“The Man Who Would Be King (and Tevis and Kesey and Levin, Etc.” (by Kevin Mims)

These days, time certainly feels to be an uncertain entity. In this post, essayist, frequent contributor to EQMM and AHMM, and prolific reader Kevin Mims—who has written about popular fiction many times before on this site—takes a look at popular bestsellers of the 1960s and 70s from a unique viewpoint.—Janet Hutchings

Last year, Academy Award-winning director Danny Boyle released his fourteenth film, Yesterday, in which a young musician wakes up after being hit by a bus and discovers himself in a world where no one has ever heard of The Beatles, leaving him free to pass off all those great Lennon/McCartney songs as his own compositions. It’s a dream come true (until, of course, it turns into kind of a nightmare). For years, I’ve had a similar dream. As soon as I can complete the time machine I’ve been constructing in my garage for decades now, I plan to travel back to the late 1950s and make myself a pop-fiction icon by penning a handful of the best-selling books of the 1960s and 70s before their actual authors have a chance to do so. It won’t be easy, however, and so I have had to do a lot of planning.

Like the time-traveler in Audrey Niffenegger’s 2003 novel The Time Traveler’s Wife, I expect to arrive back in 1958 (the year of my birth, by the way) buck naked (which is how I arrived there the first time around). Nothing that isn’t a part of my body can travel with me (that just seems to be the rule in time travel). Thus, I won’t be able to carry with me a bunch of classic novels that haven’t been published yet and pass them off as my own. I suppose that, before traveling back in time, I could have some very short and successful pop fiction–Love Story, say, or Jonathan Livingston Seagull–tattooed in minuscule print across my chest or back. That way I wouldn’t have to recreate the whole thing from memory. But that would be incredibly painful, and I don’t handle pain well. And so I simply plan to reproduce a small handful of popular novels that I know well because I have read them several times and/or because I have watched their film incarnations many, many times.

My plan is to begin with Walter Tevis’s 1959 novel The Hustler. I’m a huge Tevis fan. His novels are generally slim and tight with no wasted words. The Man Who Fell To Earth, for example, runs to only 144 pages in paperback (it was never released in hardback). The Hustler is slightly longer, but I’ve read it three or four times and seen the film version many times. I don’t have the whole novel memorized, but I do have the entire plot memorized. All I have to do before taking off in my time machine for 1958 is memorize a few of Tevis’s most evocative passages, such as this one, which begins chapter 17:

He could feel the tension, the excitement of the place, even before he opened the door, could hear the heavy undercurrent of voices, the clickings of many balls, the soft cursing and dry laughter, the banging of cue sticks on the floor. And when he went in he could almost smell the action and the money. He could even feel them, down to his shoes. It was like a whorehouse Saturday night and payday in the mines; the day the war was over and Christmas. He could feel his palms sweating for the weight of his cue.

Of course, I’ll feel bad about stealing Tevis’s debut novel, but he should be okay. He was mentored by the great A.B. Guthrie, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Big Sky and The Way West. Even without The Hustler, Tevis should have a successful career as a writer. Besides, there’s a certain poetic justice in using a time machine to legally deprive the author of The Hustler of his material. It’s the ultimate hustle.

With the money I make from The Hustler, I’ll buy myself a peaceful cabin somewhere and spend a year or so writing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Ken Kesey published that novel in early 1962, which means I’m probably going to have to get my version copyrighted no later than 1960 if I want to beat Kesey to the punch. I’ve read the book a couple of times. I’ve seen the movie many times. I feel fairly confident I can reproduce it with a fair amount of accuracy, although my version isn’t likely to be as gonzo as Kesey’s. Again there is a bit of poetic justice in depriving Kesey of his first novel. The novel, after all, is about madness. And seeing his book in print with my name on it is likely to drive Kesey a bit mad, which may help him write future books on madness. Anyway, that’s my rationalization and I’m sticking to it.

After publishing Cuckoo’s Nest to rave reviews, I can relax and take my time typing up a copy of Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby from memory. Again we’re talking about a short novel that I’ve read several times and a film that I’ve probably watched half a dozen times. The book wasn’t published until 1967. So if my version of Cuckoo’s Nest comes out in, say, 1962, I’ll have plenty of time to get my Rosemary’s Baby into print by, say, 1965. Levin has written about cloning (The Boys From Brazil) and replacing originals with cheap substitutes (The Stepford Wives), so he should be sympathetic to my project. Besides, he made most of his money from the long-running Broadway play Deathtrap (about one writer stealing another’s work), so he won’t go hungry without Rosemary.

At this point, it would be nice to try to beat Mario Puzo to The Godfather, but it’s a massive novel with a complex plot and I just don’t think I can memorize enough of it to do it justice. Besides, it’s never a good idea to mess with the mafia. My favorite novel of the late 1960s is Charles Portis’s True Grit. I’ve read it countless times and could probably type it up from memory. Alas, all that rereading has made Marshall Rooster Cogburn, the legendary lawman at the heart of the novel, a living presence in my brain. Portis describes him as “a pitiless man, double-tough, and fear don’t enter into his thinking.” If I were to kidnap him from his true creator, I’m not sure I’d ever stop looking over my shoulder. I could steal Michael Crichton’s slim 1969 bestseller The Andromeda Strain, but my complete ignorance of all things scientific could make it difficult for me to bluff my way through all the expository material (and probably also explains why my time machine is still inoperable). Erich Segal’s Love Story was the top-selling novel of 1970. It’s short and would be easy to memorize. But I have no great fondness for it, so I’d just as soon give it a pass. No, I think it would make more sense to follow up a religious-themed horror novel like Rosemary’s Baby with another religious-themed horror novel, 1971’s The Exorcist. Of course, The Exorcist isn’t a short novel, but I’ve read it several times and seen the film. Also, William Peter Blatty’s prose is nothing special, so I don’t have to worry about doing much damage to it by simply substituting my own. I have no desire to write screenplays, so when selling the novel to Hollywood I’ll insist that Blatty be hired to write the screenplay. He will already have written several produced films by this time, so it won’t be an unreasonable stipulation and it will help balm my conscience a bit. After all, Tevis, Kesey, and Levin all went on to write other successful books. The Exorcist is pretty much all that Blatty is remembered for these days. I owe him the screenplay, and the Oscar he won for it.

