“Crimehampton: Myth and Reality” (by Elizabeth Zelvin)

Elizabeth Zelvin’s latest short story, “The Island,” appears in EQMM’s November/December issue, which goes on sale next week (though many subscribers already have copies!). The New York City author, recently the editor of the anthology Me Too Short Stories, has received several award nominations for her short stories, and she is also a novelist known for her Bruce Kohler series and for historicals set in the time of Columbus. In this post, she talks about the place that inspired “The Island,” a place she knows well, if from a different perspective than that of most tourists.—Janet Hutchings

Everyone’s heard of the Hamptons. It’s a glamorous outpost of New York City, playground of the rich and famous, surrounded by beaches and bursting with designer summer homes, glittering nightlife, artists and writers, and money. Not untrue, any of it. But it’s only part of the story.

The Hamptons are not exactly an “it.” They’re a cluster of villages and hamlets on the South Fork of the two-pronged eastern tip of Long Island. They’re also a state of mind, a matter of style. They’re lobster, not hot dogs; wine, not beer.

For the beautiful people, the glamor, and the sets of Woody Allen movies, look “south of the highway.” That’s Montauk Highway, better known nowadays as Route 27. North of the highway is where the ordinary people live, both locals and city folk like me who love the peace and quiet, the clean air, the birds and flowers, and the ocean. We have an 800 square foot ranch house—that’s about the size of a subway car. It’s lucky there are no wolves in the Hamptons, because if you huffed and you puffed . . . We try to avoid the phrases “house in the Hamptons” and “East Hampton” because they give people the wrong idea. Instead, we say, “the East End of Long Island.”

It’s true about the artists and writers. East Hampton in particular, like other famed seaside artist colonies, has that magical quality of light that attracts visual artists. What draws the writers? James Fenimore Cooper started the trend two hundred years ago, followed by Steinbeck, James Jones, Kurt Vonnegut, Truman Capote, Joseph Heller, Mario Puzo, E.L. Doctorow, and Thomas Harris. As a setting for fiction in general and especially for crime, the Hamptons have it all: sophisticated arena where old money and brash celebrity mingle; political hatchery; close-knit fishing community; farmland and seascape; vineyards and horse farms, marinas and wildlife preserves.

The most highly publicized real-life murder in the Hamptons was fueled by greed: multimillionaire investment banker husband killed by electrician boyfriend of crazy divorcing wife; real victims, the couple’s two young children. Real life doesn’t need much of a twist.

The fictional murders are less straightforward. Alafair Burke, James Patterson, Nelson DeMille, and Susan Isaacs, among others, have all set novels there. South of the highway, the Hamptons is an upstairs-downstairs with flimsy twenty-first century boundaries: the rich and powerful who open their luxurious houses for the summer and the locals who clean those houses, maintain their gardens, and sell them fish and corn and fresh tomatoes. The novelists put that conflict in play as well as the north of the highway version, which is more like town and gown: the ordinary summer people and the local year-rounders.

I’ve set two of my own works in the Hamptons. My third novel in the Bruce Kohler series, Death Will Extend Your Vacation, takes place in an imaginary Hampton I call Deadhampton—Dedhampton on maps and town documents—in which Bruce and his friends take shares in a clean and sober group house and find a body on the beach at the end of Chapter One.

My short story, “The Island,” in the November/December 2019 issue of EQMM, refictionalizes an experience I had while researching Vacation: a day out fishing on Gardiners Bay with a neighbor who welcomed me onto his boat, taught me to cast for blues, took me around the back of the biggest privately owned island in America, and told me the story of the capture of Captain Kidd, a South Fork legend. You can find all of that in the novel. Then I added ongoing Hamptons rumors about what happens if you try to set foot on the island. This was more or less borne out by the experience of my next-door neighbor’s teenage son, who canoed over there when he was supposed to be lifeguarding the bay beach and got repelled. But that was a prank, not an emergency. Anyhow, these elements got thrown into the pot and stirred into a story.

My latest publication, not counting “The Island,” is the anthology Me Too Short Stories. I didn’t set my story in that book in the Hamptons, but I could have. It’s easy to think of crimes against women—not only harassment and intimidation, but also abuse and assault—to which a Hamptons beach community lends itself. Lots of bars. Lots of relatively powerless women in subservient positions, trying to make a living as cleaners, nannies, waitresses, or salesgirls. Bare skin on the beach, always subject to misinterpretation. The atmosphere is informal, literally unbuttoned, and the vacationers have plenty of time. Anything can happen.

In Vacation, there’s partying, drug dealing, bullying by charisma and machismo, corruption of the young, blackmail, compulsive eating, compulsive gambling, love gone haywire, and a whole houseful of people who aren’t drinking or doing drugs but keep finding bodies. In “The Island,” there’s an eccentric so rich he owns his own island. There’s history and legend. There’s a day on the water and a chance to get away from it all—not a bad setup for crime.

What else? There are deer. Did I mention that although the Hamptons are an outpost of the city, they’re also “the country”? Ah, the Hamptons! Custom cannot stale its infinite variety. And if it withers, you get out the garden hose. Or put on your bathing suit and jump into the ocean.

Posted in crime, Fiction, Guest, research, Setting | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“A Literary Obesity Problem” (by Kevin Mims)

When I am asked to speak about short stories at fan conferences, I often bring up as one of the pleasures of short fiction that it can be read in a single sitting. This week’s blog post has reminded me that it used to be possible to read most novels in our genre if not in one sitting, then at least in one day or long winter’s evening. It’s a pleasure I had nearly forgotten—the shutting out of all else for an entire day while in the thrall of the unputdownable novel. Such books do still exist: James Patterson has authored a whole series of them in concert with other writers, and they usually come in at around 144 pages. The books in Twist Phelan’s Finn Teller series are of a similar length. But they are the exceptions to what has become the new rule for thrillers—as essayist and short story writer Kevin Mims documents in this post.—Janet Hutchings

