Several weeks ago, I contacted Elizabeth Zelvin, one of our genre’s most celebrated short-story writers, and asked for a post in time for Passover. The timing seemed important, because Liz’s story in our current issue (March/April 2021) is set at a Passover Seder. How wonderful, I thought, if readers could learn what inspired the story during the period in which the holiday was actually being celebrated. Liz sent the post right away, a week before Passover began, and I postponed it for a week so that it would fall during the holiday. As to what happened next, I can only plead “pandemic brain” (which scientists say is real!). When the 31st rolled around, I had it in mind that I’d already sent Liz’s piece in for posting, and went on to the next post on the schedule. It was only when Liz reminded me last week that she hadn’t yet seen her post that I scrolled back and realized that it had never been posted. So here it is: some terrific reflections on the background to a great story. And the issue in which it appears is still on sale, so you can still read and enjoy it. Liz’s latest book is one she edited: the anthology Me Too Short Stories. She is best known as a novelist for her Bruce Kohler mysteries. —Janet Hutchings
When I wrote “Who Stole the Afikomen?” (EQMM March/April 2021), I was “writing what I know” in a spirit of love and nostalgia for the Passover celebrations of my childhood in a family of secular Ashkenazic Jewish Americans in New York. The family in my story differs in some ways from my own. We were less numerous, more intellectual, and not a jeweler or king’s mistress in the lot. While I still host a Seder every year, its traditions have attenuated and evolved over the years, adapting to the loss of family members who read Hebrew, the impatience of the guests for dinner to be served, and the composition of my family itself from all Jewish to multicultural, with Jewish DNA in the minority.
I wanted the story to convey my kind of Jewishness, which is very important to me but is not what comes to most people’s minds when I say I’m Jewish. It’s not about dietary laws or religion or Israel. It’s about belonging to a people—a smart, argumentative, indomitable people who have managed to hang onto our ethnic identity, culture, and remarkable ethical principles, along with our sense of humor, for 5,781 years in the face of persistent, repeated persecution.
That’s the story we tell at Passover every spring, the season of renewal. Jewish families all over the world come together to feast, sing, and read the Haggadah, the traditional manual for the festival. We were slaves in Egypt for four hundred years. Then a leader, Moses, arose to speak for us. Let my people go! he told Pharaoh. You know the story. We need to tell it every year because we can’t afford to forget. It keeps happening. The Inquisition. The Holocaust. Bombs in synagogues in today’s America. But we’re going to eat gefilte fish and pot roast and celebrate life while we remember.
Readers of “Who Stole the Afikomen?” who have attended Seders tell me they felt a spark of recognition, even if they’re not Jewish. It’s not just the food. It’s the sense of family, of community. The warmth, the liveliness. The sheer noise. Ashkenazic, ie Eastern European Jews, all talk at once. It’s a cultural trait. Like my fictional protagonist Andy, my non-Jewish husband was overwhelmed by the cacophony at his first family Seder forty years ago. I explained we interrupt out of enthusiasm, because we’re so interested in what’s being said.
Secular Jewish families like mine have always been unruly and irreverent. We always took liberties with the ritual. When my son was little, we deleted what he called “the boring part”—all the rabbinical exigesis—from the text and gradually made other revisions. Since the enslaved Jews were unpaid workers, we sing, “Bread and Roses,” the anthem of the 1912 Massachusetts mill strike. When we explain the sacrificial shank bone on the Seder plate, we add a paragraph for vegetarians. We display the orange that symbolizes the full participation of the previously marginalized in Jewish life, ie women and LGBTQ Jews. So it’s not so very out of line that in my story, Uncle Jules decides to add a little sparkle to the hunt for the afikomen by hiding a diamond with the ritual piece of matzoh.
Mat Coward’s latest short story for EQMM, “Yeah, I Meant to Do That,” appears in our current issue (March/April 2021). The British author’s novels span the genres of crime, fantasy, and science fiction, but he’s particularly distinguished in the mystery field for his short stories, which have twice earned Edgar nominations. He has a unique voice—but not in the way he laments here! If you haven’t tried his fiction yet, do. You’ll find it compelling. —Janet Hutchings
If you want an illustration of the unfairness of it all, just think how insomnia makes an exception for nightmares.
When I first started writing short stories, I used to produce two kinds—funny and not-funny—and it was a while before I realised that I was the only one who knew there was a difference.
The writer doesn’t decide what a story’s about. Readers decide what a story’s about, and it follows that they’re also the ones who decide whether it’s funny or serious. And if it has jokes in it, they will decide that it’s funny, which is well-known to be the opposite of serious.
The important thing is to remember that it doesn’t matter. I’m not saying it doesn’t matter, because it really does, I’m saying the important thing is to remember that it doesn’t matter.
Other writers have a much easier life than me. I know this, as every writer knows it; as every writer who’s ever been has known it. I picture all the other writers in their smart, clean, tidy offices, writing rooms, their writing spaces, fragrant and organised, everything in its place, where they can lay their hands on anything in a minute as opposed to, say, a month or a lifetime.
Their plots mirror their working lives: neat, unholed, flowing. In fact, in point of fact, I happen to know they use flowcharts to marshal the smooth blossoming of their plots. I don’t know what a flowchart is but I do know that it wouldn’t work for me, in the sense of cooperate with me, even if I knew what it was. Actually, I might be thinking of spreadsheets, but since I don’t know what those are either it’s not important.
Other writers don’t constantly get their timing wrong, always, every time they write anything. This is true of all other writers, as all other writers know. A decade ago I wrote a near-future police procedural novel in which people avoid shaking hands for fear of infection with epidemic germs. Imagine if that had come out a month before the COVID? I’d be a millionaire by now. I’d be retired. They’d ask me to write a blog post for Ellery Queen and I’d say, “I’m sorry I can’t I’m going to be spending the next three weeks choosing a pair of carpet slippers.” My uniquely bad timing cost me that.
(That wasn’t the whole plot by the way, the not shaking hands, that was just an incidental detail. Because that would have been a bit low-concept even by my standards.)
Other writers, all other writers, are able to write in their heads. I’ve heard them boasting about it, about how they get stuck on a story and how they go for a walk—or they go for a jog, the really boasty ones—and by the time they get home they’ve solved the problem. I’ve never been able to do that. The other day I had a twenty-minute walk to the doctor’s and I determined to use it fruitfully, working out how the detective inspector knew that the giant sausage was hollow. Because from the outside it looked solid. In the event, I spent the whole trip to the surgery trying to remember the name of a guy who played for Middlesex County Cricket Club in the mid-1980s. Then I spent the whole trip back trying to remember why I’d been trying to remember his name. Middlesex isn’t even my team! I never did remember his name, anyway, so at least there’s that.
I can’t write except by writing, unlike all other writers. I never have been able to. And when I say writing, I mean typing: a pen and paper are no help, I have to be sat at the keyboard for every single word. The way I plot is by brute force. Brutish force. “He was a leading, and the sole, practitioner of what came to be known as the British Brutish style, due to the sheer inelegance of its construction.”
I type “Maybe the husband killed the wife because she wouldn’t agree to a divorce.” But that’s too obvious, so I actually, physically, type on the next line “But that’s too obvious.” Then I go down a line and type “OK so perhaps he killed her because she would give him a divorce. For some reason yet to be established that meant he had to kill her.” On the next line I’ll type “But that’s only one degree of twist; think we need two degrees here—three, if no twist in final paragraph.” Then I go for a walk, which doesn’t help at all, and when I come back I go down another line and type “Possibly he didn’t kill her, possibly the burglar killed her, because she wouldn’t give the burglar a divorce,” and then under that I type “Is that too ridiculous though?” and under that I put “Yes, obviously it is.” And this’ll go on for weeks, while all the other writers are picking their kids up from school and returning home with entire trilogies in their mental notebooks.
I have a real, legitimate phobia about starting story titles with “A” or “The” and I have no idea why, except possibly it’s because I used to work in a public library where one of my jobs was typing up index cards for new stock and you’d write the title as “Case of the hairy heiress, The,” and I developed a horror of seeing my own as-yet unwritten titles ruined by inversion. Whatever the cause, I really envy other writers because none of them suffer from irrationality in their writing habits.
All other writers, their fingers nimbler or at least more easily reprogrammed than mine, can type the word “them” without it coming out as “therm,” which is just my luck because it’s a real word, so the spellcheck doesn’t highlight it. If I could only train myself to type “threm” instead there’d be no problem. All the other writers in the world type threm, I just know they do.
What I don’t know, and what I often find myself wondering about, especially when I’m taking a walk, is whether all the other writers in the world realise how lucky they are.
Josh Pachter is a frequent contributor to EQMM as both a writer and translator. In both of those capacities he’s found titles an inspiration, as he explains in this post. He’s also a prolific anthologist whose most recent books include The Great Filling Station Holdup: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Jimmy Buffett and Only the Good Die Young: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Billy Joel. —Janet Hutchings
At pretty much every mystery convention I’ve ever attended, at every library panel and online symposium, writers are asked about their “process.” Some say they begin a new piece of fiction by dreaming up a plot, some by imagining a character or characters, some with the selection of a setting or settings.
But I’m the only person I know whose stories—nine times out of ten—begin with a title.
In my day job, I teach—among other subjects—public speaking, and one of the basic principles in my field is what we call the “Law of Primacy,” which suggests that audiences will remember second-best whatever they see and hear first. Since the first thing most readers will see is a story’s title, it follows that the title is the second-most-important element in the telling of the tale.
(What, you may ask, is the most important element? That question is answered by the “Law of Recency,” which says that audiences will remember best whatever they see and hear last, suggesting that the most important element of a story is its final paragraph. But that’s a whole ‘nother blog post. . . .)
So, where do the titles I begin with come from?
In most cases, I’ll see a phrase in a newspaper article or read one in a book or hear one (or overhear one) in a conversation and think, Huh, now that’sa story title. Then, once I have a title, all that’s left to do is come up with a plot, some characters, and a setting, and—wallah!—I’ve got a story!
A couple of years ago, for example, my wife Laurie and I went to Paris over my school’s winter term break. I’m used to hearing Paris referred to as “the city of lights,” but Rino, the desk clerk at our hotel, used the phrase “the city of light” as he was checking us in. I asked him about it, and he explained that, though Americans usually pluralize the word “light” when referring to his city, Parisians use the singular. “The City of Light,” I thought, now that’s a story title. (In my story, by the way, the main character stays at the same hotel Laurie and I stayed at—the Hôtel Université in the Rue de l’Université—and the desk clerk who checks her in is named Rino. This is what I believe the French would call un œuf de Pâques.)
“The [Noun] of [Noun]” is a title construction that for some reason resonates with me, and I’ve used it quite a few times. I called two of the Mahboob Chaudri stories I wrote for EQMM during the 1980s “The Tree of Life” (Mid-December 1985) and “The Night of Power” (September 1986), and a third one appeared in Maxim Jakubowski’s The Mammoth Book of Best International Crime as “The Sword of God.” I’ve also done stories titled “The Defenstration of Prague” (for the long-extinctEspionage Magazine), “The Stopwatch of Death” (for a 2020 issue of Black Cat Mystery Magazine), and “The Illusion of Control” (forthcoming in Mystery Weekly).
This pattern goes all the way back to ancient Mesapotamia (The Book of Gilgamesh), and it has been used by the Bible (The Book of Genesis), by Shakespeare (The Tragedy of Hamlet), by patron saint of crime fiction Edgar Allan Poe (“The Cask of Amontillado”), by classic mainstream authors such as John Steinbeck (The Grapes of Wrath), and even by our own Ellery Queen, who used it often (The Four of Hearts, The Origin of Evil, The House of Brass, The Lamp of God, and, as Drury Lane, The Tragedy of X, The Tragedy of Y, and The Tragedy of Z).
It’s also possible to vary the pattern slightly, turning it into “The [Adjective] [Noun] of [Noun]” or “The [Noun] of [Adjective] [Noun].” The current issue of EQMM, for example, in addition to my Paris story, also includes Peter Turnbull’s “The Dark Underbelly of Commerce” and William Dylan Powell’s “The Eyes of the Alcalde,” while the current AHMM features Michael Nethcott’s “The Soul of Peg O’Dwyer” and James Tipton’s “The Beast of Easdale Tarn.” My own variants include “The Cremains of the Day” (which was in the 2019 Malice Domestic anthology, Murder Most Edible), “The Supreme Art of War” (from the Chesapeake Chapter of Sisters in Crime’s Fur, Feathers, and Felonies), “The Beat of Black Wings” (which was in my Joni Mitchell inspired anthology of the same name last year), and “The Yellow Rose of Texas” (from Michael Bracken’s—wait for it!—The Eyes of Texas).
I also think a lot about titles when I translate fiction for EQMM’s Passport to Crime department. Sometimes a straight translation is fine. In the upcoming May/June issue, for example, you’ll find a story by Flemish author Herbert De Paepe. Herbert’s Flemish-language title was “De Bunker,” and the story will be published as, simply, “The Bunker.” Sometimes, though, the original title is cumbersome or not particularly interesting, and I have—always with the original author’s permission—taken some liberties. The February 2015 issue, for example, includes a story by another Flemish author, Bram Dehouck. Bram’s original title was “De Redder en de Dood,” which literally translates into “The Savior and the Death,” or, colloquially, “The Savior and Death.” That seemed ponderous to me, and, given the plot of the story, I suggested borrowing the title of Arthur Miller’s 1964 play, After the Fall. According to American copyright law, titles can’t be copyrighted, so it was perfectly legal for us to “borrow” Marilyn Monroe’s husband’s title for Dorothee Dehouck’s husband’s story, and that’s what we did.
(Remember the 1971 board game Othello? When it came out, I wrote to the company that manufactured it and asked for permission to write a strategy guide. I didn’t really want to write a strategy guide, but I loved the idea of people walking into bookstores and asking for a copy of Othello. “Oh,” the clerk would say, “you mean Shakespeare?” And “No,” the customer would say, “I mean Pachter.” Sadly, they’d already hired somebody else to write the guidebook, so somebody else got all the glory. . . .)
The current EQMM also contains one of my translations—one of the few times I’ve had both a story of my own and a translation in the same issue. The original title of the story, which was written by Romanian author Bogdan Hrib, was “Crimă de Cartier,” which literally translates as the bland “Neighborhood Murder.” Again, I didn’t think the title did the story justice, and, since the story is set in Bucharest and ends with the capture of a killer, I came up with what I thought —and think!—is a funny and punny alternative: “A Bucharest Arrest.”
I enjoy a good pun, and I’ve used pun titles for my own fiction, too—see “The Cremains of the Day,” mentioned above, and “Police Navidad,” from the January 2015 EQMM — as well as for other translated stories (such as Fei Wu’s Christmas tale in the January/February 2020 issue, which was originally titled “One Night in Beijing” and which I retitled “Beijingle All the Way”).
While we’re on the subject of changing titles, I really have to bring up Frederic Dannay, who was one half of the Ellery Queen writing team and from its first issue in 1941 until his death in 1982 the guiding force behind EQMM. Mr. Dannay was notorious for changing the titles of stories he bought for the magazine, often without the author’s permission. After he bought my first story, “E.Q. Griffen Earns His Name,” in 1968, Ed Hoch and other frequent contributors—all of whom rightly sang his praises and had enormous respect for his editorial insight—warned me that, if I were to continue to write for EQMM, I’d better get used to the idea that some of my stories would come out with titles I hadn’t given them.
It took me about a year—and about a dozen monthly rejections—to come up with a second story Mr. Dannay liked. Given the existence of an Ellery Queen novel titled Inspector Queen’s Own Case, I thought that a perfect title for E.Q. Griffen’s second case would be—no surprise here—“E.Q. Griffen’s Second Case.” Worried that Mr. Dannay would change that, though, I gambled and submitted the story under a different title. And, sure enough, when it appeared in the May 1970 issue, its forgettable title (which I have myself long since forgotten) had been changed . . . to “E.Q. Griffen’s Second Case”!
That was the only time I ever put one over on Mr. Dannay, but it wasn’t the only time he changed one of my titles. In 1972, I called a story “S.O.S.” I was really proud of that one, since —at least in my opinion—it subtly foreshadowed an important twist near the end of the story. Mr. Dannay, however, felt that “S.O.S.” didn’t just foreshadow the twist but gave it away, and he renamed the story “The Tip-Off.” I usually agreed with his title changes, but this one time I still think he got it wrong.
After Mr. Dannay passed on and Eleanor Sullivan took over the reins at EQMM, she generally respected contributors’ titles. The one time she changed one of mine was on the fifth Chaudri story she bought from me. It was set in Morocco, on the central square of the city of Marrakesh, and I called it “Jemaa el Fna,” which is the name of the square. I thought that was a wonderful title: evocative, mysterious, almost sensuous. What reader could see that double a in “Jemaa” and the unusual Fn combination in “Fna” and not be immediately swept into the story’s exotic world? When I received my contributor’s copies of the June 1986 issue, though, I saw that Eleanor had changed the title to the boring “The Exchange.” And it’s not just that “The Exchange” was boring, by the way. My first Chaudri story, which had appeared less than two years earlier (in the July ’84 issue), was titled “The Dilmun Exchange.” So the series included both “The Dilmun Exchange” and “The Exchange”—and, honestly, I would have exchanged that second title for just about anything else.
In 1991, Janet Hutchings became only the third editor-in-chief in EQMM’s now eighty-year existence, and in her three decades of helming the magazine she’s never changed any of my titles. As I was preparing this blog post, I asked her if she ever changes any titles. “I have,” she told me, “most often because of their length. One difference between me and Fred in this regard is that I always consult with the author in such a case. But I’ve always been glad I did not ask for a change of title for ‘The Man Who Took His Hat Off to the Driver of the Train’ by Peter Turnbull, which won the Edgar, or ‘Of Course You Know That Chocolate Is a Vegetable’ by Barb D’Amato, which won both the Agatha and Anthony awards. I can’t help feeling those good titles helped gain the attention of judges and award voters.”
I agree with Janet that long titles—if used sparingly—can be particularly interesting. I remember almost nothing from the plot of the movie Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad—except for the fact that some wealthy woman totes her dead husband’s corpse around the world with her—but by gosh I remember that title, word for word!
My own longest title—so far!—clocks in at a paltry nine words: “When You Sue, You Begin With Do, Ray, Me,” which appeared in the 2019 Bouchercon anthology Denim, Diamonds and Death. My longest EQMM title to date was one word shorter: “The Adventure of the Black-and-Blue Carbuncle,” which came out just a few issues ago, in November/December 2020.
And my shortest title up to now has been only two characters long: “50,” which was in the November/December 2018 issue and finished second in that year’s Reader Award balloting.
Hmm, maybe shorter is better.
If you’ll excuse me, I think I need to go write a story titled “.”
Although he’s written several novels, David Dean is primarily a short-story writer. After debuting in EQMM’s Department of First Stories more than thirty years ago, he’s continued to produce a number of stories for us each year, while also contributing tales to anthologies. I’ve found that people sometimes don’t realize how wide the fictional range of an author who specializes in short fiction can be. David Dean exemplifies the diversity that can be found in short tales by a single author. He’s probably best known for his series starring policeman Julian Hall, and we’ll have another first-rate entry in that series in our September/October 2021 issue, but he’s written a large number of nonseries stories too, including his Readers Award winning “Ibrahim’s Eyes” and his Edgar-nominated “Tomorrow’s Dead.” He’s also become one of our best historical crime fiction writers. His best work in that subgenre of the mystery includes the Readers Award winning “The Duelist.” In this post, David relates his inspiration for a series that not only takes readers back in time but across cultural lines. The latest in that series, “Stone Coat,” is in our current issue (March/April 2021).—Janet Hutchings
In the January/February 2019 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine I introduced the Native American character, Owl, in a story titled, “Snow Boy”. The events that transpire in both that tale and his return in “Stone Coat,” in the current March/April issue are, of course, fictional, though I like to think that they could’ve happened. Owl is a shaman of the Lenape Nation living in what is now southern New Jersey. Many readers may be more familiar with them as the Delaware, a name the English settlers would award them in honor of the great Lord De La Warr who had been granted the earth beneath the Lenape’s feet by the English monarch. No doubt, the Lenape were puzzled at being renamed for a man whom they would never meet, yet whose name would grace rivers, bays, counties, towns, and even a future state within the Lenapehoking, which was their own name for their homeland. Though I don’t pin the stories down to a particular year, there is reference in “Snow Boy” to the Zwannendael massacre which had happened some three decades prior, so roughly 1663.
If you happen to wonder at my choice of subject, time, and locale, I can offer several explanations, the first being that I have long been fascinated by Native American history. This love began when I had my tonsils removed at nine years old. Knowing that I was already promised ice cream when I awoke from the procedure (that was a given), I felt emboldened to demand more—I wanted a book on the French and Indian Wars (as to what I imagined my bargaining chip to be, I can’t recall, nor do I remember what had sparked my interest in that particular subject).
Puzzled, no doubt, my parents did their best, but were only able to come up with a book on the Revolutionary War that contained a few references to the role of the Indians in the War of Independence. In the end, it didn’t matter—I read it voraciously and kept going from there.
The thing that prompted me to write of the Lenape in particular was locale, both theirs and mine. I live in southern New Jersey where they also once lived, hunted, and farmed. Arrowheads and spear points can still be found along the Delaware Bay not five minutes from my home. A nearby street, Indian Trail Road, is so named due to having been built on an ancient path blazed by the Lenape connecting the Delaware Bay to the Atlantic Ocean. Large tracts of maritime forest, salt marshes, and coastlines make it easy to imagine that earlier time, especially in the off-season when a deep quiet descends upon the land after the tourists have departed.
Lastly, as a writer, I enjoy incorporating my love of Native American history into my fiction. I don’t dumb anything down. Life during this era was as challenging and demanding as any other in history, and a pivotal time for the Lenape.
“Snow Boy” touches on the political situation not only with the white settlers, but also with that of their Native American neighbors. “Stone Coat” reveals the full complexity of those relationships as they were developing at that time. The Lenape, and Owl as their shaman, are increasingly pressed on several fronts, not the least of which is the growing Iroquois Confederacy known as The Five Nations. These consisted of the Mohawk, Oneida, Cayuga, Onondaga, and Seneca tribes—all Iroquois speakers.
It would be wrong, however, to think that with the coming of Europeans that all Native Americans coalesced into a single entity, or that they had ever recognized themselves as unified peoples. They were as diverse as the continental landscape they dwelt upon. They spoke different languages, had different cultures, and were varied in their tribal structures. Rivalries, feuds, and longstanding enmity between various nations and neighbors had also existed long before the arrival of the white man. So too had ancient alliances, affinities, and trade agreements. Their situation, just as that of the European invaders, was complex and fluid.
The Lenapehoking encompassed what is now southeastern New York, all of New Jersey, southeastern Pennsylvania, and eastern Delaware. Yet the Lenape were never a populous nation. They existed as a loosely knit group of bands organized under a matrilineal clan system. Men married outside their own clans and their children were raised in the mother’s by her family. This custom had the advantage of discouraging in-breeding, but was confusing to the Dutch, English, and Swedes that encountered it during the colonial era. Women also enjoyed an equality of status that was mostly foreign to Europeans, being able to own property and have a voice in the affairs of their households and villages.
So this then is the stage upon which my stories are set. All that is left are for their characters to appear. And that is the hard part. It would be ridiculous for me to claim that I have any knowledge of how a Native American living in the 1600s might actually think. The Lenape (Algonquian-speakers) did not have a written language at that time, so that is not a resource I could turn to. There are, however, some accounts by early white settlers (mostly missionaries and some government officials) that do detail the words of a few Lenape chiefs and leaders of the day. One is able to get a feel for their speech and cadence in the better written of these, and the sense they impart—to me, at least—is one of careful deliberation of thought and an earnestness of purpose. They are both proud and realistic.
It is also possible to know something of their customs and beliefs thanks to the lifelong efforts of such people as historian C.A. Weslager, and anthropologist Herbert C. Kraft, both of whom made the study of the Lenape their life’s work. Some of these customs and rituals are practiced today by the descendants of those early Lenape now living in Oklahoma and other places.
With these things in mind I set about creating the characters of Owl, Shingas, Wolf Paw, Poushe, Snow Boy, and others. Owl, the main character, being the shaman for his band, has duties touching on matters both natural and supernatural. He is a person of great discernment and a keen student of human nature. Wolf Paw, as chief, relies on Owl as an advisor, healer, and, when necessary, a sorcerer. Though having grown old, Wolf Paw has not grown jaded. He enjoys conversation, especially when he is the one speaking, and has a subtle sense of humor, mostly at the expense of others. Shingas, the village’s lead hunter and fiercest warrior, serves as Owl’s reluctant bodyguard and vigilant companion. His tendency to violence is both fueled and controlled by his sense of duty to his people. These three form the triumvirate of my tales.
In many ways, both “Snow Boy” and Stone Coat” are as much tales of adventure, as they are of mystery. Perhaps their inspiration hearkens back to my nine-year-old self lying in a hospital bed in what also seems like a different historical period. Of course, in the end, Owl, and his companions are fictional, and a product of my imagination. They are my responsibility. It is also my responsibility to entertain, which I hope that I have done with these two stories. If not, I have failed on two fronts, and can only plead that I have done my best to honor both the subject and the reader to the best of my ability.
Mike Adamson made his EQMM debut in our January/February 2021 issue with the story “The Shadow of the New.” Previously, most of his stories were in the field of speculative fiction, where he’s received nominations for the Hugo and Aurealis awards. He’s a big Sherlock Holmes fan, so it’s not surprising that his first EQMM story was a Holmes pastiche. In this post he takes a look at how mystery is incorporated into many other genres.—Janet Hutchings
When Janet invited me to contribute a guest post to the EQMM blog, I was both flattered and challenged—flattered because I’ve rarely had the chance to pen the proverbial op-ed, and challenged because mystery is the field to which I have come most recently. I’ve been a writer of one sort or other most of my life, but have engaged with mystery late, and found it rather fun.
All genres have their formula, but the uncovering of facts deliberately obscured, in a duel of wits, is endemic to all of human endeavour. Thus mystery is one of the most flexible of all genres, pairing, as it does with pretty much any other. One might have a mystery element in almost any context—a Western, for instance, a historical by definition, yet interpreted loosely and according to long-established internal criteria, with a range of hues from adventure to romance, yet the solving of a crime is endemic to many of those stories. What would a Western be without a law man after a wrong-doer? While this model skewed naturally to adventure at the hands of early Hollywood, it might also by assigned to mystery at a purely theoretical level. Deleting the daring-do aspect that has so characterised the Western genre, it would be interesting to set a pure mystery against the background of late nineteenth-century America. In essence this is what Conan Doyle was doing with his American motivational origins for the crimes in both A Study in Scarlet and The Valley of Fear, though pursued somewhat unconventionally by the narrative providing the solution before revealing the backstory in each case.
Mystery suits any era or approach, and the historical context has offered great possibilities. As an emerging Holmesian writer I have found the Victorian era a most fascinating context in which to pursue the vagaries of human nature. It also offers a world bereft of the technology which cuts corners in the modern world, making the storyteller think, flex the muscles of both plotting and research. The same would be true of any pretechnological context, of course, and mystery in ancient times can be every bit as riveting as modern—think Robert van Gulik’s adventures of the historical Judge Dee in the golden age of Tang Dynasty China. Futuristic detective stories occupy the other end of the spectrum, dealing as they can with wider issues than the contravention of the law per se—think Philip K. Dick’s seminal Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and its modern realisation as Blade Runner. Ridley Scott’s take was a thorough-going tribute to the classic detective movies of the forties and fifties, pure film noir, complete with smokey rooms, hard-bitten, embittered characters, high stakes, and violent confrontation. It notably included such visual metaphors of the genre as light through Venetian blinds, a staple seen in almost every detective movie of the old school.
The mystery formula can raise its head in unusual places—Isaac Asimov’s classic Space Ranger novels, for instance. Written between 1952 and 1958, they are six compact outings following a strict sixteen-chapter layout, set in various places throughout the solar system, and each features a mystery of some sort.
One may not consider oneself expressly a mystery fan to be well-acquainted with the genre, though today that is more likely to mean visual entertainment than literary. I can look back on at least four productions of The Hound of the Baskervilles over the decades, which may be viewed quite independently of the rest of the Holmesian canon. I have fond memories of Agatha Christie dramatisations, such as the four classic Margaret Rutherford Miss Marple outings from the early 1960s, or Peter Ustinov’s delightful Poirot collection. When it comes to the “police procedural” subgenre, could there be greater opposites than, say, the contemporary British Midsomer Murders, which follows a classic formula of last-scene reveal, or the unique Columbo formula from the 1970s, in which, in the first act, the viewer observed the commission of the crime in every detail, including the identity of the killer, then delighted in the logic-train by which the culprit was undone?
For the mystery purist, solving the crime is surely the heart and soul of the genre, all else is window-dressing, yet dressing contributes intimately to mood. Crime, through the aspect of engendered fear, blends so nicely with horror! Much body-horror derives from the terror of entirely mortal crime, the slashers and serial killers, cannibals and head-hunters, and assorted other ghoulish and deranged perpetrators, yet there is a fine line between the insane and the supernatural. Beyond this point, the “occult detective” subgenre comes into its own, where the investigation of crime blurs into that of the paranormal when such has left tangible evidence. From there it departs into vampire hunting, keeping the dead in their graves—Kolchak, the Night Stalker is perhaps the purest definition of this, the investigator who alone believes in the bizarre and can thus bring the murders to an end. But even this tangential interpretation of mystery can also embrace the traditional graduations, from cosy to hardboiled.
The future offers wide scope to the mystery writer, whether blending with romance or thriller, for though one might be forgiven for thinking that every permutation of every crime has been done (Conan Doyle, via Holmes, remarked on the limited variations possible in any scenario, well over a hundred years ago) new technology offers its own corruption into an instrument of murder or other crime. The first time someone rigs a matter-transmitter to disintegrate the traveler rather than transport him or her to another destination, the technology will have been perverted to the basest of human callings, demanding some smart deductive reasoning to sort out. This is the danger of new tech: it can always be perverted. As the saying goes, “nothing we create is good or evil, merely the ends to which it is put.” I wrote a story once about nanotech being used to cure cancer, but ever after the patient felt marginally unwell. His doctor was programming the nano in his body to keep him that way—nothing serious, just enough to ensure he came back for endless prescriptions of over-the-counter medicines, paid for by government subsidy, while the manufacturers paid a kick-back to the doctors involved for keeping demand high. That’s pure future crime in a context not very far removed from the present day.
I look forward to further exploring the genre in both past and future contexts, and to developing the muscles of plotting to one day deliver a case at novel length. But that’s a long way off, and for the moment, Victorian England calls—in short-story format!
Short-story writer and popular-fiction fan Kevin Mims is back this week talking about seminal years in crime fiction and making a case for the greatest one of all. —Janet Hutchings
What was the greatest year in the history of crime fiction? Obviously the question can’t be answered definitively. You could look at the number of great crime writers born in a particular year. You could look at the number of high-quality crime novels published in a particular year. You could argue that 1841, the year of publication of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” regarded as the first modern detective tale, is the most important year in the history of crime fiction. You could argue that 1887, the year in which Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional detective Sherlock Holmes made his first appearance, was the greatest year in the history of crime fiction. Depending upon your criteria, you could probably make a case for any number of years.
Take a look at 1953, for instance. It was the year in which Raymond Chandler published his final novel (The Long Good-bye) and Ira Levin and Ian Fleming published their first (A Kiss Before Dying and Casino Royale, respectively). Also published in that year were Ellery Queen’s The Scarlet Letters, Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral and A Pocket Full of Rye, John Dickson Carr’s The Cavalier’s Cup, Roald Dahl’s Someone Like You, Rex Stout’s The Golden Spiders, and Jim Thompson’s Savage Night. What’s more, 1953 brought the debut of several excellent thrillers for the stage, including Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution, Max Frisch’s The Arsonists, and Emlyn Williams’ Someone Waiting (which was the source of the classic 1957 film noir Time Without Pity).
To make my case for 1975 as the greatest year in the history of crime fiction, I will first direct your attention to Publishers Weekly’s list of the ten best-selling novels in the U.S. for 1975. The number-one bestseller of the year was E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime. You could classify the book as a literary novel or historical novel, but it is most definitely a crime novel as well, one that mixes historical figures (Emma Goldman, J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford, Harry Houdini, Booker T. Washington, etc.) with a cast of equally fascinating fictional characters. Two murderers figure prominently in the story. One is wealthy and white (Harry Thaw, the real-life killer of famed New York City architect Stanford White); the other is a black musician named Coalhouse Walker, Jr., who goes on a killing spree after a dangerous run-in with a group of racist firemen in New Rochelle, New York, indirectly leads to the death of his fiancée. By the end of the novel, only one of those two killers has escaped being punished for his crime (I’ll let you guess which). Despite stiff competition from a lot of well-known crime writers, Doctorow ended up writing the single most chilling sentence to appear in a crime novel that year. As one of his characters is being tommy-gunned to death by New York City cops, Doctorow writes: The body jerked about the street in a sequence of attitudes as if it were trying to mop up its own blood. Try getting that image out of your head.
Number two on the 1975 bestsellers list was The Moneychangers by Arthur Hailey. Like many of Hailey’s other novels (Airport, Hotel, etc.) the novel is an exploration of an entire industry (in this case, banking). Banks, of course, are filled with money. And, money being the root of all evil, a novel about banking is sure to be filled with crime. One of Hailey’s main characters is Miles Eastin, a bank teller who goes to jail for committing fraud. In jail he is gang-raped. When he gets out of jail, his former employers at the bank hire him to go undercover and infiltrate a gang of credit-card fraudsters. It works for a while, but when the fraudsters figure out that there is a spy among them, things go from bad to worse for poor Miles Eastin. The Moneychangers isn’t a banking novel with a bit of crime in it. It’s a crime novel with a bit of banking in it.
In third place on the list we find Curtain by Agatha Christie. This was the last Agatha Christie novel published during her lifetime (she died in January of 1976) and the last appearance of Hercule Poirot in the Christie canon. This combination—last book the author saw into print, last canonical appearance of the author’s most famous creation, and huge bestseller—makes Curtain one of Christie’s most important works.
In fourth place on the list of 1975’s bestselling novels we find Judith Rossner’s Looking For Mr. Goodbar, one of the most famous crime novels of the decade. Inspired by the real-life murder of New York City schoolteacher Roseann Quinn, the book spent 36 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list (three of them at number one) and sold over four million copies. The film rights were sold for $250,000, a huge sum at the time.
In fifth place on the list is Joseph Wambaugh’s The Choirboys. Not only is this my favorite of Wambaugh’s novels, it’s one of my favorite novels of the decade. With its dark, anarchic humor it owes more to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 than to any previous police procedural. It is a stone-cold masterpiece of American crime fiction. In 1995 the Mystery Writers of America listed it among the Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time. I consider it among the top 25 crime novels ever written.
In sixth place on the list of the best-selling novels of 1975 is Jack Higgins’s The Eagle Has Landed, a great World War II crime thriller. This one made the British-based Crime Writers Association’s list of the Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time. It has sold more than 50 million copies over the course of its long life, and was turned into a successful film in 1976.
Irving Stone’s fact-based The Greek Treasure, the seventh best-selling novel of 1975, is not a crime novel. It does, however, include a search for a lost city that many experts believed to be fictional until archeologist Henry Schliemann actually found its ancient burial site. So there is mystery and adventure aplenty in the novel, even if it doesn’t really qualify as a mystery novel.
In eighth place we find The Great Train Robbery, probably the least typical novel ever to come from the imagination of Michael Crichton, who is best known for his techno-thrillers. Like Looking for Mr. Goodbar, this novel was inspired by a real-life crime, in this case the Great Gold Robbery of 1855 (too bad Crichton didn’t title it Looking for Mr. Gold Bar). This is my favorite of Crichton’s many novels and one of my favorite novels of the 1970s. Crichton himself directed a 1978 film version of the story, which was nominated for an Edgar Award for Best Motion Picture.
The final two books on Publishers Weekly’s list of the best-selling novels of 1975 were James Clavell’s epic historical novel Shogun, and Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift, a literary novel that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1976.
Never before or since, have so many top-notch works of crime fiction appeared on a year-end list of bestsellers. The coming years would bring plenty of best-selling crime novels from the likes of Mary Higgins Clark, John Grisham, Scott Turow, and others, but the biggest sellers of the remaining decades of the twentieth century would be romance novels by Danielle Steel and others, horror novels by Stephen King and Anne Rice, historical fiction by Jean Auel and James Michener and the like, Tom Clancy Cold War thrillers, and so forth.
Of course, the literary history of a particular year is determined by more than just the bestseller list. Plenty of excellent crime novels that didn’t make the Publishers Weekly list were also published in 1975. One such book is Where Are the Children?, the debut suspense novel of the aforementioned Mary Higgins Clark. Though it wasn’t a huge bestseller initially, it rapidly became one of the best-known thrillers of the decade and is listed at number 50 on the MWA’s selection of the Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time. The novel has been through at least seventy-five reprints and by now has probably outsold every one of the best-selling novels of 1975, with the possible exception of The Eagle Has Landed.
Also on the MWA list of the Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time you will find Elizabeth Peters’s Crocodile on the Sandbank and John D. MacDonald’s The Dreadful Lemon Sky, both of which were published in 1975. It was also the year that Colin Dexter’s iconic Inspector Morse character was introduced in the novel Last Bus To Woodstock. Martin Amis’s second novel, Dead Babies, a spoof of Agatha Christie style country-house mysteries, was published that year. Thomas Harris, who would later become the grandmaster of the serial-killer thriller (The Red Dragon, The Silence of the Lambs, etc.) made his debut as a novelist in 1975 with the publication of Black Sunday, a thriller about an attempt by terrorists to turn the Super Bowl into the site of a massacre. Not only did 1975 bring us Agatha Christie’s last Hercule Poirot novel, it also brought us Rex Stout’s final Nero Wolfe novel, A Family Affair. Stout died in October of that year, just six months after the book’s publication. Roald Dahl’s 1975 novel Danny, The Champion of the World was included on Time magazine’s list of the 100 Best Young-Adult Books of All Time. It’s also a crime novel about a game-poacher and his son and how they try to pull off the granddaddy of all poaching capers. Amazingly, none of the great 1975 crime novels I’ve mentioned so far won the Edgar Award for the Best Novel of the Year.
The year 1975 also brought the death of P.G. Wodehouse. Though rightly regarded as the greatest comic novelist ever to write in English, Wodehouse was also a crime novelist. In fact, many of his novels have some sort of illicit caper going on among all of the other madcap shenanigans. Wodehouse’s first novel, The Pothunters, was about the theft of valuable sporting trophies at a private boys school. One of the most memorable characters in his Blandings Castle cycle of stories and novels is The Empress, a prized pig who gets stolen or kidnapped in nearly every book in which she makes an appearance. Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen, the final Wodehouse novel published during his lifetime, is a comic caper about the kidnapping of a cat and an attempt to fix the outcome of a horse race. Bertie Wooster, having been wrongly accused of the kidnapping, is bound and gagged while the police are fetched. Jeeves masquerades as Bertie’s attorney in order to win his release. In the U.S. it was published on April 14, 1975, exactly two months after Wodehouse’s death on Valentine’s Day.
Curiously, though several prominent crime novelists died in 1975, no major crime novelists appear to have been born in that year. Of course, people born in 1975 are currently in their mid forties and there is still plenty of time for one of them to emerge as the Elmore Leonard or Mary Higgins Clark of Generation X. The 1970s arrived during an era of rising U.S. crime rates that began around 1960 and lasted until 1991. Since then, for a variety of reasons (an aging population, lower poverty rates, stricter policing, longer prison sentences) crime rates in the U.S. have largely been in decline. This may account for why so many contemporary writers who were born in the 1950s (Michael Connolly, Laura Lippman, Patricia Cornwell, Lee Child, etc.) seem drawn to gritty realistic crime dramas reminiscent of the best work of the 1970s. In addition to all the assassinations of the era, the 1960s were punctuated by numerous high-profile crimes, such as Alice Crimmins’ murder of her two children (the inspiration for Dorothy Uhnak’s novel The Investigation), the murder of Kitty Genovese (inspiration for a lot of fiction, including Uhnak’s The Witness), and the Tate-LaBianca murders (which have been inspiring books and movies for more than fifty years, most recently Emma Cline’s 2016 novel The Girls, and Quentin Tarantino’s 2019 film Once Upon a Time . . . In Hollywood). By the 1970s, this trend had become thoroughly entrenched in American popular culture. Writers who lived in big cities were often intimately acquainted with crime. Joseph Wambaugh was a former LAPD sergeant. Dorothy Uhnak spent fourteen years as a New York City transit cop before turning to crime writing.
If you want to make a case for some other year being the best in the history of crime fiction, I’m eager to hear your arguments. But as for me, I’ll take 1975. It was a great time to be a crime-fiction fan. Even if they didn’t release a book in 1975, a lot of legendary crime writers were active at the time and the paperback racks of supermarkets and department stores and airport gift shops and even actual bookstores all across America were filled with titles by the likes of Patricia Highsmith, Elmore Leonard, Jim Thompson, Dorothy Uhnak, Lawrence Block, Donald E. Westlake, Bill Pronzini, Dick Francis, Chester Himes, Margaret Millar, Ross Macdonald, P.D. James, Tony Hillerman, Martin Cruz Smith, Ngaio Marsh, Stanley Ellin, Ira Levin, Len Deighton, Mary Stewart, Frederick Forsyth, Brian Garfield, and many, many others. What’s more, I still had all my hair, very few lines on my face, a closet full of bell-bottomed jeans and tie-dyed T-shirts, and could participate in playground basketball games for hours on end without getting winded. How could it ever get any better than that?
A current nominee for the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Short Story for her January/February 2020 EQMM story “The Summer Uncle Cat Came to Stay,” Leslie Elman had short stories published in just two other venues—Mystery Weekly and Vautrin Magazine—prior to her EQMM debut. We congratulate her on the extraordinary achievement of being nominated for the field’s most prestigious short-story award so early in her career. The winner will be announced at the end of April. The author also writes the syndicated newspaper column “Trivia Bits.” It turns out that she is a regular reader of EQMM, and in this post she references an important department of the magazine, Passport to Crime. —Janet Hutchings
Scrolling through Twitter (as I’ve been doing entirely too much these days), I came upon a link to “A Year of Reading the World.” It’s a blog written by U.K. author Ann Morgan based on her 2015 book, Reading the World (published in the U.S. and Canada as The World Between Two Covers). The book was the result of Morgan’s “year-long journey through a book from every country in the world.” Over the course of that odyssey, she drew some conclusions about “the big questions . . . such as how translation, censorship, cultural identity and technology affect the way we share and understand stories.”
In a more informal way, considering much smaller questions, I’ve pursued a similar goal: “Reading the World” through mystery and crime fiction—not reading about a country other than my own, but reading from that country. There’s a difference. For while countless ex-pat authors write mysteries set in their adopted homelands, there’s an authenticity that comes from authors writing about the people and places, customs and behavior they know natively and intuitively.
Among my early forays into “foreign” crime fiction were the Alba and Gorodish novels written by Daniel Odier under the pseudonym Delacorta. They include Diva, the basis for the French-language film released in the U.S. in 1982. Short, spare, and [disclaimer] not necessarily politically correct, the Delacorta books helped me understand that a writer can paint a vivid picture and plot a clever tale using a limited number of words, provided they’re the right words.
After Delacorta, I read George Simenon and, much later, Pascal Garnier (“true heir to Simenon,” per John Banville’s cover blurb), both masters of tight, tense storytelling. They took me places I’d never been, introduced me to people unlike those I knew, fed me meals I’d never eaten.
Reading these novels also reminded me that international fiction isn’t limited to the classics we (were supposed to have) read in college. Ordinary French-speaking readers of today weren’t on a steady diet of Victor Hugo. They were consuming popular novels like this.
When the world was all-in for Scandinavian crime fiction, I read the obligatory Stieg Larsson “Girl” books (well, two of them), but found I preferred Camilla Lackberg’s novels set in the small town of Fjällbacka and Henning Mankell’s Wallander books set in Ystad.
I liked Icelandic authors even more. Arnaldur Indriðason’s Jar City was rooted in concerns about genetic research, an issue that had particular resonance for Icelanders. Yrsa Sigurðardóttir based her novel, Ashes to Dust, on events that might have followed the real volcanic eruption on Heimaey Island in 1973.
The authors rightly assumed that Icelandic readers would be aware of these circumstances and events in the same way an American author might figure American readers are familiar with the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina. If I didn’t know about historic volcanic eruptions in Iceland, it was up to me to catch up. I caught up.
I’m intrigued by points of reference: why people know what they know—and why they don’t know what they don’t know.
If you watch Jeopardy!, you’ve almost certainly been flabbergasted when some super-smart player misses a question that seems achingly obvious to you. “That’s common knowledge!” you shout at the TV screen in disgust. But that depends on what you consider “common.”
Through my experience in the world of international quizzing, as a question setter and occasional competitor, I’ve witnessed many instances in which “common knowledge” would more appropriately be termed “local knowledge”—Canadians bemused by non-Canadians who’ve never heard of Nanaimo bars, or a team of Australians chuckling when a team of Americans (that included me) blows a question about Lamingtons. (Nanaimo bars and Lamingtons are desserts I very much would like to sample.)
It all has to do with a person’s background and life experience. The Indian novel Q&A by Vikas Swarup expresses this perfectly. Although it was the basis for the film Slumdog Millionaire, the novel is not a love story but a thriller, whose plot stems from the fact that no one knows everything, but everyone knows something.
Academic knowledge might make us seem smart, but local knowledge defines us and connects us to others.
Years ago, I met a Polish woman at a business event and mentioned I’d been reading crime novels by Polish authors. She responded with a polite nod.
“A Grain of Truth by Zygmunt Miłoszewski,” I told her.
No recognition on her part.
“It’s set in Sandomierz,” I continued.
A flicker of reaction from her.
“There are these underground tunnels and . . .”
Her expression changed completely. “Yes!” she said. “The tunnels. That was a school trip for children in Poland—to the tunnels in Sandomierz!” A fact that locals know so well rang true for her. She wrote down the title and author.
On a visit to Maastricht, a bookseller sent me off with English-language translations of books by Esther Verhoef and Saskia Noort. Both were domestic dramas involving suburban women with too much disposable wealth and too much time on their hands. One reviewer called such books a Dutch version of Desperate Housewives. Clearly, some themes are universal. So are some points of reference. As Ann Morgan of “Reading the World” tweeted recently, “. . . . This week I am reading a novel from Cameroon and one from Japan. Both reference the US TV detective show, Columbo . . .”
I can’t recall what led me to Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano books, set in Sicily, but now I can’t imagine my reading life without them. In addition to the wonderful characterization, wry humor, and the food (my word, THE FOOD!), translator Stephen Sartarelli provides endnotes that explain Sicilian idioms as well as the real-life events that Camilleri refers to in his stories.
London-based publisher Bitter Lemon Press is a superb source of English-language translations of international crime fiction. Through them, I found Esmahan Aykol, who writes breezy contemporary crime novels featuring Kati Hirschel, a bookshop owner in Istanbul. Another standout was A Crack in the Wall by Claudia Piñeiro, about a Buenos Aires architect whose life is going wrong in every possible way. The Aosawa Murders by Japanese author Riku Onda, released in English in 2020, is a quiet and original thriller that . . . well . . . to say more would risk spoiling the experience of reading it yourself.
This brings me to “Passport to Crime,” my favorite part of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. With its help, in the past couple of years, I went inside an Italian advertising agency, experienced tragic history in a German mining town, took a harrowing drive on a snowy night in Beijing, and made a very peculiar trip to a Japanese carnival. It’s my bimonthly opportunity to continue reading the world through crime fiction in stories told the way only locals can tell them.
Last week, EQMM’s March/April issue went on sale. In it is the Department of First Stories debut of Ray Bazowski. The professor of politics at Toronto’s York University had previously submitted this first work of fiction, “Mother,” under a different title and in a shorter version, to the 2019 Margery Allingham Short Story Competition—which it won! Publication does not accompany the prestigious Margery Allingham competition and so the story made its way to EQMM. We think you’ll enjoy it. In this post the author offers some thoughts about writing not for the ages but for a contemporary market.—Janet Hutchings
Great literature, it is often said, is timeless. That may be so, but it pays to remember that authors always write for a particular audience—an audience of their contemporaries. How and why some literature transcends that audience and its time are questions that literary theorists have long debated. Somewhat less attention, however, has been paid to the question of why any particular work enjoys a favourable initial reception. This latter is a question that I have had to contend with for very prosaic and self-interested reasons. As a novice crime-fiction writer, I’ve found it necessary to consider not only what are the particular norms and expectations of the literary form, but also what kinds of stories are likely to find an audience today.
The demands of the genre seem pretty straightforward. The famed British writer, Margery Allingham, gave a succinct description of what makes for a successful mystery: “The Mystery remains box-shaped, at once a prison and a refuge. Its four walls are, roughly, a Crime, a Mystery, an Enquiry and a Conclusion with an Element of Satisfaction in it.” The prison she speaks of are the devices and conventions of the story in which detection of a crime is the centrepiece. But what of the refuge? Refuge from what? The question itself, I think, contains the clue to the popularity of crime fiction when it ascended to its classic novel form in the 1920s and 1930s with the works of writers such as Allingham, Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie, Michael Innes, and of course, the pseudonymous Ellery Queen, to name just a few.
To understand just why their literary efforts became so immediately popular, it is important to observe that the generation that was the audience for these writers had a common experience. They were witness, at whatever remove, to the Great War. This war to end all wars proved to be a phantasmagoria of horror—killing on an industrial scale such as had never before been seen. Which is why I think crime fiction had the appeal it did to this early audience. The horrendous scale of carnage during four years of futile trench warfare (not to mention the many more millions who died from the influenza epidemic at its conclusion) was almost impossible to comprehend. It was as if reason had abandoned the field to an inexplicably capricious and wanton force.
By contrast, the detective novel, with its stylized settings, its familiar characters, and its conventional crimes, has no place for the unfathomable. This, I suggest, was its contribution to readers demoralized by appalling events of the recent past. It presented killing on a human scale that is understandable, and importantly, that is something solvable, not, as in war, through the preponderance of brute force, but by the operation of intellect. It is likely no accident that the detective novel and newspaper crosswords gained popularity about the same time on both sides of the Atlantic. Both introduce the reader to a carefully crafted puzzle whose contours are reassuringly familiar and whose resolution the reader anticipates will provide a satisfactory conclusion to a labour of mind.
Of course, not everyone was a fan of the genre. For instance, Edmund Wilson in his much-cited 1945 put-down of crime fiction, “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?”, wasn’t shy in expressing his disdain for the form when he wrote that such literature is “a kind of vice that, for silliness and minor harmfulness, ranks somewhere between smoking and crossword puzzles.” His patrician focus on style left Wilson grumbling about what he perceived to be a lamentable lack of artistry in the genre. And he attributed to its misguided readers a lazy intellect, or worse still, an addiction disorder.
It is surprising that for a critic so attuned to the historical interpretation of literature, Wilson did not attempt to extend that type of analysis to crime fiction in a more rigorous fashion. True, he did recognize that the interwar years had psychologically prepared its readers for formulaic detective stories. According to Wilson, this historical period was characterized by generalized feelings of guilt in which responsibility for the ills and evils of the world could never be categorically demonstrated. The allure of crime novels, he concluded, was that in this fictional world where everyone is a suspect, the omniscient detective knows precisely where blame is to be attributed, thus relieving readers of those vague and unextinguished feelings of culpability for a malaise they cannot name.
The problem with this pseudo-Freudian explanation for the popularity of crime fiction is that it misapprehends the formula, or the prison walls as Allingham describes it. In the so-called Golden era of the genre which Wilson cavalierly dismisses, the backdrops for the stories were almost always crafted to appear ordinary. Not ordinary in the sense of realistic. These are after all literary contrivances. But they are contrivances that are made to feel familiar, whether they be a rural English village, a train carriage, a New York borough, or even an exotic locale that had been widely publicized by travel writers. This sense of acquaintance is also extended to the characters whose occupations and personalities were generally of the stock variety. These are people you are led to expect to see in the setting the author provides. It is in this ordinary, staged setting with its predictable characters that the crime takes place. It may well be that everyone, as Wilson suggests, must be regarded a suspect according to the formula. But he is wrong to imply that the tension in the mystery involves the supposition that all of us are capable of evil, a supposition that is finally overturned when the actual culprit is apprehended and shown to be uniquely malevolent. In fact, quite the opposite is the case. What is strikingly noticeable about the villains in most of the crime fiction of the period is how often their motives are themselves ordinary. And it is in this feature that its appeal can be found. The unnatural act of killing is made to seem natural because the motive is recognizable. The act of killing is thus humanized because it is so unlike the inhuman slaughter of war or the seemingly random stalking death of disease. It is precisely this humanization of killing which allows crime fiction to operate as the refuge Allingham identifies. In contrast to the threatening outside world, the inside world of crime fiction offers a safely contained drama about death. And it is this unspoken tension between outside and inside, I argue, which lends to the genre its distinctive appeal.
Crime writers have many different ways of managing this tension between outside and inside. In the noir variant of the genre, for instance, the outside is allowed to partially seep inside. This menacing outside, for example, the brutal world of gangsters or the corrupt world of officialdom, forms an essential part of the backdrop to the story’s central mystery. Interestingly, Wilson credits one noir writer, Raymond Chandler, with an agreeable artistry, lauding him for creating characters with depth and imbuing the detective story with a rich and compelling atmosphere. But in the end Wilson still criticizes Chandler for failing to come up with a conclusion worthy of the plot. Again, Wilson misunderstands the prison walls of the crime novel. Detection requires a resolution, however artificial, however facile. The power of the noir is not in the finale, but in the way in which the outside is brought inside, giving to the mystery that drives the plot its special kind of frisson.
Wilson thinks that what makes Chandler an exciting (albeit ultimately disappointing) writer is that through incident and ambiance he is able to bring to the surface the hidden horrors of the world. Though that’s not exactly what happens in a Chandler novel. The horror is not hidden; it is brought inside so that the reader can glimpse its dangers. Perhaps the best way to understand this creative exchange is to consider the conclusion to Chinatown, screenwriter Robert Towne’s homage to Chandler’s world. In the film, the detective, Jake Gittes, successfully solves the murder of Hollis Mulwray, the chief engineer of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, and former partner to Noah Cross, whose daughter, Evelyn, he had married. Nestled inside this detective mystery is a more complex story of incest, wealth, and power, signatures of a disturbing outside world where traditional moral strictures fall away. In the concluding scene, where Evelyn is killed while trying to escape her father’s efforts to reclaim his incestuously conceived daughter, the police detective who pulls Gittes away from the scene utters the memorable line: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” This obviously racist trope is meant to suggest that what had just happened is best left alone because, like other things that occur in Chinatown, it is inscrutable. Except for Jake Gittes and the viewer, the horror is entirely scrutable. That Noah Cross is able to get away with the murder of his former partner and recover his illegitimate daughter testify to a forbidding outside world where money is power, and where the powerful heed no rules other than those they will for themselves.
Among the many examples of how noir produces its literary effect, Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels, particularly the first two of the Berlin Noir Trilogy, stand out as especially notable because of how deliberately he designed the interchange between inside and outside. In having his hard-nosed detective solve more-or-less ordinary though vicious crimes in a setting the reader knows to be the site of an impending, world-transformative horror, the author accomplished something akin to breaking down the fourth wall in the performative arts by inviting the reader to ponder whether there is a difference or a continuum between human crimes and crimes against humanity.
I don’t know whether the schema between outside and inside offered here is helpful in understanding the diverse species of crime fiction now available to modern readers. I suspect it doesn’t work so well with procedurals that pride themselves on fidelity to the real world. Nor for those that directly mine psychological horror that once used to be referred to obliquely. Yet I think that the best of crime fiction still fulfills a critical role: it humanizes—which is not the same as saying it commends—the act of murder. In doing so, such literature leads us, unwittingly or not, to reflect upon our common humanity.
John Lantigua’s fifth and latest Willie Cuesta novel, Remember My Face, was published in 2020 to rave reviews. A Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, John has been writing Willie Cuesta stories for EQMM for many years. In this post he gives readers (and Willie’s many fans) some insight into the character’s creation. —Janet Hutchings
I have published eight novels in total, the last five of which star Willie Cuesta, the Miami-based, Cuban-American private eye. I’ve also published a dozen short stories protagonized by Willie, eleven of which have appeared in this very magazine. Over the years I have been asked a question by people who have read those books and/or stories:
“Are you and Willie Cuesta one and the same person?”
I’m sure other writers of series fiction have had to field this same inquiry. Not all, of course. I don’t know that Agatha Christie was ever asked if she and Hercule Poirot were one and the same. To begin with there was the missing moustache, not to mention the Belgian passport for Poirot.
But I figure Ross Macdonald, Robert B. Parker, Sara Paretsky, Laura Lippman, Walter Mosley, and other creators of iconic sleuths have heard some form of that same question. And let’s not forget Arthur Conan Doyle.
I don’t know what they answered, but I consider it a tricky question. As the author you are there at the birth of your character. You are mother, father—as well as literary obstetrician. But how alike is your DNA and that of your character?
If it will help, here is what I remember of Willie’s birth. It was 1997 and I was a reporter at the Miami Herald. I had published three standalone novels and had been learning as much as I could about Miami since moving here in 1992 with the express idea of creating a series character. I had decided that the first novel in that series would concern a Miami phenomenon known as the “Pedro Pan Kids.” They were 14,000 plus young people smuggled out of Cuba during the early years of communist rule there in the 1960s. They flew off the island to freedom, hence the reference to Peter Pan. This story was true and a treasured bit of lore in Cuban Miami, but most people outside South Florida had never heard of it.
For months, I interviewed the “kids” themselves, although they were now middle-aged. I also spoke with people who had helped design the smuggling operation and who also found foster homes and orphanages that could care for the children, while their parents worked to get off the island themselves. Eventually, most the parents did make it, but I decided to write a novel about a man whose parents had been murdered before they could leave the island and his efforts to find out who killed them.
So, I had the rudiments of a plot and my interviews had coalesced into a cast of characters. Among those characters I had my suspects; not a firm conviction of who the killer was but several folks who wanted to be considered, including old mafiosi, former Cuban casino operators, CIA operatives, etc. What I didn’t have was a hero.
I decided he would be a former Miami cop turned private eye and that he would be Cuban American. (I am half Cuban American.) I tried to picture him, but I didn’t know his name and without a name he remained out of focus. I assume it’sthe same for other authors of series; what you name your character feels very important because, hopefully, you will be living with her or him for many years.
I wracked my brain, going through many Latino surnames. Finally, a passage I had once read popped into my head. I don’t recall if it was Dashiell Hammett who said it, or someone writing about Hammett. But the idea was that fictional private eyes were much like medieval knights who went off to slay dragons and rescue damsels in distress. Those adventures were called “quests.” When I read that word the last name “Cuesta” was suddenly illuminated in my imagination. Cuesta is a fairly common Latin surname. It was perfect for a Latino sleuth. Moments later the first name “Willie” attached itself. “Willie Cuesta” was just right from the moment it sounded in my mind. I could suddenly picture him, and I have been writing about him for more than twenty years.
But the question remains: Are Willie and I the same person?
It is true that during all that time Willie only has taken cases that coincide perfectly with topics that I have found particularly interesting.: the aforementioned Pedro Pan kids, Colombian kidnapping rings, people-smuggling “coyotes” from Mexico, Argentine and Chilean military assassins hiding in the U.S., Cuban cigar counterfeiters, Haitian voodoo practitioners, etc. I don’t remember a moment when Willie’s conscience worked differently than mine.
I’ve also been told that Willie and I have the same sense of humor. We’re both divorced and single. We are attracted to the same ladies.
But we also have our marked differences. I’m six foot two and he is a couple of inches shorter. Willie is forever forty. I, alas, am not.
Willie has a brother who runs a great salsa club and a witchy mother who owns a botanica in Little Havana, selling all sorts of potions and religious articles. I have neither, although I have spent plenty of time in such establishments, especially nightclubs.
Willie has had to shoot a few folks in self-defense. I, so far, have not.
That said, I recently met a woman who expressed interest in getting to know me better. I handed her a copy of a Willie Cuesta novel, “The Lady from Buenos Aires” from 2007.
Colorado-based author Robert Cummins has had a successful academic career, and has now turned his pen (which authored four books from MIT and Oxford Press as well as sixty articles) to fiction writing. His two novels—Hariq, a Cold War spy thriller, and The Finder, a detective mystery—are available in Kindle format on Amazon. He makes his professional paid fiction debut in our Department of First Stories of our March/April 2021 issue (on sale next week), and here he discusses plot and what it means in a mystery.—Janet Hutchings
If you look up ‘plot’ in the online Merriam-Webster dictionary, this is what you get (slightly edited):
Definition of plot (noun) 1a: a small area of planted ground a vegetable plot b: a small piece of land in a cemetery c: a measured piece of land : LOT 2: GROUND PLAN, PLAT 3: the plan or main story (as of a movie or literary work) 4[perhaps back-formation from complot] : a secret plan for accomplishing a usually evil or unlawful end : INTRIGUE 5: a graphic representation (such as a chart)
(transitive verb) 1a: to make a plot, map, or plan of b: to mark or note on or as if on a map or chart 2: to lay out in plots (see PLOT ENTRY 1 SENSE 1) 3: to locate (a point) by means of coordinates, or to locate (a curve) by plotted points c: to represent (an equation) by means of a curve so constructed 4: to plan or contrive especially secretly 5: to invent or devise the plot of (something, such as a movie or a literary work)
(intransitive verb) 1: to form a plot : SCHEME 2: to be located by means of coordinates the data plot at a single point.
The items in bold are the senses most relevant to mystery writers. Your plot (3a) may involve a character who plots (4, or perhaps 5) to do something, or a storyline that involves, but neither of these really gets at the concept that is relevant to mystery stories, the sense of “plot” in which mystery stories, some of them anyway, have ingenious or clever or complex plots, or transparent plots that allow us to figure out who done it and how and way way too soon, thus undermining the suspense.
“Suspense” isn’t really the right word here, though, suggesting, as it does, an anticipation of something bad or unwanted. A good plot, in the sense of the word I am interested in here, keeps us in the dark, or relative uncertainty about how things are going to turnout in a story that makes us care, for one reason or another, how things will turn out. But there is more to it than that. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn), as the title suggests, has no plot in the sense I am trying to isolate. We wonder (or even worry) whether Denisovich will make it through the day. There is no mystery here, although there is, or could be, an element of suspense, and there is no plot in the sense of the word I am trying to isolate, though there is certainly a story with a beginning, middle, and end that includes a kind of resolution—fragile though it is. Imagine a procedural in which we know from the start who did it, but are simply let through the process that actually identifies the culprit. One could say of such a story that it has no plot, or just that it has a really bad or disappointing one. A good plot keeps us guessing, and keeps us guessing because we want to know the answer.
Imagine a How Done It in which we know from the start who did it and why. This could be a very engaging story, of course, hinging, for example, on character development/discovery. But it has no plot in the sense of the word I am trying to isolate. The only mystery that gets resolved is how it was done, and perhaps, how the character(s) evolve and change.
Here is a short list of fictional works of various lengths. I think you will find it relatively easy to pick out the ones that have a good plot. (If you haven’t read them, you should, but you can probably answer the question by reading a synopsis online.)
To repeat, having a good plot is neither necessary or sufficient for being a good, or even a great, story, as even this short list illustrates.
I have heard it argued that plot matters less in movies or TV because it is possible to make up for a weak plot with great cinematography. But this misses the point, which is simply that a story that should have a good plot, but doesn’t, isn’t saved by great visuals or anything else. It doesn’t matter how beautifully the story was filmed if the story needs a great plot and doesn’t have one.
Consider the following two opening lines of a query to a literary agent:
How far would you go to protect your daughter?
How would a father who flips houses for a living go about protecting his daughter from a football star who is the son of the local crime boss?
Number two is going to need a good plot, whereas one really can’t tell from number one.
I am fond of mysteries in part because I love a good plot, and mysteries are more likely to have them than, say romance novels, currently the best-selling genre according to Writers Write.
I would love to see a good definition of “plot” used in the sense I have been trying to identity. If you look online, what you will likely find is an identification of plot with story line, e.g., this one form seattle pi. So, perhaps I am looking for something that doesn’t exist. But I don’t think so. When someone comments about a story—whether a short story or a novel—that it has a really great plot, I don’t think they are saying that it has a really good “storyline.” What could that mean beyond the claim that it is a really good story? The stories in the list above all have good storylines, i.e., they are all good stories. But not all of them have a good plot. Nor should they. That’s not, for example, what Dostoevsky was after in Crime and Punishment.
So send me your definitions, or good reasons why there can’t be one, by commenting on this post with your thoughts.