and illustrator Kevin O’Neill who created the graphic 1999 novella, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, in which they peopled the pages of their adventure/sci-fi/steampunk tale with the likes of Captain Nemo, Dr. Jekyll, Allan Quartermain, and other characters from Victorian classics.  Dozens of films have utilized this same devise in recent years as well.  Retellings of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” done up as modern stories also spring to mind.  In my case, I stuck to the period the original was set in.

It was fun, but exacting, to write in this manner, since millions of people are familiar with the book or some film version thereof, requiring a careful adherence to the flavor and detail of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. But this only upped the challenge.  Like most writing, it was a bit like putting a puzzle together, only in this case, using two puzzles to make one whole as I introduced characters and events of my own into the fray. I kept expecting a ghostly Stevenson to show up and cry, “Damn the cheek, man!” while quirting me with his riding crop.  Or perhaps he would’ve gotten a chuckle out of it.  “Mrs. Hyde” does have some funny bits. 

Not content to stop at mining one classic, I went next for Guy De Maupassant’s short story, “The Diary of a Madman,” followed by Bram Stoker’s Dracula (in which I discovered several non-supernatural crimes when viewed through a different lens), and finally H. H. Munro’s brilliant tale, “The Open Window.”  All of these have characters that required the scrutiny and somewhat questionable acumen of Dr. Marchland’s intervention. I should say that you need not have read any of the aforementioned stories in order to understand and, hopefully, enjoy the Marchland series.  Though you might get even more out of them if you have.  In the end it’s all a bit of a mash-up of classic story, crime fiction, and historical mystery, dosed with splashes of humor.

I’m now eyeing The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde which also features several crimes and is ripe soil indeed for a nascent criminal psychologist. Even my current story in EQMM, “The Wedding Funeral,” trades on a bit of Victorian folklore (not literature in this case) concerning premature burial.  The characters and setting are, however, modern and far from Britain.

So, for now at least, my cup runneth over and I am once more content at my trade. I’ve even come up with a few plot ideas without the aid of the old masters, though I’m much indebted to them for their benevolent assistance during my troubles. As is often said, you can’t be a writer without reading, and this has certainly proven true in my case.    

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Hiding in Plain Sight (by Anne Swardson)

A former journalist for the Washington Post and Bloomberg, Anne Swardson has lived in Paris for twenty-six years. Her very first mystery story was selected for the Mystery Writers of America’s 2012 anthology, Vengeance, and she has followed up with stories for a variety of other publications. She makes her EQMM debut in our September/October 2022 issue (which goes on sale August 16) with the story “Uncaged.” It’s set in Paris, and in it she makes wonderful use of her knowledge of that city—a city that, as she explains in this post, is made for mystery.  —Janet Hutchings

My husband and I have lived in three neighborhoods since we moved to Paris 26 years ago. Each time we moved, we bought a 3X3 aerial photo of the new quartier from France’s geographic service, hung it on the wall and took a look.

Initially, we focused on what we could see and recognize. The parks where we took the kids to play when they were little. The tourist spots, such the Musée d’Orsay or the Invalides. Our apartment building and the ones around us.

But there was so much in those photos that was hidden from the street. What was that huge garden in back of a government building across the avenue from us? Who knew the homeless shelter two blocks away had a verdant courtyard behind its walls? Was that a fountain behind the high gate that never seemed to be open?

Our experience was, and is, a constant reminder of how much more to Paris there is than what’s visible on the surface. As I began writing fiction, it also helped me realize why Paris is an ideal setting for a mystery: The real story is hidden behind layers of obscurity at best, deception at worst.

Secrets are a key part of any mystery, of course. But in France in general and Paris especially, secrecy is a public pastime. That’s true whether you are a long-timer or just got off the plane, whether you speak the language, and whether you are French or étranger (a word, by the way, that means both stranger AND foreigner.)

So much is hidden. Government buildings, even the parliament, the presidential palace and the ornate City Hall, are largely forbidden to the public. Only once a year, on a designated September weekend, can people queue for hours to see what their taxpayer dollars are paying for. That’s when they can see the incredible gardens, too.

A monument to the deportees of World War II is literally underground, a bunker-like structure behind Notre Dame, with only a small sign to mark it. A lane featuring some of the best street art in the city can be found only by heading uphill into the city’s Chinatown district, then making a sharp right. No signs. Stores mostly don’t post their opening hours on the door, and you have to click through innumerable times on a museum web site to learn what its weekly closing day is.

But it’s not just about what your eyeballs can see. It’s what people say, and don’t say. The French call it “le non-dit”—that which is left unsaid. I don’t think we have a word for that in the U.S., especially these days. We say too much.

You can attend a dinner party in Paris and come away with no idea who the other guests were, except that they have very interesting ideas about the latest film or 18th-century hunting paintings. No one ever reveals their occupation.

Your waiter does not want to know if you are having a nice day or still “working” on your dinner, and the proprietor of that delicious bakery cares only that you greet him with a proper “Bonjour” upon entering, not what you think of the croissants.

The codes are often unspoken, at least to non-natives. You may think you know the rules to get along and then discover you read the operating manual all wrong. Invited to a dinner at the home of French friends, you show up at the appointed hour of 8:30 p.m.—to find the hostess drying her hair and the host still in jeans. The French guests all turn up half an hour later.

Until a few years ago, politicians, almost all of them male, could carry on affairs with impunity, even with underage women. They were left alone by the press on the grounds that everyone has a right to a “secret garden.” Francois Mitterrand, president in the 1980s, raised a second family with the full knowledge of the political and journalistic elite, but not a word appeared in public until he died.

“Knowledge is power,” Thomas Jefferson often said. In France, it’s the other way around: Power comes from withholding knowledge. The public deserves to know as little as possible. The government, for instance, does not record statistics about minorities. There are no figures on the country’s black population, or Muslims. It makes it rather difficult to keep records of racial discrimination in, say, employment.

There are whole categories of people, too, who hide in plain sight. Prostitutes in the Bois de Boulogne, a huge park west of the city, offer their services along the principal avenue even in daytime. Most of them are from eastern European countries, and not all knew what they were getting into when they arrived here. Not far from them is the Polo de Paris, an exclusive club, hidden behind high hedges, where the wealthy lunch at tables next to the field and gossip between chukkers.

Have you ever visited the Eiffel Tower and noticed the dark-skinned souvenir vendors? They stand by the blankets that display their wares, hawking tinny version of the real thing and keeping an eye out for the cops in case they need to grab their blankets and run.

I’ve talked to them. They come from real countries—Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Togo, Senegal—and have real stories. So does the one-man band who plays his instruments just outside the Tuileries park as tourists drop coins into his upturned hat. Have you ever ridden a public Métro or bus in Paris and wondered how the driver can bear to ply the same route every day? I can assure you, very few in Paris have asked themselves that question.

Whole neighborhoods in Paris are secrets, too, except, mostly, for those who live there. They boast vibrant street art, fantastic Ethiopian and Afghan restaurants, incredibly cheap open-air markets selling halal meat and very tacky discount stores with amazing bargains. I don’t see a lot of foreign tourists there.

And these ethnic quartiers are just as French as the Champs-Élysées. Walking through the Goutte d’Or (Drop of Gold) area in northeastern Paris with some friends a couple of years ago, I approached a Black vendor and asked the price of his papayas.

He reared back.

“Madame!” he snapped. “You didn’t say ‘Bonjour.’” Fair enough. I did, and then bought a couple papayas.

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