At the risk of sounding like a bad Andy Rooney impersonator, I’d like to ask: What ever happened to the skinny thriller novel? During my formative years as a reader, back in the 1970s, bookstores and bestseller lists were full of pop fictions that could be read in three or four hours. James Grady’s 1974 thriller Six Days of the Condor ran 192 pages in hardback. It could easily be consumed over the course of a single lazy weekend (Sydney Pollack and Robert Redford made it even shorter when they converted it into the film Three Days of the Condor). Ira Levin’s 1972 thriller The Stepford Wives ran 145 pages, a veritable sliver of a book (curiously, Levin later wrote a novel called Sliver, which weighed in at a slightly less svelte 190 pages). Rosemary’s Baby was massive for a Levin novel—245 pages—but that’s not a lot of pages when you consider the size of its cultural impact. My 1974 paperback edition of William Goldman’s Marathon Man is a zippy 268 pages long. That’s more of a sprint than a marathon. What’s more, his thrillers Magic (243 pages) and Heat (244) were even zippier (Goldman managed to name two novels after Florida NBA teams even before those franchises existed!). David Morrell’s 1972 thriller, First Blood, a book that inspired the five-film Rambo franchise as well as an animated TV series, was 252 pages in hardback. According to Morrell, First Blood was partially inspired by Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male, a classic thriller from 1939 that runs well under 200 pages in most editions. Alistair MacLean’s thriller, Puppet on a Chain, made the very first New York Times bestseller list of the 1970s and spent a total of 17 weeks there, holding its own with the likes of The Godfather, Love Story, and The French Lieutenant’s Woman. It runs 224 pages in paperback, which was a fairly typical length for MacLean, one of the mid twentieth century’s best-known thriller writers. A page count of 224 was fairly typical for another great twentieth-century writer also. The last Agatha Christie novel published during her lifetime (1975’s Curtain) and her posthumously published Sleeping Murder (published in 1976) both ran to 224 pages in hardback. That’s consistency for you. Jack Finney’s 1955 thriller TheBody Snatchers was so slim at 191 pages that Hollywood decided to fatten it up by adding two words to its title for the 1956 and 1978 film versions. Fail-Safe, a 1962 thriller by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, ran 286 pages in hardback. Both The Body Snatchersand Fail-Safe were originally serialized in magazines (Colliers and The Saturday Evening Post, respectively). Today’s thriller writers seem more interested in spawning 18-part HBO adaptations than three-part magazine serials. Michael Crichton’s novel The Terminal Man was serialized in three issues of Playboy magazine back in 1972. The hardback novel spent 19 weeks on the bestseller list that year. The book ran a mere 247 pages. And speaking of medical thrillers written by Harvard-educated medical doctors, Robin Cook’s 1977 bestseller Coma weighed in at a slender 280 pages. James Dickey’s 1970 novel Deliverance, which arrived on the bestseller list on the same week that Puppet on a Chain fell off it, packed its numerous thrills into a lean and mean 278 pages. Peter Benchley’s Jaws, arguably the most famous thriller of the 1970s, had less fat on it than a shark, also running a lean and mean 278 pages in the original hardback. I recall my mother reading it in its entirety over the course of a single Saturday. I read it in its entirety the very next day. Mary Higgins Clark’s 1975 bestseller Where Are the Children? is one of the most successful thrillers of all time, having been through at least 75 reprints. In hardback it ran 290 pages. For both me and my thriller-loving mother, it was another one-day read. Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven-Per-Cent Solution was the ninth bestselling book of 1974. A clever Sherlock Holmes pastiche, it delivered its many thrills in a mere 244 pages. Its two sequels, The Canary Trainer (224 pages) and The West End Horror (222) were even slimmer.

It wasn’t just thrillers that were thinner back in the day. The bestseller lists of the 1970s included slender romances (Love Story, 131 pages), inspirational novels (I Heard the Owl Call My Name, 159 pages), and weird fictional meditations on the lives of shorebirds (Jonathan Livingston Seagull, 127 pages including photographs and a lot of white space).

To be sure, plenty of doorstops hit the bookstores and bestseller lists back then also. But often these were novels exploring a topic that demanded a big canvas, such as the birth of a nation (Exodus by Leon Uris), the birth of an island chain (Hawaii by James Michener), an entire industry (Wheels, The Moneychangers, Overload, and other books by Arthur Hailey), a world war (The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, by Herman Wouk), an entire mythological realm (Shardik and Maia, by Richard Adams), or an actual historical realm (Shogun, by James Clavel).

Alas, the read-it-in-one-sitting thriller seems to be a thing of the past. Stephen King, whose first novel was the rapidly-paced Carrie (199 pages in hardback) now produces novels like 11/22/63 (880 pages in paperback), Under the Dome (1074 pages), and Sleeping Beauties (720 pages and cowritten by his son Owen). Elizabeth George’s books were always pretty hefty. Her debut novel, 1988’s A Great Deliverance, ran to 432 pages. But her more recent novels are behemoths. They include The Punishment She Deserves (704 pages), Just One Evil Act (736), This Body of Death (692), and A Traitor to Memory (722).

And don’t even get me started on Greg Iles. Natchez Burning is 816 pages long and it’s only the first book in a trilogy! The publisher describes the three-volume work as a single “mesmerizing thriller.” I’m sorry, but there’s no such thing as a 2,480-page thriller. It’s as unthinkable as a 2,480-line sonnet. Other Iles novels that have been described as thrillers include Spandau Phoenix (704 pages) and its prequel Black Cross (656). Whatever else they might be—historical dramas, crime dramas, adventure novels—Iles’s books are not thrillers in the traditional sense. Both Robin Cook and Greg Iles have published novels titled Mortal Fear. According to Amazon.com, one hardback weighs in at 217 pages and 9.6 ounces, and the other at 576 pages and 2.05 lbs. I’ll let you guess which is which.

The most generous explanation of why would-be thrillers (and novels in general) have gotten so fat is, well, generosity itself. You could argue that these novelists are trying to give their readers more bang for the buck. And that may sometimes be true.

Technology may also account for the thickening of the thriller. Word processors make writing and editing a lot easier than they were back in the mid twentieth century. In 1970, an author who had just typed up a 300-page manuscript was probably loath to want to go back into it and add a few extra details here and there. It would mean typing up a whole new clean copy. Nowadays, an author can tinker with a manuscript endlessly, adding and subtracting things (usually the former, alas) almost up until the hour it goes to the printer. And the internet makes research a lot easier as well. A novelist in 1975 might mention that his hero’s plane landed in the Frankfurt airport at 8:05 Saturday evening, and from there our hero caught a cab to his hotel. A contemporary writer, even if he’s never been out of Dubuque, IA, can go online and find a wealth of photos and information about the Frankfurt airport and then insert a lot of specific details about it into his description. Details are good, but too many of them can gum up the works.

The thing about thrillers is that they are supposed to be literary roller coasters: fast-paced, filled with ups and downs and hairpin turns and dramatic reversals, and then—bam!—over almost before you know it. If it takes you a week (or longer) to read a thriller, it probably wasn’t that thrilling. Marathon Man, The Body Snatchers, Jaws, The Stepford Wives, The Terminal Man, Six Days of the Condor—these books all have their flaws. William Goldman was no William Shakespeare. James Grady is no James Joyce. Ira Levin was no Leo Tolstoy. But whatever their shortcomings might be, all of those books roll along like runaway trains. They build momentum quickly. The tension in those books is constantly being ratcheted up. The authors of pacy thrillers often skimp a bit on character development (though not as much as you might think—the characters in Jaws the novel have much more depth and complexity than the characters in Jaws the movie). Likewise, they often confine a book’s action to a single small locale: the Bramford apartment building in Rosemary’s Baby, a small island off the New York coast in Jaws, Mill Valley, CA, in The Body Snatchers, a futuristic housing development in The Stepford Wives. They sacrifice large casts of characters and vast geographical canvases in order to focus on small, tightly choreographed dramas. John Farris’s When Michael Calls, published in the same year as Rosemary’s Baby, unfolds over just a few days in a sparsely populated town, but I have read its 256 pages twice, both times in a single sitting. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read the 215 pages of True Grit in a single sitting (the novel may be a Western and a black comedy, but it is most definitely a thriller as well—and, unlike the other books discussed here, flawless). Thriller writing was an art form much like sonnet writing. There is still a tiny handful of contemporary writers (Timothy Steele and A.E. Stallings come to mind) who can write sonnets as well as Christina Rossetti and Edna St. Vincent Millay did, but for the most part it seems to be a dying art form. The same thing seems to be true of the classic thriller.

You could argue that fat thrillers are a good thing, a sign that even pop-fiction junkies have longer attention spans than they used to. But I think just the opposite is true. Jaws, The Stepford Wives, even The Day of the Jackal (a superthriller despite its relatively hefty 380 pages) were written for people who had the ability to sit still for the three or four hours it would take to read them in their entirety. In the 1970s, people didn’t listen to these books on tape while they commuted to work or exercised on a NordicTrac Fitness Pro 2000. And most people didn’t read them in ten-page installments each evening before bed. They sat down in a comfortable chair and they ignored the phone and the television for several hours while giving these thrillers the attention they deserved. Roller coasters aren’t designed to be ridden in stages. You don’t get off the ride after the loop-de-loop and come back later to experience the corkscrew. No, you strap yourself in and hold on for dear life until the ride is over. Ira Levin understood this on a cellular level. If only it were possible to clone a whole bunch of him.

Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Comments

“Frederic Dannay Revisited” (by Francis M. Nevins)

Earlier this year, on this site, Laird Blackwell talked about the inspiration for his latest scholarly work, Frederic Dannay, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and the Art of the Detective Short Story. This week, mystery-fiction scholar Francis M. Nevins reviews the book. The author of six mystery novels and about forty published short stories, Francis M. Nevins (whom we know as “Mike”) has won two Edgars for his critical work in our field (Royal Bloodline: Ellery Queen, Author and Detective and Cornell Woolrich: First You Dream, Then You Die). He knew Frederic Dannay personally and has approached Laird Blackwell’s work focused on the magazine Dannay founded from the viewpoint of a devoted fan.—Janet Hutchings

In recent years—no, make that recent decades—it seems that I’ve either written or edited or had some connection with just about every book having to do with Ellery Queen. This is no longer the case, thanks to Laird R. Blackwell’s Frederic Dannay, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and the Art of the Detective Short Story (McFarland, 2019), a title so unwieldy it won’t all fit on the book’s spine, which omits THE ART OF. Blackwell aims to encompass in a relatively short book “the true impact of Ellery Queen on the detective-crime short-story genre.” By Ellery Queen of course he means Frederic Dannay, the scholarly-bibliophilic-editorial half of the Queen partnership, who as founding editor of EQMM labored feverishly, between the magazine’s birth late in 1941 and shortly before his death in 1982, both to revive the best short stories of the distant and recent past and to encourage the creation of equally fine stories in the present and future. Blackwell knows the 40-odd Dannay years of EQMM backward and forward and writes insightfully of the milestone authors and stories that Fred had a hand in developing or preserving. We traverse the entire range of the genre from Poe through Conan Doyle and Chesterton to then-newcomers like Stanley Ellin and Edward D. Hoch (who wound up having more than 500 stories published in the magazine) to a few like Jon L. Breen and Josh Pachter and myself who began appearing in EQMM when we were young and Fred was well along in his editorial career and who carry on today like old warhorses continuing, perhaps more gently, to smite the earth.

If I had had a hand in the book I would have pushed for Blackwell to include the birth and death years of the dozens of authors he covers, giving readers a more vivid sense of the scope and flow of detective-crime fiction in its short form. But I would have fought much more loudly for the removal of the superabundant typos which pockmark the book. So many authors’ names are given incorrectly, including luminaries like “Cornel” Woolrich and “George” Simenon and even that old standby Edgar “Allen” Poe. So many story titles get the same treatment, such as “The Adventure of the Blue Carbunkle” which will lift every Sherlockian’s eyebrows to the sky. Book titles fare no better, as witness 101 Midnights, which eliminates a whopping 900 witching hours. A number of significant dates are also off, for example the death of Ed Hoch, which occurred in 2008, not 2018. (If only Ed had enjoyed the extra ten years of life with which Blackwell gifts him!) And more than one protagonist of a single story is listed as a series character. But all these gaffes—which, if I had a magic wand, I’d erase forever—don’t seriously detract from what Blackwell has accomplished in this book. With these reservations, I recommend it.

Posted in Books, Ellery Queen, Genre, Guest, History, review | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Shared Death” (by R.T. Raichev)

Raicho Raichev is not only a fan of Golden Age Mysteries, hes a scholar of the genre. He’s written previous articles for this site about some of the key figures in the field. This time he focuses on the murder method in many Golden Age whodunits: poison. Raicho is one of the best current writers of the classical mystery. His series starring mystery writer Antonia Darcy and her husband, Major Payne, has more than half a dozen critically acclaimed novel-length entries as well as many short story cases, most of them published in EQMM. We have a new Antonia Darcy story coming up early next year.—Janet Hutchings

P.D. James, in her Introduction to the 1998 Folio edition of Dorothy L. Sayers’s Strong Poison, writes that the novel has “a particularly original and ingenious method of murder and one, which, as far as I remember, has never been used by another crime writer.” The method in question involves the introduction of arsenic (via a tiny funnel) into a deliberately cracked egg that is subsequently used for the making of a sweet omelette which is shared by the killer with his victim. The reason the killer remains unaffected is that he has been carefully building up his own immunity to arsenic by taking small doses over a period of time. As murderous modi operandi go, this one is so elaborate, dangerous, and risky as to be wildly improbable, though of course it is typical of the Golden Age (of the English detective story) during which the book was written. In fact the shared-death method might have been devised by the novel’s heroine Harriet Vane herself—a detective story writer and, as is widely assumed, an idealized self-portrait of Dorothy L. Sayers. In an entertaining metafictional touch Harriet—who stands accused of the murder of her lover—tells Lord Peter that it all feels like one of her own novels, “. . . in which I invented such a perfectly watertight crime that I couldn’t devise any way for my detective to prove it . . .”

Strong Poison was published in 1930 and is the fourth in the series featuring Sayers’s sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey. For most Sayers aficionados* the novel’s real distinction lies in the extraordinary transformation—some may call it “humanization”—of Lord Peter who, beneath his Bertie-Wooster exterior and silly-ass manner, is revealed as harboring passions worthy of a Mr Darcy. One cannot imagine a less auspicious occasion for a man to succumb to a coup de foudre than a murder trial, but that is what happens to Lord Peter Wimsey. He falls in love with the woman in the dock while listening to the judge sum up the damning evidence against her. He is convinced—absolutely, unshakably, unconditionally—that Harriet Vane is innocent. At that point Lord Peter hasn’t any proof that that might be so, apart from what his heart tells him and the fact that his mother, the Duchess of Denver, agrees—as he informs Harriet at their first meeting. (“Oh my mother’s the only one that counts, and she likes you very much from what she’s seen of you.”) We learn that when Harriet “smiled at him, his heart turned to water.”  Henceforward he devotes all his time and energy—as well as every advantage his status as a peer of the realm affords him—to saving her from the hangman’s noose. In the course of his investigation he offers her marriage.

But Baroness James seemed to have remembered wrongly. Ten years after Sayers, another crime writer—Agatha Christie, no less—employed the shared-death method in her novel Sad Cypress. Although a meticulously clued Poirot case, this 1940 offering is not a typical Christie. For one thing, the identity of the killer is fairly obvious at an early stage, which for an Agatha Christie novel written in her floruit period is very unusual. Crime critic Robert Barnard describes Sad Cypress as “elegiac, more emotionally involving than is usual in Christie.” The killer—Nurse Hopkins—puts morphine into a pot of freshly brewed tea which she then shares  with her victim. Her way of staying alive is by means of an apomorphine injection she gives herself moments after imbibing the poison. (Apomorphine is a powerful emetic and it causes her to vomit the morphine.)

Apart from the murder method, there are a number of other striking similarities between Strong Poisonand Sad Cypress. Both novels open with a tense courtroom scene. Both feature an attractive, sympathetically presented woman who is wrongly accused of murder. The murder motive in both novels is money though the murderer’s right to inheritance is carefully veiled. Both Sayers and Christie use the very first impression their murderers make in such a way as to prepare the reader for the eventual revelation of their guilt. Norman Urquhart’s face strikes Lord Peter as “pale and curiously clear”—the denouement reveals that luminous clarity is characteristic of the skin of a habitual arsenic eater. Nurse Hopkins is introduced through the eyes of her scapegoat, a delirious Elinor Carlisle, who sees Hopkins as “smug—smug and implacable”—note the cunning repetition of “smug”—Agatha Christie as good as tells the reader, this is a woman who believes she’s got away with murder. Both murderers are easy to spot since the circle of suspects in the two novels is so very narrow, therefore the question that tantalizes the reader is How?** rather than Who?

Did Agatha Christie appropriate some of Dorothy Sayers’s ideas after reading Strong Poison? Or was it a case of what is known as “parallel thinking”? While extraordinary coincidences are known to happen there is one singular detail in Sad Cypress which suggests that Christie was not only familiar with that particular Sayers but that she might be paying some kind of droll homage to her sister in crime. In Strong Poison, it is Lord Peter who gets the girl in the end, or rather starts romancing Harriet Vane.*** In Sad Cypress, the young man who is paired off with Elinor Carlisle after her release is a friend of Hercule Poirot called—now pay close attention—Peter Lord.

Or was Agatha Christie’s subconscious playing her tricks?

* Most but not all. Apparently there are GA purists who regard Harriet Vane as a Wallis Simpson kind of figure who lured Lord Peter away from the path of pure detection.

** Sayers much more often than Christie devised bizarre, if not exactly practicable, murder methods. In her Busman’s Honeymoon the killer sets a booby trap with a weighted cactus pot on a chain, which is triggered by the victim’s opening a radio cabinet; the murder in Unnatural Death is brought about by the injecting of a lethal air-bubble into the victim’s vein, etc.

*** Lord Peter’s proposal is finally accepted by Harriet Vane in Gaudy Night (1935) and in Busman’s Honeymoon (1937) we see them married.


Posted in Books, Characters, Guest, Writers | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Secret Lagoon” (by Josh Pachter)

Josh Pachter’s story “The Secret Lagoon” appears in EQMM’s current issue (September/October 2019). Readers are often curious not only about where authors get their ideas but about how a story comes together. In this post, we get a look at how Josh’s new story formed in his mind. The name Josh Pachter will be very familiar to most of our readers. He is the author of about a hundred published short stories, many of them in EQMM, and has been translating for EQMM, from several languages, for many years. Last year he celebrated his fiftieth anniversary as a published writer, and it all began in the pages of EQMM.—Janet Hutchings

All photos courtesy of Josh Pachter.

The Secret Lagoon is a real place.

When we booked a trip to Holland and Belgium in May of 2017, my wife Laurie and I decided to take advantage of our airline’s offer of a free stopover in Iceland, a country neither of us had previously visited. Laurie is the family researcher, and she created a fabulous itinerary for us: the geysers at Gullfoss, Thingvellir National Park, the Skógafoss waterfall, the bright-blue glaciers and “diamond beach” at Jökulsárlón, the list goes on. One of the things we both wanted to experience was a geothermal lagoon, of which Iceland has many, most famously the Blue Lagoon, which is not far from the Keflavík International Airport. From its website and its TripAdvisor reviews, though, it looked to us like the Blue Lagoon would probably be mobbed, and neither of us is comfortable in crowds, especially at times that are by their very nature intended to be relaxing.

So I did a little poking around of my own and discovered Gamla Laugín, the Secret Lagoon, a natural hot spring in the village of Flúðir, about a two-hour drive east of Keflavík, and I booked us a visit for the morning of our arrival.

Our Icelandair flight landed at 6:30 AM local time, and we cleared through customs and picked up our rental car. Exhausted from the overnight travel and jetlagged from the six-hour time change, we endured the drive to Flúðir, stopping briefly in Selfoss to revive ourselves with coffee and pastries.

The Secret Lagoon is as I describe it in my story, down to the “wedding concierge” in his bushy beard and waxed mustache, incongruous tam o’shanter cap, and red bowtie. (I didn’t catch his name, but later selected Þorri from an Icelandic baby book I found on the Internet.)

Laurie and I had the place almost to ourselves that day. I don’t know what she was thinking as she let the geothermal heat soak away the fatigue of our long plane ride, but I remember what was going through my mind:

This would be a perfect setting for a crime story, I thought, floating in the hundred-degree water, my neck and feet supported by long fluorescent pool noodles.

But what would be the crime?

After a while, I found myself remembering a game I used to play with my friends and siblings, many years ago, a sort of you-be-the-detective game in which one of us would tell the bare bones of a puzzling story and the others, by asking a series of yes/no questions, would have to figure out the answer to the story’s riddle.

Here’s an example of the type of thing I’m talking about:

Billy is found dead, an apparent suicide, in the dining room of his small apartment. There is a carved wooden figure of a dog and a set of woodworking tools on the table, and one of the wooden chairs is tipped over. There is sawdust on the floor. Why did Billy kill himself?

Then the questioning would go like this:

Did Billy really commit suicide? Yes. Did he shoot himself? No. Did he take poison? No. Did he hang himself? Yes. Is his profession relevant? Yes. Was he a professional woodworker? No.

And so on. Ultimately, the questioners would either have to give up or figure out that Billy worked in the circus, where he was billed as “The Smallest Man in the World,” and the second smallest man, jealous of Billy’s—ahem—stature, was sneaking into his apartment every night and sanding down the legs of Billy’s dining-room table. Billy, terrified that he was growing taller, couldn’t stand the thought of losing his job and finally hanged himself.

You’ll have to trust me on this, but the game was more fun to play than it is to read about, and we had a great time playing it.

SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t yet read “The Secret Lagoon” in the September/October issue, you should stop reading this blog post now and not return until you’ve finished the story.

Okay, you’re back? And you’ve read “The Secret Lagoon”? Fine, I’ll take your word for it.

One of my favorite puzzles from this childhood game involved three main characters: Father Frank, Mayor Mike, and Officer Owen. It’s twenty years since Father Frank took over as the parish priest, and his congregation throws him a big party to celebrate the anniversary. A hundred of them gather at the church at the appointed day and time, but Father Frank is at the local hospital administering last rites to a dying parishioner and is delayed. To pass the time while they wait for the guest of honor to show up, Mayor Mike stands and improvises a speech. Finally, Father Frank arrives to great applause and launches into a speech of his own. A minute later, Officer Owen, who is one of the many people sitting in the pews, jumps to his feet, unholsters his gun, and fires a single bullet, which strikes and instantly kills . . . Mayor Mike.

And the question the listener needs to answer is this: Why did Officer Owen kill Mayor Mike?

The answer—you’re positive you’ve read “The Secret Lagoon,” right?—would take the uninitiated a long time to figure out, but is in retrospect pretty simple. When Mayor Mike got up to speak, he began by saying that it was logical for him to be the person speaking, not because he’s the mayor, but because, twenty years ago, on Father Frank’s first day in the parish, he—Mayor Mike—was the very first person to ask the new priest to take his confession. Then, when Father Frank arrives and launches into his own speech, he begins by saying that it’s certainly been an eventful twenty years. In fact, he says, his time in the parish got off to an unusual start when the very first confession he ever heard was a confession of murder.

Mayor Mike was married to Officer Owen’s sister, see, and Officer Owen’s sister was murdered long ago, apparently having surprised a burglar in the act of robbing her house. The murder was never solved, but now, two decades later, Owen puts two and two together and realizes at long last that it was his brother-in-law, not a burglar, who killed his sister, and he takes his long-delayed revenge.

That old puzzle became the jumping-off point for my Iceland story, in which a cocky killer revisits the scene of his long-ago crime, only to find that murder—which Chaucer warned us will out—does out, in this case with equally fatal consequences.

At the end of “The Secret Lagoon,” Emily Norton checks into the Hotel Skógar, within sight of the majestic Skógafoss waterfall. Laurie and I spent our own first night in Iceland there, although our room was on the other side of the building, so we didn’t get to see the falls until the following morning:

Unlike Emily, Laurie and I did go on to stay in Kirkjubæjarklaustur and Hveragerði, to walk on the black sand at Vík and marvel at the beauty of the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon and its diamond beach.

Oh, speaking of my story’s main character, I should mention that I often like to slip an Easter egg or two into my stories, and that there’s one built into her name.

In my day job, I teach communication studies and film appreciation at Northern Virginia Community College, and my film class focuses on Orson Welles’s classic Citizen Kane. In that film, Kane’s first wife—played by the lovely Ruth Warrick, who later spent thirty-five years as the obnoxious Phoebe Tyler Wallingford on the daytime soap All My Children— is Emily Monroe Norton, the niece of a former US president. And the protagonist of “The Secret Lagoon” is Emily Norton, nee Emily Monroe. I’ve been looking for a way to slip a Kane reference into one of my stories, and at last I found one!

I’m happy, too, to have found a way to set a story in Iceland, one of the most book-friendly countries in the world, where every December the citizenry celebrates Jolabokaflod,the “Christmas Book Flood.” On Christmas Eve, families give each other gaily-wrapped hard-covered books, then curl up in comfortable chairs and spend the rest of the evening reading.

Now that’s a tradition I can wholeheartedly endorse.

Gleðilegt lestur, allir!

Happy reading, one and all!

Posted in Characters, Fiction, Guest, International, Thrillers | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Too Good to Be True?” (by Anne van Doorn)

Last week, Mystery Scene magazine copublisher Brian Skupin did a post for this site about locked-room mysteries. In it, he mentioned a story in our current issue (September/October 2019) by Dutch writer Anne van Doorn entitled “The Poet Who Locked Himself In.”  This week, Anne van Doorn recalls how this very clever tale ended up in EQMM. Since Anne (a gender-neutral name in The Netherlands) recounts some of his publishing history in this post, I will only add that he has also served as book critic for the Dutch internet site Crimezone. We’re very glad that he has made his international debut with an appearance in our current issue! —Janet Hutchings

In July 2017 I was approached through e-mail by a person named Josh Pachter. Never heard of the fellow! He claimed to be a translator for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and that it had been suggested to him that my story “De Dichter Die Zichzelf Opsloot” might be a good prospect for the EQMM. For years I’ve been aware of the existence of EQMM, as I’m an avid short-fiction reader—every day a short story! However, as Pachter’s e-mail address didn’t end with @elleryqueenmysterymagazine.com I began suspecting someone was pulling my leg!

You’ll have to understand that in my country, The Netherlands, I’m a crime author of no importance at all. Although I debuted as M.P.O. Books in 2004, I’ve mostly been ignored by national newspapers and other media. My role in this small country—twice the size of New Jersey—has thus been marginal, perhaps due to the fact that my books are published through very small companies. This is my life as a writer . . . as usual.

To give my career a new impulse I adopted a second pen name in 2017. While as M.P.O. Books I wrote modern police procedurals, with the new pseudonym I decided to focus on my first love, the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, yet in a contemporary setting. I’m a huge fan of the short stories written by Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, and like them I wanted to write both novels as well as short fiction. As Anne van Doorn my first short detective stories had just been published when Josh Pachter dropped his e-mail in my box. It sounded too good to be true, of course. I had to investigate this fellow!

You don’t have to be a famous writer to receive weird requests. Sometimes these are fun. Like that teenage boy who asked me to help him get in touch with chief inspector Bram Petersen, one of my fictional series characters. The guy wanted to do an internship with the police, hanging out with Petersen and solving crimes! Sometimes the requests are not so innocent. There are always freaks and confused persons around. Here’s a sad example:

One day a friendly, old, but confused lady came to the door with her wheeled walker, asking for Simon Vestdijk, our local celebrity and writer of international repute, nine times on the long list for the Nobel Prize in Literature and Dutch translator of the Sherlock Holmes stories back in the 1940s. She wanted to meet him. I had to inform her Vestdijk had sadly passed away. Naturally she was shocked. In fact, she was so devastated by the news that I daren’t tell her he died decades ago. In fact, before I was even born!

Another example. A one-time literary author sent me a letter, flattering me with regard to my locked-room novel Een Afgesloten Huis, saying the book should have been awarded the Gouden Strop—the Golden Noose, the most important crime-fiction award in The Netherlands and Belgium. This flattery was only an introduction to his weird request. He wanted to write a novel wherein his main character could have sex with the female main character of Een Afgesloten Huis. This weirdo wrote similar letters to other authors of the same publisher. . . In fact, this person is notorious for having harassed female writers for years!

Now, fortunately enough, Josh Pachter didn’t strike me as either weird or confused. But was he a practical joker? Perhaps a fellow countryman posing as an American? His surname is obviously a Dutch one. Pachter is the Dutch word for tenant. After receiving his e-mail I decided to do a background check, discovering that this wasn’t a practical joke at all. Josh Pachter is a well-established author and translator in the U.S.A. And so, the ball started rolling . . .

Josh Pachter read my short story and said: “It’s very well written and would translate smoothly into English.” The latter he did, then offered it to EQMM editor Janet Hutchings for publication. She consented. And now “The Poet Who Locked Himself In” has been published and I’m thrilled! It’s a dream come true. It’s recognition from across the Atlantic Ocean. Recognition that may help me get a foothold in my home country. Incredible! Overjoyed, I took a two-year subscription to EQMM.

My Dutch publisher was smart enough to latch onto the U.S. publication as an opportunity to release a short-story collection entitled De Mysteries van Robbie Corbijn. On the cover is the blurb: “One of these mysteries will be published in the renowned Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine from America.” Review copies and press releases about my American debut were sent to all national newspapers. Perhaps you can predict the result? All of them ignored the book! No one gave me a call, there are no reviews, no interviews, no congratulations. Utter silence!

I guess this means my life goes on. . . as usual!

Posted in Books, Characters, Fiction, Guest, International, Passport | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

“EQMM and the Locked Room Mystery” (by Brian Skupin)

Brian Skupin is Consulting Editor for the publishing company Locked Room International (founded by one of EQMM’s most prolific translators, John Pugmire!) and copublisher of Mystery Scene Magazine, for which he has won the Mystery Writers of America’s Ellery Queen Award, the Poirot Award from the Malice Domestic convention, and the Anthony Award from Bouchercon. He is also the editor of the forthcoming Locked Room Murders Supplement, a bibliography containing over 1,000 impossible crime stories. It shouldn’t have been a surprise to us that when invited to do a post for this site Brian chose locked-room mysteries as his subject, with an emphasis on those published in EQMM. It’s a topic we’re delighted to see addressed! Brian mentions several recent locked-room EQMM stories here, including one in the current issue (September/October 2019) by Dutch author Anne van Doorn. Readers will find yet another in our next issue (November/December) by Canadian author Elizabeth Elwood.—Janet Hutchings

Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine (EQMM) has been publishing short mystery fiction for nearly eighty years. In that time I daresay every kind of crime or detective story has appeared.

But everyone has their own favorite type of story, and mine is the locked-room mystery.

From the very first issue, all the way until the most recent issue, EQMM has recognized the special allure of the locked-room to those of us who come to mystery fiction in search of a puzzle: the crime that appears to be absolutely impossible. Only the locked-room, or more generally, the impossible crime, can satisfy the desire to know not only who, not only why, but how a crime was committed.

Frederic Dannay, cofounder of the magazine and its driving force for the first forty years, was no stranger to the impossible crime, having written, for example, the classic novel The King Is Dead. A man announces in advance that he will kill his brother at a particular time, and does so despite all precautions including his brother being protected inside a steel-lined vault.

The first ten issues of EQMM contained six impossible-crime stories. This pace could not be maintained, but impossible crimes continued to be a regular occurrence.

The eleventh issue (July 1943) was notable in that it contained the first story by James Yaffe, who premiered in the Department of First Stories, which showcases a writer’s first mystery fiction. Yaffe debuted with a classic problem: a man gets on an elevator alone, and when he arrives at his destination floor he is found stabbed to death.

That same issue also had the excellent “The Proverbial Murder” by all-time locked-room master John Dickson Carr, in which a man is shot in his locked study, and has a particularly unexpected villain.

Carr was inspired by the Father Brown stories of G.K. Chesterton, whose “Oracle of the Dog” had presented a new locked-room solution to death by stabbing in an inaccessible summer house and was reprinted in July 1950.

Carr in turn inspired many writers, among them Edmund Crispin, who belonged to a John Dickson Carr club. “The Name on the Window,” (February 1953) about a man found dead in a small cabin with only his own footprints in the dust leading inside, perfectly displays Crispin’s wit and ingenuity.

Is it possible for a witness to watch a man enter a telephone booth, but never come out? This is surely one of the best impossibility problems ever devised, and Clayton Rawson made it happen in September 1949 with “Off the Face of the Earth.”

In my opinion the two best locked-room short stories ever written appeared in EQMM. “The 51st Sealed Room” (October 1951) by Robert Arthur features a writer of locked-room mysteries who thinks up an original idea, only to have it used against him when he is found beheaded in a small cottage with the door nailed shut, with his head perched on the fireplace mantel. Stephen Barr was the writer of several books about logic and math puzzles, and applied his analytical talents to the problem of how a man can disappear from a locked house in “The Locked Room to End Locked Rooms” (August 1965).

Nearly all big-name writers attempt the locked-room at some point, and although I won’t list all of their stories many of those writers were given space by Dannay, including Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham, Dorothy Sayers, Christianna Brand, and Bill Pronzini.

Edward D. Hoch had by far the most locked-room stories published in EQMM, across five decades, several with original ideas. My favorite is “The Problem of the County Fair” (February 1978), which features the impossible appearance of a dead body in a sealed time capsule.

In addition to encouraging first-time writers, a tradition that Dannay started but that continues to be observed by current editor Janet Hutchings, EQMM has always sought out foreign authors. This is a trend that has accelerated in the past few years with translated stories coming from, among other places, Taiwan, Japan, and France.

Perhaps the biggest new name in impossible crimes is Paul Halter, a Frenchman with many novels and stories brimming with originality. In “Jacob’s Ladder” (February 2014), a man is found dead, and it appears he has fallen from a great height—but there are no high buildings or geographic features anywhere around.

In “Miracle on Christmas Eve” (May 2016), Szu-Yen Lin of Taiwan writes of a boy whose friends tell him there is no Santa Claus. The boy’s father invites them to spend Christmas Eve sleeping outside the only door of a locked room. On Christmas morning he opens the door to reveal that Santa has delivered a roomful of presents! A delightful story.

Last year in the May/June issue, Brazil’s Carlos Orsi gave us an impossible stabbing in a glass observation room in a casino. And right now in the current issue of EQMM we have the first locked-room appearance in English of  Dutch writer Anne van Doorn, with “The Poet Who Locked Who Locked Himself In,” about a poet found dead by rifle shot in his locked writing cabin.

Over nearly eighty years, there’s been no greater friend to the locked-room mystery than Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. For the best in new impossible crimes, make sure to subscribe.

And if you’re interested in finding sources for these and many other stories, look for the bibliography Locked Room Murders, with over 2,000 impossible crimes published through 1991, at https://www.mylri.com

A new supplement, edited by me, with over 1,000 additional stories is coming in September.

Posted in Classic Mystery, Fiction, Genre, Guest, Story | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

A Conversation With the Center for Fiction’s Allison Escoto: Part 2

Earlier this year, The Center For Fiction moved from its Manhattan site to a new home in downtown Brooklyn. EQMM and AHMM managing editor Jackie Sherbow had a chance to speak with Allison Escoto, the Center’s head librarian, about the Center and its Raven Award winning mystery and detective fiction collection, her work and goals for the library, the organization’s history, and her thoughts on the mystery genre and other literature. Allison, a New Yorker by way of New Orleans, is a graduate of SUNY New Paltz and Queens College and has worked as a librarian for seventeen years. She is also a poet, copywriter, and the associate editor of Newtown Literary. Here is the second half of Jackie’s conversation with her; the first half appeared yesterday at TRACE EVIDENCE, the Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine blog.

Jackie Sherbow: What are your favorite mysteries—specific titles, authors, or subgenres?

Allison Escoto: I recently finished Attica Locke’s Bluebird, Bluebird and was hooked! Any mystery with a strong central character really appeals to me. I do enjoy delving into series with an historical bent and on the cozier side, like the Phryne Fisher series.

Photo by Jackie Sherbow

JS: What are your favorite genres and/or forms of books to read in general?

AE: I enjoy reading so much that it is hard to pin down my favorite genres but I suppose literary fiction, historical fiction, and poetry are what I read most frequently.

JS: Does your work at the library influence your own lifestyle as a reader?

AE: Only in that I get to be surrounded by fellow book lovers, always ready with recommendations. Also, publishers are very kind to librarians and I am always very lucky to get early access to new books. I’m very lucky!

JS: What about your writing career?

AE: The Center for Fiction has amazing programs for writers from workshops to boot camps to author talks. I feel fortunate to have access to these tools. Plus, all the reading I’m doing is having a huge influence on the way I look at writing.

Photo by Jackie Sherbow

JS: How does your work here compare to your work at other libraries?

AE: Working for a small non-profit is always a team effort and in this job, I am learning so much about how all the different departments work. Many of my previous positions were for much larger organizations with a clear delineation of departments and responsibilities. Here, there is almost always overlap and there is a real teamwork atmosphere that gives me insight into how each individual contributes to running the Center as a whole.

JS: What do you wish everyone would know about the Center for Fiction?

AE: That we are a true home for readers and writers!

JS: What do you wish everyone would know about libraries/library services in general?

AE: I feel completely privileged to have worked as a librarian for the last seventeen years, mostly because it has made me understand the wealth of vital services libraries provide to all kinds of organizations and communities. Whether it is public, academic, or a specialized library like the one at the Center for Fiction, libraries often fill a need that few other organizations can.

JS: What would be a “dream” acquisition of yours for the library, if you could pick any edition of any work?

AE: Considering we’ve been around since the 1820s, I would love it if we had some first edition, signed copies from those early decades. A first edition of Ivanhoe or A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass or Frankenstein.

One aisle of the Center’s extensive detective/suspense/mystery fiction collection. Photo by Jackie Sherbow.

JS: How can visitors interact with the collection at the Center’s library?

AE: Our library is available to members of the Center. It is one of the many, many perks to joining as a member!

Photo courtesy of the Center for Fiction’s Instagram account, @center4fiction

JS: What classes or other programs should we keep an eye out for?

AE: We have a great lineup of summer reading groups including N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Series, as well as Identity in Graphic Novels. We are also just about to open enrollment for our Literary Thrillers Reading Group with Crimereads editor Dwyer Murphy, which we are very excited about! Our inaugural season of programming has been wonderful and everyone should sign up for our newsletter for updates and information. Follow us on social media for information on upcoming programs.

Many thanks for joining us, Allison!

You can check out the Center for Fiction on their website, on Instagram and Twitter @center4fiction, on Facebook @thecenterforfiction, or by visiting them at 15 Lafayette Avenue, Brookly, New York. For a look at their upcoming classes and workshops, visit https://www.centerforfiction.org/events/ and https://www.centerforfiction.org/groups-workshops/.

Posted in Fiction, History, mystery fiction, Novels, Writers | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Mystery Writer’s Hidden Weapon” (by John F. Dobbyn)

John F. Dobbyn began his fiction-writing career with stories in verse, published in EQMM. His first prose fiction, published in our Department of First Stories in 1994, introduced Michael Knight and Lex Devlin, now the stars of a series of thriller novels. The series’ sixth book, High Stakes, is due out in October. The first, Neon Dragon, is in production for TV. John’s latest story for EQMM, “Torero,” is in our September/October 2019 issue (on sale now!). It’s a standalone thriller and in this post the author shares some insights about that form of crime fiction. —Janet Hutchings

Early in the course of writing a series of mystery/thriller novels, an idea evolved for harnessing an unwitting coauthor—the reader. This technique, heaven knows not exclusively mine, became one of my favorite tools of the trade—the selective use of silence.

Twenty years ago, I submitted my first mystery novel to the iconic editor of a major publisher. She returned it with the cryptic note, “This manuscript is 20,000 words too long—and I haven’t read a word of it.”

I spent the week-end pulling 20,000 of my favorite words out by the roots. It sold to the next publisher I sent it to.

I learned two things. One was that every word I typed thereafter would either carry its full weight in pushing the plot at ramming speed or suffer a strike of the “delete” key. The second was the positive value of selectively leaving much unsaid—constructive silence.

In terms of the setting, for example, every story I write begins and ends in my beloved Boston. Early on, I had the impulse to paint every street, alley, law office, park, and building in lengthy detail. My editor suggested that for any reader south of South Boston it was a numbing waste of time and eyesight, and for any Bostonian it was superfluous. I began cutting descriptions to the bone. A quick impressionistic sketch with a few prose brush-strokes now does it for settings like Irish or Puerto Rican neighborhoods, Public Garden, ocean drives, and a variety of ethnic bars and restaurants. This invites the reader to fill out the canvas from memory or personal imagination. Wittingly or not, the reader is now personally involved with me in telling the story.

It works for characters too. My main series character, Michael Knight, has been in the heads of my readers as first person narrator through five novels. I have never described Michael’s personal appearance. At most, I’ve suggested that he is six foot-one, about twenty-seven years old, and of half Irish, half Puerto Rican ancestry.

And yet, I’ve been amazed at how Michael’s features have become fleshed out in the imagination of readers. Different readers have told me with a certainty that his appearance is rugged, smooth, rough, delicate, dark, light. His hair is curly, wavy, straight, black, brown, and light. I.e., individual readers have occupied my “silence” and formulated their own personal Michael. They draw on his responses to the situations I place him in, as well as their own personal catalogue of acquaintances, to piece together a visual Michael—probably like unconsciously assembling a Mr. Potato Head. Their visions of Michael tend to be as different from those of each other as they are from my own.

I’ve been asked if Michael is, for me, a more idealized version of myself. I’m don’t know. Maybe. But if so, my silence has also let Michael become the idealized self-vision of every individual reader. The reader gets to live through the hell I frequently inflict on Michael in a very personal way, and always—so far—come out a winner.

The major limitation on the author’s ability to allow the reader this freedom occurs when the author is creating a character whose physical features relate to the plot of the story. The bulbous, outsized features of gourmand/detective, Nero Wolfe, had to be made visually clear to the reader by Rex Stout both to explain the immobility of the character and to provide a clear function for his “legs” in the form of Archie Goodwin.

There were plot reasons why George Chesbro had to provide us with a clear description of his inimitable detecting character, Robert Frederickson, billed by the fictional Statler Brothers Circus as the dwarf, Mongo the Magnificent.

Another unavoidable limitation of the reader’s personal visualization occurs when a novel character is portrayed on the television or motion picture screen by an actor who so completely appropriates the character that no other visual conception is possible. The characters who instantly pop to mind include Perry Mason (Raymond Burr), Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart), Rumpole of the Bailey (Leo McKern), and (Chief) Inspector Clouseau (Peter Sellers).

On the other hand, to draw on the medium of radio, Johnny Dollar, (Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar), could take on whatever physical features were suggested to the individual listener by the words of Jack Johnstone and the voice of Bob Bailey.

The most convenient use of silence for me, however, is in the area of plot. By way of personal preference, when violent things happen in my novels, they are never so explicitly spelled out as to step over a line I’ve drawn for myself. For example, in one scene in the fourth novel, Michael and his then comrade, a former IRA fighter, venture into a section of the city that will be predictably hostile. Michael needs a face-to-face confrontation with one of five thugs in a gang-dominated bar. That meant that four of the thugs had to be “neutralized”.

Rather than giving the reader a blooded description of the broken noses, fractured jaws, and dislocated limbs that would follow, I used “visual silence.” The IRA man has Michael (and the reader) wait outside the bar while he attends to business.

The brawl between the IRA man and four of the thugs occurs in the bar, but rather than painting the mayhem in living red, I merely describe the mixture of sounds—thuds, slams, breaking bottles, cries, and ultimately bodies hitting the floor—the sounds that Michael and the reader are hearing outside. Readers can fill in their own visual depiction of the scene in whatever detail suits their sensibilities.

There is an old saying, Chinese, I think, that I found valuable during my years of teaching at Villanova Law School:

“If you tell me, I’ll learn.

If you show me, I’ll remember.

If you involve me, I’ll understand.”

This method of applied silence can be an effective way of drawing the reader into the process of, in a small way, cowriting the novel as well as reading it. I can’t help but believe that that involvement increases the suspense, tension, understanding, and ultimately enjoyment of the novel.

Posted in Books, Characters, Fiction, Guest, Writers, Writing | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Through a Child’s Eyes, In a Child’s Voice” (by Batya Swift Yasgur)

Batya Swift Yasgur’s first fiction, “Me and Mr. Harry,” appeared in EQMM’s Department of First Stories in Mid-December 1994, and went on to win that year’s Robert L. Fish Memorial Award for best short story by a new American author. Like her most recent tale for EQMM, “Poof” (January/February 2019), the story’s viewpoint character is a young child. It’s only rarely that we find in our submissions stories that ring true when told from this difficult viewpoint. It takes a writer who hasn’t lost touch with the distant world of childhood. In this post, Batya explains some of what moves her to write from a child’s perspective. —Janet Hutchings 

I am haunted by children who suffer. From within the print of newspapers and the screens of news feeds I see their eyes pleading or glaring, averted or staring, blank or tormented, moist with tears or resolutely dry, some oppressed by regimes, others bullied in their schools, others homeless in the streets.

Someone once pointed out to me that many of my short stories are told from the perspective of tormented children, in their words, through their eyes, in present tense—for example, “Me and Mister Harry,” which appeared in EQMM in 1995, “Poof,” which was published in the January/February 2019 issue of EQMM, or “Spearmint,” which was published in Science Fiction Age in the 1990s.

I realize that there have been some formative literary influences that propelled me in the direction of this type of writing.

Two classics that jump to mind are To Kill a Mockingbird—an iconic novel if ever there was one. The novel was told retrospectively—Scout is looking back at the events of her childhood, although effectively evoking the sense of being a child through her use of language and perspective and thereby bringing the reader into a child’s psyche.

Catcher in the Rye—also iconic, of course—was told in even more colloquial “slangy” language, exactly the sort a teenager would use—I guess I would say it was told more from within the mindset of the teenager he was rather than the adult looking back, almost as if you’re reading it in the present tense.

(I only recently realized, based on my clinical experience, that the entire book depicts a manic episode from within, right down to Holden’s hospitalization at the end. Realizing this gave me an entirely new angle on his story. But I digress.)

Flowers for Algernon also had an enormous impact on me, not only in its content but also in its style. The novel, which takes the form of diary entries, cuts between past and present tense as Charlie describes what he is feeling and experiencing now, in the present moment, while writing, but also what happened earlier in the day or yesterday or decades ago. Even his childhood memories cut between present-day style and past tense, in which Charlie is looking back and recounting some incident with his parents or sister.

Although Charlie is not chronologically a child when he writes his journals, the thread of childhood runs through Flowers, with the adult Charlie and the child Charlie simultaneously occupying the space of present and past, as Charlie moves into his glittering, tragic future.

So, as I think about it, there are two features that stand out from these novels: one is present-tense writing—that immediate, intimate, in-the-moment recounting that allows the reader to share the narrator’s experience in real time, while it is happening. The other is the voicing—the child’s voice being that of a child—spelling, diction, grammatical errors, idioms—rather than the voice of the adult retrospectively describing the events.

If I dig further, I realize that even a much older novel, which I read in high school, had moments of present-day writing. I loved David Copperfield, and reread it umpteen times, often seeing my teen crushes and disappointments through the eyes of David (another tormented child). I recall that the entire table of contents was written in the present tense, although this was not uncommon in that era. But in a moment of trauma (at his mother’s funeral), he slips into the present tense:

If the funeral had been yesterday, I could not recollect it better. The very air of the best parlour, when I went in at the door, the bright condition of the fire, the shining of the wine in the decanters, the patterns of the glasses and plates, the faint sweet smell of cake, the odour of Miss Murdstone’s dress, and our black clothes. Mr. Chillip is in the room, and comes to speak to me.

“And how is Master David?” he says, kindly.

I cannot tell him very well. I give him my hand, which he holds in his.

Considering how much I loved that novel, perhaps even small snippets like this might have become embedded in my mind, only to resurface later in my writing.

In the therapeutic and self-help world, the concept of the “inner child” or the “wounded child” has become a cliche. Despite its overuse, the concept is helpful, maybe even profound. Not that we have a little homunculus inside us, a miniature of our baby pictures (or whatever age we were when our traumas took place) but rather that our cells and nervous system retain the imprint, the memory of the trauma and, when evoked, our reactions can be as real and visceral as they would be if the trauma were happening now.

PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder) is a classic example. A soldier returns from war and when he hears a truck backfiring, he become terrified. The present-day noise evokes all the reactions he had hearing guns in the jungle.

Freud thought that free-associating would allow traumas buried in the unconscious to be brought to the surface, expressed, and (perhaps) discharged. More modern approaches are less verbal (and perhaps more optimistic about releasing trauma). Somatic experiencing, for example, is a body-based approach that seeks to release ancient (or recent) traumas that have become lodged and “stuck” in the nervous system.

Childhood trauma can take on a life of its own, reverberating through the adult corridors with echoes that can’t be silenced—at least not without an extensive healing journey. And the echoes can take unexpected forms, shape shifting, morphing into plot, dialogue, image, climax . . . and a story emerges.

That story, perhaps, is itself the healing journey.

Posted in Characters, Fiction, Guest | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment