“The Case of the Unrecognized Editor” (by John Duvall)

John Duvall is the Margaret Church Distinguished Professor of English at Purdue University. He has published extensively on modern and contemporary American fiction. In this post he discusses how EQMM helped to reignite the career of one of America’s greatest literary writers, William Faulkner.  Interested readers can find a fuller treatment of EQMM’s role in popularizing William Faulkner in John’s article “An Error in Canonicity, or, A Fuller Explanation of Faulkner’s Return to Print Culture, 1946-1951,” published in May 2017 in Faulkner and Print Culture (University Press of Mississippi), edited by Jay Watson. We’re delighted to be able to share the insights of so highly regarded a scholar with our readers.—Janet Hutchings

Among scholars of William Faulkner, it’s something of a joke: Nobel Prize Laurate in 1950 but only runner-up in EQMM’s first mystery story competition in 1946. Yet, maybe these two forms of recognition, admittedly very different, are not so unrelated as they might first appear.

After World War II, William Faulkner’s reputation was all but dead. Despite all the positive newspaper reviews in the 1930s, his major novels were out of print. But one writer, editor, and critic reprinted Faulkner and revived the novelist’s reputation. And every Faulkner fan knows the story of the publication that turned things around. In 1946 Malcolm Cowley’s anthology, The Portable Faulkner, appeared as part of the influential Viking Press series that included The Portable Poe and The Portable Hemingway.

It’s a good story and true enough, but not necessarily the whole truth. While The Portable Faulkner would sell 10,000 copies over the next five years, I maintain that Frederic Dannay was at least as responsible as Cowley in bringing Faulkner back the attention of the American reading public. The June 1946 issue of EQMM opens with Faulkner’s “An Error in Chemistry.”

It’s the story of a former magician, Joel Flint, who would have gotten away with the murder of his wife and father-in-law by impersonating the father-in-law, but who gives himself away when Faulkner’s lawyer and amateur detective, Gavin Stevens, sees Flint incorrectly make a cold toddy: Flint fails to mix the sugar and water before adding the whiskey, an error that his father-in-law never would have made. Dannay’s prefatory comments to the story proclaim Faulkner as one of the four leading contemporary American novelists along with Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and John Dos Passos. Why has this part of the story not been told? I believe it’s part of the still-present prejudice in academe against genre fiction.

Although Dannay and his cousin Manfred Bennington Lee were the duo who had the fabulously successful writing career working under the pen name Ellery Queen, Dannay alone edited EQMM (and would continue to serve as editor-in-chief until his death in 1982). Begun in 1941, EQMM was designed to evoke elements of the pulp detective magazine but to make the format more reputable. Although like the pulps it cost only a quarter, EQMM was produced on a better grade of paper. And like the covers of detective pulps, EQMM’s often depicted a woman either murdered or about to be murdered. However, even on this score, there was a difference. Because George Salter, the well-known illustrator who produced the dust jackets to many famous modernist novels, did all the covers for EQMM during the 1940s, they have an aesthetic sensibility far more restrained than those of pulp detective magazines.

But what really set EQMM apart from the very beginning was its content. Dannay had aspirations for his magazine, aspirations that he repeatedly made clear not only in his headnotes, which he wrote for each and every story his magazine published, but also in the several books of detective-fiction criticism he published as Ellery Queen. Dannay felt that detective fiction was unfairly disparaged and marginalized by the literary establishment. On the cover of each issue of EQMM, Dannay promised readers “the Best Detective Stories, New and Old.” Only about 40 percent of the stories, however, were new. The rest Dannay reprinted from book collections, mainstream magazines (such as Collier’s, Harper’s, and Cosmopolitan), as well as from other pulp magazines (such as Black Mask). Intermixed with these were stories by more recognizably literary authors. In his magazine’s first five years, Dannay reprinted fiction not only by Dorothy Sayers (creator of the aristocratic dilettante crime solver, Lord Peter Wimsey) and Dashiell Hammett (with his manly noir detective, Sam Spade), but also by O. Henry, Mark Twain, Jack London, H. G. Wells, E. M. Forster, Theodore Dreiser, Graham Greene, and other significant modernist authors. In a special All Nations issue (August 1948) commemorating the formation of the United Nations, EQMM included a translation of Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Garden of Forking Paths,” which is notable for being the first time that Borges was published in the United States. Unlike Faulkner, a runner up in the 1946 contest, Borges won the 1948 EQMM contest. All of this points us to the fact that Dannay was a far more discerning and influential editor than has previously been recognized in academic circles.

But as important as Dannay’s headnote is to burnishing Faulkner’s aura is the company in which Faulkner found himself in the June 1946 issue. “An Error in Chemistry” was followed by one of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot stories, “Four and Twenty Blackbirds.” Unlike Faulkner, Christie never struggled with being out of print. In fact, the sales of her detective novels place her only behind the Bible and the works of Shakespeare in the number of books sold. My point is that it matters mightily to the public perception of Faulkner that Dannay juxtaposes this modernist experimenter with Christie, a popular entertainer valued more for her ingenious plots than for her literariness. Clearly, a different set of readers, one unlikely to be impressed by a favorable New York Times review, receives the clear impression that if Ellery Queen endorses Faulkner and places his work next to Christie’s, maybe, just maybe, they should read some more Faulkner!

In addition to the original publication of “An Error in Chemistry,” Dannay reprinted two other Faulkner short stories in EQMM: “The Hound” appeared in the January 1944 issue and “Smoke” (another story featuring Faulkner’s lawyer-detective Gavin Stevens) was part of the October 1947 issue. In each of these issues, Agatha Christie stories also appear. In both his headnotes in other commentary, Dannay notes a resemblance between Faulkner’s Gavin Stevens stories and those of an earlier writer, Melville Davisson Post, whose lawyer-detective stories featuring Uncle Abner were popular in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Faulkner, who surely saw the issues of EQMM in which his stories appeared, may well have gotten from Dannay the idea of collecting his Gavin Stevens detective stories into his 1949 volume Knight’s Gambit.

Dannay, alas, got no thanks from the author who created Yoknapatawpha County. Faulkner publically acknowledged Cowley’s editorial work, saying “I owe Malcolm Cowley the kind of debt no man can ever repay.” However, responding to the letter from his agent with the EQMM check, Faulkner petulantly wrote: “What a commentary. In France, I am the father of a literary movement. . . . In America, I eke out a hack’s motion picture wages by winning second prize in a manufactured mystery story contest.” So since Faulkner wouldn’t say it, I think anyone who enjoys Faulkner’s fiction should: We all owe Ellery Queen/Frederic Dannay a debt none of us can ever repay for his work that helped Faulkner’s fiction endure.

Posted in Criticism, Fiction, Guest, History, Magazine, Publishing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“My Favorite Murderers” (by Graydon Miller)

Graydon Miller was an American expatriate in Mexico for nine years, at the start of his writing career. He was first published not in English but in Spanish, with “Un invierno en el infierno” (“A Winter in Hell”). Some of his stories have been collected in the volume The Havana Brotherhood, and he’s also the author of the thriller novel The Hostages of Veracruz. He received a Derringer nomination from the Short Mystery Fiction Society for his story “At Thirty Paces,” and he will appear in EQMM for the first time in our July/August issue, which goes on sale next week. In this post we get a glimpse of what inspired the former reporter to work in the field of crime fiction.—Janet Hutchings

They say two kinds of Americans come to live in Mexico: those who are not wanted in their homeland, and those who are. When I was a reporter in Mexico, people who made the news in the English-speaking expatriate community I covered—the scam artists, the fugitives, the quacks, murderers, and occasional socialite or visiting Nobel Prize winner thrown in—tenaciously proved the truth of this observation.

Before becoming a reporter, I’d won a political short story contest. At the time, a tennis mate whose wife worked with me in the university translation office heard about a job at an English paper in Guadalajara, where we lived. My friend Ivan knew I’d won the story contest and figured reporting was a natural job for me. The editor, another Englishman like Ivan, agreed. I went into this job reluctantly, saying to myself, “This will be cigar money.”

Working at the Guadalajara Reporter meant afternoons taken away from my fiction writing, and less tennis. My game still hasn’t recovered, but this job, undertaken strictly for cigar money, would shake up my world and redefine my fiction. The audacious crimes—especially those of the Black Widow—defied imagination and surpassed the creations of the greatest fictional minds. On the other hand, I discovered that the craved solution to the mystery, the just desserts, could only be reliably found in fiction. This period in Mexico truly turned me into a wizard of fiction, much of it steeped in the unresolved cases I reported on, by turns horrifying and entertaining.

Years later, I realize the crimes still nag at me. The first of my top three cases, which I can never shake or really finish, involved a fugitive from the U.S.

Perry March

People think just because you are a murderer you are coarse and forfeit charm. Not so. Perry March reminded me of the actor who played Mozart in Amadeus, he was almost puckish, even if he did have a black belt. With Perry the elephant in the room was murder. It preceded him when the 30-something lawyer fled in the summer of 1999 from Nashville to Mexico with his children whose mother had vanished. It took him about five minutes to find a Mexican beauty to be at his side.

The first Mrs. March had an argument with Perry one night in their suburban Nashville home. A young mother and children’s-book illustrator, Janet drove off in her Volvo, Perry later said, to go on a twelve-day vacation, destination unknown.

A friend of Janet’s visited the house the next day and remembered seeing a carpet rolled up in the kitchen. Which was odd because Janet was proud of her exposed hardwood floors. Janet’s Volvo was finally found in the parking lot of a nearby apartment house. She was never found, either dead or alive.

In 2000 Janet was declared legally dead. For years, left with these facts, I believed the lawyer Perry March had committed the perfect murder. In 2004 Perry was finally accused by a Grand Jury in Nashville and extradited to the United States to face trial. Even though Janet March’s body has still never been found, in 2006 Perry was found guilty of murdering Janet. It wasn’t a karate chop, it turns out, but a wrench presumably delivered to her skull after she revealed she wanted a divorce. The trial’s lynchpin was Perry’s own father snitching on him. The elder March helped him remove her remains from a shallow grave in an empty lot near March’s Nashville home to a new place “where she would never be found.” In true Hitchcockian fashion, Perry had panicked when he learned of plans to construct on the first burial site.

