“Damaged Goods, Great Detective” (by Louisa Luna)

A San Francisco native who now lives in Brooklyn, Louisa Luna is the author of four novels. The most recent, Two Girls Down (Doubleday), was released to rave reviews in January of this year.  In this post the author discusses a type of heroine we commonly see in current crime fiction—a type of figure that it seems to me we find in her first story for EQMM, which appears in our July/August issue (on sale now).—Janet Hutchings

My mother-in-law, who reads far more thrillers than I, frequently tells me that she can’t stand a flawed female lead. “I hate it when they can’t get their shit together,” she says. And I always say something like, “But that’s what makes them real!” The last one we spoke about was The Girl on The Train, which drove her right up the wall. “Ugh, she was such a mess,” she said, referring to Rachel. Indeed she was, but, I argued, a mess in whose reflection a reader could see herself. A bad-decision-making, hard-drinking, drunk-dialing mess who triumphs in the end and solves the mystery. “I guess,” my mother-in law conceded, remaining unmoved.

Granted, she and I ultimately read for different reasons: she (as she freely admits), to be entertained, and I, to feel stuff. But there is a level on which I agree with her: Need the women of my favorite thrillers and suspense novels be so damaged, have had such terrible childhoods and lug around one or more weighty secrets? Was there an unacknowledged checklist for authors when creating their women detectives? As the author of a thriller with an imperfect but Wüsthof-sharp female PI, I decided to take a look at two of my favorites and see if I could find a through-line.

Flea Marley appears alongside Jack Caffery in five books of Mo Hayder’s series. The first time we meet her, in Ritual, she’s under water. Now I don’t have an MFA or anything but that sounds like a metaphor to me. As it turns out, she is a Sergeant for Bristol’s Underwater Search Unit, and in those opening pages she finds a severed hand which revs the engine of Hayder’s main plot. She also begins speaking to her dead mother, cries, and then stops “until the tears had gone somewhere safe, and she knew she wouldn’t . . . make a fool of herself when she surfaced.” Hayder, pro that she is, hooks us with her b-plot, Flea’s story, in a one-two punch, fourth page.

Flea’s background slowly emerges. We learn she comes from a family of divers, that her parents drowned not long before in a diving accident in which her brother was the sole survivor and then a little later, she confesses to purposely grinding her feet in broken glass to get out of joining the dive because she was afraid to do it. After her parents don’t make it back, their bodies never recovered, Flea, needless to say, feels just a smidge guilty.

Regret and guilt taint every cut of her life going forward, manifesting most notably in her ongoing flirtation with death. As she admits to Caffery, “The only way you could make amends would be to die yourself—to die more horribly and in more pain and fear . . . you would die their death a million times over rather than feel one more second of that guilt.” So there it is, the full bulk of what Flea feels every day. And on top of it she worries compulsively about her fragile troubled brother, and later she also dabbles in ibogaine, a potent, naturally occurring psychedelic drug so she can communicate with the ghosts of her parents. You know, regular girl stuff.

But she is a knock-out at work. She’s so good, in fact, that even in the midst of all her personal shit, she can’t turn her brain off from analyzing the case, even when she’s not supposed to. Her job is just to dig out the body parts, even though she claims “one thing she never did was think about the cases. No curiosity, no theorizing. It was a rule she had,” she swiftly breaks her own rule and provides clues which lead her and Caffery to solve the crime.

As she and Caffery close in on their man, it is precisely Flea’s guilt which propels her forward. Faced with the option of following Caffery into an ominous corridor carved into the walls of an apartment building or waiting for back-up, Flea remembers her brother and parents and knows what she has to do: “. . . she pictured Bushman’s Hole, remembered letting Thom go down. She thought about the dark water . . . and a sensation like air rushed through her, like something rising up from inside her and cracking. She . . . caught up with Caffery in the corridor.” The sensation, that thing that is cracking, is the physical manifestation of her regret. She won’t let herself be in the position to regret acting this time.

Tana French’s books are mosaics of fantastic characters and Russian-nesting-doll plots. The most recent, The Trespasser, is no exception and the protagonist is a piece of work, a female detective carrying multiple chips on her shoulder, Antoinette Conway. The trespasser of the title is ostensibly the murderer of the young single woman in the case Antoinette is investigating, but it’s also her, herself, the sole woman in the Murder Squad, and a woman of color to boot. Antoinette first faces hazing from her male colleagues which quickly leads to consistent harassment, sustaining lesson after lesson that her kind isn’t welcome. But Antoinette toughs it out and learns to survive: “If I learned one thing in school it’s this: you never let them get you on the bottom of the pile. If you do, you might never get up again.”

As we read, we learn that Antoinette’s father abandoned her and her mother when Antoinette was a child, though at this point, Antoinette doesn’t seem to give too much of a shit about it. The event appears to have been smelted into the armor she wears on a daily basis, as her anger simmers just beneath the surface at all times, for example when she considers sticking it to the brass: “For a second I can feel it right through my body: the weight of the room lifting off me, the rush of strength hitting every cell like oxygen: Let’s see you try and push me around now motherfuckers.”

As she attempts to solve her case, she clashes with her partner, Steve, a genuinely nice guy and one of the only people she trusts. He lays out how her take-no-prisoners attitude could backfire: “You’re so set on going down in flames, you’d make it happen even if the entire force loved you to bits. You’ll light your own bloody self on fire if you have to.” Perhaps, as Steve suggests, being a super-ballbuster isn’t the most productive way to do police work, or operate in the world. Such an M.O. might lend itself to self-sabotage.

Warning: Spoilers follow, but you should probably just keep reading.

Antoinette finally meets her father after she discovers him spying on her (another trespasser!), and he offers to tell her everything she wants to know – about him, why he left, her history. She considers it but then thinks again: “If I let him give me the answers, he’ll own me. Everything in my life, past and future, will be his: what he decides to make it into.” She decides it’s ultimately better not to know anything about that side of her. She gives into her anger and kicks him out, refusing to let him define her.

And it’s the same thing that leads her to find and accuse the murderer, a senior detective in her squad. She catches a glimpse of her life at work easing up if she plays ball: “If I keep my mouth shut, then they’ve put their hands on me and knotted me into someone else, living a whole different life . . . [they] will be running me and my every day after all . . . I owe this case.”

She owes the case and she owns the case, her contrariness, her stubbornness, her bottomless anger driving her to fight. She’s just as angry at the conclusion as she was at the beginning, but now it has a purpose, it is the means by which she will uncover the truth.

Both Flea and Antoinette keep their baggage; they use it a bit differently, but it drives both of them in their work.

We would perhaps not want our female detectives to be so damaged. We would perhaps want them to be, or at least appear, stronger. Especially at this moment when men just seem to be taking their penises out all over the place, we like to fantasize about how our difficult women would handle such a situation (preferably with tasers or say, a bench vise). But it’s these same wounds which make them strong, and I don’t mean in a “Whatever doesn’t kill you” way; I mean that the damage itself is the strength. The brains and the pain, the hysteria and the hunches, the instinct and the rage—both things together, neither one causal, both side by side, resulting in stories and characters that simultaneously entertain a couple of broads like my mother-in-law and I, and make us feel stuff, too.

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“A Talent for Historical Accuracy” (by Thomas K. Carpenter)

Thomas K. Carpenter’s first paid print publication was in EQMM’s Department of First Stories in February of 2015. The story featured an ancient Roman sleuth,  Magistrate Ovid, working in Alexandria. The Magistrate Ovid series now includes a story for AHMM, as well as several novels. Its latest entry appears in EQMM’s July/August issue, on sale next week. In this post, the author, who works in a variety of genres, discusses some of the challenges of historical fiction—a form that EQMM’s founder, Frederic Dannay, once called the most difficult of all for a writer.—Janet Hutchings

Historical fiction can be tricky business, especially when it involves a mystery. The tiniest incorrect detail can undermine the plot, derailing the story off a literary cliff. These pitfalls are even harder to find when the history in question is a few thousand year ago.

Before I delve into my foibles, let me give you some background. The July/August 2018 issue of EQMM will contain the newest Magistrate Ovid story, “The Lightness of Man.” This story and the others published in EQMM and AHMM are about a Roman magistrate in ancient Alexandria. Ovid, after surviving his time as an officer in the Roman Legion, is given charge of the Rhakotis district, the poorest district of the city, a place with no political sway, which leaves him at the mercy of his Machiavellian superior—a man who has no love for him from their time in the Legion.

The location of the stories, ancient Alexandria, provide a wealth of interesting backdrops with the Great Library, the Lighthouse at Pharos, or the Tomb of Alexander, and famous personages in Euclid, Heron, Caesar, Cleopatra, or Hypathia. It’s a region with a clash of cultures between Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, and dozens of other peoples others drawn by the city’s significance.

Yet for all these happenings there is still so much we don’t understand about the time. When exactly did the fire in the Great Library happen, or was it more than one event? Was Alexander’s body stolen from his tomb, and by whom? What did the interior of the Lighthouse look like?

Then there are the minor things, the bits of culture accruement, the detritus of daily life, that escape the historical writer, not due to a lack of research but to a lack of translation in understanding. In one of the early stories involving Magistrate Ovid, a story that never saw the light of day due to one of these mistakes, the crux of the mystery depended on a unit of coinage—the talent.

All forms of currency are essentially a unit of economic measure. In our modern times, we have the dollar, or peso, or for the technological risk-takers: the bitcoin. As I constructed the mystery, I imagined the talent as a gold coin like any other—after all, it was the unit of currency that described the early constructions of Alexandria. The Lighthouse of Alexandria cost 800 talents (which is about $3,000,000 in our time) to build.

What I failed to understand was that a talent was not a single coin. It was, in fact, the amount of gold coins that could be contained within a clay jar. Rather than a piece of currency that could be hidden in a pouch, or in the folds of a stola, the talent required two hands to carry, and let’s not even consider if multiple talents were integral to the plot (hint: they were).

Thus the carefully constructed mystery fell apart. Much as a clay jar full of gold coins would if you dropped it.

Thankfully, good readers, I did not encounter any such troubles in the latest Magistrate Ovid story, “The Lightness of Man.” While the details about the interior of the Lighthouse at Pharos were difficult to find, there were enough writings that an adequately representative picture could be surmised, and nothing that I uncovered that would derail the plot. Anyway, people tend to drive the conflicts contained within a story, and while the clothes and coinage has changed over the last two thousand years, ambition and greed have not. So please, pick up a copy of the July/August 2018 issue of EQMM (or better yet, a subscription!), and enjoy another thrilling and insightful adventure with Magistrate Ovid.

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“I’m a Hardy Boy” (by Timothy O’Leary)

Timothy O’Leary is the author of the 2017 short-story collection Dick Cheney Shot Me in the Face: And Other Tales of Men in Pain and the nonfiction book Warriors, Workers, Whiners, and Weasels (based on his business career). His stories and essays have appeared in many periodicals. He has been a finalist for the Mark Twain Award for Humor Writing, won the 2015 Aestas Award, and is a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee.  His story “Made Men,” his first for EQMM, is coming up in our July/August issue, on sale June 19. It was childhood reading that set this author on the road to his literary career, and in this post he talks about a series of books that surely played a role in the making of many a contemporary mystery writer.—Janet Hutchings

I began my literary adventure as a Hardy Boy. My parents weren’t big readers, but believed their children should be, and sought out the easiest point of entry into world of books. My mother—probably responding to an ad in Ladies Home Journal—signed me up for a “Hardy Boys Book of the Month Club.”

It was thrilling to receive that package every few weeks. In the late 1960s, Hardy Boys books were hardback, and always featured Frank and Joe on the cover: teenage voyeurs, often crouching behind a tree, at the mouth of a cave, or outside a window. Often the boys wore identical crewneck sweaters, one in red and one in blue. On one of my favorite covers, The Secret of Skull Mountain, the boys are joined by a third character in a white sweater, delivering the full red/white/blue Americana—except for the fact that Frank (or perhaps Joe—I could never tell them apart), is holding a skull. With their Aryan features, clear skin, and all-American haircuts, they could have been young singers on one of the most popular and mind-numbing television programs of the 1960’s, The Lawrence Welk Show.

The spine and detailing of the books were a distinctive robin’s egg blue. To this day, when a Hardy fan spies my old collection on a shelf from twenty feet away, they will first notice that color. “Are those . . . ?” they gravitate towards the blue, then pick one up to discover the boys and exclaim, “It is. I love The Hardy Boys.”

In fact, The Hardy Boys were my gateway not only into the world of mysteries, but also into a lifelong obsession with literature and writing. I’m convinced that if you want to inspire a young person to read (and perhaps write), you need to entice them with “sticky literature”; books that excite and continue to draw you back. Reading needs to become habit, and it takes practice. There is no genre that accomplishes that better than a good mystery series. If I hadn’t started reading The Hardy Boys at age seven or eight, I might not have started reading Hemingway, Hunter Thompson, and Toni Morrison a decade later.

As I grew a too old for the brothers, I gravitated to Alfred Hitchcock’s and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and Robert Louis Stevenson, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, and all the other building blocks of the format—delivered courtesy of the great innovation of my generation, the Bookmobile.

By the time I reached high school, a young new writer named Stephen King became an obsession, and I’d graduated to literary characters that possessed the suave intelligence, sensuality, and confidence with violence that every teenage boy craved, spending many late nights with James Bond, and the wonderful characters created by Trevanian, Jack Higgens, and Frederick Forsyth. I was particularly enthralled with funny, well-turned dialogue, with Elmore Leonard topping the list. And The Hardy Boys remained a pillar in the mystery world, as the series endeavored to stay relevant for over eighty years.

The boys were birthed by Edward Stratemeyer in 1927. Stratemeyer, one of the most prolific authors and publishers in history, released over 1,300 books that sold in excess of 500 million copies, while creating many best-selling characters aimed at the juvenile demographic, including Tom Swift, Nancy Drew, and The Bobbsey Twins.

Multiple authors created the series under the pseudonym Franklin W. Dixon, writing to a strict outline provided by the publisher. In 1959—in an example of the now very familiar politically-correct adjustment—several books were revised to address what many considered racist passages. In 1987 a new series, The Hardy Boys Casefiles, was introduced that featured more complex plots and violence. That series was replaced in 2005 by Undercover Brothers, (not to be confused with the 2002 Eddie Griffin / Chris Kattan film, or the Ugandan music duo) which in turn was replaced by The Hardy Boys Adventures in 2013.

The boys also had a long run as television characters, with five different adaptations, beginning in the late 1950s, when Walt Disney introduced the characters during The Mickey Mouse Show. In 1967, NBC introduced their version of the Hardy Boys, with Tim Matheson (yes—the guy that played Otter in Animal House) playing Frank Hardy. ABC followed that with a Saturday-morning cartoon in 1969. People my age probably remember the 1977-79 version, with Parker Stevenson and Shaun Cassidy playing freshly coiffed brothers—the “Hardy Boys as teen idols” attempt to refresh the series.

There have been Hardy Boys video games, coloring and comic books, lunch boxes, charm bracelets, albums, wristwatches, jeans, and even guitars. South Park did a special Hardy Boys Episode, “Mystery of the Urinal Deuce,” in which the boys investigate a 9/11 conspiracy theory.

So it’s probably not surprising that a significant percentage of the population were Hardy Boys. Virtually every American man I know over the age of thirty has fond memories of reading the books, a literary rite of passage that ranks as high Catcher in the Rye for generations of men.

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“Agatha Christie: Queen of Many Crimes” (by François Bloemhof)

South African thriller writer François Bloemhof’s prolific career, spanning more than twenty-five years, includes novels for adults, teenagers, and children, his most recent adult “noir” novels being 2016’s Double Echo and 2017’s Feeding Time. He has received numerous awards and is credited with several “firsts”: He wrote the first novel to be published with an original CD soundtrack composed by the author, the first book with its own computer game, and the first e-book in Afrikaans. His first short story for EQMM, “Proof,” appears in our July/August issue, on sale June 19. The tale was translated from Afrikaans by Josh Pachter, but François also writes in English, and as you’ll see from this post, he cut his teeth on British crime fiction, and particularly on the work of Agatha Christie. —Janet Hutchings

At an early age it became clear that I was bound to turn my talents to crime one day. While still at school, I shied away from our prescribed books to devour instead the Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazines as well as the novels of Agatha Christie.

I felt an instant connection with that author, and not only because we were born on the same day (though, I hasten to add, not in the same year). What I appreciated most about her approach to “puzzle writing” was a strong sense of logic combined with a playfulness, a craftiness, a darned delight in deception that was gratifying to recognize even when you had to admit she’d pulled the wool over your eyes once again. You may have been angry at yourself for being duped, but at the same time couldn’t help but applaud the sleight of hand by which it had been accomplished. But next time, with the next book, you’d swear, things would be different.

Granted, a few of the patterns she tended to fall back on grew familiar over time and she could on occasion be second-guessed. As I read more of the books that mostly starred her eccentric and egocentric mustached Belgian detective and that deceptively fragile, knitting spinster from St. Mary’s Mead, signs and signals accumulated that might lead to the correct conclusion before the detective arrived at it.

In any event, having received the best tuition possible for developing a criminal mindset, I decided to write crime rather than to practice it. However, the problem we crime writers are faced with time and again is that as soon as you think you’ve come up with a great twist  . . . it’s been done. Dame Agatha has been there decades ago and the most you can do is to modernize some of her examples. The wheel has been invented, and then she re-invented it a few times for good measure. Now you should just roll with it.

The answer to her puzzles often lay in the past; the more seemingly innocent the mention of something that happened a long time ago, the more bearing it had on the present. Those little references to events of yesteryear couldn’t possibly have something to do with the present investigation, could they? Of course they could, and they would.

Due to her knowledge of medicine, which she acquired while serving in a hospital during the First World War and working as a pharmacist’s assistant later on, Dame Agatha also loved administering various poisons to her fictional victims.

Apart from her “regular mysteries” in which the guilty party was unmasked after all the suspects had been interviewed twice and then grouped together in a drawing room like errant sheep, there were a few novels so audacious in their approach and ultimate solution that they would influence other detective stories for decades to come. She may not have invented all of these twists, but having perfected them and being the author they are associated with, she might as well have.

Major spoilers on the way. . . .

The narrator did it. If you’ve watched a few films recently, you will almost certainly have encountered this “surprise” element: The person you’re supposed to trust most is in fact the guilty party. Or (yawn) the victim and the perpetrator will actually be the same person. But when The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd was published in 1926, having the first-person narrator—our point of entry into the mystery—turn out to be the murderer was a spectacular conceit. Some critics complained about Christie having cheated by having the misdeeds take place “offstage” and Dr. James Sheppard simply not accounting for his whereabouts at the time, nor reflecting on his murderous actions. However, they were probably angrier at themselves for being caught out and not having thought of it themselves. In 2013 this book was voted the best crime novel ever by 600 fellow writers of the Crime Writers’ Association.

They all did it. Pertinent clues are provided in a very sporting way in Murder On The Orient Express. There are a certain number of stab wounds. There are a certain number of suspects, all behaving suspiciously enough that one character is led to exclaim after each of them has been interviewed: “He did it!” or “She did it!” Of course. Exactly. That will prove to be the case. He did it. And she did it. Along with all the others.

A dead person did it. Or, all right, the murderer wasn’t really dead, or at least wasn’t at the time he was assumed to be. And he had help. And the person who assisted him in his subterfuge was next to get the chop. And Then There Were None proved, just in case there was any doubt, that Dame Agatha could put aside those sly patterns she’d perfected for a while and think outside of the box. Way out of it; she ventured into territory beyond the realms of detective fiction. It was an audacious coup that would make this novel her best seller ever, having by now shipped 100 million copies and counting. It has been filmed a number of times, which had the side effect of Christie inventing and laying the ground rules for what would come to be known as the slasher movie—without the buckets of gore we nowadays expect from such films, and with characters that were rotten to the core. What she also created here was a detective story without a detective. And more yet: a crime story without a hero or heroine.

The supposed victim did it. In order to commit a crime, someone didn’t have to go so far as to fake his or her own death as in the above example—a presumed attack would do the trick, as when Magdala “Nick” Buckley is (we believe) almost shot dead at the start of Peril at End House. If someone indeed wanted to kill Nick, who would be the least suspicious candidate? The poor shot-at girl herself. That bullet hole in Nick’s sun hat is guaranteed to divert the reader’s suspicions and when she isn’t the one to die soon after, naturally we seek those guilty of that crime elsewhere.

Someone did it in foreign climes. The author travelled extensively with her archeologist second husband, Sir Max Mallowan. While he set about his kind of digging, she kept herself busy by unearthing plots brimming with malice and genteel mayhem. The countries in question, mostly in the Middle East, provided backdrops for dastardly doings that maybe at that point would have started to feel slightly run-of-the-mill in yet another English countryside setting. In an exotic milieu, they were fresh and new. Everywhere she travelled, Christie found Evil Under The Sun. In any country, she knew, the stage was already set for an Appointment With Death. A few other cases in point are Murder in Mesopotamia, They Came To Baghdad and Death On The Nile.

Someone did it centuries ago. Set in Thebes in 2000 BC, one can only imagine how much research must have gone into Death Comes as the End. Despite all the convincing details of daily household life in Egypt 4000 years ago, it never turns into a dry, informative read, rather veering towards a brutal entertainment, featuring so many deaths that it rivals And Then There Were None in that regard. Contributors to the market in historical thrillers may not even realize what a debt they owe Agatha Christie.

The Queen of Crime ruled more than OK, and still does. Not only will her clever puzzles continue to delight new generations of readers, but future mystery writers will also keep on paying homage—knowingly or unknowingly, whether they intend to or not.

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“The Changing Face of Mystery Fiction” (by Marvin Kaye)

Marvin Kaye’s long and distinguished career as a writer and editor encompasses the fields of fantasy, science fiction, horror, and mystery. He has served as editor-in-chief of three magazines: H.P. Lovecraft’s Magazine of Horror, Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, and Weird Tales. He has also authored more than a dozen novels and compiled dozens of anthologies, and as you’ll see from this post, he has taught creative writing. His new story for EQMM is a Nero Wolfe pastiche, one of a series he is currently writing. It will appear in our July/August issue (to be released on June 19).  The advice he gives here to writers of the classical whodunit should be helpful, coming from a writer who has tackled the challenges himself.—Janet Hutchings

For over twenty years I served as Adjunct Professor of Creative Writing at New York University, where I lectured on the construction of murder mysteries and other genres. I had an average of one student a year who sold a novel begun in our workshop, also one screenplay that was made into a well-done film starring Jodie Foster and Dennis Hopper.

In those days, the standard form of mysteries embraced reader-solvable puzzles, what John Dickson Carr called The Grandest Game. Soon after, when I became a member of the Steering Committee of The Wolfe Pack, the Nero Wolfe society, I was asked to head an annual judging committee for Nero Awards. The other judges were Barbara Stout, Rex’s daughter, who died recently, Robert Goldsborough, authorized writer of new Nero Wolfe novels, and a floating member from the Pack.

As I began reading the new output from various publishers, I was dismayed to discover that few of the books submitted were reader-solvable. Instead they were books about murder and other crimes, often with fascinating characters and interesting plots, but without the classic structure of clues and red herrings that led the Great Detective to an eleventh-hour showdown. As far as I can tell today, the situation remains that way.

What a loss! The market seems devoid of new Rex Stouts or Dorothy Sayers or Clayton Rawsons, et cetera. The only remedy I can see is to teach contemporary writers the nuts and bolts of well-crafted whodunits. I suspect, however, that many will not want to be bothered because, after all, writing a good reader-solvable mystery is a difficult affair.

One might be faithful to all the old rules and still fail. Analogically, it is possible for a musician to create a fugue for organ, say, that observes all the necessary requirements of that form so that the result is a well-crafted fugure that, however, makes for dreary listening.

Following are a few structural guidelines to think about en route to building a true ratiocinative challenge to the reader (a phrase often used by Ellery Queen).

1. The Detective. It should be obvious that your sleuth must have the intellectual capacity to process clues and winnow out the red herrings. He or she also should be interesting for his or her own sake.

2. The Franchise. There are, as I see it, three possible choices governing the detective’s ability to investigate crimes. If he is a policeman, it is his job, sanctioned by his local or state government. If he is a private detective, he is licensed to do the same, but usually within limitations that most private eyes bend or break from time to time, and that includes Sherlock Holmes. The third possibility is that the detective is an amateur who either likes criminal investigation or has an emotional interest in finding out the truth, often to vindicate some wrongly accused friend and/or relative. Her problem (it is often a woman, as, for instance, Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple) is that she has no legal standing to butt into police business. Sometimes this sleuth has a friend on the force who helps smooth the way.

Each of the above choices is valid; each has its strengths and difficulties. It is up to the author to select whichever variety of character they are most comfortable writing about.

3. Viewpointing. There have been mysteries written first-person from the detective’s point of view. The question it raises, of course, is why doesn’t the sleuth share all internal thoughts and speculations with the reader? There are strengths and weaknesses involved, though excellent novels have been written first-person. I suppose the safest way to go is third person, though it potentially may flatten the emotional impact of the tale. Personally I prefer first person by the detective’s faithful companion, the Dr. Watson or Archie Goodwin. Not only is the emotional impact guaranteed, the author may send the narrator on some important mission which keeps him or her away from the sleuth as he or she unravels the chain of circumstances leading to a solution.

Again, any such choice is valid; it depends on the kind of book you’d enjoy writing the most.

4. The M-O-M Chart. This is a tool I developed that students found helpful in plotting their stories. On a piece of paper, draw four separate vertical columns labeled Character, M (for Motive), O (for Opportunity) and M (for Method). Then draw as many horizontal intersecting lines as needed for the main characters of your novel.

Under character, put the names of the dramatis personae with the murderer occupying the top space. Enter the means, opportunity, and method in the appropriate places. The first horizontal row contains the clues necessary to solve the crime. Note that if you leave a space blank for any of the suspects, that personage will be eliminated as the killer. Of course that makes for a comparatively simple tale, but the more complete rows of red herrings you lay in complicates the situation and provides the detective with fallow investigating ground. A common device that authors employ is to make only one suspect (not the perpetrator) have all three M-O-M data. This character is ripe to become the second murder victim.

5. The Master Chart. This tool enables the writer to structure and keep a record of all the plotting data involved. It may be as simple or elaborate as desired. On a large piece of paper, create a series of vertical columns crossed by horizontal dividers. Label the columns as needed; A simple arrangement would be: Chapter Number, Setting, Characters, Clues, Red Herrings. I also had a Plot Points column because my settings tended to be colorful and I wanted to make sure I didn’t forget various interesting items along the way.

By now you will have drawn up a list of the essential necessary clues. Enter these in the appropriate spaces, as well as the other indicated data. Then begin to write. This chart is not a bible; as you proceed, you will surely find it necessary to omit or add information. If and when you do, adjust the Master Chart accordingly. As this involves a lot of erasing, a pencil should be used, not a pen.

6. The Clue Log. As you write your story, have a separate paper handy on which you should enter the occurrence of clues and the manuscript pages on which they appear. Thus when you reach the solution chapter, you won’t have to go paging back through all those papers to discover when the detective learned this and that.

The final step in the process is to vary the way clues are introduced and disguised throughout. This is a subject sufficiently complicated to require extensive explanation in a separate article.

Goodbye and happy sleuthing!

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The highlight of each April in the mystery-fiction community is a week of festivities and awards that begins as writers, fans, and publishers assemble in New York City in the lead-up to the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Allan Poe Awards banquet.

For Edgars-week Tuesday, EQMM and its sister publication, AHMM, traditionally invite the magazines’ Readers Award winners and Edgar nominees to a small gathering in our offices. This year we had the pleasure of hosting EQMM Edgar nominee (and MWA president) Jeffery Deaver; EQMM Readers Award winners Brendan DuBois and Doug Allyn, as well as Doug’s wife, Eve; AHMM Edgar nominee S.J. Rozan; and one of this year’s three MWA Grand Masters, Peter Lovesey. Most of us went directly from this small Dell-office tea party to the big annual cocktail party thrown by Otto Penzler’s Mysterious Bookshop—the perfect place to spot other authors newly arrived from out of town.

L to R: Jeffery Deaver, Doug Allyn, Eve Allyn at the Dell Magazines office. Photo by Jackie Sherbow.

L to R: S.J. Rozan, Janet Hutchings. Photo by Jackie Sherbow.

L to R: Peter Lovesey, Brendan DuBois, AHMM editor Linda Landrigan. Photo by Jackie Sherbow.

L to R: Eve Allyn, Peter Lovesey, Doug Allyn at the Mysterious Bookshop. Photo by Jackie Sherbow.

Wednesdays during Edgars week are usually marked by a day-long symposium with panels and interviews featuring the various Edgar Allan Poe Award nominees, the Grand Masters, and the Raven and Ellery Queen award winners. As in past years, associate editor Jackie Sherbow attended for the Dell Mystery Magazines.

Oline Cogdill with Peter Lovesey during his Grand Master interview at the MWA Edgar Awards Symposium.

Before we knew it, the big day—Thursday—had arrived. For thirty-three years, EQMM and AHMM have hosted a cocktail party prior to the Edgar Awards banquet. It’s here that the EQMM Readers Awards are presented annually. And it’s here that we have the best chance each year to catch up with some of our closest friends in the business, a number of whom are pictured below.

Richard Dannay. Photo by Ché Ryback.

L to R: Brendan DuBois, Otto Penzler. Photo by Ché Ryback.

L to R: Associate editor Jackie Sherbow, Hilary Davidson. Photo by Ché Ryback.

Nancy Novick. Photo by Ché Ryback.

Dave Zeltserman accepts his third-place EQMM Readers Award scroll, presented by Janet Hutchings (pictured) and Peter Kanter. Photo by Ché Ryback.

Doug Allyn accepts his second-place EQMM Readers Award scroll. Photo by Ché Ryback.

Brendan DuBois accepts the 2017 EQMM Readers Award. Photo by Ché Ryback.

L to R: Shelley Costa, Linda Landrigan, Angela Zeman, Barry Zeman. Photo by Ché Ryback.

L to R: Kevin EganAnalog and Asimov‘s associate editor Emily Hockaday. Photo by Ché Ryback.

Penny Publications/Dell Magazines publisher, Peter Kanter. Photo by Ché Ryback.

L to R: Kristopher Zgorski, Gregory Day, Lori Rader-Day. Photo by Ché Ryback.

L to R: Joseph Goodrich, Dale Andrews. Photo by Ché Ryback.

L to R: Michele Slung and Vicky Bijur. Photo by Ché Ryback.

L to R: Analog Science Fiction and Fact editor Trevor Quachri, Dell Magazines/Penny Publications vice president Christine Begley. Photo by Ché Ryback.

L to R: Jane Cleland, Hilary Davidson, Meredith Anthony. Photo by Ché Ryback.

L to R: James Lincoln Warren, Dale Andrews, Brian Skupin. Photo by Ché Ryback.

Dell Magazines editor Mark Lagasse. Photo by Ché Ryback.

L to R: Jim Weikart, Steve Steinbock. Photo by Ché Ryback.

L to R: Robin Dean, V.S. Kemanis, David Dean. Photo by Ché Ryback.

Kate Stine. Photo by Ché Ryback.

Dell Magazines systems/IT manager, photographer Ché Ryback. Photo by Jackie Sherbow.

EQMM was present at the very first Edgar Allan Poe Awards dinner, seventy-two years ago. Many of the banquets since then have had an extra dash of excitement for us as we awaited the results of the best short story award, for which we had nominees. This year was no exception. But what made the evening even more memorable was that two of the three writers named Grand Masters of the Mystery Writers of America had close connections to EQMM. William Link got his start in EQMM’s Department of First Stories in 1954, with a story cowritten with Richard Levinson. The pair went on to create several hugely popular crime TV shows, including Columbo and Murder, She Wrote. New Grand Master Peter Lovesey, who’s been writing regularly for EQMM since 1979, is a past winner of the EQMM Readers Award, among many other distinctions (including the Cartier Diamond Dagger for Lifetime Achievement). I had the great honor of presenting him with the Grand Master Edgar!

Janet Hutchings and Peter Lovesey with his Edgar Award.

Peter Lovesey and William Link at the Edgar Awards banquet.

Before the glitter and glamour of the black-tie Edgars seemed to have fully dissipated, many of us were on our way to the week’s next stop: North Bethesda, Maryland, for the annual Malice Domestic Convention. A convocation of fans and writers of the traditional mystery, Malice is scheduled immediately following the Edgars so that those traveling from abroad or from distant points in the U.S. can attend both sets of events.

For me, Malice began on Friday evening, with a dinner in the Pike & Rose development in North Bethesda, with authors Dana Cameron, Frankie Y. Bailey, Christine Poulson, Dale Andrews, and Josh and Laurie Pachter. At subsequent meals (one also pictured below), I had the pleasure of reconnecting with a number of the talented people who contribute fiction, reviews, and nonfiction to our pages, including Doug Greene, the founder of Crippen & Landru, the genre’s leading publisher of single-author short-story collections, and Jeffrey Marks, who has recently taken over as Crippen & Landru’s publisher.

Clockwise from L: Josh Pachter, Janet Hutchings, Dale Andrews, Dana Cameron, Frankie Y. Bailey, Laurie Pachter, Christine Poulson.

L to R: Jackie Sherbow, Steve Steinbock, Josh Pachter, Alan Orloff.

For me, one of Malice’s great highlights this year was the interview of Lifetime Achievement Award winner, Nancy Pickard. A writer who got her start in EQMM’s Department of First Stories and has won or been nominated for every major award in the field, Nancy had some fascinating things to say about the writing process and her own growth as a writer. A Sunday-morning breakfast with Nancy, Margaret and Joe Maron, Dorothy and Julian Cannell, and G. M. Malliet and her husband Bob Steventon nearly finished off the convention for me and associate editor Jackie Sherbow. The end of a memorable week—topped off by a train ride home on which I finished the Audible edition of Anthony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders. Highly recommended! —Janet Hutchings

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“Paths Crossing: Agatha Christie’s ‘Philomel Cottage’ and ‘Accident'” (by R.T. Raichev)

R. T. Raichev is best known for his crime novels and stories featuring mystery writer Antonia Darcy and her husband, Major Payne. There are nine highly acclaimed novels in the series and several short stories, most published in EQMM. The most recent story, “A Chronicle of Deaths Foretold,” appears in our current issue, May/June 2018. Library Journal has said of the series, “Mixes Henry James’s psychological insight with Agatha Christie’s whodunit plotting skills.” That reference to Agatha Christie is apt, for R. T. Raichev is not only a mystery author, he’s a scholar of the form; he wrote his university dissertation on British mystery fiction. An academic by day, he has posted scholarly articles on this site before (most recently a piece about the Sherlock Holmes stories). This time he talks about his two favorite Agatha Christie short stories. Please be aware, if you have not yet read these stories, that some of each story’s plot is revealed in the post.—Janet Hutchings

The short story is a sterner test of the detective writer than the full-grown novel. With ample space almost any practiced writer can pile complication on complication, just as any man could make a puzzling maze out of a ten-acre field. But to pack mystery, surprise and a solution into three or four thousand words is to achieve a feat.

In such glowing terms did an Observer reviewer write in 1924 of Poirot Investigates, Agatha Christie’s first published collection of short stories. A less enthusiastic opinion of Christie’s short fiction has been expressed by crime critic Robert Barnard in his study A Talent to Deceive. He points out—I paraphrase—that while the short format worked so brilliantly for Conan Doyle, the art of the novel somehow eluded him—with Agatha Christie the opposite was true: the full-length whodunit was her undisputed forte, a standard her short stories never quite managed to achieve. Barnard referred to them as “one-trick” stories.

The truth lies somewhere in between. There is no question of ignoring Agatha Christie’s short stories, which number 150. The majority are compulsively, addictively readable and they teem with original ideas—whatever weaknesses they may have, one only notices them after finishing reading.

As it happens, the gems among Christie’s contes are not whodunits but intricate tales of suspense. The most celebrated one of course is that masterpiece of double bluff and moral ambiguity “Witness for the Prosecution.” My own personal preference is for “Philomel Cottage” and “Accident,” which appear in the 1934 Christie collection The Listerdale Mystery. They show Agatha Christie not only at her cleverest but at her most unsettling.

“Philomel Cottage” was first published in Grand Magazine in 1923 and follows a path of sinister discovery as Alix, a young, recently married woman, slowly comes to the realization that her husband Gerald is planning to kill her. It all starts with a “twinge of anxiety” which “invades her perfect happiness.” (Robert Barnard, while praising “Philomel Cottage,” describes its style as somewhat “novelettish.”) Their gardener mentions the fact that she and Gerald are going to London on Wednesday—it was Gerald who told him—but Alix is not aware of any such plans having been made. Alix learns that their house—Philomel Cottage—cost £2000 and not £3000—it was Gerald who dealt with the transaction using Alix’s money. (Did Gerald—who had professed to be “violently in love with her”—keep £1000 for himself?) Alix then finds Gerald’s diary and she sees her name and a date penned in—the date is the Wednesday on which she is supposed to be going away. . . .

She manages to open a locked drawer in Gerald’s desk and finds old newspaper clippings concerning the trial and subsequent escape of a serial wife killer called Lemaitre (described as possessing “extraordinary powers over women”). In the photo accompanying the article Alix recognizes her husband. From this point on the story becomes a tense cat-and-mouse game between Alix and Gerald—a fight for survival, no less—which culminates in one of Agatha Christie’s most unusual shock endings.

Murder by suggestion is extremely difficult to bring off convincingly on the last page of a story, but Christie manages it superbly. It is a feat indeed, remarkable in its assured boldness, especially impressive given that in the 1920s she was still in the very early stages of her career. It rivals her other “outrageous” ploys—the Orient Express conspiracy, the unreliable first-person narration that covers Roger Ackroyd’s murder, and the ten people killed off according to the words of a macabre children’s poem. Incredibly, in the last mentioned, a novel written sixteen years after “Philomel,” Christie uses the idea again and even more startlingly. Though the circumstances couldn’t have been more different, what is Vera Claythorne’s suicide if not murder by suggestion? The careful staging of the suicide—the chair positioned under the noose hanging from a hook in the ceiling—later described in the killer’s confession as an “interesting psychological experiment”—will continue to send shivers down readers’ spines for generations to come.

It is worth noting that “Philomel Cottage” was written a couple of years after the trial in France of multiple murderer Landrou who used to prey on rich women. (Alix, we learn, has come into an inheritance.) Like Landrou, Lemaitre is a charming psychopath who is single-minded, ruthless, and deceitful. It is easy to imagine Agatha taking a vivid interest in Landrou’s trial and subsequent execution and storing away details for further use. In fictional terms, the origins of “Philomel Cottage” can be traced back to the gruesome French tale of Bluebeard. The forbidden chamber Bluebeard uses as storage for the bodies of the wives he has killed may be seen as paralleled by the forbidden desk drawer with its revelation of Gerald’s murderous true identity. On a more fanciful note, could the name “Gerald” have been inspired by that of the monstrous chevalier Gille de Rais, the real-life fifteenth-century serial killer who served as a model for Bluebeard?

The damsel-in-distress theme, central to “Philomel Cottage,” has always been a favorite with book readers, theatregoers, and film audiences. It is at the heart of Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1859), Patrick Hamilton’s Gaslight (1938), and Frederick Knott’s Dial M for Murder (1952). More recently and less successfully we find a modified version of it in Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train, which also happens to be the title of an Agatha Christie short story. In all of these, outwardly charming, seemingly respectable men manipulate and try to dispose of their wives.

“Accident” was originally published in 1929 in The Sunday Dispatch, under the title “The Uncrossed Path.” Its riveting opening lines are clearly designed to make the reader want to read on. “. . . I tell you this—it’s the same woman—not a doubt of it!” The woman in question has already committed two murders and managed to make them look like accidents. The speaker, a retired police inspector called Evans, is presented as overzealous, overconfident, and complacent, not a particularly sympathetic character. Evans has always believed that the Madonna-like Mrs. Anthony—Mrs. Merrowdene, as she has become—was guilty. As fate would have it, their paths have crossed in the little village where she now lives, married en secondes noces, to a mild-mannered ex–chemistry professor who works with poisons. After learning that she has persuaded her husband to take a life insurance, Evans becomes convinced that she is planning a third murder. . . .

Christie, the arch manipulator, makes us examine the situation from Evans’s point of view—but it is the wrong point of view. All along Evans has been looking at the situation the wrong way up—which, ironically, he realizes too late. This is the tale of a hunt that goes spectacularly wrong. As in “Philomel Cottage,” Agatha Christie manages to whip up tremendous tension that culminates in a confrontation between hunter and hunted—and then end it with a completely unpredictable, though entirely logical, death on the last page—a death that looks like an accident.*

Alfred Hitchcock had a penchant for charming psychopaths (vide Uncle Charlie in A Shadow of a Doubt, Bruno in Strangers on a Train, Bob Rusk in Frenzy), so it is a pity he never turned his attention to “Philomel Cottage.” We learn from Janet Morgan’s biography of Agatha Christie that Hitchcock considered adapting “Accident” as an episode for his famous Hour. It is not known why he didn’t do it as it has some of the ingredients he favored—a femme fatale accused of murder—ambiguities over her guilt—a love motive—and a hunt. Hitchcock clearly liked the story well enough as he included “Accident” in one of his earliest anthologies of Suspense Stories (1947), reprinted in 1963 as Alfred Hitchcock Presents: A Baker’s Dozen of Suspense Stories.

Even though “Philomel Cottage” failed to become a Hitchcock film, it has the distinction of being one of the most frequently adapted twentieth-century short stories—as a play (twice), for TV (three times), as a film (twice, as Love from a Stranger), and for radio (five times).

“Accident,” on the other hand, was transformed into a one-act play by Margery Vosper in 1939, under the title Tea for Three. Margery Vosper was the sister of Frank Vosper who was the man who adapted Philomel Cottage as a play.**

Talk about paths crossing.


* “Accident” is one of four Agatha Christie stories in which the killer is allowed to get away with it. Either because she felt sympathy for a woman who’s had to fight for her love—or else because it made such a damned effective ending.

** There also exists a never-performed adaptation of “Philomel Cottage” written by Christie herself.

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“Setting as Story” (by Sherry Lalonde)

Sherry Lalonde’s first published fiction, “Garden-Variety Criminal,” appears in EQMM’s current issue,  May/June 2018. It’s notable partly for its choice of setting, Canada’s Royal Botanical Gardens. In this post the author, an Ottawa librarian with a degree in horitculture, explores the use of setting in the works of some of our genre’s best-loved authors. —Janet Hutchings

For many writers, the germ of an idea begins with the characters. They see a face in a crowd and wonder what past history and complex set of traits makes a person act as they do. For others, the spark comes from a situation—a moral dilemma, a confrontation, or even a tragedy. For myself, it’s about setting. The setting is what’s clear to me even before the characters or the action. It might be a peaceful scene at first, but soon, very soon, something will happen to shatter the peace. Because setting itself can often provide conflict, the best settings are those that reflect aspects of character and motivation.

Setting is also used to create atmosphere, to help shape the mood, and mirror what characters are thinking and feeling. In Agatha Christie’s Nemesis, the decaying greenhouse and vine-covered garden evoke an eerie atmosphere and act as a metaphor for the smothering love of a woman who would sooner see her protégé dead than let her leave. Early mysteries such as Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles were masterful at manipulating the reader’s emotions and inspired modern-day authors such as Elizabeth Kostova and Carlos Ruiz Zafon.

Setting also helps define the scope of the story and grounds it in a place. It is the playground for the characters and what draws the reader into the manufactured world, giving it context. There are many familiar settings used in mysteries, chief among them are the “locked room,” the English country house (or village), the suburbs, and the city.

The timeless locked-room mystery is one of the earliest settings used. A crime, usually a murder, has happened in such a way as to make it seemingly impossible to solve. Although the actual physical location varies the concept is always the same. Whether on a desert island, a jail cell, a castle tower, or a submarine, it is logic, reason and method that will lead to the solution. The reader accepts the challenge and embarks on a journey with the author—who will get to the answer first? Some of the best known locked-room mysteries include John Dickson Carr’s The Hollow Man, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, and Ellery Queen’s The King Is Dead.

In the same genre of traditional mystery is the English country house or village setting. If you’ve seen the movie Gosford Park or read any Golden Age of detective fiction you’ll be familiar with this setting where the upper crust can be found clinking glasses in the dining room while the servants toil below stairs in a sweaty basement kitchen, each in their own sphere until tragedy strikes and they crash into each others’ worlds.

In such a cozy space crime is all the more shocking when it happens. This setting may be criticized as artificial but it allows readers to engage with murder and mayhem in a context that’s safe and reassuring. The contract with the reader is that eventually order will be restored and the guilty will be punished. Adding to the sense of foreshadowing is the building of the tension created by a group of unlikely suspects forced together until the murderer is revealed. The detective or amateur sleuth must deduce the guilty party before he or she strikes again.

This style of mystery was first crafted in the early twentieth century but is still well loved and reproduced today even if the relationship between the setting and the characters has changed. What was once an isolated country home owned by aristocrats is more likely now a boutique hotel and spa. It is the familiar setting that attracts readers; even though it has all been done before, the perspective is always unique. Famous authors of the cozy mystery include Margery Allingham, Agatha Christie, and Ngaio Marsh. There are many modern authors writing in this style, notably G.M. Malliet and Rhys Bowen among personal favourites.

To some extent the modernization of the “cozy” is the suburban mystery. The suburbs, once thought to be the pinnacle of the American dream, are now a place of disenchantment. The suburbs are becoming chilling milieus where the placid surface of tidy lawns, two-car garages, and family BBQs hide all the modern sins—drugs, illicit sex, obsession, jealousy, and more. When there is such obvious conflict between the setting and its characters we can easily fuel expectations for events to come. This type of mystery was best epitomized by the work of Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Rendell and today by bestselling authors Gillian Flynn and Paula Hawkins.

In many ways the city is the superlative setting for mystery and suspense. The implied threat and menace of the city arouse the fear of the unknown. In complete juxtaposition to the cozy setting the detective must have his or her finger on the pulse of the city and be willing to descend into the underground culture where truth lies buried. Readers living in these environments are drawn again and again to the urban mystery as they crave the reassurance that the city can be made safe. Urban settings in mystery and suspense fiction are particularly important because they continue to evolve and innovate as our cities do. This setting is exploited to its fullest extent by such authors as Ed McBain, Walter Mosley, and Sara Paretsky to name a few.

As we see, setting is not just the scene of the crime but also integral to the story and can mean the difference between an engaged and indifferent reader. A successful setting takes the story off the page and into real life to create a mystery that appeals to all the senses.

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“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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