The bestselling novel of both 1972 and 1973 was Richard Bach’s short Jonathan Livingston Seagull, but I don’t want that book anywhere near my stolen bibliography. I may be a thief but I have my preferences. Instead, I think I shall use the years immediately following the publication of The Exorcist creating my own version of Jaws. It’s a fairly short and simple novel. Plus, I’ve seen the Spielberg film more than a dozen times. I should have no trouble getting it into print by 1973, thus beating poor Peter Benchley by a full year. Benchley came from a wealthy and distinguished family. He was educated at Harvard and spent many of his formative years on Martha’s Vineyard, a playground for the rich and privileged. He should have no trouble surviving the loss of Jaws.

Next, I would love to steal Nicholas Meyer’s Sherlock Holmes pastiche The Seven-Percent Solution. It’s short, clever, and was a big bestseller. Alas, it was published in the same year as Jaws. I don’t think I’ll have the time or the energy to steal both Jaws and The Seven-Percent Solution. But since I am determined to add a Victorian crime novel to my oeuvre, my plan is to steal Michael Crichton’s The Great Train Robbery, which was the eighth bestselling novel of 1975. It’s my favorite Crichton novel and also his least typical book. He made his name writing futuristic thrillers. The Great Train Robbery, a historical novel, is so anomalous that I almost feel as if it deserves to be stolen from Crichton. Plus, he owes me a book, since I allowed him to keep The Andromeda Strain.

Some of the most successful pop-fictions of the era–Shogun, The Thorn Birds, Trinity, anything by Herman Wouk–are just too big to be stolen. Those authors are protected from my rapacity by the magnitude of their ambitions. Young Stephen King, however, is not. Before he produced massive tomes like It and Under The Domeand 11/22/63 he produced his swift little debut novel Carrie in 1974. I’d like to steal it from him, but I’ll be busy in the early 70s stealing from Peter Benchley and Michael Crichton. The first King novel I can reasonably be expected to publish before King has a chance to publish it himself is 1977’s Rage. This book was published under the pseudonym Richard Bachman, which suggests that even Stephen King doesn’t consider it a Stephen King novel. The book was not a big seller for King, so I won’t be depriving him of much money. But when it is published by the author of such classics as The Hustler, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Exorcist, and Jaws, I imagine Rage will sell a lot more copies than it did in its original incarnation as a Richard Bachman book. Just to demonstrate my panache, I may even seek a blurb from King for it.

At this point, I will be the author of seven classic novels of American popular fiction (six, if my name isn’t enough to propel Rage to classic status). I am not greedy. I don’t plan to steal any more books after that. Besides, most of the bestsellers of the 1980s are just too fat for me: It, Red Storm Rising, Whirlwind, The Little Drummer Girl, Gorky Park, Space, The Hotel New Hampshire, etc. And the ones that are short enough for me to memorize are movie novelizations: ET: The Extra-Terrestrial Storybook and Return of the Jedi Storybook. I may be a thief, but I certainly would never stoop to writing movie tie-ins.

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“The Moment Expectations Change” (by Zandra Renwick)

A dual U.S. and Canadian author, Zandra Renwick has had stories and poems published under several variations on her name (see also Alexandra Renwick, Alex C. Renwick, and Camille Alexa). She has over fifty short stories and thirty poems in print. Her latest story, “Killer Biznez,” appears in EQMMs current issue, September/October 2020, and another recent story, “The Dead Man’s Dog,” was nominated in the best-short-story category for the 2020 Arthur Ellis Awards, Canada’s equivalent of the U.S.’s Edgar Allan Poe Awards. Zandra’s fiction has been translated, podcasted, performed on stage, and developed for television. With her work having proved adaptable to so many formats, you might not expect there to be a single answer to the question potential readers often ask writers: What are your stories about? But as you’ll see, the author sees a common thread running through it all, and it’s one that is shared by much of suspense fiction.—Janet Hutchings

Short-fiction writers, of all genres, for any number of reasons, surely must universally dread the question: What are your stories about?

The smart thing to do (a path one sadly rarely chooses, amiright?) would be to not overthink the business and toss off a quick, “I tend to write crime fiction” (or “historical” or “westerns”—or even “historical crime westerns with hot time-traveling feminist werewolves”*). But such limited answers feel so ungenuine, so inadequate, so lacking the scope of what you write, right? What about themes of found family? Outsiderism? Misdirected love or hate? The ache of loss and grief? The fear and empathy and heroism, theatricism or stoicism, or whatever ragged emotion you channel to write the bloody stuff (crime pun!) in the first place? Try rambling down that path and just watch the stiffening politeness of your well-meaning interrogator’s glazing-over gaze as they increasingly regret having asked you the question at all.

