“Fifty Years After the Fair”: Josh Pachter—Author, Translator, and Dedicated Mystery Fan—Interviewed by Editor Janet Hutchings on His 50th Anniversary With EQMM

Janet Hutchings: EQMM always takes pleasure in following the careers of writers who got their start in our Department of First Stories, but it isn’t often that we have the opportunity to look back on a fifty-year run of top-notch work from one of our own. In 2012, Josh, you blogged on this site about your long connection to EQMM. I’m thinking of the post entitled “Looking Back on a Half-Century Love Affair with EQMM.” Back then, however, you hadn’t quite reached the half-century milestone. Now you’re truly there.

Josh Pachter: Yeah, I lied. At that time I had in fact been reading EQMM for forty-six years and publishing in its pages for forty-four, and, no matter how you slice it, half a century is fifty years and not a year less. So the love affair I’ve had with EQMM as a reader celebrated its golden anniversary in 2016, not 2012 . . . and my love affair with EQMM as a writer celebrates its half-century mark now, today, as we near the end of 2018.

JH: Your contributions to EQMM extend well beyond your output as an individual short story writer. In addition to solo stories, you’ve done collaborations and translations. But let’s start with your solo fiction. It’s worth mentioning that your Department of First Stories tale was an homage to Ellery Queen.

JP: Yes, as I described in my “Looking Back” post, my first appearance in print—not just in EQMM but anywhere—was a story titled “E.Q. Griffen Earns His Name,” which I wrote at the age of sixteen and which Frederic Dannay, half of the Ellery Queen writing team and the magazine’s founding editor, bought for the December 1968 issue. My character was, of course, named after Ellery Queen. During the first half of the ’70s, I followed it up with half a dozen more stories: another two about the Griffen kids, a spoof of several of Ed Hoch’s series characters, and a couple of one-offs.

JH: After that, we didn’t hear from you for a while. What happened?

JP: At the ripe old age of twenty-one, I “retired” from writing fiction. Then, in 1982-83, I spent a year teaching for the University of Maryland on a US Navy base in Bahrain. There wasn’t much to do in Bahrain, so I went back to my typewriter and began a series about Mahboob Chaudri, a Pakistani cop on the emirate’s national police force. Eleanor Sullivan, who was Fred Dannay’s successor as EQMM’s editor-in-chief, bought six of those stories, and several others appeared in AHMM and other magazines. In 2015, Wildside Press published The Tree of Life, a collection of all ten of the Chaudri stories, and I blogged on this site about the series and the book as “A Long Time Ago in an Emirate Far Far Away.”

JH: For some years after the Chaudri series, we mostly saw your byline on stories coauthored with a variety of other writers. How did you end up working with so many different writing partners?

JP: In the mid-1980s, before anyone other than the military had access to the Internet, I was living in what was then Western Germany and came up with the idea of writing a series of collaborative stories that could be published individually in EQMM and other places and then collected in a book. I blogged about the project on this site in 2015, as “Partners in Crime.” The book never happened—it hasn’t happened yet, anyway—but most of the stories were individually published, several in EQMM: one was written with Ed Hoch (“The Spy and the Suicide Club,” January 1985), one with Stan Cohen (“Annika Andersson,” February 1993), and one with Jon Breen (“The German Cologne Mystery,” September/October 2005). In more recent years, I’ve written a couple of new collaborations for EQMM, including one with my Dutch friend René Appel (“A Woman’s Place,” September/October 2017) and—in what has been perhaps the proudest moment of my entire “career”—one with my daughter Becca (“History on the Bedroom Wall,” September/October 2009).

JH: That story with Rebecca Jones was your second appearance in EQMM’s Department of First Stories—and you’re the only person whose name has ever appeared there twice! Since Rebecca was a first-time author, we felt we could stretch the rules and publish your collaboration with her under the First Stories banner.

The topic of collaboration segues nicely into that of translation, since translation is, after all, a form of collaboration. You’ve been prolific as a translator in our field. What was your first translation?

JP: A short story by Dutch author Janwillem van de Wetering. He generally wrote his Grijpstra and de Gier novels in English and then translated them into his native Dutch, but he wrote his short stories in Dutch and translated them into English. In 1984, though, he was up against a deadline on a new novel, and his Dutch publisher asked me to translate two of his short stories for EQMM. “There Goes Ravelaar!” was published in the January 1985 issue, and “Houseful of Mussels” three months later—and “There Goes Ravelaar!” was a finalist for the Best Short Story Edgar in 1986. Fast-forward twenty years, and in the early 2000s you came up with the idea of including a translated story in every issue of the magazine. Knowing that I’d done some work for van de Wetering, you asked me to find a story by another Dutch author for the new Passport to Crime feature. I was happy to oblige, and between then and now I’ve provided the magazine with about twenty stories by Dutch and Belgian crime writers (something I blogged about in 2013, in a piece called “Translating is Gezellig.”)

JH: It’s not only from Dutch and Flemish that you translate, though. Recently you’ve worked on translations from several other languages.

JP: Yes, I’m always up for a new challenge. This year I translated stories from the Spanish (Luciano Sívori’s “The Final Analysis,” January/February 2018) and the Afrikaans (François Bloemhof’s “Proof,” September/October 2018), and I’m eager to tackle another new language sometime soon, possibly Turkish.

JH: When I first asked you to contribute to Passport to Crime, in 2003, you weren’t writing much fiction of your own. Why was that?

JP: When my daughter Becca was born in 1986, I got so involved in being a full-time dad that I went into writing hibernation again, this time until she went off to college. But right around the same time you invited me to begin translating for Passport to Crime, Becca told me she thought it was a shame that I couldn’t write publishable fiction of my own anymore. “I could if I wanted to,” I told her, “but I just don’t want to.” She shook her head sadly and said, “Sure, Dad, I’m sure you could.” Well, I couldn’t ignore such a blatant dare, and ever since then I’ve been contributing new stories to EQMM with some regularity.

JH: So far we’ve been talking only about the ways in which you’ve enhanced EQMM’s fiction offerings over the years. But you’ve been a contributor to EQMM in a variety of other ways. This blog site, which you’ve provided with six posts, is one example. Let’s talk about some of the other ways in which you’ve lent your talents to EQMM.

JP: Well, I’ve read two of my own stories and three of my translations for the monthly podcast. On September 30, 2016, I was on a panel (with Otto Penzler and Russell Atwood, moderated by Joseph Goodrich) at EQMM’s 75th Anniversary Symposium at Columbia University. I was the first speaker at the salute to EQMM at the 2017 Bouchercon in Toronto, and I was on an EQMM panel (with Sarah Weinman, Brendan Dubois, and David Dean, moderated by Dale Andrews) at the 2018 Bouchercon in St. Petersburg.

JH: As you reflect on the last fifty years, what milestones stand out in your memory?

JP: I’ve already mentioned my collaboration with Becca, which was an amazing high point. Other than that, probably the most memorable milestone for me is that I was in 1968 and remain today the second-youngest person ever to publish in the magazine. (The youngest was James Yaffe, who was only fifteen when he wrote “Department of Impossible Crimes,” which was in the Department of First Stories in the July 1943 issue.) Something else I’m proud of is being the only person who ever collaborated on a piece of fiction with EQMM Grand Master Edward D. Hoch, the most prolific of all EQMM contributors. And I’m also one of the small handful of people who’s published new work in the pages of EQMM in six consecutive decades: the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, ’00s, and ’10s.

JH: And that brings us to today. To celebrate your half-century as an EQMM contributor, EQMM has just published a new story of yours entitled “50,” in which we see E.Q. Griffen, the protagonist of your first story, fifty years older. Was it hard to reimagine this character after so many years?

JP: I already knew where my Ellery would wind up as an adult, since Becca and I put an Easter-egg reference to him into “History on the Bedroom Wall.” That story is told in the first person by a student at Middlebury College in Vermont, and the narrator refers to a “Professor Griffen” who teaches English lit there. So “50” begins with sixty-six-year-old Professor E.Q. Griffen sitting in his faculty office at Midd, preparing a lecture on Robert Frost—and the professor then gets to match wits with his teenaged self and tackle a dying-message murder both he and his police-inspector father failed to solve back in 1968.

JH: That story is in our current issue (November/December 2018), exactly fifty years after your debut in December 1968. Readers who’d like to read or listen to the original story, can find it in text form on EQMM’s website, or listen to your reading of it in this month’s EQMM podcast. So, having come this far, Josh, what’s next?

JP: Well, you’ve recently bought two new stories from me. One is a standalone, “The Secret Lagoon,” which is set in Iceland, and the other one is what I hope will be the first entry in a five-part series. It’s called “A Study in Scarlett!,” and it’s my first-ever straightforward pastiche—a fond and hopefully authentic imitation of (who else?) Ellery Queen.

