“Cultivating Crime in the College Classroom” (by Hollis Seamon)

Hollis Seamon‘s first short story for EQMM appears in our current issue (May/June 2018). She is the author of two novels and two critically acclaimed short-story collections, and the 2009 winner of the Al Blanchard Award for best crime story. She has a second career as a college instructor and in this post she talks about the benefits of studying crime fiction.—Janet Hutchings

“An English literature course called ‘Detective Fiction’? Ha! What is that crap going to teach them?”

This remark was made by a particularly pompous professorial personage, in reaction to a new course that I had just invented and listed as an elective. I was stunned into silence. And so, of course, I’ve spent the last decade or so working on the snappy comebacks I should have delivered, speaking sharply into his smug mug.

Many years late, here is my comeback.

But first, some background. Some time ago, I introduced this new course, ENG 217 Detective Fiction, to the English department offerings at the College of Saint Rose where I taught literature and writing. My department colleagues—an enlightened bunch of fine professors—were all for it. Some even said they’d love to take the course, that they’d read detective fiction for years but never had a chance to study it. But some of the more dyed-in-the-wool, snooty academic types in other departments were less pleased and one was more than willing to tell me so.

Perhaps if that guy had read more detective fiction, he too would have been enlightened. Or at least aware of the longstanding love-hate relationship between academia and crime writers. If only he’d spent some time following Morse into the stuffy and often deadly lairs of Oxford dons. Listened to literary scholar Carolyn Heilbrun explain why she had to write her mystery novels under the pseudonym Amanda Cross and hide those works away until she’d achieved the haven of tenure, becoming the first female tenured English professor at Columbia University. If he’d read Dorothy Sayers’s masterpiece, Gaudy Night, where love of scholarly life vies with the deadly effects of living tooth-to-jowl with other academics. If he’d actually read the works, instead of dismissing them as crap, perhaps he might understand. Perhaps be better educated, all around? If he happens to be still teaching, I hope he’s discovered that, these days, the scholarly investigation of crime literature is a valid and valued field of study.

In any case, I hadn’t designed ENG 217 for professors. I wanted it to be a course that students from all majors could enjoy and in which, yes indeed, they might actually learn something. But, really, I invented it so I could teach some my favorite books and stories. Now, let’s say from the outset that teaching the works you love to students who don’t much give a hoot is not always a winning proposition. Usually, it’s hugely disappointing: They just don’t get excited about stories that have left you ablaze with admiration and totally smitten with their writers.

Imagine: You are excited to introduce your class to a book that always takes your breath away with its brilliance. You assign the reading; you bounce joyfully into the classroom and ask them what they thought. Total silence. No eye contact. Finally, a few hesitant hands go up. A few reluctant mouths utter opinions. “I didn’t understand it.” “The sentences are too long.” Then, eagerly, the real malcontents chime in. “Booooooring.” “It sucked.” And that can, quite simply, break your heart.

So I was aware of the dangers of setting out to teach my favorite crime writers. But, really, I figured, who wouldn’t love this stuff? Mystery fiction is the highest-selling genre of all time. It’s meant to entertain, to be accessible. To be (gasp) fun. I was sure students were going to love it. I designed my syllabus to give them what I hoped would be a good overview of the genre, beginning with Poe and winding up, four months and a century or so later, with Mark Haddon. The hundreds of wonderful books I had to leave off the list? Those choices were excruciating. But eventually I came up with a scheme that I thought might work. We would circle loosely around Sherlock Holmes, a figure many of the students already knew—or thought they knew—from films and television. We would read other works too, of course, but at the end of the semester, we’d come back to two wonderful Holmes pastiche novels: Haddon’s amazing The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and Michael Chabon’s heartbreaking and hilarious The Final Solution. There were many iterations of the course, which I taught up until my retirement in 2016, and I always varied the reading menu a bit while still staying within that overall plan.

And now, at last, I believe I can tell you—and the ghost of that sceptical professor—what the students learned, from some of the works they read.

From Poe, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”: They learned about the origins of detective fiction, about the trope of the brilliant detective whose triumphs are told by an admiring but always baffled sidekick. They learned, if nothing else, the meanings of the words “ingress” and “egress,” terms which not one student had ever heard before and which are, of course, the bedrock concepts behind every locked-room mystery. And, really, in life and literature, isn’t it always important to see a way in, as well as anticipate a way out?

From Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone: The longest and most complicated book most of these students had ever read, this taught them to admire audacious design and brilliant storytelling. They followed the story through its multiplicity of voices, learning to be patient, to enjoy putting the puzzle together from bits and pieces, to settle in for the long haul. They learned, too, I hope, something about the wrongs of British colonialism in India. They learned that one tiny lie, told by one very stubborn young woman, can set off a storm of events. And that, in the end, some wrongs can be made right.

From the Holmes canon: They learned how unexpectedly funny these stories are. And how frightening. How a band of ragged street boys can change the course of an investigation. How a gift for disguise and deception can serve justice. How to feel sympathy for anyone who is, like Watson, always ten steps behind. How a friendship between two such oddly matched partners might endure, based on unspoken but steadfast affection. And to admire The Woman who beats a genius at his own game.

From Penelope Evans, Freezing: They learned that a guy who seems like a total loser, a lowly mortuary photographer with a paralyzing stammer, may take the photo that changes everything. That, despite the capital L this guy seems to have emblazoned on his forehead, he can become a hero.

From Michael Chabon, The Final Solution: They learned some terrible truths about the Holocaust. And some uplifting truths about the quiet, anonymous code-breakers who played such a vital role in defeating Hitler. About the Enigma Machine (and the meaning of the word “enigma,” which, really, sums up mystery fiction.) About a retired detective who keeps bees and who, at the age of ninety, is still fierce, irascible and fascinated by the odd detail. About how a chance to solve one more crime can rejuvenate that very old man. About a mute boy and his parrot and how both learn to speak. And that clues may be woven into illustrations.

From Mark Haddon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time: They learned respect and admiration for a severely autistic boy who sets out to navigate the world on his own, with only his pet rat in his pocket. They learned how badly even well-meaning adults can screw up. And, eventually, they learned not only who skewered the poodle Wellington but how to forgive the killer.

From all of the books, put together: The students in ENG 217 learned the art of reading very closely. They learned that they could not skim. That the key clue could easily be missed, if they hurried over page 231 or 198 or 532, where a skillful writer had placed it so carefully. They learned not to be fooled by red herrings. Learned the joy of working something out; of following where sound, painstaking research leads; of separating facts from lies. Learned to recognize deceit and, despite all the deceptions put before them, discover, in the end, some kind of hard-won truth. They learned to pay attention. Learned to practice ratiocination: to think hard and critically and to make judgments based on evidence, not opinion or theory or someone spouting off on Twitter.

Aren’t those skills important in this world? Crucial, even?