The Black Widow

Socorro Rodriguez de Lapine was a perky bilingual woman who wooed any number of legionnaires living in Mexico. Her fluent English made them feel comfortable. Quite a few she married and buried. The first husband, a former serviceman named Lapine, died after a fatal fall off a ladder in 1970 and left Socorro a widow with three mouths to feed. Somewhere along the line, Socorro became adept at milking the insurance system. A surprising number of husbands and beaus died, victims of tainted tequila, burglars’ bludgeons, and sudden seizures. Nobody in the expatriate community had foul play on the radar; they were plausible deaths.

When her insurance fraud was exposed, it convulsed the American colony and jogged memories: Socorro had been a fixture in their social circle. All told, this diminutive (5′ 2″) woman is now believed to have been responsible for bringing nine people to an early grave.

Her masterpiece was to create a fictional half sister. Nobody ever remembers seeing the sister. Socorro paid off the right doctors and bureaucrats to obtain birth and death certificates, and she then took out a life-insurance policy on the sister. Also she developed a cozy relationship with a local funeral director. It takes a village to pull off a successful insurance fraud.

The half sister “died” and Socorro collected a $100,000 premium.

How could you top that? You can’t, and yet the crafty Black Widow did.

She found a new beau, Victor LaPine, a Montana rancher settled in Mexico who shared the same last name as Socorro’s first husband (this coincidence was a great conversation starter, and a fatal one). LaPine was stricken in a restaurant as the two dined and collapsed in the bathroom. His body was hastily cremated, to the dismay of his family in the U.S. Further arousing their suspicions, they learned LaPine had left a signed IOU to Socorro for a large sum of money.

Things were heating up. The insurance company started poking around into the payout for the half sister. The questions were mounting, but Socorro couldn’t answer them, for Socorro Rodriguez de Lapine died unexpectedly in 1995, leaving her children a $500,000 insurance policy.

A dogged insurance investigator persuaded the authorities to exhume the casket of Socorro. This was not common practice in the devout and superstitious country of Mexico.

When Socorro’s casket was brought into the sunlight it was found to contain rocks, dried flowers, and old newspapers. As the story broke, a seamstress living with a humble family in Puerto Vallarta moved out quietly, quickly. The seamstress was Socorro; the family’s children recognized her from the TV. She along with the doctor who had signed her death certificate vanished without a trace. The funeral director who fell into Socorro’s tangled web was found strangled just before he was due to testify to authorities.

Hellman

Yes, the Hellman case . . . far less known and yet more sickening. This is not an entertaining case. And now that memories erode, the remaining facts still haunt. A vigorous retiree, Mrs. Hellman started going to a physician from the U.S. who graduated from medical school in Mexico late in life. The doctor actually did house calls and became a frequent visitor to Mrs. Hellman’s home near the shores of Lake Chapala, an area popular with American and Canadian retirees. She swore by him. The doctor eventually obtained power of attorney and turned away concerned friends who came to visit Mrs. Hellman. For her friends, concern turned into alarm as the weeks went by.

Finally bound to a bed, she was glimpsed for the last time by a friend shocked at her rapid decline. At least one person alerted the police. They came. The doctor’s smooth assurances that she was tied up for her own good sent them away satisfied. A few days later Mrs. Hellman was dead. The doctor was never formally accused of murder; the autopsy possibly provided a good alibi for tying up his patient.

Cause of death: brain aneurysm—that’s when the weakened wall of a vessel ruptures, flooding the brain with blood—provoked, in Mrs. Hellman’s case, by a fall from the bed. The doctor stopped answering his messages after I started digging. He soon booked a flight out of the country. I do not know if he was ever able to enjoy the house he inherited.

So the job I took “for cigar money” turned into something else altogether. It marked a slow, steady swerve toward crime, preferably in ink rather than blood. Crime reporting turned me into a wizard of fiction, where closure can be worked out, conjecture included, and also, room can be left for a little unresolved dissonance at the end. That’s a lasting stylistic nod to the harsh criminal reality I encountered.

Most of the murders I dealt with as a reporter in Mexico had little in the way of closure. In the worst of cases the bad guys got away with it, in the best of cases they simply got away.

Posted in Characters, Guest, History, Real Crime, Setting, Story, Writers, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Last of the Kingdom of Romance: 90 years since the publication of The Case-book of Sherlock Holmes” (by R.T. Raichev)

2017 marks the 90th anniversary of the publication of the last book of Sherlock Holmes adventures. In honor of the occasion, R.T. Raichev, a lifelong fan of English crime fiction, gives his assessment of the stories in that volume, entitled The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes. Please be aware, if you have not yet read these stories, that there are spoilers in what follows.
R.T. Raichev is the author of a highly regarded series of mystery novels in the classical style starring Antonia Darcy and Major Payne. He writes short-story length cases employing them for EQMM. Don’t miss the Darcy tale in our current issue (“The Stranger at the Harrogate Hydro”); there’s another (“Murder at the Mongoose”) coming up in our November/December issue. The author currently lives in Dubai, where he teaches English. He has posted scholarly articles on this site before. See “Playful Ghoulishness of a Crime Queen: The Short Fiction of P.D. James” and “1962: The Savoy Party Photo.”—Janet Hutchings

And so, reader, farewell to Sherlock Holmes! I thank you for your past constancy, and can but hope that some return has been made in the shape of that distraction from the worries of life and stimulating change of thought which can only be found in the fairy kingdom of romance.

Thus ends Conan Doyle’s preface to his last collection of Sherlock Holmes short stories, published in 1927. Most Sherlockian cognoscenti consider The Case-book of Sherlock Holmes the “weakest” in the series and complain that compared to the earlier books it pales, that some of the mysteries read like curiosities, that two of them may not have been written by Doyle, that three are not told by Watson, that Doyle recycles plots from earlier stories, that the malefactors are either of foreign extraction or an animal. Something in that—however, it would be wrong to dismiss this last excursion into the fairy kingdom of romance lightly. Conan Doyle’s hypnotic narrative style, the boldness and originality of his ideas, his evident delight in delineating strange characters and settings, his skill at building up suspense and instilling a sense of dread, his frequently very witty dialogue render the stories in his last collection compulsively readable. Sherlock Holmes’s luminous intellect is very much in evidence as he sets about solving a number of seemingly insoluble conundrums whose very variety is impressive—apart from murder we get suicide masquerading as murder, the saving of a potential murder victim, the retrieving of a crown jewel, a sinister disappearance linked to a case of pseudo-leprosy, experimentation with a dangerous drug, what appears to be vampirism, what appears to be death by flagellation, a revenge novel, transvestism, and wall paint deployed as a decoy.

What follows are some of my very personal observations and comments on aspects of the stories that have captured my fancy.

“The Illustrious Client,” deemed by Doctor Watson the “supreme moment in my friend’s career,” features one of Doyle’s most memorable villains, Baron Gruner. The latter is Austrian and a true monster of guile and depravity. He is described as a “fiend” albeit “extraordinarily handsome, with a most fascinating manner, a gentle voice and that air of romance and mystery that mean so much to women.” His villainy is suggested both by his title and his foreign name*. Gruner means “greener” in German, which sounds innocent enough, but the word is linked to a species of snake, to a deadly fungus, to jaundice, and to a destroying angel. Gruner is also a baron and readers who pay attention to such oddities will have noticed that barons do not come out well either in fact or fiction. Barons are cads, eccentrics, extravagant profligates, and generally untrustworthy.** Doyle’s Baron has not only acquired his considerable fortune as a result of “some rather shady speculations” but he is a lady killer in both senses of the word: he has a mesmeric effect on the women he marries and then kills. He is a latter-day Bluebeard. “The Illustrious Client” involves Holmes’ efforts to extricate Baron Gruner’s latest infatuated victim from his clutches. It concludes rather melodramatically with Gruner having acid thrown into his face by a vengeful woman whom he has once wronged. As Watson vividly puts it, the baron’s features “were now like some beautiful painting over which the artist had passed a wet and foul sponge. They were discolored, blurred, inhuman, terrible.”

“The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone” introduces another highly dubious representative of the Continental noblesse—a Count Sylvius. (His first name is, well, “Negretto.”) One gets the idea that counts are as bad as barons, possibly worse. “Sylvius” is a name that is fancifully flowery and a trifle effeminate, though the man himself is a “big, swarthy fellow, with a formidable dark mustache . . . with a long curved nose, like the beak of an eagle.” His dress exudes vulgarity: he wears a “brilliant” necktie, a “shining” tie-pin, and “glittering rings that are flamboyant in their effect.” Sylvius’s eyes are “fierce”—but he is a coward who “suspects a trap at every turn.” “The Mazarin Stone” is a crown jewel of tremendous value. It is also, in my opinion, the only real dud in the collection. Apart from the overdone villain, the story hasn’t got much of a plot. Watson appears only fleetingly. It is a third-person narrative that consists almost entirely of dialogue. (It was originally a play.) The trick played on Count Sylvius—the use of a wax effigy fashioned in the image of Holmes—is absurd and it only manages to add stupidity and short-sightedness to the already long list of the Count’s physical, sartorial, mental and moral defects.

In the wake of the two nefarious Continental noblemen, “The Adventure of the Three Gables” starts with a huge, grotesque-looking black American barging menacingly into Sherlock Holmes’s quarters. As Watson observes, “he would have been a comic figure if he had not been terrific” with his “flattened nose” and “sullen dark eyes with a smoldering gleam of malice in them.” He is belligerent to start with, but is quickly cowed by Holmes. “The Three Gables” contains a curious plot device which is worth mentioning—a novel conceived as a form of revenge. (An idea used in the recent Tom Ford film Nocturanl Animals.) In the Doyle story an upstanding young Englishman relates the terrible treatment he has suffered at the hands of a perfidious woman called Isadora Klein who, in addition to her Hebraic name, has Spanish-looking eyes, occupies an “Arabian Nights drawing room” and, when confronted with her evil deed, looks “murder” at Holmes and Watson. The black American is one of her stooges.***

“The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier” is the first of two stories in the collection told by Sherlock Holmes. It has a marvelously entertaining opening with the Great Detective reflecting on his friend Watson’s ideas (“limited . . . exceedingly pertinacious”) and accounts (“superficial . . . pandering to popular taste.”) The narrator reversal is interesting as we see Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in what was to be the last decade of his life, experimenting with the conventions of the detective genre whose father he had become. Although it follows the familiar lines of a visit from a worried client, the presentation of a mystery, its investigation and denouement, the voice throughout is unmistakably that of Sherlock Holmes: his narrative style is precise and engaging but, unsurprisingly, drier than Watson’s. Holmes sticks to “facts and figures” and manages to preserve critical impartiality by relying almost exclusively on what the people involved in the case tell him. A young British soldier has vanished without a trace and his best friend is anxious to find what happened to him. Perceptive aficionados of the genre won’t fail to notice how much better than most of his successors (the so-called Golden Age practitioners) Conan Doyle is at imbuing a suspenseful puzzle with genuine emotion. (The only exception is perhaps Josephine Tey.)