Back in the 1960s, Dannay and Lee wrote six stories about a group called the Puzzle Club, a precursor of Isaac Asimov’s later “Black Widowers” series. My plan is to write five new Puzzle Club stories for EQMM in the style and spirit of the original five, and then hopefully release all ten stories as a collection “by Ellery Queen and Josh Pachter.” I’m hoping that one of them might appear in a 2020 issue, which would make me the first person to publish a new story in the magazine in seven consecutive decades!

Will I make it to eight? I hope so, and not just because that would grant me another ten years on the planet but because it will mean that Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, which has been an integral part of my life for more than half a century, now, will remain a part of my life—and, I hope and trust, the lives of all of its fans and readers—for at least another decade.

JH: That’s our wish too, Josh. Happy Anniversary!

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Posted in Characters, Ellery Queen, Fiction, Genre, Guest, History, Interview, Magazine, Writers, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“The Crossroads of Mystery and Science Fiction, and Fighting Fear With Fear” (by Jackie Sherbow)

Part of the challenge of getting works of fiction into the hands of readers who will enjoy them is finding the right way to describe them. Often there are many different angles from which a story can be seen. Last week, Eris Press, an imprint of Dell Magazines, released an anthology entitled Terror at the Crossroads: Tales of Horror, Delusion, and the Unkown, edited by EQMM and AHMM associate editor Jackie Sherbow and Emily Hockaday, associate editor of Analog Science Fiction and Fact and Asimov’s Science Fiction. Jackie and Emily felt there were many stories from our four fiction magazines that could be seen as tales of horror, and they have gathered a selection of them in Terror at the Crossroads. It’s our hope that the new perspective they’ve provided on some of the content of our mystery and science fiction magazines will attract the attention of horror fans, who may be missing out if they’re not yet subscribers.
In addition to being associate editor for the Dell Mystery Magazines, Jackie Sherbow is the editor of Newtown Literary; her own poetry has appeared in Okay Donkey, Bad Pony, OCCULUM, and elsewhere. In this post she reveals how Terror at the Crossroads came about. I highly recommend that you get a copy!—Janet Hutchings

I’m someone who doesn’t mind working in a cubicle. Within the small enclosure, under the circle of a reading lamp in an otherwise dimly lit office, quietly working, I’ve been known to be so engrossed that a colleague approaching to talk to me has elicited a shout of surprise.

The potential of dread in someplace as mundane as an office cubicle aside, how is this related to the digital anthology recently released from Dell Magazines via our imprint Eris Press? Well, my colleague Emily Hockaday, the associate editor of Analog and Asimov’s, sits in the cube next to mine. Over the years, we’ve passed stories from the four magazines right over the wall—and often these have been the creepier tales that cross our desks. We both enjoy the horror genre, and we realized that while the mystery magazines do publish some science-fictional mysteries and the science fiction magazines some mysterious science fiction, the types of tales that met somewhere in the center frequently tread into the horror realm. This is the setting from which grew the idea to put horror stories from all four titles into one anthology volume.

To get started, my coeditor and I began considering the “center,” the crossroads where dark themes from EQMM, AHMM, Asimov’s, and Analog gathered: those of delusion, metamorphosis, obsession, and the unknown. The characters we encountered solve puzzles (from “Whodunit?” to “What now?”), meet challenges (whether it’s how to protect a community from a mysterious creature in the woods, or how to counter a postapocalyptic future), face their past (when their misdeeds catch up with them—or their memories are entirely erased), battle with ambition (regardless of who pays the price), and grapple with familial and interpersonal relationships (to very mixed results). As in science fiction and mystery, horror tests its characters in the most extreme conditions and makes the reader ask, about so many mortal dangers and moral conundrums, What would I do?

We then had to explore if—and why—this would appeal to readers. The horror genre certainly evokes a personal and visceral reaction, and it is experiencing what some are calling a renaissance. The New York Times Magazine dubbed 2017 The Year of Horror. In 2018, Jordan Peele’s Get Out garnered four Oscar nominations, which was unusual for a movie released so early in the year, unfortunately very unusual for a movie with a Black writer and director, and unusual for the genre category. (Only a small handful of other horror films have ever been nominated for Best Picture, and only one has ever won.) With an influx of classic novel adaptations and even the development of terror-tinged teen shows and comedies, we see this on TV as well. And, of course, we see it on contemporary bookshelves. As Parul Sehgal said in a recent article, “Literature—the top-shelf, award-winning stuff—is positively ectoplasmic these days, crawling with hauntings, haints and wraiths of every stripe and disposition.” (One of my favorite books from last year, The Changeling by Victor Lavalle, recently won the August Derleth Award for Best Horror Novel.)

I’m not surprised that the genre is presently striking a note with audiences and readers. Most literature offers an escape, but while fantasy, romance, or adventure might take you to your loftiest dreams, horror takes you to your darkest ones. The reader puts down a book and emerges out of a dungeon. Immersing in a scary story is a thrill, yes, but it’s also a relief to feel horrified, eagerly, by excellent prose—before someone or something else does it for you. Fiction offers a way to control fear, a feeling that is so often engendered by others, enforced by systemic oppression, heralded by nature, or instilled by trauma or illness, notably depression and anxiety. I may jump when you sneak up behind me at my desk, but I love to be alarmed—as long as it’s by my own choosing, and I have since I was very young. Any other fan of horror fiction (or roller-coasters, or suspense, thrillers, and mystery fiction) knows the feeling. Even while others in our lives look at us aslant, themselves hating the feeling of being uncomfortable, we continue to seek out this feeling.

I went to one of those haunted houses where you have to sign a waiver, go in alone, and be open to however the actors want to interact with you. As I confessed to my sceptical friends afterward, it wasn’t even that scary. What was most distressing, though, was the part where they simply leave you in a pitch-black room by yourself. Because what’s more frightening than I am, the world I inhabit, and the creatures that inhabit it with me? What’s more terrifying than the responsibility of moving through this world, and what specters cause more harm than the ones in our own history and nature?

During a time of political unrest or any other instability, this comes to the surface. Readers and viewers want to jump right in. Successful horror fiction mirrors society and environment; the monsters can just as easily be real as they can be a metaphor, and vice versa. Stephen King, in his introduction to the 2011 edition of The Shining, talks about bringing the characters of his story into “I-hope-this-is-only-a-dream territory[,] where the merely scary becomes outright horrifying.” What compels the deeds of his characters? “Is it undead people, or undead memories?” While King came to one conclusion and Stanley Kubrick to another while directing the 1980 film from the book, the author allows that “perhaps those different conclusions are, in fact, the same. For aren’t memories the true ghosts of our lives?” Are the monsters “real”? Either way, we end up in the same place. Furthermore, horror fiction wants to grapple over the misdeeds and unfinished business of a human life, a family, a community, and a country. To quote again Parul Sehgal, “ghost stories are never just reflections. They are social critiques camouflaged with cobwebs; the past clamoring for redress.”

Mystery and science fiction portray and examine the world in their own ways too, with their list of questions about human nature and our personal and collective past, present, and future. They also bring their own aspects (like puzzle solving, legal inquiry, speculation, and science) and atmosphere (like that of a traditional mystery, noir, or thriller). These genres—on top of their other timely and timeless appeal—are powerfully, and simply, entertaining. We thought, wouldn’t it be great to put all of this together?

And so we felt we would find in our audience (and, hopefully, beyond) those who would relish a fearsome anthology taken from the pages of EQMM, AHMM, Analog, and Asimov’s. Who better to keep you company than characters like those in Terror at the Crossroads, searching for meaning, success, romance, and passion; fumbling through marriage, parenthood, friendships, and work; experiencing all the same doubts and late-night worries that you do, while offering the types of mystery and SF stories you enjoy?

We ran the idea by Janet as well as Linda Landrigan, Sheila Williams, and Trevor Quachri (the editors of AHMM, Asimov’s, and Analog) and Chris Begley, (Dell’s VP of Editorial). Everyone was willing to hop aboard our spooky train. Then we began the fun part, selecting stories for the book. We tried to choose a group of tales with a variety of styles and viewpoints from the last ten years of the magazines. Many of our contributing authors are fans of the horror genre—and a number do write it in it often—but some were pleased to see their story in a new way, or to have a story they took a chance on see a new publication. Meanwhile, we approached the people who made this anthology possible: our subrights and digital-marketing team. Carol Demont, Joy Brienza, and Abby Browning have our gratitude, as does the typesetting team, headed by Sue Lemke and Jayne Keiser. It was my and Emily’s first time putting together a digital anthology, and they walked us through the process and handled the enormous amount of work involved with preparing a book for different digital outlets. Of course, I should also thank my coeditor Emily, for all her work and skill. Dell’s editorial assistant Deanna McLafferty helped us with proofreading and administrative tasks, and Joy designed the fantastic cover. Darcy Bearman helped us with social media and came up with the idea for our digital launch party, which took place last week. We are so lucky to have had a group of enthusiastic and generous authors who gave us their time and participation; you can see some of the highlights here.