I feel lucky to have had a good writer friend early in my authorial trajectory (hugs to all good writer friends everywhere) who, over too-expensive cocktails in a charmingly Portlandian hipster bar (an old repurposed bordello, lush with broken parasols and flocked wallpaper and dim red lanterns) asked, on the eve of the release of my short-fiction collection (the product of my first year’s-worth of crazy unclassifiable stories): What are your stories about? And I without hesitation spoke the answer that welled up unbidden: I write about the moment when expectations change.

If it hadn’t rung so true I probably would’ve forgotten it by now, alongside all the other barstool fiddlefaddle (or coffee-shop philosophizing, depending on your poison) one spouts in a lifetime of barstools (and baristas). Instead, I felt electrified. And I never forgot it. It eventually came to frame how I think not only of my own stories, but all stories.

Like many reading this, I’m a great fan of short fiction. I wasn’t always, but these years of writing (it’s hard! and exhilarating! and, frankly, wondrous!) have brought me deep appreciation for the immediacy, power, and intimacy of the shorter form. Unlike novels, where the story has hundreds of pages to unfold, short fiction needs to deliver this change of expectation in a matter of vastly fewer words. It has to hone in. It has to punch. What’s often thrilling about suspense and crime fiction is the sheer rapidity with which these expectations are forced to change. You (via the narrative) stumble over a dead body, hear a gunshot, see a neighbor bury something gory in his garden, get caught in bed with the wrong person or wake to find a scalpel pressed to your jugular . . . and you change your mind about what your options are, fast.

This whiplash effect might be a reason short stories and novellas can make such thrilling translations to screen. In the mystery, suspense, and crime arenas a few come readily to mind: Daphne du Maurier’s “The Birds” and Cornell Woolrich’s “It Had to Be Murder,” adapted for screen into Alfred Hitchcock’s cinematic masterpieces The Birds and Rear Window; Stephen King’s “Apt Pupil” and “The Body”; “The Third Man” by Graham Greene (who said, in the introduction of Viking’s The Portable Graham Greene,“To me it is almost impossible to write a film play without first writing a story. . .”); Ian Fleming’s collection For Your Eyes Only and the Perry Mason shorts by Erle Stanley Gardner; “Beware of the Dog” by Roald Dahl, which hit the big screen in 1965 as 36 Hours and littler ones in 1989 as the TV movie Breaking Point. Many more shorts-to-screen titles are easy find with a bit of digging, some I’ve seen, others I haven’t: Gun Crazy (1950); Blowup (1966); Bad Day at Black Rock (1955); Fallen Idol (1948); Crime Wave (1954); Double Indemnity (1944); Crack-Up (1946) Smooth Talk (1985). And where would modern mystery be without Sherlock Holmes and the powerful short-fiction delivery of his famous creator? My own household is presently engaged in a delightful pandemic lockdown binge of all 118 episodes of The Saint (Leslie Charteris’s alter-eponymous character of novel and short story after whom, my father informs me, my brother was named).

I’m thrilled to think of my own fiction in the process of making this page to screen leap; a short story of mine is currently in development for television—an endeavor like so many others affected by the rapidity with which the world is undergoing change at the moment, and the rapidity with which our expectations are changing in what we demand of it, what we hope for it. Now, here, writing from the Canadian side of the international border that separates my two homes, the creative meeting for which I last year flew to L.A. (the city of my birth) feels as if it took place in a previous century, a previous life. But a surprising thing has been happening lately: I’ve been making peace with letting go of previous expectations.

This doesn’t mean give up! It doesn’t mean buckle under or despair. But it does mean, at least for this writer, taking each thing as it comes right now without yearning too much for the way things were, or worrying too much over the unknowable way things will be. It’s advice I might give my characters, if they could ask me how to live through whatever about-face or adversity I’d sent their direction. And then, if they survived, I’d tell them to forgive themselves and each other afterward for any mistakes they may have made along the way.

*No story like this in the works. Sorry.

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“Mystery” (by Iris Hockaday)

A Maine native, Iris Hockaday has an Associate of Arts degree in graphic design and a B.A. in psychology.  She is a poet as well as a short-story writer, and her first professional fiction publication, “The Thunderstorm,” was in EQMM’s last issue (July/August 2020). In this post she reflects on the concept of mystery and the importance of credible motivation as it applies to our genre. —Janet Hutchings

I’ve got a secret. Do you want to know what it is? Of course you do. We want to know the unknowable. What do we want to know about a secret? If it is a good secret, everything. If we think it’s mundane, not so much. What is the hook? In a piece of fiction, when and where will this hidden knowledge be revealed? Does it clear up the mystery in an exciting or satisfactory way? Does it lend a twist to the story?

We are excited by the journey and the art of discovery. We are pulled into cleverness and the intelligent reasoning of The How when it comes to the genre of mystery fiction. The Why, the motivation behind the truth of the story, intrigues us even more. We are curious creatures by nature, which advances our self-preservation. And if we can read the minds of characters on a page, ascribe to them details and traits that matter in a story, we have the ultimate advantage—we can participate with nothing to lose but perhaps our time or some junk we would rather not have in our minds. The only work we really have to do is read and absorb the writer’s tale, intertwining our own ideas and emotions as we proceed.