“The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire” starts as an exercise in the macabre, with the shadow of Bram Stoker hanging over it, but the solution Holmes reaches is a completely rational and scientific one. Doyle has played with the supernatural before in the 1903 The Hound of the Baskervilles, which concludes with Sherlock Holmes explaining that the Baskerville curse is nothing more than a ruse the scheming killer dreamt up in order to lay his hands on the Baskerville inheritance. “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire” is ultimately revealed as an interesting study in pathological jealousy: it is the disabled teenage boy, earlier in the story described as “charming and affectionate,” who has been trying to kill his baby step-brother. And the grateful Peruvian woman whose innocence Holmes has succeeded in proving credits him with possessing “powers of magic.”

“The Adventure of the Creeping Man” is a peculiar melange of Gothic horror and pseudoscience. Professor Presbury’s behavior has become a source of serious concern to his daughter and secretary as they believe he is transforming into something . . . inhuman. He is observed walking on all fours in the middle of the night and later “ascending” the wall of his house. In Watson’s words, “With his dressing gown flapping on each side of him, he looked like some giant bat glued to the side of his own house, a great square dark patch upon the moonlit wall.” This description is strikingly similar to the one Bram Stoker gives of Dracula crawling down his castle wall, “. . . his cloak spreading out around him like great wings . . . with considerable speed, just as a lizard moves along a wall.” ‘‘The Adventure of the Creeping Man’ is a tense and suspenseful cautionary tale. Like Mary Shelley’s Doctor Frankenstein, Stevenson’s Doctor Jekyll and H.G.Wells’s Griffin (The Invisible Man) before him, Doyle’s Professor Presbury tries to challenge Nature and play God—with disastrous results. The story first appeared in magazine form in 1923 and, one could assume, was inspired by the sensational news in 1920 that a certain Dr. Voronoff had found the fountain of youth. Dr. Voronoff had in fact started injecting monkey glands into willing middle-aged patients who claimed to feel rejuvenated as a result.**** Professor Presbury—on the brink of a marriage with a much younger woman—believes that age can be halted, even reversed with the aid of monkey glands—he gets a standing order from a Prague supplier—the monkey glands do work and the professor’s energy and strength increase prodigiously—but the once highly respected scholar starts behaving with the irrationality and aggressiveness of an ape—at the end of the story he is savaged by his own dog. At one point Holmes sends Watson a message, whose imperative drollery might have come from an Oscar Wilde comedy: “Come at once if convenient. If inconvenient, come nevertheless.” “Creeping Man” has been dismissed as “risible” by Sherlock Holmes scholar David Stuart Davies.

“The Adventure of the Three Garridebs” re-deploys a—thoroughly preposterous—wildcat scheme from an earlier story, “The Red-Headed League.” A man is wrenched away away from his premises which provide passage to/contain something highly robbable by making him believe he is in some way “unique.” In the case of the “Garridebs” he is one of three men bearing the unusual name Garrideb—only Garridebs are entitled to a huge inheritance. What makes the story fascinating—to me at least—is the use of American spelling in a letter as a clue—plow instead of plough—which alerts Holmes to the villain’s American identity. This may well have been the inspiration behind the verbal clue used by Agatha Christie in The Murder on the Orient Express (published in 1933), in which Mary Debenham unwittingly betrays to Poirot the fact that she has lived and worked in America—by describing a trunk call (British English) as “long-distance” (American English).

Another story which may have suggested to Agatha Christie an ingenious method of bamboozling the reader is “The Problem of Thor Bridge.” A woman crazed by jealousy commits suicide and she does it in such a way as to make it look as though she has been murdered by her children’s governess. (She suspects the latter of having an affair with her husband.) The suicide-made-to-look-like-murder was used three times by Agatha Christie—in the short story “The Market Basing Mystery” (1923), the novella Murder in the Mews (1937), and in her most famous novel And Then There Were None (1939). In the last listed it is not only the idea but the mechanics of the deception that are very similar to the ones employed in the Doyle story. Sherlock Holmes elucidates the mystery thus: “a stone is secured to one end of a string, the other end to the handle of the revolver . . . As she shoots herself in the head the stone is hung over the parapet of the bridge so that it swung clear above the water. The pistol, after being fired, is whisked away by the weight of the stone and vanished over the side of the water.” In None, Justice Wargrave explains how he did it: “. . . to my eyeglasses is attached what seems a length of fine black cord, but it is elastic cord . . . My hand, protected with a handkerchief, will press the trigger . . . the revolver, pulled by the elastic, will recoil to the door handle, it will detach itself and fall . . . The elastic, released, will hang down innocently . . .”

In “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane” we read about enigmatic last words uttered by the dying victim, which is exactly what happens in the earlier (and better) “The Speckled Band.” Both stories feature malevolent creatures resembling, respectively, a lion’s mane (Cyanea Capillata, a species of a poisonous jellyfish) and a speckled band (deadly swamp adder). “Lion’s Mane” is a whodunit, with at least two men having a motive to kill popular schoolmaster McPherson. Sherlock Holmes is again the narrator. He describes his own conclusion to the problem as “far-fetched and unlikely”—yet it is the correct conclusion. Holmes has managed to reach it thanks to his extensive fund of esoteric knowledge. He admits that he is an “omnivorous reader with a strangely retentive memory for trifles,” that his mind is “like a crowded box room with packets of all sorts stowed away therein.” An element of perversity is introduced early in his investigation with the suggestion that McPherson’s death might have been the result of a deadly flagellation with a cat o’ nine tails—a multitailed whip originally used to inflict punishment in the Royal Navy.

“The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger” is notable for its lack of deductive reasoning on Sherlock Holmes’s part. He tells Watson, “The case worried me at the time . . . Here are my marginal notes to prove it . . . I was convinced the coroner was wrong.” But it is Mrs. Ronder, a former circus artiste and once “a very magnificent woman,” who explains how her beautiful face became “terribly mutilated.” The murder victim is Mrs. Ronder’s sadist of a husband, “one of the greatest showmen of his day” but also “a human wild boar . . . formidable in its bestiality.” He is killed by Mrs. Ronder’s lover, a circus acrobat. The murder weapon is one of the most outlandish in the Sherlock Holmes canon—a club with a leaden head in which five long steel nails have been fastened with the points outward, “with just such a spread as a lion’s paw.” Ronder’s death is made to look like a deadly attack from Sahara King, the circus lion, with whom Ronder performs. There is dark irony in the fact that, following the murder, it is the real Sahara King that turns on Mrs. Ronder and mauls her. Watson suggests it is a “retribution of fate.” The story can be given as an example of Doyle’s penchant for the the grisly and the outré. It is one of several tales that feature face disfigurement. (“The Case of Lady Sannox,” a non-Holmes story, is particularly hair-raising, certainly not for the squeamish.)

Doctor Watson refers to “The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place” as a “singular episode”—though aren’t all Sherlock Holmes cases “singular episodes”? Its plot, like that of “The Adventure of the Silver Blaze,” revolves round a racing horse, Shoscombe Prince. This is another story with a strong Gothic flavour. We are told of “an old ruined chapel . . . so old that nobody could fix its date . . . under it there’s a crypt which has a bad name . . . a dark, damp, lonely place by day . . . few in that country that would have the nerve to go near it at night . . .” A long-dead body is dug up and a few bones of a mummy are discovered stored in a corner. A coffin is opened to reveal ‘a body swathed in a sheet . . . with dreadful, witch-like features . . . dim, glazed eyes staring from a discoloured and crumbling face.” The story involves an irresponsible baronet and a female impersonator.

The last story in the Case-book, “The Adventure of the Retired Colourman,” starts with Sherlock Holmes in a pessimistically philosophical mood: “But is not all life pathetic and futile, Watson? We reach. We grasp. And what is left in our hands at the end? A shadow? Or worse . . . misery.” The denouement reveals a double murder committed by a jealous husband—the retired colourman of the title. The smell of paint provides a vital clue. How likely is it that a husband who claims to be driven frantic about his wife’s disappearance should start painting the walls of a room? The real reason, as Holmes deduces, is that he was trying to mask the smell of gas which was the deadly penalty he had meted out to his unfaithful wife and her lover. Incidentally, the smell of paint provides a vital clue to the killer’s identity in Agatha Christie’s 1953 offering After the Funeral as well—when Poirot correctly interprets the importance of the fresh reek of oils in the house of a woman who has been brutally hacked to death.


 * Conan Doyle gives his two most notorious English-born villains names that are not entirely English either: Moriarty and (Sebastian) Moran—both names, as French speakers will notice, are associated with death. An emblematic name is also given to the murderous doctor in “The Speckled Band”—Grimesby. Readers must decide for themselves whether to think of “grim” or of “grime,” neither of which has a pleasant association.

** Here are three related examples. Baron von Munchhausen, a notorious teller of tall tales whose name is used by psychiatrists to describe the syndrome of pathological lying. “Baron Corvo,” a fictitious cognomen employed by another serial fantasizer Frederick Rolfe. Colin Tennant, 3rd Baron Glenconner, bought the island of Mustique as a wedding present for Princess Margaret but then left a will making his black valet the main beneficiary of his fortune.

*** Racial stereotypes were quite common in the 1920s—with the Great War still a painful memory and Britain gradually losing its Empire—and Doyle might have been pandering to the ingrained tastes of his habitual Strand magazine readers. One is also reminded of Uncle Matthew in Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate who declares, “Abroad is unutterably bloody and all foreigners are fiends.”

**** The monkey-gland rage went on till well into the nineteen-fifties, with aging celebrities of the stamp of Somerset Maugham, Pope Pius XII, Marlene Dietrich, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and Noel Coward among its followers.

