The Uses of Water in Fiction (by Sheila Kohler)

Here’s another insightful post by award-winning author and teacher of creative writing, Sheila Kohler. Her most recent novel is the thriller Open Secrets, published by Penguin in 2020. Publishers Weekly said of the book: “The plot moves swiftly amid luxurious settings to a closing twist . . .” One of Sheila’s recent short stories, “Miss Martin,” was selected for the 2020 volume of Best American Mystery Stories. As in last week’s post by Michael Cebula, the work of author Patricia Highsmith is examined here—a timely tribute as it is the centenary of Highsmith’s birth this year. —Janet Hutchings

As a symbol, water has many connotations. It is life giving, sustaining, and dangerous. It immediately creates suspense, and fear of death: plunged under water, bereft of air, one drowns. Water boarding is probably one of the most effective methods of torture, we are told. Yet we begin our lives in water or certainly liquid—in the amniotic fluid in the comfort and security of our mothers’ wombs.

Water, too, perhaps for this reason, is used in many religious ceremonies. John the Baptist baptized Jesus with water, and water is at the center of the Christian baptism, which is considered a new birth, a ceremony that brings the baby into the congregation, into the church, giving the child a name, an identity, as holy water is sprinkled on the head. Judaism too has a ceremony of purification with the immersion in water.

Thus water has a double symbolism, representing both renewal, life, and death.

It is not surprising then that it is used as a central image in so many books and stories, only a few of which I can mention here. One that comes to mind immediately is “Black Water,” a novella by Joyce Carol Oates. Here the young heroine, Kelly, leaves her friend’s party to accompany the famous “Senator” whom she admires, hoping for a love affair with the handsome older man. Instead of love she finds death, trapped in his car, which he carelessly drives off a bridge and into the watery marshlands in Maine. The heroine, abandoned by the Senator, who escapes the car, is flooded by memories, remembering her life, as the author’s language rushes at the reader and the water floods into the car. Eventually, bereft of the bubble of life-giving air, she drowns.

Here, too, in a literary baptismal service, the author renames the places and people involved in the Chappaquiddick incident, when Mary Jo Kopechne was abandoned by Edward Kennedy, who drove his car off the bridge and into the water.

In The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith, we know from the start that Tom Ripley fears water. His parents have drowned in Boston Harbor, leaving him—an orphan—to the tender mercies of his Aunt Dottie, who calls him a sissy and bullies him, making him run by the car to fetch water on a hot day in moving traffic. Yet it is on the water that Tom Ripley takes on a new identity. He kills Dickie Greenleaf, the boy he has been sent to bring home. In the motorboat with an oar, Tom bashes Dickie over the head and after a struggle—Tom, unable to swim, almost drowns as he tries to control the madly spinning boat—Tom acquires a new life. Eventually, dressed in his clothes and taking his place in society, Tom Ripley becomes Dickie Greenleaf. 

Water here is both dangerous, bringing death and violence, but also a new birth. Tom Ripley is reborn as the wealthy and enviable Dickie whose fortune he eventually inherits in a false will. Secretly, shamefully, we root for his success.

In my own “Open Secrets” I used many of these motifs: Alice’s husband, a Swiss banker and a good sailor, is last seen when he leaves in the boat which belongs to his bank, the Circe. He goes sailing with a Russian client in Beaulieu sur Mer. A body is eventually found in the sea, wearing Michel’s clothes and his gold watch. Michel is presumed dead. Alice and her daughter attend the funeral together in deep sorrow. In her search for the reasons for her husband’s death, Alice is lured to swim out across the sea and onto her husband’s boat, the Circe, where she discovers the reasons that explain both his life and the death of his Russian client.

In Alice Munro’s wonderful story “Child’s Play,” a woman remembers a moment from her childhood during a stay in a camp at the sea. In an act of retribution she pays for this joint crime committed in the water in her youth.

Water thus combines for us all our hope for a new life, for a rebirth, and our ancient ancestral despair. It enables the writer to portray our joy in the value of each and every life, and our deepest sorrow and fear in the knowledge of the dangers which lap around us at all moments, threatening what we know must come to all of us some day.

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As of today, our trivia contest has yet to be won, so we are extending the deadline until the end of the year. Brush up on your EQMM history and dive in; the first reader to respond with all the correct answers will win a choice of five EQMM anthologies from our archives. Runners-up will also receive prizes. See you in our inbox by December 31!

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The Terrapin and Ms. Highsmith (by Michael Cebula)

2021 is the centenary of the birth of Patricia Highsmith, one of the great masters of the psychological thriller. She’s best known for her novels, especially Strangers on a Train and The Talented  Mr. Ripley, but she also produced many iconic short stories, twenty-eight of which first appeared in EQMM, beginning in 1957 and ending in 1994. We believe her April 1994 story “Summer Doldrums” may have been her last published work. It is an earlier Highsmith story for EQMM that author Michael Cebula focuses on in this post, which looks back at the life of one of the brightest stars in the crime-fiction firmament.

Michael Cebula’s short story “Second Cousins” appeared in the September/October 2019 issue of EQMM and was subsequently chosen for The Best American Mystery Stories 2020. His work has also been featured in a variety of other magazines and anthologies, including Mystery Weekly. “Selfie of an Actress as a Young Woman,” his latest story, can be found in the anthology Die Laughing, edited by Kerry Carter.

 —Janet Hutchings

In 1962, Patricia Highsmith, one of a handful of people who could reasonably claim to be the greatest suspense writer ever, committed a very real and very bloody murder. Though she took care to hide her crime (more or less successfully), she also made sure that her victim knew exactly whose hand wielded the knife.

The site of the murder was well-chosen—the October 1962 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, which featured Highsmith’s short story, “The Terrapin.” In the story, an eleven-year-old boy named Victor is humiliated by the short pants that his mother insists he wears. His mother “wanted him to stay about six years old, forever, all his life.” When Victor complains to his mother, she teases him to the point of tears and continues to infantilize him, such as by asking him to recite the days of the week and referring to him as her baby.

One afternoon, Victor’s mother brings home a turtle—or what she insists Victor call a terrapin. He mistakenly believes that she bought the turtle to be his pet, and he plays with it and tries to feed it, but his mother soon enough tells him the turtle is no pet, but rather meat for a stew she is making. Shocked, Victor watches as she drops the turtle into a pot of boiling water:

Victor, open-mouthed, stared at the terrapin whose legs were now racing against the steep sides of the pot. The terrapin’s mouth opened, its eyes looked directly at Victor for an instant, its head arched back in torture, the open mouth sank beneath the seething water—and that was the end. Victor blinked. It was dead. He came closer, saw the four legs and the tail stretched out in the water, its head. He looked at his mother.

Victor begins to cry, imagining that the turtle had been screaming below the water. He is convinced that the turtle wanted Victor to rescue him but “he hadn’t moved to help him. His mother had tricked him, done it so fast, he couldn’t save him.” Irritated by Victor’s reaction, his mother slaps him. Victor leaves the kitchen and lies on the sofa, his mouth open against a pillow until he pictures the turtle screaming in a similar pose, and closes it. Then Victor returns to the kitchen, making himself watch what happens next. His mother, humming, continues to prepare the stew. The turtle is on the cutting board now. Still humming, his mother takes a knife and butchers it, a process that Highsmith slowly details. Victor forces himself to watch, even when “the terrapin’s insides were all exposed, red and white and greenish.” Victor’s mother finally stops humming and talks in a “gentle and soothing [voice], not at all like what she was doing.”

Later that night in bed, Victor imagines the turtle’s face “very large, its mouth open, its eyes wide and full of pain.” Victor wishes he “could walk out the window and float, go anywhere he wanted to, disappear, yet be everywhere.” But he imagines “his mother’s hands on his shoulders, jerking him back, if he tried to step out the window. He hated his mother.”

The story could end here. It would be a good literary story, one with no crime involved, about a child’s first encounter with death, living with a cruel and perhaps mentally ill mother, dreaming of escape, and knowing that escape is impossible.

But that is not what Highsmith had in mind.

Instead, Victor walks through the dark apartment into the kitchen. He feels “gently for the knife he wanted.” Then: “His mother’s cry was not silent, it seemed to tear his ears off. His second blow was in her body, and then he stabbed her throat again. Only tiredness made him stop.”

Again, the story could end here, with a great and chilling final line that perfectly conveys the depth of Victor’s brutal feelings for his mother. But instead, Highsmith continues for several more sentences. First, Victor hears people trying to break into the apartment. He unlocks the door and lets them in. Then, in the final paragraph, Victor is resting in a hospital. He “did everything he was asked to do, and answered the questions they put to him, but only those questions, and since they didn’t ask him anything about a terrapin, he did not bring it up.”

Highsmith, like many writers, hated to be asked how she came up with ideas for her stories. She typically told interviewers (after making clear just how much she hated the question) that she created stories “out of thin air.” But “The Terrapin” was one of the few times that Highsmith made an exception, and willingly offered a concrete explanation for a story’s origin.

According to Highsmith, an unnamed friend told her that she had heard of a woman who browbeat her son and forced him to wear clothes that were too young for him. Then, a year later, Highsmith saw a recipe for terrapin stew, and the story came together in her mind. “The Terrapin,” Highsmith claimed, had nothing to do with her own life or her own mother. And that, as far is it goes, sounds reasonable. After all, Highsmith wrote Strangers on a Train and no one suspects that she ever planned a double-murder with someone she had just met on a speeding locomotive.

Nevertheless, Highsmith’s claim that “The Terrapin” was inspired by a cocktail story and a stew recipe, and had nothing to do with her own life, was a lie. Consider:

  • Victor’s mother is a commercial artist of limited success. Highsmith’s mother, Mary, was a commercial artist of limited success.
  • Just as Highsmith did, Victor lives with his mother in a series of apartments in New York, first on the Upper West Side (where Highsmith first lived with her mother), then on Third Avenue (near where Mary later moved).
  • Victor’s mother is divorced and he has no relationship with his father. Highsmith’s mother was divorced and, as a child, Highsmith had no relationship with her father.
  • Victor quickly becomes attached to the turtle while Highsmith cared for turtles enough that, on at least one occasion, she brought a turtle to a literary party as her plus-one.
  • Victor reads Karl Menninger’s The Human Mind, a collection of psychiatric case studies, the same book Highsmith loved as a child and throughout her adulthood.
  • True, Victor is male, but in Highsmith’s private notebooks she described herself as a man trapped in a woman’s body and wondered whether she could change her sex.
  • Though Victor hates his clothes, he does like his masculine, thick-soled shoes, and is thankful that they fit. Similarly, Highsmith, who had unusually large feet, wore men’s shoes most of her life, and was so obsessed with a particular brand of men’s footwear (unavailable in Europe, where she spent her final few decades), that she directed her cousin to ship them to her overseas for years.
  • Victor’s mother forces him to wear clothes that he detests and tries to turn him into something he is not (a baby). Highsmith’s mother hated the masculine styles her daughter adopted and wanted Highsmith to be something she was not (heterosexual).
  • Victor’s mother repeatedly tells him he is “psychologically sick,” while Mary told Highsmith, both in writing and verbally, that Highsmith was “sick in the head.”

None of these similarities are necessary for the plot of “The Terrapin.” That is, the story would be unchanged if, say, Victor lived at a different address, his favorite book was something besides Menninger’s psychiatric case studies, his mother was not a struggling commercial artist, or her browbeatings did not include accusations of mental illness. These details serve no purpose except to tie Victor and his mother to Highsmith and her mother, to tell Mary: this story is about us, this story describes how I feel.

And Highsmith certainly had reason to hate her mother. Mary tried to abort Highsmith by drinking turpentine, then told Highsmith and her friends about the story for years, presenting it as an amusing anecdote, rather than a narrowly averted tragedy. Mary also enjoyed telling Highsmith of the bookstores she wandered through that contained none of Highsmith’s novels and the bookstore owners who had never heard Highsmith’s name. And, as noted, Mary made clear her disapproval of Highsmith’s homosexuality, sharply criticized her looks, and frequently claimed, to Highsmith and anyone who would listen, that Highsmith was mentally ill.

Not surprisingly, Mary’s actions profoundly affected her daughter. Once, upon learning that Mary was paying her an unexpected visit, Highsmith fainted. Mary’s highly critical letters often left Highsmith feeling “shattered” and unable to work for days. And, like many victims of a difficult childhood, Highsmith was anorexic and an alcoholic. Highsmith finally went so far as to disinherit herself from her mother’s estate, an unusual move for anyone, but especially for Highsmith, who had crippling anxieties about her own finances.

Yet, despite all of this, Highsmith never broke away from her mother entirely. Even when Highsmith moved to Europe permanently, and could have easily ceased contact with her mother, the two women continued to write each other constantly, in long, detailed, much worried-over letters. And they still visited one other and traveled Europe together. Highsmith killed her mother on the page, but made no meaningful attempt to live a life without her. Whether the obstacles were real or imagined, Highsmith could not escape.

Once, when an interviewer asked what attracted her to crime stories, Highsmith mentioned a short story she wrote at sixteen, about a girl who steals a book. The impetus for the story, Highsmith said, was the desperate desire she herself felt to steal a particular book from her own school’s library. Writing, it seems, was a remedy to her strongest wayward temptations, a way for Highsmith to do what she wanted, without the risk or consequences.

But if writing was a sort of release valve, it apparently offered only temporary relief. Years after “The Terrapin” appeared in Ellery Queen, Highsmith was still brainstorming a particular brand of murder in her private notebooks, including: “Replacing roller skates on stairs, once mother has removed it.” And when Mary died, some years after that (from natural causes, it perhaps should be noted), Highsmith did not attend the funeral.

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Remembering John Ball (by Kevin Mims)

Short story writer and essayist Kevin Mims contributes frequently to this site. In this post, he commemorates a great crime writer whose name one seldom hears these days. Thanks, Kevin, for bringing his work to our attention again! —Janet Hutchings

October 15, 2021 marks the thirty-third anniversary of the death of John Ball. Lovers of twentieth-century crime fiction are probably familiar with Ball, who created Virgil Tibbs, one of the most memorable detectives in the annals of American literature. But in a better world, many more people would be familiar with the name John Ball, because he was a truly remarkable man. He was born in Schenectady, NY, on July 8, 1911. He was raised in Milwaukie, WI, and graduated from Carroll College in Waukesha, WI. Perhaps the fact that the first three cities to play a role in his biography derived their names from Native American terms somehow inspired in Ball an interest in other cultures (Schenectady is a Mohawk word meaning “beyond the pines,” Milwaukie is from an Ojibwe word meaning “pleasant land,” and Waukesha is believed to be a corruption of an Ojibwe word meaning “foxes.” Put them all together and you get foxes in a pleasant land beyond the pines.)

After college he followed an eccentric and peripatetic career path. For a while he worked for Fortune magazine. Then he became the assistant curator of the Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Natural History in New York City (the current director of the Planetarium is Neil deGrasse Tyson). After that, according to his obituary in the New York Times, “He wrote liner notes for Columbia record albums, became a music critic for the Brooklyn Eagle in 1946, and left in 1951 to review records for the New York World-Telegram.” Somewhere along the way he acquired a commercial pilot’s license. During World War II he put his knowledge of airplanes to good use, serving as a navigator aboard various US Army planes. He was part of a crew whose job was to fly warplanes “over the hump” from India into China, where they would be used to fight the Japanese. The “hump” was Air Force jargon for the Himalayas, the most imposing mountain chain in the world, and the most treacherous to cross via airplane. He was in famous company. A Wikipedia page listing notable participants in the hump airlift includes such prominent figures as film producer Merian C. Cooper, who had co-directed the 1933 movie King Kong; Robert S. McNamara, who would become US Secretary of Defense in the 1960s; Ernest K. Gann, who would write many bestselling aviation-themed novels; Ted Stevens, who would become a long-serving US Senator from Alaska; Thomas Watson, who would succeed his father as the CEO of IBM; and movie star Gene Autry. Later in life, Ball served as a reserve deputy in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, and as a vice president of the Mystery Writers of America (as well as the president of its Los Angeles chapter). In 1960, he was admitted into the Baker Street Irregulars, the highly exclusive society of Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts. For what it’s worth, he was also a semi-professional magician and an ardent nudist. Few writers have ever had a resume as interesting as Ball’s.

His first novel, published in 1965, was In The Heat of the Night, and its cultural impact was enormous. It tells the story of Virgil Tibbs, an African American homicide detective who happens to be passing through a town in the Deep South when a murdered body turns up. Because Tibbs is Black and a stranger in town, the local cops jump quickly to the conclusion that he must be the murderer. They arrest him and throw him in jail. But when Virgil’s out-of-town boss calls up the small town police chief and assures him that Virgil doesn’t commit murders but rather solves them, the southern cops, very reluctantly, release him. Eventually, and very grudgingly, they allow Virgil to help investigate the murder. By the end of the book, Virgil, the dapper Black sophisticate, and Chief Bill Gillespie, a hot-tempered racist, have formed a bit of a bond. The book won an Edgar Award from the MWA for Best First Novel. Two years later, director Norman Jewison turned it into a film starring Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier. The film won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor (for Steiger). To this day the American Film Institute lists it among the 100 best American films of all time. The film inspired two sequels, They Call Me Mister Tibbs! (1970), and The Organization (1971). In the late 1980s, the characters were spun off into a TV series that ran for five seasons and 146 episodes.

Ball’s novel differs in many ways from the film of the same name. And his version of Virgil Tibbs also differs from the Tibbs created by Jewison, Poitier, and screenwriter Sterling Silliphant. One of the most important differences is Tibbs’s point of origin. In the film he is from Philadelphia, a northern town with a fairly large African-American population. In the novel, however, Virgil hails from Pasadena, California, an upscale suburb of Los Angeles with a relatively small minority population. This didn’t matter much back in 1967 because Philadelphia doesn’t really figure in the film and Pasadena doesn’t figure much in the original novel. But John Ball wrote six sequels to In The Heat of the Night (nine, if you count the three Virgil Tibbs stories published in EQMM in the late 1970s). And in those sequels Pasadena plays a large role.

Back in the mid-twentieth century, Pasadena was viewed as a sleepy bedroom community populated largely by wealthy widows—the stereotypical little old ladies from Pasadena, who were a cultural trope even before Jan and Dean memorialized them in a 1964 pop song. The best known fictional Pasadenan of the 1960s was probably Benjamin Braddock, the protagonist of Charles Webb’s 1963 novel The Graduate, which was the source of Mike Nichols’ much more famous 1967 film of the same name. Nichols’ film and Jewison’s film wound up competing against each other for many of the major movie awards of 1967. In the Heat of the Night and The Graduate were two of the most successful films of the era, and they were both based on novels about men from Pasadena. But Virgil Tibbs and Benjamin Braddock couldn’t have been more different. Braddock is the spoiled 21-year-old son of wealthy white parents. Tibbs is a 30-something Black man from the south who makes a modest living working for the Pasadena Police Department. Braddock is an entitled jerk who tells a girlfriend, “Ever since I’ve been out of school I’ve had this overwhelming urge to be rude all the time.” Tibbs knows that the slightest sign of rudeness is likely to get him labeled “uppity” or worse, which could get him killed in the Deep South and demoted or fired in Pasadena. Braddock, despite an elite college education, is lazy, unfocused, and not much interested in serving anyone but himself. Tibbs has a more modest education but is whip smart, a tireless public servant, and a true asset to the community. Hoffman’s portrayal of Braddock gave Americans the impression that the typical Pasadena male was a rich young white jerk. Sadly, Jewison and Silliphant, by altering Tibbs’ back story, robbed the city of Pasadena of a chance to offset Braddock’s callowness with Tibbs’ courage and community spirit.

A Caucasian, John Ball was keenly interested in people of other races, and not just African-Americans. His greatest passion, perhaps because of his wartime service, seems to have been for all things Asian. Although biographical details about Ball are hard to find online, it seems that he lived in Japan for a few years after the war, or at least visited it frequently. He was fluent in Japanese and held a black belt in the Japanese martial art of aikido. Ball frequently combined his love of Asia with his job as a crime writer. Rather improbably, Virgil Tibbs, while investigating a crime in Pasadena, would often find clues that sent him flying off to Asia for more information. Just the titles of some of the Tibbs sequels are a tipoff that the adventure will eventually lead to Asia: Five Pieces of Jade, The Eyes of Buddha, Singapore. None of the later Tibbs novels ever surpassed the brilliance of the original, but all of them are smart, entertaining, and well worth reading. My favorites of the sequels are Johnny, Get Your Gun (1969), a novel-cum-gun-control-argument partially inspired by the 1968 murders of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and The Eyes of Buddha (1976), partially inspired by the 1974 kidnapping of heiress Patty Hearst. They are both thoroughly entertaining and it is impressive how quickly Ball was able to turn headline-grabbing events into fodder for his thoughtful fiction.

According to his New York Times obit, Ball wrote a total of 35 books, on all variety of subjects. Even his non-Tibbs novels often deal head-on with the subject of race. His 1975 novel, The Winds of Mitamura, tells of two young American academics who travel to a small farming community in Japan in order to conduct an anthropological study on the people there. Peter Storm, one of the academics, is white, and Marjorie Saunders, his partner on the project, is African-American. Ball, who appears to have known Japanese culture almost as well as he knew his own, provides the reader with a fascinating exploration of how race plays out across the globe. The residents of the small community are honored to have a white American professor in their midst. But they are terrified of Marjorie Saunders. They have never seen a Black person before. They are highly superstitious and fear that she might be a devil whose presence will cause this year’s rice crop to be ruined. Marjorie, because she is the well-educated daughter of an upper-class family (her father is a surgeon), hasn’t experienced the worst of American racism, the kind reserved for the poor and underprivileged. Thus, her story, like Virgil’s in In The Heat of the Night, is a tale of a fish out of water, and dangerously so at that. Though it isn’t technically a crime novel, it often reads like one. In the forest at the edge of the farming community lives a hermit, a former resident of the community who lost his mind when his wife was raped and killed by an American serviceman stationed in Japan about a decade after WWII. Because the American serviceman was Black, the unhinged forest-dweller believes all Black people to be murderous devils. This creates a nightmarish scenario when, one day, Marjorie decides to wander off into the woods by herself.

My favorite of all the John Ball novels I’ve read is, hands-down, Miss One Thousand Spring Blossoms (1968). This, too, is a fish-out-of-water tale. It is the story of Richard Seaton, a thirtysomething engineer and mid-level executive at a conservative Massachusetts manufacturing company. One day, during a business trip to Tokyo, Dick will fall in love with a beautiful geisha, and this will unleash all sorts of disasters, both comic and tragic.

If all you know about John Ball is that he wrote In The Heat of the Night, I urge you to seek out more of his work. He was a writer who was unafraid to veer out of his own lane and explore the lives of others—people whose experiences of the world were vastly different from his own. He left behind a vast body of work, but if more readers don’t seek it out, it may end up being a dead body. And you don’t want to be one of the suspects in that homicide investigation.

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Beginning in June 2020, the New York Times ran a series entitled Why Does Art Matter?, in which more than a dozen artists, writers, and thinkers discussed the relevance of specific art forms and art in general to human life. The series inspired in me some thoughts about the artistic enterprise in which we are engaged.

Sometimes the most convincing proof of an art form’s relevance is that it has endured. Genre-fiction magazines have proved capable of holding their audiences for extraordinarily long periods of time. As our regular readers will know, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine will be concluding its eightieth year of continuous publication with the next issue to go on sale (November/December 2021). A somewhat longer unbroken run can be claimed by Analog Science Fiction and Fact, which is ninety-two, and our sister mystery publication, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, turned sixty-five this year, followed by Asimov’s Science Fiction, which is forty-four. Two titles older than any of these magazines, Weird Tales (1923) and Amazing Stories (1926), have been repeatedly revived. Those remarkable publishing records are evidence, I  think, that deeper cultural needs are being met by these magazines than simply fulfilling the public’s appetite for particular genres.

The earliest genre-fiction magazine, The Argosy (1888), presented varied types of stories to its readers, banking on good storytelling being a greater draw than a particular genre. Theirs was an era of increasing literacy in the U.S. and because their costs were low—partly due to printing on “pulp” paper—The Argosy and similar titles that soon joined it could be priced for a mass audience and thereby create large national readerships, bringing together geographically and culturally diverse segments of the country.

By the time EQMM came on the scene in 1941, the landscape had changed. During the 1920s and ’30s, the many new pulps that appeared were all for specialized audiences (Western, adventure, fantasy, science fiction, or hard-boiled detection). Quality was no longer the touchstone it had been, especially as demand grew and speed was required to fill pages. EQMM’s founding editor, Frederic Dannay (who cowrote the Ellery Queen novels and stories with his cousin Manfred B. Lee), decided that an entirely new type of genre-fiction magazine was needed, one that would put quality first, and whose range, although nominally limited to crime fiction, would be broader than that of any of the existing titles.

The best of the crime-fiction pulps, Black Mask, was primarily targeted at a male audience, with stories of unflagging action—although Fanny Ellsworth, its influential editor from 1936 to 1940, brought in masters of psychological suspense such as Cornell Woolrich. Nowhere in the pulp world, though, were traditional mysteries to be found. Only the glossy magazines occasionally published whodunits. Dannay’s idea—a revolutionary one—was to bring all of the different types of mystery story, from the whodunit to the mean-streets crime tale, from psychological suspense to the police procedural, together in one publication. Equally important was his quest to find and reprint a mystery by every great fiction writer in history—in order, I suppose, to demonstrate that mystery is at the heart of storytelling itself. If he could do that, he could help break down the barriers between “genre” and “literary” fiction, and, as he wrote, “raise the sights of mystery writers generally to a genuine literary form.”

Much ink has been spilled in recent decades over the breakdown of the boundaries between genre and literary fiction, but it’s rarely noted that this process began at least eighty years ago, when it served as a driving principle for EQMM. The original work of so many literary writers appeared in the magazine (William Faulkner and Jorge Luis Borges the best known) beside genre writers like Agatha Christie and Dashiell Hammett, that one modern scholar, Leah Pennywark, has credited EQMM with being a force in the development of postmodernism, through its interweaving of “high and popular culture.”*  Here we have an example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts: I’ve always felt that a fiction magazine, to be any good, must be more than a collection of stories. The juxtaposition of works, both in an individual issue and over time, has transformative potential, and it is transformative potential that makes any art form matter. If Pennywark is right, EQMM helped to transform American literary culture and, through it, our wider culture.

It isn’t only at the higher levels of culture that art needs to have an impact in order to matter, and to illustrate how not only EQMM but the other genre-fiction magazines have influenced our culture as a whole I’d like to resurrect a concept that went out of fashion a few decades ago: that of the “intelligent general reader.” I think of that person as someone who may shy away from certain forms of experimental or “literary” fiction (which, to many, seems accessible only to the initiated), but who nevertheless has an interest in stories that engage the mind and convey something about the human condition. This is the wider audience to which EQMM and most of the other genre fiction magazines address themselves.

Since all of the current magazines in the genre-fiction category, including EQMM, bear reference in their titles to one or more particular genre, that may seem an odd thing to say. Doesn’t the mystery concern itself with puzzles and crime, science fiction with scientific concepts, horror with supernatural objects of fear, and so on? And aren’t those special interests?

The answer to both questions is yes—and yet there’s a lot more to most genre fiction than those tags suggest. In an interview for The Paris Review’s Art of Ficton section (No. 221) Ursula K. LeGuin contrasted her work to “hard” science fiction, in which interest in a scientific concept predominates, by saying, “I try to hint at the complexity of the society I’m creating. . . . It’s helped to make my stuff more accessible to people who don’t, as they say, read science fiction.” In a similar way, through its exploration of human motivation, mystery fiction often appeals to readers who don’t self-identify as fans of the genre; the crime story, however focused on action, necessarily also shines a light on society, since crime is behavior aberrant to a society. Even the horror story, which may seem on the face of it the furthest removed from questions about the human condition, often touches on something larger than its fantastical elements: think of H.P. Lovecraft and the interest reflected in his fiction in humanity’s place in an uncaring universe.

If the concept of the “intelligent general reader” has fallen out of fashion in publishing, it’s largely because it’s more profitable to market to specialized audiences than to attempt a broad societal reach. We’re all enouraged, these days, by various forms of marketing, to self-identify in terms of specialized interests (even as pertains to the news we consume). The divide between the economic and educational opportunities and cultural interests of “elites” and “non-elites” has not been greater in recent memory. We all know from our recent national election, if from nothing else, that these many forms of division are a problem for our society, but have we considered how the breaking up of popular culture into ever narrower compartments may affect our ability to see the world from shared perspectives?

It wasn’t so long ago that what was striking at the level of popular culture was how common our interests were. The last episode of the network TV show M.A.S.H (1983) had 106 million viewers—an audience that obviously cut across social classes and ethnicities, since that was more than half the adult population of the country at the time. We don’t have anything that comes even close to that today; the last episode of the most popular recent TV show, Game of Thrones, had just over 16 million U.S. viewers, about twelve percent of American adults. Even delayed viewing doesn’t bring that show’s numbers close to the viewership peaks for shows like M.A.S.H. But it’s not just the numbers that matter; it’s the fact that there have come to be so few areas in which culture is shared across social classes at all today—literature not excluded.

If, for instance, one looks at the demographics of some of the best-known literary (as opposed to genre) magazines, one has to conclude that their readerships consist of the educational and economic elite. The Paris Review, for instance, shows more than half its readership as having traveled internationally, ninety-nine percent having recently visited a gallery or museum, more than three quarters placing restaurants high on their list of lifestyle spending. That is not rural or blue collar America or even the urban middle-middle class.

Content is not, I think, the primary reason such publications don’t appeal across more of the economic and social spectrum. As far as content goes, there’s significant overlap between the genre and literary magazines. EQMM’s current authors, for example, include two National Book Award winners, Joyce Carol Oates and Sigrid Nunez, and several others who are mainstays of various literary magazines. Conversely, many best-of-year anthologies in the mystery field contain stories drawn from the literary magazines. (They make up nearly half of 2019’s Best American Mystery Stories, edited by Jonathan Lethem.) What makes the literary magazines seem inaccessible to readers who don’t self-identify as part of the cultural elite is the perception (sometimes accurate) that they also contain cryptic content that may not repay the effort required to understand it. And then there’s the matter of cost. A single issue of The Paris Review is $20.00, compared to around $8.00 for a similar-length issue of any of the major genre-fiction magazines—a disparity justified by the high-quality paper and original art the literary magazines use, but which, nevertheless, may put them out of the reach of a large swath of the population.

Fiction magazines don’t simply find their audiences, they create them. They create a perception of themselves to which readers respond—or don’t. Literary magazines are mostly consciously targeted at an elite segment of society, and so people not belonging to that group often don’t even think of buying one. There was no certainty that Frederic Dannay could forge a common readership out of the disparate elements from which he was drawing back in 1941. In fact, it must have seemed quite a gamble. The classical whodunit (of the sort Agatha Christie wrote) usually turned around upper-class life—unsuprisingly, since it was most often written by those with privileged backgrounds and elite academic credentials, while the “hardboiled” story (popularized by authors such as Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler) was generally set in a world of violence and want, and written by those who’d had some experience of that sphere. There is no necessary correlation, of course, between the social stratum in which a work of fiction is set and the audience it ultimately commands, but previous magazines had targeted readerships more or less in line with the segments of society depicted. It took an editor like Dannay, willing to take risks himself, to draw readers out of their comfort zones and to forge an audience with a broad societal range.

It is, I think, a good thing that Dannay succeeded in his project of expanding and mainstreaming the crime-fiction genre, for it is often through shared stories (whether communicated via television or print or some other means) that we come to understand people unlike ourselves. Social class is not the only source of otherness, of course, but it is one of the sources that most bedevil us today. A publication that can reach across class and ethnic and geographic and gender lines and present a shared form of entertainment to an intelligent general readership has the potential to expand our understanding of one another, even if only in a small way. The genre-fiction magazines are among the few remaining publications that do this, and that is one answer to the question why they matter. —Janet Hutchings


Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine: From Postpulp to Postmodern by Leah Pennywark, Journal of Modern Periodical Studies 9.2 (2018): 220-244

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From Cozy to Creepy, with Quirky, Nail-biting, and Scary Thrown in Along the Way (by Denis Johnston)

California resident Denis Johnston makes his debut as a professional writer in the Department of First Stories of our current issue (September/October 2021) with the story “Snail Mail.” Like this post, the story is infused with the author’s offbeat humor. Don’t miss it!  —Janet Hutchings

I own some responsibility for the worldwide COVID 19 pandemic. For Halloween 2019 I wore a medieval bird mask, a plague hat, and completed the costume with the tackiest polyester coat I could find. Turns out that mocking the universe with thrift shop bargains wasn’t a brilliant idea. 2020 made the academic words “pandemic,” “quarantine,” and “lockdown,” part of the world’s shared experience.

It’s a fair guess that most people figured to use lockdown to better themselves. Healthy eating and rigorous exercise were certainly going to improve my well-being. I live in Los Angeles, so kale and tofu scrambles are a requirement, but they only lasted until I heard the siren call of pizza. Sausage and two kinds of pepperoni didn’t up the good-for-me factor but, hey, I was on lockdown. The exercise program didn’t go much better—burpees only lasted two weeks and my walks got shorter every day, especially in the summer. (See Los Angeles above). Sheltering at home was restricting but fiction allowed me to hitch-hike and bee-bop across 1950s America, cheer on an awkward adolescent in his crusade against the phonies, and cry at an ex-slave’s haunted past. Most memorable was treading the deck of battered whaler into hell’s dark heart.

Most of what I read was every bit as engaging, entertaining, exciting, and simply incredible as their reputations proclaimed. Someday I’ll read them again. However, every now and then I needed to take breaks and turn to something I could start and finish in a single session. I started with dystopian fiction but that hit a bit too close to home. Horror, hard science fiction and space opera were welcome additions but fantasy hadn’t grabbed me since the dragons tore up my lawn and the unicorns stayed up all night partying. Don’t get me started about Pegasus—a herd of flying horses is enough of a toxic event to make staying inside a blessing. And as far as romance, well, I was already in lockdown, no need to make it hell.

I prefer mystery/crime fiction and hot damn am I lucky there’s so much excellent stuff available. Historical and modern; contemporary and classic; hilarious and tragic works deserve to be read. “Best of” summaries, themed anthologies, and single author collections had called me to bookstores in more social and less distanced times. So, at first, I braved the tedious task to mask up to leave the house—after ensuring the Pegasus herd was nowhere nearby. Even the dreadful inconvenience that the nearest shrine to the printed word controlled how many people entered and had closed off their coffee shop to browsers who chose a book from the shelf and gave it a quick glance while chugging a half-caf Americano with an extra hot, extra shot and double frothed skim foam topped by two shakes of fresh ground nutmeg didn’t stop me from making the pilgrimage.

Traveling became less feasible though, and that’s where the magazines the Post Office stuffed, jammed, or gently delivered to my mailbox became life savers. Some magazines only came every couple of months, which is nowhere near often enough, if you ask me—but all were welcome. (I’d be an ingratiating suck-up to callout EQMM and shamelessly tacky to plug my story (page 151) in the September/October issue. That’d be tempting the universe again so forget I wrote that.)

Every magazine was truly like a cardboard rectangle box confectionary Theobroma Cacao—the product of a small, tropical evergreen tree in the Malvaceae family—and contained a variety of tastes and textures. Mystery fiction has an immense variety of styles and stories. It’s only natural that different people prefer some genres over others, but it’s a big, wonderful arena where everybody can read everything. (Did I mention page 151?)

I can’t think of a subtype or genre that isn’t available at any time. I shouldn’t travel across town, much less the world, but I could go to exotic locations, meet fascinating people, and watch them bump each other off. I sipped tea with Lady Cholmendy Ffoukesworth Smythe-Smythe as she watched her husband flirt with both the upstairs maid and the butler before putting just a pinch more arsenic in his flummery. I shivered with Hardcase MacNab McDanger when he snapped his gat out and cursed the well-stacked dame who’d lured him onto the rain-drenched alleys of sunny Los Angeles. I warned Dr. Jon Dough not to miss his bus, not venture down the wrong street, and certainly not stumble into the seedy diner with the cracked and buzzing neon sign. I worried for Innocenta Newcop when she learned the corruption on the force included her seasoned partner and extended to highest intersection of religion, wealth, and politics. And I listened when a fledging journalist heard the truth about a 30-year-old murder while a farewell symphony faded into regrets and memory. Modern life was stressful, but mystery fiction took me from my limited world to mean streets, backwoods, deserts, swamps, casinos, glistening metropolises, dusty two horse towns, ships, planes, and cars. I met madmen, femmes fatales, and conflicted heroes; people living lives of quiet desperation and the morally ambiguous family next door. I heard the innocent and the guilty; the wrongly accused and the damned. I even visited the scariest place of all—the clean streets where petty grievances, jealousy, distrust caused the most dangerous animals to swear revenge.

Some went gentle into that good night, others raged against the dying of the light. Some of them pondered tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeping in its petty pace until simple resentment brought on the last syllable of recorded time.

No one’s life was especially comfortable during this time but I got to experience satisfaction knowing that some people got what was coming to them. Others engendered sympathy and empathy for being caught in webs no spider could ever master. Social distancing was necessary but the stories put me face to face with honest crooks and crooked politicians, sinning saints and saintly sinners, and the dateless, defiant, doomed, and desperate. 

I’ll be glad as anyone else when things start to lift and when masks are no longer needed. It’ll be interesting then to see how many of those smiling eyes and cheerful voices reveal the full range of characters. Who masked and masked and remained a villain? I don’t know what novel to read next. It’ll be hard to top treading the decks of the Pequod, but I don’t have to choose right away. The world will go on as it needs to but I’ll find short mystery fiction to keep me engaged and amazed (I did mention a page number someplace). My biggest concern then will be staying awake late because a story is so exciting, well-written and moving that the pages practically turn themselves. Then I’ll have to haul my bleary-eyed carcass out of bed to make sure the door’s locked because you just can’t mock the universe.

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“A Nice Girl Like You” (by Hilary Davidson)

In addition to being the award-winning author of two popular crime-fiction series—the Shadows of New York and travel-writer Lily Moore novels—Hilary Davidson has produced more than four dozen short stories in our genre. She’s received two Anthony awards, a Derringer Award, and several other crime-fiction honors. A lifelong fan of crime fiction, she only turned to writing it after she had established herself as a journalist.  In this post, the Toronto native talks about what drew her to our field when she decided to write fiction. Her latest short story, ”Weed Man,” appears in EQMM’s current issue (September/October 2021). “Her Last Breath,” her latest stand-alone novel, was named a summer 2021 reading pick by Entertainment Weekly, Parade Magazine, Travel & Leisure, and the Toronto Star. —Janet Hutchings

When I published my first short story in a crime journal called Thuglit, it got mixed reactions from my family. My proud parents were thrilled, and they sent my dark tale of a sadistic stalker to everyone at their church. Other responses were less positive. My father-in-law told me it had given him nightmares, and he didn’t want to read my fiction again. Still, the most striking reaction was my aunt’s; she was horrified and perplexed in equal measure. “I just don’t understand,” she said to me. “How could my sweet, lovely niece write that? How?”

To be fair, my writing up to that point hadn’t hinted at any inner darkness. For a decade, I was a freelance travel writer, producing guidebooks for Frommer’s and honeymoon columns for Martha Stewart Weddings. While I occasionally wrote newspaper pieces that were a little offbeat—about New Orleans’ cemeteries, for example, or the graphic brothel frescoes of Pompeii—they were focused on history. No one questioned my mental wellbeing until I started publishing dark stories that were entirely unlike anything I’d written before.

At first, I tried to deflect. “I’ve always loved mysteries,” I would insist, pointing to my childhood love of Nancy Drew books. More than once, I called them my gateway drug into the world of crime writing. It was certainly true that I loved the genre. I’d graduated from Nancy Drew to Agatha Christie as a tween, before discovering Sara Paretsky and Walter Mosley and a host of other crime writers that I still read today. But it wasn’t an honest answer. I wasn’t writing dark fiction because I admired other authors who did; I loved science fiction and historical novels as well, but I wasn’t interested in writing those. I was exploring crime fiction because I had no other place to put the dark thoughts running through my mind.

I don’t think I would have started writing thrillers if I hadn’t been the victim of a workplace violence attack at my first job out of college. At twenty-two, I worked in a government office that served veterans, and one very disturbed man decided that he wanted to kill his counselor and everyone else in the office. One morning he walked in, armed with a large plastic container. I heard him muttering as he walked past my cubicle, and I smelled the gasoline before I understood what he was doing. When I stood and went to my doorway, he was already at the end of the hall. In a smooth, swift motion, he flicked a lighter and threw it on the carpet. A wall of flame surged up, so tall it swept against the ceiling, so hot it seared my skin.          

I think I screamed. I know I ran. Later, I was given an award for getting people out of the office, but I don’t remember doing that. One moment, I was frozen, seeing the flames come toward me. The next, I was on the sidewalk, seven stories down, with the reek of gasoline still making me gag. The fire destroyed three floors of the building and injured several people, some so badly they never came back to work. The police arrested the arsonist before firefighters finished putting out the blaze, but the case never went to court. He was declared insane and locked away in a mental hospital.

“That was crazy, but it could have been so much worse. We were lucky,” I told my friends and family afterwards. I repeated that line like a mantra, especially after the police told me the arsonist had originally tried to get grenades. But I didn’t feel lucky. There were odd, dark thoughts clustering in my head. I wasn’t a fearful person by nature, but I remember being on the subway, seeing a man reach into a duffel bag, and panicking, as if he were about to attack. In retrospect, that was a clear sign of trauma, but at the time I worried that I’d be labeled crazy if I told anyone.

My coping mechanism was to read about crime. Maybe that sounds counterintuitive, but at the time I was convinced that if only I understood criminal psychology, I wouldn’t be a victim again. Looking back, I think about it differently: it was very lonely to be a victim. People who knew about it expected me to stop talking about it and move on; after all, no one wants to dwell on the darkness, do they?

It turned out, I did.

There had been other things that had happened over the years that I’d never really talked about, and they bubbled to the surface. When I wrote that first short story about that sadistic stalker, I was thinking back to when I was fourteen and being stalked by a man in his twenties. The chill I felt then, when the police told me that they couldn’t do anything unless he “did something” to me, still hits hard. I wrote it into fiction because I wanted other people to feel the fear I experienced.

It still makes me feel deeply vulnerable, connecting my own personal history with what I write, even though I don’t write directly about my experiences. It more about the emotion and the questions that perpetually swirl around my brain. Deep down, I still want to know what drives a person to seek vengeance, or to kill? And I can’t stop thinking about why society looks the other way when men show clear signs of being a threat. But there’s an incredible satisfaction into making other people think about them too. Most of all, I’m grateful that all of the dark, disturbing thoughts that live inside my brain have found a home. For the first time, I really do feel lucky.

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“The Joy and Sorrow of Magazines” (by Maxim Jakubowski)

This is the first post for our site by Maxim Jakubowski, but he’s someone whose name is known to nearly everyone in the mystery field. He worked for many years in publishing and later owned London’s Murder One bookstore for twenty years. His first novel was published when he was sixteen and he is now the author of twenty-one novels spanning several popular-fiction genres. He’s a well-known anthologist and short story writer as well, and he’s currently the chair of the U.K. Crime Writers’ Association. His latest novel is The Piper’s Dance (2021), and he’s compiled two anthologies we’ll be watching for next year: The Perfect Crime, a landmark anthology of material from writers of color, co-edited with Vaseem Khan, and Black Is the Night a collection of new stories inspired by Cornell Woolrich. In this post he talks about his lifelong love for fiction magazines such as EQMM and his passion for collecting.—Janet Hutchings

It’s no secret that I began my life in the world of books in the SF and fantasy genre—initially as a reader, then as fanzine editor—and quickly graduated to actually writing fiction. But when I look back, I have come to the realization that I owe it all to magazines.

I must have been just about fourteen, and living in Paris, France, where my father had set up business just a couple of years following my birth in London, and had become an avid borrower at our local bibliothèque using my mother’s library card, indulging at the rate of almost a book a day in fiction galore, whether Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, SF, or crime and mystery (Agatha Christie in French translation, Arsène Lupin, Fantomas, but also early Série Noire adaptations of Peter Cheyney, James Hadley Chase and Mickey Spillane), but I was fast running out of reading material and on a shopping errand came across a small store just a quarter of an hour’s walk from our home, where I spotted a small digest-size magazine on sale with a Jean-Claude Forest cover illustration (this was years before he became famous for Barbarella . . . ). The magazine was called Fiction, and this was issue 56. I would find out later that Fiction was a French version of U.S. mag The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (still going today and competing with EQMM‘s sister publications Analog and Asimov’s). The cover illustrated the lead story which turned out to be the opening instalment of a serialisation of Robert A. Heinlein’s The Door Into Summer. Notwithstanding the fact that I would have to pay for the magazine from my own pocket money, I never hesitated.

Back in my room, I devoured the magazine in record time. I was hooked. I had seldom read much in the way of short stories before and hadn’t realized how much the form suited popular fiction, creating an instant in time, a world in miniature which could encompass both plot and characterisation to the fore in what was essentially a delicate and/or clever nutshell of fiction, as opposed to full-length novels which could sprawl, digress, play a game of hall of mirrors but also took a toll on reading time. This revelation excited me, and I embarked immediately on a mission to locate the previous fifty-five issues of the magazine, which I did on a limited budget, mostly in the dusty boxes of the bouquinistes along the Seine river, alongside also discovering many of the greats of genre fiction in U.S.-imported paperback originals. It took me at least two years to complete my collection, while still being first in the queue every month when a new issue was produced. I quickly graduated to the “Readers Letters” page, eventually contributing the occasional short story myself. By then I had of course also extended my collecting to Fiction’s sister publication, Mystere Magazine, which was the French franchise of EQMM.

What was wonderful about those years is that both magazines not only published the best of current short fiction and authors in the genre, but also frequent material by well-known literary figures of the present and past who had dabbled on occasion into SF and crime. Thus my education into popular fiction began, as did my rapidly spreading collector’s habit. And, needless to say, the strong desire to emulate those writers. And as short stories seemingly wouldn’t take as long to write or as much of an emotional commitment as a novel, I much preferred practicing the form. Even now, with twenty-one novels under my belt, I still get enough of a kick and satisfaction in crafting a short story.

Skip several years and I am now working in book publishing and no longer reliant on the pocket money my father dolefully handed out—a man who fought in the Spanish Civil War, on the good/losing side, and never quite understood how his offspring became something of an intellectual, despite having been sired by a man who never read a book in his life—and my collecting vice is now a full, glorious, wonderful folly. I accumulate books with a passion, across genres and the mainstream, delving when I can afford it into first editions, signed and inscribed copies, which to my utter surprise my wife doesn’t even mind. And my children, and later even grandchildren also become avid readers, which I now see as one of my greatest achievements; not that any of them would ever dare read my own books, for fear of embarrassment!

Fiction‘s long run came to an end several decades ago, but I have moved on to EQMM, which I began acquiring monthly from the 1980s and of which I promptly began hunting down back issues, alongside its sister magazines Hitchcock, Asimov’s, and Analog. (I have a complete run of Asimov‘s and Analog going back to when is was Astounding SF in the 1940s.) On a trip to one of my favourite cities, New Orleans, at a time when it still hosted a couple of handfuls of used-book emporiums full of dusty shelves and nooks and crannies, I venture into a dark and crowded antique store on Royal Street which had a few interesting Dell and Pyramid 1950s paperback originals in their window display between prints and garish vintage clothing. (A tip from collectors past: tourist cities are always good hunting grounds for old books and magazines; something about visitors invariably abandoning books in hotel rooms, I guess.) Inside, I dig out ten or so titles (mostly Rex Stout and Dell Shannon book-club editions, for which I always have a demand for in the used-book section at Murder One, my London specialty bookstore), and I am making arrangements to have them shipped to our New York shipping agent when the store owner suggests I might be interested in some old stuff he keeps at the back. He leads me to a musty storage area with cardboard boxes piled high.

By nature a pessimist, I open one of them with no great expectation only to find the carton filled to the brim with truly old issues of EQMM in rather excellent condition. I try and keep a straight face, not wanting to see the asking price rise in line with my visible interest, and move to the second and then third box. I quickly note that the actual first issue of the magazine is part of the lot as well as the very early, eminently collectable, issue featuring legendary pinup Bettie Page on the cover. My temperature rises. It turns out I am in the presence of a run of the magazine’s first twelve years, with not an issue missing. I nervously ask the store’s owner for his asking price—which turns out to be rather modest, and I have no need to negotiate. The deal is done. The shipping costs back to the U.K. will probably be as high as that of the magazines, but I am in seventh heaven.

I move on to Beckham’s which has always been a fertile territory for more used books, but the decision has already been made: the magazines will go straight onto my shelves at home and not go on sale in the bookshop. Being sole owner of Murder One has its privileges!

This was not quite the end of the story, as UPS or whichever carrier the store used then took nearly four months to transport my acquisitions from New Orleans to Queens, and I had by then drawn a line on the affair, assuming the magazines were cursed and lost in transit!

At any rate, this is how I am now the proud owner (do I hear you say hoarder?) of a complete collection of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine from its launch to the present day. In fact when I integrated the arrivals onto my shelves, there were only a couple of duplicates (which Murder One inherited and sold at an unholy profit . . .).

But you know how it goes with collectors: you never stop, even when the saner part of your mind insists and reminds you daily that it’s all a gentle kind of madness. Because it’s not just the lines and lines on the bookshelves of just EQMM, but also its sister magazines, rival publications (oh, how I treasure my runs of Black Mask, Manhunt, Dime Detective Monthly, and sundry pulps), and—reserve my place in the asylum right now—similar magazines in French. And that’s not forgetting thousands of film magazines that retrace the history of the cinema in an assortment of languages. Did I forget to mention I also collect music magazines and have a full run of Rolling Stone, Creem, Spin, and others. Maybe I shouldn’t mention the LPs, CDs and DVDs . . . should I? Yes, I do have a patient wife. Streaming or digital versions, do I hear you say? I’m deaf. Digital just cannot compete in my affections with the feel and smell of paper and print.

And of course I’ve made no mention of over 30,000 books at the last count (but is it my fault that publishers send me twenty or so new books a month to review or judge for the CWA Daggers?). So, yes, we have a large house, and have extended a number of times, and even built two storage buildings at the back of the garden, but still the collecting habit persists. But what compares with the pleasure of pulling an old magazine out of its sequence and dipping into it, reading again a story at random, an article, a review which will point you to an author you had hitherto been mostly unaware of? Books and magazines are my life, and I would never want it to be any different.

You might justly point out that I can’t take them with me, and that my children wouldn’t know what to do with this accumulation of material, but suitable arrangements have been made for the collection’s destinations when I must inevitably pass; they have, in my will, been promised to two university archives that specialize in popular culture.

Magazines (and books)? They made me what I am. And I proudly stand before you like on an initial visit to Alcoholics Anonymous and say, “My name is Maxim and I am a collector.”

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“A Semiforgotten Masterpiece of Short Fiction” (by Kevin Mims)

With EQMM’s 80th anniversary issue (September/October 2021) on sale now, this post, which begins by marking another significant anniversary in crime fiction, seems apt. It also calls attention to an important collection of short fiction of which I’d been unaware. Short-story writer and essayist Kevin Mims is a frequent contributor to this site.—Janet Hutchings

Fifty years ago, in August of 1971, Viking Press published Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal (Hutchinson & Co. had published it a few months earlier in the U.K.). A fictional account of an attempt to assassinate French President Charles De Gaulle, The Day of the Jackal is one of the most influential crime novels of all time. I was planning to write a fifty-year retrospective of the novel but, foolishly as it turns out, cancelled that plan because I figured mine would be just one of dozens of tributes to this classic piece of fiction. I assumed that the New York Times and other media organizations would write about the book and even conduct an interview with Forsyth to accompany the main story. Curiously, this didn’t happen. Blame COVID-19, blame the busy news cycle—blame anyone you want. The sad fact is that a book that had an impact on popular fiction somewhat similar to the impact that Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band had on popular music was allowed to pass its fiftieth anniversary largely under the radar.

Jackal’s influence was everywhere in the 1970s and in just about every subsequent decade as well. Prior to Jackal, most crime writers didn’t bother to make themselves experts on guns. The weapons their fictional killers used were generally just described as pistols or revolvers or rifles or Derringers or Smith & Wessons—you name it. But Forsyth’s assassin needed a special weapon, a rifle that would be accurate at long range but which could be broken down into small parts and shipped in a suitcase that no one would suspect contained a rifle. The Day of the Jackal goes into great detail about how the gun is designed and bored and assembled and stabilized and so forth. Later, this kind of almost fetishistic detail about guns would become more commonplace, but it was fairly rare prior to The Day of the Jackal.

Other details from Forsyth’s novel were borrowed countless times in other books. One such detail involves the acquisition of a fake identity and has come to be known as TheDay of the Jackal fraud, because it has appeared in so many fictions and has been attempted with various degrees of success by numerous real-life fraudsters. It involves visiting a graveyard and finding the tombstone of a dead person who was born close to your own birth date. Armed with this person’s name and date of birth, you then visit the local hall of records, give them the fake name and birth date, claim that they are yours, and then inform the clerk that you have lost your original birth certificate and would like to obtain a copy. Armed with this birth certificate, you can then go out and acquire a fake driver’s license, a fake passport, fake credit cards, etc. Modern technology has rendered this ruse all but obsolete, but at the time that Jackal was published, it was a brilliant and brilliantly effective way of obtaining a false identity. 

Believe it or not, The Day of the Jackal is not actually the subject of this essay. To do it justice I would have had to reread it carefully, and the time has passed for that. Instead, I’d like to recommend a different Forsyth book, No Comebacks, a collection of short stories published in 1982. This book is also a bit of a one-off wonder. And because readers of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine are by definition fans of short crime fiction, I think this book deserves mention here.

We are living in an era of great crime writers. Most of these writers specialize in novels. But excellent collections of short mystery and/or crime fiction still get published all the time. For the most part, they fall into two categories. Category one is the multiauthor anthology. These include the annual collections such as The Best American Mystery Stories (fill in the year), as well as various geographical collections of crime stories set in Boston, or New Orleans, or Los Angeles, and so on. We have also seen the recent publication of many really good single-author crime-story collections. These include No Middle Name, a collection of Jack Reacher stories by Lee Child; The Beat Goes On, a collection of DI Rebus stories by Ian Rankin; The Pyramid, a collection of Inspector Kurt Wallander stories by the late Henning Mankell. These are worthy additions to the genre, but each story in the book features the same crime fighter.

One of the things that made No Comebacks fairly unusual is that it was a best-selling collection of crime stories from a lone author that didn’t feature any pre-existing characters. Such books still get published, but you practically have to be Stephen King to hit the bestseller list with a collection like that. Which probably explains why the closest thing we’ve seen to No Comebacks in the last few years is King’s 2015 bestseller The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, a collection of stories, many involving crime and punishment, that are not all connected by a main character or an obvious theme.

No Comebacks is by no means an obscure book. It has been in print for nearly forty years, and it has a fairly high rating at the online book review site Goodreads, where nearly 4,000 people have rated it and nearly 200 have reviewed it. 

The collection has many things to recommend it. Lets start with the twists. Forsyth is as much a master of the surprise ending as O. Henry, Saki, Richard Matheson, or Rod Serling. Like those masters, he is also capable of planting entertaining surprises at just about any point in a story. It can diminish the enjoyment of such stories to reveal the surprises in a review, so I am going to mention only one of them. The fourth story in the collection is called “There Are Some Days . . .”, and in its opening pages we find ourselves in the company of an Irish truck driver named Liam Clarke. His truck is being transported aboard a large ferryboat from La Havre, France, to the small Irish port town of Rosslare. After the ferry docks at Rosslare, Clarke drives his vehicle into a sort of truck barn where it will be examined by customs agents. Clarke and a customs inspector discover that the truck is leaking oil because of a broken “differential nose-piece.” (One of the pleasures of Forsyth’s fiction is its detailed knowledge of various professions that I can’t help thinking of as manly, although I know little about any of them myself: truck driving, marlin fishing, the demolition of buildings, etc.) At any rate, the problem is serious and the truck will not be allowed to leave the customs barn until it is fixed. Clarke calls the company he works for. They promise to send a repairman in the morning. In the morning, as promised, a repairman arrives with a new differential nose-piece and he and Clarke repair the truck. When they have just about finished, another large ferry arrives at the dock and a truck identical to Clarke’s rolls off the boat and into the customs barn to be briefly inspected. Off on a grassy knoll a few hundred yards away, a criminal named Murphy watches through binoculars as the second truck rolls off the ferry and into the barn. Murphy plans to hijack this truck. He knows what its contents are and he has found a gang of criminals from Northern Island who will pay him handsomely for the ill-gotten gains. Murphy expects it will take this truck about ten minutes to clear customs. But just five minutes later, he sees the truck exit the barn. All the better, he thinks. But the reader knows that he has made a critical mistake. The truck exiting the barn is not the one Murphy is waiting to hijack. It is Liam Clarke’s identical truck (he works for the same company as the other driver, but carries a very different kind of cargo). And this is only the first in a whole series of bizarre plot twists that will lead us to a very surprising conclusion.

Because he grounds his stories in very specific details, generally pertaining to ordinary workaday life, Forsyth’s shocking plot twists never seem unbelievable. The title story is a good example of this. In many ways it is a variation on The Day of the Jackal. Like Jackal, it concerns a contract killing which is negotiated in one country but carried out in another, meaning that the hitman has to bring his weapon across a European border. But Jackal was set in 1963, when airport security was fairly lax. The story “No Comebacks” is set in 1973, by which time airport security was anything but lax. In 1963, the Jackal was able to carry most of his contraband material from England to France in baggage that he took aboard a commercial air flight. But from 1965 to 1972 the world experienced what author Brendan I. Koerner, in his excellent nonfiction book The Skies Belong to Us, dubbed “a Golden Age of Hijacking.” At one point, an airplane was being hijacked in U.S. airspace just about once every week. The situation in Europe wasn’t much better. Thus by the end of 1972, just about every piece of passenger luggage carried aboard an airplane or stowed in its cargo hold was inspected before it was allowed to pass. Forsyth is keenly aware of this. Writing from the perspective of a French hitman who needs to find a way to get his murder weapon into Spain, Forsyth writes: “Airplanes were out—thanks to international terrorism every flight out of Orly was minutely checked for firearms.” Instead he uses a meticulously detailed workaround involving a fat book on Spanish history whose pages he has hollowed out, international mail, and some cutting and pasting tools. His ingenious plan is so homespun —involving stuff anyone could acquire over the course of short shopping spree—that it seems totally believable.

One thing you might not expect to find in a Frederick Forsyth book is humor, but his stories actually pack quite a lot of it in, even the grimmest of them. Sometimes this comes in the form of authorial understatement. Of an irate farmer who is having a mental breakdown after a roadside confrontation, we are told, “He was having a noisy personal conversation with his creator.” 

The plots of these stories are fiendish. In “Money With Menaces,” a timid little insurance clerk seeks out a bit of extramarital companionship only to find himself being blackmailed by some very bad people. But is the insurance clerk really the milquetoast he appears to be? In “Used in Evidence,” a lone elderly holdout is preventing a development firm from razing a rundown housing project and building a shopping mall in its place. But is it just sentimentality that keeps the old man from wanting to surrender his home of thirty-plus years? None of us likes paying taxes, but you’ll be amazed when you see what lengths the protagonist of “A Careful Man” goes to in order to keep the UK’s Office of Inland Revenue from collecting what he owes them. A story called “There Are No Snakes In Ireland” might have made an excellent installment of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery. “Sharp Practice” involves a couple of card sharps who teach an Irish judge a lesson whose moral could be summed up in this famous quote from Damon Runyon: “Some day, somewhere . . . a guy is going to come to you and show you a nice brand-new deck of cards on which the seal is never broken, and this guy is going to offer to bet you that the jack of spades will jump out of this deck and squirt cider in your ear. But, son . . . do not bet him, for as sure as you do you are going to get an ear full of cider.”

Born in 1938, Forsyth is now in his eighties, and he remains active as a writer. His most recent book, The Fox, was published in 2018. As good as he is, Forsyth is not without his faults as a writer. Years ago, I attended a lecture by John Irving in which he noted that: “In the end, a writer’s greatest strength will often end up being his biggest weakness.” Or words to that effect. He pointed out that writers who are praised early in their careers for creating clever dialog, often end up focusing all their attention on writing clever dialog, to the detriment of their work. Writers praised for their wicked plots will often create plots that are more and more complex until eventually they are pretty much incomprehensible. Early in his career, Forsyth was heavily (and justifiably) praised for the depth of his research and for his ability to explain all sorts of complex operations—an identity swindle, the workings of an engine, how to smuggle contraband across various international borders—so that anyone could understand it. This trait was a hallmark of his best books. But by the 1990s, this research began to weigh down many of his books. At least that is my opinion. The last Forsyth novel I was able to finish was The Phantom of Manhattan, published in 1999 (it was a source of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 2010 musical Love Never Dies). The newer stuff seems mired in excess data, though opinions on that may vary. Those later books have plenty of fans, judging by various online review sites. For me, the golden era of Frederick Forsyth fiction is the stretch from 1971 to 1982. Any legitimate list of the best thrillers of the twentieth century has to have The Day of the Jackal at or near its top spot. But don’t overlook No Comebacks. The title isn’t one of Forsyth’s best-known, but any legitimate list of the best single-author collections of crime short stories ought to include it. It is a shame that Forsyth hasn’t written more short stories because he has a real knack for it.

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Who, Why, and How: Mystery’s Most Important Questions (by M. Zizzari)

M. Zizzari’s fiction debut, “Rage and Ruin,” appears in the Department of First Stories in EQMM’s current issue (September/October 2021). The author is currently a student at Simon Fraser University, majoring in criminology with a minor in English. It’s evident from this post—which discusses a way of looking at the genre that was articulated by EQMM in its early years!— that a love of mysteries is in this writer’s blood.—Janet Hutchings 

Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine is currently celebrating its anniversary; it has been in publication for 80 years now, and deservedly so. And for a magazine with such a long and varied history, which welcomes and has published just about every type of mystery fiction there is, what better way to commemorate the occasion than by taking a look at what are considered to be the main forms of mystery fiction? Fittingly, I stumbled across an old article from American Speech that contained the line: “Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, XVI (October, 1950), 53, groups mystery fiction into three classes, ‘whodunit,’ ‘howdunit,’ ‘whydunit,’” and in light of this, I thought I would start with those three classes before going on to discuss a fourth class.

The first form, I trust, requires no introduction: the whodunnit. The whodunnit is often considered the quintessential mystery story, and even those who do not consider themselves to be fans of the genre would have no difficulty in recognizing the form and those who have mastered it, such as Agatha Christie or, aptly, Ellery Queen. In a whodunnit, the protagonist, who is often a private detective or some layperson imbued with admirable powers of deduction, comes into contact with a crime that has, usually, only recently taken place. Generally, this protagonist, through witness accounts or via their own investigation, gains all the facts of the case save one—the identity of the culprit—and must use this information to fill in that final piece of the puzzle. They must determine who done it. In theory, any mystery story that concerns itself primarily with uncovering the identity of a criminal would fall under the classification of a whodunnit, from the grizzled, hard-boiled stylings of Raymond Chandler, to the cozier, more youth-oriented works of Carolyn Keene.

On a personal level, what I have always enjoyed most about whodunnits is trying to put the puzzle pieces together before the protagonist’s big reveal at the end. While not all whodunnits are necessarily fair play mysteries—those which give the reader the information necessary to solve the case themselves—I always tried to keep the clues in mind and attempted to follow the detective’s logic as closely as possible. For the fair play stories, I felt a sense of pride if I had managed to accurately predict the perpetrator, and in those that were not, I still took satisfaction in seeing how all the pieces slotted together. The best whodunnits manage to capture intellect within art. The objectively logical, encased within the subjectively beautiful.

When compared to the whodunnit, the whydunit is a term far less commonly encountered. Unlike a whodunnit, the whydunit does not hide the identity of the criminal from the reader. Indeed, the opposite is true, as the criminal is often the protagonist of these stories. Rather than following a detective, we follow a criminal or would-be criminal in an almost introspective way, as they contemplate the crime they have or will commit. Whydunit concerns itself with the motivations of the culprit, emphasizing the psychological aspect of criminality.

The howdunnit can, perhaps, be considered the counterpart to the whydunit. Where the latter looks at the deeper, internal questions behind the crime, but the former takes a more external approach, and questions the mechanism of the crime. The narrative of a howdunnit focuses on revealing the method the culprit used, and the answer to that question is the ultimate goal for the reader.

Interestingly, when I went to write an example of a howdunnit, the story that came to my mind was one of Nabokov’s works. What makes that point interesting, for those who aren’t aware, is that the famous writer Vladimir Nabokov was well-known to dislike mystery fiction. Nabokov once said, “there are some varieties of fiction that I never touch—mystery stories, for instance, which I abhor,” and he referred to the genre as “a kind of collage combining more or less original riddles with conventional and mediocre artwork.” And yet, despite his vocal denouncement of the genre, I believe that some of his works fall under the category of mystery fiction. Particularly “Revenge,” which was originally published in Russian in 1924, and which I would argue is a rather good example of a short story howdunnit.

“Revenge” follows an aging biology professor who has decided to murder his wife. Here we already have the main element of mystery fiction, the crime, but we are not barred from the knowledge of the killer’s identity. While Nabokov avoids the riddle of who, he does not avoid the riddle of how. Quite the contrary, as though the professor comments on the fact that he has settled upon a method, he does not state what it is. The reader spends the entire story wondering as to what the professor’s plans actually are—wondering how it will be done, something which is not revealed until the very end of the story. I will refrain from giving more details, as I don’t want to give away too much, and I think anyone who has not read this story should give it a read. The point remains that though this story does not fit the definition of a whodunnit, it does seem to fit our working definition of a howdunnit.

Having looked at all three classes of mystery fiction as recognized by EQMM in 1950, and some examples of them, we now arrive at what I consider to be the final class of mystery fiction: the howcatchem. Compared to the other terms, howcatchem is quite new, having come into popularity in the 1970s. In stories of these sort, the author crafts a mystery in which the identity, method, and even motivation, are known to the reader. The beginning typically follows the criminal as they perpetrate their crime, before switching perspectives to follow the detective tasked with solving it. The howcatchem is sometimes also referred to as the inverted detective story. I personally favour the term howcatchem, not only because its style is in keeping with other terms of the mystery genre, but because it is the one my father used fondly when he first introduced me to the show, Columbo.

Columbo is the show that popularized not only the term, but the form itself. Every episode begins with the culprit, introducing the audience to them briefly before the murder occurs, allowing the viewer some insight into the character and their motives, and continuing to follow them to the moment of the act and past it, to how the killer attempts to cover it up. By the time the titular homicide lieutenant, Columbo—played by the incomparable Peter Falk—arrives on the scene to investigate, the viewer has seen everything, and thus, is already in possession of all the pertinent information. If nothing else, the viewer has the answers to all the questions that most mystery fiction centres on; they know whodunnit, whydunit, and howdunnit, but they’re left asking themselves, “how does he catch ‘em?” The aspect that is left until the ending’s big reveal is exactly where the killer went wrong. The viewer scours that opening looking not for clues, but for mistakes. I can easily recall asking my father to rewind the episode so I could watch it again and try to determine where the murderer slipped up, often pausing to discuss my theories.

Mystery has the power to compel its audience more powerfully than perhaps any other genre, and even those who later feel it has lost its power over them have been irrevocably impacted by it—traces of its influence still there to be found, as evidenced with Nabokov. The engagement a person has with the genre may be intellectual, emotional, or a combination of the two. But nonetheless, all mystery fiction seems to have a special ability to draw in its audience, regardless of which classification it falls under.

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