That’s what I wish I had said to my pompous professorial challenger, all those years ago. But, of course, I couldn’t have said it then. Only now have I begun to understand what ENG 217 Detective Fiction taught me, after all. And how much I have yet to learn from and about this literature that I love so much.

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“Where the Wild Men Are” (by Steve Hockensmith)

One of our genre’s best humorists, but an author who is also capable of writing quite dark stories, Steve Hockensmith has been appearing in EQMM since 2001. His first series of novels, the Amlingmeyer Brothers Mysteries, had its genesis in a 2003 story for EQMM entitled “Dear Mr. Holmes,” and there have been subsequent short stories in that series as well as novels. More recent titles have included his Tarot Mystery series, written with Lisa Falco, and the New York Times bestseller Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls. Steve is a writer who enjoys the challenge of breaking new ground, and in this post he talks about the inspiration for his very original new story for EQMM, “Where the Strange Ones Go,” in our May/June issue, on sale next week.—Janet Hutchings

Hi, I’m Steve. I’m a writer by day and a wild man by night.

Actually, that’s not quite true. I am a writer by day, but I tend to be a sleeper by night. I think I’ve behaved in a way that qualified me as “a wild man by night” exactly once. I woke up on the floor the next morning with my head in a trash can and a hangover that lasted a week, so I never felt the need to get “wild” like that again.

But as personal mottos go, “I’m a [fill in the blank] by day and a wild man by night” ain’t bad. As long as you can live up to it and you don’t mind the hangovers and trash cans, I mean. I’m not sure if the guy who came up with the phrase was a true wild man or not, but I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Why? Well, just check out his shirt. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t start buttoning it until somewhere south of his navel.

You can see him here, 19 seconds into a compilation of highlights from 1980s dating service tapes: Watch, if you dare.

Even if you don’t dare, plenty of other people have. That video’s been viewed on YouTube 4.8 million times. It’s inspired a lot of laughter—and one piece of short fiction (that I know of).

My story “Where the Strange Ones Go” appears in EQMM’s May/June issue. I wrote it to challenge myself. I’d just written another short story in which the plot was advanced almost entirely through emails. (That story, “i,” appeared in AHMM last fall.) I wanted to try again to see if I could tell a story through excerpts from some other medium. But what?

I don’t remember how I hit upon the idea of dating videos as the backbone for a crime story. (Hey, cut me some slack—this was, like, a year and a half ago!) But I knew the compilation reel on YouTube well, having chuckled at it several times over the years. So I watched it again. I found a lot of fodder for humor, of course, as well as an idea for a plot. But I found something else, too. Something I wasn’t expecting.

I found a heart for the story.

It’s easy to laugh at Maurice, the video’s “executive by day, wild man by night.” Ditto the other wild men who recorded video profiles as part of their quest for Miss Right. A couple of them seem like real jerks. (I’m looking at you, “No fatties” dudes.) But watching the video again as a happily married man creeping up on fifty, I found less to laugh about and more to feel.

I’m lucky. I’m not lonely and I don’t need to go looking for love. Maurice and the other men in the video didn’t have it so good (at least circa 1988 or so). So they did something brave. They sat in front of a camera and talked about what they thought they needed to be happy. One of them even did it dressed as a Viking, which takes “brave” to a whole other level. (Yes, that other level of “brave” might be “crazy,” but still—I admire the guy.)

I realized that I didn’t want to write something that just ridicules people looking for a human connection. Which isn’t to say I wouldn’t have some fun with them. When you’ve got Maurice & Company as your inspiration, there’s going to be some humor. (The YouTube highlight reel wasn’t the only inspiration for the dating tape excerpts in my story, by the way. The guy who’s obsessed with Norman Bates-ish bodysnatcher Ed Gein is based on an ex-girlfriend of mine. And the woman who wishes she could date Jesus is a toned-down version of someone I sat next to on a long, long, long cross-country flight.)

I gave myself permission to be amusing, but not mean. “Mean” I would leave to the bad guys in the story. Which isn’t a bad way of looking at characterization in genre fiction in general, I think.

Have fun. Entertain. Give your characters foibles and flaws. But don’t forget that they have souls, too.

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“EXIT WITH THE BODY”

In the September 1966 issue of EQMM, editor Frederic Dannay responded enthusiastically to a reader’s assertion that William Shakespeare, in his plays, anticipated the modern detective story. He included the letter in the magazine—along with his own notes—and reprinted 101 lines from Henry VI, Part II framed as “The Adventure of the Simpcox Miracle.” Take a peek inside the issue and enjoy this special feature!

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“Classic Murder Mystery Gets a Comic-Book Reboot” (by Maaja Wentz)

EQMM’s Department of First Stories has given a start to hundreds of authors, but in recent years, with developments in technology, what it means to give an author a start has changed. Some authors nowadays are able to get their fiction to an audience and establish a following without the help of a publisher. As self-publishing on various electronic platforms has grown, EQMM has decided to stick with its original criteria for inclusion in the Department of First Stories, which is that the story must be the author’s first paid professional publication. Canadian writer Maaja Wentz, who will debut in EQMM’s Department of First Stories in our next issue, with the story “Inside of a Dog,” qualifies under those rules. But Maaja has already serialized a novel, her supernatural thriller Feeding Frenzy, on Wattpad, generating over a hundred thousand reads. In this post, she discusses how her interests in the mystery and urban-fantasy genres have converged, as they have for many fans, and how this convergence is regenerating television mystery.—Janet Hutchings   

The noir detective story and police procedural are beloved classic genres. Both have translated well to the big and small screen, from classic movies such as The Maltese Falcon, The Third Man, Double Indemnity, and Chinatown (neo-noir) to TV series such as NYPD Blue, CSI, Columbo, The Wire, and Law and Order.

Whether your tastes run to cozies such as Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, Death in Paradise, and Murder, She Wrote, or you prefer something more realistic like The Wire, the short format and repetitive nature of old-school TV shows inevitably risk becoming formulaic. How often have you settled in to enjoy a mystery show only to realize after ten minutes that you have already guessed whodunit?

Do we need another gritty drama about a down-on-his-luck detective scraping by in a harsh and unfriendly world? How about a grizzled veteran cop with marriage trouble, mourning his dead partner? And don’t even talk to me about the alcoholism. Even when TV embraced female protagonists and more representative casts, the cliches remained. It was enough to send me back to the bookshelf until, in a flourish of ink, TV crime got redrawn.

Comic books have always featured crime fighters, from Superman and Batman to vigilantes like Black Lightning, the Arrow, or the Flash. Two current comics-inspired shows have become my favorites for the way they employ urban fantasy and science-fiction elements to reboot the TV mystery.

Stylishly comic iZombie transforms the police procedural with urban-fantasy tropes, while Jessica Jones features a noir detective with superpowers out of a sci-fi thriller.

In classic noir style, Jessica Jones is scraping by as a lonely, luckless P.I. who photographs cheating spouses for a living. As in noir film, Marvel’s Jessica Jones is shot against a dramatic visual palette, the cinematography and setting choices influenced by layouts from the original comic. Her office is dark and spare. The drama is comic-book extreme, with one-night stands, fist fights, explosions, and one memorable scene in which mind control forces an entire station of police officers to pull guns on each other. Settings are chosen for visual impact, such as the bloody season-two finale, shot at the top of the Playland Ferris wheel.

Based on the comic character created by writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Michael Gaydos, Jessica Jones soon turns out to be more than a stereotypical gumshoe. She isn’t a sucker getting beat down by the bad guys in a troubled world, destined to be seduced and set up by a femme fatale.

Jones can lift a refrigerator or kill a man with her bare hands. Restraining her temper is a bigger challenge. And when it comes to the femme-fatale trope, she is the beautiful but deadly woman herself. More than once she laments that everyone she loves dies.

The classic noir detective epitomized postwar ennui, but is there a modern equivalent? We are numbed by a media bombardment of tragedies close to and far from home. A more connected planet reveals the true complexity and magnitude of humanity’s problems until, desensitized and demoralized, we sometimes feel like the bad guys always win.

Like us, Jessica Jones doesn’t think she can save the world. Sometimes she hides in the bottle or seeks refuge in a meaningless fling. Sometimes, she saves a child or stops a robbery, but she can’t save society, her loved ones, or even herself. This new super strong yet powerless detective reflects our current era’s fatalism and escapism. We cheer and lose ourselves in the moments when she kicks the villains down, but in the end, the most powerful conspirators remain hidden in the city of grit and shadows.

If the stylish noir genre deserved a facelift, the police procedural is a ratings mainstay. As such, it has been nipped and tucked into every form from gritty realism to cozy historical to exotic escapism, until it seemed dead on the autopsy table.

In 2015, iZombie jolted the police procedural’s exhausted heart like an undead defibrillator. Episodes investigate murders in a comic-book world, based on iZOMBIE by Chris Roberson. There are interrogations, autopsies, a wisecracking coroner, and a suffering lead, but Liv Moore is no cliche grizzled veteran, gunning to avenge a fallen partner. She’s a young, high-achieving medical resident who lost her career and fiancé when she became a zombie, compelled to eat brains to survive.

This premise brims with grotesque situation comedy, like the perky montages of Liv whipping up brain recipes. When she eats their brains, Liv has visions of murder victims’ memories. Instead of time-consuming investigative techniques, Liv’s visions short-circuit the tiresome need for realistic information gathering so the plot can skip ahead to action scenes and confrontations. Liv’s special ability makes her better than a lie detector, and the brain she eats imbues her mood, abilities, values, accent, speech, and actions with the victim’s personality. Liv doesn’t just interrogate suspects on behalf of the deceased, she becomes the victim. What better advocate for justice in the interrogation room? It’s a showcase opportunity for actor Rose McIver, who helps detective Clive Babineaux (Malcolm Goodwin) solve murder cases.

The show gets its kick from Liv’s ability to vicariously experience multiple lives from all walks of life, male and female, old and young, innocent and criminal, sadistic and sweet. Added to the grotesque humor is the ongoing conspiracy-thriller plot surrounding the origins of the zombie virus and the eventual paramilitary zombie takeover of Seattle.

While fans of realism may not be tempted by Jessica Jones or iZombie, these shows mirror a larger trend in which young protagonists and fantasy tropes are transforming traditional programming, while putting a youthful spin on the mystery genre.

Posted in Adventure, Characters, Classic Mystery, Fiction, Genre, Noir, Police Procedurals, Pop Culture | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

DONALD A. YATES: LIFELONG DEVOTEE OF MYSTERY FICTION

In my first days as editor of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine I was fortunate to have the hand of friendship extended to me by some of the magazine’s earliest contributors—people whose connection to EQMM went back to founding editor Frederic Dannay. One of those people was Donald A. Yates, whom I met in the early 1990s, when he dropped by our offices to say hello and to peruse our archive of issues and anthologies. I immediately recognized in Don a quality I’d seen in other contributors from Editor Dannay’s time—an extraordinary ardentness when it came to everything related to Ellery Queen and, consequently, to EQMM.

Thirty years of attending conventions of mystery fans has given me ample opportunity to meet avid readers and scholars, and loyal devotees of particular authors. But I have not encountered in recent generations of fans anything quite equal to the passion displayed by those whose interest in mysteries was born in the early to mid years of the last century. As perfectly as anyone I’ve known, Donald Yates illustrated, with his life and career, the fervor of that generation of mystery fans.

The first time we met, Don told me the story of his first encounter with Frederic Dannay, who was, of course, not only the editor of EQMM but half of the two-person writing team behind the pseudonym Ellery Queen. Don was just a teenager then, but he’d become hooked on the novels of Ellery Queen, and on seeing Fred Dannay’s home address printed in classified ads he’d placed in EQMM seeking rare titles for his book collection, Don worked up the nerve to write to him—and got a reply. Think how extraordinary that would be in a modern context: Ellery Queen was already a best-selling novelist with a successful radio show and movie adaptations of his novels. Yet he felt comfortable releasing his home address in a magazine with a circulation of around a quarter million. As Don explained in a 2005 article for EQMM (“Remembering Fred Dannay”), after a further exchange of correspondence with his idol, he took things a step further, turning up unannounced on the doorstep of Fred’s house with a suitcase of books he wanted signed. Fred invited him in and spent several hours with him, showing him, Don said, “the highlights of his collection, chatting about mysteries, and, before I left, signing every one of the books I had brought along.”

It’s easy to see why an era with so few barriers between a celebrity author and his fans would foster a deep devotion in the latter. But I think other, more significant factors were at work in shaping fans such as Don. The mystery genre as we know it today was only just beginning to take shape at the time. The Mystery Writers of America was new on the scene, having been founded in 1945, and EQMM was changing perceptions of what belongs within the field by publishing between its covers a wide variety of different subgenres of crime fiction. Moreover, Fred Dannay always had an eye out for contributions to the genre in other countries, running a series of Worldwide Short Story Contests in the magazine and welcoming translations of detective stories from other languages.

Like Fred Dannay, Donald Yates had a particular interest in the detective subgenre of crime fiction—he and Fred were both fervent Sherlockians—and like Fred Dannay, he sought examples of it in other parts of the globe. What allowed Don to follow this particular road further than Fred had was that Don, by the time he was twenty-six, had become a professor of Spanish and Latin American Literature. He was fluent in Spanish, and soon began looking for Latin American detective and crime fiction worth translating for the American market. Although the first English translation of the great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, “The Garden of Forking Paths,” was done by Anthony Boucher, for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Don translated a number of other important Borges stories, including “Death and the Compass,” which was first published in the collection Labyrinths and reprinted in EQMM in 2008.

In 2003, when I decided to make translation a monthly feature of EQMM through creation of the Passport to Crime department (which still runs in each issue today), Don was one of the first people I contacted. He’d been translating for EQMM since 1962, and I knew he could steer us to the best crime writers in Latin America. He served as both scout and translator for Passport to Crime from then on. When he passed away in October of 2017, he had on his desk, for review, the translation of a story for us by Rodolfo Jorge Walsh that he had encouraged his friend John Dalbor to translate. Health problems prevented Don from finishing his vetting of that translation, but we hope to be able to present it to readers in 2019. According to Don, “Next to that of Borges, [Walsh’s] name is the most important one in the history of Argentine detective literature.” Don’s involvement in this final Walsh translation brought him full circle, in a way. A Rodolfo Jorge Walsh story was his first published translation, in 1954, for The Saint Detective Magazine.

As a translator, Don’s career spanned sixty-four years, and I could go on for several more paragraphs about the various authors and projects he brought to EQMM—my personal favorite being 2016’s double collaboration “For Strictly Literary Reasons” by Christian X. Ferdinandus, in which a story written in homage to Borges (EQMM’s most famous author in translation) and penned pseudonymously by a team of writers (in the Ellery Queen tradition) was translated by a team of translators (Don and John Dalbor). But I am not going to focus more here on the specific authors Don translated. Interested readers should have a look at Francis M. Nevins’s post for Mystery File, “First You Read, Then You Write,” for more on that topic. My intention here is to show how Don’s love for mystery and detective stories influenced the course of so much else in his life. He was a key figure in bringing Latin American literature to the attention of the American public, but it was through the lens of his interest in detective fiction that he did it, and Don himself was clear about the centrality of mystery fandom to his life.

In 2003, I received a letter from Don in which he forwarded some correspondence he’d had with a Bouchercon committee member he hoped was considering him for fan guest of honor. In that letter to Bouchercon he said: “You may not think of me primarily as a fan, but that’s how I think of myself. And after some fifty-five years of fandom, how can I be wrong?” By the end of his life, Don could have referred to seventy-plus years of fandom, and he was not wrong. The qualities he enumerated in that letter are the hallmarks of the committed fan.

Collecting was one of the characteristics Don thought distinguished the true fan. As must be evident from his first meeting with Ellery Queen, Don was a lifelong collector of mysteries, acquiring his first signed copy in 1944. He collected not only books but complete runs of the principal digest magazines, including seven complete runs of EQMM. He was also an anthologist, a critic, and a reviewer in the genre, with many publications in each capacity. He knew several of the great mystery writers of his time personally, including Jorge Luis Borges, Ellery Queen, Cornell Woolrich, Ross Macdonald, and Margaret Millar. He edited the first collection of Borges’s writings in English. He wrote poems about Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Cornell Woolrich, Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie, Anthony Boucher, and more—a number of which were published in EQMM. He was an active member of the Baker Street Irregulars from 1972 until his death, and he even authored a couple of mystery stories himself, including one that turns around the theme of mystery fandom, “A Study in Scarlatti” (EQMM February 2011). Add to this the way in which his professional career was influenced by his love of mystery fiction—Could he have played the pivotal role he did in bringing Latin American literature to light in the U.S. without that passion for mysteries?—and you have a fan of a sort we will probably not see again. Our contemporary world seems too diffuse—we have too many conflicting claims on our attention—to produce a fan of that order.

In life, Don received recognition for many of his accomplishments, but he was never honored as a fan. I hope one of our field’s conventions will honor him posthumously in that capacity. He deserves to be remembered for his lifetime of fidelity to the genre that was his first real love in literature.

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“Balancing with Your Eyes Closed” (by Susan Dunlap)

Susan Dunlap got her start in EQMMs Department of First Stories in 1978. Her body of work in the mystery field since that auspicious debut includes twenty-five novels in four popular series, featuring, respectively, Berkeley Police Officer Jill Smith, PG&E meter reader Vejay Haskell, former forensic pathologist/detective Kiernan O’Shaughnessy, and, most recently, stuntwoman Darcy Lott, who is assistant to the abbot of a San Francisco Zen center. The California author has won the Anthony and Macavity Awards, and been president of Sisters in Crime. Through the years she has continued to write many short stories, including “A Day at the Beach,” which will appear in EQMM May/June (on sale in April). A writer with so many fine works in print must have a plentiful well of ideas; in this post Susan gives us a look at how some of those ideas get transformed into stories.—Janet Hutchings

Try this: Stare at a doorknob a few feet away. Now, stand on one foot. Notice how long you can hold that position. Now, do the same thing with your eyes closed. Notice how not-at-all-long you can hold it. You can barely get your eyes shut before you’re wobbling all over, right? No big surprise! But what will surprise you is to combine the two steps: Stare at the doorknob, close your eyes while continuing to focus on the doorknob in your mind, and balance on one foot. See how much longer you can do that when your “vision” is anchored to that image.

Which brings me to mystery short stories.

What we like is the comfort of a beginning, a path, and an end. Better to have a direction, even if it’s the wrong one. Better to think we know where we’re going than to stumble around blindly. Better to envision an end . . . to have something on which to anchor our vision when attempting to transform an idea into a story.

Warning: This is not going to have a happy ending, though not in the way you think.

Here’s the facts as they came to me: In one of those places where experts evaluate art objects you’ve inherited or maybe bought at a garage sale, a woman brought in a brooch. It was a stylized pin with a plethora of small diamonds, a couple of other gemstones, and some gold bands. An expensive piece of jewelry. Her grandmother had found it in a purse, not an evening bag, beside a rural road somewhere north of Texas, she said. Her grandfather had taken it to the sheriff and in three months, when no one claimed it, it was given back to him. Now, about fifty years later, it had come down to this granddaughter, whom we’ll call Jean.

And there, for Jean and the evaluator, the story ended. They were focused on auction or insurance value. They did not leap to the conclusions, assumptions, and suspicions that you and I might.

But now the story belongs to us and for our purposes all characters are fictitious. (Fictitious, because when you’re plotting, if you allow any of your characters to come from real people, what you know about those people will claw into your characters, shackle their feet and tape their mouths.)

Thus, freed I speculated: A purse beside the road? How did it get there? Why would the woman who owned the purse put a diamond brooch in it? (A woman, not a man. A man might steal the pin but then he’d conceal it in something a whole lot less attention-getting than a woman’s purse.)

The woman, whom we’ll call Eloise, might have unpinned the brooch as she was undoing the rest of her clothes. Doubtless she unlatched it carefully every time she removed an evening gown or a cocktail dress—it was that kind of pin—and placed it gently back in its jeweler’s box.

But she would not have plunked it in a purse.

So, I’m discounting this undressing-herself option.

Which brings up to the more appealing foul play.

But which play: Was Eloise kidnapped? Did she fling the brooch out the window of the kidnappers’ car and hope it would be found and thus so would she, sooner or later? Did she fling it into a ravine, declination, or constant shadow where it was overlooked?

But then, wouldn’t Eloise have searched for it later? Contacted sheriffs in the area? Hired a detective? Offered a reward for a memorable and expensive pin? She could have had a story planted in a local paper? Assuming she survived.

Or, had the room in which Eloise was staying been burgled? And while the burglar was dumping the loot in the traditional pillowcase used in his craft, did he realize that the brooch was delicate, valuable, and couldn’t be fenced as-was so he looked around for somewhere separate to put it? Thus the purse.

Was he the one who flung it from a getaway car racing through the backwoods because it would connect him to the crime?

Wouldn’t the burglar have made some effort? If he’d tossed it out their car window because the sheriff was on his tail, he’d wouldn’t have been likely to forget it. He’d have made some, even discreet, inquiries, even if he’d had to wait seven to ten with time off for good behavior. But he did not.

A lot of ifs. A lot of yeah, buts. Writers hate that. It’s like you’re balancing on one foot with your eyes closed and someone tickles your nose with a feather. It’s like the straight path of plot veers to the right and right off the cliff. So I did what writer’s manuals tell you never to do.

I told the story to two writer friends, just as I’m telling you now. Writers manuals correctly point out that a writer has a finite amount of enthusiasm for an idea. Like a flask of Urge to Tell. If he passes it around for his friends to sip, he will find that the first friend takes a sip, the second friend sips, ponders, sips again. Then Friend #1 snatches it back and takes a goodly swallow, which encourages #2 to gulp up a whole new path that the story could take. Or announce that the whole idea was reminiscent of a story in the New Yorker in 1988. And when the frustrated writer tips up the flask only drops will flow into his parched mouth.

So, we asked: How come Eloise was driving through this rural southern area with her classy and expensive pin? We could not know.

So, we ended up focusing on the fact we did know: that no one had contacted the sheriff to ask about the pin. Of course, it wasn’t as if the sheriff was advertising the brooch. At best, he stuck it in a safe and waited. When no one claimed it he returned it to the finders.

But suppose, my friend Renee said, Eloise wasn’t being kidnapped or driving off with a lover, but was driving herself through the night and got lost. Suppose she saw a light in a window and pulled over to ask for directions or help. Suppose it was these very grandparents she asked. And the grandparents killed her, buried her body, disposed of the car, and then in a fit of not remorse but fear, they decided to cover themselves by telling the sheriff they found the brooch by the side of the road, in a purse, not a satin bag like Eloise would have carried that night but an ordinary purse the grandmother had in her closet.

So we raised our glasses to Renee.

And that is how potential short stories get discussed into supposes.

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“The Misadventures of Ellery Queen” (by Josh Pachter and Dale C. Andrews)

In the mid twentieth century, critic and writer Anthony Boucher said (in the New York Times): “Ellery Queen is the American detective story.” But despite the enormous popularity of the Ellery Queen novels, stories, radio plays, TV shows, and movies during the lifetime of the two authors who collaborated under the Ellery Queen byline—and despite the enormous influence they had on subsequent writers—most of the Queen novels went out of print by the last decade of the twentieth century, with the result that many younger readers no longer know who Ellery Queen was. Almost all of the Queen novels have now been reissued in e-format from Mysterious Press/Open Road. And last week, a much-awaited anthology of Ellery Queen pastiches was released. Entitled The Misadventures of Ellery Queen, and edited by Josh Pachter and Dale C. Andrews, it will, we hope, inspire a new generation to read the original Ellery Queen novels and stories. 
Josh Pachter’s fiction debut was nearly fifty years ago, in EQMM’s Department of First Stories. As he explains in this post, the story was an Ellery Queen pastiche. Since then, more than fifty of his stories have seen print. Like the pseudonymous author Ellery Queen, Josh has proved to be a successful collaborator, jointly producing tales with some of the top writers in our field. He is also one of the genre’s leading translators, with work frequently featured in EQMM’s Passport to Crime department. Dale Andrews, a former lawyer for the U.S. Department of Transportation, also got his start as a fiction writer in EQMM’s Department of First Stories, also in the form of an Ellery Queen pastiche, which he coauthored with Belgian writer Kurt Sercu. Pastiches are produced in loving homage to the work of the authors whose books inspire them, so it goes without saying that Josh and Dale are among the most ardent of Ellery Queen fans. In this post they give readers a look at what went into producing their delightful anthology of Ellery Queen pastiches and parodies.—Janet Hutchings

On Thursday, March 8, Wildside Press published The Misadventures of Ellery Queen (hardcover, paperback, and electronic editions), edited by the two of us—Josh Pachter and Dale Andrews. The book is an anthology collecting sixteen pastiches, parodies, and homages inspired by the legendary Ellery Queen.

Collections of “misadventures”—by which we mean stories carrying forward an established character and either written in or spoofing the manner of the original author—are nothing new. But a collection of the misadventures of Ellery Queen has been a long time coming.

Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, the two authors who collectively were Ellery Queen, were great fans of pastiche and parody. In fact, it was Dannay and Lee who collected and edited the seminal anthology of Sherlock Holmes pastiches, The Misadventures of Sherlock Holmes, which appeared in 1944 (and was quickly withdrawn from circulation due to a legal objection from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s literary estate).

Just as Sherlock Holmes has inspired countless authors other than Conan Doyle to take up the misadventurous pen, further adventures of Ellery Queen—written by authors other than Dannay and Lee—have also been plentiful, beginning in 1947, when Thomas Narcejac’s “Le mystère de ballons rouge,” a straightforward EQ pastiche, was published in France. It was many years before an attempt was made to collect these stories in one volume. But the idea of such a volume was contemplated much sooner. And that is where the story of The Misadventures of Ellery Queen begins.

Of the two of us, only one was fortunate enough to have known Fred Dannay personally. Josh Pachter’s first published story, “E.Q. Griffen Earns his Name,” was written when Josh was sixteen years old and appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in 1968. This first story led over the following half century to many others, and it also led to a friendship between Josh and Dannay. In the early 70s, Josh suggested that The Misadventures of Ellery Queen would be a worthy undertaking. Dannay agreed, but didn’t want to edit such a volume himself. He suggested that Josh should helm the project, but Josh, still in his early twenties, felt unqualified to tackle such an important task. Decades passed, the idea lingered, but the Misadventures collection remained unrealized.

Until 2012, that is, when Japanese publisher Ronso Kaigai released an anthology edited by Yusan Iiki, titled (in English!) The Misadventures of Ellery Queen and including both Josh’s “E.Q. Griffen’s Second Case” (from 1970) and Dale’s “The Book Case,” a 2007 pastiche written in collaboration with Belgian EQ scholar Kurt Sercu. Despite the English title, all of the stories were either translated into Japanese or originally written in Japanese. So Japan, where the love of Golden Age detective yarns remains strong, had a misadventures anthology. The English-speaking world, however, continued to wait.

“The Book Case,” by the way, was inspired by Dale’s attendance at the Ellery Queen Centenary Symposium hosted by EQMM in 2005. Dale went on to write two more EQ pastiches, both of which (like “The Book Case”) appeared in EQMM, and he, too, began thinking about an English-language Misadventures. He discussed the idea with fellow EQ pastichers Francis (Mike) Nevins and Jon Breen, as well as with EQMM editor Janet Hutchings, all of whom were encouraging. But Dale—like Josh, decades earlier—was reluctant to attempt the project on his own.

Though Josh and Dale were familiar with each others’ work and lived only twenty miles apart, we had never met—until 2015, when Mike Nevins stopped off in Washington, D.C., on his way to participate in a memorial service for Fred Dannay’s widow Rose. Josh had known Mike for decades, and Dale had known him for years. At Mike’s suggestion, the three authors got together in Dale’s backyard for drinks, dinner, and Queenian discourse. Unsurprisingly, the subject of the Japanese Misadventures came up—and something clicked in both Josh’s and Dale’s minds. You know, each of us thought, eyebrows raised, perhaps the time has come. . . .

And so, after all these years, here we are!

Our aim in collecting and editing the sixteen stories that comprise The Misadventures of Ellery Queen was not simply to mimic the Japanese anthology. Instead, we started from scratch, sifting through the many pastiches, parodies and other works inspired by Ellery Queen that have been published over the years in order to identify the best and most representative stories we could assemble.

As one might expect, some of the tales that made our final list were also included in the Japanese collection; stories like Dale’s “The Book Case,” Mike Nevins’ classic “Open Letter to Survivors,” Jerry Williamson’s “Ten Months’ Blunder,” and Arthur Porges’ “The English Village Mystery” certainly needed, we felt, to be included.

Some authors, though, we decided would be better represented by stories other than those selected by Yusan Iiki; Josh, for example, believed that it made sense to include his first Griffen story, “E.Q. Griffen Earns His Name,” rather than its sequel, and Jon Breen preferred to be represented by his one and only EQ pastiche, “The Gilbert and Sullivan Clue,” rather than by one of his broad “E. Larry Cune” parodies. Similarly, we preferred James Holding’s “The Norwegian Apple Mystery” to the Danforth and Leroy story chosen for the Japanese collection, and we concluded that readers would be interested in seeing Ed Hoch’s “The Reindeer Clue,” together with some introductory remarks explaining that story’s strange lineage, in lieu of the two Hoch stories translated into Japanese.

We also chose stories by authors not included in the Iiki collection, such as Dennis Dubin’s devious “Elroy Quinn’s Last Case,” Bill Brittain’s delightful “The Man Who Read Ellery Queen,” Joe Goodrich’s marvelous “The Ten-Cent Murder” (in which Fred Dannay himself solves a crime in the manner of Ellery, with Dashiell Hammett as his sidekick!), and Thomas Narcejac’s “Le mystère des ballons rouges,” that grandfather of all EQ pastiches, which we had translated from the original French so that it could be published in our collection for the first time in English.

In mapping out the contents of our Misadventures, we found there were more worthy candidates than we had space for in the approximately seventy thousand words our publisher suggested should be our aim. Predictably, assembling a final list of sixteen stories from a much longer list of deserving candidates proved daunting. Those familiar with Joseph Goodrich’s fascinating Blood Relations: The Selected Letters of Ellery Queen, 1947-1950 (Perfect Crime Books, 2012) know that Fred Dannay and Manny Lee often argued passionately about the plotting and writing of the original EQ novels and stories. Our discussions never quite rose to that level, but we did find ourselves at times passionately debating which stories to include as well as the order in which to present the stories finally selected.

We ultimately agreed on a table of contents, subdivided into three sections: Pastiches (containing stories that remain true to the Ellery Queen characters and style), Parodies (stories that make fun—be it gentle or outrageous—of EQ), and Potpourri (containing homages and stories inspired by Ellery and his creators that don’t otherwise fit cleanly into either of the first two sections). Even then we had some fairly passionate debates concerning the placement of individual stories. Is Norma Schier’s “Dying Message,” for example, a pastiche or a parody? We went back and forth on that one for days—finally deciding that, for our purposes, it’s a pastiche. (When you read the explanatory afterword by Fred Dannay, you’ll see why.)

We were fortunate that each of the living authors represented in the anthology was enthusiastic about the project and eagerly agreed to write a new introduction especially for our collection. The two of us provided a general introduction to the book and story-specific intros to some of the tales whose authors are no longer with us. Richard Dannay and Rand Lee, who are respectively Fred Dannay’s and Manny Lee’s sons, graciously contributed special introductions of their own. (In Richard’s, you will learn what exactly happened to that collection of Sherlock Holmes misadventures Ellery edited back in 1944.)

We also received invaluable assistance from Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, which originally published all but two of the stories in the book. Editor Janet Hutchings, Associate Editor Jackie Sherbow, and the rest of the EQMM staff embraced our project fully, providing copies of little-known or largely forgotten manuscripts and assisting us in securing reprint rights to several stories. Finally, Wildside Press publisher John Betancourt eagerly agreed to publish the anthology, and he and his team turned our manuscript into a book we think readers in general—and Ellery Queen fans in particular—will be proud to display on their bookcases.

As we’ve mentioned—and as is commonly known—the works of Ellery Queen were collaborative; Fred Dannay’s forte was plotting, while Manny Lee’s was writing. It is fitting, we think, that this collection of stories inspired by Ellery Queen should finally come to fruition through the efforts of yet another collaboration.

What more can we say? Perhaps only that we hope you have as much fun reading The Misadventures of Ellery Queen as we had assembling it.

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“Ides of March: Relevant, Whether You Like it or Not” (by Steven Saylor)

Steven Saylor’s Gordianus the Finder series first saw print with the story “A Will Is a Way,” published in EQMM twenty-six years ago, in March 1992. A spellbinding historical set in Ancient Rome, that first Gordianus tale went on to win the Robert L. Fish Memorial Award for best short story by a new American author. Dozens of short stories (many in EQMM) and fourteen novels in the series followed, including the latest, The Throne of Caesar, which Steven calls the “capstone” of the series. But how does an author write a mystery about the most famous murder in history—and do so without alluding to current events? If anyone can pull it off, it’s Steven Saylor, whom the Sunday Times (London) says “evokes the ancient world more convincingly than any other writer of his generation.”—Janet Hutchings

The Ides of March, 44 B.C.—the date of history’s most famous assassination—loomed ahead of me for years. Soon or later, in the sequence of my Roma Sub Rosa series about a sleuth called Gordianus the Finder, I would arrive chronologically at the murder of Julius Caesar. But how could I fashion a mystery around this murder when (thanks to that Shakespeare fellow) just about every literate person in the world already knows who done it?

I wasn’t the first to confront this challenge. Back in 1935 a writer named Wallace Irwin concocted The Julius Caesar Murder Case. It’s not a spoiler if I tell you that Irwin has the real Caesar, desperate for retirement, arrange for a double to take his place. What could possibly go wrong? The Julius Caesar Murder Case is a rollicking read, deliberately and hilariously anachronistic, with the ancient Romans wise-cracking like Depression-era gangsters. But be warned: The novel is rife with casual racism, one reason, I suspect, why it doesn’t figure more prominently in the murder-mystery canon.

I eventually found my own way to create a mystery set in March, 44 B.C., thanks to a single word whispered in my ear by a Classics professor at a cocktail party in, of all places, Waco, Texas. I reveal more about that serendipitous encounter in the Author’s Note at the end of The Throne of Caesar, but as for the plot device itself—well, that’s the one thing I can’t talk about. This is one of the greatest frustrations for writers (and reviewers) of mystery novels: If you think something rather clever has been pulled off, you can’t say a word about it, or give even a hint, or else readers will be very cross.

The Julius Caesar Murder Case seems dated now because it very much reflects the time in which it was written, but so does every historical novel, no matter how hard the author tries to avoid anachronisms. So I was gratified to read this comment in a review of The Throne of Caesar at the web site of my fellow historical novelist Richard Blake:

“Imagine—you are an American liberal. You broadly like your country’s institutions as they have evolved since about 1990. You approve of the Clinton and Obama Presidencies. You may be ambivalent about the uses of American power in the world, but are probably glad that no other country comes close to its leading role. You are disturbed by the country’s recent polarisation. You then write a novel, during 2016 and 2017, about the murder of Julius Caesar. Would you avoid making at least an oblique comment on certain political events in that time? Could you avoid doing so? I looked hard for any little hint. If there is one, I missed it . . . there is no attempt to force the story into some passing allegory.”

How exactly Blake presumes to divine the politics of Yours Truly I’m not sure, since we’ve never discussed the subject, and I very rarely mention politics on Facebook or at public appearances. Ancient Rome is of interest across the political spectrum, and over the years I’ve been happy to count among my readers persons on both the left and the right. Once I received a very gracious letter from Ruth Bader Ginsburg (on the thickest, heaviest stationery I’ve ever held in my hands), and once Grover Norquist kindly plugged my books for summer reading on “Meet the Press.”

Politics aside, the point Blake makes is, I hope, valid—that The Throne of Caesar avoids the trap of seeming “relevant” or “timely” by drawing easy (and dubious) parallels between past and present. When an interviewer asked me if the portrayal of political strife in the novel was in any way inspired by “our own nation’s postelection anxieties,” and “whether the U.S. is following in Rome’s footsteps, only at a much faster clip,” I did my best to duck the questions, since an outright “No!” might seem a bit terse, even rude.

Not all creative artists wish to avoid political parallels. A 2017 production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” in Central Park drew considerable attention, favorable and unfavorable, including disruptions by angry protestors, for staging the play in modern dress with a Caesar who was a ringer for the current president of the United States. This made the bloody assassination scene amusing to some, an outrage to others. Any similarities between then and now were not just coincidental, but actively highlighted by the production.

That is the opposite of my intention. And yet, the never-ceasing news cycle has a way of running roughshod over the novelist’s best intentions.

One of the prime causes for the discontent of the senators who plotted and carried out the assassination on the Ides of March was the fact that Caesar had pressured them into making him Dictator for Life. “Dictator” was not a dirty word to the Romans, for whom the office of dictator actually had a long and proud tradition. Rome was a republic, and never again must a king rule over Rome, but every now and then a crisis occurred that justified the appointment of a dictator who wielded absolute power, but for no more than a year. The famous Cincinnatus had been called out of his happy retirement on a farm to lead Rome as a dictator during a perilous invasion, but as soon as he could, Cincinnatus put aside his sword and went back to his plow—a model of Roman virtue and restraint.

When Julius Caesar was quite young, a civil war in Rome ended with the victory of Sulla, who was made dictator for not one but two years—a precedent that stirred considerable controversy and not a little anxiety. Caesar himself, having won another civil war, packed the senate with handpicked supporters who named him dictator not for a year, not for two years, but Dictator for Life—a death knell for the Roman Republic and its oligarchic elite. Caesar’s soldiers and populist supporters were ecstatic, confident that the strongman would lead them to a brighter future, but many in the senate were so appalled that a covert movement was born to get rid of this dictator for good.

As the Ides of March 2018 approached, I was feeling rather confident that no one could possibly think my novel about a Dictator for Life in any way satirized or reflected current events. But what did I behold when I woke my computer this morning? This headline at Fox News: “’President for life’ not a bad idea, Trump says of China proposal.” And this headline at USA Today: “President for life? Trump says ‘maybe we’ll have to give that a shot some day.’”

Oh dear. Like so many before me, I have been Trumped!

Pay no attention to the news cycle. The Throne of Caesar is about the Ides of March, 44 B.C., and no other Ides before or since or yet to be.

 

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“Weight of the Words” (by Samantha Allen)

Samantha Allen’s first published fiction, the story “Some Kind of Lonely,” appears in the current issue of EQMM, March/April 2018. The author has worked as an advertising copywriter, a college writing instructor, and a bookseller. She is currently employed at a public library, using her spare time to complete her first novel. As you’ll see from this post, she’s a knowledgable and passionate reader of fiction as well as an emerging writer of it.—Janet Hutchings

I’ve long loved reading mysteries and stories of suspense. It all began with Nancy Drew, and after I was allowed into the adult section of the public library I devoured Agatha Christie novels, Chandler, and other classics, but I remember specifically reading Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier for the first time as a teenager: The unnamed narrator spoke beyond the page it seemed, her haunted voice rattling around inside my head long after I finished the book. To this day, so much of my love for mysteries boils down to their intensity. In mysteries, the stakes are high. I enjoy a narrator that draws you in with the promise of a secret to be revealed, a deep dive into the darkest of human emotions. I like writing that aches. Particularly first-person writing that feels confessional, and while the phrase “confessional” has sometimes been used derisively, code for overindulgent writing, the confession in crime fiction is a staple, a distillation of truth at the end of a twisted journey. And in these stories, the self is as much the mystery as it is who has killed the victim.

It’s not the how, but the why, that interests me most. Mysteries usually conclude with a satisfying reveal, explained in-depth by the detective or the guilty party himself. Often the protagonist’s handling of their emotional baggage is necessary to the solution. In one of my favorite novels, Faithful Place by Tana French, Detective Frank Mackey must go home (literally and figuratively) to solve the case. This requires a sort of personal honesty, a faceoff between his intellectual self and his emotional self. Frank must ask himself whether or not he can truly believe a member of his own family could kill, and when faced with a confession it morphs into a brutal examination of fate, class and circumstance. In real life, of course, we don’t often get a chance to understand another person’s motivations, or are they so clear—that is also the allure of the mystery novel.

Confessions are especially fascinating in the ways the guilty seek to justify their means. Take the narrator of Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” His desire to confess is driven by his guilty conscience, yes, but also by his vanity, his need to explain that he could commit the perfect crime and to assure us he isn’t in fact mad. The short story “High Lonesome,” by Joyce Carol Oates, is also written from the point of view of a man confessing to murder. As the narrator describes the triggering wrongdoing—his cousin’s betrayal of “Pop,” the stepfather whom he detests but at once reminds him of himself—it becomes clear that he was motivated by anger, jealousy and inferiority, but also by love. His emotions are too much for him; seeking an outlet he reacts violently. Yet after the fact his pain is only amplified, for how lonely it must be to hold the weight of that knowledge inside you. “The only people I still love are the ones I’ve hurt. I wonder if it’s the same with you?” begins the story. The address feels as vulnerable as an exposed nerve. The first time I read it, it gave me chills. The reader is propelled toward the terrifying end by the force of the narrator’s pain.

If not from the point of view of a murderer, many first person mystery stories give one the sense that the speaker is trying to bear witness to their own trauma or to the collective trauma of their community. To somehow give narrative shape to trauma—as if by examining traumatic events in a causal way we can ascribe them meaning. And, too, sharing these stories makes us feel less alone. In “Disaster Stamps of Pluto,” by Louise Erdrich, the narrator is an octogenarian and country doctor recording stories for the town’s historical society newsletter: “I am becoming the repository of many untold stories such as people will finally tell when they know that there is no use in keeping secrets, or when they realize that all that’s left of a place will one day reside in documents, and they want those papers to reflect the truth.” She goes on to record the “dramas of note” that have happened in the town, in particular that of a family brutally murdered in their home, the sole survivor an infant found in a crib, the killer never caught. In the present day, her one friend, Neve, is moving away having confessed to her family’s rare stamp collection forgery and deciding to take the money. She continues, “An extremely touchy case came my way about twenty years ago, and I have submerged the knowledge of its truth. I have never wanted to think of it. But now, as with Neve, my story knocks with insistence, and I remember my patient.” She reveals that she is in fact the infant survivor of the slain family and second, that the patient whose life she saved was likely the killer. Beyond disgust and cruel irony, for the narrator what does it mean that she saved the life of the man that murdered her family? She is inconclusive, but she nonetheless feels the need to chronicle it, to tell how it makes her feel. The story is less about the grisly crime and more about the act of telling—if not to explain the horrors that happened, to find some resonance in her life afterward. Her story “knocks with insistence” because she knows that soon, she will be truly alone.

In writing a post about works that have inspired me, it occurs to me that the reasons I love reading mysteries are also the reasons I love to write stories: the sense of urgency and the desire for connection. I was in a fiction workshop once when my professor asked the class, “Why do you write?” He was met with blank, terrified stares. “If you can’t answer that maybe you shouldn’t be here,” he said. I confess it stirred a minor crisis in me: Was I wasting my time? I can’t remember what prompted his question to us that day, but I remember thinking about my answer for a long time afterward, and what kept coming to me was only that I felt I had to write. Because when I’m not writing I feel as though a pressure valve in my chest keeps tightening. Like I have a secret that is physically weighing on me. I want to tell you about the way the sun slants through the yellowed curtains in an old house, how it makes me feel sad and happy to think of this place. I want to tell you of the smoke smell in the wind, the way that wind flattens the grass and charges the air. I write because I feel less lonely when I chronicle the places I’ve loved, the fears, hopes and wants I’ve felt, and too there is the lightning strike of recognition when I encounter them in the words of others. So I get up early to write in my journal before I leave for work. So I stay up late, reading one more chapter after one last chapter.

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IN REMEMBRANCE

On February 12, 2018, Bill Crider, someone who wore nearly every hat in the mystery field—author, critic, columnist, reviewer—died in Alvin, Texas, after an eighteen-month battle with cancer.

I’ve known Bill since 1990, when I bought the first book in his Truman Smith series (a book that went on to be nominated for the Shamus Award for best first P.I. novel) for the mystery line at Walker Books. When you consider Bill’s incredible output—a half-dozen different mystery series (comprising more than forty books), plus at least sixteen standalones in genres outside the mystery, from horror to western to adventure, and five children’s books—what stands out like a beacon is his modesty about it all. In a world in which self-promotion has become not only the norm but a necessity, I don’t think I ever heard Bill, a multiple Anthony Award winner, offer an unsolicited word about his own work. He knew about everyone else’s work, though; he was a superfan, with one of the largest collections of mystery and crime fiction that’s ever come to my attention. That’s what made him a perfect fit for our Blog Bytes department, which attempts to bring focus to the crowded universe of crime-fiction blogs and websites: Even before he took over that column from Ed Gorman in 2007, Bill was in the habit of scouring websites and blogs for every bit of information he could find about mystery books and authors, old and new. He knew the genre from every angle, having written his doctoral dissertation on the hardboiled detective novel (which launched his career as a college professor) and later trying his hand successfully at every subgenre of the mystery, from his Sheriff Dan Rhodes whodunits to his Truman Smith P.I. novels to spy fiction to suspense.

Bill Crider’s work has been so interwoven with my own career in mystery fiction that it will take time to process his absence. But it is the stalwart friendship Bill and his wife Judy (who died in 2014) provided over more than a quarter century that I will miss most—far more than his excellent columns and books and stories, though, like his many other fans, I will miss those too, especially the distinctive, laid-back humor so evident in most of his fiction.

One of my fondest memories of Bill and Judy Crider is from the early 1990s, when I attended a writer’s conference in Houston, not far from their home in Alvin, Texas. We had a free afternoon and they used it to show me around Houston, taking me to Murder by the Book, Houston’s premier mystery bookshop, where I met author Dean James for the first time, and to the Central Spy Shop, an entire store filled with surveillance devices, bulletproof vests, and every kind of James Bond-type gadget you can imagine. (I just Googled the store and it’s still in business.) After that we saw each other nearly every year at Bouchercon, meeting for meals, sightseeing in cities such as St. Louis, where, with Judy still well, we walked for miles and went up the Gateway Arch, and finally, in 2017, in Toronto, where Bill (attending with his daughter Angela, who is also a contributor to EQMM) spoke at the convention’s EQMM celebration.

Bill and Judy, and then Bill alone, have always been such an important part of what made the mystery community my community that I wonder what it’s going to be like without them. But of course, I am not alone. They will be missed and remembered with fondness and affection by countless friends, acquaintances, and fans. And as I told Bill only a few weeks ago, I think not only his memory but his writing will endure. That it will be read by ardent fans of the next generation, people who have the same kind of interest he had in searching out the voices that helped to define other times and places in the history of the genre we love.—Janet Hutchings

L to R: Janet Hutchings and Judy Crider. Photo by Bill Crider.

L to R: Bill Crider and Angela Crider Neary. Photo courtesy of Dana Cameron. Taken at Bouchercon 2017.

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