 

Posted in Characters, Criticism, Fiction, Guest, History, Holmesian | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Conversation with Lisa Unger (by Scott Loring Sanders)

This week we have a second installment in a series of interviews with influential crime writers by Scott Loring Sanders. A favorite of EQMM readers, Scott has a new story coming up in the magazine soon. You can learn more about him and interviewee Lisa Unger below, and on their websites. Our thanks to them both for making time available in their busy schedules to share some insights about writing crime fiction.—Janet Hutchings 

SLS: I recently read an interview with you in The Big Thrill where you talk about compartmentalizing—how you separate your writer-self from your wife-self, your mom-self, from your “regular person” self. I’m curious about this because although I compartmentalize to some degree, I find that when I’m in the middle of writing a story, it tends to constantly haunt me until I’m finished. If I’m walking the dog, or riding my bike, running, whatever, I’m often sorting through plotting issues or character dilemmas. So is your compartmentalizing absolute, something you can turn off and on? Or do your characters and scenes spill over into your everyday?

LU: Of course, yes, the story is always white noise in the back of my mind. And it’s precisely those moments—working out, walking the dog, doing the dishes—where the most thinking gets done, where narrative problems are resolved and the way forward is found. Those are auxiliary spaces to the writing process, the blank places in life, where the mind wanders.

But as a mother, wife, daughter, or friend—I have a responsibility not to be lost in my head all the time. And life informs art. So, the act of being present and living an authentic life, where you’re available to experiences and to the people that you love, fuels the creative process. Without that ability to be present, there would be far less material in the creative well.

But the person at the keyboard, the one in the zone of creation, is certainly not the same person kayaking with her eleven-year-old, even though the story doesn’t fit tidily into that dedicated space. That dedicated space, where you’re only writing, where you’re only experiencing the fictional world, is apart and separate from life. You owe it to the work to be there fully when you are there, as much as you owe it to your family to not be there all the time.

Naturally, little about art or life is absolute, and the lines between the two are rarely neat and tidy. But there are different selves within me, as well as story and character perpetually spinning. I try to honor them all, give them all space to breathe without the others.

Not many of us writers out there will ever experience New York Times bestseller status. You’ve now achieved that many times over. I thought it might be interesting for readers and writers to live vicariously through you for a moment. What was it like the very first time your work made the list? Any specific memories or anecdotes?

It’s funny. This comes up a lot. So, yes, it’s a big deal. Many (but not all) of my books have been on the New York Times list, the USA Today list and other regional and international lists. I’m grateful for that, because this is a brutally competitive business, now more so than ever before.

But when I look back at the big moments, the places where I felt the most elation and joy, they’re smaller moments: seeing my first byline in The Riverdale Press, or that first call from the agent who wanted to represent my first novel, every single time I hold the first copy of my new hardcover in my hands, the notes from readers who say I’ve moved or spoken to them.

And it isn’t lists or accolades that motivate me. I’ve been writing since childhood. At the keyboard, or with pen to paper, is where I’m happiest (other than when I’m with my husband and daughter). And every day I get up thinking that I can be a better writer than I was yesterday. I have a craft, a skill that I never stop working at. I believe that my best book has yet to be written. That goal, that desire, is what motivates me more than any other single external success. I am blessed beyond measure that I make a living doing what I love, that I have readers, and I have achieved some of those dream milestones. But the journey is the thing I love the most. The belief that the best is yet to come, that’s what keeps me going.

And since we just took a walk down memory lane, we might as well continue because you and I have a secret. Perhaps it’s time to let the cat out of the bag. We grew up together in the tiny, bucolic town of Long Valley, New Jersey. We even had the same English class our junior year in high school. So I was wondering, how do you think that rural, quaint setting influenced your writing? I know our town is subtly alluded to in Beautiful Lies, and certainly in Fragile, though often with variations on street names, town names, and so on. Do you still picture certain places from our hometown when you’re writing out a scene? Do you adhere to the old adage, Write what you know, with regards to place and setting?

Yes and no—to both questions. All of fiction is autobiographical—and nothing in fiction is, really. Certainly, the places I’ve been, things I’ve experienced, people I’ve known, situations, observations all inform my fiction. Honestly, if you write the way I do, you can’t help but write what you know. New York City plays a big role in some of my novels; I lived there for 13 years and it’s a part of me. Whether it’s my fictional town called The Hollows, or Lost Valley in The Red Hunter—all of it I suppose stems from how I grew up in a small, semi-rural, semi-suburban town in the Northeast. That energy stays with me; I know it deeply, truly. Weirdly, though, there’s little conscious choice on my part. Places just turn up; setting flows from character. Where does the character live? How is he or she informed by that, affected by that? The names or places, obviously dredged from the dungeon of my subconscious, are only recognizable to me after the fact, or when someone brings it to my attention—like you did, once! So, even though I realize that I am making choices, often it feels as if I’m not. I only have perspective long after the book is done.

On a darker note, in 1985, when we were sophomores in high school, a horrific event took place in our town. A classmate of ours, a year younger, was brutally murdered. Out of respect for her family, you and I have agreed to simply use her first name and not go into a lot of detail about it, except for the very basics: Rachel missed her bus after school, decided to walk the three miles home, and disappeared. Two days later she was found in the woods; she’d been raped and stabbed. A young man who’d recently graduated from our high school was found guilty of the crime.

I wanted to ask how the abduction and murder of Rachel affected you. I’m not talking about the writer you, just you as a fifteen-year-old girl growing up in our small New Jersey town. About a year ago, I wrote an essay on Rachel’s murder, and I discovered several unexpected things about how differently the event affected different people. I’d like to get your take first, and then I’ll explain my own.

I don’t think it’s overly dramatic to say that this experience changed me. I want to be careful here, out of respect for Rachel and her family. Because this was their personal tragedy, and I don’t want to exploit their grief and pain, or take ownership of that in the way people do sometimes to dramatize their part in something. But this was a dark experience in my life. I knew Rachel; we played violin together in the school orchestra. And her murder rocked me. It changed how I saw the world.

Also, I think in a real way it informed me as a writer. I remember a feeling of desperately wanting to understand how a thing like that could happen. How she could be there one day, then gone. I vividly remember her viewing, and how seeing her opened up a kind of hollow in me. These questions, ideas, mind-bending moments are threads through my body of work.

I tried to write about the experience—sort of. But those works never resolved themselves into a novel or even a story. It wasn’t until I was deep into Fragile that I thought: Oh, here it is. But to be very, very clear, Fragile is not a retelling of that event, not at all. But it is, in some strange way, the piece I carried forward into my life. I didn’t go back and research the details of her murder. I didn’t want to write that kind of book, because it seemed exploitative to me. It was a story that wasn’t mine to tell. But the essence, the energy of that experience is the heart of Fragile. I needed to be a wife, a mother, a better writer, before I could do it justice; that’s why it took so long to find its way to the page.

I know what you mean about letting a lot of time pass before approaching the subject. It took me thirty years to even consider writing about it, and then I ran it past a family member of Rachel’s to get the okay before I sought publication. When writing the essay, the most profound thing I discovered was the difference in how males and females remembered the event. Every woman I talked to, yourself included, had vivid memories of it, and it tended to change their world view, at least to some degree. For males, however, I discovered nearly the opposite. Most had only vague memories, and some, believe it or not, didn’t remember it at all. Perhaps here is not the venue to discuss the idea of “male privilege”, but it seemed pretty obvious to me, and admittedly, I was guilty of it myself—that is, not fully cognizant of how women have to go about their everyday lives compared to men. So though her murder didn’t affect me in the same way it did you, I’ve certainly thought about those strange couple of days many times over the years. Yet it’s never seeped into my fiction. And to be honest, I don’t want it to. Or maybe a better way to phrase it is, I won’t let it. Do you think her murder created certain boundaries you’re not willing to cross in your own work?

I found that fascinating when I read it in your essay—which I loved by the way, not sure I ever told you! But I don’t find it all that surprising. I wonder if this has less to do with male privilege and more to do with a fixed mental model. (I’ll probably get myself into trouble here!) Men can tend to see the world one way, and resist evidence that it might be another way altogether. In fact, they’ll fight to keep their idea of the world intact. In Deep Survival, a brilliant book by Laurence Gonzalez about the neuroscience of people who survive extreme circumstances, the author states that of all people who get lost in the wilderness, men are the least likely to survive. (Young children are the most likely.) Men think they know the way out, have a clear idea of how things should be—which can prevent them from seeing things as they are. Children, on the other hand, don’t have a fully formed mental model yet. They stop and look, take in information, figure out how to survive in the situation as it is, or wait in one place for help.

Maybe the men you spoke to simply rejected or minimized what happened because it challenged their world view. Of course, there’s a darker possibility. Men are less likely to be the victim of a violent crime, and more likely to be a perpetrator. So maybe there was no challenge to their world view at all.

I don’t think Rachel’s murder made me less willing to cross boundaries. It, perhaps, made me more willing. Prior to her murder, I thought the world was one thing. Then it revealed itself as something else. I think I’m still trying to understand those darkest places, order that chaos.  Once upon a time I thought that there were certain places I wouldn’t go in my fiction. But over time I’ve visited them all. I think of myself as a spelunker, shimmying into the caverns of the human psyche and heart. I want to know what’s there, what makes us who we are. I surprise myself at how deep I’m willing to go. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. Life doesn’t have boundaries; there’s no limit to our heroism or our depravity. If fiction is life distilled, then it shouldn’t have any boundaries either.

That’s pretty fascinating, about children being the most likely to survive in the wilderness. As for the other point, about why men were less affected, I think I knew, even back then, that I had less to fear. That is, I was far less likely to be the victim of a violent crime, just as you stated above. And therefore, I had less to be concerned with. I suppose it makes sense. But the thing that bothered me when writing the essay was my lack of awareness for how my female peers had been affected, and how oblivious I was to the genuine fear and anxiety so many went through.

Let’s get back to a lighter note, shall we? When you and I first started corresponding two years ago, you said something important with regards to the difficulties of the writing/publishing world: “The only thing you can truly control is the writing.” That resonated with me. I wondered if you might expound on that. Maybe shed a little light for any aspiring writers out there who are reading this.

At the keyboard, or with pen to page, you have all the control. You control how deep you dig, how hard you work, how much you give to your story, your characters, your readers. But once that final editing is done, and the work is on its way out into the world, you must let it go.

These days, there’s an idea that we can promote ourselves and our work on social media—and certainly this is true to some degree. But ultimately whether a book does well or not has to do with some combination of factors that even publishers don’t fully understand.

So the best any writer, published or aspiring, can do is this: Write well today. Do better tomorrow. Dig deep; write the truest and best work you can. Be bright, be positive. And no matter where you are in the process—aspiring, published, book just released, deadline looming—always be writing.

I’ve seen you mention in various interviews that you don’t outline when writing a story. I’m the exact same way, and I have some very specific reasons for that choice. Of course, plenty of other writers swear by it. I wanted to ask you to explain your reasoning for not using an outline.

I don’t have a reason. I have always written this way; I can’t write any other way. I write for the same reason that I read, because I want to know what’s going to happen to the people living in my head. Story is life; my relationship with my characters evolves over a year, or 100,000 plus words, or 400 or more pages. There is magic in writing that way, a kind of joy and adventure. You can’t outline your life—though many people try. How, then, can you outline your novel? (Though I know plenty of people who do so to great success! Nothing wrong with writing that way—God speed.) Process is so personal, and the writing of a novel is such a private experience. I don’t think any of us could change if we wanted to.

I always ask this as my final question. What is your biggest fear? I don’t mean with regards to writing or publishing. I mean in general. Have you ever considered writing about it, fictionally or otherwise? I think it can be an interesting place to start a story.

If you read my novels, you’ll know all my greatest fears. The entirety of who I am as a person and as a writer is laid bare before my readers.

There’s that fact and fiction blending together once more! Thanks so much for your time, Lisa. Best of luck with The Red Hunter, as well as all of your future endeavors. It’s been a pleasure catching up.

Lisa Unger is the New York Times and internationally bestselling, award-winning author of fifteen novels, including the latest psychological thriller The Red Hunter and Goodreads Choice Award Finalist Ink and Bone. Her books are published in twenty-six languages worldwide, have sold millions of copies, and have been named “Best of the Year” or top picks by The Today ShowGood Morning America, Entertainment WeeklyAmazon.comIndependent Booksellers, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and the Sun Sentinel, to name a few. Her essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, NPR, and Travel+Leisure magazine. Lisa Unger lives in the Tampa Bay area of Florida with her husband, daughter and labradoodle. To learn more about her and her books visit: www.lisaunger.com

Scott Loring Sanders is the author of two novels, as well as two new books out in 2017: a short story collection, Shooting Creek, and an essay collection/memoir, Surviving Jersey: Danger & Insanity in the Garden State.  His work has appeared in Best American Mystery Stories, been noted in Best American Essays, and he’s a frequent contributor to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. During the month of June, he will be a Writing Fellow at the Edward F. Albee Foundation in Montauk, New York where he will work on a new novel.  He teaches creative writing and mystery writing at Emerson College in Boston, and at Lesley University in Cambridge.  To learn more, visit him at www.scottloringsanders.com

Posted in Books, Business, Characters, Fiction, Guest, Interview, Readers, Thrillers, Writers, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Radio Days” (by Kevin Mims)

Kevin Mims is known to readers of the Dell mystery magazines primarily as a short-story writer. In 2013, one of his stories for EQMM received a nomination for the International Thriller Award, and he has also contributed memorable stories to our sister publication, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. But he is also an essayist whose pieces have frequently appeared in the New York Times, on NPR, and elsewhere. This is his fourth post for this site. In it he talks about the heyday of the radio mystery.—Janet Hutchings

“The wonderful thing about radio is that it can be enjoyed in complete darkness. And isn’t darkness the natural medium for mystery?”

— E.G. Marshall
Host of the CBS Radio Mystery Theater

When I was young my father used to tell me how much better the days of radio were than the days of TV. You had to use your imagination more, he said. I nodded as if to agree, but of course I thought this was bunk. TV had everything that radio had—plus pictures! Lately, though, I’ve begun to think that, as a media-consumer in the 1970s, I had more in common with the listeners of the old-time radio era than I do now with the TV viewers of our present video-saturated era.

The Portland Trailblazers began play in 1970, my thirteenth year. Over the next several years I listened to nearly every game on the radio. But I didn’t just sit in a chair and passively soak up the broadcast. I set up a makeshift basketball court in my bedroom. I had a backboard made out of a cardboard box, a metal rim made out of a coat hanger, and ball that I cut out of some upholstery foam. While the Blazers did battle with the Seattle Supersonics or the Los Angeles Lakers, I did battle with imaginary opponents of my own. I shot long-range jumpers, free throws, and hook shots from the lane. It was probably the most interactive experience I ever had as a sports fan.

Back then, Portland was also the home of the mighty Portland Buckaroos of the Western Hockey League. As much a Buckaroo fan as a Blazer fan, I listened to nearly every Buckaroo game on the radio. Curiously, I didn’t set up a mock hockey arena in my bedroom. No, when listening to a Bucks game, I did just what I did while listening to the Blazers: I shot baskets on my homemade hoop. I always felt that both the Blazers and the Bucks did better against their opponents if I played as hard as I could while listening to them.

But it wasn’t just sports that I experienced as a radio listener. Beginning in 1974, I became a regular listener of a show called the CBS Radio Mystery Theater, which was hosted by actor E.G. Marshall and broadcast every weeknight on radio stations all across the country. In my youth I was a devout fan of crime novels (by writers like Agatha Christie, Lawrence Sanders, Elmore Leonard), crime TV shows (The Rockford Files, Streets of San Francisco) and crime films (Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile, The Last of Sheila). And though the mysteries produced by CBS Radio were rarely as intriguing as a good crime novel or as well acted as, say, The Sting, they might have been the mysteries I enjoyed most during that formative time of my life. The cheesiness of the dialog and the implausibility of the plots gave them a pulp campiness that spoke to me in the same way that old grindhouse movies must have spoken to Quentin Tarantino when he was a teen. Plus, I loved the sound effects. As a child of the TV era, I was familiar with the sight of a door opening, or a man climbing a flight of stairs, or a lone woman walking down a deserted street at night, but I had never paid much attention to how these things sounded. Obviously the special-effects wizards at CBS Radio paid plenty of attention to these sounds, because sound was all they had to work with. CBS billed the program as “The Fear You Can Hear!” and “The Sound of Suspense,” emphasizing its status as a purely aural experience. When listening to these mysteries, I would lie in my bed after dark, with the radio held right up against my ear. That’s probably the most intimate I’ve ever been with a crime drama—I literally slept with it.

The CBS Radio Mystery Theater went off the air in 1982. After that, the closest thing I could find to replace it with was pulp mystery magazines. In the 1980s there were a few national pulp crime magazines still in publication: Mike Shayne’s Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. I was originally drawn to these pulps because the short stories in them—usually very clever and compelling but also often recounted in a traditional mode that harkened back to the days Dorothy Sayers and Dashiell Hammet—reminded me so much of the stories broadcast nightly for eight years or so on the CBS Radio Mystery Theater. I became a devotee of pulp fiction magazines because of my love for the old-time radio dramas. Later I would even sell a few stories to these magazines, and I owed it all to those late-night radio broadcasts.

On nights when there were no basketball games or mystery programs on the local radio schedule, I would often lie awake and listen to broadcasts from far away cities. I especially liked listening to commercials for business establishments I had never heard of before. They were like advertisements from an alternative universe.

On my round, blue Panasonic portable radio I knew exactly where the dial had to be set in order to pick up the most powerful radio stations in Phoenix, San Diego, Denver, Salt Lake, the Bay Area. I couldn’t always get them. The night had to be clear. But when I found one, it always seemed like a bit of magic. A transmission from an astronaut thought to have been lost in space.

Years later, when I read the opening lines of The Dick Gibson Show, Stanley Elkin’s cult novel about the heyday of radio, I felt as if they had been written about me:

When Dick Gibson was a little boy . . . he could get Omaha, could get Detroit, could get Memphis; New Orleans he could get. And once—it was not a particularly cold or clear night; for that matter it may even have rained earlier—he got Seattle, Washington. He listened almost until sign-off, hoping that the staff announcer would say something about the wattage put out by the station. Then, after the midnight news but before the amen of the sermonette, the station faded irrecoverably.

Curiously, even my TV consumption in the 1970s was often more like a radio experience than a television experience. For my 13th birthday, my parents gave me a portable tape recorder and a handful of Ampex cassette tapes. As a result, I became a fiend for audio recordation. My friend Mark Weise and I would sneak the recorder into various sporting events and “announce” them as if we were professional sportscasters, passing the microphone back and forth between us. Occasionally I would wander the neighborhood and record ambient sounds—cars whizzing down busy streets, kids playing ball, barking dogs. Mostly, though, I used my tape recorder to record TV shows. This was back before VHS recorders were available for home use, so I had to settle for recording only the audio portion of a program. Primarily I recorded half-hour comedies. Dramas were generally an hour long and required flipping the tape over at the halfway mark. Also, in order to appreciate a TV detective show, you had to be able to watch for visual clues that couldn’t be captured on audiotape. Thus, while I was listening to a Blazer game upstairs in my room, I could be recording an episode of M*A*S*H on a spare TV in the basement. By the time my teenage years ended, I owned hundreds of audiotapes upon which I had recorded not only TV sitcoms but also Blazer and Buckaroo games. Sometimes, if a game was exciting enough, I saved the recording and would listen to the entire game all over again. Once, during a Buckaroo game, Portland defenseman/enforcer Connie Madigan committed the unimaginable crime of punching a referee in the face during play. I was recording the game on tape when it happened. To this day I can still recall the incredulity in the voice of radio announcer Bill Anderson as he screamed, “Madigan hit the referee! Madigan decked Dave Newell!” My friend Mark hadn’t been listening when it happened. He didn’t find out about it until he read about it in the paper the next day. He was furious to have missed it. I told him, “Don’t worry. Come over to my house after school and I’ll replay it for you.” We listened to it over and over again.

Connie Madigan’s assault on Dave Newell was a fusion of many of my teenage interests: crime, sports, entertainment, and audiotape. Throw in a beautiful bikini-clad babe and it would have been the quintessence of my teenage fantasies.

On weekend nights, when there were no radio mysteries to listen to, I would lie in my bed and listen to entire movies whose audio tracks I had recorded on tape. This worked best with musicals and comedies. I remember listening to Guys and Dolls over and over again. To this day I still know all the lyrics to all the songs that Frank Leosser wrote for the show. Once I snuck my tape recorder into Portland’s Aladdin Theater (admission: 65 cents back in those days) and taped Neil Simon’s Murder By Death, trembling with fear every time I had to change the cassette.

In the first years of our marriage I would astonish my wife with my ability to recite long stretches of dialog from movies such as The Cheap Detective and Murder By Death, as well as from TV shows such as The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Bob Newhart Show. When the audio is all you have, the words tend to stick in your memory.

As a teen, I preferred recording sitcoms to dramas, but I nonetheless frequently recorded syndicated episodes of the original Perry Mason because I loved listening to the courtroom showdowns. Years later, when watching reruns with my wife, I was able to impress her by accurately predicting exactly which character would improbably spring up in the courtroom gallery during the episode’s climactic scene and confess his guilt.

After turning 18, I led a peripatetic life for awhile. My parents moved to Sacramento in 1976 before returning to Portland in 1980. I moved back and forth between the two cities a few times, not sure which one I wanted to settle in. At some point it must have become a burden to keep moving my hundreds of audiotapes from apartment to apartment. I’m not sure exactly when or how I got rid of them. For all I know, they could be gathering dust in the basement of my parents’ current home in Portland. It would take an amateur gumshoe with far greater skills than mine to figure out what became of those old cassettes. All I know is that they brought me a great deal of joy back in the 1970s.

I used to think my father was crazy to prefer a mere audio experience to a fully immersive audio-visual one, but now it seems to me that the old man knew what he was talking about. When I reminisce about my teenage years, I find that many of my mental images of the era have grown old and faded. But I can still recite much of the dialog of that era word for word.

Posted in Adventure, Fiction, Genre, Guest, History, Story, Suspense | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

“The Whys of Murder” by Sharon Hunt

Sharon Hunt is a widely published food writer who also wrote for many literary magazines before turning to crime fiction. Her first story for EQMM, 2015’s “The Water Was Rising,” earned nominations for two prestigious best-short-story awards, Canada’s Arthur Ellis and the International Thriller Award. Her second EQMM story appears in our upcoming July/August 2017 issue and it will be followed soon by a third suspenseful Hunt tale. This is the Ontario author’s second post for this site (see “Fleshing Out Mysteries”). In it she talks about one of the great suspense writers who influenced her fiction.—Janet Hutchings

In fiction as in life, most people have a reason for killing or, at least, that’s what I believe. Often, their reasons to murder are most foul (with apologies to Miss Marple who sniffed out a Murder Most Foul in the movie of the same name), with power and greed chief among them. Other times, the reasons for committing the ultimate sin are more nuanced—fear the most common among these. Jealousy rears its head too, as ably demonstrated by Cain when he got the whole business of murder rolling by killing his brother.

People rarely murder for no reason and perhaps that’s why, when we read of such anomalies, they disturb us the most, since we have a deeply ingrained need to know what leads people to kill other people.

Perhaps, too, it is this need to know that turns some of us into mystery writers, providing a safe way to try and work out the whys of murder.

One of my favorite writers (and among the best) is Ruth Rendell who, too, was very interested in the whys of murder. She also showed great empathy for her characters and the terrible predicaments she placed them in, no doubt fueled by the acknowledgement that “I was imbued from a very early age with a sense of doom.”

When she died in 2015, it felt a bit like a death in the family for me, although I never met her. I did correspond briefly with her when I was younger though, writing her a fan letter and saying how much I wanted to be a writer, like she was. Generously, she wrote back, encouraging me to be a writer, like myself.

I discovered Ruth Rendell’s novels during a 1970s summer when, bored and without much empathy for my mother whom I lived to annoy when I was in my mid-teens, I filched a novel from the stack she was reading—the next in line to be devoured by her voracious appetite for mysteries—and plopped myself on a lounge chair in the back garden, waiting for her to demand its return.

When she didn’t demand the book back, I became intrigued by what seemed to me a cheesy cover, showing a purple lipstick dripping down the side of the tube. Under the title, From Doon With Death, was a further lure to open the book: “She was a prim and proper wife—until her death revealed a dark secret. . . .”

My mother was a “prim and proper wife” which made me curious to find out how any such woman’s death could reveal a “dark secret.”

Soon, I was hooked, and settled in for a summer of dark secrets and death with a writer for whom nothing in her fiction was what it appeared to be.

Ruth Rendell (and also as Barbara Vine) wrote more than 50 novels and seven books of short stories. Although the Vine novels are darker than their Wexford cousins, none are safe, instead delving into why after why.

In addition to novels replete with murderers and the constant Inspector Wexford, there were also Ruth Rendell’s short stories, many of which were published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.

As much as I loved her novels—which I’ve read and reread over the years—I am devoted to her short stories, which have given me an education in what a mystery or suspense short story can be.

One of her finest, “The Fever Tree,” has a seemingly simple plot—an errant husband returns to his wife intent on making their marriage work and takes her on a vacation in Africa—but the story is anything but simple, with old grudges and regrets fueling things from the start. Although both spouses have agreed to give their marriage a good try again, and move on from his affair, each quickly falls back into familiar irksome habits that get more and more reckless.

The story’s ending couldn’t have been any different I realized after rereading it and paying closer attention to the clues masterly embedded along the way, although the ending surprised me the first time I read “The Fever Tree.” Still, how wonderful, I thought, to be so wrong the first time but see the ending for what it was, after a more careful reading, perfect.

That’s what I want to do, I realized, surprise people with a perfect ending.

“The Fever Tree” and other Ruth Rendell short stories have taught me how important that perfect ending is but equally, the importance of all the details leading up to it. Her short stories also reaffirmed for me that the dynamics at play between ‘nearest and dearest’ family members are sometimes the most dangerous and can result in a lifetime of trying to work out the whys of murder.

“I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t write,” she once said.

I feel the same and have her to thank, in part, for that, too.

 

 

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OLD HOME WEEK

The last week in April always feels like old home week in New York’s mystery community. For the Dell mystery magazines the festivities began on Tuesday, April 25, when our two Readers Award winners, Paul D. Marks and Doug Allyn, and Amy Marks and Eve Allyn, joined us for afternoon tea in our offices on Wall Street. It’s a rare year when the Allyns are not in New York for the Edgars (though they were absent and sorely missed in 2016), but for Paul and Amy Marks it was a first experience of the Edgars and their first trip to New York City in a very long time.

Witnessing others’ excitement exploring our city always gives me a thrill, and reminds me of how fortunate we are to have so much of our “industry”(though the word sounds wrong) centered in one place. For one thing, it means that during Edgars week we can meander from the various parties to informational events such as the MWA Edgars Symposium to the awards banquet, all by means of short subway rides. Following our Tuesday tea, for example, we hopped the 2 train to Otto Penzler’s Mysterious Bookshop for a party amidst the towering shelves of one of the country’s most comprehensive stores devoted to crime and mystery fiction—a party jam-packed with authors, agents, and editors.

On Wednesday, associate editor Jackie Sherbow represented the Dell mystery magazines at the MWA symposium at the Grand Hyatt, and then it was on to the big day, Thursday, April 27! Each Edgars Thursday afternoon, the Dell mystery magazines host a party in honor of the EQMM Readers Award winners, the Edgar nominees, and the Robert L. Fish Award winner. This year (as in 2016) the party was held at the Library of the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen, the second oldest library in New York City, founded in 1820—before the appearance of the fist modern detective story (1841), Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue.” As a setting for a literary event, it can hardly be beat, but what makes this event most special is the number of old friends of the magazines it draws together each year. In this thirty-second year of the EQMM Readers Award, and thirty-first year of Readers Award parties, we still saw a few faces that have smiled on us at nearly every one of the previous parties.

There were also some notable newcomers at the party, as there are every year, including this year’s winner of the Robert L. Fish Award for best short story by a new American author, E. Gabriel Flores, who traveled with her husband James all the way from Seattle for the occasion.

Between the Dell party and the Edgars banquet at the Grand Hyatt, the Dell staff took a half-hour to regroup in the mezzanine bar at Grand Central Terminal (right next-door to the Hyatt). It’s a yearly opportunity to catch up with each other—one of the few times, in this era of telecommuting, that we’re all in the city at the same time.

The Edgars banquet was, as usual, a star-studded event, and this year we were especially happy to see Max Allan Collins, an author who has contributed a number of stories to EQMM and who is surely one of the most versatile writers in the business, receive the Grand Master award. Although the short story Edgar did not go to EQMM’s nominee, Joyce Carol Oates, for “The Crawl Space,” it did go to another longtime EQMM contributor, Lawrence Block (for the anthology story “Autumn at the Automat”). And two days after the Edgars, it should be noted, in Los Angeles, “The Crawl Space” won the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in Short Fiction.

I can’t let this account of Edgars week pass without some well wishes to another important EQMM author, multiple EQMM Readers Award winner Jeffery Deaver. The new president of MWA, Jeff was master of ceremonies for this year’s Edgars. When he experienced a health problem during the proceedings, MWA executive vice president Donna Andrews smoothly stepped in and completed the presentation. We soon learned, through a tweet from Jeff himself, that “all is well,” and to everyone who was at the 2017 Edgars banquet that has got to be the night’s best news. Jeff is one of our genre’s most generous and best-loved authors, and we wish him a happy, healthy, and successful year at the helm of MWA.

Directly after the Edgars each year, much of the mystery community packs up and heads for the Malice Domestic Convention in Bethesda, Maryland. Unfortunately, due to a transportation delay, I arrived too late to attend the interview of Lifetime Achievement Award winner Charlaine Harris. Charlaine has proved a steadfast friend to our magazine, having most recently contributed a series of stories (that has appeared nowhere else) that forms the basis for the projected NBC TV series Redliners, for which a pilot is currently being filmed. I did manage to catch up with Charlaine and several other of our most valued contributors—Margaret Maron, Dana Cameron, and Toni Kelner—for breakfast on Sunday, however.

Other Malice highlights included meals with Ann Cleeves, G.M. Malliet, Josh and Laurie Pachter, Martin and Helena Edwards, Art Taylor (and his young son Dashiell!), Dorothy Cannell, Doug Greene, EQMM reviewer Steve Steinbock, and Jim (James Lincoln) and Margaret Warren. The Agatha Awards banquet Saturday night brought another well-deserved short-story Agatha to EQMM Department of First Stories author, and now longtime contributor, Art Taylor. This time it was not for an EQMM story, but for the anthology story “Storm Warning.”

Below are some photos of the various events. Whether you were present at any of them or you were not, please jump in with comments—or share with us any photos you may have.—Janet Hutchings

Tea at the Dell Magazines office. Clockwise from front left: Janet Hutchings, Paul Marks, Eve Allyn, Doug Allyn, Jackie Sherbow, Linda Landrigan. Photo courtesy Paul and Amy Marks.

Tea at the Dell Magazines office. From L to R: Jackie Sherbow, Doug Allyn, Linda Landrigan, Janet Hutchings, Paul Marks. Photo courtesy Paul and Amy Marks.

On the subway platform: Jackie Sherbow and Paul Marks. Photo courtesy Paul and Amy Marks.

At the Mysterious Bookshop party. Photo courtesy Paul and Amy Marks.

The Dell Magazines Pre-Edgars party: From L to R: Paul Marks, S.J. Rozan, Doug Allyn. Photo courtesy Paul and Amy Marks.

E. Gabriel Flores and Cathy Lazere. Photo by Ché Ryback.

Kate Stine and Jim Weikart. Photo by Ché Ryback.

Dell Magazines editor Mark Lagasse. Photo by Ché Ryback.

Christine Begley, Joshua Bilmes, and Janet Hutchings. Photo by Ché Ryback.

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

Joshua Bilmes. Photo by Ché Ryback.

Vice President, Penny Publications/Dell Magazines, Christine Begley. Photo by Ché Ryback.

L to R foreground, facing front: Sheila Kohler, Peter Hochstein. Photo by Ché Ryback.

Analog Science Fiction and Fact Editor, Trevor Quachri. Photo by Ché Ryback.

Dell Magazines Editorial Assistant Deanna McLafferty, Kevin Egan. Photo by Ché Ryback.

Elizabeth Zelvin and Laura Benedict. Photo by Ché Ryback.

Francis M. Nevins, David Dean, and Steve Steinbock. Photo by Ché Ryback.

Susan Breen, Gary Cahill. Photo by Ché Ryback.

Associate Editor, EQMM and AHMM, Jackie Sherbow. Photo by Ché Ryback.

Hilary Davidson, Linda Landrigan, Sarah Weinman. Photo by Ché Ryback.

Judy and Dave Zeltserman. Photo by Ché Ryback.

Kevin Egan, Shelly Dickson Carr, and William Burton McCormick. Photo by Ché Ryback.

Richard Dannay and Cathy Lazere. Photo by Ché Ryback.

Gloria Phares and E. Gabriel Flores. Photo by Ché Ryback.

Ted and Maggie Hertel. Photo by Ché Ryback.

Caroline Todd, Meredith Anthony, Charles Todd. Photo by Ché Ryback.

Hilary Davidson and Linda Landrigan. Photo by Ché Ryback.

Albert Ashforth, Jonathan Santlofer, Tom Savage. Photo by Ché Ryback.

Jim Weikart, Carol Demont, James Peyton. Photo by Ché Ryback.

The crowd at the Pre-Edgars Party, General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen, NYC.

Doug Allyn accepts his 2nd and 3rd place EQMM Readers Awards. Photo courtesy Paul and Amy Marks.

Paul D Marks accepts the Ellery Queen Readers Award. Photo by Brendan DuBois.

Peter Kanter and Paul D. Marks. Photo by Ché Ryback.

Paul D. Marks and Doug Allyn.

At the Edgar Awards banquet. From L to R: James Peyton, Carol Demont, Linda Landrigan, Steve Steinbock, Abby Browning, Jackie Sherbow. Photo courtesy Paul and Amy Marks.

Amy Marks and Jackie Sherbow. Photo courtesy Paul and Amy Marks.

Tara Laskowski and Art Taylor with his Agatha Award for Best Short Story. Photo courtesy Art Taylor.

Breakfast at Malice Domestic. From L to R: Ann Cleeves, Laurie and Josh Pachter, Art and Dashiell Taylor, Martin Edwards.

From L to R: Art Taylor, Dashiell Taylor, Martin Edwards, Helena Edwards, Janet Hutchings, G.M. Malliet, Ann Cleeves, Laurie Pachter.

 

 

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“The Mysterious Face in the Cloud” by E. Gabriel Flores

The most recent winner of the Robert L. Fish Award for best short story by a new American author, E. Gabriel Flores did a post for this site in April, and shes back this month with a post about a phenomenon that figures, in one way or another, in many mysteries. The geography professor turned fiction writer is a lifelong fan of the mystery, and her love of the genre is apparent in her fiction. We have a new Flores story coming up in EQMM soon. —Janet Hutchings

Paredolia is that unique phenomenon that humans—and possibly cats—are prone to, where we see things that are not really there. Our brains insist on solving puzzles that don’t exist, creating order out of chaos, making patterns where there are none. As a child, I marveled at how the pile of clothes discarded on a chair in the corner transformed itself into a scary monster as soon as the light was dimmed. The monster would invariably disappear and become innocent clothing once again when the light was turned back on.

In the light, no matter how hard I looked, that monster stubbornly remained invisible. But then paredolia kicked in again as soon as the light went out, revealing the monster crouching there in the shadows. The only thing for it was to remove the clothes and put them into the closet or the hamper where they belonged. And maybe, for good measure, leave the monster-defeating light on for a while. However, the light revealed a new problem: how to deal with the jagged crack in the corner of the ceiling that looked just like the scowling face of a witch . . .

There are numerous paredolia websites—not that I have wasted any time on them, of course—where there are rocks that appear to have human profiles, old photos that seem to conceal secret images. There is a face on the surface of the moon, a teddy bear in a cloud, a dog in a pile of leaves, a bearded religious icon etched into the morning toast. The creepiest paredolia images are those that are the most difficult to see, those where you look and look and then, suddenly, the woman’s face hidden among the leaves leaps off the screen into your consciousness, and you cannot unsee it. (So I am told by people who spend all that spare time on the internet, scaring themselves silly looking at paredolia images instead of, say, working. At least it isn’t one of those puppy videos, like the one where the cute little dog. . . . but I digress.)

Mystery stories specialize in their own type of paredolia, but in reverse. Instead of a face that isn’t really there leaping out at you, the face that is there disappears. The reader is led to believe that the criminal is an innocent person, just an ordinary faceless cloud floating there among all the other clouds. No face to see here, nothing in that cloud, move along everyone. And then, aha! says the detective. You see, there really was a face there after all! The perpetrator, by rights, should stand out, perhaps with a flashing neon “guilty” sign over their head. Instead he or she fades unnoticed into the background like Robert Downey, Jr. as Sherlock Holmes in his urban camouflage suit, blending in seamlessly with the wallpaper.

It takes a special skill, I think, for a writer to be able to hide the real perp among the innocent suspects in just such a way as to make them indistinguishable, even unnoticed, until the big reveal by the great detective. As a mystery fan, I am enamored of the way detective and crime writers construct their stories, carefully planting those distractingly juicy red herrings among the real clues, surrounding the one person who is guilty-of-this-crime with all those other people who are guilty-but-of-something-else. Some of the best mysteries are those where everyone has a motive, where everyone is acting suspicious, where anyone could be the criminal. Often it is the person you least expect who turns out to have dunnit.

I recently reread “Dead Man’s Mirror,” one of the longer Hercule Poirot stories by the unparalleled Agatha Christie. In that classic story there is the usual bevy of possible suspects who might have committed the crime, but the actual perpetrator is there all along, hidden in plain sight. When you go back and look, you can clearly see that this is the person it had to be. Like the imaginary face that jumps out of the cloud or leafy forest, you cannot unsee the guilty person, once all the clues are clearly pointed in the right direction.

I love Dame Agatha’s work, even—or perhaps especially—when I am fooled by her misdirection. When I am misled, it is almost always because I failed to follow the instructions of her other famous detective, Miss Jane Marple. Miss Marple often warned that it was unwise to ever believe a statement made by one person that cannot be corroborated by someone else. But who can keep track of all those statements scattered among the distracting piles of leaves and banks of clouds?

Another writer who is an expert at hiding the face in the cloud is Jeffery Deaver. He specializes in leading readers along the garden path, twisting and turning, showing us all the possible faces hidden in the leaves and among the branches. Then he turns on the light and shows us that it was never any of those faces after all. It was actually this one, right over here, all along. Or maybe not. How many pages are left in the book?

Then there is Louise Penny, who serves up an entire Quebecois village of likely suspects and more with each book. So far, nobody among the regulars has committed a murder, even though one went to prison for a while by mistake when the clues pointed in their direction. But who knows? It is not just the guys who run the bistro who are waiting for crazy old Ruth Zardo to finally murder someone. I keep expecting her face to leap out of that cloud. It hasn’t. Yet.

Suspense, in the hands of a great mystery writer, is not just about keeping the reader in the dark. It is keeping everyone—the people in the story as well as the reader—in partial darkness and partial light. That means hiding some clues while revealing others. So, when the criminal is finally unmasked, and we find out that we were looking at the wrong pile of rocks or the wrong cloud, several people in the story are shaking their heads right there along with us.

We read these stories because we enjoy the experience of realizing that the criminal had been hidden right there in front of us the entire time. Unlike the fake monster in the pile of clothes, in a mystery story, the baddie does not disappear when you turn on the light. On the contrary, it is only when the light is turned on and the detective points out the guilty person, it is then that the monster in the clothes, the icon on toast, or the face in the cloud is clearly revealed.

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“The Not-So-Simple Art of Mystery Reviewing” (by Elizabeth Foxwell)

It’s our pleasure this week to present a post by a mystery reviewer. Over the several years during which this blog has been active, we’ve had only a couple of previous posts by members of that important profession. Elizabeth Foxwell reviews mysteries for Publishers Weekly, serves as managing editor of Clues: A Journal of Detection (the oldest U.S. scholarly journal on mystery/detective/crime fiction), and edits the McFarland Companions to Mystery Fiction series. She has received the George N. Dove Award from the Popular Culture Association’s Detective/Mystery Caucus for outstanding contributions to the serious study of mystery and crime fiction.  She is also a writer of short mystery fiction, and an Agatha Award winner, whose stories have appeared in several anthologies. Her post gives a concise overview of the history of critical analysis of mystery fiction.—Janet Hutchings

Mr. Poe is a man of genius. . . . . “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is one
of the most intensely interesting tales that has appeared for years. . .
—Review of The Prose Romances of Edgar A. Poe—No. 1,
Ladies National Magazine Sept. 1843: 107.

