Passport to Crime Fiction (by Josh Pachter)

Over many decades, Josh Pachter has been an invaluable contributor to EQMM as a writer, anthology editor, translator, go-to person for information on EQMM’s history, and general friend of the magazine. When I heard that he would be traveling and teaching mystery and crime fiction courses in Europe this fall, I asked him to do a post for this site about his classes, his adventures, and the EQMM authors he visited. I’m sure you’ll enjoy this account of his past few weeks and the many photos of people whose work you’ve seen in EQMM.  And I raise my own glass to Josh’s toast at the end. —Janet Hutchings

(Laurie and I on the way Amsterdam)

Regular readers of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and “Something is Going to Happen” may remember that I’m a big fan of golden anniversaries. (If you don’t, see “Looking Back on a Half-Century Love Affair With EQMM” and “Fifty Years After the Fair.”)

Well, this August I completed my fiftieth year in what was when I began the education business but has over time devolved into the education business, and I celebrated by retiring from my faculty position at Northern Virginia Community College’s Loudoun Campus. I was worried about making the transition from full-time teaching to not teaching, though, so I decided to ease into my retirement . . . by looking for a one-semester half-time position somewhere in Dutch-speaking Europe.

In the 1980s, when I lived for several years in Amsterdam, I translated a couple of Janwillem van de Wetering’s Grijpstra and De Gier stories for EQMM. Twenty years later, when Janet Hutchings launched the magazine’s “Passport to Crime” department, she asked me to find and translate more stories by Dutch writers, and I was happy to introduce readers to Theo Capel, René Appel, Carla Vermaat, and Tessa de Loo. In 2011, I decided to branch out a bit and Googled my way to Bavo Dhooge, a Flemish writer who in the first ten years of his career produced over sixty novels—and has since added more than forty more! Flemish and Dutch are not the same language, but they’re very similar—and, since only about two million people can read Flemish while twenty-two million read Dutch, most Flemish authors write in Dutch.

Through Bavo, I met and subsequently translated more of Flanders’ crime writers—Bob Van Laerhoven, Hilde Vandermeeren, Bram Dehouck, De Paepe & Depuydt, Pieter Aspe, Dominique Biebau—and, when Laurie and I visited Bavo in Ghent in 2015, we fell in love with the city, which is almost as charming as the much better known (and therefore much more crowded) Bruges.

(With Bavo Dhooge in Ghent)

(With Herbert De Paepe and Christa Verspeeten in Ghent)

So when the University of Ghent invited me to spend the fall of this year teaching two courses (as opposed to my usual five), I jumped at the chance. They offered to cover my airfare, give me a furnished visiting-faculty apartment, and pay me enough of an honorarium to keep me in Trappist beer and fine chocolate for the length of my stay. In return for that, I would teach a masters-level course in “Writing Short Crime Fiction” on Monday afternoons and a bachelors-level course in “Reading Short Crime Fiction” on Tuesday mornings, with about twenty students in each group. That meant I’d have a five-and-a-half-day weekend every week, which would give me plenty of time to enjoy traveling around northern Europe.

I don’t usually teach either creative writing or literature. (To be honest, I’m not really sure it’s possible to “teach” creative writing.) For the last fifty years, I’ve taught a range of communication-studies classes, mostly interpersonal communication, public speaking, and film appreciation. So I spent most of the summer figuring out how the heck I might make courses in writing and reading short crime fiction worth my students’ while.

The writing class was the easier one to develop. A couple of years ago, Dutch author René Appel and I co-edited the Amsterdam Noir anthology for Akashic Books’ “City Noir” series. (I have, by the way, translated several of René’s stories for “Passport to Crime” and one for AHMM, and we collaborated on a story called “A Woman’s Place” for EQMM.) When I pitched the idea of a Ghent Noir volume to Johnny Temple, Akashic’s publisher, he agreed that he would in principle be interested in a Ghent addition to the series, so I structured my writing class around the idea that each of my twenty students would spend the semester writing a crime story set somewhere within the Ghent city limits, with the five best stories forming the core of Ghent Noir. And, if there turned out to be more than five worthy stories, I could propose the others to Janet as possibilities for “Passport.”

(The Begijnhof, the setting for “A Woman’s Place,” which Rene and I co-wrote [EQMM Sep/Oct 2017)

For the reading class, I put together a PDF file divided into ten chapters, one per week of the semester. Chapter topics included “The Origins of Short Crime Fiction” (Poe, Conan Doyle, Chesterton), “The Golden Age—The Ladies” (Christie, Sayers, Allingham), “The Golden Age—The Gentlemen” (Queen, Carr, Boucher), “Private Eyes” (Hammett, Chandler, Estleman), and so on. Many of the stories I included had to be typed from PDF sources, and I spent long days at my keyboard transcribing them and adding footnotes explaining unfamiliar Americanisms and Britishisms to the file’s more than nine hundred pages.

I should note that many of the authors I included are well known to the readers of EQMM, such as Stanley Ellin, Art Taylor, Brendan Dubois, Barb Goffman, and David Dean. Because the majority of my students would be Flemish, I also included a selection of my “Passport” translations. (I actually speak Dutch and offered to teach my courses in that language, but because UG also welcomes international students, I was asked to teach in English and to limit the readings to English-language material.)

So, Laurie and I flew to Amsterdam on September 8 and spent two weeks visiting some of our favorite places in The Netherlands (where we had breakfast with René Appel) and Belgium (where we met up with Herbert De Paepe, who has contributed two stories he co-wrote with Els Depuydt and one solo story to “Passport to Crime,” and his girlfriend Christina). On the 24th, we returned our rental car, Laurie flew back to the US, and I took a train south to Ghent to begin my fall semester.

(With René Appel in Amsterdam)

My first class session was on Monday afternoon, September 26, and when I walked into the classroom I found, to my horror, not the twenty creative-writing students I’d been told to expect but fifty-four of them! Then, the next morning, my twenty-student literature class turned out to have forty-four students enrolled.

(My “Writing Short Crime Fiction” class)

(My “Reading Short Crime Fiction” class)

There go my five-day weekends, I realized. Instead of tooling down to Paris and other fun destinations, I was going to be spending a lot more time grading short-story drafts from one enormous group of students and critical reviews from another almost-as-enormous group of students than I’d been led to expect.

I did, however, go back to Amsterdam for my first five-day weekend (since my apartment wasn’t going to be available until early October) and stay with the very talented Christine Otten and her family; Christine hasn’t written a story for “Passport to Crime” yet, but she had a chillingly dark one in Amsterdam Noir. And I was also able to meet two-time EQMM contributor Anne van Doorn for a couple of cappuccinos at a sunny café in Hilversum, a pleasant town half an hour from the city.

(With Christine Otten and her husband Hans Krikke in Amsterdam-North)

(With Anne van Doorn in Hilversum)

Even after the student assignments started coming in, I was able to have some fun during my three months in Belgium. Kurt Sercu (who runs the world’s most extensive website dedicated to Ellery Queen) invited me to spend a weekend at his and his wife Martine’s beautiful home in Sijsele, a village just a few miles from Bruges, and took me on a guided walking tour of that city’s less touristed neighborhoods. Several of my colleagues and I took a “field trip” across the Belgian/Dutch border to the little town of Philippine, which is (deservedly!) famous for its mussels. Laurie came to visit me in Ghent for a couple of days in November, and then the two of us took the Eurostar to London for a long weekend (at the end of which I had a delightful lunch with EQMM contributors Paul Charles and Tom Mead). “Passport to Crime” author Dominique Biebau showed me around the charming city of Leuven. And I did a Memory Lane weekend in Nürnberg, where I lived for eight years during the 1980s and where my daughter Rebecca K. Jones (herself an EQMM contributor and, earlier this year, debut novelist) was born.

(with Kurt Sercu in Bruges)

(With Kurt and Martine on the Belgian coast)

(By the giant mussel statue in Philippine with colleagues)

(Dominique Biebau in Leuven)

(With Paul Charles and Tom Mead in London)

(With Laurie in London)

Meanwhile, three of the Flemish authors I’ve translated for EQMM guest-lectured in my classes: Els Depuydt talked with my creative-writing students, Herbert De Paepe talked with my literature students, and Bavo Dhooge visited both classes. (And I had very pleasant dinners with each of them.)

(Interviewing Els Depuydt in my writing class)

(Herbert De Paepe talking to my Reading Short Crime Fiction class)

As if all that didn’t add enough EQ flavor to my overseas adventure, it was while I was in Ghent that Crippen & Landru published The Adventures of the Puzzle Club, which collected for the first time all five of Frederic Dannay’s and Manfred B. Lee’s Puzzle Club stories plus all five of the Puzzle Club pastiches I wrote over the past few years for EQMM. The book’s byline, “by Ellery Queen and Josh Pachter,” was a mic-drop moment for me, bringing me at age seventy-one all the way back to the teenager I was in 1966, when Mary Ryan, my ninth-grade English teacher, introduced me to the pleasures of what I have since come to think of as the EQniverse, a universe of which I have been a very happy citizen for fifty-six years . . . and counting!

Speaking of counting: it’s late November as I write this blog post, and I am counting down the days until I finish my semester at the University of Ghent and return to Virginia to begin my delayed retirement.

Although I won’t be teaching for pay any more, I intend to continue offering enrichment courses in crime fiction and film history as a volunteer for the Lifelong Learning Institute of Chesterfield County and the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Richmond.

I also intend to continue editing collections of short stories, translating Flemish and Dutch authors for “Passport to Crime,” and writing new stories of my own.

I figure I’ve probably got a few thousand miles left on my tires, and I plan to keep on driving as long as my engine holds out and the scenery remains interesting.

Happy holidays, everyone! If you’ve got a beverage close at hand, I hope you’ll raise a glass and join me in wishing for peace on Earth and good will towards all creatures great and small!

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The Big Trouble With Writing Comedy (Michael B. Hock)

Michael Hock’s debut story, “The Artisan-Cheese Incident” appears in EQMM’s current issue, November/December 2022. It’s a comic mystery—a type of story we don’t very often see, although, as the author points out in this post, there are some natural affinities between comedy writing and mystery writing. A recent MFA recipient in fiction at George Mason University, Michael has previously had a few comedy pieces published, so he speaks from experience with regard to both forms of writing. —Janet Hutchings

Comedy is subjective. The idea of subjectiveness and comedy sounds like an undeniable truth, such as “the sky is blue,” “grass is green” or “the rival team to my favorite sports team doesn’t play quite as well as mine, and if they do, they cheat.” These statements themselves have their own paradoxes to them. After all, the sky is blue only a portion of the time; grass, while green, tends to be greener on the other side; and your favorite sports team had a losing record for the past four seasons and it’s probably time to realize that they’re well past their “rebuilding year.” Thus, these statements themselves lend themselves to their own subjectiveness.

Perhaps the only real factual statement might be that comedy comes in threes.  

My first story for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, “The Artisan-Cheese Incident” is funny. At least it is supposed to be, we’ll get to that in a minute. I’ve always enjoyed making people laugh, whether it’s through a quick joke, a well-intentioned pun—and your puns should always be intentional, folks—or through the written word. It wasn’t until a few years ago I had even thought of combining comedy writing with crime or detective stories. But it makes sense. After all, a mystery is inherently funny. There are misunderstandings. Things that might be puns if you examine them just right. And the success of a mystery story, like the success of a good joke, depends on the cleverness and unexpectedness and even the timing of the ending. But unlike a punchline, there are variations to just how a story might end. It could be comedic, such as the aforementioned misunderstanding, like everyone thought the heiress was killed, but she was merely on vacation. It might be tragicomic, like the heiress was killed while on vacation, but through a series of odd circumstances. Or it might be tragic, such as the heiress goes on vacation without informing anyone and returns safe, and the detective hired to find her killer is not paid.

The preceding paragraph includes three examples, and thus is the very definition of comedy.

The novel that made me realize that crime and comedy could make a winning combination is the 1999 novel Big Trouble, by noted comedy writer and to that point not noted crime novelist Dave Barry. In fact, until that book, he had been known mostly for telling stories about Florida, albeit in ways that are supposed to be funny. Again, we’ll get to all of that in just a minute. The novel involves a mysterious suitcase, some Russian arms dealers, the FBI, some police officers, a shady company, someone who should have known better than to steal from a shady company but did it anyway, some criminals in way over their heads, a toad, some teenagers, and an author surrogate, which every debut novel should include.

While I do realize that there are other comedy crime novels and this is not a new thing, this was the first one that really grabbed me and made me consider just how comedy could work in the crime novel. After all, this book, while taking us through the weird world of Florida crime, still dealt with the issues of “what would happen if a nuclear bomb accidentally fell into the hands of the stupidest people on earth.” Which are pretty heavy issues, not ones that lead to comedy. After all, there’s a bomb, which isn’t very funny, but it’s given to someone who’s very stupid, which is always funny.

The previous sentence only involved two examples, and thus, it’s not clear if that sentence was particularly funny or not.

What grabbed me about Big Trouble was the way it managed to weave the comedy so deftly into the crime itself. One of the more exciting scenes involves an assassination attempt on Arthur Herk, a shady man who does shady work for an even shadier place of employment. The use of shady three times here was an attempt to portray how much shadiness is in this novel, not necessarily an attempt at comedy on its own, but you’re more than welcome to find it funny if you’d like. Regardless, during this assassination attempt, his daughter is about to be “assassinated” herself. Jenny is involved in a game in which teenagers spray each other with water guns as part of a game. This leads to the hilarious misunderstanding in which the real hitmen accidentally run into the fake, teenage “hitmen.”

It’s the blending of the two realities that leads to the comedy, for me. On the one hand you have the very serious idea of this guy who’s about to be killed. He’s unsympathetic, which might make his death hilarious to some, but at that point in the book we’ve only seen that he’s kind of stupid and hasn’t quite reached the full potential of being fully a jerk who might deserve to die. This is largely because at this point he is yet to purchase the possibly nuclear MacGuffin that would draw our many characters together. What works is the heightened reality in which the teenage hitmen . . . hit boys, maybe? . . . work. They are coming from a place just as serious as the other hitmen. After all, teenage popularity might be just as important, if not more so, than skimming money from the shady company that one works for, which was Arthur Herk’s crime. And they are right to be as nervous. They are not only not supposed to be there, but they are very afraid of the same things the other hitmen are worried about, namely that someone in the house is armed (As Barry notes, this is South Florida). Also, one of the boys has developed a crush on his target, Jenny, which makes his “assassination” of her merely awkward teenage flirting. It is not clear at this point if the regular hitmen hate Herk, Florida, or both, but the tension is much more heightened, which only adds to the comedy of the fake hit boys.

What Barry does that works so well is that he treats this moment of comedy extremely seriously, and he uses this particular scene to fully demonstrate why they work together. Both groups are deadly serious—the worlds of shady corporate espionage and high school having their own very high stakes. However, to one group the assassination is a game and to the other it’s a dark moment of real danger. This is a moment that happens very early in the novel—spoilers for an almost twenty-year-old book, I guess—but lays out just how comedy is going to work in this crime novel. Mostly that there will be something serious that happens layered on a similar comedic moment. It works because it takes something that we may not relate to, but then loops it into something we can, and then makes a joke. The real hilarity here coming in the fact that at this point, both groups are wildly unsuccessful. Herk goes on to live, and Jenny remains “unassassinated” by the rules of the game. This is early in the book, so there’s plenty of time to correct both things later. But it’s also comedy in reminding you that these people committing the crimes aren’t exactly the smartest. Barry treats these moments with a clarity that everything is serious, right up until the point that it’s not

Which may be the thing that defines comedy writing more than anything. Not only that it comes in threes, but that most things are serious, right up until the moment that they’re not.

Before I go into my final paragraph, I wanted to point out that I used these interludes that talked about how comedy comes in threes exactly three times before this—which is funny—but here I am pointing it out in a fourth—which means it’s not. Make of that what you will.

That’s where the intersection of comedy and mystery works so well. It’s all serious. The crimes being committed, the detectives figuring it out, the mystery itself being something elusive. Right up until the moment that it’s not, and there’s an absurdity to it that everyone has to admit. In Big Trouble, a very serious moment is broken up by the fact that it’s very unserious people involved in every step. But that’s also where the subjectiveness comes in, and that’s the line that comedy writers have to walk. Sure, it’s funny. But is it funny to everyone? Often times writers spend a lot of time crafting a joke, but once that period hits the page, it turns out to be just a regular sentence. That’s an impossible task, because as mentioned, just like the color of grass or your favorite sports team or the sky being blue, comedy is going to be subjective. What you can do is show audiences just what being funny is by contrasting it with what’s not supposed to be funny. Reminding people of what comedy might be, because the alternative can be too serious.

Of course, sometimes it’s just a good reminder that you have to laugh.

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THANK YOU FROM EQMM!

We’re grateful for you!

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Me, Myself, Nor I (by Andrew Riconda)

Andrew Riconda’s short fiction has appeared in a variety of literary journals and crime-fiction publications, including The Amherst Review, The William and Mary Review, Crimespree Magazine, Criminal Class Review, and Rio Grande Review. One of his stories was selected for The Best American Mystery Stories 2011. He’s a recipient of a Bronx Council on the Arts BRIO Award for 2021. In this post he discusses the inspiration for his debut story for EQMM, “If I Could Walk My Brother Into the Deep Woods,” which appears in EQMM’s current issue (November/December 2022), as well as other sources of inspiration that writers may want to try tapping. —Janet Hutchings

One of the most famous lines in The Catcher in the Rye is its first, the one about “all that David Copperfield kind of crap,” the personal stuff Holden is not willing to share much of with us because it would give his folks “two hemorrhages a piece” if he did.

My parents would’ve been solidly in the hemorrhaging camp.

Let me give you a little last week, late night autobiography:

On the eve of the publication of my first story for EQMM, I had this dream: I am at a place I used to write at in NYC, The Writers Room, but, of course, it’s not that place; it seems to be an airport hangar. I’m pushing my writer’s desk to a sunny spot on the floor amenable for great wordsmithing, but I push too hard and fast and the desk bumps into another writer’s desk, a pretty librarian type, and knocks the urn containing her father’s ashes to the ground. She’s angry, I apologize, and she says, “Now you’re standing in him!” I sheepishly start to pick up her dead dad’s particles, but then the ashes and the linoleum beneath become quicksand and my left foots begins to sink. I ask the writer if she wants me to continue to collect her dearly departed’s dust (I am often polite to a fault, that’s my way), and she says, “No, I’ll just sue you—and your family,” and points to my right where my late mother has materialized only to remain mute on the entire subject (and that was her way). At that point, the Executive Director of the Writers Room shows up (for the last thirty years, she has been the big sister Mom and Dad refused to give me), and, deus ex machina, proclaims, “She will not sue.” (It would’ve been better, of course, Donna, if you had said, “She shall not sue.”)

The dream should’ve ended there (there was something about me having to drive Diane Lane to her matinee performance of Annie; I assume she was playing Miss Hannigan), and I could’ve jotted off a snotty Thank You note to my psyche for allowing me to so blissfully enjoy publication day.

I do not think I have to invent a therapist of Dr. Melfian proportions to interpret. It goes without saying that I’m proud of the story’s inclusion in this venerated magazine, but I think it’s also clear I have some of the same misgivings about picking the delicate fruit from the family tree—even though Mom and Dad, and the brother and aunt depicted in the story are all deceased. (The aunt, it should be noted, was as quadruple-hemorrhage proponent, for years saying if I ever wrote about her she would haunt me from beyond the grave; this has not come to pass unless you consider me still receiving Verizon FiOS offers in her name the best she can muster from the Beyond.)

So what do you do if you want to (or, dear Lord, have to) borrow from your own life for the fictional ones you create? Well, first, you wait for all your closest relatives who will take issue to pass way. Done? Good!

But wait: Maybe you’re too impatient for that. Then what? Well, there are several approaches that have worked for me, some easier than others.

THE STALE BREAD APPROACH—

Stale bread doesn’t have to be just for the birds, it’s great for stuffing, too. An old anecdote from your father’s childhood, or his mother’s (like the one week she worked at Macy’s in Manhattan and got fired because two men walked right past her and out the door with a canoe they hadn’t paid for), can be a great place to start.  You are such removed from the events, they may be more readily accessed with less fretting than the more personal stuff (like that sonuvabitch McDonald’s manager that made me count ice cubes in the freezer one night). I recently used my grandfather, whom I never had the pleasure to be acquainted with, in such a manner. He was a professional baseball player, and during a game he got into a spiking war with Ty Cobb and they both got kicked out of the game.  

Perhaps getting your feet wet in this manner will allow a progression to it being almost all about you elsewhere:

THE MY BROTHER-IN-LAW IS AN IDIOT APPROACH—

Are you now ready to dip further into the autobio pool? I would suggest starting at the shallow end, the family members you hate. Your brother-in-law, he’s always been a bit of a jerk, right? Maybe he thinks boiled eggs should be broken at the big end rather than at the little end or he thinks Roger Moore was the better James Bond, whatever.

You can set off to capture the absolute scurrilous and contemptible with reckless abandon—enjoy! And perhaps you are secure in the knowledge that your subject is an illiterate and you know there’s no way he or she will ever encounter a New Yorker or Harper’s even in a doctor’s office, let alone some obscure literary journal you’ve warted with their, ah, wartiness.

And you may come out of your righteous rancor surprised. I workshopped a borderline sociopath of a brother-in-law story once, only to find my audience found him more sympathetic than the family he intends to kill over Thanksgiving dinner. That certainly wasn’t my intent; yet, the result was more satisfying. Again, it would seem I wasn’t really making it all about me.

Of course, the closer you get to home, the dicier this all gets. As the poet Hans Gruber said, “Sooner or later I might get to someone you do care about.”

And there are two approaches to try here: Be Honest. Or Lie Like Hell.

 THE LIE LIKE HELL APPROACH—

This one is also called the “I always tell the truth, even when I lie,” per another poet, Tony Montana. Some of my first-draft readers have commented that the fathers I depict are a rather unsavory lot of cheats, liars, and scoundrels and I must’ve had a heck of a home life.

My Bad Dads are indeed based on my father, but in a very different way than conjectured. My dad was a wonderful, kind human being with heart bigger than all outdoors—and much of the indoors, too. (Mom, you were aces too, FYI). So, what do I do when I need an appalling pop on paper? I think what my father would do and say, and then I have the fictional louse do the exact opposite.

THE HONESTY IS THE BEST POLICY (BUT DON’T BEAT IT TO DEATH) APPROACH—

My EQMM story is a “brother’s keeper” story, a fictional distillation of many actual encounters I had with my eldest sibling, who battled with schizophrenia for many, many sad years. I was designated to be my brother’s keeper by my parents’ will (literally), but had been handling those duties for years anyway—it was expected of me from everyone, including myself. I often felt alone in this legal and moral conservatorship. But he was there, too, my brother, and a certain amount of resentfulness festers within the kept as well as the keeper. It’s that tension that I wanted to write about. But it was all so close, and so recent . . . and my brother may be gone, but I’m not. So, I opted for a sort of snatch and grab approach, get in and out, hoping concision wouldn’t derail feeling. Brevity is the soul of wit, but I hoped it could work for the somber stuff, too.

Onward and inward:

THE FUTURE IMPERFECT TENSE ME APPROACH—

I’m in the midst of a Love in the Age of Covid story right now, and the protagonist is a good-looking, witty fella named Andrew Riconda. Well, I thought he was the protagonist. After rereading the latest draft, I’m thinking he’s perhaps the antagonist. And a bit of a worm at that. But we’ll see how it goes: I hope at least his creator tries his best to be an honest worm in his rendering.

Perhaps all of these above were not so much approaches, perhaps they were more rungs of a ladder taking me closer and closer to something. I heard David Duchovny paraphrasing Neil Simon on Real Time with Bill Maher recently: It’s all autobiographical, even the stuff I make up. Maybe so, and maybe when you get to the last rung of the fictional ladder you’re face-to-face with nothing more than a mirror. So, is it ever really me, myself or I? I dunno. In the movies, when they still made movies about people, they used to say, “inspired by true events.” Inspired, that word gives us a lot of leeway for the truths and alt-truths we create about ourselves. So much so, it’s rather inspiring.