Mystery fiction springs from the deepest, most ancient questions of all—Who am I? And Why am I here? Life’s mystery and the realization that we will all die at some point lead us necessarily to ask questions relevant to the unknowable. Everything in our future is basically a secret—a place always just out of reach. We yearn to unravel a mystery, to be in control of our destiny, which we can do only in a limited fashion. Our anxieties, our griefs, our joy and our pursuits all stem from the answers we tell ourselves about our little corner of the world, or our universe. And since we cannot control the way other people respond to life’s ups and downs, we come to different conclusions about whom we can trust, or not. Thus we have the perfect setup for writing mysteries. The reader must be given glimpses into the commons, where reader and characters meet. We share a space thus far unoccupied by us. The writer has created a world from nothing, but we must be able to plant our feet on the story’s ground, smell the sweat or lilac, taste salt on our tongues, have hair mussed by the wind, and either intrude our heart or mind or both inside the new home we have been given. We must be able to trust the writer, but not necessarily the narrator.

No matter how bizarre or eerie or crazy this literary space will be, we must be able to identify ourselves there. Somehow, there must be a connection for a reader to dip a toe into the virilium waters of the planet Creop, whose currents bounce like a spring and shift from liquid to solid silver whenever a magic acorn lands in the river. Why, I, as a reader, want to come along on this adventure, is a matter of taste and a willingness to follow the breadcrumbs wherever they lead.

The vicarious charm of being in control, while at the same time experiencing another person’s conundrum or reactionary foibles, gives rise to empathy or disdain, depending on how deeply we are drawn into the story. Through neglect or unpersuasive writing, not having us care at all about the protagonist, I think, is the greatest insult a writer can foster on their main character. That being said, some characterizations of the protagonist can appear shallow when the object of the story is more the adventure and thrill of the ride—overcoming obstacles, achieving or not achieving goals, stumbling around in the dark for answers crucial to the protagonist’s goals or life itself. But even then, we must care somewhat about the person who invites us to come along on this tour without knowing every childhood or adult memory that underlies present actions. If we don’t care, we might stop reading—causing the premature death of all the writer holds dear.

Reading a short story about a crime or a mystery, might at times, take us where we don’t necessarily want to go. There might be a horrendous murder, we might have queasy stomachs, but if the story takes us along a route we find intriguing, we will surrender our dislike or fears to see what happens next. But if we go along with it, read all the way to the end, and feel like we’ve been betrayed in some way, we will not be happy. And perhaps that writer has lost a fan.

I, myself, get peeved when a character commits an action where a strong motivation has not been established. It feels as though the writer has cheated me by allowing a poor excuse to pass as the reason for the crime, or the dots seem not to connect sensibly and rationally, even if insanity is involved as a basis for the plot. On the other hand, a well-crafted mystery leaves me in awe of the skill and imagination involved to pull it off. It is a wow moment.

The joy of reading a mystery lies in the revealing of the underbelly of the story, the invisible made visible . . . the whys and wherefores making sense at crunch time. Some endings call for a leap of the imagination or ends tied loosely enough that more than one interpretation might work. A satisfactory ending is one in which the reader feels satisfied with all elements of the story, the writing technique, dialog, characterizations, plot. Obviously. But is it so obvious? The skill should not be so obvious that it jars the reader from the fictional world back into their own world. A sentence can jump off the page like a flea jumping on the reader’s arm. This sentence cannot stand unless the writer is working some kind of spell they want broken for some reason. I would think this would take a master magician for this trick to work at all. Misdirection is used all the time in mysteries, but this is to cloak the visible for a big reveal down the road. Red herrings are akin to a maze with lots of dead ends. This works well in a novel, but a short story has its limitations.

To me, a good short mystery story carries me in its arms and either drops me on my butt or sets me down gently when its over. Either way, the need to know more and more and more as I was reading, to know where I was going and how I ended up there is paramount. Some invisible hand is tugging and pulling me along. Sometimes, I’m still enchanted or brightened by the tale days and weeks later, unwilling to leave that world behind. The story refuses to stay on the page, jumping into and taking up residence in my imagination. This is a successful story.

The question is always, What’s going to happen next? And, can I, by faith and the willingness to suspend my own reality for a time, be swept up in the story’s arms?

So much is subjective in life. One person can read a mystery and totally rave about it while another person gives it a ho-hum. We bring to the story our own set of baggage, expectations, and wonderment. All a writer can do is write from a place of honesty and as excellently as one can. When a line or a story feels false, one has to go with one’s gut and reject it. There is proof in the pudding. The joy, I believe, in creating a work of fiction, lies in having a bit of work that never existed before, come to life before our eyes. It is truly a gift of the trade that we get to craft beauty, or suspense, or crime that pulls together elements like water, wind, fire, metal, in an alchemy of words. And that the words form thoughts or descriptions or feelings in sentence logic. And the sentences form a story in a synergy so luminescent and energetic as to mimic life. But as writers, we cannot be so in love with our work as to pass over flaws or be blind to our momentary lunacy, when we have not really thought something through. We must constantly autopsy a draft until it cannot be picked apart any longer.

All artists get to participate in a transcendence from creativity, where we create something from nothing. Which brings us back to the beginning of mystery—there is always something mysterious to learn or ponder in this world, whether its quarks or galaxies far far away, or strange creatures in the depths of the black ocean, or a wellspring of faith and inspiration in the supernatural or the eternal God. We are blessed that there will always be mysteries, for without them we would be belly-button gazers, never pondering the outer banks of our imaginations. If we had no mysteries, would we be able to invent a mystery story? Would it entail a language we could not even conceive of? Would we even be able to grasp the fact that something invisible could be revealed? Would we even have survived as human beings on this planet?

It is the nature of past present and future to move us along, and move the story along—for us to judge what is worthy or unworthy about ourselves and our characters. A perfect word, a well-crafted sentence, an “aha” plot, that pushes us a bit past what we thought we were capable of, is very satisfying and spurs us on to more discoveries as a writer and as the reader. For we are the discoverers of new lands, steering our ships in rough waters, through terrible storms or placid seas, always hunting the white whale that lives invisibly below the surface, catching glimpses of the leviathan when we least expect it. We dream our dreams and write them down, as if harnessing and controlling a creature so daunting, we wonder how it can be possible we have dragged it to shore.

Writing to me is usually not easy. I am into precision and precision takes work. But it’s a navigation with sextant and compass and bold temerity to even lay fingers on the keyboard and peer into the white screen of invisibility that will allow letter by letter, word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, a prairie dog to come out of its hole.

Some days no words come. But the work in the mind continues consciously or unconsciously, jumping synapses into uncharted territory, mysteriously linking concepts, awaiting the perfect occasion to manifest itself as needed. Then the words do come, as if from nothing.

There is an ache in a writer. We are in love with words and we must prove our love by hugging them closely, giving voice to their strengths, printing them on canvases in our personal gallery of ideas.

We might avoid them at times, but we are truly writers, we will always come back to the beckoning of words that speak in our own mysterious code and language. We urge our perspective to become yours. Please enter into the mystery, wholeheartedly and with great expectations.

We will try to deliver.

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“How Anxiety Draws Me to Mystery” (by Violet Welles)

Violet Welles is a freelance writer and math tutor who lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, with her rescue cat and greyhound. Her first professionally published fiction, the short story “Round-Trip Runaways,” appears in EQMM’s current issue, September/October 2020. Two other (unpublished) stories of hers have received, respectively, honorable mention in the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future contest and posting on World Geekly News as a runner-up in their Horror Flash Fiction contest. In this post, the author provides an interesting answer to a question often asked and very pertinent to our genre: Why do people seek out, and enjoy, fiction that inspires fright?—Janet Hutchings

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had both an anxiety disorder and an affinity for mystery. Those may seem like two completely unrelated things to tell you about myself, but I don’t think they are.

At age five, I would watch Are You Afraid of the Dark? with my mom and older sister, eyes glued to the TV screen and a glass of chocolate milk clutched in my tiny hands. Are You Afraid of the Dark? was a nineties show about a group of kids who gathered deep in the woods to tell ghost stories, and I loved it. The stories were eerie and strange and mysterious, which was apparently just my style, even at five years of age. By age ten, I was already writing stories of kidnap and death, of monsters and suspense, and I stored them underneath my bed beside my collection of old clowns and cracked dolls. Needless to say, I was very cool and popular at my middle school.

Now, I’m not exactly sure when my anxiety started to get bad or if, in the words of Lady Gaga, I was just born this way. But at any given moment, there seems to be a mystery going on inside my mind. Let’s say I’m waiting for my best friend to meet me at our favorite Thai food restaurant (something we used to do in the good old days when it was acceptable to see each other without a wall of plastic separating us).

Maybe it’s ten minutes past our designated meeting time, and she’s still not there. Logically, I know she probably just got distracted watching her pet snails crawl along the side of her aquarium (not as uncommon an occurrence as you might think—she is obsessed with her snails). However, there’s another part of my brain—the one that’s utterly bored by such a rational solution and wants to add a little spice to my life. That’s the part that immediately starts spinning stories of all the different horrible things that could have happened to her. It goes a little something like this . . .

Anxiety: I wonder if she got into a car accident on the way?

Rational Brain (this voice sounds a lot like my therapist): Maybe she just forgot.

Anxiety: Or maybe she finally went mad in quarantine or maybe she got COVID and is stuck in an infinite coughing fit or maybe she died instantly on impact or . . .

Rational Brain: Dude, she probably just got distracted by her snails again.

Anxiety: WHAT IF HER SNAILS DIED?

My mind is always writing some kind of mystery story, whether I’m actively choosing to do so or my anxiety is just taking me for a fun little ride. She gets bored sometimes, and I’ll give her this, she can be very imaginative when she wants to be. See, she’s perfected the skill, having twenty-some odd years to run free in my brain.

So why would I choose to write and read and watch mystery when it’s the very thing causing me so much anxiety in my daily life? You would think I’d rather run from it all, to read light fantasy trilogies or cute romance novellas as an escape from my everyday thoughts. But on the contrary, it’s exactly mystery fiction which provides me that escape.

When I read mystery, I’m able to explore uncertainty in a world that’s completely separate from my own. By focusing on the mystery of that story, I spend less time focusing on the mysteries going on inside my own brain. Because if my mind is going to go to those dark places regardless, why not get ahead of it? Why not choose to go there in a more controlled environment, some place divorced from my own reality?

Writing mystery is even better. When I write, I get to explore my anxieties and fears in a land that is totally within my control. I get to do whatever I want. I don’t have to worry about whether or not my main character was kidnapped and murdered, because I’m the one who gets to decide her fate. I don’t have to worry about whether or not her pet snails broke loose from their aquarium, swallowed her whole, and are now ravaging their way through the city. Because if I ever chose to write that travesty of a story, I would know exactly what was coming. I would know all the whens, wheres, hows, and whys, and for someone who deals with such uncertainty on a regular basis, that knowledge is quite freeing.

Now, because my anxiety is a workaholic with a sick sense of humor, she doesn’t even slow down when I sleep. I have frequent nightmares. As I dream, she still spins her stories—there’s the woman who lives inside my chimney and builds fires at a quarter till midnight, the young girl stuck inside the old mansion whose walls shed wallpaper like snake skin, the monster who lives inside the light of the boy’s candle and tells him to do things he doesn’t want to do. I wake up shaken, and it takes me an hour and two cups of tea to feel normal again.

But I also wake up craving to write mystery.

Until I can learn to lucid dream, I can’t control my nightmares, just as I can’t control my anxiety. But what I can do is take the fear and uncertainty they instill in me and capture them on the page. There, they are immediately powerless. There, I control their fate. I can now choose to finish the story any way I want. I could wrap it up sweetly—maybe the protagonist wakes from a nightmare, hugs her cat close, and watches an episode of Parks & Recreation before drifting off to sleep once more. Or I could take it down an even darker path, stretching out the mystery and plunging the heroine into even more peril.

When it’s on the page, I am calm. That is, until it comes time to share my work with someone. Don’t even get me started on the anxiety that comes with that.

Posted in Characters, Fiction, Genre, Guest, horror, mystery fiction, Writers, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Libby Cudmore on the Birthplace of Philo Vance

Libby Cudmore, who made her EQMM debut with the captivating tale “All Shook Down” (in the current September/October 2020 issue), is the author of The Big Rewind, a “hipster mystery” novel that Hilary Davidson called “irreverent yet intense” and Examiner.com described as “Raymond Chandler crossed with Nick Hornby.” The author’s short fiction has appeared in PANK, The Stoneslide CorrectiveThe Big Click, and Big Lucks. As you’ll find out here, the author lives in upstate New York—an area that can claim other literary figures as well.—Janet Hutchings

Otsego County, NY, has a few things going for it on the literary scene. National Book Award finalist George Saunders wrote Lincoln in the Bardo from his home in Oneonta, buying research books from the Green Toad Bookstore on Main Street and wandering the Morris cemetery for inspiration. Cooperstown is the hometown of James Fenimore Cooper and the birthplace of Fates and Furies author Lauren Groff, as well as the inspiration for her novel Monsters of Templeton. Similarly, her classmate Callie Wright wrote Love All about a local sex scandal that arose from Isabel Moore’s publication of pulpy paperback The Sex Cure. I wrote my own hipster mystery, The Big Rewind on Ceperley Avenue, and “All Shook Down,” my Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine debut this issue, on Chestnut Street, one of the city’s main arteries.

But in 2019, Oneonta added another name to list of contributions to American fiction: S.S. Van Dine.

Bob Brzozowski, the executive director of the Greater Oneonta Historical Society, began doing research on the house at 31 River Street after he was alerted that the local Salvation Army had purchased it and was planning to raze it to make a parking lot.

In researching the home’s history, he found that it was not listed on the 1890 map of Oneonta, but by 1903 was listed as belonging to H.E. Huntington & Co. Further research showed that the home belonged to Bertha and Julia Wright, the maiden aunts of Willard Huntington Wright, who based his novel A Man of Promise on Oneonta (calling it “Greenwood”), likely writing at least part of it in the home.

Wright began his professional writing career as literary editor of the Los Angeles Times, where he was the “Angry Guy Explaining Star Wars on YouTube” of his day, describing himself as “‘Esthetic expert and psychological shark,” with particular rancor about romance and detective fiction.

“The woods are full of detective stories,” he wrote in 1912, “and most of them are bad. In fact, any serious detective story is of necessity bad. It appeals to the most primitive cravings within us.”

But when he got the boot from his editing gig at the literary magazine The Smart Set in 1924 and his bitter divorce from his first wife, Katherine, he fled to his aunts’ home for a two year period of convalescence. His doctor prescribed him “light reading,” including mysteries, as part of his recovery from his “nervous condition,” – Jazz Age slang for “morphine addiction.”

Anyone who has ever been home sick and fallen into a feverish sleep in front of a rerun of Law and Order, Columbo, or Perry Mason knows the healing power of mysteries. There is something immensely comforting about knowing, as you close your eyes, that when you open them, all will be right with the world, justice will be enacted and the wicked punished.

And thus, Philo Vance–and S.S. Van Dine–were born.

Like many men, Wright read the “light” work of female mystery authors like Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers and perhaps thought, I can do that better than a lady. It was then, Brzozowski believes, he began writing The Benson Murder Case, in the bedroom of 31 River Street, published in 1926 under the Van Dine pseudonym.

The Benson Murder Case sold well, but the follow-up, 1927’s The Canary Murder Case, sold 60,000 copies in its first month, marking a distinctly American stamp on the British mystery monopoly. He would go on to write twelve Philo Vance books and several of the screenplays, where Vance was played by Basil Rathbone, William Powell, and other stars of the day.

The term “sell-out” hadn’t been invented yet, but if it had been, Wright would have certainly used it on himself.

“The fact that he used a pseudonym tells you everything about how the author was regarded and how the books were regarded,” Binghamton University professor Michael Sharp said of Van Dine in a September 2019 article in the Hometown Oneonta. “The notion that they were cheap and easy, so they were never real literature.”

But Van Dine was no copycat. As a detective, Vance used the new notion of “psychology,” as popularized by hot-on-the-scene Sigmund Freud, to give each crime scene a “signature” and draw up a profile of the likely killer rather than using a logical succession of clues. If that seems familiar, it’s because it’s a trope that has been used ever since.

Van Dine also used a “ripped-from-the-headlines” approach to his stories; “Benson” for example, was based the 1920 unsolved murder of stockbroker Joseph Elwell, and “Canary” was based on the 1923 killing of showgirl Dorothy King.

Though Van Dine lived large for quite some time, hardboiled writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler were soon captivating audiences, and in 1939, Wright died at the age of fifty-two, shortly before the publication of the final Philo Vance novel, The Winter Murder Case. By that point, his works were in decline, and following his death, Philo Vance was mostly forgotten.

And similarly, like too many historic homes, the Wright homestead has fallen into disrepair and has been unoccupied for more than a decade.

In 2019, the local branch of Salvation Army purchased the property, but Brzozowski’s discovery renewed public interest in historic preservation and the local connection to Van Dine’s legacy in crime fiction. The planned demolition has been held up in city planning committees, and in late 2019, Brzozowski organized a series of talks on Van Dine, including a Philo Vance film series, curated by Father Kenneth Hunter, St. James Episcopal Church.

At present, it is unknown what will happen to the house. But whether it’s restored or reduced to dust, Oneonta has claimed Van Dine–and Philo Vance–as another of our own.

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On Dodging a Bullet (by Gregory Fallis)

Gregory Fallis’s most recent short story, “Terrible Ideas,” appears in our current issue, September/October 2020 (on sale this week).  His tales have previously been featured in both EQMM and AHMM. He’s also the author of the novels Lightning in the Blood and Dog on Fire. Writing, however, is not Greg’s only occupation: He’s been variously employed as a criminology professor, a private detective specializing in criminal-defense work, and a counselor in a prison for women. He’s also a photographer who serves as the managing editor of Utata.org. It’s all of these other hats he wears, and has worn, that he talks about in this post, as they pertain to the writing life.—Janet Hutchings

I came this close to becoming an academic.

Okay, that’s not really true. I did think about becoming an academic. I taught several courses in criminology as a graduate student in the Sociology: Justice program at American University and I was a full-time adjunct professor for a year and a half at Fordham. It’s true that I’d taken the first steps on the academic track. But even as a grad student I’d begun to suspect I wasn’t good academic material. When I made it to Fordham, it was made clear to me that I lacked the proper attitude to be a serious academic.

I can pinpoint the exact moment my nascent academic career started to crater. The chair of the department saw me reading a novel at lunch. Not just a novel; a science-fiction novel. The 1951 postapocalyptic classic The Day of the Triffids.

He didn’t exactly frown, but there was some serious eyebrow raising. He said, “Reading outside your field? Something you can use in your teaching?”

I could have legitimately argued that the novel had academic value for sociology and criminology students. In a very real way it’s about how a society reforms and reorganizes itself after a global social collapse. It speaks to gender roles and social class and people with disabilities. I could have argued the novel asked interesting and important criminological questions, like “If the social order has collapsed, is taking an abandoned car still ‘theft’?”

But the truth is, it never occurred to me to make that argument. I told him the truth. I was reading for pleasure.

I might have gotten away with it if I’d been reading a crime novel. But science fiction? Science fiction that features plants that walk?

When it came time to begin the search for a tenure-track position in the department, I wasn’t even asked to interview.

Serious scholarship, you see, requires a narrowing of focus. It requires dedicated specialization. I suck at narrowing my focus; I’m a colossal failure at specialization. Yes, crime fascinates me. Who gets to decide what’s criminal? What are the personality differences between burglars and strong-arm robbers and embezzlers? How does art fraud work? Why have police departments become so militarized? How is justice dispensed within organizations like the mafia? Or the National-Interstate Council of State Boards of Cosmetology, or the American Kennel Club, or the Freemasons?

I wanted to ask all of those questions, and more. But to be a serious academic, I was expected to ask increasingly narrow questions—usually to the exclusion of other questions. If you become a scholar of, say, informal justice systems, you could start by comparing how the Sinaloa drug cartel handles members who break their internal rules to the way the Catholic Church does. Then maybe you narrow your focus. Do Trappists discipline their monks differently than Dominicans or Capuchins? Then still narrower. Are the current disciplinary issues among Capuchins settled in a way that’s different from those experienced by Capuchins in the sixteenth century?

Fascinating questions, to be sure. But I didn’t want to spend my career reading ancient arguments for and against friars being discalced (seriously, the first Capuchins were required to go bare-footed; which leads to a wonderfully odd but interesting question: what is a just form of discipline for somebody who breaks the rules by wearing sandals?).

I was also impeded in the embryonic stage of my academic career by having been a practitioner. I’d worked in the criminal justice system; four years as a counselor in the psychiatric/security unit of a prison for women and seven years as a private detective specializing in criminal-defense work. In academic circles, practitioners are given a lot of side-eye.

It’s the same way theoretical physicists look at engineers. Physicists concern themselves with how the universe operates. They’re not particularly interested in the practical applications of that knowledge. Engineers, on the other hand, are interested in designing and making things that work.

An academic criminologist may spend years conducting research and constructing a theoretical foundation to explain why some criminals exhibit poor impulse control and resort to violence to resolve interpersonal conflicts. A practitioner is more concerned with not getting stabbed.

Looking back, it was obvious my notion of becoming an academic was doomed. Being caught reading a novel about a meteor shower that leaves most of the world’s population blind and at the mercy of an invasive, poisonous, mobile plant species presumably bio-engineered by Soviet scientists was merely a pivot point.

Yet I have to say, those quiet years as a grad student and budding criminology professor weren’t wasted. My dissertation advisor wanted me to study my prior field, private investigation. I reluctantly agreed—reluctant because there were other areas of crime and criminality that interested me more. Worse, she wanted me to include a dissertation chapter comparing the work of real private detectives to that of fictional detectives.