Although the beginning of the detective genre is traced to Edgar Allan Poe’s well-received “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), mystery reviewing as a specialty has a much more recent history, with EQMM in a prominent place. In Dreams of Justice (2005), Chicago Tribune mystery critic Dick Adler considered NYT “Criminals at Large” and EQMM columnist Anthony Boucher to be “the man who invented mystery reviewing” (3). In What About Murder (1993), longtime EQMM “Jury Box” columnist Jon L. Breen deemed Boucher and professor James Sandoe (in the Herald-Tribune) “the best reviewers going” (ix). Although Boucher certainly made a mark in a quarter-century of reviewing, some of those predating him were Freddy the Detective author Walter R. Brooks in The Outlook, as well as mystery authors moonlighting as reviewers such as Anthony Berkeley Cox (in several newspapers), Dorothy L. Sayers (in the Sunday Times), and Dorothy B. Hughes (in the Albuquerque Tribune, Los Angeles Times, and other newspapers). (Margery Allingham reviewed “New Novels” in Time & Tide for five years, but these reviews tended to be on mainstream rather than crime-influenced fiction, with the exception of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock.) In What About Murder, Breen also pointed out the contributions of Howard Haycraft’s EQMM “Speaking of Crime” columns of the 1940s and, in A Shot Rang Out (2008), noted the important role of mystery reviewers Avis DeVoto (best known for her work with Julia Child) and Lenore Glen Offord, as well as moonlighting author Frances Crane. New “Jury Box” columnist Steve Steinbock has noted the contributions of other “Jury Box” predecessors: locked-room master John Dickson Carr and Armchair Detective editor Allen J. Hubin. Publications such as Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and Booklist (mostly for the library market), as well as Mystery Scene, and the sadly departed Armchair Detective and Drood Review of Mystery (for mystery aficionados), have done significant work in providing a steady critical spotlight on mysteries. The moonlighting mystery author as reviewer continues with writers such as Louis Bayard and Daniel Stashower (The Washington Post), Dick Lochte (Los Angeles Times), and Paula L. Woods (The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times)

A reviewer, said critic and Saturday Review editor Henry Seidel Canby in “The Race of Reviewers,” is a “liaison officer”: “He explains, he interprets, and in so doing necessarily criticizes, abstracts, appreciates.” Mystery author Andrew Greeley, in “Who Reads Book Reviews Anyway?,” saw reviewers’ output in a much more negative light, charging it was “mean-spirited,” “self-important, pompous and supercilious—and almost always without credentials” (7). As Marvin Lachman discussed in The Heirs of Anthony Boucher (2005), writer Robert Randisi reiterated the concern about credentials (of professional mystery reviewers vs. fans who review), and former library director Gary Warren Niebuhr noted that some authors felt that they would be better reviewers than others because they would understand books from the perspective of craft. Surely most reviewers occupy the middle ground between Canby’s saint and Greeley’s sinner, trying to do a honest job while buffeted by accusations of arrogance, bias, ignorance, myopia, and dyspepsia and often compensated only modestly for their efforts.

Providing straightforward and sensible signposts for mystery critics, critic Gilbert Seldes (who wrote two mysteries as Foster Johns) stated in “An Outline of Mystery”:

I like my detective stories pretty plain—a mystery, its solution, and its development; and lean rather toward Mr. [T. S.] Eliot’s strict canonical ban on mystery stories which depend on other elements. But I am convinced that a writer who knew how could involve anything from sexual passion to a passion for higher mathematics in the folds of the story itself—and so long as the story held its own way, there would be no room for protest. (100)

Gilbert Seldes, 1932

Whether the mystery under review adheres to Seldes’s “plain” path as well as holds “its own way” are the crucial questions. In reviewing, I have been disappointed by mysteries with insufficient suspects so that an obvious perpetrator is presented, uneven plotting, the tendency to tell instead of show, resolution by coincidence instead of active detection—in other words, falling short in the elements that readers expect. As an editor, I have itched to reorganize sections, tighten up wayward prose, and correct faux pas (such as a character given the wrong name in the printed book). Given this cranky litany, readers may wonder: Why do I review?

The reason lies, I think, in anticipation. What delights await? What characters will I meet? How will the author dazzle me and pull the wool over my eyes? What might I learn? Veteran reviewer Oline Cogdill noted on the Mystery Scene blog the special pleasures of reviewing mystery debuts because of their freshness and energy, and I concur; I’ve recommended two debuts for starred reviews in my nearly 10 years of reviewing for PW because they offered new and accomplished approaches to storytelling within the mystery framework. As a cofounder of the mystery convention Malice Domestic, I have an affinity for traditional mysteries (with particular fondness for the historical mystery), but this does not mean that I cannot appreciate works with a harder edge. Cornell Woolrich’s “Walls That Hear You” (1934) and Ruth Rendell’s “The New Girl Friend” (EQMM 1983) continue to haunt me years after I read them. I admire Dashiell Hammett’s efforts to reflect the real world he saw as a Pinkerton detective in his fiction and Evan Hunter’s bold experiment with Candyland (2001) in which he wrote half the book as Hunter and the other half as alter ego Ed McBain. It is an impressive form of literature that can encompass a Lilian Jackson Braun and a Donald Westlake, an Ellen Hart and a Walter Mosley, and it is the job of reviewers to try to convey authors’ triumphs as well as their missteps if reviewers are to best serve mystery readers.

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“My Father and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine” (by Richard Chizmar)

Richard Chizmar is the coauthor (with Stephen King) of the bestselling novella Gwendy’s Button Box and the founder/publisher of Cemetery Dance magazine and the Cemetery Dance Publications book imprint. He has edited more than thirty anthologies and has won two World Fantasy awards and four International Horror Guild awards, among other honors. His fiction has appeared in dozens of publications and has been translated and collected in book form; his latest collection, A Long December, was recently published by Subterranean Press. Rich’s EQMM debut was in our March 1997 issue, but until we received this post we had no idea his connection to EQMM goes back much further than that! Don’t miss the new Chizmar story coming up in our November/December 2017 issue.—Janet Hutchings

I grew up in a family of readers. Three older sisters and an older brother, their choice of reading material ranging from the classics and poetry to Stephen King and Sidney Sheldon. Mom loved her Agatha Christies and Reader’s Digest condensed novels. My father was the most voracious reader in the house, and it was his eclectic tastes that most influenced the reader—and writer—I would one day become.

My father enjoyed a wide variety of material. Thick volumes of military history checked out from the local library. Nonfiction books about golf and airplanes and home or car repair. Glossy, oversized travel guides covering an array of exotic destinations, many of which he had visited during his years in the Air Force and many more he one day hoped to visit.

And then there were his favorites: mysteries by the masters, Lawrence Block and Dick Francis and Robert B. Parker. Spy novels by Robert Ludlum and John le Carré and Frederick Forsyth. Stacks of pulp paperbacks by folks like John D. MacDonald, Charles Williams, David Goodis, and Day Keene (almost all of these novels short and sporting nifty titles and even niftier cover art, so they quickly became my favorites as well), these tattered paperbacks usually acquired from the Swap Shelf located by the front entrance of the library.

But my father saved his deepest affection for his magazines. National Geographic. Popular Mechanics. Life. Newsweek. I remember many summer evenings when he would sit out back on our screened-in porch and snip out his favorite articles and collate them into various binders for further readings. I don’t know why, but it seemed like a magical process to me, and I was fascinated by the idea.

And then there was the granddaddy of them all: Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. I don’t ever remember my father cutting out pages from Ellery Queen’s. For him, I think it would have been like snipping out sections of the Bible. Instead, each new issue was quickly read and then neatly collected on a bookshelf in the corner of the den, not far from his favorite reading chair. He never subscribed to Ellery Queen’s (I never asked, but I suspect it because he didn’t want the mailing label to foul up the front cover). He bought each issue at a local book and magazine shop called Maxine’s, and I accompanied him on most of these trips. It was during those car rides that my father first taught me about the history of the magazine and many of its authors. He also told me about his favorite stories and encouraged me to try my hand at my own mystery tales (by then I was writing my own shorts, mostly monster and war adventures, and trying to sell them to my friends). I remember feeling happy and proud that he thought enough of my opinion to share those stories with me and talk to me like a grown-up. I remember feeling the early stirrings of an unbreakable bond that would last us a lifetime.

Years ago, I wrote a Story Note in an early collection of mine that described an idyllic childhood of fishing and hiking and playing baseball with my friends, my father inevitably parked in his car somewhere in the background or perched on the first-base bleachers, the lower half of his face obscured by a worn paperback or the new issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, his eyes peering over the front cover, watching over me. It was a scene I knew well from my childhood days, and a memory I still hold close to my heart today.

***

When I was a teenager, I had two favorite bookstores in the town I grew up in. The first was Carol’s Used Books, which was housed in a couple of trailers, sandwiched between a Dunkin Donuts and a pawn shop. I spent hours in that place, and I can still remember the exact layout (mystery and horror straight ahead and to the right), the sagging, carpeted floors, and the comforting smell of old books. Carol’s closed a long time ago. A used car lot stands in its place now. But I still have dozens of paperbacks on my bookshelves with the Carol Used Books stamp on the inside front cover, and that’s good enough for me.

The second store was called Maxine’s Books and Cards, and as luck would have it, Maxine’s was located right next door to Frank’s Pizza, just about the best pizza shop in the entire world. Maxine’s is where I first fell in love with comic books and later discovered Dean Koontz’s backlist and books by authors such as Bill Pronzini and Ed Gorman and Joe Lansdale. It’s where I bought my first Stephen King paperback and my first copies of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. It’s also where my father and I used to drive together once a month to pick up the brand new issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. For me, Maxine’s was sacred ground.

I never told anyone this—not even my father; some things you just have to keep to yourself—but I always dreamed of seeing one of my own short stories in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. It always felt like the Holy Grail of magazines to me—and not just because it was my dad’s favorite. It’s where the best genre writers contributed their very best work; you never got the feeling the magazine published trunk or throwaway stories. Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine was where the big boys and girls came to play.

Many years later, thanks to Janet Hutchings and Ed Gorman, my dream came true when my story “Like Father, Like Son” appeared in the March 1997 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.

I remember being so excited on publication day that I couldn’t wait for my contributor copies to arrive in the mail. Sadly, Maxine’s was long closed by then, so I drove to the next town over and picked up a couple copies from a magazine shop. I stopped at my parents’ house on the way home and gave a copy to my father. I sat in the den and watched him read my story, a hint of tears in his eyes. That was a good night.

***

My father is gone now. Cancer. During his final days, I often sat at his bedside and read to him. On his night table sat books by Ed Gorman and Stephen King, a copy of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and a stack of other periodicals. When we weren’t reading, we talked about life and the people we loved and good books we had read. I told him how my oldest son was devouring books and comics and starting to write stories of his own. We smiled and laughed and cried a lot. We remembered a lot. Those long weeks were the hardest days of my life, but I wouldn’t have traded them for anything in the world.

***

All these years later, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine is still here. A time capsule of fine words and memories. For that, I’m grateful.

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