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Fancies Decently Fresh (by R.T. Raichev)

R. T. Raichev is an expert on Golden Age-style mysteries whose articles related to the genre have appeared on this site several times. This time, he turns his attention to the authors Edmund Crispin and P. D. James, discussing a stand-out story from each. A spoiler warning is in order here, as the plot of each story is discussed in detail. R. T Raichev’s own short stories appear in EQMM frequently. This year’s July/August issue contained his story “Sweet Death,” an entry in his series starring mystery writer Antonia Darcy and her husband, Major Payne, characters who have also been featured in several critically acclaimed novels. We have another story in the series coming up in 2023.  —Janet Hutchings

One 19th century critic reviewing the Sherlock Holmes stories wrote, “In view of the difficulty of hitting on any fancies that are decently fresh, surely this sensational business must soon come to an end.” What the critic was prophesying was nothing less than the imminent demise of the mystery genre—despite the fact that the latter had only just evolved and was proving extremely popular with the public. Even more surprisingly, the critic seemed to regard the Sherlock Holmes stories—the very same stories that were causing copies of the Strand magazine to sell in record numbers—as the genre’s swan song.

It was a truly extraordinary prophecy, foolish and presumptuous and doomed to remain unfulfilled. More than 150 years have passed since the inception of “this sensational business,” i.e., of the mystery genre, and stories involving crime and detection are more popular than ever. There have been duds, inevitably, but the best examples of the genre have had the power to puzzle, bamboozle, charm, amuse, amaze, hold in suspense and provide intellectual stimulation to generations of readers—and they continue to do so.

The two short stories I have chosen to discuss have more than fifty-five years between them. They are both strikingly original, they stay in the mind and, considered as “fancies,” they remain more than “decently fresh.”

Edmund Crispin’s “Who Killed Baker?” was first published in London’s Evening Standard in 1950. It appeared in book form in 1979, in the collection Fen Country. While seeming to fit perfectly in the traditional whodunit mould, complete with clues, red herrings and some clever misdirection, it is also a trick story, an ingenious exercise in reader manipulation and a witty post-modern jeu d’esprit. It has been condemned by some as “gimmicky” and as an “anti-crime story”—charges which would have delighted its author who was famous for his mischievous sense of humor.

Edmund Crispin was the pseudonym of Robert Bruce Montgomery (1921-1978), an English crime writer of some note who was also a composer. Crispin took an academic interest in the genre and reviewed detective stories for the Sunday Times. His oeuvre encompassed nine novels and two collections of short stories, all of which he infused with his own brand of whimsical comedy and erudite literariness. He was, in the words of Julian Symons, one of the “farceurs.” The other farceur was Michael Innes—real name J.I.M. Stewart—whom Crispin’s greatly revered. Indeed “Edmund Crispin,” the pseudonym he chose for himself happens to be the name of a character in Innes’s 1936 novel Hamelt, Revenge. As we can see, meta playfulness has been one of the hallmarks of Crispin’s detective fiction from the very start of his writing career.

The story’s very title—”Who killed Baker?”—must be one of the most unusual strategies of deception in the history of detective fiction. What it does is plant the idea in the reader’s mind that they are reading an orthodox whodunit in which a character called Baker is killed and that the point of the story is to discover the identity of Baker’s killer. Up to a point this is true—but not entirely.

What we get is a story within the story which opens with a post-prandial gathering of academics, discussing—over walnuts and stuffed dates—the superiority or otherwise of philosophy over criminology. Professor Gervase Fen is one of those present. Fen is Crispin’s serial sleuth, though in this particular instance his role is confined to that of a raconteur. And it is a role he plays very cleverly indeed. How cleverly we only realize when we reach the denouement and it dawns on us that, had the story been told differently, had there been no emphasis on the question in the title and had the phrase “the body” been substituted with one containing more specific information about the victim’s identity—well, then there would have been no mystery at all.

But Fen plays it fair. He warns the company that “it’s a case in which the mode of telling is important—as important, probably, as the thing told.” He also says that “the situation which resulted in Baker’s death wasn’t in itself complicated or obscure.”

The dramatis personae are paraded for our inspection starting with the eponymous Baker who is paunchy, wears dandified clothes and has “black, heavily brilliantined hair”. He is the owner of a toy-making business; he is wealthy, self-important and something of a sadist. He doesn’t seem to have a single redeeming feature which, in keeping with the genre’s conventions, makes him the perfect whodunit victim.

Baker’s wife Mary is young and attractive, with a “Rubensish” figure and she is bullied by Baker. At the time of the murder she is having an affair with their chauffeur Snow. A reference is made to the 1935 cause celebre involving Alma Rattenbury, whose young lover killed her husband—and readers are left to wonder whether perhaps a similar fate awaits Baker.

The fourth person staying at the house is Baker’s business rival Eckerson. The reason for the latter’s visit is to discuss a possible merger of his business with Baker’s. We are told that Eckerson is obstinate but only in business matters—apart from that his personality is entirely colourless—which seems to be reflected in his physical appearance—he is an albino. We hear that Eckerson and Baker “antagonized each other from the start.” Thus Erickson is also added to the list of possible suspects.

The body is discovered by the Bakers’ cook Mrs Blaine who catches a glimpse of it through the drawing-room window, lying in the shadow of the fireplace. She immediately notices the dark, veinous blood streaking the hair. The murder weapon is later revealed as a kitchen knife, which was aimed at the jugular vein but is found to be “innocent of fingerprints.” A burglary has been staged, rather amateurishly, clearly in an an attempt at creating a smoke screen.

It is not a hard case to solve and within twenty-four hours the police have made an arrest. As for the question, Who killed Baker? the answer is: the public executioner. (This is 1950s England and capital punishment is still very much in evidence.) Baker was found guilty and subsequently hanged for the murder of Erickson, his business rival.

This denouement is met with a howl of rage from one of Fen’s companions. Fen admits that it is a trick story, though he points out that ample warning has been given. The story was told in a way which only suggested that Baker was the murder victim. Clues were provided, such as the cook seeing the dead body through a window and spotting blood on the hair—but Fen had made it clear that Baker’s hair was dark and heavily brilliantined—so no blood would have shown on it, certainly not when glimpsed from a distance—ergo the body couldn’t have been Baker’s. Erickson, on the other hand, was an albino and, as everybody knows, albinos’ hair is notoriously white . . .

“Who killed Baker?” revolves round one deceptively simple question on which the story depends for its ultimate effect. It is a bold experiment in story telling which manages to be at once devious and scrupulously fair. It is sui generis, one of its kind. It employs a single very specific and very ingenious idea as a fulcrum for its plot. It delivers its coup in a way that can’t be replicated in any subsequent performances.

                                      * * * *

The characters in P.D.James’s “The Part-time Job’ also operate in the shadow of the hangman’s noose. The story is set in 1953, the year of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, though it was written in the new millennium and published in 2006 (in the anthology The Detection Collection ed. by Simon Brett). It is interesting to note that the characters are the same age as James who was born in 1920.

P.D. James needs no introduction. At the time of her death she was the doyenne of English crime fiction and was often referred to as the Queen of Crime. She penned nineteen novels, two collections of short stories (which I personally prefer to the novels) and three books of non-fiction. She must have been at least 85 when she wrote “The Part-time Job” and one can’t help admiring the clarity, incisiveness and general excellence of her prose in addition to the mesmerizing insights she provides into the troubled mind of the anonymous narrator.*

The story is an exquisitely composed, ghoulishly macabre, morally ambiguous account of a revenge served very cold. It is a first-person narrative that takes the form of a posthumous confession. The  anonymous narrator informs us that by the time we read this, he will be dead. He then explains that he resolved to kill his tormentor, Keith Manston-Green, when he was 12 and that he managed to achieve his ambition at the age of 33. (Which happens to be Jesus’s age when he was crucified. One is left wondering whether this should be seen as an instance of James’s penchant for dark irony.)

We learn that the narrator and Manston-Green were at school together. Manston-Green was a bully who terrorized his victim mercilessly for years. As though in passing, we are also told that while working at the family locksmith business later in life, the narrator had a part-time job, the same part-time job as his late father’s. The revelation of what the part-time job involves is in fact the big surprise at the end of the story.

We become privy to the narrator’s thoughts and actions—to the meticulous planning that goes into committing the perfect crime and how he contrives to derive the the most visceral of satisfactions from it. (In this respect the story is similar to such classic tales of revenge as Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” and Maupassant’s “Vendetta.”) While we may sympathize with the narrator for the terrible bullying he suffered, we are also disturbed by the display of so much murderous hatred, the harboring of such long-term grievances and by the obsessive, single-minded, indeed manic, pursuit of revenge that involves the killing of an innocent person.**

The narrator carries out his plan patiently, systematically and with clockwork precision. He starts by sending anonymous messages to Manston-Green—each containing “the same insinuating poison”—taunting him over his young wife’s alleged infidelity. This leads to public rows between Manston-Green and his wife, which is as the narrator intended. He then bludgeons the wife to death with one of the bully’s golf club and makes it look as though it was Manston-Green who did it in a paroxysm of extreme jealousy.***

Some readers may ask, if he got away with the wife’s murder so effortlessly, why didn’t he just bludgeon the bully to death instead? Wouldn’t that have been more satisfying and more certain than going through the tremendous effort of setting up Manston-Green for murder—hoping without being sure that the jury would find him guilty and condemn him to death?

The answer is no. Simply eliminating his bully wouldn’t have done. Earlier in the story we are told that in 1939, at the start of the war, the narrator—only 19 at the time—feared that Manston-Green may be killed in action and that he may be remembered as a hero—an idea he found “intolerable.” His aim was to “make Manston-Green suffer over months of protracted agony”—while waiting for his execution—just as the bully had made him suffer for years.

In the last two pages of the story we finally learn that his part-time job, so far only enigmatically alluded to, is that of a public hangman. It is he—the narrator—who puts the rope round Manston-Green’s neck, thus fulfilling his ultimate goal, his lifetime ambition. He informs us that he is “a meticulous craftsman,” as was father before him, that he is “highly experienced.” What makes his joy complete is the certainty that Manston-Green has recognized him—he sees it in his eyes—in the one second before he slips the white hood over his head and pulls the lever.                                                                                      

The narrator’s anonymity adds a chilling undercurrent to our perception of him since it conjures up the idea of the dangerous, nameless stranger some of us fear. It also affords an opportunity for the reader to project themselves into the narrator’s shoes more effectively. Anyone who may have been bullied and may have wanted to exact revenge gets their chance to do so, vicariously, by reading this story.

*Compare to the sad muddle of “The Harlequin’s Tea-set,” the last short story Agatha Christie ever wrote when she was in her early 80s.

** This is not the first time P.D.James has written about a character’s obsession with revenge. Her novel Innocent Blood (1980) is about a father who plans to kill the woman who killed his young daughter. Her short story “The Victim” (1973) is concerned with a wronged husband who plots—“systematically and with dreadful pleasure”—the murder of the man who stole his young wife away from him.

 *** The idea of a murder being committed for the sole purpose of implicating another person and making him suffer for it is not new. It was used at least twice by Agatha Christie, in her novels Murder is Easy (1939) and Towards Zero (1947). It is interesting to note that the cover of “The Part-time Job”—published as a separate booklet in 2020 to mark what would have been P.D.James’s 100th birthday—is similar to to the first-edition cover of Towards Zero, in which the murder weapon is also a golf club. Both covers show a stylized drawing of a golf club.

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The Bliss of Ignorance (by Charlotte Hinger)

In EQMM’s current issue, author Charlotte Hinger returns after an absence of nearly thirty years. In the intervening time she’s had stories published in a number of anthologies, and she has just won the Gold Medallion at the Will Rogers Medallion Awards for her story “The Book Mama,” which was published in the Gale/Cengage (Five Star) anthology Librarians of the West. Her Christmas story “Lizzie Noel,” in EQMM November/December 2022, draws on knowledge she gained through her husband owning a livestock trucking business. The following post should be heartening to new and aspiring writers.  —Janet Hutchings

I had a tremendous advantage when I began my writing career. I was dumb and isolated, living on the Western Kansas prairie married to a truck-driving husband (a bull hauler) who was gone a good deal of the time.

No one told me it was hard to get published and almost impossible to get an agent. No one told me it was hard to write a book and even harder to write a short story. I never had heard a discouraging word

I learned all about writing and the business of writing through Writer’s Digest and books borrowed from Interlibrary Loan. Even though I had no formal training and had never had a creative writing course, I had this insane desire to become a writer. Writer’s Digest, of course, was irrationally encouraging. It was how they sold magazines.

My initial experience with writing was harsh. When I was in the fifth grade I wrote my first short story. My teacher called my parents.  My father lectured me about the sin of plagiarism. Despite being hurt and bewildered, my gut response was “gosh, I must be good,” because I certainly did write the story. That episode put the idea in my head that I could become a writer.

I had loved the journalism classes I took during my two years of college at Kansas State University. Nevertheless, becoming a fiction writer seemed as exotic as becoming a tight rope walker or a trapeze artist. It simply was out of the reach of mere mortals. There were no writers in Plainville, Kansas, nor did I know anyone who wanted to become a writer.

As is the case with most writers or wannabe writers, I was an avid reader. I read all of the time. Loving the written word is the most important foundation for publishing.

I picked up my first Writer’s Digest at the local public library. The articles therein assured me publishing was a snap. It was all a matter of perseverance. Then I discovered interlibrary loan and the plethora of books about writing. Through the magazine articles and books, I learned everything I needed to know about publishing and marketing books. The most valuable information was about submitting material.

The first short story I submitted, “Alone At Night” was accepted by Overdrive, a magazine for truckers who were owner-operators. They paid me $35.00. I will never ever forget the thrill of that first sale. The second story also was accepted.

However, the publisher called after receiving the first short story to make sure I had actually written it. This took place long before the internet existed and there was no way to easily determine if material had been copied. Somewhat miffed, and flashing back to the fifth grade, I assured him it was my own work. I enjoyed my fame in the trucking community and reveled in receiving substantial money for a story in published in Woman’s World.

Through the years, despite the demands of coping with three daughters while Don was on the road, slowly, tentatively, I tip-toed toward the possibility that I could write a book. Of course, you can Writer’s Digest assured me.

I developed a plan. I would write five pages a day, five days a week no matter what.

I finished that first novel. It was a semi-gothic and grounded in Kansas history. It wasn’t very good. Nevertheless, I finished it and by then I knew I didn’t want to write gothics, but historical novels. The process taught me a lot about constructing a book. Ironically, pathetic as that novel was, I received four responses from agents. Negative, but encouraging.

After twenty years of marriage, my husband bought the truckline. By that time I had finished a lengthy historical novel, Come Spring, and had published a number of historical articles and more short stories. I took the novel with me to Western Writers of America and was thrilled to meet professional writers for the first time.  A wonderful lady, Jeanne Williams, recommended me to her agent, Claire Smith, with Harold Ober Associates, who agreed to represent me.

Claire sold Come Spring to Simon & Schuster. Subsequently, there was a paperback sale to Warner Books and it was a selection of the Reader’s Digest Book Club.

I ascended to another level of ignorance. I didn’t understand how the publishing world worked. I didn’t promote well. I learned that by the time one understands marketing processes it’s too late.

I certainly didn’t understand the importance of writing the next book immediately or that it was better to stick with a genre. Thrilled when Poisoned Pen Press began publishing the Lottie Albright series I ended up writing mysteries, historical novels, and academic articles, with a number of short stories mixed in.

Then to complicate matters, I fell in love with the African American town of Nicodemus, Kansas and decided to finish my college degree and then to pursue a masters so that I could write an academic book. As usual, I knew nothing about that process either. Nevertheless, my thesis committee was enthusiastic about my work, then Oklahoma University Press published my book about Nicodemus, and Five Star published a historical novel about the founding of that town.

Now I’m facing a new challenge that is shared by everyone in publishing. The volume of books published every year has skyrocketed. Marketing by any means is overwhelming. It can also be very expensive. Every week, writers’ conferences beckon.

Sadly, beginners no longer have the luxury of thoughtfully developing their craft in isolation. They are bombarded with excessive and ruinous information. There’s a plethora of writing groups and scalpers all too eager to offer advice.

Everyone will start smarter than I was. But the learning curve will be shorter and less painful.

I hope neophytes leave groups that make them ashamed of their writing but accept criticism that will strengthen their work. Most of all, I wish them the joy of becoming a writer.

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“A Waterfall of Stories: 10 Exciting Books by Authors of Color” by Manju Soni

Manju Soni, who writes under the pen name M. J. Soni, is a former eye surgeon turned author. Her debut nonfiction book, Defying Apartheid, captures her experiences as a young activist against apartheid. In recent years, she’s turned to fiction writing. Her short stories have appeared in Akashic Books anthologies, Apeiron Review, The Establishment, and EQMM. Don’t miss her story “Juvenility” in our current issue (November/December 2022)! Manju is a recipient of the Leon B. Burnstein/MWA-NY Scholarship and a 2020 runner up for the Eleanor Taylor Bland Crime Fiction Writers of Color Award.  Her recently completed first novel, Precious Girls, is out on submission. She’s an active member of Sisters in Crime and Crime Writers of Color, and for this post she provides reviews of ten new books by crime writers of color that we think will pique your interest.  —Janet Hutchings

Stories and storytelling have been part of human culture for as long as there have been humans.

Tales, fables, myths, and legends have been with us for so long we often take them for granted. We rarely ask, who are the storytellers, whose stories are heard, and whose are not, why do some stories become part of our popular culture and others don’t, and the most important question of all, what impact do these choices have on us as the human race.

Through millennia much of storytelling was oral, lessons passed down from one generation to the next, and the next, and the next. But these magnificent waterfalls of human stories all over the world were dealt a terrible blow by colonization. Western Europeans regarded people of color whose lands they conquered, as primitive, as savages. So, they set out to “civilize” these peoples by breaking up families and societies, tearing the bonds between generations and thus severing the continuity of the thread of storytelling that kept people together.

The author Doris Lessing talks of a Shona friend whose grandmother was the storyteller for her clan. But her friend knew not one story of his grandmother’s. “The Jesuits beat all that out of me,” he said. He was flogged, all the children were, for any hint of “backwardness.”

Slavery broke the bonds between the elder storytellers left behind in Africa, and the enslaved people brought to the Americas.

Today, only a few cultures in the world continue this tradition of oral storytelling. Amongst them are the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of Australia, widely regarded as the oldest living cultures outside of Africa. They call their stories Dreamings, and they are closely guarded “lessons” told only to a chosen few and repeated back for accuracy, in order to pass on important lessons on geography, on acquiring food and shelter, and of social norms.

In the modern world, the printing press became the main conduit of storytelling which meant only those storytellers with access to it were heard, and this often meant White people.

The publishing industry in the West has struggled to address this issue of systemic racism within it. In the past few years, and especially with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, we have seen a range of authors being published whose stories are as diverse as humans themselves.

Here are 10 exciting crime novels by authors of color that explore worlds often unseen. I hope you find them as fascinating as I did. And you can find more writers of color at the Crime Writers of Color website https://www.crimewritersofcolor.com/books. Founded by Walter Mosley, Kellye Garrett and Gigi Pandian, CWOC is a great resource for both authors and readers.

Her Name is Knight by Yasmin Angoe

“Echo cast one more look at herself, making sure the swim cap was securely on her head, the waterproof earpiece embedded in the diamond stud earrings she wore.”

Nena Knight, code name Echo, was trafficked as a child from her village in Ghana. Now, she’s an elite assassin who works for an international agency called the Tribe, a secret organization that ensures Africa’s interests are maintained on the world stage. Interweaving the story of her past with the present, we see Nena become Echo and take vengeance when she learns a new member of the Tribe is the man who murdered her family and sold her into captivity.

Runner (Cass Raines #4) by Tracy Clark

“I yanked the door open and all but flung my half-frozen self into the snug White Castle, the hawk clawing up the back of my neck, my lungs shocked rigid by the subzero wind chill.”

Cass Raines is a PI, and an ex-cop. When the desperate mother of a missing teen comes to her for help, she agrees to help. But the girl doesn’t want to be found, and as Cass digs further she realizes the breadth of the conspiracy that is keeping the girl and other kids on the street rather than at home.

But as Cass gets closer to the truth she and the girl are in an ever increasing danger.

Razorblade Tears by S.A. Cosby

“Ike tried to remember a time when men with badges coming to his door early in the morning brought anything other than heartache and misery, but try as he might, nothing came to mind.”

One of Barack Obama’s Recommended Reads for Summer, Razorblade Tears follows the story of two fathers, one White, one Black, whose gay sons are murdered leaving their baby girl fatherless. We see the men struggle to overcome their own prejudices in order to work together to find the truth and bring the murderers to justice. A poignant portrayal of grief and revenge.

Like a Sister by Kellye Garrett

“I found out my sister was back in New York from Instagram. I found out she’d died from the New York Daily News.”

In a family ravaged by tragedy, loss and the ego of their father, music mogul, Mel Pierce, half-sisters Lena and Desiree, haven’t spoken to each other for years. But when Desiree is found dead, of a suspected overdose, in a park in the Bronx, near the home Lena shares with her aunt, Lena is convinced Desiree was on her way to see her. Why? Did her sister need her?

Lena is a smart and determined protagonist, and like a magician, Garrett unspools the mystery, making everyone a suspect until the twisty end.

Clark and Division by Naomi Hirahara

“Rose was always there, even while I was being born.” Set in 1944, Naomi Hirahara’s story about two sisters, is narrated by Aki, the younger sister, who survives the Japanese internment only to lose her vibrant, beautiful, charming sister to murder in Chicago, on the corner of Clark and Division. It’s a chilling reminder of the impact of historical events on a Japanese-American family and the stoicism required to weather these events.  

My Sweet Girl by Amanda Jayatissa

“There’s a special place in hell for incompetent customer service agents, and it’s right between monsters who stick their bare feet up on airplane seats and mansplainers.”

Paloma has lived a privileged life after being adopted from an orphanage in Sri Lanka. Now, at thirty, the man subletting her apartment discovers her secret, and is then found dead in a pool of blood.

On the run, with flashbacks to the harrowing time at the orphanage, we follow Paloma as she runs away from her past but never reaches a safe place. 

Arsenic and Adobo by Mia P. Manansala

“My name is Lila Macapagal and my life became a rom-com cliché.”

In this cozy food-themed mystery, Lila, recovering from a bad breakup, moves back home to help her aunt run her restaurant. But when her vindictive ex, a food critic who gives the restaurant a bad review, dies in the restaurant, Lila becomes the main suspect. And so begins a mouth-watering romp to find the real murderer.

All Her Little Secrets by Wanda M. Morris

“The three of us—me, my brother, Sam, and Vera or Miss Vee as everyone in Chillicothe called her—looked like a little trio of vagabonds as we stood in the Greyhound Bus Station, which, in Chillicothe, meant a lean-to bus port in the parking lot of the Piggly Wiggly.”

Ellice Littlejohn is a top-notch lawyer at a firm to match. But when she finds her boss, and lover, shot dead in his office, she walks away, desperate to keep her past from destroying her present. Promoted to replace her boss, she soon realizes everyone has a hidden agenda, and she’s being set up to take the fall. But secrets will out.

Under Lock & Skeleton Key by Gigi Pandian

“Tempest Raj tested the smooth, hardwood floor once more.”

Tempest Raj is a stage magician who has returned home after being accused of a careless and risky magic accident, where she was “apparently” witnessed preparing for the unsafe stunt. She firmly believes her former stage double, Cassidy, was responsible for the accident.

But when Cassidy is found dead inside a wall of a building being constructed by Tempest’s parents’ company, called Secret Staircase Construction, she and her best friend Ivy, have to solve the murder before someone kills Tempest, or accuses her of it.

Diverse and quirky characters, like Tempest’s  grandparents, Grandpa Ash who is of Indian ancestry, and Grandma Mor who is Scottish, together with their brilliant fusion recipes, and Tempest’s rabbit, Abracadabra, add a lot of fun in what is an intriguing mystery.

Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden

“I leaned back in the seat of my old Ford Pinto, listening to the sounds coming from the Depot, the reservation’s only tavern.”

In 1885, the murder of Chief Spotted Tail of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe resulted in the Major Crimes Act being passed by the federal government. The Act, still in effect today, ensures that a serious felony committed on a reservation by a Native person has to be referred to the FBI, but the FBI has a right to decline prosecuting if they deem fit. The result is many victims and their families are left without justice, in the gray area between the FBI and tribal police. This is when they turn to Virgil Wounded Horse, the protagonist of Winter Counts. A local enforcer on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota, Virgil is also a vigilante. Following the trail of a new drug cartel rapidly expanding its heroin dealings on the reservation, Virgil has to follow the trail to Denver. And things become personal when his nephew is caught in the crossfire.  

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“Henry Slesar” by Russell Atwood

Our blog post this week is by Russell Atwood, a former managing editor of EQMM whose first work of fiction appeared in EQMM’s Department of First Stories. He went on to write two novels starring P.I. Payton Sherwood and, most recently, the haunted-house novel Apartment Five Is Alive. The latter is perfect for this Halloween season and it’s now available as an audiobook narrated by Jack de Golia, available on iTunes and Audible.com. Bram Stoker Award-winning author Tom Deady says the book is “Full of compelling characters and genuinely creepy scenes . . .  The climax is claustrophobic and ultimately stunning.” Russell is also the creator and writer of the comedy-horror-puppetshow The Bride of Pugsley on YouTube channel SidMartyLovecraft. His subject for this post is a writer whose work he would have come across often during his years at EQMM, the unforgettable Henry Slesar.  —Janet Hutchings

One of the drives central to all writers is immortality. Whether they acknowledge it or not, at some point all writers look around and notice “Life is short” and many stories go untold and lives are forever forgotten. All writers attempt to create something that will weather through all ages, long after their passing. Henry Slesar can rest easy that he’s come closer than most.

Prolific in numerous fields of writing—sci-fi, pulp fiction, daytime soap operas, advertising copywriting, television and movie screenwriting, award-winning mystery novels—author Henry Slesar was born June 12, 1927 “Henry Schlosser” in Brooklyn, NY, his parents Jewish immigrants from Ukraine. He attended the School of Industrial Arts in Manhattan and soon found he had a knack for copywriting and design. At the age of 17 (right after his graduation), Slesar was hired by the NY advertising agency Young & Rubicam, launching his twenty-year career as an ad man in the era of Mad Men. He is credited for coining the term “coffee break” and a long-forgotten but hugely successful “The Man in the Chair” ad campaign for McGraw-Hill.

He published his first short story, “The Brat,” in 1955, in Imaginative Tales magazine. The 1950s saw an explosion of activity for Slesar, setting a pace he maintained throughout his career, turning out clean, quality prose in a variety of genres and mediums, though suspense was always his forte. In 1957 alone, Slesar published over forty short stories under his own name and various pseudonyms such as O. H. Leslie (the O.H. presumably a nod to author O. Henry, because many of Slesar’s stories climaxed in a twist ending). In 1960, he wrote his first original novel, The Gray Flannel Shroud, a mystery set in a big advertising agency (which the author had ample first-hand experience to draw from) where a murder is committed while the staff is in the middle of promoting a new baby food. It won the Edgar Award for Best First Mystery Novel from the Mystery Writers of America.

It was also around this time that Slesar opened his own advertising agency and began writing for television, igniting an extraordinarily long relationship with the CBS daytime soap opera The Edge of Night. In The Soap Opera Encyclopedia, writer Chris Schermerin comments that “Slesar proved a master of the serial format, creating a series of bizarre, intricate plots of offbeat characters.” He eventually became the head writer for this mystery-oriented serial from 1968 to 1980, leading TV Guide magazine to once refer to him as “The Writer with the Biggest Audience in America.” He won an Emmy in 1974 for his writing on the show, wrote an original novel based on the series (The Seventh Mask), and garnered numerous nominations and nods from the Writers Guild, and a second Edgar for best television script in 1977. He also wrote for other daytime and late-night serials such as One Life to Live, Somerset, Executive Suite, and Capitol. (Later, in 1998, Slesar would draw from his experience to write the mystery novel Murder at Heartbreak Hospital, about murders committed on the set of a daytime soap opera).

Courtesy of the author

In 1960, director Alfred Hitchcock came across one of Slesar’s short stories, “M is for the Many,” in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and acquired it for an episode of his television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, retitling it “Heart of Gold.” This began a relationship between the two that led to twenty-one of Slesar’s tales being adapted for the show.

In the introduction to his short story collection Death on Television, Slesar wrote about where he and Hitchcock met creatively in relation to their love of the “twist ending”:

“For some people, irony may seem like a by-product of cynicism. Anatole France called it ‘the last phase of disillusion.’ But for Hitchcock . . . irony was the key ingredient of storytelling, along with its two components: humor and pity. “Let’s face it. There’s nothing intrinsically funny about crime…[Hitchock] made a conscious decision to put the story before the gory. He chose delight over fright.

“It wasn’t merely a cynical outlook on life that dictated the Hitchcock choices. It was an attitude that smiled, sometimes sadly, upon the frailties of the human personality. It was more than just a ‘sense of humor.’ The taste for irony, in the words of Jessamyn West, ‘has kept more hearts from breaking than a sense of humor—for it takes irony to appreciate the joke which is on oneself.’

Slesar was a master of the twist ending, and often these types of stories are labeled gimmicky, but Slesar’s twists always grew out of the foibles of human beings.

In the 1970s, several of these stories were also used in the attempted rebirth of radio drama on American radio when Himan Brown (the creator of the old-time-radio show Inner Sanctum) started the CBS Radio Mystery Theatre. Brown chose one of Slesar’s stories, “The Old Ones Are Hard to Kill,” to launch the new series and during the decade-long run forty-three short stories of his were transmitted over the airwaves.

In 2001, I ran into Henry Slesar at a mystery writers reading in the East Village, and I told him how now over this new thing called “the Internet” I was able to listen to all the old broadcasts of CBSRMT. He chuckled and said, “Himan would be happy.” But I don’t think he quite believed me. And as fertile as his imagination was, I don’t think he could have imagined that today you could also watch old episodes of his series The Edge of Night, the tapes of which he thought were lost forever. But it turns out old fans recorded these shows on their VCRs while they were at work and now they are making them available to a whole new generation via the platform of YouTube.

Courtesy of the author

This Halloween season I want to focus on five of Slesar’s stories that appeared on CBS Radio Mystery Theatre. They are guaranteed to leave you with a chill down your spine:

1) “Prisoner of the Machines” (01/16/1980), starring a young John Lithgow. A sci-fi tale that starts off with a classic premise and wrings every last futuristic nightmare out of it.

2) “Kitty” (04/09/1980) Suffer from Ailurophobia? The morbid fear of cats? Then you might want to pass on this horror story of an Egyptian mummified cat-queen living in 1970s Manhattan. It leaves marks.

3) “Murder Museum” (04/09/1974) A wax museum is the setting for a tale of a young artist tormented by his tragic family past, which becomes the newest exhibit in the Chamber of Horrors.

4) “Bargain in Blood” (06/10/1974) This creepy, fantastic tale might be familiar as it was filmed as an episode of the original Twilight Zone, about a young man who discovers he can “swap” anything his heart desires. But buyer (and seller) beware.

5)” The Last Escape” (10/17/1974) This story was filmed as an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and is about a second-rate escape artist and third-rate human being who decides to make a comeback recreating one of Houdini’s greatest escapes. But his downtrodden wife and assistant has an escape of her own in mind. This is to me a classic Slesar story, because break it down to simple facts and it would make a gory and dismal newspaper story, but in Slesar’s hands the shocking ending is a delight.

These radio shows can be listened to on numerous sites including YouTube, archive.org, and for great details on this whole series check out the CBS Radio Mystery Theatre page: CBSRMT.com

The advent of the Internet has given new life to these broadcasts, introducing them to a new generation of listeners, and for the writers maybe even a slice of immortality.

Henry Slesar died April 2, 2002 at the age of 74, but he is immortal.

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“Lessons from Reading” (by Vikram Kapur)

Dr. Vikram Kapur, who has been shortlisted for many awards, including the British Commonwealth’s Short Story Prize, has a PhD. in creative and critical writing from the University of East Anglia. His short stories and essays appear or are forthcoming in places like The Hong Kong Review, Mekong Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Huffington Post, and he is the author of three novels. His evocative short story “10” appears in the November/December 2022 issue of EQMM. Here he talks about lessons he has learned from reading two influential texts.

I first encountered Hemingway’s “Hills like White Elephants” as an undergraduate in the early nineties. I don’t recall the year. What I do recall clearly is how much the story mystified me. It was the first story I’d ever read that was as much a mystery to me by the end as it was at the beginning. And it wasn’t even a mystery story. Well, not the way I saw mystery stories back then. There was no crime, no action, no detective, no great reveal . . . To tell the truth, it was unlike any story, mystery or otherwise, that I’d read until then. Growing up in India in the eighties and nineties meant growing up on a steady diet of maximalist movies and novels that told you exactly what you were supposed to think at any given moment. (If you’ve ever seen a Bollywood film or read a Salman Rushdie novel you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.) “Hills like White Elephants” was anything but maximalist. The description was minimal, the prose spare. The two people at the center of the story were not even named; they were merely identified as the American and the girl. All they did in the entire story was argue with each other at a bar in a railway station somewhere in Spain. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why they were arguing. Somewhere, an operation was mentioned. I had no idea what it entailed. I’d heard that Hemingway wrote about wars. But the operation didn’t seem to be a military operation. The argument appeared to resolve itself by the end of the story as the girl agreed to do what the American wanted. But she did so with a reluctance that made me pessimistic about the future of the relationship. What she agreed to, however, remained a mystery.

To be a good writer you have to be a good reader. Of your own work as well as the work of others. The first thing I learned while reading “Hills like White Elephants” was that I just wasn’t a good reader. I’d been spoon fed by writers for so long that I’d become lazy. I didn’t have the patience or insight to read between the lines, which made it impossible for me to read someone like Hemingway whose omissions are just as canny as anything he put in his stories. I read absinthe without thinking of its hallucinatory quality. Or white elephant without picking up on the various meanings behind the use of the word.

Ultimately, I was able to figure out the story with the help of my professor. (The operation actually referred to an abortion.) Once I did, I didn’t know what to marvel at more; my incompetence as a reader or Hemingway’s brilliance in packing so much in a short piece. I resolved to read far more closely from then on. I also took two important writerly lessons to heart. Until then, I’d believed that size mattered in writing. “Hills like White Elephants” put that idea away for good. The story was no more than a few pages long. Yet it packed more depth and complexity than stories five times its length. Several novels for that matter. Furthermore, I got to know how cageyness can be used in a story to intrigue the reader. Merely being cagey doesn’t work for a writer. But when cageyness is employed in a manner that makes the reader care enough about the story to want to unwrap its layers then it is worth its weight in gold.

A few years later I read Peter Hoeg’s Danish novel Smilla’s Sense of Snow in English translation. At the time, I knew nothing about Scandinavian fiction. It was just that the cover caught my eye one night at a Barnes and Noble store. The blurbs on the jacket told me that the novel had been heaped with critical acclaim. The synopsis on the back promised a beguiling mystery. I was intrigued enough to buy the book.

Until then, I’d only read straight-out mysteries—think Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. I thought all a mystery novel was supposed to do was set up a crime that sent the detective, and by extension the reader, down a twisting, turning path that eventually led to the criminal. The main thing was to keep the plot moving quickly and the surprises coming thick and fast. Everything led to the great reveal at the end which had to be the biggest surprise of all.

Smilla’s Sense of Snow quickly disabused me of such notions by turning everything I believed about the mystery novel on its head. The writing was poetic rather than functional. There were vivid descriptions of Copenhagen and Greenland. Snow was used as a motif right through the novel. And the most interesting part was not the way the novel solved the crime but how it examined identity by delving into what it is like to belong to two cultures that are incompatible with each other. (The central character, Smilla Jaspersen, is half-Danish and half-Greenlandic.)

Furthermore, Smilla was unlike any fictional detective I’d met. For starters, she wasn’t even a detective; she was a glaciologist. She was also rather hard to like. Her experience of life had left her bitter and unsentimental. She didn’t trust easily and reveled in being a loner. Her only redeeming feature, as far as I could see, was her commitment to getting justice for Isaiah, the six-year-old boy she had befriended, who dies at the beginning of the novel. And that was what made me care about what happened to her. As I read on, I found myself caring less about the mystery and more about what happened to Smilla. By the time I reached the end of the novel, I realized that was the author’s greatest accomplishment. He had got me to root for a deeply flawed character.

Over the years, the lessons I learned from “Hills like White Elephants” and Smilla’s Sense of Snow have found their way into everything I have written. The moment I find myself getting verbose, I think of “Hills like White Elephants” and see if I can’t say the same in fewer words. I work hard to make my prose lean and keep the action moving. But not at the cost of building character. It may not be possible to develop each and every character, but it is important that the main character is well-rounded. I guess it is possible to hook a reader simply through plot in really short stories. But, as the story gets longer, it is more likely that the reader will stay with it because she cares about the main character. For novels it is a no-brainer. I can’t see anyone investing the amount of time it takes to read a novel if they don’t fall in love with the characters.

The abiding lesson of Smilla’s Sense of Snow, however, goes far deeper than craft. As an Indian writing in English, I often find myself writing for an audience that is as unfamiliar with the world I’m writing about as I was about the world depicted in Smilla’s Sense of Snow. The memory of how the novel managed to immerse me, in spite of that, gives me confidence that I might be able to do the same while evoking India on the page.

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“Mystery and the Poetic Form” (by Janet Hutchings)

Of all the many forms of mystery and crime story that EQMM has published over the past eighty-one years, the story in verse is the rarest. And it’s not because poets don’t write mystery stories (and vice versa). EQMM’s founder, Frederic Dannay (half of the Ellery Queen writing team) was profoundly interested in poetry: He wrote poetry and had an extensive poetry collection. And he was far from alone in being a mystery writer/poet. As I noted in a 2015 post for this site, Dannay compiled an anthology entitled Poetic Justice in which he included mystery or crime stories by famous poets such as Sir Walter Scott, Dylan Thomas, Ogden Nash, and Walt Whitman, to name a few. But to say that someone is a poet who also writes mysteries (or a mystery writer who also writes poetry) does not necessarily imply that such a writer has produced a mystery in verse form. Many poets don’t focus on long-form narrative poems at all, let alone narrative poems in which the story is a crime or mystery.

Fred Dannay never missed an opportunity to mention how many Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners EQMM had published (mostly reprinted, actually!). Neither do I. One of those Pulitzer Prize winners was Stephen Vincent Benét. Benét’s Pulitzer Prize was for poetry—for his book-length narrative poem John Brown’s Body. But even though Benét clearly had the skill and desire to tell complete stories in verse, as far as I’ve been able to determine, he never wrote a mystery story in verse. He did, of course, write prose short stories, most notably “The Devil and Daniel Webster.” He also wrote at least two short stories that fall squarely into the mystery genre, one a locked-room mystery entitled “The Amateur of Crime,” the other “Floor, Please,” one of his earliest stories, which found its way into a pulp magazine in 1924. Both stories were reprinted in EQMM in the 1940s. It’s a somewhat curious thing, to me, that Benét appears never to have combined his loves for narrative poetry and the mystery. But then, one can see that it might prove exceptionally difficult to tell a locked-room tale in verse, since there are many prosaic details about time, place, and the whereabouts of suspects that need to be worked into such a story.

At first glance at least, the crime subgenre of the mystery would seem to lend itself a little more readily to verse form. It’s not only that there is less need in most crime stories to establish to precision particulars of timing and the placement of persons and objects. It’s that the crime story often turns on the emotional impact of what occurs, and poetry can enhance the emotional impact of a narrative. However, in my brief search for crime or mystery novels in verse form, I came up with only one notable example, the 1997 Edgar nominated Who Killed Mr. Chippendale by Mel Glenn, and that book is a YA rather than an adult novel. I’m sure there must be many more examples, and perhaps readers of this blog will help me out by pointing me toward some.

When it comes to mystery short stories in verse, EQMM would expect to see a good portion of whatever is being written. And we don’t see many. Since 1979 John F. Dobbyn’s crime/adventure verse stories set in the Yukon have been featured intermittently in our pages, most recently in the September/October 2021 issue. And coming up in our March/April 2023 issue is a noir story in verse by Michael Wiley. The latter has been expanded into a five-story, fully developed mystery since the original tale was submitted to us and purchased (although the original story stands entirely on its own). EQMM would normally like to follow up with publication of the subsequent stories in a connected sequence that we’ve started, but the whole of this sequence has become too long for us. We have tight space constraints to begin with, and verse requires quite a bit more space than prose for an equivalent word count.

Which brings me to one of the reasons I had for taking up this topic today: to ask if any of our readers knows of a book or magazine publisher well suited to this area of the mystery. We like being able to present the occasional verse story in EQMM, but from a formatting as well as a space standpoint, we are not the ideal publication for the form. Our layout is basic and meant to maximize the use of space, whereas it often matters a great deal with poetry how it is laid out on the page—and what overall look is conveyed.

It seems to me that the mystery in verse could become a burgeoning area of our field if enough of the right publications existed—assuming, of course, that there’s an audience for such mysteries out there. I’m guessing there might be. Fred Dannay thought there was a natural affinity between what poets and mystery writers (or at least their fictional detectives) try to do, and that is to make order out of chaos. We live in confusing, disturbing, chaotic times. Times that seem just right for a powerful intertwining of the emotional impact of poetry and the clarity of the detective.

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