COUNTING THE I’S

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Screaming Blue Murder—Writing For Television” (by Cath Staincliffe)

Cath Staincliffe’s work first appeared in EQMM in January 2016. Her latest EQMM story, “The Rat,” is featured in our current issue, March/April 2017, and a third story will appear in EQMM later this year. The Manchester writer is a founding member of the Murder Squad, a collective of crime writers from the north of England. She came to EQMM later in her career than the other members of that group, which includes Martin Edwards, Ann Cleeves, Kate Ellis, Margaret Murphy, and Chris Simms.  Long before her EQMM debut,  Cath had become an award-winning novelist, radio playwright, and creator of the hit series Blue Murder for Britain’s ITV. She has been shortlisted for the Crime Writers’ Association’s Best First Novel award and for the Dagger in the Library. She was also joint winner of the CWA Short Story Dagger in 2012. Her novel Letters To My Daughter’s Killer was selected for the Specsavers Crime Thriller Book Club on ITV3 in 2014. She also writes the Scott & Bailey novels based on the popular television crime show. The Silence Between Breaths, her latest book, explores what happens when ordinary people are caught up in a terrifying and extraordinary event. In this post, Cath talks about her experiences writing for television.—Janet Hutchings

I ventured into the world of script-writing as a complete novice yet had the incredible good fortune to create an original TV show. With no experience of screen-writing courses or programmes, no familiarity with script-writing theories, and no time spent as a trainee earning my spurs on other shows, it was very much a leap in the dark. So any insights I have into writing for the screen are based on very particular, and I think unusual, circumstances.

Ann Cleeves, my friend and fellow Murder Squad author, first told me that Granada TV, based in my hometown of Manchester, were looking for crime dramas with strong female leads. By then I’d created a successful series of private-eye novels featuring single-parent sleuth Sal Kilkenny but I hadn’t a clue how to approach television. After some further nudging by Ann (thank you so much!) I sent Carolyn Reynolds, Granada’s Head of Drama, a proposal to adapt those books. Carolyn’s response was that private-eye stories didn’t translate well to TV but she invited me in to have a chat anyway.

Excited by the prospect, I sent her another outline before we met based on an unpublished novel of mine. A police procedural, it featured Detective Chief Inspector Janine Lewis leading a murder investigation team.

Carolyn liked the story very much but wanted to give Janine, a single woman at that stage, more domestic responsibilities—like Sal Kilkenny. We talked about the dramatic potential in juggling home and work, and the contrast between a grisly murder and a loving and chaotic family life. Lots of people can relate to the constant switching from parent to worker and back. One minute you’re in an important meeting, the next you’re sorting out lunch boxes and PE kits. The show would combine contemporary drama with the much-loved intrigue of a murder mystery; it would be gritty but not grim, with humorous banter among the close-knit team.

Granada had someone in mind for the lead role: Caroline Quentin, a well-liked British star with a warm, witty and down-to-earth screen persona.

Asked to write a treatment for a two-part pilot, I had to establish exactly what a treatment was (a description of the show and sketches of the characters, with a detailed outline of the plot and all its twists and turns) then do my best to fashion one. Janine was lumbered with three kids and a broken marriage which meant there was plenty of scope for conflict in her domestic life. The children were shamelessly based on my own—boy, girl, boy—and as there were quite big age differences I could cover life with teenagers and with younger ones.

Feedback to my treatment was generally positive and a bid was made for development money. Carolyn asked me if I’d like to have a go at writing the scripts if the bid was successful. My immediate reaction was to demur; I’d no experience, might it not be best to use writers with a track record? To her credit (and my everlasting gratitude) Carolyn advised me to sleep on it and of course by morning I was decided. Yes, it was a risk but also a huge opportunity. An experienced producer would help by giving feedback, acting like a script-editor.

My reaction to the news that we’d been granted funding was a mixture of delight and terror. I needed to identify how a script differed from a novel. Reading other scripts, watching shows on TV with pen and paper at hand, helped me see how they worked. All the thoughts, inner monologues, descriptions and musings of a book go straight in the bin for a screenplay. I had to learn, very fast, to chop, chop and then chop again so scenes from the novel distilled into a page or so of dialogue – with nothing extraneous, nothing repeated.

The following tips helped keep me on track:

  • Think visual. TV is a visual medium. Cut back on words, use the minimum, let the actors show what is happening to the characters.
  • Don’t write camera angles, shots, music or detailed descriptions. Other people bring their skills to those aspects of the film.
  • Keep scenes short, cut into the scene and out as efficiently as you can. Top and tail everything so only the essential action remains. The audience is used to joining the dots.
  • As with any medium be clear who your main characters are—whose story is it? Who do we identify with/empathise with? Put them at the centre of the action.
  • Try out your dialogue aloud; how your characters speak should reveal their personality as well as the facts of the plot.
  • A page of script roughly equals a minute of screen time.
  • Consider carefully where the excitement and pace comes in your story. Commercial programmes always want a “hook” or “cliff” at the end of a part to bring viewers back after the adverts.

We novelists are a pretty lonely bunch, working away in solitude—it’s a far cry from the hugely collaborative process of television where lots of people have an input. I couldn’t be precious and had to accept it when some of my favourite lines and scenes were cut along the way. I also had to take on board the process of re-writing, something I don’t do much with the books. When we got to draft eight of the first ninety-minute episode, I stopped counting. As a beginner, I trusted that the people I was working with were experts and did my utmost to learn from them.

News came that Caroline Quentin was pregnant but happy to proceed if that change could be accommodated into her role. At the same time we got the greenlight for production and the tight schedule meant I had one week to rewrite both pilot episodes to include a detective with morning sickness and heartburn. That time was just a blur, I was over the moon that the project was actually happening and exhausted by the amount of work involved.

In my role as creator and writer I was involved in meetings with the director and then in the read through with the assembled cast, which was a wonderful experience. Filming began in Manchester and I visited the set and even did a Hitchcock, performing a walk-on part in Episode 2.

Blue Murder aired in the primetime slot on ITV in May 2003, over a Sunday and Monday night and attracted 8.8 million viewers, a 37% share of the audience which was brilliant for a drama show in the UK. It was such a thrill for me and my family seeing my name on the opening credits. (By then I’d confessed to the kids that I’d acted as a magpie with their lives but I did pay them some blood money by way of compensation.)

ITV were very happy with the favourable reception and soon commissioned a second series. The show ran until 2009. Five series in all. I wrote an episode for each series and in between returned to writing novels and short stories (including novels based on my scripts). Since then Blue Murder has travelled the world to destinations as different as Afghanistan, Fiji, and Iceland.

My experience writing for TV was hectic, challenging, and thrilling and a complete contrast with the intensely private world of an author working all alone. It was also a great deal more lucrative! But to be honest prose is still my first love.

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“Making Sense of the Confusion of Tongues” (by Bertil Falk)

Bertil Falk is a Swedish newspaper and TV journalist, an author of mystery fiction, a translator, and a former editor of DAST magazine (a Swedish journal devoted to detective stories, science fiction, and fantasy). His first novel saw print when he was only twenty, but then forty years intervened when he was mostly engaged in journalism and other nonfiction projects. The latest of his nonfiction titles is 2016s Feroze, the Fogotten Gandhi, which has been described as a necessary book about a neglected man. Bertils  short fiction appeared in EQMM in 2004 (self-translated from the Swedish) and he was the translator for the Ulf Durling story Windfall, which appeared in last years November EQMM.  With so many parts of the world within his ken, and so much personal experience of translation, he is the perfect person to talk about how different languages may be employed in works of fiction. —Janet Hutchings

I have always been interested in language and what we can do with it. For sure, things have been done—and there are extremes: Just take a look at language teacher James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, where he breaks every conceivable linguistic law, using words from every language he knew (and they were not few).

At the end of 2016, the TV series Midnightsun (French title: Jour Polaire)—a coproduction between French Canal+ and Swedish public television—was shown in France and Sweden. The story takes place in Paris and the Swedish province of Lappland, which provides viewers with awe-inspiring landscapes.

The story begins with BANG: A man tied to the rotating rotor of a helicopter; the rotor rotates faster and faster; it is like giving the beginning the form of an O. Henry ending. The man is screaming for help in French and English. Not surprising, the people behind the story have not been able to match the beginning with a similar BANG at the end of the series. The series was a success and reviewers praised it. But that is not the point here.

In this mystery with gory murders, at least five or six languages are spoken: French, Swedish, Lappish (or Sami language), Finnish, and above all, English.

Does it sound messy?

It is not.

Thanks to subtitling instead of dubbing, it worked very well. People speaking different languages gave the story a certain touch of authenticity. That is the way it works in the living life of the real world. So why scrap it from our efforts to describe what happens in that world of ours?

Anyway, a French citizen has been murdered in northern Sweden. A French police officer from a minority group in France travels to the mining town of Kiruna, where she confronts her Swedish counterpart, who is a gay man (with a teenage daughter) from the Sami indigenous population. She on her part has a traumatic relationship with a teenage son. The Swedish police officer can’t speak French. The two must speak English, but her English is not very good.

Kahina Zadi (played by Leïla Bekhti) is the French homicide investigator and Rutger Burlin (Peter Stormare) is the Swedish investigator. Leïla Bekhti had to pick up English in a painstaking way within four months and Peter Stormare had an even more difficult task, since he not only had to pick up the particular dialect of Swedish spoken in Lappland, but he also had to learn the Sami language, which unlike English, French, and Swedish is not even an Indo-European language, but belongs to the Uralic language family.

One of the reasons that young Scandivian people are good at English is the fact that movies and TV productions are subtitled. Anyone who has been in Germany and seen, not to mention heard, Humphrey Bogart speaking German knows that dubbing is a disaster. Bogart’s voice is simply a part of his personality. Similarly, with dubbing, a Japanese movie is sort of stripped of its soul. As a Chinese proverb says: Every language you pick up gives you an extra soul.

Will Midnightsun set a trend? Why not? Or is it, rather, the symptom of a trend? Perhaps. There is more and more cooperation over the borders between TV companies. Globalisation has created new ways of producing things and that affects even the production of movies and TV. And as Midnightsun shows, or perhaps proves, it also points at a healthy way of considering the standing of languages in the 21st century.

Posted in Editing, Fiction, Genre, Guest, International, Magazine, Passport, Thrillers, Writers, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Clive Cussler and the RTS Zavala: Cheers to a Real Life Captain of Adventure” (by William Dylan Powell)

William Dylan Powells first fiction, the comic Evening Gold, appeared in EQMMs Department of First Stories in November 2006, and went on to win that years Robert L. Fish Memorial Award. Prior to his fiction debut, he had already begun to publish nonfiction, primarily about Texas history, something he continues to this day.  One of his recent book projects fuses his love of history, humor, and mystery; its Untimely Demise: A Miscellany of Murder, a darkly humorous presentation of 365 deadly deeds.In recent years the author (who is, by day, the head of an advertising agency) has been contributing stories in a series starring unlicensed P.I. Billy Raskolnikov and his monkey Ringo to EQMM. The latest of those stories draws on some fascinating aspects of Texas history, as described in this post; it appears in our March/April issue (in stores 2/21).—Janet Hutchings 

People have been building model ships since 3,000 BC. In ancient Greece, Egypt, and Phoenicia, model ships were used as household decorations, sacrifices, toys, and even burial offerings. Archeologists have learned a lot about how real-life ancient sailing vessels used to look and work from remnants of these artifacts, and it’s an art form that continues to this day—even as modern-day naval ships have become marvels of modern technology.

In my short story “The Model Citizen,” which appears in this year’s March/April EQMM, I wanted to write about a stolen model ship. My own real-life attempts to build a model anything usually turn out looking like an MK Ultra LSD experiment that was damaged in shipping. But some people build amazing, true-to-life model ships that are beautiful and inspiring; I wanted to write about those kinds of models; the kind that, like many hobbies, can be an incredibly personal obsession.

The story is part of my Redfish Bay series, set on the Texas coast in the 1980s, so I also wanted the specific model ship I showcased to reflect Texas’ little-known naval heritage. When Texas was its own independent nation (1836-1845) it had its own modest naval fleet. So I chose a real-life ship from that Republic of Texas Navy called the Zavala as the story’s featured model. Named after the first Vice President of the Republic of Texas, Lorenzo de Zavala, the 201-foot steam-powered schooner sported riverboat-like paddlewheels and four 12-pound guns.

Doing a little due diligence on the real-life ship behind the model in my story, I stumbled upon an unexpected backstory about how the Zavala made waves almost 150 years after it last took to Gulf waters. And you know who the hero was? New York Times Best Selling author Clive Cussler.

I don’t know how I never knew about this, but apparently Cussler doesn’t just write amazing naval adventures—he lives them too. And has now for decades.

Cussler was in the navy. After a period spent as an advertising copywriter and creative director (it happens to the best of us), he went on to write more than 70 action-packed novels. Many were maritime thrillers with titles such as Deep Six, Atlantis Found and Poseidon’s Arrow, sporting historic twists and making use of both his naval experiences and his talent for writing switchback tales of adventure.

Already a legend in the 1980s, he had also successfully turned an organization that was once a fictional part of his novels—the National Underwater and Marine Agency—into a real-life not-for-profit that finds, surveys, and conserves shipwreck artifacts. One day, in recognition for his efforts, the governor of Texas at the time awarded Cussler the honorary title of Admiral of the Texas Navy (honorary because there no longer is one). Cussler joked that since he was an admiral now, all he needed was a ship.

And putting his skills to good use, he found one.

He determined that the RTS Zavala was the Republic of Texas shipwreck that would be the most findable (the others having been sunk, lost in storms, and the like). The vessel had been grounded in 1842 at the port of Galveston in a place called Bean’s Wharf. The ship was gutted a few years later, its engines sold. And year after year it slowly sank into the murk as the city grew around it and all who knew her firsthand were lost in the sands of time.

Conducting and analyzing historical research—going over surveys and charts and maps spanning over 150 years of Galveston’s history—Cussler pinpointed the location he believed the Zavala wreckage to sit undisturbed. Bean’s Wharf was long gone, and the location today is a parking lot next to a grain elevator.

Cussler and his team performed studies with a magnetic locator—which indicated large targets in the area. Then he hired a drilling crew to draw core samples from the location. The cores revealed coal (as you’d find in a ship’s boiler) and a big thick patch of wood plated with copper (as was the ship’s hull). He then rented a backhoe and dug carefully on the spot—hitting what he thought to be a ship’s boiler at a depth of about 12 feet.

After all those years, Cussler had truly unearthed a treasure of Texas naval history. Not only was it a really neat thing to do, but it was also a big deal in terms of Texas and American naval history. There were only around a dozen ships in the Texas Navy during its various Republic Era iterations; and here was one that could potentially be excavated.

In the movies, when a find like this occurs, experts swoop in and begin an immediate Indiana Jones style operation. In real life, after a discovery like this, everybody asks: “Who’s going to pay for everything?” So while Cussler had made an amazing discovery, big bucks would be needed to move from discovery to recovery. Cussler’s find went mostly unappreciated by state leaders in Austin.

If you’re a lover of lost treasures, check out accounts of not only the Zavala find but also other real-life shipwreck-finding adventures in The Sea Hunters and Sea Hunters II, both by Clive Cussler and Craig Dirgo. These nonfiction accounts detail Cussler’s hunt for famous shipwrecks worldwide. You can even watch two seasons of the Sea Hunters video series staring Clive Cussler on Amazon Prime (each installment showcases the hunt for a different ship).

The thing about real estate is they’re not making any more of it. In 2015, the Port of Galveston made plans to develop the area, hiring archeologists to review the Zavala find. The Port of Galveston disagreed with the claim that Cussler had found the Zavala and offered the opinion that what he had found was an old railcar or engine. A port spokesperson told the Houston Chronicle in 2015 that the ship could be there, just not “in the area where we are interested in doing our building.”

The port continues its plans to develop the area, but whatever Cussler uncovered remains underground (his team is still confident they found the Zavala on the site). Google Earth shows the area as still a parking lot although I’m not sure if they’ve actually built over it yet or not.

But one thing is certain—Cussler’s discovery of what may be the Republic of Texas’ only recoverable ship not only generated excitement in the Texas and naval history communities, but also helped prove that you don’t need fancy PhDs and big research grants to hunt down some of history’s most intriguing treasures. Sometimes all you need is a little passion for the mysteries of the deep—and a lot of patience.

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“Mystery and Suspense in Poetry” (by Jackie Sherbow)

There isnt an author for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine or Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine who has not corresponded, at some point, with the magazines associate editor, Jackie Sherbow. For the past six years, she has been an integral part of the Dell mystery magazines team, brightening every day for the rest of the staff with her cheerfulness, energy, and capable handling of all that finds its way to her desk. What most of those who know her are probably unaware of, though, is that these are not the only magazines to which Jackie has a connection. In her free time, she volunteers her talents as associate editor for Newtown Literary Journal. EQMM has had many assistant, associate, and managing editors who were also writers (most famously, novelist and magician Clayton Rawson), but we have never before had someone in the position whose primary field is poetry. What makes this even more remarkable is that Jackies current counterpart with the Dell science fiction magazines, Emily Hockaday, is also a published poet, a fact that highlights a kinship between the short story and the poem. Weve explored before on this site the affinity between poetry and mystery, and in this post Jackie illuminates it with compelling examples. Readers whod like to sample Jackies own poetry should go to: Go Places (Issues 5 and 6), Bluestockings Magazine, and The Opiate.—Janet Hutchings

“Thanks for the tree between me and a sniper’s bullet.”

These are the two opening lines of the poem “Thanks” by American poet Yusef Komunyakaa—but I think they’d make an enticing hook for a mystery story. As a poet, a mystery-fiction editor, and a reader of both genres and forms, I’ve often been struck by the relationship between poetry and mystery fiction, particularly when it comes to a poem’s language and structure.

Poetry has an important connection to the American mystery genre—and particularly the short-story side of it, as Edgar Allan Poe is considered by many to have written the first mystery short story. EQMM specifically has a noteworthy history with poetry. Frederic Dannay had a bond with the form, which you can read more about in Janet Hutchings’ post from June 2015. Furthermore, the magazine publishes poetry; many readers will remember the “Detectiverses” and “Criminalimericks” that were at a time found often in EQMM’s pages: short, rhyming verses, usually including a puzzle or a punch-line. And verse by EQMM authors such as William Bankier, John Dobbyn, and Donald Yates has appeared over the years.

Last year, in the March/April 2016 issue, we published a handful of Clerihews by Richard Stout, along with a bit of history by him about “the only poetic form created by a writer of detective fiction.” Along similar lines, in 1955 Frederick Dannay included a prose poem by Norman MacLeod titled “Twelve Knives” accompanied by an explanation by the author analyzing and annotating the poem. Poetry was even included in the Department of First Stories in 1969: “Acrostecs” by Laurel Anne McVicker. In his introduction, editor Dannay said, “Yes, it is stretching the form to call these three sonnets a ‘first story’—but as the first-published work of a new writer they are much too good to be passed by because of a technicality of definition . . .” So it seems that the magazine’s goal of providing a diverse collection of writing in each issue spreads across form. The magazine has a history of providing a dynamic reading experience by giving space to the criticism, history, and analysis of poetry as well as the lines of poetry themselves.

The characters that inhabit mystery stories inhabit poems, too; in poetry contemporary to classical, we find gamblers, drug dealers, money, violence, jilted lovers, and plenty of weaponry. Thematically, the heart of a poem often resides where the heart of a mystery story does. How do we handle tense situations, relationships gone wrong, frustrated hopes, and genuine or perceived injustice? What do we do with strong emotion, external pressures, and struggles with physical and mental health? Mystery writers are testing the boundaries of the self, digging for the darkness and the truth about what resides inside all of us. Poets are excavating the same thing.

But the connection that interests me most is that of the language itself. While many stories include poetic language, plenty of contemporary poetry rings with the tense and the mysterious. Many poems are full of suspense, and poets achieve this in many ways:

Pacing and Repetition

Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” is one of my favorites, largely because of the turn in the final stanza and the slowly paced build to it. The first three stanzas are carefully constructed description and consideration, unfolding as measuredly and quietly as the scene described. The tone in the final stanza is a shift, and the repetition of the final line—and the fact that it’s the first instance of repetition in the poem—gives those lines and the “promises” the poet references a deep sense of gravity. The quiet deepens and, somehow, the dark becomes darker. It’s so simple, but chill inducing.

Anne Carson’s “Thunderstorm Stack” uses short lines and tight sentences pushed through by repetition to create a quick pace in another evocation of a dark and stormy night. Her piece opens:

A bird flashed by as if mistaken then it
starts. . . .

Meter and Rhythm

Meter specifically is something that most fiction writers aren’t privy to in their prose toolbox (although I’m sure there’s someone out there who can prove that wrong). Some meters, the ones beginning with trochaic feet, are designed to start with a stressed syllable—a punch. Since most traditional English verse is iambic (and begins with an unstressed syllable), it can throw the reader off kilter from the outset, a goal achieved by many mystery writers too. Shakespeare utilized this: In Macbeth, the witches speak in an altered form of trochaic tetrameter, and in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the fairies. Poe, too, often started lines with trochees.

And what can be more jarring than interrupted meter? In “In a Station of the Metro,” a short poem by Ezra Pound, the title and first line establish an imprecise, rhythmic meter that carries onto the third line, just for the final three words to branch from it in three subsequent stresses. To me, it has a nice disruptive effect.

In a Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Line Breaks and Page Structure

Another power that prose doesn’t exactly share is the line break—something that can work as a built-in cliffhanger. The end of a line or stanza and a phrase’s enjambment onto the next creates an immediate moment of tension, often emphasizing the relationship between the connecting words, or giving multiple meanings to them. Kimiko Hahn’s poem “Alarm” is a good example of this. In the first stanza, “vanity” takes on several meanings:

In her dark she surveys empty: the vanity
from the in-law’s Bronx apartment,

And between the third and fourth stanza, a break creates suspense after the world “alarm”:

the husband’s profile, an alarm

for news and forecast. . . .

Poets can also play with how and where words appear on their pages. The end of Victor Hernández Cruz’s poem “Latin & Soul” reads:

 

screen-shot-2017-02-01-at-9-44-45-am

It’s interesting to think about how a short-story writer would describe a similar scene, and create similar geography, tension, and emotion through entirely different techniques.

I’ll leave you with the final stanza of Emily Dickinson’s “Love, Part 4: Suspense”, which reads:

What fortitude the soul contains,
That it can so endure
The accent of a coming foot,
The opening of a door!

Once you’re looking for them, the connections don’t stop. Poet Stephen Dobyns has a poem dedicated to Stephen King (see “Lullaby”). “Feeling frightened? / Are you scared?” he asks. Nabokov’s 1962 novel Pale Fire is a mysterious, haunting approach to both poetry and fiction.

What are your favorites? I’d love to hear.

Many writers are quick to point out there’s “no market” for short stories or for poetry—and many readers are quick to casually stuff mystery writers and poets in their own boxes (artistically, socially, historically, and otherwise). It is hard to ignore the shuttering of small-fiction presses and literary journals, and the proliferation of nonpaying markets for poetry. I’m optimistic enough to think, though, that neither form is in danger—as I’m lucky enough to be connected to both communities, and fond enough of both to seek them out whenever I can. Whether I’m reading poetry or mystery fiction, I’m always searching for the tension between the light of day and whatever element is lurking below the surface.

Posted in Editing, Ellery Queen, Genre, Magazine, Noir, Readers, Writers, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“I Know Words, the Best Words” (by Harley Mazuk)

Harley Mazuk has contributed four stories in the classical private-eye tradition to EQMM, beginning with his very first professional fiction publication, which appeared in the January 2011 issue of EQMM. Three of the stories, including the first, belong to a series starring P.I. Frank Swiver. Now, the Ohio-born author has completed his first novel, also featuring Swiver. Entitled White with Fish, Red with Murder, it will be released on February 28 by Driven Press, a new imprint based in Brisbane, Australia. In this post, Harley reflects further on a topic we reintroduced on this site a couple of weeks ago.—Janet Hutchings

Janet Hutchings’s post, “What’s in a Word” from January 11, set my thoughts wandering through the vocabulary that mystery writers use.

I’ve been taking classes through a program for retired folks at Johns Hopkins called Osher. I call it “College for Old Farts.” I mean no disrespect there; we are just old. There are more walkers than backpacks. They interrupted one class to bring in a birthday cake for Julius, a fellow student. Julius was 100 that day, and the candles set off the sprinkler system before he blew them out.

Last semester I took “International Detective Fiction.” We started out with Georges Simenon’s Inspector Cadaver. How many of you have read Simenon? Any Maigret fans? Let’s see your hands. Ah, good. Most of you are familiar with the prolific French author. How many of you have read Simenon’s Dirty Snow? Fewer hands now, I see. No matter.

According to Paul Bailey, who wrote the introduction to the 2003 Penguin edition of Inspector Cadaver, “Simenon limited himself to a vocabulary of 2,000 words, acting on the advice of Colette, who warned him against writing ‘beautiful sentences’.” Scholars with digital texts and the right software tell us now Simenon probably never wrote a book with as few as 2,000 words; the Maigret novels fall between 3,000 and 4,000. Patrick Marnham, in The Man Who Wasn’t Maigret, writes Simenon “had employed a vocabulary of 2,000 words, while admitting that he knew more for his personal use.”

I’ve been taking Shakespeare classes too. He may not have written detective stories, but he was a noir fellow (in tights). Some scholars believe William Shakespeare had a remarkably large vocabulary. I found two sites that agree that he used 31,534 different words in his collected works, and estimate “there were approximately 35,000 words that he knew but didn’t use.”

That’s like me. I know many words, some that play every day, and others that ride the bench. You can try an online test at http://testyourvocab.com/ to get an idea of the size of your vocabulary.

My vocabulary, since I started writing private-eye fiction, has leaned heavily on “Twists, Slugs, and Roscoes” compiled by William Denton. This slang glossary defines terms used by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, with a little David Goodis and James M. Cain thrown in for good measure. While I trust the authenticity of Hammett’s slang, Chandler’s is a bit suspect. He wrote in a letter in 1949 there were “only two kinds [of slang] that are any good: slang that has established itself in the language and slang that you make up yourself.” Thus, if the word didn’t exist in American slang usage, he coined it, like “loogan,” which Marlowe defined as “a guy with a gun.”

Of course, because I set my stories in the mid-twentieth century, any increases to my vocabulary from the ’40s and ’50s are matched by the subtractions of words that did not exist then, such as bromance, cyberstalking, staycation, or . . . blog.

The last book we read in International Detective Fiction was Michael Dibdin’s Dead Lagoon, in the Aurelio Zen series. I have been trying to read mysteries carefully now that I play at writing them and I sat there with highlighter in hand, determined to keep straight in my mind clues, little details, and the Chandleresque plot. But I soon found myself highlighting words—wonderful unfamiliar words that Dibdin dropped into the Venetian canal of his narrative: caul, thole, plashing, wherry, niffy. I wondered if Shakespeare used those words. Some of them sound right out of Macbeth.

I tried a fancy word in my first novel, White with Fish, Red with Murder. My femme fatale Cicilia Ricci has green eyes that are irresistible to private eye Frank Swiver. I called them “smaragdine” eyes. I cannot recall where I first encountered smaragdine, an adjective form of the noun “smaragd,” a middle English word from the Latin “smaragdus”, from the Greek “smaragdos,” meaning emerald. But “emerald eyes” sounded a bit tired to me, and Cici’s were not tired eyes. They have considerable power over a down-at-the-heels private dick. I needed something a little more potent, so:

A short black dress, low cut, raven-dark hair, smaragdine eyes that almost glowed, over robust cheekbones—it was Cicilia Ricci, girl of my dreams.

This sailed along fine until my “substantive edit,” this summer, in which my editor wrote: “Many readers will not know what ‘smaragdine’ is, so best to use something that people will understand. Also it’s not a nice sounding word.”

I wondered if Dibdin worried that I might not know a thole if it bit me on the butt, or that caul is not a nice-sounding word. But I appreciated the editor’s efforts, and Cici now has emerald eyes.

This brings my meandering thoughts full circle to Janet Hutchings’s post, in which she writes, “ . . . over the past fifty years most Americans have become more sensitive about the use of words that could insult or offend.” During the last ten years of my illustrious government career I was a writer, a content provider for our web sites, and along the way, an editor. People who reviewed my work often called me to their management cubicles, in the early stages of some paroxysm or another, to say, “You can’t write that! Someone will be offended.”

Ah, but having left the yoke of the Treasury Department, I felt liberated, like Hawthorne, perhaps, stepping out of the Salem Custom House to write The Scarlet Letter. I no longer worried about offending words. I would write in a vernacular that would be true to my characters and their times.

My first appearance in EQMM was my first published story. I called it, “The Tall Blonde with the Hot Boiler,” (a title I cobbled together from “Twists, Slugs, and Roscoes.”) No edits arrived by return e-mail, so when the publication arrived I was curious to see to what extent my work had been altered. I found only one word changed. My P.I./narrator goes to pick up his car.

“A black man named George was the porter in the garage,”

the story in EQMM, (Jan. 2011) reads. But I remembered my manuscript clearly:

“A colored man named George was the porter in the garage.”

“Colored man” seemed to me to be an acceptable way of referring to a black man with no ill will in 1948 when the story took place. I, as writer, hadn’t intended to insult—neither had my character, as narrator, intended to. But I have seen how language can have unintended hurtful results, and I for one am happy to accept edits rather than hurt or offend anyone. As Ms. Hutchings wrote, “Words matter.”

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“Collaborative Sleuthing: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Stu Palmer’s and Craig Rice’s Withers/Malone Team-Ups in EQMM” (by Arthur Vidro)

Many EQMM readers will know Arthur Vidro as the contributor of two online stories: “The Ransom of EQMM #1” and “The Mistake on the Cover of EQMM #1.” The latter formed the basis for our 75th Anniversary Contest of 2016. Both stories, incidentally, are still available. The author is also a freelance fiction editor, who specializes in mysteries, and an expert on all things related to classical detective fiction (especially the works of Ellery Queen).  He publishes a thrice-yearly print journal devoted to the traditional mystery called (Give Me That) Old-Time Detection.  Some of the material that follows was first published there.Janet Hutchings  

Authors teaming up in the mystery world are few and far between. Sure, the Ellery Queen cousins (Fred Dannay and Manny Lee) teamed up in writing mysteries featuring sleuth Ellery, their joint creation. Likewise for Emma Lathen (Mary Latsis and Martha Henissart) and the sleuth they created, John Putnam Thatcher. Married couple Frances and Richard Lockridge teamed up to give us their married-couple sleuthing team of Mr. and Mrs. North.

Perhaps the collaborative duo with the most sleuths jointly created were Richard Levinson and William Link, who teamed up to create Columbo (now of Peter Falk fame) when they penned the stage play Prescription: Murder. They would go on to create other sleuths too, including Jessica Fletcher of Murder, She Wrote.

Far more rare, though, is when two writers with individual success and individual sleuths collaborate, allowing their sleuths to work together. The best example that comes to mind is Bill Pronzini and his Nameless Detective teaming up with Marcia Muller and her sleuth Sharon McCone. In their case, the teaming-up was logistically made easier by the authors being husband and wife.

Now imagine two successful mystery writers teaming up, each bringing their own sleuth to the table, in the days before the Internet, in the days when long-distance telephone calls were too expensive to allow for lengthy chats—and when one of them often had no phone at all. That was the situation when Stuart Palmer (and his sleuth Hildegarde Withers) teamed up with Craig Rice (and her sleuth John J. Malone).

In the words of mystery scholar Art Scott, “Withers and Malone proved a natural yin-yang pairing—boozy, skirt-chasing lawyer versus prim spinster—and the tales are great fun.”

The six Withers/Malone tales would be published as People vs. Withers & Malone (1963, Simon and Schuster); Ellery Queen wrote the book’s introduction, which stated:

“Once Upon a Train” was the first story in which the ever-battling Miss Withers and the ever-bibulous Mr. Malone appeared as a ’tec team, and also the first story, to the best of our recollection, in which two well-known mystery writers combined their chief characters—in this case, a dipsodetective and a spinstersleuth. . . . the great John J. Malone, a rowdy, raffish legal beagle with an irrepressible fondness for wine, women, and song, wiggles and wriggles himself into a seemingly impossible predicament, whereupon the prim and prudish super-duper snooper Hildegarde Withers extricates the perennially hungover John J.—with the extricating process always rife with risk and full o’ fun.

All six of the Withers/Malone stories were published originally in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. They were:

  1. “Once Upon a Train” (EQMM, October 1950)
  2. “Cherchez La Frame” (EQMM, June 1951)
  3. “Autopsy and Eva” (EQMM, August 1954)
  4. “Rift in the Loot” (EQMM, April 1955)
  5. “Withers and Malone, Brain-Stormers (EQMM, February 1959)
  6. “Withers and Malone, Crime-Busters” (EQMM, November 1963)

In the 1963 collection, the “Crime-Busters” tale would appear as “People vs. Withers & Malone,” the title it had when originally submitted to EQMM by Stu Palmer. The first two pair-ups were “by Craig Rice and Stuart Palmer.” But for the final four, the order of the authors in the byline was changed to “by Stuart Palmer and Craig Rice.” Read on and you’ll figure out why.

Whose idea was it to pair Withers and Malone? We don’t know. In the preface to People Vs. Withers & Malone, Stuart Palmer wrote that Rice believed it was Palmer’s idea, that editor Queen believed it was Rice’s idea, and that Palmer himself believed it was Queen’s idea.

He also wrote that Rice had written to him, in a letter he still possessed: “You know, Stu, if you weren’t so tall and if you had a law degree, you’d be Malone. You wear expensive suits and dribble cigar ashes over the lapels, you follow the races and sit up all night playing poker, your secretaries all adore you, you have Malone’s taste in women, and usually his bad luck with them, and when you get high you always try to form a barbershop quartet!”

Throughout the writing of the six stories, Stuart Palmer lived in Southern California. Craig Rice lived in Southern California some of the time, in New York some of the time, and had brief stints in Mexico and New Mexico.

The First Story

The first Withers/Malone story, “Once Upon a Train,” debuted in the October 1950 EQMM, which included Queen’s introduction stating: “For the first time in homicidal history two well-known mystery authors have combined their chief characters in a single story. . . . the bibulous John J. Malone meets the babbling Hildegarde Withers.”

The two characters meet while sitting across from each other on a train. Malone’s thoughts at the time:

Her face seemed faintly familiar, and Malone wondered if they’d met before. Then he decided that she reminded him of a three-year-old who had winked at him in the paddock at Washington Park one Saturday and then run out of the money.

The tale was one of seven Second Prize winners in EQMM’s Fifth Annual Detective Short Story contest. (“The Gentleman From Paris” by John Dickson Carr took top honors that year.) The deadline for submissions to that contest was October 20, 1949.

A little insight into the collaborative process is gleaned from this letter, dated October 9, 1949, from Palmer to Fred Dannay:

From Craig a special delivery package yesterday morning at the crack of dawn, containing a lot of contributions to our joint effort. After running it through the typewriter and following most of her cuts and putting in her dialogue, I honestly feel that “You May Have the Body” represents a true collaboration, in spite of the difficulties.

Hope you like it. Of course we’ll make any changes you suggest, as we both have the highest regard for your editorial ability and your perspective. All in all, this has been a lot of fun for us and Craig wants to try it again.

She has been kind enough to let me be the one to make final decisions. As I said before, if you don’t like the thing, blame me and if you do [like it] we’ll both take bows.

This story would be published as “Once Upon A Train.” So the authors met the contest deadline with about ten days to spare. I wonder if it’s significant that Palmer relays Rice’s eagerness to collaborate again but refrains from saying the same about himself.

Dannay liked the story enough to buy it and re-title it, writing “$350” on Palmer’s letter, which obviously accompanied the manuscript.

So this first pairing was a true collaboration. But a month later Rice would be hospitalized and her contributions would become much slighter.

The Second Story

Dannay probably responded with his own eagerness to see additional Malone/Withers pairings. But then Palmer, in a letter to Dannay dated November 14, 1949, flatly states that Rice “is in no shape to do any collaboration at the moment.”

That was a gentlemanly and polite understatement.

Palmer would get a bit more specific about Rice in a letter to Dannay dated April 10, 1950:

Bluntly, she [Rice] is now trying to break the dope habit which she picked up at Camarillo.

Palmer’s assessment of Rice’s condition is corroborated in Who Was That Lady? Craig Rice: The Queen of Screwball Mystery by Jeffrey Marks (2001, Delphi). This is as close as we’ll probably ever get to a biography of Rice, who did not leave much of a paper trail behind her and whose statements were often far from the truth. The book, alas, does not mention any of Palmer’s letters to Dannay.

Marks tells us, “In November 1949, Rice was committed to Camarillo State Hospital for chronic alcoholism. Rice wouldn’t go willingly. She had to be forced into a detox program there. Nancy Atwill [a daughter of Rice] had to petition the court to admit her mother for an indefinite period of time.”

In an undated letter, circa 1950, Palmer wrote to Dannay:

. . . spent three hours with Craig, and wrote you a long letter about it last night which I have torn up. I am much distressed, as the situation is very much worse than you or I or anyone imagined. We discussed “The Tie that Binds” and at Craig’s request I am going to complete it along the lines we worked out, as best I can. Then it’s up to you. She needs the money and more than that needs the buildup to her self-esteem of having a story bought and printed.

What an odd and dismaying world it is, sometimes.

I would wager “The Tie that Binds” saw light of print as “Cherchez La Frame,” which uses Malone’s necktie, lethally bound, as a murder weapon. The undated letter was probably from 1950. Early in 1949, Rice began a two-and-a-half-year drought in which her only new fiction that I can verify as having been published were the first two Withers/Malone team-ups, “Once Upon a Train” and “Cherchez La Frame.”

Rice’s life quickly deteriorated into something resembling a badly written soap opera. From a Stu Palmer letter to Dannay, dated 10 April 1950, while “Cherchez La Frame” was being written:

Craig expects to fly to Chihuahua whenever and if ever we get our MGM dough. Bishop expects to go along and marry her after she gets a quickie divorce from the current husband, but Craig plans or says she plans to ease him out of the picture.

As you know, I had not seen her in six years or more, and the change is devastating—though she has her hair a nice soft brown color instead of its original gray or the recent jet black. She is very thin, and that afternoon was so shaky she could not sign her name.

Within a year Rice would marry Paul Bishop.

By now Palmer knows enough to qualify Rice’s stated plans as just that—statements. He no longer assumes she will do what she says she will do.

The money from MGM was for Mrs. O’Malley and Mr. Malone, a 1950 film with James Whitmore as Malone and Marjorie Main as O’Malley (a renamed Hildegarde Withers). The flick was loosely based on “Once Upon A Train.” MGM had bought rights to adapt the story however they saw fit.

Another undated letter, circa 1950, from Palmer to Dannay, discussing “The Tie that Binds”:

Wrote Craig and asked her if she felt up to reading it and adding dialogue or anything, but haven’t heard from her and imagine she is off to Chihuahua with or without Mr. Bishop, who has a police record as long as your arm—and my arm too. Maybe someday the old girl will get back in the groove again but it won’t be in the immediate future, I’m afraid.

According to Marks: Paul Bishop met Rice in 1950 when both were patients at the same mental institution; they eloped to Chihuahua, Mexico, and married in 1950 or 1951; they parted ways, without divorcing, in 1951; Bishop was Rice’s fourth husband though Rice considered him her fifth.

In any case, “Cherchez La Frame” was sold to EQMM.

The Third Story

The time came to start work on a third Withers/Malone team-up. Palmer wrote to Dannay in a letter dated 15 November 1950:

Craig has a beginning, all by herself, which she is going to type up when she gets her typewriter out of hock. I take it from there.

CR is in a bad way. Her husband, who recently dislocated her hip and shoulder, is back with her and made her apply for dismissal of the legal incompetence order, just in time to delay the sale to Metro a few weeks. Otherwise he would not have, under California law, had his legal half of her share.

Yes, husband Bishop injured Rice, not himself. “Metro” is the first “M” in MGM, which purchased an option on “Cherchez La Frame” but never filmed it.

Don’t know if or when Rice recovered her typewriter, but nothing ever became of the story beginning that she claimed to have for Palmer.

Palmer’s comment about Rice’s typewriter being in hock was no exaggeration. Referring to 1951, Marks states: “By this time, Rice’s writing was virtually non-existent. Her frequent moves and itinerant lifestyle didn’t even allow her to carry a typewriter with her. When she did manage to have a typewriter, she frequently pawned it to buy booze or to pay her way out of a jam.”

In a letter dated March 16th of an unspecified year, Palmer wrote to Dannay:

Was up in LA for the meeting of MWA [Mystery Writers of America] and thought I might see Craig there, but she didn’t show. And neither her lawyer nor agent knew where she was. I got home and found a card from her saying that she was living in a shack on the beach—no address—but could receive mail general delivery Santa Monica.

Can you imagine trying to collaborate on a mystery story with someone who lacks a telephone and even a specific address?

An undated letter—which I estimate to be from early 1953—by Palmer to Dannay tells us:

What of Craig? I promised to send her a copy of any story with Malone in it, but she seems to have dropped out of sight. Last I heard she was engaged to a millionaire from Lichtenstein and needed a quick fifty which I didn’t have.

The “millionaire” is a reference to Henri Maliverni, who Marks tells us was an unemployed writer that Rice would introduce as a wealthy man from Lichtenstein (sometimes Luxembourg or Lithuania). Rice never did wed Maliverni but did pass him off as her husband.

Palmer realized that if another Withers/Malone story would be written, he’d have to start—and probably complete—the work by himself. So Palmer soldiered on without her. Palmer wrote to Dannay this note dated 2 March 1953:

I hear nothing from Craig, and that little bad. I guess I’ll really have to do the Malone-Withers story alone, and with it forward the release from Craig or else a photostat.

Without the need to work with Rice, Palmer wrote the story and submitted it two months later to EQMM, which purchased it for $400. For this and all the remaining Malone/Withers stories the byline was flipped so that Palmer’s name came first. The third team-up (“Autopsy and Eva”) was published in 1954.

Overlooked Evidence

Palmer clearly contributed the lion’s share to these collaborations. At any rate, that’s what various commentators have speculated. But there was never any tangible evidence. Until now.

Palmer wrote Dannay a letter dated May 10, 1953. Perhaps it accompanied the manuscript of “Autopsy and Eva.” Dannay—as was often his habit—scribbled some marginal notes on the letter. One note was a reminder to send payment of $400 to purchase a story (unspecified but obviously “Autopsy and Eva”), with $300 going to Palmer and $100 earmarked for Rice—so Palmer and Rice did not receive equal pay for this story. Conclusion? Theirs was not an equal partnership.

Even more telling is another jotting by Dannay on that letter, reminding himself not to send the money to Rice; instead the $100 should be deducted “from money owing.”

This shows that Rice borrowed from Dannay (or, less likely scenario, from EQMM) and hadn’t made repayment.

This propensity by Rice to borrow is corroborated in a Palmer letter to Dannay dated May 30, 1953:

Craig is back in town with a new husband and a burning desire for a quick hundred, but since she’s never repaid anything I’ve lent her I did a quick brush off. She never gets a husband with a dime in his pocket. She says she has been writing, which I doubt and hope.

The being “back in town” refers to Rice’s return to Southern California—where Palmer lived—after spending a little over a year in New York City.

The requests for money become persistent enough that, according to a Palmer letter to Dannay dated June 26, 1953: “I have trained Winifred to say I am out of town whenever she [Rice] calls.” Winifred was Palmer’s wife from 1952 to 1963.

Story #4

Malone/Withers #4, “Rift in the Loot,” was published in the April 1955 EQMM. On the Palmer letter that presumably accompanied the manuscript and which discussed the story, Dannay penciled a note of “$400” to authorize payment and added to it “$300 – SP” and “$100 – CR.” This maintained the payment breakdown that was put in place for “Autopsy and Eva,” for which Rice had made little if any contribution. Probably the same holds true for “Rift in the Loot.” There was no notation this time to apply Rice’s payment toward debt.

However, Dannay did make an “in contest” notation, to enter the tale in the magazine’s annual competition. “Rift in the Loot” would not be one of the eleven winning stories (top honors and $1,500 in prize money went to Stanley Ellin for “The Moment of Decision”) but was among the twenty-three stories named in the runners-up “Honor Roll.”

Stories 5 and 6

EQMM published the final two Withers/Malone tales in its February 1959 and November 1963 issues. Since Rice had died in 1957 (at age 49), experts have long assumed that Palmer wrote the final two tales all by himself.

As often happens, the experts were wrong.

The following excerpt is from a letter to Dannay that Palmer dated 21 January 1961:

At long last I am sending you “People vs. Malone and Withers” [which EQMM published as “Withers and Malone, Crime-Busters”], a screwball novelette which completes the Withers-Malone partnership. It will come to you through [literary agent Scott] Meredith, because he likes it that way.

This is actually a story in which Craig did some work—she did two pages of the hospital sequence. So you can honestly say it’s a collaboration.

The End

Stuart Palmer Letters Copyright (c) 2017 by Jennifer Venola.

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