The book is full of chills, but it’s the mystery and science fiction you’ve come to love through the pages of the Dell fiction titles. There’s no gratuitous violence or gore, and we tried to run the widest gamut of tales we could, including historical, humor, and straight narrative; epistolary, visual, and experimental forms; novellas and shorts. The tales have garnered EQMM Readers Awards and Edgar Award nominations, and offer a chance to experience horror through the lens of the magazines you may already know.

After all the requisite planning and preparation since we began this project in December of last year, the book is now ready (on Amazon and Barnes and Noble, and soon to come on other platforms), and we are so excited to share it with you.

Posted in Anthologies, Books, Digital, Editing, Fiction, Genre, horror, Publishing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

“The Role of Love and Hate in Crime Fiction” by Barb Goffman

Barb Goffman is a winner of the Agatha, Macavity, and Silver Falchion awards for best short story. Her honors also include eleven nominations for the Agatha—a record in the short-story category!—and eleven nominations for other national crime-fiction awards, including the Derringer and Anthony. Her stories have appeared in a wide variety of anthologies, and in our sister magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. She debuts in EQMM in our current issue (November/December 2018) with the Thanksgiving story “Bug Appétit.” In this post she reflects on two of the most significant and prevalent motivating forces for characters in crime fiction—love and hate.—Janet Hutchings

I planned to write today’s column about the role of love in mysteries. Tackling love might be more appropriate on Valentine’s Day instead of Halloween, but it felt appropriate since the Hallmark Channel and Hallmark Movies and Mysteries have already begun airing their Christmas movies. For the next two months, it will be all romance all the time on those channels, one movie after another showing true love being found in two hours. (Wouldn’t that be nice?)

But the events of the last few days have led me to a lot of thinking about the other side of the coin. Instead of love, I’ve been contemplating hate.

So often these days, crime fiction is based on hate. It makes sense. If a character is murdered, the detective—whether a police officer, a P.I., or an amateur sleuth—typically will start out the investigation checking if someone had a beef with the victim. Who hated him? Was the victim a blackmailer? Had he killed someone’s cat? Was he sleeping with another man’s wife?

When the victim is someone who did a horrible thing, or someone accused of doing a horrible thing, it gives the sleuth a means to find the killer. You start with who had motive—who hated the victim—and then consider who had the opportunity and what proof can be found of the killer’s guilt. That’s a solid foundation for solving a mystery, and thus it’s a solid way to plot out writing one.

Hate serves another good role in mysteries. It can make readers feel more secure. This might seem counterintuitive, but think about it. If a character did something horrible, or is accused of it, and then that character is murdered, a reader may take some comfort in that. The reader needn’t worry she’ll face a similar fate in real life because of course she isn’t a horrible person. She’s done nothing to bring murder on. She’s safe.

This is why after a murder you often will hear the police trying to assure the community that this was an isolated incident, a matter of domestic violence, perhaps. The implication is, don’t worry; you’re safe. No one is coming for you. In contrast, if the victim were Little Mary Sunshine and the murderer were a sociopath killing at will, that would be unsettling, both to everyone in the fictional victim’s community as well as to the reader. If random murders could happen on paper, the reader may think, it could happen here, too. Better lock the windows. Keep the children inside.

Of course anyone who has read the newspaper in the last week knows that random murders and attempted murders do happen. They happen for reasons having nothing to do with the victim, but because the perpetrator is full of hate—hate that isn’t predicated on the victim’s actions. There are sociopaths who kill for no good reason (even if a deluded person thinks he has a valid reason). And since crime fiction so often reflects the types of crimes occurring in real life—helping the authors and readers confront the awful things going on in our world and perhaps encouraging them to find ways in real life to better the world—crime fiction often will reflect the hate of extremists.

So there you have it. At bottom, crime fiction largely is about hate. Even if portrayed in a lighthearted cozy murder mystery, the underling story is one of hate. Hate of a specific person because of something she did or something someone thought she did. Or if we’re talking a noir novel or thriller, it could be a story about hate of a group of people, often for reasons having nothing to do with those actual victims. If the book goes into the perpetrator’s point of view, it will be one that subjects the reader to that hate, to the darkness that can exist in a person’s mind, to the pain or fear or just plain evil that drives the killer. Just thinking about it is depressing. And if that’s all there were to crime fiction, I might leave the computer right now and crawl up into a ball and never read or write again. Thankfully, it’s not. For while crime fiction might, at bottom, usually be about hate, it also is often about the very thing I originally planned to write about today. Love.

Why do amateur sleuths put themselves on the line? Sometimes it’s to save themselves, and sometimes it’s because they’re nosy. But often it’s to save someone they care for. They do it for love.

Why do police officers and police detectives (fictional and real) risk their lives? Some might be in it for the power or the adrenaline rush, but many do it to make the world safer, to try to provide justice. They risk their lives to make things better for others. And isn’t that a type of love?

When a thriller hero puts his life on the line, trying to save a victim, often the motivator in those stories is love, too.

And here’s something I didn’t mention above: sometimes criminals, even killers, act out of love. People who would never succumb to crime because of hatred may very well do so because of love. In Les Misérables, Jean Valjean stole bread for a starving child. In the NBC TV show Good Girls, a mother’s love for her dying child was behind a robbery that netted enough money to get the girl treatment, and then led to a series of worse and worse crimes done partly to cover up the first one.

Love also can play a role in crime novels other than motivating a killer or a sleuth. Love can lead people to act against their self-interest, taking blame that isn’t theirs, covering up crimes of others. Maybe even helping bury bodies. In this way, love can make crime fiction so interesting because it addresses how far an average person might go when his back is against the wall. You might feel strongly you’d never kill another person out of hatred. But what if someone stood between you and the medicine your dying child needed? That’s an interesting question, and it’s less depressing than considering murder based solely on irrational hatred.

So while it’s true that there is much hate in this world, and mystery novels often are predicated on hate, it’s important to remember that so much of what occurs in the world and in fiction—even crime fiction—also happens because of love. It’s what keeps books from being too depressing. It’s the light that gives people hope—even at the end of horrible weeks like this one—and it’s what makes readers want to keep turning pages. So, crime fiction authors, don’t get too bogged down in hatred when you write. In the end, the Beatles had it right. All you need is love.

Posted in Christmas, Fiction, Genre, Guest | 17 Comments

“Military Veterans in Crime Fiction” (by Stacy Woodson)

Stacy Woodson’s professional fiction debut, the story “Duty, Honor, Hammett,” appears in EQMM’s current issue, November/December 2018—which just went on sale yesterday! Further stories will appear in EQMM (sometime in 2019), in the Malice Domestic anthology Mystery Most Edible (also in 2019), and in Chesapeake Crimes: Invitation to Murder (2020). In 2017, she won the Daphne du Maurier Award for best romantic suspense, in the single-title, unpublished category, and she was a finalist for the 2016 Killer Nashville Claymore Award for unpublished novel. The author is a U.S. Army veteran and she tells EQMM that memories of her time in the military are a source of inspiration for her stories. She takes up that topic in this post. When she’s not writing fiction, Stacy contributes to DIY MFA and reviews for Publishers Weekly.—Janet Hutchings

I served in Army Special Operations units, deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and survived the Pentagon (which is a combat tour of another kind). It’s been years since I hung up my uniform and transitioned to the private sector, but it’s still the military voices I hear when I write. I’m sure my background is part of the reason. Most of my life I’ve been surrounded by the military—as a soldier, in my job as a civilian, as a military spouse. These experiences have shaped my worldview, and this is my comfort zone. But there is also a part of me that believes there exists a depth and a richness to post-9/11 veteran characters that hasn’t been fully explored in crime fiction.

Female Characters

The post 9/11 generation has a perspective on war that’s different from others. Our country has been fighting for almost two decades, and there are more female combat veterans than in any other conflict. Women have deployed with Special Forces units, flown combat missions, patrolled the streets of Iraq and Afghanistan. And for the first time since World War II, two women are Silver Star Medal recipients—the third highest combat decoration for valor.

Arduous military schools, once exclusive to men, are now open to women. Ranger School, a combat leadership course on small-unit tactics—notorious for their high attrition rate—recently had its first group of female graduates.

Both Army Special Forces and Navy Sea, Air, and Land teams (SEALs) have opened billets to women. And combat branches, once closed to women, are open to all qualified service members.

Now, more than ever, there is space in crime fiction for female characters with warrior skill sets traditionally seen in male characters.

But what’s even more interesting to explore is how experiences like these shape a female character’s point of view—how they see their environment, relate to their family and friends, process love and loss. And how they bring their unique skill set and perspective to postmilitary occupations in law enforcement, in the private sector, or as criminals.

Criminals

Transition to the civilian world affects veterans differently. Many are able to assimilate, find civilian jobs, and move forward with their lives in a productive and meaningful way. For others, it’s more difficult. Substance abuse, unemployment, and mental-health issues often lead to petty crimes and other criminal activities. Unfortunately, domestic violence can also be a byproduct of war. And still others choose to use skills they attained in the military for criminal endeavors. Sadly for our veterans, the news is filled with examples. But for crime-fiction writers these examples also provide some interesting character studies.

Like the four Army Rangers who robbed a Bank of America in Tacoma, Washington. One intended to use money from the bank robberies to start an outlaw motorcycle gang and take over control of drug trafficking in his area.

Or the three former U.S. Army soldiers who were convicted in a contract killing ordered by an international crime boss.

And then there was the disgruntled soldier separated from his family who wanted to leave the Army and tried to fake his own death by slashing the throat of a man who looked like him and setting his house on fire.

What drives veterans to make these decisions? Is it disillusionment, despair, greed? Any and all of these reasons may apply. I’m sure there are others, too. Crime fiction offers a platform to explore these choices and mindsets through flawed and complex characters.

Victims

Veterans are prey for criminals as well, their benefits often a favorite target.

Veterans, especially the disabled, rely on their benefits as a large portion of their income, and con artists target veterans for bank-account information. The criminal pretends to represent a veteran’s organization and claims the victim’s benefit deposit must be “re-verified” following suspicious activity. The veteran provides the information. The criminal steals the veteran’s identity, changes the direct deposit information, and redirects money.

Data breaches of organizations that hold veteran information are prevalent as well. Recently, the Pentagon had a breach that compromised travel records of civilian and military staff—this included personal information and credit-card data. Data like this is often sold on the black market and used by criminals to make transactions and create fake identities.

On a larger scale, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), the human resource arm of the federal government, was hacked—a breach that had massive counterintelligence consequences. Security-clearance files for current, former, and prospective federal employees—many military veterans—were compromised. Information included interviews with a subject’s neighbors, employers, educators, references, and spouses. Record checks with local law enforcement and vulnerability assessments for foreign influence and exploitation were also included.

Crime fiction gives us a platform to explore these issues and vulnerabilities.

More than darkness

More exists in veterans’ lives than the dark trappings of war. There are lighter moments, too. When I’m asked about my military service, the deployments, the military training aren’t what immediately come to mind. It’s the lifelong friendships I’ve forged along the way, and the wacky moments we’ve experienced together.

Like the night a fellow Army officer and I returned from her baby shower and realized we both could field strip an M16 rifle, but assembling a bassinet wasn’t in our wheelhouse.

Or the practical jokes, like one that was played on a soldier in my unit. He was notorious for falling asleep in his car before formation. One morning, his platoon members saran-wrapped the car doors shut, trapping him inside.

And the Halloween deployment to Egypt when one of my soldiers wrapped himself in toilet paper and worked his shift dressed as a mummy.

Stories like these go beyond the trigger-pulling, door-kicking military characters that we often see. They offer insightful (and sometimes humorous) resting moments in crime-fiction stories that may otherwise be dark.

The post 9/11 generation of veterans is diverse—some may argue the most diverse in history. People with different backgrounds, nationalities, education levels, and skill sets have served our country. Their experiences and worldview are unique and pave the way for some interesting fictional characters. I look forward to seeing more post 9/11 veterans in crime-fiction stories.

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“The Writers Are Watching” (by Anna Scotti)

Anna Scotti is a writer who teaches middle-school English at a French international school. Her work has appeared in literary magazines such as The New Yorker, The New Guard Literary Review, and The Los Angeles Review. She has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize and  has received the AROHO prize for short fiction as well as several poetry prizes. Her first story for EQMM, “Krikon the Ghoul Hunter,” appears in our November/December issue (on sale October 23), and we’ve got several more of her stories coming up in 2019. Here she addresses the eternal question put to writers—Where do you get your ideas?— in an unusual way!—Janet Hutchings

Of course you’ve read the disclaimers: “This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.” Well, as Colonel Mustard might have proclaimed from the library with a megaphone, Bunk. Writers write what they know, and what they know is their daily lives. And that’s no coincidence.

It might surprise you to know that most writers aren’t rich. Those stories you admire so much in literary magazines? They pay, for the most part, in bragging rights and a couple of free copies. Twenty bucks a page is a nice bonus—for weeks or months of work. Some commercial magazines—those few still in the fiction game—pay a few hundred a pop, but others pay nothing at all. (And yet most writers would give an eye tooth, a right arm, and a month of Sundays to publish within the hallowed pages of a nationally circulated commercial journal, because doing so can make a new writer’s name.) Nope, most writers—and editors, too—are in it for the love of the art, not for the payday.

Sure, Mary Higgins Clark can probably manage a week or two off in the summer, with an astonishing fifty-one bestsellers to her name, and Where Are the Children? now in its seventy-fifth printing. Steven King and Dennis Lehane may well be driving Lamborghinis, or sipping ambrosia in Tahiti, or doing whatever the gods fantasize about up on Mount Olympus. But the average currently publishing writer earns $61,000 a year. That beats slinging hash at the Hilton, pay-wise, but it doesn’t go far in cities like Los Angeles or New York, where one-bedroom apartments are snapped up at $2500 a month. And that “average” income factors in the Kings and the Clarks, so your typical working writer is making a whole lot less.

And that’s just the typical working writer. The average writer’s income is zero. That’s right. Nothing. Because the average writer isn’t working—at least not as a writer. Even those of us lucky enough to publish a story here and there are mostly employed elsewhere, writing our poems or articles or novel chapters or short stories in a cold kitchen before the alarm goes off on weekdays, or on a legal pad in the parking lot while the kids are at soccer practice, or on our phones while we’re on break from shifts at Big Lots or Applebee’s. Some of us are teachers—and there’s a career that supports the writing life, with short days and plenty of breaks—although you won’t be teaching writing at the university level until you’ve got a couple of books under your belt. Some of us work in offices or wait tables—though as Justin Kramon points out, in his blog post for Gotham Writers, “free alcohol” is one of the negatives of restaurant life. And then there’s dog walker, short-order cook, library assistant, nanny, basketball coach . . . you name it, there’s a writer doing it to make ends meet. Surely you’ve heard of Caitriona Lally, the Irish janitor who just won a prestigious writing prize from the university whose exalted halls she cleans. (She’s keeping her day job.) William S. Burroughs worked as an exterminator (and yes, he wrote short stories based on his experiences). Sue Grafton did her time as a medical secretary, and Gillian Flynn paid the rent as a TV critic, then a journalist. J.D. Salinger directed the fun on a cruise-ship line! Janet Evanovich was a homemaker for ten years before she tried her hand at writing romance. (Twelve books later, she reinvented herself again with lingerie buyer cum bounty hunter Stephanie Plum.)

Once we finally begin to publish, the question novelists and short story writers hear most often is, “Where do you get your ideas?” Well, seriously, where do you think we get them? We get them from you. We get them from our daily interactions with you in line for a coffee, while rushing for a seat on the bus, while pinching avocados at the market, or mid-argument about the C-minus that you see as unjust and I believe to be charity. We listen to your whispers in the library, your shouts in the parking lot, your moans of passion from the apartment upstairs, your cries of alarm when you turn and find your child missing at the park, your exclamations of love and anger when you find her a moment later. We watch you when you stoop to pet the homeless man’s dog, or when you throw change out the window at him and it scatters on the sidewalk. We see you steal a lemon from your neighbor’s tree, and we see you walk very slowly when you’re crossing the street and there’s a blind man making his way across, unaware that you are holding back a line of cars with just the flat of your hand and a threatening expression. We listen as you say hello to the children who cross your intersection every morning, some returning your greeting, others oblivious. We smell the aroma of lasagna from your open kitchen window, we hear the crash of a wineglass against your wall late on a Friday night, and we see the tenderness in your face as you kneel to button your small son’s jacket.

That’s where we get our ideas. From our lives. From the people we know and the people we don’t know, from a glimpse, or a glance, or a snatch of sound. It’s the small stuff that makes fiction immediate and real, and we glean that from our everyday lives, our everyday “pay the rent” jobs. So watch yourself. Be on your best behavior. You may come across a barely-disguised version of yourself in the pages of a novel, or in your favorite mystery magazine, disclaimers be damned. And whether you will like what you will see is largely within your control.

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WORKPLACES REAL AND FICTIONAL

A company picnic and an issue due for release have brought me into closer contact than usual with work colleagues over the past two weeks. And that has me thinking about a topic I addressed on the old Readers Forum of our website a number of years ago. Technology has made it possible for me, like people in many other businesses, to work primarily from a remote location rather than in the office. This is a wonderful advance, but with so many businesses now encouraging, or even requiring, work-at-home time, it seems to me that the office as a setting for the murder mystery may be on its way out. I once read an article intended for aspiring mystery writers that identified the office as the perfect environment for a “cozy.” And it’s true, for an office provides a closed circle of suspects, all of whom know each other and likely have built up a grievance with at least one other person on staff.

Often a place of rivalries, jealousies, and sexual attractions (I’m not talking about our office, of course!), the workplace provides just the kind of potentially deadly mix of passions that could lead to murder. It’s also an ideal place for a Poirot-style detective to exercise his skills in observation and deduction on a limited group of potential killers. But all of this presupposes the pressure cooker of daily interaction. Send people home to work two or three days a week and it’s like loosening the valve on the cooker. No malice, no murder.

It’ll be a shame if that happens—at least fictionally speaking. Office-based mysteries are not very common at novel length, but we used to receive a lot of good short stories on the subject. (One that has stayed in my mind over many years is Meredith Anthony’s satirical “Murder at an Ad Agency,” from our March/April 2013 issue. She really nails those petty, competitive impulses and grudges!)

One of the classic sources of strife in the workplace used to be the “window office,” or, at higher, corporate levels, “the corner office”—the ultimate symbol of status and power. Nowadays—when there’s hardly anyone around to impress—who cares? Today’s office-space conflict is more likely to turn on who gets a seat at one of the limited number of desks available in the pared-down space on any given day of the week. And that usually generates minor squabbles at most; it’s not something people get into a lather about.

Speaking for myself, I’m too glad to see my colleagues on the few occasions I’m in the office with them these days to care about space issues. I suspect that a few years from now, many businesses won’t have offices at all, and for magazines such as ours that could present some serious difficulties. For one thing, what would happen to the archives, files, and memorabilia of decades?

I count it as one of the downsides of the work-at-home arrangements of earlier decades that neither the files nor copies of the files of either of the magazine’s previous editors, Frederic Dannay and Eleanor Sullivan, are housed with EQMM. In the former case, most of these papers were preserved and are now housed at Columbia University along with Dannay’s other papers. In the case of Editor Sullivan, however, they have simply been lost or destroyed. Virtually nothing remains. Both Dannay and Sullivan worked at home in an era when such arrangements were rare, but most of the magazine’s support staff at the time worked from the office, and since most author correspondence traveled through the office on its way to the editors, we have author files going back decades. I’d be sorry to lose access to them were we ever to transition entirely to home offices or to a virtual office.

I don’t know whether there’s a bit of nostalgia in my feeling this way, but I also worry about what the lack of a common daily work space may mean for young people coming into a business such as publishing. For all that a workplace can be a cauldron of simmering tensions (and I vividly recall voices raised periodically in shouted argument at my first job—a setting for a murder mystery indeed!), it is also a place where the fast friendships of decades are formed, and where a great deal of learning can occur simply by osmosis. Can as much be absorbed through electronic communication? I guess we’ll find out in the years to come. And no doubt new motives for fictional murder will arise in the wake of these new arrangements too. Maybe virtual office arrangements, many of which are already bringing people from different types of businesses together in transitory shared physical workspaces, will even give the workplace mystery a new twist. Let’s hope so.

Meanwhile, I’m thankful that the staff at EQMM still has available a fixed address where our paths may cross, by arrangement or serendipity. Below is a photo of three important people I ran into at our recent company picnic, and whom I often see in the office. On the left is Mark Lagasse, an editor from our puzzle division who has done several brilliant readings for EQMM’s podcast series (episodes 26, 30, 32, 68, 79, and 89). If you haven’t yet heard them, check them out! Center stage is Ché Ryback, who handles all technical matters for the New York staff, and is the photographer and videographer for such EQMM events as the 2016 EQMM 75th Anniversary Symposium at Columbia University (still available on YouTube, if you haven’t seen it). On the right is someone who hardly needs introduction to followers of EQMM, our talented associate editor, Jackie Sherbow. Fictional scenarios aside, there’s no murderous intent lurking in this merry group of office mates—as I’m sure you can see!—Janet Hutchings

Mark Lagasse, Ché Ryback, Jackie Sherbow. Photo by Janet Hutchings.

 

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“Hard Target: The Unexpected Perk Offered by the Mystery/Crime Genre” (by Jennifer Soosar)

Jennifer Soosar’s first fiction appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine’s Department of First Stories in 2016, representing Canada in our special “All Nations” anniversary celebration. Since then she’s had a book published—the psychological suspense novel Parent Teacher Association—and is currently at work on another. As a child, Jennifer watched a lot of America’s Most Wanted, which gave her insight into shady characters from a young age. In this post she talks about how fiction can make us all more aware of how the criminal mind works.—Janet Hutchings

A police detective enters a crime scene. The place has been ransacked—drawers dumped, lamp knocked over, knickknacks smashed—and a woman is dead on the floor. There’s been a violent home invasion, or so says the husband who called 911. A cursory look at the scene tells the detective the story is total nonsense. He’s seen hundreds of crime scenes over his career and knows what the aftermath of a real intrusion looks like. This scene stinks; an amateur’s version of how it’s “supposed” to look. Little doubt exists in the detective’s mind that the husband is involved.

Criminals often have a hard time fooling the police. From the textbook to the bizarre, cops have seen it all in terms of human behavior, motive, and physical evidence. Cops have a firm grasp on—let’s call it a “range of normal.” Authentic crime unfolds in a random, yet recognizable pattern. A staged crime scene, on the other hand, looks theatrical in its contrivance.

A cop’s instinct for crime and deception is a tool honed through training and field experience. It is a tool they are fortunate to carry whether on or off-duty. No con man collecting money door-to-door for a phoney charity will get a dime from a police officer’s house.

Are readers of mystery and crime fiction developing a similar tool as they read for pleasure? It’s a casual theory of mine, a happy side effect of the entertainment and mental stimulation offered by the genre. I can’t prove anything, but I would bet that we mystery /crime fans are harder targets of crime than the general population. Just like the cop who’s seen it all, we’ve read about it all.

And more than just read—we’ve loitered inside the heads of some seriously twisted people. Characters like Mr. Hyde (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), Amy Dunne (Gone Girl), Professor Moriarty (Sherlock Holmes), Hannibal Lecter (Silence of the Lambs), Mrs. Danvers (Rebecca), and Tom Ripley (The Talented Mr. Ripley).

Spending hours of time with these characters has given us intimate knowledge into the calculating way they think, their techniques of deception, and how they justify their actions to themselves. When we’re not inside their brains, we are flies on the wall, bearing witness to their wicked deeds. We’ve invaded their privacy and seen behind the masks worn to fool unsuspecting others. They have educated us on everything from the fine art of poisons to the finer points of stalking. The coldness of their blood has given us a chill, and their creepiness has shrivelled our skin.

Authors have done us a service in crafting villains that elicit empathy as well as revulsion (Francis Dolarhyde in Red Dragon). Through careful character development, the dangerous personality has been dissected and exposed down to the finest nuances, allowing for an understanding of the criminal mind that, I argue, is advantageous in real life.

I’m confident most of us believe the world is a decent place and that people are good. But, I don’t think we readers of mystery and crime are deluding ourselves about any of that either. Our doors are bolted at night (Faceless Killers) and we’re careful about the information we share online (The Broken Window). We appreciate proper shoes—flats, or ones with a low heel—in case we need to run for our lives (any Nancy Drew novel). If we keep valuables at home, or cash in a safe, we don’t advertise it to the landscapers, lest it become a prison rumor (In Cold Blood).

We’re careful about strangers. New suitors need to be checked out (A Kiss Before Dying) and small-talk conversations are ended the moment they go sideways, otherwise we might find ourselves roped into a murder scheme (Strangers on a Train). We know that simple plans are not always simple (A Simple Plan) and that it’s important to do our own due diligence (Fletch) instead of naively believing another person’s word for things.

In business dealings, we mystery/crime readers approach matters with, perhaps, an extra degree of caution (A is for Alibi). And we’re not necessarily fooled by a respectable-looking, professional appearance either. We know that a top CEO can be a crook, killer, or rapist just as easily as a lowly bureaucrat can (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo).

None of this means we’re paranoid, of course. Not really. While we do find the dark side of human nature entertaining, we mystery readers can never forget one fundamentally important point; truth is stranger than fiction. That means whatever can happen in a novel can happen in real life too—only the circumstances will be weirder (read true crime to confirm).

As a result, I believe a higher value is put on our personal safety and security. We like sensible things like insurance—but not if a loved one urges us to take out a policy (Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice). That might make us think twice.

It’s not that we don’t trust normal, everyday people, like friends and family. We’re just aware that normal, everyday people can be driven to heinous acts through jealousy (Presumed Innocent), the desire for revenge (Murder on the Orient Express), greed (The Maltese Falcon), and the effort to keep a secret hidden (The Talented Mr. Ripley). We keep that tidbit tucked in the back of our minds.

Villains haven’t been our only teachers. The amateur sleuths and seasoned detectives we’ve followed over countless investigations have taught us how to be hyper-observant, how to deconstruct events logically rather than emotionally, how to recognize the body language of deception. And when the final confrontation occurs between hero and villain, we’ve learned that we need to fight to the death.

Yes indeed. Mystery, suspense and crime fiction has provided us readers with a bloody, well-rounded, and violent education in psychopaths, sociopaths, and garden variety criminals. We know what they want and their methods to get it.

All that aside, readers of the mystery genre are some of the nicest people out there. Go to any Bouchercon conference or ThrillerFest in New York City and I’m sure you’ll agree. While we are an unassuming bunch, I’ll remind those with bad intentions—don’t try and pull any fast ones. We’re nice, but not gullible. If we’re ever walking in a parking lot and a guy with a leg cast begs our help to move a mattress into his van (Silence of the Lambs), I guarantee you we’ll be running away screaming on our flat shoes.

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“Noir Is for Losers” (by Jeremy Herbert)

Jeremy Herbert got his start in the entertainment field as a movie maker—as you’ll see from this post. By day, he currently works as an AV technician, while writing, directing, and editing movies in his free time. Many of those films belong to the horror genre, and he also writes about horror and horror movies for a number of websites, including Crooked Marquee, Bloody Digusting, and PopHorror. His short film The Childish Thing will make its international debut at the Glasgow Horror Festival next month; his feature-length script, Another Harpersville Massacre, cowritten with Wolf Stahl, has been making the rounds of film festivals and has been a finalist at every one. Jeremy debuts as a fiction writer in our current issue (in the Department of First Stories), with the noir tale “Palmetto Springs.” He knows a thing or two about noir too!—Janet Hutchings

All film students have heard its siren song. Seen that publicity still from The Maltese Falcon, of Bogart holding the cursed prize and smoking a cigarette like he invented the practice, as they thumbed through a textbook about “reading” movies that they’d never open again. The caption would say something about “film noir,” so seductive, so French, and its hard shadows. Its unmistakable style.

What every film student loses sleep over—style. Nevermind the basics—that’s what those books nobody reads are for. Style is something else. Something greater. Means you’ve Made It. Pointed the camera the right way, convinced the right friends to stand in front of it, and found the right royalty-free music, called something like “Back Alley Blues” or “Jazz 3.” And what better style to steal than noir?

Hard shadows? Fewer lights to rent. Trench coats and threadbare ties? The very cornerstones of any thrift store worth its salt. A tough guy with a square jaw—probably Mitch, because he grows the darkest stubble—and a femme fatale with a look that kills and a .25 Auto on her thigh that could also do the trick—the only girl in class, who wants to direct her own project, but the guys don’t really want to grip so she ends up helping out on everyone else’s for the sake of not failing; and it’s a hard NO on the thigh thing.

Throw in someone’s period-inaccurate Airsoft gun, desaturate it into that murky world of grays, and congratulations—a stylish student film. A solid B in the making. B+ if you remembered to cut out that shot where you can hear the end of someone shouting “Action!” A- if there’s a complicated and showy dolly shot that took a significant majority of the shooting schedule to pull off. A+ if there was a shooting schedule.

To the lowly film student, noir is a shortcut to legitimacy. A shortcut to earn that most elusive of adjectives: cool.

I know the siren song of film noir because once, more recently than I remember and not long enough ago as I’d like, I, too, was a film student. Or at least an Electronic Media Production major, but who’s counting? The sum total was the same—a lot of filmmakers-in-the-making daydreaming of Steadicams, unnecessary neon lighting and how they could shoot their silent film project in the three hours before class, with little introspection as to why.

Why do you want to tell stories? I’ll ignore the means for now, but rest assured I’ll tackle it, considering this is a blog about writing, and so far I’ve only spilled scarcely related beans. And I don’t mean this as a savage assassination of those monsters, film students, who go into untold debt chasing a statistically impossible dream. I do suspect, though, that noir is still neck-and-neck with romantic-dramedy-about-going-home-for-the-first-summer-after-Janine-left-them-because-nobody-gets-exactly-how-that-felt in the film school genre races.

What I mean is that it took me a while to notice the gap between my love of reading noir and my antsy urge to make a cool film noir.

Because noir is for losers.

The overall effect might be cool. Cigarette smoke like sinners’ fog. Pinched-tip fedoras worn at the proper improper tilt, giving shifty eyes a murky place to hide. Gratuitous saxophone. But the nuts and bolts of noir, its very soul, belongs to the losers.

Strivers. Strugglers. Good people gone bad and bad people caught in the headlights, wondering if they were ever good. It’s no mean feat to count off too many noir heroes that don’t toe the line one way or the other. It may be just one flavor of mystery, but it’s exactly what carried me away in the genre.

Take Ernest “Stick” Stickley, the put-upon protagonist of Elmore Leonard’s Swag and Stick.

The following few paragraphs will contain absolutely careless spoilers for those books. If you’re allergic to them, please continue with caution. But Elmore Leonard is so good that it never matters if you know how his stories end, because you’ll be just as delighted spotting the snags in the weave that inevitably unravel someone’s Best-Laid Plans.

And if anyone’s readying a well-worded and researched argument for Leonard not writing noir, I applaud your dedication. Maybe you’re right. But he’s always read that way to me, whether the ill-fated action was in hardboiled Detroit or sunburned Florida.

And Stickley’s saga bridged the criminal underworlds of Elmore Leonard perfectly. Started out stealing cars right off the lot in 1970s Detroit. Then a blackmailer-turned-partner-turned-friend sells him on a lucrative new career in armed robbery. Ironclad, unimpeachable rules for Not Getting Caught Or Killed are hashed out on the most sacred of noir parchments—the cocktail napkin. Everything works perfectly until it doesn’t. They ignore the rules. They pay the price.

Stick takes his parole as a chance to reconnect with his estranged daughter in Florida. Almost immediately, he trips into the crosshairs of a Cuban gang, a killer in a cowboy hat, and a whacked-out wannabe kingpin. He hides in plain sight as a chauffeur until he sets up the Perfect Scam to fix everyone’s respective wagons at the same time. He even beds three women in the same night. Well. Two-and-a-half, until his natural limitations get the best of him in what may be one of the strangest omens in mystery fiction. He almost pulls it off, but falls flat on his ass within swearing distance of the finish line. Stick walks away with exactly enough money to lose in unpaid child support to his embittered ex-wife. The last line might as well be a mission statement.

There you are, Stick thought.

For all the schemes and double-crosses and back-alley meetings in the empty hours of night, he was always the same loser. And his stories were cool. No Leonard story isn’t. Swag saw him living the sweet life in a high-rise apartment. Stick followed his daily route through the Gold Coast elite’s favorite country clubs.

But despite himself, Stick was never cool. He tried. He failed. Maybe he proved something to himself, though someone like Stick would never admit it. But he’s that shadow in the dark, waiting for someone dirtier to come home, to walk into his trap. Because he’s got it all Figured Out.

The angles. The moves. The baser motivations of Mafia and men.

Got it all Figured Out, until someone else thinks the same and, funniest thing, their answers don’t match at all.

I couldn’t see it at first. Too busy imagining a woefully generic film noir and wondering which basements I could stage the chair-tied interrogation in. I would impress my peers. It would be so stylish without having to worry about my own pesky creative input. It would be so cool. I was too busy missing the forest for the trees, and worried about faking the Big City with so many of the damn, green things around. But then I’d sweat away ten pounds making it, only for the rest of the class to make something just shy of identical, depending on how much stubble their lead could muster. A hollow victory, if a victory at all, but at least I learned something the hardest way possible.

But I couldn’t see it because I had it all Figured Out.

Noir is for losers. And that’s why I love it.

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“The Ultimate Career Killer” (by John Gregory Betancourt)

Writer John Gregory Betancourt has an especially demanding day job: Hes the publisher of Wildside Press. Among Wildsides many fine recent releases is The Misadventures of Ellery Queen, an anthology of Ellery Queen pastiches and parodies, edited by Josh Pachter and Dale C. Andrews (available in paperback, hardcover, and e-book formats). Bringing back or keeping alive the work of past authors in the fields of mystery and science fiction has become a mission for John and his press. He is himself an award-winning author of both mystery and science fiction and will be known to many readers of this blog as a past winner of the Black Orchid Novella Award, cosponsored by Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and The Wolfe Pack. John has very little time for writing these days, however, and this post about his work at Wildside reveals why.—Janet Hutchings

When Janet Hutchings asked me to be a guest blogger and write about Wildside Press (following a conversation at our dealer’s table at the Malice Domestic mystery convention), she wanted me to talk a bit about what we are doing with the estates of mystery writers. I think the background subject—what happens to authors’ works after their passing—is the place to begin.

Most authors are not best sellers with legions of fans who keep their work in print for generations. For every Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie, and Rex Stout, there is a Jacob Hay, James Holding, and Fletcher Flora—a counterpart who immediately vanishes into the mists of obscurity the moment they stop writing. A well-known literary agent in the science fiction field put it, “Nothing kills a career like death.” Too true. For authors who specialized in short stories (or mostly short stories) and published in ephemeral places such as magazines or anthologies, their fate is pretty much sealed: gone and forgotten. Despite long and distinguished careers, the most these authors’ estates can hope for now is the occasional anthology reprint.

If the anthologist can find them.

Believe it or not, the largest barrier to any old author being reprinted is often finding his or her heirs. I tracked down one mystery author’s family, who promptly referred me to an agent—who had died 15 years before. (His agency had gone out of business without them realizing it.) Another author’s son argued that he didn’t have the rights to anything, since nothing about writing had been mentioned in his mother’s will. (Definitely wrong: Copyright inheres in the creator. Unless the rights to a given work are specifically signed away, copyrights—like any other property—are inherited.) One Western author died childless and intestate, and none of his seven nephews or nieces wanted to take the responsibility of claiming the estate and accepting money. (At least they did discuss it among themselves. Not worth their time, I guess. I moved on; so did they—and this particular author will remain in publishing limbo until his work enters the public domain, somewhere around the year 2055.)

Let’s assume the best-case scenario. A hobbyist author of 100 mystery short stories died in 1990, and his daughter is still alive. She knows all about his work, has a website online that mentions him prominently, and she has paperwork to prove she is sole heir and owner, so she is confident in her position. She has been available to sign reprint contracts for decades. She goes to mystery conventions. She’s easy to find and familiar enough with publishing contracts that she feels comfortable signing them without a lawyer or agent.

Unfortunately, the anthology reprint market had pretty much disappeared by the year 2000. Television and movies? Highly unlikely. New collections by authors who are (essentially) unknown today? Impossible from any major publishing company. So this daughter has effectively held the rights to 100 short stories with one reprint sale in the last fifteen years.

Enter Wildside Press and the burgeoning e-book market. In 2011, I put together a 99-cent reprint anthology of science-fiction stories called The Science Fiction MEGAPACK. It consisted of twenty-five short science-fiction stories, mostly public-domain works written in the 1950s and 1960s, plus a few modern stories from estates I had inherited. (A pair of authors appreciated my sometimes decades-long interest in their work and careers enough to leave me their copyrights when they died, since they had no immediate family.) To date, The Science Fiction MEGAPACK® has sold more than a million copies. I trademarked the MEGAPACK® name in 2013 and began publishing more reprint volumes—a lot more—and not just science fiction, but mysteries, romance, Westerns, pulp fiction, etc.

Most volumes in the MEGAPACK® series contain between fifteen and forty short stories. Wildside Press is, I believe, one of the largest publishers of old short stories in the world right now—I haven’t bothered to count the number, but it’s certainly over 6,000 stories and probably closer to 7,000, spread over about 400 collections.

When our e-book sales dropped as a dozen other e-book publishers copied the MEGAPACK® publishing strategy and flooded the market, I began looking for cost-effective ways to replace or supplement the public-domain content we had been using with unique (to us), in-copyright material. I asked friends who are writers for old stories to reprint. I tracked down the authors of stories I remembered reading years ago and purchased reprint rights. But it still wasn’t enough. (Remember, the MEGAPACK® line uses thousands of stories, not dozens.)

I had to broaden my search. In the mystery field, the best sources of mystery short stories have always been Ellery Queens Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcocks Mystery Magazine, so their back issues seemed the place to start when I wanted a lot of mysteries. I began going through indexes, looking for authors and stories I recognized.

What a treasure trove those old magazines turned out to be! So many great, forgotten authors. So many series characters (who often only appeared only in the magazines).

Unfortunately, with my very slender budget (about $10 per story), spending hours tracking down estates and offering a tiny fee to reprint one story at a time by Aunt Clarissa or Grandpa Joe wasn’t going to be cost-effective. Instead, I began adding up the number of short stories and novels an author had published, then purchasing exclusive reprint rights to all of them. It seemed like a winning strategy for everyone: I could offer larger payments while getting access to a huge quantity of high-quality fiction. Some authors whose families I tracked down, such as Talmage Powell, had published upwards of 500 short stories. Writers learned to write fast in the days of the pulps.

But then something happened along the way: I became a fan of many of these old writers. Instead of putting everything into MEGAPACK® anthologies, I began looking for the best way to resurrect these authors’ works for the largest possible audience. Sometimes it’s single-author collections from Wildside Press. Sometimes it’s from other publishers. Every time I put a new book together, I stop and ask myself, “What’s the best way to present this particular author to new readers?”

Remember the three names I mentioned at the start (Jacob Hay, James Holding, and Fletcher Flora)? I purchased their copyrights from their families. (Talmage Powell’s, too, for that matter. He was another great who is now sadly forgotten.)

Jacob Hay was an excellent writer who published a handful of mainstream novels, plus forty-nine short stories—fifteen of them mysteries in EQMM, but spread over a fourteen-year period (1962-1976). He published most of his stories, many mystery or suspense, in big-budget magazines like The Saturday Evening Post (twenty-five there alone!), Playboy, Argosy, and Colliers. He didn’t have a series character, and he published so infrequently in any given market that he made no lasting impression on readers, despite consistently high-quality work. I have been sprinkling his stories into themed e-book anthologies. There doesn’t seem to be a specific hook to use to market his work—or if there is, I haven’t found it yet.

In addition to a dozen children’s books, James Holding published 207 short stories, primarily in EQMM and AHMM. He loved series characters, and it turns out long-time magazine readers still remember some of them quite favorably . . . the Photographer, the Library Fuzz, and most especially the “Leroy King” series of Ellery Queen tribute stories. I was fortunate enough to secure a reprint collection of his complete “Leroy King” series (The Zanzibar Shirt Mystery and Other Stories) with Crippen & Landru (publisher Doug Greene was also a big “Leroy King” fan) as part of their “Lost Classics” series, and I persuaded Linda Landrigan, editor of Alfred Hitchcocks Mystery Magazine, to run the first story as a classic reprint. I even wrote a new “Leroy King” story, “The Jamaican Ice Mystery,” for the Malice Domestic convention book. I’m planning e-book collections of James Holding’s other series characters to publish myself—and continuing to sprinkle nonseries stories into other e-book anthologies. I’m delighted to say Holding is well off to a mini-revival!

Fletcher Flora was a staple in mysteries magazines from the early 1950s until his death in 1968. He published about 130 mystery stories and twenty novels (three pseudonymously under the “Ellery Queen” byline, plus he completed Stuart Palmer’s final Hildegarde Withers novel after Palmer’s death). Some of his novels are trashy pulp fiction; others are traditional mysteries. We licensed his mystery novels to Prologue Books (now Simon & Schuster) as part of their classic crime e-book program, and have been releasing Fletcher Flora MEGAPACK®s containing the others. Eventually we will have everything he wrote in print again. Not bad, for a forgotten author!

Sometimes families have an emotional attachment to the work and don’t want to sell the rights to everythings, but still want to have stories by their famous relative available in print. I often offer to manage these literary estates, bringing as much as possible back into print and sharing the revenues. It doesn’t always make financial sense, but I really enjoy it—and I’ve made a lot of new friends this way. I hear regularly from author Richard Deming’s granddaughter, who sold her home and is now traveling the American highways with her husband in an RV, working on a documentary movie on RV life to be called RV Nomads. I’ve helped the family of science-fiction author John W. Campbell, Jr. recover $30,000 in royalties from an agent who had licensed editions of his books without telling (or paying) them. Now I’m writing a sequel to Campbell’s classic story “Who Goes There?” (filmed by John Carpenter as The Thing) while helping them with stuff like game and movie licensing. Campbell’s grandson just sent me one of the “Who Goes There?” medallions a gaming company sent him.

Cool stuff, all.

For more information on Wildside Press, check out wildsidepress.com.

For more info on John Betancourt, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Gregory_Betancourt

You can contact John through the Wildside Press website.

Posted in Anthologies, Books, Characters, Guest, History, Publishing, Writers, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

“Daneel Olivaw & Me” (by Jan Grape)

When I and my colleagues at the Dell Mystery Magazines, Linda Landrigan and Jackie Sherbow, were interviewed on the blog SleuthSayers back in June, a corresponding invitation went out to members of SleuthSayers to blog for this site. Award-winning author Jan Grape is one of those who accepted the invitation. A native of the hill country of Texas, Jan is an Anthony Award winner for best short story and has produced over fifty short stories and three novels, the latter featuring Austin, Texas policewoman Zoe Barrow. Many know Jan as an active member of the mystery community.  She has coedited both nonfiction and fiction anthologies, including Murder Past, Murder Present, and Murder Here, Murder There (with coeditor R. Barri Flowers), and she’s a founding member of the HOT chapter of Sisters in Crime in Austin. This post takes us back to the beginning of Jan’s love affair with mystery fiction (and science fiction!). It focuses on an important writer for EQMM, Isaac Asimov, whose Black Widower stories appeared in EQMM from the early 1970s to the early 1990s.—Janet Hutchings

Jan Grape and Isaac Asimov at the Edgar Awards in NYC, April 1988. (Photo courtesy of Jan Grape.)

Maybe my love for and fascination with robots began because I was a bit of a nerd. I took classes in art and “expression” (public speaking with emotion). I was a romantic. I was also thirteen years old.

My parents were divorced, so I lived with my mother and stepdad in Post, Texas, about forty miles from the “big city” of Lubbock. My father and stepmother lived in Fort Worth. When I visited Fort Worth during the summer, I entertained myself with television and books while they were at work. My dad liked reading mysteries, mostly private-eye stories, so he first handed me books by Mickey Spillane, Richard S. Prather, and Erle Stanley Gardner. Once I had finished those he gave me science fiction by Isaac Asimov. I’ve always thought that I read The Naked Sun first, but after checking it out and learning that it wasn’t published until 1956, I’m now thinking that the first Asimov book I read was The Caves of Steel, which was the first book in the Robot Series. My memories of that story are nonexistent. The second book in the Robot Series, The Naked Sun, is the book I strongly remember, primarily because of the robot, Daneel Olivaw.

Asimov decided to combine mystery and sci fi, a play-fair novel in his mind. He wrote The Caves of Steel, which was a huge success. The premise of the second book, The Naked Sun, involves a New York City detective named Elijah Baley and a robot, R. Daneel Olivaw, who travel to a planet called Solaria to solve a murder. The setting is a sparsely populated planet with something like only twenty thousand people. There are around fifty other planets occupied by the very few people who are adventurous and strong enough to make a go of it on barely inhabitable planets. Robots are needed to help the humans make the planet livable. The people on Solaria have many robots that cook, clean, provide security, and tend to practically every need of the humans. In fact, the Solarians depend so much on the robots that they seldom see each other in person. They view each other with devices called “Viewers,” and, more often than not, they encounter a holographic image rather than a real person.

Most of the robots are worker robots that look like many of our robots today. Daneel was the only robot that had been created to look and sound human. The professor who created Daneel was the only roboticist to have developed the positronic brain. Daneel looked so much like a human that other robots thought he was a man. His skin tone was perfect. Each hair on his head was placed just so. Elijah Bailey could almost feel a friendship akin to love, until he remembered Daneel was a robot, not a man.

So, on Solaria, a wealthy man turns up bludgeoned to death. There can be no suspects other than his wife, Gladia, who is rarely in his presence (Solarians can barely stand to touch each other), or one of the robots.

In the story, all robots are made to follow the Three Laws of Robotics. First Law: A robot may not harm or cause harm to a human being. Second Law: A robot must obey a human’s orders. Third Law: A robot must protect itself, as long as it does not violate the First or Second Laws. To my thirteen-year-old heart, this sounded like the perfect situation! A handsome robot that would wait on me hand and foot and protect me at all costs? What nerdy, teenage, romantic girl would NOT fall in love with that?

Asimov didn’t write gory mysteries. In fact, he thought the blood and guts should be offstage, and that’s how he wrote his books. He wrote mainly in the classic style—or the Agatha Christie style. He enjoyed writing a puzzle story, and his favorite mystery was one in which the reader could figure out the solution if they paid attention to the clues. Asimov’s mysteries were of the puzzler-type in what were known as The Black Widower series. In these, a group of intellectuals would meet at a men’s club for dinner. Usually, one member would bring a guest who, after dinner, would present a problem that the others would try to solve. Each of the very educated gentlemen would try to present a solution to the puzzle. However, Henry, the club waiter, was invariably the one to come up with the solution. It was pretty much the same with the Union Club stories that Asimov wrote. A small group would sit around, and someone would present a problem. One of the older gentlemen, Griswold, sitting half asleep with his drink in his hand, would suddenly awaken and solve the puzzle.

Asimov could write these stories in his sleep, because they were pretty much the same each time: a bit of a puzzle, and then one person speaks up to do what the reader has been trying to do for thirty minutes.

To me, Mr. Asimov’s science fiction was his strong point and, probably, the rest of the world agrees. I think he absorbed scientific and mathematical things going on around him and then tried the writer’s idea of “Imagine that . . .” or “What if . . . ?” His imagination traveled light-years away. He himself said in his autobiography that he wrote every day. He never even took time off for any holiday.

Asimov was born in Russia, but his parents came to America when he was three. After a series of menial sales jobs, his father bought a candy store and his parents spent all of their time working it. His parents never learned to read or write or even speak English very well, just enough to get by. His father had been educated in Russia, but his mother had not. Asimov’s parents never taught him Russian. They would speak to each other in Russian when they didn’t want the children to know what they were talking about. I’m surprised he never taught himself!

He began going to the library when he was nine years old, and he read everything from Shakespeare to Dickens to The Iliad to Greek mythology. He read the Bible, mostly the Old Testament, but Christianity never took hold in his mind. (His family was Jewish, but they never practiced Judaism.) He called himself a “humanist.” As a writer he also wrote nonfiction about understanding the Bible and other great literature, and just about any subject you could think of, including some children’s stories.

Given his penchant for science and mathematics, it was natural for Asimov to imagine a future world with robots and other technology such as moving sidewalks that operated at different speeds to move twenty billion people around NYC, like he describes in his 1953 book The Caves of Steel. He imagined worlds where people “viewed” each other rather than existed in each other’s actual presence. I have to say, it reminds me of our world today, with people interacting via texts, photos, and Skype. We also have many robots in our present-day world, although for the most part they don’t yet resemble humans. So far, our robots are used for things like bomb detection, search and rescue, or assembly-line work.

For all of my thirteen-year-old longings for a dreamy robot boyfriend who would drive me around in his fancy robocar and make me one of the coolest girls in junior high school, Mr. Asimov’s books were without romance. Quite understandable, I suppose. Most popular fiction of the mystery and sci-fi genre in the 1950s was geared towards men. The books my father had that I was reading were certainly devoid of romance. Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer had a lovely secretary, and although he might have lusted after a dame, it was for sex only. Dashiell Hammett was in the same milieu. Dames were either gangster molls and evil, secretaries and helpless, or somewhat undesirable—like Gardner’s Bertha Cool, who was smart but overweight and a woman who never thought of herself as sexy or lovable. When Asimov wrote The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun, detective Elijah Baley’s wife and son were almost an afterthought, although Baley did have a strong desire for his son to migrate to another planet, since Earth would not be able to sustain enough food or room for the growing population.

Male writers in the 20s, 30s, and even into the 50s had grown up in a time when romance and sex weren’t discussed in polite company. I’m sure Asimov’s Russian parents were too busy trying to make a living running their candy store to have a moment to think about love and romance.

However, Asimov threw a new element into the mix. Lovely Gladia, the woman accused of killing her husband, does not want even to shake hands with the Earthman, Baley. She, as well as all Solarians, knows that all Earthlings are thoroughly sanitized on the spaceship during the trip to their planet, but Solarians have a constant fear and horror of contracting diseases from Earth. One does begin to get the idea that Gladia is somewhat fascinated by Elijah and he is equally fascinated by her. However, the closest brush with romance that they experience is when Gladia removes her latex glove to touch gently Elijah’s face before he leaves Solaria to go back to Earth.

Fast-forward twenty-seven years, to Asimov finally writing the third book in the Robot Series. In The Robots of Dawn, Elijah and Daneel are sent to Planet Aurora, to solve a case of roboticide. The main suspect is the gifted roboticist who had developed the positronic brain and is the only person who has the motive, means, and opportunity to kill the robot. The roboticist even admits that he is the prime suspect, but emphatically denies that he did it. However, the lovely Gladia is now residing on Aurora, almost totally ignored because Aurorans don’t care for Solarians, and she is ultimately accused of the murder of Jander. Jander is the second humaniform robot with a positronic brain and had looked and acted as human as Daneel.

Asimov finally gets to Gladia’s secret love life in this third book. The robot that has been killed had been Gladia’s lover! And, in her mind, Jander was her husband in every way. This, of course, excited my thirteen-year-old self! Yes, the robot lover! (I’m not sure I had consciously thought of the robot as a sexual partner, but perhaps my subconscious did.) Finally, Gladia has sex with Elijah Baley. She leads and he follows. What man wouldn’t?

This, from Mr. Isaac Asimov? WOW!

Posted in Books, Characters, Classic Mystery, Genre, Guest, History, Novels, Writers | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments