“Your Shrinks Might Need to be Shrunk” (by Dennis Palumbo)

It’s been more than twenty years since Dennis Palumbo’s fiction has appeared in EQMM. In the meantime, he’s been busy with a series of novel-length thrillers featuring Daniel Rinaldi, a psychologist who consults with the Pittsburgh Police (the latest is Head Wounds, from Poisoned Pen Press), and his short stories have been collected in From Crime to Crime (Tallfellow Press). A former Hollywood screenwriter (My Favorite Year; Welcome Back, Kotter, etc.), Dennis is himself a licensed psychotherapist, and in this post he talks about some misconceptions many mystery writers and readers have about the usefulness of psychological diagnoses in solving crimes. —Janet Hutchings

As a former Hollywood screenwriter, now a licensed psychotherapist and mystery author, I have more than a passing interest in how therapy is portrayed on screen and on the page. That said, I’ve noticed that in recent years, whether in some best-selling crime thriller or on your average procedural TV drama, the therapists depicted are usually pretty quick-on-the-draw when it comes to diagnosing characters in the story.

For example: To explain a suspect’s behavior to the investigating detectives, shrinks in these novels and TV series toss out easily-digestible diagnoses like “psychopathic,” “schizophrenic,” or “borderline personality disorder.” As if these terms explained everything the cops (and readers or viewers) needed to know about the person being discussed. In my view, not only is this lazy storytelling (psychological symptoms taking the place of character development) but it’s clinically debatable.

The problem starts with the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). Used as the premiere diagnostic bible by mental-health professionals worldwide, the DSM has been predominately responsible for the labeling of an individual’s behavior, in terms of whether or not it falls within the range of agreed-upon norms. As such, it’s been both praised and reviled over the years. Praised because of its concise descriptions and categorizations of behavioral symptoms; reviled because of its reinforcement of stigmatizing attitudes towards those whose behavior is deemed “abnormal.”

In fact, there’s an old joke about how clinicians use diagnostic labels to interpret their patients’ behavior. If the patient arrives early for his therapy appointment, he’s anxious. If he’s late, he’s resistant. And if he’s on time, he’s compulsive.

Nowadays, however, it’s becoming clear that the joke may be on us. Diagnostic labels are thrown around quite casually by people who ought to know better (therapists on TV news programs) as well as by people who usually don’t (writers of mystery novels and procedural crime shows).

For the latter, it’s perfectly understandable. With rare exceptions, most writers depend on research—and such tools as the DSM—to provide their psychologist and psychiatrist characters with the right lingo. This not only makes these characters sound like the mental-health professionals they’re supposed to be, but it also allows the writer to describe the bad guy’s psychological problem in a way that the reader understands. Plus it makes the shrink character seem wicked smart.

However, as I said, it can also lead to lazy storytelling. In too many mysteries and thrillers nowadays, the shrink character need only say that someone’s a psychopath and—in an instant—a whole series of inexplicable or horrendous behaviors are explained away. To the question of why the bad guy did what he did, the answer is simple: he’s crazy.

In other words, so much for developing a vivid, relatable backstory for this character. Or creating a motive that makes sense. Or for acknowledging, as the author should, that most people are too complicated to be reduced to a set of easily determined symptoms.

Which is why I feel that crime writers—especially those who make use of therapists in their stories, either as protagonists or “experts” brought in to help the hero or heroine—need to take care not to use a one-size-fits-all model of diagnosis when it comes to describing a character in the story.

(There’s another problem with this, one which I think writers need to be aware of. Diagnostic labels, like practically everything else nowadays, follow the dictates of trends. Remember how, not too long ago, every other child was diagnosed with ADHD [Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder]? Or Asperger’s? Well, forget about those. Now the “hot” new label, regardless of age, is bipolar disorder [what used to be called manic-depression]. Lately, whether you’re a movie star, teen heartthrob, politician, or athlete, you’re not cool if you’re not bipolar.)

Not that there’s anything wrong, per se, with labels. Nor with the idea of a common vocabulary so that all us clinical geniuses can communicate with each other. It’s just that, if we’re speaking honestly, diagnostic labels exist primarily for the convenience of the labelers. Which is fine, as far as it goes. But how far is too far? Especially for crime writers?

In my opinion, “too far” is when authors give their therapist characters an almost clairvoyant ability to declare (with God-like conviction) what’s going on in the mind of some suspected bad guy. Because, as any working mental health professional will tell you, facile, off-the-cuff interpretations of a patient’s psychological state rarely end up being accurate. And can even do great harm.

Once, when asked how he worked, Albert Einstein replied, “I grope.” Frankly, that’s what most good therapists do, too. They grope. That is, if they truly respect the therapeutic process—and their patients.

In my own series of mystery thrillers, my lead character, psychologist and trauma expert Daniel Rinaldi, does a lot of groping. Trying to make sense not only of his patients, or some suspect for which the Pittsburgh Police are seeking his expertise, but of himself, too. His own motives, prejudices, needs.

As a therapist in private practice for over 28 years, I’ve grown to appreciate the vast differences in temperament, relationship choices, communication styles and beliefs of my patients—and how these translate into behaviors, both healthy and harmful. Which means I’ve been forced many times to challenge the orthodoxy of my own profession, and to pay attention to the potential danger of reducing people to a simple diagnostic category.

I think all of us who write mysteries owe our various suspects and bad guys the same consideration. As well as try to keep our shrink characters’ smug, self-congratulatory opinions in check.

After all, despite being fictional, they’re still only human.

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Posted in Characters, Fiction, Genre, Guest, Writers, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

“Untouchable Truth” (by Max Allan Collins)

This year, for the first time in nearly seventy-seven years of publication, EQMM brought a true-crime column (Stranger Than Fiction by Dean Jobb) under its banner. The connections between crime fiction and true crime are many, and a number of EQMM’s fiction writers are also true-crime writers, so we were pretty sure our readers would be interested in hearing about new true-crime books. One very important writer who tackles both fiction and true crime is Max Allan Collins. Max’s solo fiction and collaborations with Mickey Spillane have been appearing in EQMM for a number of years. A Grand Master of the MWA, Max is noted in the fiction realm for his Shamus Award-winning Nathan Heller historical series, the Quarry series (on which a feature film and Cinemax TV series were based), the graphic novel Road to Perdition (basis for the Academy Award-winning film), and the Trash ’n’ Treasures cozy series written with his wife, Barbara Collins. Now, Max has teamed up with A. Brad Schwartz to produce the definitive history of Al Capone and Eliot Ness: Scarface and the Untouchable: Al Capone, Eliot Ness, and the Battle for Chicago (William Morrow, August 2018). In this post, Max gives us some insights into his historical fiction, his deep-rooted interest in Eliot Ness, and how his new true-crime book with A. Brad Schwartz came about. After reading this fascinating piece, those who missed it earlier may want to check out EQMM’s Stranger Than Fiction column for March, “Murder and Mayhem in the Windy City” (available free at our website).—Janet Hutchings 

On Monday night, April 20, 1959, the first of a two-part TV presentation called “The Untouchables” appeared on Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse. I was eleven years old, watching in Muscatine, Iowa, and I was dumbstruck. The next day, all the kids—well, the boys, anyway—were talking about this hardhitting crime show, the fact-based story of federal agent Eliot Ness and his band of incorruptible lawmen, taking on the Capone gang during Prohibition.

Me, I was bowled over by how much it tallied with my obsession (which had started at age six) with Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy, particularly reprints of 1930s and ’40s comic strips. When the concluding “Untouchables” episode aired, finally presenting Al Capone on camera (after the week before’s crafty cliffhanger), I was struck by how much Capone was like the ’30s Tracy villain, Big Boy.

I could hardly have imagined that, less than twenty years later, I’d be writing the strip, and hearing Chester Gould confirm my suspicions that detective Tracy had been based on Ness and the Untouchables—a fact still little noted or known.

That was the beginning of my interest in true crime in general and Eliot Ness specifically. I immediately read Ness’s memoir, The Untouchables (1957), cowritten by sports writer Oscar Fraley, as well as Fraley’s follow-up, Four Against the Mob (1958), about Ness’s later law enforcement career in Cleveland, Ohio.

The Ness/Fraley book has largely been dismissed as fabrication, but one of our many discoveries has been how surprisingly accurate it was. Fraley built his book on a decidedly nonboastful, fairly short memoir by Ness, amplifying it with newspaper and magazine accounts. But the ghost writer paid no heed to chronology, and events appeared in what struck Fraley as the most effective order. Ness protested to no avail, taken out by a heart attack at fifty-four, before publication of the work that would make him far more famous dead than he’d been alive.

Fraley’s readable if creatively rearranged account led to a backlash among Ness’s contemporaries in law enforcement as well as Chicago journalists, building him (inaccurately) into a glory hound. The enormously successful TV series that the Desilu Playhouse two-parter spawned did Ness’s real-life reputation no favors, either.

Ironically, the original two-part film (released theatrically as The Scarface Mob) was the most accurate presentation on film Ness and the Untouchables has ever received. Director Phil Karlson was a master at true-crime noir, with Phoenix City Story (1955) behind him, and Walking Tall (1973), ahead of him (with its similar glorification of real-life lawman Buford Pusser).

Featuring Hollywood star Robert Stack as a grimly charismatic Ness, “The Untouchables” two-parter boasted a semi-documentary style, Roaring Twenties nostalgia, and fast, violent action, with ’30s media star Walter Winchell’s rat-a-tat-tat narration perhaps the masterstroke.

But in their accidental pilot film, director Karlson and screenwriter Paul Monash exhausted the source book, concluding with Capone on his way to prison. With the nemesis of Ness’s real and reel Untouchable days incarcerated, the series had no choice but to focus on Capone successor Frank Nitti, with only a single two-parter (“The Big Train”) bringing Neville Brand’s memorable Al Capone back during the show’s four-season run.

A much fictionalized Chicago mob was amplified by similarly fanciful episodes taking on such real-life criminals as Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll, Dutch Schultz, Waxey Gordon, Legs Diamond, and Lucky Luciano. J. Edgar Hoover, never a fan of the real Ness, objected so much to the Untouchables’ latter-day fame that he insisted the producers credit the FBI’s work at the end of the Ma Barker episode.

The only other two-part The Untouchables episode, “The Unhired Assassin,” was loosely based on the assassination of Mayor Anton Cermak. That event also became the subject of my detective novel, True Detective (1983).

In the late ’70s, teaching mystery fiction at a community college, I happened to notice The Maltese Falcon’s 1929 copyright—the year of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. That meant Sam Spade and Al Capone were contemporaries—instead of Phillip Marlowe meeting an Al Capone type, Al Capone could meet a Phillip Marlowe type.

In 1981, I set out to write period private eye story around a real crime—the Cermak assassination. I sought the help of George Hagenauer, a Chicagoan whose knowledge of the city and its mob history was considerable. I said to George, “My private eye, offended by the rampant graft, will quit the Chicago PD.” When he stopped laughing, George said, “Max, don’t you know? You get on the PD for the rampant graft!” In that exchange, Nathan Heller was born.

Ever since, George has been my primary research associate on the Heller novels, as well as many other historical thrillers. With Heller, the approach is to research a famous unsolved (or controversially solved) crime, and when I’m ready to write the definitive work on the subject, I write a private eye novel instead.

Early on I had the idea of making Eliot Ness the honest law enforcement contact for my somewhat shady P.I.—every private eye has a cop pal, after all. But I’d read in Fraley that Ness and the Untouchables had disbanded after Capone went to prison, and that Ness was gone from Chicago by 1933. The mandate of my novel was authenticity, so I abandoned the notion of using him.

And then he turned up in the research! Ness was right there on the scene, after two corrupt cops attempted the assassination of Frank Nitti. And into True Detective he went. Ness appears in a number of subsequent Heller novels, as well, in particular The Million-Dollar Wound (1986), Stolen Away (1991), and Angel in Black (2001).

In 1986 I was asked by an editor to spin Ness off into his own novels—a good opportunity to explore his little-written-about years as Public Safety Director in Cleveland. George and I made several trips to that city and explored the locations of potential Ness novels, from the castle-like boathouse on Clifton Lagoon where Eliot lived to the dreary Kingsbury Run gully where the serial-killing “Mad Butcher” pursued his homeless prey.

Our research took us to the Cleveland Public Library, the City Hall municipal reference library, and the Case Western Reserve Society, where the Ness papers reside. I expected to be disappointed. Noted mob expert Hank Messick’s Silent Syndicate (1967) explored the Cleveland mob while disparaging Ness’s gangbusting role.

So when I found in the Case Western Reserve card catalogue (remember those?) an entry saying, “Eliot Ness Scrapbook,” I held out little hope. We’d already been there all afternoon, but asked to see the scrapbook anyway. A civil servant slogged off dutifully to answer our request.

Near closing, the civil servant returned, pushing a hand truck with perhaps half a dozen huge scrapbooks, each many inches thick and large enough for a newspaper front page of the era to be pasted in. George and I exchanged the same kind of dumbstruck look that the original “Untouchables” broadcast had generated in me.

Actually exploring this treasure-trove find—apparently the last person to use the scrapbooks had been Oscar Fraley—meant returning the next day, and the next, and many more after that. Examining such items as Ness’s eyeglasses and a signed photo, I alerted the staff that this material should not be handed out to the general public, and soon Case Western had put the scrapbooks on microfilm.

Among that material were postcards sent from a mental institution to Eliot Ness by the “Mad Butcher” of Kingsbury Run. Eerily, the front of one postcard depicted actor Neville Brand, insane and ranting, clutching prison bars, in a still from Riot On Cell Block 11 (1954)—years before Brand would be Al Capone on The Untouchables.

The four Ness-in-Cleveland novels—The Dark City (1987), Butcher’s Dozen (1988), Bullet Proof (1989), and Murder by the Numbers (1993)—were followed in 2004 by a play, Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life. A one-man show performed by my late friend Michael Cornelison, Untouchable Life became a film of the same name in 2005, airing on a number of PBS stations.

I had written the play, and then filmed it, in part because I wanted to go on the record with my version of Ness’s life. The research George and I did, particularly on Butcher’s Dozen (the first book-length work on the Kingsbury Run slayer), had been plundered without credit by other novelists and graphic novelists, and by nonfiction writers, who apparently felt that not acknowledging our work was fine because we were “fiction.”

I also wanted to address aspects of director Brian De Palma’s 1987 film, The Untouchables. De Palma is a director I admire and the film is well made and entertaining. The screenplay is another matter. David Mamet certainly created a memorable speech for Sean Connery—“You wanna know how to get Capone? They pull a knife, you pull a gun,” and so on.

But the historical inanities—inaccuracies doesn’t cover it—are unforgivable. I have no trouble with liberties being taken with historical material. But having Mounties chase rum runners in a country where rum is legal? Depicting a trial where a jury is changed midstream? Showing Eliot Ness tossing Frank Nitti off a building? The screenwriter displays a lack of respect not just for history, but his audience.

Untouchable Life attracted a high-school student from Michigan to the Des Moines Playhouse to see Michael Cornelison perform as Eliot Ness. A. Brad Schwartz had been a Dick Tracy fan since around five years of age, having been exposed to the film of that name (on which I was a creative consultant and wrote the movie tie-in novel).

At age eleven—and this may sound very familiar—he saw a movie called The Untouchables, recommended by his mother as being “like Dick Tracy but real-life.” He became enamored with that film, which led him to my work, including Road to Perdition, a graphic novel in which Eliot Ness appears. Brad was fifteen the summer he came to Des Moines for the play Untouchable Life, going to the premiere of the film in Moline, Illinois, in February 2005.

Somewhere along the way we got to know each other, and—after his college thesis evolved into the Orson Welles book, Broadcast Hysteria (Hill & Wang, 2015)—he suggested we collaborate on a biography of Eliot Ness. I’d had several editors suggest the same to me, but I felt Untouchable Life was my last word on the subject.

Apparently I was wrong.

Soon the project morphed into a dual biography of Capone and Ness. For a good long while, we hoped to follow Ness through to the end of his days, but eventually Chicago became the focus. For now.

We hope to set the record straight on any number of things. The inaccurate and unfair portrayal of Ness is one; the glorification of Al Capone is another. Jonathan Eig, in his Get Capone (2010), is guilty of both, particularly in trying to clear the mobster of the infamous baseball bat murders and the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.

For the former, Eig claims the baseball bat story only dates to 1975 when we have it in print within a year of the event. For the latter, he ignores ballistics evidence, eyewitness testimony, and a credible confession in favor of a convoluted theory based on a single error-ridden letter written to the FBI.

Deirdre Bair, in her book, Al Capone: His Life, Legacy, and Legend (2016), collaborates with Capone family members to present a portrait of a loving husband and father. Typically, Bair disparages Ness, claiming he made “sure the press was there to take his picture as he struck heroic poses over gallons of illegal boozed being smashed to pieces and going down the drains and into sewers.”

No such pictures exist.

A handful of diligent researchers—among them Rebecca McFarland, Paul Heimel and Scott Leeson Stoka—have endeavored to shed light on the real Ness and his accomplishments. But even self-proclaimed Ness defender, Douglas Perry—in Eliot Ness: The Rise and Fall of an American Hero (2014)—lingers on sordid details of Ness’s supposed womanizing and drinking, with little in the historical record to back him up.

Documentary filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick use Eig as a source for Prohibition (2011), Novick insisting, “Eliot Ness had nothing to do with catching Al Capone. . . . he wrote a book in which he just made stuff up.” Gary Aford of the IRS—singing the praises of tax investigators—told the New York Times, “They don’t write movies about Frank Wilson building the [Capone] tax case.”

Only they did—Undercover Man (1949), directed by B-movie master Joseph H. Lewis of Gun Crazy fame. Starring Glenn Ford as “Frank Warren,” the film—which could have been a dry run for The Untouchables TV series—was based on Frank J. Wilson’s self-aggrandizing article in Collier’s magazine (1947), a hardcover book following in 1965.

Wilson’s boss Elmer Irey wrote (or a ghost writer did, as had been the case with Wilson) his own puffed-up work, The Tax Dodgers (1948), taking credit for busting up the Chicago mob. One wonders if Irey realized, filming a crime-does-not-pay opening scene for T-Men (1947), that Chicago gangster Johnny Roselli was an uncredited producer on the picture, with a ten percent stake.

Neither Frank J. Wilson nor Elmer Irey even mention Eliot Ness in their respective memoirs. Read this book and see if you think that was fair. Add to that the treatment Al Capone got from the Federal government, and we include the questionable conduct of the much-lauded Judge James H. Wilkerson.

In trying to set the record straight, we used decades of Collins/Hagenauer research, including published sources—newspapers, books, long-forgotten true-crime magazines—as well as newly uncovered archival documents and federal files obtained through numerous Freedom of Information Act requests. Trips have been made to libraries, archives, and personal collections in a dozen states as well as the District of Columbia, including the office of the Cook County Medical Examiner.

Coauthor Schwartz has combed through the personnel files of the Untouchables in the historic archives at the ATF’s D.C. headquarters. Brad also made a trip to the small Pennsylvania town where Eliot Ness died, speaking with the last people with living memories of the man. He also spoke with the son of an Untouchable and the grandson of another, and spent an afternoon with George exploring Ness’s old South Side neighborhood, visiting as well Capone’s Miami mansion.

While we have verified much of the Ness/Fraley book, The Untouchables, we do not use it as a source, with the occasional exception of drawing upon Ness’s state of mind in relation to certain incidents.

Neither of our subjects has really gotten a fair shake from history. Our hope is to balance the scales of justice on their behalf. Telling the story of Capone and Ness accurately is our goal—not only is truth stranger than fiction, in this case it’s even more compelling than the many lies and exaggerations visited on both.

Scarface and the Untouchable: Al Capone, Eliot Ness and the Battle for Chicago will be published on August 14, 2018, by William Morrow.
Copyright 2018, Max Allan Collins and A. Brad Schwartz
Posted in Books, Guest, History, Noir, Politics, Pop Culture, Real Crime | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Flame Wars & More” (by Paul D. Marks)

Paul D. Marks is the author of the Shamus Award-winning thriller White Heat and its upcoming sequel, Broken Windows. His story “Ghosts of Bunker Hill” won the 2016 EQMM Readers Award, and his story “Windward” has been selected for the 2018 Best American Mystery Stories, edited by Louise Penny; the story is also nominated for both the Shamus and Macavity Awards. In this post, Paul takes up an important topic—book banning, and its modern social-media equivalent.—Janet Hutchings

How political should an author be in public? There’s a lot of rancor in the country today. It’s on social media. It’s in public places. It’s in the air. Many people are up in arms about the country’s immigration policies and Supreme Court appointments, among other things. Many writers spout off about these and other issues on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. And often when one person disagrees with another the flame wars and defriendings begin.

I generally tend to keep my opinions to myself, at least on social media. I see posts I agree with and others I vehemently disagree with. But I don’t think I’m going to change anyone’s mind and they’re not going to change mine, so mostly I keep quiet. Nor do I see any point getting into flame wars. In my younger, wilder days, I loved to argue. Hell, I got into my share of physical fights. But these days I’m older and “wiser”. And my wife, Amy, has calmed me down to some extent. But there’s still part of me that yearns for the good fight. That said, I’m not sure the Internet is the place I want to make that stand. It reminds me of people yelling at each other from the safety of their cars. It’s easy to flip someone off from behind your windshield. Much harder to do to their face, with no safety glass between you. So I’m not opposed to a good discussion, but that’s not what seems to happen on social media.

I’m also a free speech absolutist. I believe people should be able to say pretty much anything they want to. I remember the days when people on all sides said things like, “I might not agree with what you say but I’ll fight for your right to say it.” That seems to be a dying sentiment. And I believe the antidote for speech you disagree with is more speech, not defriending someone because you don’t like what they’re saying. People are too quick to unfriend. You can try arguing your point, but what’s the point of unfriending someone? Isn’t it good to see another point of view? And isn’t it good for the other party to be able to see your POV too?

While I’m constantly seeing people on FB, the social media outlet that I use the most, talking about how they defriended someone for this or that reason, I’ve never defriended anyone because of their opinion. But I did get defriended one time for something I put up. A couple of years ago around Christmas I put up what I thought was a funny, satirical video and song, The Season’s Upon Us, by the punk band the Dropkick Murphys, about families at Christmas. One of my FB friends got extremely offended by it and reamed me out in private e-mails. I apologized to her three separate times, saying I certainly didn’t mean to offend her—but I wouldn’t remove the video from my timeline. She defriended me. Other than that one time I don’t know of anyone who’s defriended me for anything I’ve posted.

I find it both sad and scary that discourse has become this vitriolic and contentious. It seems very overheated. In real life—people I know in person—I have friends from all sides of the spectrum. Sometimes we agree to disagree and don’t talk politics when we’re together, yet we still maintain our friendships and liking of each other. Other times we argue the hell out of issues. And yet again we maintain our friendships. I’ve lost friends because of one reason or another, but I don’t think I’ve ever lost a friend because we disagreed about political issues. So, I don’t mind arguing issues, I’m just not sure social media is the hill I want to die on.

All that said, my books and characters often deal with issues that we recognize from the real world. One of the most interesting things, to me, about my novels White Heat and Broken Windows, its coming sequel, is that, though they’re mystery-thrillers and take place in the 1990s, the issues they deal with, racism and immigration, respectively, are still things that top the news today. You know what they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same. I think that reading these books gives us an insight into things that are happening today through the prism of the recent past and in the form of mystery-thrillers. And when I wrote them I was concerned that people would be turned off for one reason or another. I did add an Author’s Note warning people: “Some of the language and attitudes in the novel may be offensive. But please consider them in the context of the time, place and characters.” Today we’d call it a Trigger Warning. I don’t mind doing that as long as no one stops me from saying what I want to say. So I’m not averse to dealing with controversial subjects, I just don’t see the point of spending my time arguing about them on social media. Of course one doesn’t want to get too polemical or hit people on the head with a sledge hammer in our books either. Nobody wants to be preached to.

Banning friends because one disagrees with their opinions seems similar to banning books because we don’t like what they say. Do we really want to limit what people can read—or say? I don’t think we should ban books, either the Communist Manifesto or Mein Kampf, to use two examples from opposite poles, and I don’t think we should ban friends. I mean, from the “now I’ve seen everything department,” someone wanted to ban Where’s Waldo?. And don’t forget that when John Steinbeck wasn’t nice to Kern County they wanted to ban The Grapes of Wrath.

If we start censoring and defriending each other or engaging in flame wars, it’s like censoring books. Think of all the books you might not have seen because someone censored them, and you don’t have to like what they say but at least they’re out there.

Here’s just a partial list of banned books from the ALA and the reasons for their banning.

  • Adventures of Huckleberry Finn — Mark Twain — Coarse language, racial stereotypes and use of the word N word
  • The Adventures of Tom Sawyer — Mark Twain — Coarse language; racial stereotypes
  • All the King’s Men — Robert Penn Warren — Depicting a “depressing view of life” and “immoral situations”
  • Always Running — Luis J. Rodriguez — Gang violence, drug use and sexual references
  • An American Tragedy — Theodore Dreiser — Sexual content; abortion; murder
  • Animal Farm — George Orwell — Political (Communist) commentary
  • As I Lay Dying — William Faulkner — Dealing with issues of death; abortion
  • Black Boy — Richard Wright — Themes of Communism, racism and atheism
  • The Bluest Eye — Toni Morrison — Themes of racism, incest and child sexual abuse
  • Brideshead Revisited — Evelyn Waugh — Themes of homosexuality, alcoholism, infidelity
  • Bridge to Terabithia — Katherine Paterson — Allegations that the book promotes secular humanism, New Age religion, occultism, and Satanism
  • The Color Purple — Alice Walker — Offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
  • Fahrenheit 451— Ray Bradbury — Obscene language, references to smoking and drinking, violence, and religious themes
  • Friday Night Lights — H. G. Bissinger — Obscene language, sexual content, and racism
  • Go Tell It on the Mountain — James Baldwin — Obscene language, explicit sex, references to masturbation, rape, violence and sexism
  • Gone with the Wind — Margaret Mitchell — Several uses of racial slurs, the book’s portrayal of slavery, and references to rape
  • Goosebumps (series) — R. L. Stine — Supernatural themes, violence, and encouraging disobedience
  • The Grapes of Wrath — John Steinbeck — Portrays Kern County, California in a negative light
  • The Handmaid’s Tale — Margaret Atwood — Sexuality, profanity, suicide, violence, anti-Christian themes
  • Harry Potter (series) — J. K. Rowling — Unsuited to age group, witchcraft, religious viewpoint, anti-family, darkness/scariness/violence, and for “setting bad examples.”
  • Heather Has Two Mommies — Lesléa Newman — Homosexuality
  • The Holy Bible — various — Religious viewpoint, violence
  • The House of the Spirits — Isabel Allende — Sexual content
  • The Hunger Games — Suzanne Collins — Religious viewpoint, unsuited to age group
  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings — Maya Angelou — Sexually explicit
  • In Cold Blood — Truman Capote Violence — sexual content, and obscene language
  • Invisible Man — Ralph Ellison — Obscene language and sexual content
  • The Naked and the Dead — Norman Mailer — Obscene language
  • Naked Lunch — William S. Burroughs — Sexual content
  • Native Son — Richard Wright — Violence and sexual content
  • Nineteen Eighty-Four — George Orwell — Pro and Anti-Communist views, sexual content, and violence
  • Of Mice and Men — John Steinbeck — Offensive language, racism, violence
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest — Ken Kesey — Obscene language, violence, and references to mental illness
  • Ordinary People — Judith Guest — Obscene language and sexual content
  • The Outsiders — S. E. Hinton — Anti-religious content
  • The Pillars of the Earth — Ken Follet — Sexual content, and references to violence toward women
  • A Prayer for Owen Meany — John Irving — Anti-religion and criticism of the Vietnam War
  • Private Parts — Howard Stern — Sexual content
  • Rabbit, Run — John Updike — Sexual content
  • Slaughterhouse-Five — Kurt Vonnegut — Sexual content, anti-religious content, violence
  • Song of Solomon — Toni Morrison — Sexual content, beastiality, and racism
  • Sophie’s Choice — William Styron — Sexual content
  • Sons and Lovers — D. H. Lawrence — Sexual content, and incest
  • The Things They Carried — Tim O’Brien — Violence, animal abuse, obscene language, and criticism of the Vietnam War
  • A Time to Kill — John Grisham — References to slavery, rape, and the text includes racial slurs
  • To Kill a Mockingbird — Harper Lee — Offensive language, racism, unsuited to age group
  • Tropic of Cancer — Henry Miller — Sexual content
  • Twilight (series) — Stephenie Meyer — Religious viewpoint, violence, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
  • Ulysses — James Joyce — References to masturbation
  • Where’s Waldo? — Martin Handford — Nudity
  • The Witches — Roald Dahl — Misogyny, encouraging disobedience, violence, animal cruelty, obscene language, and supernatural themes
  • Women in Love — D. H. Lawrence — Sexual content and misogyny
  • A Wrinkle in Time — Madeleine L’Engle — Supernatural themes, and religious themes

I don’t want to see these or any books banned for their opinions. And I’m not saying don’t be political or express your views, but allow others to have their POVs too, even though you might find them distasteful. So maybe we can live and let live. We don’t have to agree but we don’t have to defriend either. And maybe it’s best to remember what your mother taught you, don’t talk politics or religion in polite society.

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“I Solve the Mystery of my Confessions” (by Bill Pippin)

Last week I posted about production changes in the publishing industry over the past few decades; this week author Bill Pippin talks about how he got his start, and what publishing was like from an author’s perspective several decades ago. Bill had stories in EQMM in 2010 and 2017, and we have a new story from him scheduled for 2019. He is the author of an historical narrative of Potter County, Pennsylvania, Wood Hick, Pigs-Ear & Murphy, and many short stories for other publications. For sixteen years, he also instructed new writers at the Long Ridge Writers Group.—Janet Hutchings

When I was about ten, inspired by stories I read and loved, I began making up my own stories. Until I was fifteen I wrote these stories down in notebooks. Then one day my dad saw a magazine ad for a Remington portable typewriter and sent away for it. Owning a typewriter had never entered my head, but maybe Dad was prescient. Presenting it to me in its businesslike gray case, he said simply, “A writer needs a typewriter.”

I quickly taught myself to hunt and peck. The professional looking result spurred me to invest in some Number 10 envelopes and send the manuscript to a magazine. I don’t recall which magazine, but I do remember the story being quickly rejected. Which somehow didn’t deter me.

I continued mailing my stories regularly to magazines I was familiar with: Saturday Evening Post, Esquire, Argosy, Bluebook, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, any publication that published the sort of stories I loved to read and write: spine-tingling stories featuring intrigue, mystery, and suspense.

Although my stories were consistently rejected, I kept writing and submitting them. Until, miraculously, a letter of acceptance came from a magazine called Savage. The editor offered me $75 for a blood-and-guts Western I’d sent him: “I’ll Live to Kill You, Ward Moolin.”

Did success go to my head? I was nineteen. I figured within six months—maybe sooner—my name would be a household word.

I wrote a plethora of stories after that—even a long novel. After reading that novel, one crusty literary agent wrote to inform me I’d broken some sort of record. He didn’t think anyone with so little to say could possibly write over 100,000 words saying it. It took a couple of years without another acceptance for me to decide I needed to take my writing in a new direction.

An ad in Writer’s Digest caught my eye: Modern Romances, owned by Dell Publishing, was hungry for confession stories. I’d never read any confession stories. I thought those confessions were true, made by loose women with a need to reveal their darkest secrets. I bought a copy of MR and read the first story. Then I wrote a similar story and sent it to MR.

Shockingly, it was rejected. Only this rejection slip wasn’t like others I’d received, saying my story didn’t suit their needs or whatever. A real person had actually typed it on a torn sliver of paper. I didn’t mind the strike-overs because the reader detailed what was wrong with my story. Why it didn’t work. What specifically it needed to make it work.

For example, I needed a sympathetic character the reader could identify with vicariously (I looked up vicariously in the dictionary); a central problem that wasn’t trite and led to strong conflict; believable obstacles that entangled the first-person narrator more deeply in her problem.

And a credible plot.

Thirteen MR rejections later, I zeroed in on that plot thing. I could do all the other stuff fairly well, I was being told, but when it came to plotting a story it was hit or miss. Mostly miss.

I bought a book called Writing the Confession Story by Dorothy Collett. The main thing about plotting, in her view, was having a compelling idea to structure the plot around. Dorothy Collett described the ten elements that comprised the typical confession story. Following her game plan, I wrote a story set in the deep South about a young woman whose lover is attacked by a lynch mob. Because of the young man’s background and other carefully planted plot details, the mob believes his illicit affair with the girl amounts to rape.

I sent the story off and a week later MR’s managing editor Dan Senseney shot me a telegram offering $350 for “The Fury of A Mob.” A telegram!

I got a little carried away in my euphoria. The next confession story I wrote was over twice as long. Again set in the deep South (I’d once lived in the Carolinas), it featured a teenage narrator whose abusive backwoods pap makes potent moonshine. After a shootout with the Feds, Pap goes crazy from lead poisoning, resulting from drinking his own swill, and his daughter lands her lover boy. MR sent me a check for $600 for “The First Touch of a Boy’s Lips.” Due to the excessive length, MR published the story as a two-part serial.

I still didn’t fully understand what I’d done to achieve this success. Both stories had strong plots, but what else? Over time it came to me: although my stories featured the requisite titillating romance, the engine that made them run was conflict. Conflict resulting from intrigue, mystery, and suspense. I’d written the sort of stories I loved in the form of confessions.

Still, my writing continued to be hit or miss for several years. I’d sell a confession story on occasion, always sending it to MR first. If MR rejected it, I sent it to True Confessions, True Story, then Secrets. Some stories wound up at obscure confession magazines further down the totem pole. I even sold an occasional story to a men’s magazine like Rascal or Jaguar, or a thriller to Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine. But I continued to rack up more rejections than acceptances. It was one thing to develop a strong plot, quite another to find a fresh idea for the next plot.

Even though I mostly wrote confessions, I still read stuff I loved: stories in Ellery Queen, Alfred Hitchcock, and Mike Shayne Mystery Magazines, mystery story anthologies and mystery novels. When I read John Godey’s crime novel, The Three Worlds of Johnny Handsome, I was captivated by its originality: a criminal has plastic surgery in prison, and the operation for a disfiguring cleft palate not only changes his appearance, it changes his personality.

Something clicked. In a blaze of inspiration I wrote a confession story about a man who marries a young woman with a severe cleft palate. His wife is attractive in other ways: she’s good-natured with an appealing personality, generous and affectionate. But that cleft palate is a bummer. The male narrator adores his wife and finally saves enough money to pay for an expensive operation that will make her face as lovely as the rest of her. But as a result of the successful surgery, men suddenly find the narrator’s wife desirable. She changes, grows vain, flirtatious, fickle, leading the narrator to cheat. “Marriage on the Rocks” sold to MR for $350.

If you’re thinking I plagiarized Godey’s novel, I beg to differ. What I did was isolate the essence of his idea and create my own plot around it. I used none of Godey’s actual words. “Marriage on the Rocks” bore no resemblance to The Three Worlds of Johnny Handsome.

I began reading mystery stories and novels with my antenna out for additional plot ideas. I grew so confident in my ability to plot salable stories consistently, I quit my day-job. As a full-time writer, I needed to write a confession story a week and sell most of them. Not easy. I worked seven days a week. Working from an outline, I’d type the first draft, edit it, then my wife Zona would type the final draft. All on that Remington portable.

While Zona was typing, I’d search for a new idea. In my quest for a steady flow of plot ideas I read voraciously: Dear Abby and Ann Landers columns, various newspapers, and mysteries, loads of mysteries. John D. MacDonald, a master of the mystery genre, became my go-to writer. His female characters were vividly drawn and often I gave my male narrators traits similar to Travis McGee’s. Frequently MR published two of my stories in the same issue, one from a male POV, one from a female POV.

Alas, in the mid seventies the popularity of confession magazines faded. My heroes at Modern Romances, editor Henry Malmgreen and managing editor Dan Senseney, retired. Dell sold the iconic magazine to Macfadden Bartell. Since Macfadden Bartell paid on publication rather than on acceptance, I could no longer send a story out one week and receive a check the following week. For a freelance writer living hand to mouth, this was the kiss of death.

Needing a real job, I gravitated to advertising. I spent over twenty years writing advertising copy, working my way up to copy chief, creative director, vice-president. When I retired I started writing a memoir, then set it aside to write what I loved most—stories featuring intrigue, mystery, and suspense. When you love your work, it’s not work.

Posted in Fiction, Guest, Publishing, Writers, Writing | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

CHANGES TO THE PROCESS

In a recent interview for the blog SleuthSayers, I was asked, “What does a typical work day for you look like?” I replied that there is no typical day. And there really isn’t anymore. There are reading days and issue-release days, days devoted to special projects, days when social media (such as this blog) soaks up a lot of time, letter-writing days and editing days, days spent crafting an issue—deciding what should be included and how it should all be put together—and days spent at conventions, writers conferences, and so forth.

The question got me thinking about how fluid my days have become. If I’d been asked this question a couple of decades ago, before we had fully converted to desktop publishing and the other technological innovations that have given us control over the production process, my answer would have been different.

Up till the mid 1990s, magazine production was a process with rigid deadlines and little margin for error. All of our text was set in type by a typesetter in another state. Edited manuscripts had to be delivered strictly to schedule, by parcel service. I can recall many evenings bent over the desk in my office with one eye on the clock, rushing to make the last pickup. When proofs were returned to us, we had only two opportunities to make corrections (with the second round of corrections frequently drawing acerbic complaints from the typesetter). The next stage was what were known as “mechanicals.” The typesetter would return all of the text to us on shiny, high-contrast paper, pasted onto what were known as “boards,” with everything positioned according to our instructions. At this point, we proofed most of the issue again, not only for the positioning of each page’s content but also for any typographical errors we might have missed earlier. But any mistakes we found at this juncture could be corrected only by a junior member of the art department equipped with an X-Acto knife. He would meticulously cut out each wrong (eleven-point!) letter, then cut the correct letter from a stack of old boards and paste it in the gap, trying to align it perfectly with the rest of the word. It was an excruciatingly slow process and since there was only one person to do it and four magazines going to the printer on the same day, we had to be very economical in the changes we made. (Not to mention getting in line for the X-Acto knife wielder before the other magazines, if we could!)

We had our final look at the issue, and our last chance to make corrections, when the printer sent us “bluelines”—prepress photographic proofs made from the mechanicals. Any changes made at this stage not due to a printer’s error were charged for at a high rate, and usually required justification to management.

How different this is from today, when all type is set in-house and we frequently make several dozen corrections immediately before the magazine goes to the printer in what is called “camera-ready” form, meaning in files that are ready to go to press without the printer’s intervention. Even in the days of mechanicals and bluelines, EQMM’s release days were never like the image old Hollywood movies used to give of deadline pandemonium at press time, but then, as a monthly magazine composed almost entirely of short fiction, we have never had many time-sensitive features that require last-minute preparation and placement. Still, prior to desktop publishing there was always an element of tension in the knowledge that we had to get things right the first time, and that we had to be ready to spot any printer’s errors—of which there were many in those days, since so much of the work was done by hand. The two worst missed printer’s errors that I can recall were an upside down spine and a switching of the final pages of two different stories. The latter still haunts me, since one of the tales was a first story and the author’s relatives had ordered around a hundred copies.

Desktop publishing and other technological innovations have brought their own problems, of course, and eat up chunks of our work time in other ways. For one thing, the number of errors in manuscripts submitted to us has grown exponentially. This may seem strange, given that everyone is equipped with programs such as spell checkers, but we are now in the era of endless revision and it has become extremely common for people not to proof their revisions—and therefore to leave parts of revised sentences in when they meant to delete them or accidentally delete what was intended to stay. We can usually figure out what was intended, but I find I’m more often having to write to authors to clarify such things nowadays than before. It used to be (at least at our magazine) that when a manuscript was submitted to a publisher, it was considered by the author to be finished, except for any changes the editor might require. Now I find that a large percentage of our writers continue to work on stories they’ve submitted to us while they wait for our decision. This can create all sorts of problems for us. First of all, the revised story must be reread to make sure it’s still acceptable to us; secondly, we may already have decided on a space for the story at the time of acceptance, based on its word count. If the count alters significantly, our planned use may no longer work. There’s also a much greater chance that errors will occur in the final version of the magazine if revisions not specifically asked for by us have to be incorporated. Occasionally, I will edit a manuscript immediately upon acceptance. If a revision is submitted subsequent to that, the changes have to be pieced in, increasing the possibility of mistakes slipping through. For all of these reasons, I’d like to take this opportunity to make a plea to writers: Submit to us only what you consider a finished story. And if you must make changes, let us know immediately.

Personal computers and desktop publishing have, indisputably, been a good thing for the publishing industry—though I clearly recall the fierce resistance in our own company when management insisted on the transition. There is a drawback from our side (as publishers), however, in that it has made us more complacent. Knowing we can always make a correction at a later stage has made us less careful, our eyes less sharp. From the authorial side, it seems to me the technology’s chief disadvantage may be never allowing a writer to consider a work finished.

What do you think?—Janet Hutchings

Posted in Editing, History, Magazine, Publishing, Writers | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

“I Use Sherlock Holmes’s Methods—and Triumph” (by Terence Faherty)

Terence Faherty has contributed more than two dozen stories to EQMM over the past twenty years. They range from entries in his popular Owen Keane series (whose 1990 debut novel, Deadstick, was nominated for an Edgar) to new cases for his post-WWII private security op Scott Elliott (whose most recent novel, Play a Cold Hand, is currently nominated for a Shamus Award) to his Star Republic stories (the most recent for EQMM currently nominated for the Macavity Award) to a yearly Sherlock Holmes parody for our annual Sherlockian Issue (January/February). It’s Sherlock Holmes who was irresistibly brought to the author’s mind by the (true) incidents described in this post.—Janet Hutchings

On a recent Sunday morning, my wife and I went to our local Cracker Barrel restaurant for breakfast. I carried along our Sunday paper, still in its red plastic delivery sleeve. Unfortunately, we were seated at a two-top table, rather than a more spacious table for four, which is much better suited to reading a Sunday paper. Determined to make the best of this difficult situation, I emptied the sleeve, sorted out all the ads and circulars, and stuffed those back into the red plastic, which I placed at my feet.

Shortly afterward, my reading was interrupted by the arrival of the waitress. My wife, who had been perusing her menu, placed her order. I ordered from memory, after observing, mildly, that I hadn’t been given a menu. The waitress apologized and left.

Some little time afterward, my wife said, “Are you sure you weren’t given a menu?”

I’ve long been a student of Sherlock Holmes’s methods of deductive reasoning. This appeared to me to be an opportunity to put those methods to use. I devoted myself to a few minutes of quiet ratiocination, at the end of which, I reached down and produced the red sleeve. Sorting through its contents, I soon produced the missing menu. My wife was astonished—perhaps even dumbfounded.

There was no time then to explain my complex chain of reasoning, for at that moment our breakfasts arrived. After placing the plates before us, the waitress asked if we needed anything else. I replied, mildly, that I hadn’t been given any silverware. The waitress apologized and left, returning a moment later with a knife, fork, and spoon wrapped, in the Cracker Barrel fashion, in a paper napkin secured by a paper tab.

We enjoyed an excellent breakfast, though I noticed, when I happened to look up from the newspaper, that my wife appeared to be slightly distracted. Sure enough, after we’d finished and paid and were leaving the restaurant—along with our newspaper, now reunited with the circulars in the red plastic bag—she said, “Are you sure you weren’t given any silverware?”

It would have been easy to have despaired of solving this new problem on the short walk to our car. Luckily, I had also worked hard to emulate Holmes’s famous powers of observation. They enabled me to perceive a suspicious bulge in the side of the newspaper sleeve. It was the work of a moment for me to produce the missing silverware, still wrapped in its protective napkin.

Leaving my wife standing speechless in the parking lot, I reentered the restaurant, where I presented my trophy to the hostess with a flourish. She was astonished—perhaps even dumbfounded.

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

May, June, July 1958

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“Things that Drive Crime Writers CRAZY” (by Melodie Campbell)

Last week, all three of Dell Magazines’ mystery fiction editors—Linda Landrigan, editor-in-chief of AHMM, Jackie Sherbow, associate editor of EQMM and AHMM, and I—were interviewed on SleuthSayers, a blog by and for “professional crime writers and crime fighters.” In exchange for our interviews, a call went out to regular SleuthSayers contributors to blog for our sites. EQMM was delighted to receive this post from Melodie Campbell (known on SleuthSayers as Bad Girl). Called the “Queen of Comedy” by the Toronto Sun, the Canadian author has won nearly a dozen crime-fiction awards, including the Derringer and the Arthur Ellis. She is the past Executive Director of Crime Writers of Canada and the author of a number of highly regarded crime novels. Her short fiction has appeared in AHMM and other publications; EQMM readers will have seen stellar reviews of her Goddaughter series in The Jury Box.—Janet Hutchings

I’m a crime writer.  Hell, I’ll put on my other hat (the one with the pointy top) and say it.  I got my start writing comedy. Standup and newspaper columns, with the odd (very odd) greeting card thrown in.

I have a certain amount of legitimacy, in that The Toronto Sun called me “Canada’s Queen of Comedy.” Apparently, someone on staff there likes “wild and loopy.” Which may call into question their sanity as much as mine, but I digress.

I now write comic capers (the Goddaughter series). This is because I made the biggest mistake ever made by a person not legally insane.

Way back when we all had pet dinosaurs, one of my plays was performed in Toronto (Burglar for Coffee.) It may have been a bit zany. A television producer happened to be in the audience. After the show, he came up to me and said, “You are completely nuts. How would you like to write pilots for me? You’ll need to move to California.”

I had two toddlers at the time. And I’m Canadian. No way could I see how I could move to California. So I said no. Besides. It was 1993. Who had ever heard of HBO?

As I said, the biggest mistake ever made by someone not legally insane.

So I turned to a life of crime. Okay, writing crime capers. I come by that legitimately, but that’s another blog post. (How to Write Mob Comedies Without Getting Taken Out by The Family. And you thought I was kidding. . . .)

Which brings me to the point of this blog: suspension of disbelief.  I’m willing to admit that as an audience, we might agree to “suspend belief” for a little while. As a writer, I do it regularly. As a reader and viewer, I delight when someone takes me into another world.

But enough is enough. Crime fiction and television, you go too far. CSI Hoboken, or wherever you are, take note. Here are some things that drive otherwise fairly normal crime writers (oxymoron alert) crazy:

  1. Crime scene people in high heels and raw cleavage.

Of all the things that television distorts, this is the one that bugs us the most.  Ever been on a crime scene?  Ever been in a lab?

For six years, I was Director of Marketing for the Canadian Society of Medical Laboratory Science.  I’ve been in a freaking lab or two.  Take it from me: it ain’t a place for date-night shoes and long, loose hair.  You want my DNA messing with your crime results?

Network producers, stop treating us like ignorant adolescents who need to be sexually charged every single moment. Stop. Just stop. It’s insulting.

  1.   Gunshot victims who give their last speech and then die, kerplunk.

Full disclosure: I was also a hospital director. (Strange, I know. Comedy and healthcare. But believe me, the ability to laugh under pressure is what keeps us going in hospitals.)

People who get hit with a bullet to the heart die, kerplunk.  They aren’t hanging around to give their last words. People who get hit in the gut may take many hours to die. It’s not a pretty sight. Take it from me. They usually aren’t thinking sentimental thoughts.

  1. Where’s the blood spatter?

If you stab someone while they are still living and breathing, there is going to be blood spatter.  Usually, that spatter will go all over the stabber.  So sorry, creators: Your bad guy is not going to walk away immaculate from a crime scene in which he just offed somebody with a stiletto.  You won’t need Lassie to find him in a crowd, believe me.

  1. Villains who do their “Fat Lady Sings” pontification.

Why does every villain delay killing the good guy so he can tell the poor schmuck his life story?  I mean, the schmuck is going to be offed in two minutes, right?  You’re going to plug him.  So why is it important that he know why you hate your mother and the universe in general?

Someday, I am going to write a book/script where one guy gets cornered and before he can say a word, this happens:

<INT.  A dark warehouse or some other cliché. >

BLAM.

The smoking gun fell to my side as Snidely dropped to the floor.

“Dudley!” gasped Nell.  “You didn’t give him a chance to explain!”

I yawned.  “Bor-ing.  All these villains go to the same school.  You heard one, you’ve heard them all.”

“Isn’t that against the law?” said Nell, stomping her little foot. “Don’t you have to let the bad guy have his final scene?”

BLAM.

The smoking gun fell to my side as Nell dropped to the floor.

Posted in Characters, Fiction, Guest, Police Procedurals, Pop Culture, Readers, Writers, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 21 Comments

“Damaged Goods, Great Detective” (by Louisa Luna)

A San Francisco native who now lives in Brooklyn, Louisa Luna is the author of four novels. The most recent, Two Girls Down (Doubleday), was released to rave reviews in January of this year.  In this post the author discusses a type of heroine we commonly see in current crime fiction—a type of figure that it seems to me we find in her first story for EQMM, which appears in our July/August issue (on sale now).—Janet Hutchings

My mother-in-law, who reads far more thrillers than I, frequently tells me that she can’t stand a flawed female lead. “I hate it when they can’t get their shit together,” she says. And I always say something like, “But that’s what makes them real!” The last one we spoke about was The Girl on The Train, which drove her right up the wall. “Ugh, she was such a mess,” she said, referring to Rachel. Indeed she was, but, I argued, a mess in whose reflection a reader could see herself. A bad-decision-making, hard-drinking, drunk-dialing mess who triumphs in the end and solves the mystery. “I guess,” my mother-in law conceded, remaining unmoved.

Granted, she and I ultimately read for different reasons: she (as she freely admits), to be entertained, and I, to feel stuff. But there is a level on which I agree with her: Need the women of my favorite thrillers and suspense novels be so damaged, have had such terrible childhoods and lug around one or more weighty secrets? Was there an unacknowledged checklist for authors when creating their women detectives? As the author of a thriller with an imperfect but Wüsthof-sharp female PI, I decided to take a look at two of my favorites and see if I could find a through-line.

Flea Marley appears alongside Jack Caffery in five books of Mo Hayder’s series. The first time we meet her, in Ritual, she’s under water. Now I don’t have an MFA or anything but that sounds like a metaphor to me. As it turns out, she is a Sergeant for Bristol’s Underwater Search Unit, and in those opening pages she finds a severed hand which revs the engine of Hayder’s main plot. She also begins speaking to her dead mother, cries, and then stops “until the tears had gone somewhere safe, and she knew she wouldn’t . . . make a fool of herself when she surfaced.” Hayder, pro that she is, hooks us with her b-plot, Flea’s story, in a one-two punch, fourth page.

Flea’s background slowly emerges. We learn she comes from a family of divers, that her parents drowned not long before in a diving accident in which her brother was the sole survivor and then a little later, she confesses to purposely grinding her feet in broken glass to get out of joining the dive because she was afraid to do it. After her parents don’t make it back, their bodies never recovered, Flea, needless to say, feels just a smidge guilty.

Regret and guilt taint every cut of her life going forward, manifesting most notably in her ongoing flirtation with death. As she admits to Caffery, “The only way you could make amends would be to die yourself—to die more horribly and in more pain and fear . . . you would die their death a million times over rather than feel one more second of that guilt.” So there it is, the full bulk of what Flea feels every day. And on top of it she worries compulsively about her fragile troubled brother, and later she also dabbles in ibogaine, a potent, naturally occurring psychedelic drug so she can communicate with the ghosts of her parents. You know, regular girl stuff.

But she is a knock-out at work. She’s so good, in fact, that even in the midst of all her personal shit, she can’t turn her brain off from analyzing the case, even when she’s not supposed to. Her job is just to dig out the body parts, even though she claims “one thing she never did was think about the cases. No curiosity, no theorizing. It was a rule she had,” she swiftly breaks her own rule and provides clues which lead her and Caffery to solve the crime.

As she and Caffery close in on their man, it is precisely Flea’s guilt which propels her forward. Faced with the option of following Caffery into an ominous corridor carved into the walls of an apartment building or waiting for back-up, Flea remembers her brother and parents and knows what she has to do: “. . . she pictured Bushman’s Hole, remembered letting Thom go down. She thought about the dark water . . . and a sensation like air rushed through her, like something rising up from inside her and cracking. She . . . caught up with Caffery in the corridor.” The sensation, that thing that is cracking, is the physical manifestation of her regret. She won’t let herself be in the position to regret acting this time.

Tana French’s books are mosaics of fantastic characters and Russian-nesting-doll plots. The most recent, The Trespasser, is no exception and the protagonist is a piece of work, a female detective carrying multiple chips on her shoulder, Antoinette Conway. The trespasser of the title is ostensibly the murderer of the young single woman in the case Antoinette is investigating, but it’s also her, herself, the sole woman in the Murder Squad, and a woman of color to boot. Antoinette first faces hazing from her male colleagues which quickly leads to consistent harassment, sustaining lesson after lesson that her kind isn’t welcome. But Antoinette toughs it out and learns to survive: “If I learned one thing in school it’s this: you never let them get you on the bottom of the pile. If you do, you might never get up again.”

As we read, we learn that Antoinette’s father abandoned her and her mother when Antoinette was a child, though at this point, Antoinette doesn’t seem to give too much of a shit about it. The event appears to have been smelted into the armor she wears on a daily basis, as her anger simmers just beneath the surface at all times, for example when she considers sticking it to the brass: “For a second I can feel it right through my body: the weight of the room lifting off me, the rush of strength hitting every cell like oxygen: Let’s see you try and push me around now motherfuckers.”

As she attempts to solve her case, she clashes with her partner, Steve, a genuinely nice guy and one of the only people she trusts. He lays out how her take-no-prisoners attitude could backfire: “You’re so set on going down in flames, you’d make it happen even if the entire force loved you to bits. You’ll light your own bloody self on fire if you have to.” Perhaps, as Steve suggests, being a super-ballbuster isn’t the most productive way to do police work, or operate in the world. Such an M.O. might lend itself to self-sabotage.

Warning: Spoilers follow, but you should probably just keep reading.

Antoinette finally meets her father after she discovers him spying on her (another trespasser!), and he offers to tell her everything she wants to know – about him, why he left, her history. She considers it but then thinks again: “If I let him give me the answers, he’ll own me. Everything in my life, past and future, will be his: what he decides to make it into.” She decides it’s ultimately better not to know anything about that side of her. She gives into her anger and kicks him out, refusing to let him define her.

And it’s the same thing that leads her to find and accuse the murderer, a senior detective in her squad. She catches a glimpse of her life at work easing up if she plays ball: “If I keep my mouth shut, then they’ve put their hands on me and knotted me into someone else, living a whole different life . . . [they] will be running me and my every day after all . . . I owe this case.”

She owes the case and she owns the case, her contrariness, her stubbornness, her bottomless anger driving her to fight. She’s just as angry at the conclusion as she was at the beginning, but now it has a purpose, it is the means by which she will uncover the truth.

Both Flea and Antoinette keep their baggage; they use it a bit differently, but it drives both of them in their work.

We would perhaps not want our female detectives to be so damaged. We would perhaps want them to be, or at least appear, stronger. Especially at this moment when men just seem to be taking their penises out all over the place, we like to fantasize about how our difficult women would handle such a situation (preferably with tasers or say, a bench vise). But it’s these same wounds which make them strong, and I don’t mean in a “Whatever doesn’t kill you” way; I mean that the damage itself is the strength. The brains and the pain, the hysteria and the hunches, the instinct and the rage—both things together, neither one causal, both side by side, resulting in stories and characters that simultaneously entertain a couple of broads like my mother-in-law and I, and make us feel stuff, too.

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“A Talent for Historical Accuracy” (by Thomas K. Carpenter)

Thomas K. Carpenter’s first paid print publication was in EQMM’s Department of First Stories in February of 2015. The story featured an ancient Roman sleuth,  Magistrate Ovid, working in Alexandria. The Magistrate Ovid series now includes a story for AHMM, as well as several novels. Its latest entry appears in EQMM’s July/August issue, on sale next week. In this post, the author, who works in a variety of genres, discusses some of the challenges of historical fiction—a form that EQMM’s founder, Frederic Dannay, once called the most difficult of all for a writer.—Janet Hutchings

Historical fiction can be tricky business, especially when it involves a mystery. The tiniest incorrect detail can undermine the plot, derailing the story off a literary cliff. These pitfalls are even harder to find when the history in question is a few thousand year ago.

Before I delve into my foibles, let me give you some background. The July/August 2018 issue of EQMM will contain the newest Magistrate Ovid story, “The Lightness of Man.” This story and the others published in EQMM and AHMM are about a Roman magistrate in ancient Alexandria. Ovid, after surviving his time as an officer in the Roman Legion, is given charge of the Rhakotis district, the poorest district of the city, a place with no political sway, which leaves him at the mercy of his Machiavellian superior—a man who has no love for him from their time in the Legion.

The location of the stories, ancient Alexandria, provide a wealth of interesting backdrops with the Great Library, the Lighthouse at Pharos, or the Tomb of Alexander, and famous personages in Euclid, Heron, Caesar, Cleopatra, or Hypathia. It’s a region with a clash of cultures between Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, and dozens of other peoples others drawn by the city’s significance.

Yet for all these happenings there is still so much we don’t understand about the time. When exactly did the fire in the Great Library happen, or was it more than one event? Was Alexander’s body stolen from his tomb, and by whom? What did the interior of the Lighthouse look like?

Then there are the minor things, the bits of culture accruement, the detritus of daily life, that escape the historical writer, not due to a lack of research but to a lack of translation in understanding. In one of the early stories involving Magistrate Ovid, a story that never saw the light of day due to one of these mistakes, the crux of the mystery depended on a unit of coinage—the talent.

All forms of currency are essentially a unit of economic measure. In our modern times, we have the dollar, or peso, or for the technological risk-takers: the bitcoin. As I constructed the mystery, I imagined the talent as a gold coin like any other—after all, it was the unit of currency that described the early constructions of Alexandria. The Lighthouse of Alexandria cost 800 talents (which is about $3,000,000 in our time) to build.

What I failed to understand was that a talent was not a single coin. It was, in fact, the amount of gold coins that could be contained within a clay jar. Rather than a piece of currency that could be hidden in a pouch, or in the folds of a stola, the talent required two hands to carry, and let’s not even consider if multiple talents were integral to the plot (hint: they were).

Thus the carefully constructed mystery fell apart. Much as a clay jar full of gold coins would if you dropped it.

Thankfully, good readers, I did not encounter any such troubles in the latest Magistrate Ovid story, “The Lightness of Man.” While the details about the interior of the Lighthouse at Pharos were difficult to find, there were enough writings that an adequately representative picture could be surmised, and nothing that I uncovered that would derail the plot. Anyway, people tend to drive the conflicts contained within a story, and while the clothes and coinage has changed over the last two thousand years, ambition and greed have not. So please, pick up a copy of the July/August 2018 issue of EQMM (or better yet, a subscription!), and enjoy another thrilling and insightful adventure with Magistrate Ovid.

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