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

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

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

Which brings me to mystery short stories.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But she would not have plunked it in a purse.

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

Which brings up to the more appealing foul play.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So we raised our glasses to Renee.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Posted in Books, Characters, Fiction, Genre, Guest, Historicals, History, Politics, Writers, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Weight of the Words” (by Samantha Allen)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Poster Child” (by Michael Bracken)

Michael Bracken is the winner of two Derringer Awards for his short fiction, and in 2016 he received the Edward D. Hoch Memorial Golden Derringer for Lifetime Achievement in Short Mystery Fiction. That award has special significance in regard to this author, for Edward D. Hoch wrote nearly 1,000 published short stories in his distinguished career, and Michael Bracken has actually exceeded that number at 1,200. His post for us today reminds us of all the markets for short fiction our genre has offered over the years, and continues to offer today. We hope it will inspire new writers to work in the field of short mystery fiction. Michael’s next story for EQMM, “Wishing Tree,” will appear later this year.—Janet Hutchings

At the 2017 Bouchercon in Toronto, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine was celebrated for its “Distinguished Contribution to the Genre.” Art Taylor interviewed editor Janet Hutchings, and then fifteen special guests each spent a few minutes describing their relationship with the magazine.

I was one of the special guests.

From the time I accepted the invitation to participate until shortly before the convention, I found myself stumped. My connection to EQMM is tenuous, at best. I co-authored, with Tom Sweeney, a single story published within its pages (“Snowbird,” December 2007). By contrast, the other special guests had been published in the magazine multiple times, and at least one had written for all three of the magazine’s editors.

So, when my turn came, I joked about being the group’s redheaded stepchild, invited to represent all the one-hit wonders, the writers who only ever placed a single story (or, in my case, half a story) in the magazine. And I wasn’t joking when I noted that my half-sale to EQMM means so much that I’ve featured it in every author bio ever since.

I began writing professionally in the late 1970s and saw my first mystery short story published in a men’s magazine in January 1983. In the early 1980s, three mystery magazines—Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine—shared space on the magazine racks with a plethora of science fiction and fantasy magazines. Before the end of the decade, two additional magazines joined them—Espionage Magazine and The Saint Magazine—but they, along with Mike Shayne, did not survive into the 1990s.

Since then, at least sixty-six mystery periodicals have come and mostly gone. (Sixty-six seems like a great many, but I’m certain I’ve missed several more because I’ve only included in my count the few that have published my stories and the great many who have rejected them.) Though a few of these publications mixed fiction with nonfiction, and a few mixed genres, placing crime fiction alongside horror or science fiction, the majority were home to multiple short mystery stories each issue.

Some, such as Mary Higgins Clark Mystery Magazine, were named after famous writers and backed by major publishing companies. Some, such as Argosy, Black Mask, New Black Mask Quarterly, and The Strand, revived magazines of the past. Others were the literary equivalent of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland movie characters putting on a show in the barn, published by mystery fans and funded with pocket change.

Crime and Mystery feature prominently in many of the titles: Crime Factory, Crime Syndicate, Crimestalker Casebook, Crimewave, Detective Mystery Stories, Flash Bang Mysteries, HandHeldCrime, Kracked Mirror Mysteries, Mysterical-E, Mystery, Mystery Forum, Mystery Street, Mystery Time, Mystery Tribune, Mystery Weekly, New Mystery, and Whispering Willow Mysteries. Weapons—Heater, Needle, Plots With Guns, Shotgun Honey, Switchblade—feature in several titles, while color brightens others: Black Cat Mystery Magazine, Blue Murder, Crimson Streets, Malone’s White Fedora, Noirotica, Red Herring Mystery Magazine, and White Knuckles. Then there’s a potpourri of other titles: A Different Beat, Action Magazine, All Due Respect, Betty Fedora, Big Pulp, Down & Out: The Magazine, The Flash Fiction Offensive, Futures, Hardboiled, Hardluck Stories, Judas, M, Mayhem, Mean Streets, Murderous Intent, Murdaland, Naked Kiss, Out of the Gutter, Over My Dead Body!, Pirate Writings, Pulp Adventures, Pulp Magazine, Skullduggery, Sleuthhound, Spiderweb, Story and Grit, The Back Alley, TheCase, Thrilling Detective, Thuglit, Tough, and Without a Clue.

The many and varied mystery periodicals that have come and mostly gone were home to the first publications of many of today’s mystery writers—a handful of my earliest stories appeared in Espionage Magazine and Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine—and today’s publications offer similar opportunities to tomorrow’s mystery writers.

Though periodicals launched as recently as two decades ago were exclusively print publications, today’s publishers experiment with and attempt to harness new technology. Mystery publications today are presented as websites, as blogs, as PDF files, as emailed newsletters, and as print-on-demand journals, and many utilize a mix of media to reach their audiences. Even stalwart print publications AHMM and EQMM offer electronic editions and connect with fans through their websites, blogs, and social-media accounts.

In many ways, new technology has created a renaissance in short mystery fiction. For those of us who love to read (and to write) short mystery fiction, we haven’t seen this much opportunity and variety in quite some time. Though it can be difficult to find the new publications—unlike the days of my youth when a single newsstand carried all of the mystery magazines and the most difficult thing I had to do was push the science fiction magazines out of the way—it is always worth the effort to seek out new publications and new writers.

And yet, despite all the opportunities provided by all the publications that have come and mostly gone, those of us who aspire to careers as writers of mystery short stories strive to appear in the pages of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and its sister publication Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.


Because they endure.

Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, launched in fall 1941, is the longest-running continuously published mystery magazine, older than most of us who write short mystery fiction. To be a part of the magazine’s history—even as small a part as the one I’ve played—connects us to fans, to fellow writers, and to the genre as a whole in a way that appearing in no other publication does (though appearance in AHMM, the second-longest-running mystery publication, comes close).

So, with my half-story in EQMM, I’ve secured my place in mystery history.

And if that weren’t enough, I learned after preparing my presentation for Bouchercon 2017, but before leaving home for the convention, that I won’t much longer be the poster child for EQMM’s one-hit (and half-hit!) wonders.

I have another story scheduled for publication within the year.

Posted in Anthologies, Books, Conventions, Fiction, Genre, Guest, History, Magazine | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

“From Noir to Golden Age” (by Carlos Orsi)

Carlos Orsi is a Brazilian writer and journalist with three novels and five short-story collections published in Portuguese. His work first appeared in EQMM in the July 2014 issue, translated for our Passport to Crime department by Cliff Landers. Since then, we’ve learned that the author has a wide range as far as genre; he writes in the mystery, fantasy, horror, and science-fiction fields and has twice won the Argos Award for best science fiction short story published in Brazil. He’s equally versatile when it comes to language, writing fluently in English as well as in his native Portuguese. His work written in English includes stories for science-fiction, fantasy, and horror anthologies and for Mystery Weekly. His new story for EQMM, his first English-language original for us, will appear in our May/June issue. It’s a locked-room mystery in the Golden Age tradition, even if, in atmosphere, it has a slight touch of noir. —Janet Hutchings

I would like to tell you about my intense love affair with Golden Age–style mysteries. I say “Golden Age–style” because I see the Golden Age of Mystery more as a state of spirit than as a period in time, the famously defined interval between the two World Wars of the twentieth century. For me, Soji Shimada, or even Anthony Horowitz of the Magpie Murders, are as “Golden Age” as Agatha Christie and Edmund Crispin.

If I were to try to define this spiritual space, I’d mention an air of serious playfulness; a bold disregard for external plausibility (internal plausibility, however, is a must); a tension between logic and absurdity, with logic finally emerging from the absurdity, as a hero rescued at the last second; and, as far as possible (without spoiling the fun), fair-play towards the reader.

This is a love that came late in my life: I am pushing 50, and my conversion came only in the last decade, when I struggled, amazed, with the third (or fourth?) brilliantly false solution of Ellery Queen’s The Greek Coffin Mystery. For comparison, the first time I recall saying to someone that I wanted to be a crime writer I was just 11 years old.

This late blossoming may perhaps be explained by Brazilian literary culture (I was born, raised, and still live in Brazil). Cultures, literary or otherwise, are complex and multifaceted creatures, so any generalization is bound to be, to some extent, unfair and open to counterexamples.

But, painting the picture with a very large brush and somewhat bold brushstrokes, one could define the Brazilian literary culture, at least since the Modernist movement of the early 1920s, as viciously antagonistic to all kinds of genre writing.

To be considered as literature at all, novels and stories ought to stretch the boundaries of the written language, or to lay bare the cruelty and unfairness of society, or to expose the Freudian scars of the writer’s deranged mind; if a book could do all three at the same time, it would be a masterpiece.

I won’t dispute the fact that many masterpieces were written in this vein, but the attitude also had the effect of pushing genre writing, in almost all of its forms—science-fiction was “crap”, fantasy was “for children”—to the very boundaries of the literary system, and often to toss it out completely.

Crime and mystery were given a kind of double citizenship, though: The murder of someone or the disappearance of something could give a slim thread of coherence to a novel that, otherwise, would be just a jumble of smart-ass musings, and crime breeds paranoia, which sounds Freud-ish. Besides, noir and hardboiled texts often had that “cruelty and unfairness of society” vibe. So, mystery, even if somewhat narrowly defined, got its passport to the Land of the Literati.

To read Raymond Chandler wasn’t as impressive as reading James Joyce, but it was cool enough to discuss with the other literary wannabes of the college in the bar, after class, without people snickering at you.

So, that was the climate in which I came to be a mystery fan and as an aspiring mystery writer. Things had to be dark, hard, cynical. The plot, just an excuse for some fancy footwork in the form of first-person narration and dismal personal insights. Mystery for mystery’s sake, the plot as a problem to be solved, preposterousness and playfulness as goals? Come on, those were old, tired cliches: so much naivete!

But I have a weakness for logic—I spent some twenty years trying hard to write hard science fiction!—and, even if I am as liable as the next guy to be engrossed and hypnotized by fancy first-person narrative footwork, for me, at least, it got tiresome.

As far as cliches go, in my eyes Philip Marlowe became one even bigger than Hercule Poirot; come on, John Dickson Carr’s Dr. Gideon Fell is a much more original character than almost every single wisecracking, raincoat-wearing, hard-as-nails private dick or alcohol-haunted ex-cop you ever saw (or read about). And (spoilers ahead!) the beautiful damsel in distress who really is the mastermind behind every piece of mischief might have been original in “The Maltese Falcon,” clever in “The Big Sleep”, funny in “I the Jury,” but . . . Please. Enough is enough. Then, the overt darkness and cynicism started to feel flat, too. Most of it began to sound like relapsing teenager angst, masquerading as depth.

In view of all of this, the old “realism” card, the engine behind the polemic between Raymond Chandler and Carr, in which Chandler decreed the Golden Age dead and buried, became harder and harder to sustain. (If you are curious about the arguments of both authors, I recommend “The Simple Art of Murder,” by Chandler, an essay that is easy to find. Carr’s riposte “With Colt and Luger” is a little harder to come about. It was originally published by The New York Times in September 1950).

The world of shady dames and guns in trench-coat pockets is no more “real” than the world of country houses and idiosyncratic amateurs; besides, if a drunken ex-cop, with a long rap sheet and a string of unhappy ex-wives can beat a fully equipped Police Department to the guilty party, why not a funny-looking Belgian refugee with a preposterous mustache? And, as far as literary sophistication goes, Ellery Queen, Carr and even Agatha Christie were doing some nice metalinguistic shenanigans back then when the wise guys were only wisecracking and trying to get away with it.

So, my appreciation for logic and the felt staleness of noir (and of much of its multitudinous progeny) drove me to the Golden Age. And I loved it! It was, as I said before, like a conversion experience. From Queen I went to Carr, I revisited Christie, I discovered Crispin and then found out today’s torchbearers—Shimada, Paul Halter, and others. I even became fond of Solar Pons.

Perhaps someday the conventions of the Golden Age will tire me as much as the conventions of noir did. But I don’t see it coming any time soon. I know that there are great, mediocre, and awful pieces in both schools, but it amazed me to realize how the great work that exists in the Golden Age tradition is underestimated, and how easy it is for mediocre stuff to get a free pass just because it happens to contain a dash of disillusion and a pinch of cynicism. And a shady dame wearing a trench coat.

Nevertheless, the idea that “proper” mystery literature is noir literature still goes strong in Brazil. You can see it in the reviews printed in newspapers and magazines, you can see it in the catalogues of the prestige publishers. And you can see it in the way the writers think, too. We are going to have a big national crime/mystery convention down here this April, in the city of Porto Alegre, and it will be called (guess what?) Porto Alegre Noir.

Posted in Books, Characters, Classic Mystery, Fiction, Genre, Guest, History, International, Noir, Pop Culture, Publishing, Readers, Writers | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“Tense Boundaries” (by Matthew Wilson)

By most definitions Matthew Wilson’s story “Burg’s Hobby Case,” in the Department of First Stories of our current issue, would not quite qualify as historical fiction. Many people consider fifty years in the past the necessary distance to earn the tag “historical,” and the story’s setting is a few years short of that. Moreover, the events belong to a time period within the author’s lifetime, and some determine what belongs to the historical genre according to that measure. Reimagining something so far in one’s past is still a feat, though, and Matthew Wilson does it marvelously well, evoking tensions surrounding the Cold War. We are pleased to welcome this talented new writer to our pages, and think you’ll find interesting this post relating to the genesis of the story.—Janet Hutchings

When people ask someone like me “Where are you from?” it is a hard question to answer. Where I am from, meaning where I was born? That would be California, but there were stops in Kentucky, Kansas, Texas, and Washington. And if you were a kid like me, it seemed as if every town in America began with the word Fort. There was Fort Ord, Fort Hood, Fort Knox, and Fort Lewis. But there were also those six years in Germany. You see, kids like me had fathers (and a few mothers) who were soldiers, so that meant rotations to new duty stations every few years, and as part of the Cold War we accompanied them to all those garrison towns lined up along the fault line that split Europe in two for forty years. I know a few adults now who had this same kind of childhood, and we remember places like Illesheim, Schweinfurt, Bamberg, Augsburg, Kaiserslautern (K-town), Wertheim, Wildflecken (try to say that with a good German accent!), and my favorite, Bad Kissingen, which we often called BK for short. For many of us, these places hold strange and magical memories, and even today we feel ourselves lucky to have lived there. Just do a Facebook search of any of these garrison towns, and you will find groups of nostalgic cyber-friends sharing photos and memories of their Cold War childhoods.

So when I made up my mind to write some stories, I knew that I wanted to set them in this world. Ever since reading Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park I have loved mystery stories in which the place is as essential to the mystery as a murder or other crime. By place I mean both a place in geography and a place in time, so that is why Bad Kissingen intrigues me so much.

I lived there from 1976 to 1979. My father was serving with the 2nd Squadron of the 11th Armored Cavalry, commonly known as Eaglehorse. We lived on the second smallest U.S. instillation in Germany, Daley Barracks. Daley Barracks was like an American small town smack in the heart of central Europe. We ate burgers and BLTs at the AAFES snack bar, played pick-up basketball in the post gym, and lined up around the block for months-old blockbusters like Smokey and the Bandit or Saturday Night Fever at the post theater. There was Wednesday night league play at the six-lane bowling alley and bingo on Sundays at the NCO club. We shopped at the commissary for processed American comfort food like Pop Tarts and Mac & Cheese, and for music we had the Armed Forces Network. Depending on what time of day, AFN would offer country music one hour, maybe top 40 the next, only to switch later on to R&B and soul.

We were often reminded that we were only thirteen kilometers from the East German border. Just on the other side of that border were divisions of Soviet armor ready to roll over us on their way to capture bigger prizes in places like Frankfurt and Stuttgart. If a real war broke out, we were doomed. Of course, this was a kind of war that no one could really win. With tactical nuclear weapons deployed on both sides of the border, no sane person really wanted to see a shooting war. So Eaglehorse had another job, and that was the border mission, a kind of a maintenance of the stalemate that was Europe at the time. Our fathers and the young soldiers under them spent many cold nights in observation posts and on patrols by foot and vehicle along that border. It seemed that what they mostly did was watch their communist counterparts watch them. I remember more than once waking at five in the morning to the rumble of tracked armored vehicles on the way to that border.

Many of our fathers were Vietnam veterans, soldiers of a lost war and now part of a new military, one without the conscription that had once sent men like Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash to Germany. The army in the late seventies was searching for its post-Vietnam identity, and the young men serving under our fathers were the first of a new all-volunteer force. There was trouble. I suppose that’s only natural with something new. If you research that era you might find stories of poor leadership, drug problems, racial tension, and a general malaise. But what I mostly remember were young soldiers not much older than me and my teenage brothers, and how despite their deadly weapons occupation, they were just teenagers too. They wanted to drink beer and flirt with girls and stay out of trouble with their sergeants, who happened to be our fathers.

The best place for them to drink beer and flirt with girls was in town, in Bad Kissingen. Now here was a place that was nothing like the machines and guns and hard regulation of the garrison, nothing like the cold and tense border. Bad Kissingen was filled with spa tourists and the locals who served them. There were gardens and parks where well-dressed men and women seemed to stroll in perfect step like something out of a Seurat painting, only with fashions updated to the 1970s and with a German orderliness. String quartets played from ornate band shells, fountains flowed with salty and medicinal waters, and arched colonnades ascended over beds of roses. There were gasthäuser where young soldiers could find a meal and a drink, or discotheques where they hoped for a chance with a girl. For kids like me, the shops held the most interest, especially the hobby shop full of scale models of the machines of the war that brought Americans to live in Bad Kissingen in the first place. We loved anything from that era—plastic Tiger Panzers, Messerschmitts, Shermans, P-51 Mustangs.

The older German men we usually encountered from that era were of two kinds. Those who had taken up low wage work on Daley Barracks, and the shopkeepers who watched us warily since we had a reputation for thievery. These men began to intrigue me, and some of them stand out in my memory. There was a one-armed man who ran the register at an Edeka shop, and I wondered at his lost arm—was it a war wound? I worked one summer with an old bald-headed fellow who was like a comic-book strongman. We moved furniture in and out of the American housing area as families came and went, and he could carry an entire chest of drawers on his back up three twisting stairwells. He spoke no English, so from him I learned langsam, vorsicht, and fertig—slow, careful, finished. He was a lifelong worker bee who, when he wasn’t lifting heavy things, seemed to smoke one cigarette after another. There was a drunken barber who cut hair on Daley Barracks. His English was almost as limited, which was a good thing for him, since he had to endure plenty of cursing after yet another botched cut. Best to get your haircut early in the day before the schnapps took full effect. My detective Hans Burg comes from this same generation, men who had to live on after a lost and horrible war, much as our own fathers also seemed to be doing, although our fathers continued to soldier on at the border and in the big training areas like Grafenwöhr and Hohenfels.

Bad Kissingen was also a place where I really grew aware of the two distinct sides of my own origin. My father’s army and the community that existed with it—a place of commissaries, PXs, NCO clubs, Star and Stripes newspapers, cars stopped in traffic at 5 pm for taps—places like Daley Barracks. And my mother’s world too. Like a lot of my friends, I had a German mother who married a GI. Some of my friends had names like Heike and Stefan—I felt lucky to escape that fate. Our mothers might have cooked up schweinebraten one night and southern-style pork chops the next. We were as familiar with leberkäse as we were with a can of Spam. And we had grandparents too, opas and omas, who were delighted when our fathers rotated back to Germany from one of those forts stateside. My own grandfather is the deaf man mentioned on a document Hans Burg encounters in his investigation.

Ultimately, Bad Kissingen in that time was for me a strange contradiction. A pretty village dedicated to curing bodies and spirits, situated on the very edge of a barbed and mined frontier, where mutual destruction was assured. Where other tense boundaries existed: between tanks and gardens, German hosts and American guests, sergeants and privates, blacks and whites, men and women, young and old, realists and idealists. I hope you enjoy Bad Kissingen as a lively backdrop for a mystery story.

Posted in Books, Guest, Historicals, International, Readers, Setting, Story, Writers, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

“3 Reasons a Good Mystery Is as Good as High-Lit” by Lawrence Light

The author of a series of crime novels featuring financial reporter Karen Glick, Larry Light is himself a writer and editor for CBS MoneyWatch. His award-winning journalism career includes work for the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Business Week, and other publications, but for this post, he chose not to talk about the world of finance. A voracious reader of both literary fiction and crime fiction, he offers his view of why crime fiction deserves to be held in critical esteem. EQMM’s founding editor, Frederic Dannay, said that one of his goals for EQMM was “to raise the sights of mystery writers generally to a genuine literary form.” He would have agreed, we think, with Larry’s perspective on the two fields. In case you missed it, Larry Light has a story (“Dysperception”) in the current issue of EQMM.—Janet Hutchings

“It transcends the genre.”

How many times have you come across that backhanded compliment in a review of a mystery novel? The underlying assumption of this loaded phrase is that mysteries are cheap amusements, empty calories that a truly discerning reader should disdain.

But really, there’s no demarcation line between the very best mysteries and literary fiction, and that’s been true for years. Graham Greene, the Nobel-winning author of venerated titles such as The Power and the Glory and The End of the Affair, also produced novels he called “entertainments.” These were spy and crime stories that some judged to be of lesser caliber than his other offerings. Indeed, the entertainments also had an enormous amount of literary merit—well-written works offering deep characterization and acute observations on humanity.

Take his Brighton Rock, a 1938 thriller that revolves around a gangster named Pinkie Brown, who has murdered a reporter wise to the local rackets. On the surface, the book is a typical quest to find the killer. But the story is really about the nature of evil and morality. Augmenting the tale is the conflicted nature of Pinkie, a homicidal sociopath whose Catholicism nevertheless torments him because he knows his heinous activities damn him.

I find that mysteries often are more fun to read than current high-lit because they tend to be better plotted and more tightly written. Three examples. I loved All the Light We Cannot See, which depicts World War II’s horrors and shows how common decency is found between two strangers on opposite sides. Could Anthony Doerr’s book have benefited from a trimming? Probably. David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest? Masterful, but exhausting at over 1,000 pages. Don DeLillo’s Libra? The alternative telling of Lee Harvey Oswald’s life, had a meandering pace that did it no favors, although it told an interesting story.

Celebrated mystery writer Laura Lippman likes to point out that “high-lit is a genre, too.” As Greene’s work attests, the difference blurs between top-notch mysteries and literary novels. Raymond Chandler, Dennis Lehane, P.D. James, Donald Westlake, Lawrence Block—you can match these authors and many like them with high-lit’s worthies.

Sure, not all mystery novels even attempt to scale the literary heights. But the best mysteries are on a par with high-lit because they: 1) provide a crucial insight into human existence where things are often not what they seem, 2) illuminate important social issues, and 3) are captivatingly well-paced and well-written.

One of the best-known exemplars of crime fiction has a secure berth in the literary pantheon: The Great Gatsby. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic delivers on the three reasons that make a good mystery shine above all else.

He gradually unveils how his main character, the corrupt, nouveau riche Gatsby, is actually driven by love; shines a light on the ways the arrogant wealthy “smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money”; and nourishes the soul with fine flourishes of writing. To wit: “In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.”

When looking at the very best mysteries, you’ll find that what elevates them to the exalted levels of high-lit is some or all of these factors:

Offering a Key Insight Into Existence. Frequently, what the eye sees is deceiving. Finding out what we don’t know is at the core of much great literature, as in the line from Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio/Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Who committed the crime and why are the primary elements of any mystery, whether the villain is Hamlet’s uncle or Pinkie Brown. So is how the perp can be stopped. Once we at last find the truth, it’s immensely satisfying.

Getting to this resolution is a tantalizing puzzle. Take The Silence of the Lambs. FBI Agent Clarice Starling is flummoxed about how to find the serial killer, Buffalo Bill. Then the imprisoned Hannibal Lecter, who has a soft spot for her, tells the agent that the man’s impetus to kill and skin his plus-sized female victims is that he “covets” something. And he adds: “We begin by coveting what we see every day.” So Clarice eventually figures out that she must focus on Bill’s first victim, as he likely knew her.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the iconic spy novel, is a wonderful mystery that turns on the quest to unmask the Soviet mole at the heart of the British Secret Service. Author John le Carré’s hero, George Smiley, is in charge of the investigation but initially is blind to the culprit’s identity due to animosity concerning his unfaithful wife.

A similar affliction besets Rusty Sabich, in Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent. Rusty is an adulterous prosecutor who is charged with the murder of his lover. One of the last people he suspects of being the true murderer is hinted at early, in a catalogue of that killer’s strange interests—one of them is artificial insemination.

Tackling Societal Issues. As the French author Jean-Patrick Manchette put it: “The crime novel is the great moral literature of our time.”

The connection between crime fiction and burning issues that beset the world is strong. For a powerful portrayal of the drug trade and its corrupting power on our nation’s urban life, read Don Winslow’s The Force. Its antihero, Detective Denny Malone, justifies taking bribes as society paying its dues to ensure he does its dirty work.

In Alafair Burke’s The Wife, sexual harassment is examined in a way that demonstrates how the he-said-she-said version of reality has more nuances than some may imagine. And Greg Isles’ Natchez Burning trilogy delves into old crimes and race relations in the Deep South with harrowing, deeply affecting brio.

Fine Writing. Among the all-time hits are Raymond Chandler’s description of the Santa Ana wind, in his short story, “Red Wind”: “There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch.”

James Lee Burke’s lyrical touch is always at the ready, as seen in his latest novel, Robicheaux, where his recovering alcoholic hero smells booze as it is poured into a glass over ice: “My defenses were down, the smoky smell of the Scotch like an irresistible thread from an erotic dream you can’t let go of at first light.”

Alice’s Sebold’s The Lovely Bones starts in a way that stills your heart: “My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.”

Crime fiction. With authors like these, you’re keeping superb company, easily the equal of anything on the bookshelf.

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“Thoughts Lurking in an English Sitting Room” (by Jane Jakeman)

Jane Jakeman is the author of a series of crime novels featuring the Regency detective Ambrose Malfine, and also two books starring modern French investigator Cecile Galant.  She is an art historian and sometimes writes short stories that draw on her experiences in that field. She has contributed three stories to EQMM, the latest of which, “Tapping the Glass,” set in Oxford, is in our current issue (January/February 2018). For two decades Jane did interviews and reviewed crime fiction for a British national daily. In today’s post she talks about some of the stars of the genre whom she interviewed. (All of those she mentions here have, at one time or other, been contributors to EQMM!)—Janet Hutchings

In the middle of the comfortably furnished room, I stood still in shock. Amid the armchairs, cushions, and coffee tables of a pleasant middle-class household in central London was a white marble bust of a young woman, skilfully carved to give the effect of a veil covering the perfectly formed face beneath. Her eyes were open, but was she alive or dead?

I peered more closely. “Ah, yes,” said my hostess, a smile on her pleasant face. “That’s the Veiled Bride. Lovely, isn’t she?”

Personally, I’d have been terrified to have that bride anywhere near me, but my hostess and interviewee was the crime writer P.D. James, and I had been wondering where, in this friendly family home, might be some trace of the preoccupation a crime novelist must surely have with death. As a crime writer myself, I have reviewed and interviewed crime authors over a couple of decades for the British print daily, The Independent, now, sadly in my view, only available online, and I was delighted when Phyllis James invited me to her home. She explained that her Veiled Bride was a copy of a sculpture belonging to the Duke of Devonshire and had been created by an Italian sculptor, Raffaele Monti, in 1847. At that time, it was appealing to the Victorian Gothic taste, but I was surprised to see it in cheerful modern surroundings. However, it not only gave me an insight into the depths of feeling behind her fiction, but also justified my belief that interviews should be conducted face-to-face. Many young journalists believe they can conduct the interview by electronic media, but even Skype cannot give the sense of actually being in the room with someone, let alone their odd tastes for the macabre.

For myself, I’ve been a lover of crime fiction since I was a teenager, reading it late at night while my mother kept telling me “Go to sleep!” The most attractive aspect of the genre is, for me, a story that twists and turns and has a solution. But, underlying this, I think the best crime fiction poses the unspoken question, “Does this author have a preoccupation with death?” After all, these stories almost always revolve round a murder or murders. The Scottish writer Val McDermid commented on this in another interview, “With death, the stakes are higher, the ante has been upped. I’m not sure I can get away from that kind of adrenalin rush. Death means people really have something to care about, something to fight for.”

Val McDermid was describing an effect of murder which I had realised when I invented my Regency detective, Lord Ambrose Malfine. In the first novel featuring him, Let There Be Blood, he has retreated from society, physically and mentally scarred from warfare. Only one thing is powerful enough to force him out of his retreat: a murder he must solve. That alone can bring him into contact with the rest of society.

Another writer whose life contained a surprise was Minette Walters, who will be well-known to crime fans for, among many other successful novels, The Sculptress, about a woman imprisoned for murder. Minette is a delicately pretty lady, one would think totally unfamiliar with the inside of a prison. But, no, she told me that she had been a regular visitor to Winchester gaol. This prison, in the gracious city where Jane Austen is buried, is actually one of the toughest in Britain, where hardened murderers and rapists are confined. But Minette had long one-to-one talks with some of these men. As the only “civilian” with whom they might come into contact, they confided in her intimate details of their lives which she felt honourably bound not to use in any of her books. But, clearly, this primary contact with murderers gave her a perspective not only on victims, but on killers, for she said rather chillingly that the men in Winchester seemed perfectly ordinary on the face of it, men whom one might meet in any situation.

Belinda Bauer, whose phenomenally successful Blacklands describes a murderer seen through the eyes of a small boy, made much the same point. “Statistically all of us know a paedophile,” she told me, “all of us know a rapist. We try not to think about it.”

Quite. It’s a very uncomfortable thought, but it is in some ways the job of the crime writer to think uncomfortable thoughts. And to read uncomfortable material. I spent some distressing hours reading reports of actual murders, and I can tell you there is nothing we writers could invent that is as horrible as what happens in real life. The difference is that between the covers of a detective story, the horrors can be controlled and contained. Yes, it’s our job to provide reassurance as well.

In my story, “Tapping the Glass,” I set out to reassure myself. I’ve always been terrified of insects and when I heard the true account of a house in Oxford where there is an inexplicable recurrent infestation of bluebottles, I virtuously decided to go to the University Museum to try and learn something about flies and thereby cure my terror. There were various insects pinned to display cards and as I walked along the gallery I saw a glass case labelled, “Salmon Pink Tarantula.” I plucked up the courage to go closer and saw a large spider with rather attractive furry pink and black legs in a nest of leaves. Congratulating myself on my courage, I went closer and read the small print, which said, “Please do not tap on the glass.”

Indeed, it was alive! Regularly fed and the pride of the entomology department. It seemed to me that this is what we do with history, not just with biology: We think it is safely dead and behind glass, so as to speak, but sometimes it can come alive and jump out at us. This was the germ of my story.

I can honestly say I have never used any of my interviewees’ stories in my own fiction because I take great pleasure in creating problems and resolutions in narratives and creating my own atmospheres and characters. And I’m very proud of appearing in the pages of EQMM alongside so many fine practitioners of murder stories!

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