Here’s a confession: at that point in life, I generally disliked novels and movies about private detectives. They never got it right. Never.

Wait. That’s not entirely accurate. I should say I avoided watching detective movies and reading detective novels because the very few I’d seen or read were wildly inaccurate. But you don’t argue too much with your dissertation advisor. She wanted a chapter on fictional detectives, so I was going to give her one.

I went to the literature department, found a professor who studied mystery and detective fiction, used my P.I. social engineering skills to convince her to tutor me in an independent course of study, and got her to give me a reading list.

The first novel on the list was The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club by Dorothy Sayers, published in 1928. I was prepared to hate it. The title alone was so twee it made me cringe. I found the whole notion of an upper-class amateur British detective preposterous. I mean, the protagonist wore a monocle and had a valet. How could I take that seriously?

The plot mechanics of the novel were convoluted and pretty absurd. But it turned out to be a story about combat veterans trying to adjust to a postwar society. This was meat-and-potatoes to me. I grew up in a military family. I was a medic for four years. My father was a Marine in the South Pacific during World War II; most of my uncles fought in Europe and later in Korea. Both of my brothers were Marines in Viet Nam. And in the first page, Sayers has a veteran of WWI say this:

Tummy all wrong and no money. What’s the damn good of it, Wimsey? A man goes and fights for his country, gets his inside gassed out, and loses his job, and all they give him is the privilege of marching past the Cenotaph once a year and paying four shillings in the pound income tax.”

Veterans are still saying that; the complaint is still valid. I didn’t care how silly the plot was, I didn’t care if the detective was a fop; the integrity of the characters carried me through.

The reading list was maybe a dozen novels. Rex Stout, James Crumley, Dashiell Hammett, Caleb Carr; some names were familiar to me, some weren’t. I read them all. I didn’t like them all, but every one of them taught me something important. Not about crime, not about detecting, but about being human.

I was about halfway through the reading list when I decided I wanted to write a detective novel.

So I did. I’d no idea what I was doing, but I kept putting words in a row and when I had enough of them, I sent them off to a publisher. And hey, the publisher, St. Martin’s Press, bought it. It was called Lightning in the Blood. It might have sold a few hundred copies; not even enough to cover the advance. But it was published around the same time the chair of the Sociology Department at Fordham drove a stake through the heart of my academic career.

I came this close to being an academic. I dodged that bullet.

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“The Thin Grey Line” (by Alexandria Blaelock)

Alexandria Blaelock is the author of several self-help books applying business techniques to personal matters (drawing from her career as a project manager) and short fiction that appears in Pulphouse Fiction as well as EQMM. Her debut professional fiction publication, “The Perfume of Peaches,” appears in our September/October 2020 issue’s Department of First Stories (on sale next week). As you’ll learn in this thought-provoking post, the author lives in Australia. We think this entry will help you remain intrigued by your everyday life and the mysteries therein!—Janet Hutchings

Life is a mystery.

I don’t mean that whole divine creation v random evolution thing. Though I suppose that influences your perceptions of good and evil.

I mean why you in particular, and why now?

Why you when so many of your proto-siblings didn’t survive gestation?

When you look back on your life, you can see how this seemingly random event links that happenstance, leading to the other incident.

A life-long chain of causality.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work the other way—you can’t see more than a step or two into the future.

Unless you’re a chess Grandmaster, and that’s only because everyone follows the rules.

And so it is for me, though when I look back, my path is knee-deep in mysterious circumstances.

Like what made my parents leave the U.K.? Why, of all places, did they choose Australia? Why not Canada or New Zealand? Though those countries were overrun with blood-kin of one kind or another, so that might be the solution of that particular mystery.

What about that time I really hated my mother, and showing an utter lack of imagination, went to bed wishing desperately to wake up as someone else’s daughter?

What if I really did? What if I did it so well, I have no recollection of not being the me I became? What happened to the me I replaced? Where did she end up?

And why for goodness sake the daughter? Why not the much-loved family dog who had her own furniture and toys and no one who ever stayed angry with her for days on end?

My childhood home was the kind where the TV didn’t go on until after dinner, until we children had washed and dried the dishes.

Quietly, if you please.

And then Dad would flick the switch. My brother and I would take our positions on the floor, chins cupped in our hands, eyes glued to the tiny screen.

Learning about good and evil while devouring Matlock Police (Jones & Stapleton, 1971-1976) and a year or two later, Cop Shop (Stapleton, 1977-1984).

Or episodes of Whodunnit: The Murder Mystery Game Show, (Reed et al. 1972-1978) of which I was very proud of being the first of the family and usually the panelists to figure it out.

Or as we grew older, videos of Taggart, (Chandler, 1983-2010) recorded on my aunt’s home TV and posted from Glasgow to give Dad a taste of his home turf.

A show so loved, that it continued for sixteen or so years after the lead actor (and title character) died.

For years we’d wait for it, then shout-along, “there’s been a murrrrrdah!”

And play spot the recurring actor (some the same character, some not)—a big well done to Alex Norton who topped the pack as an early suspect and a late DCI.

When Dad wasn’t home, and we weren’t allowed to watch tv, there were always books.

English classics like Enid Blyton’s Famous Five. Because who doesn’t want to spend the school holidays camping out in the countryside or the Cornish seaside having adventures and solving mysteries involving smugglers, kidnappers and robbers?

Certainly, I did. Enough to watch Marzuk’s 2018 Fünf Freunde und das Tal der Dinosaurier (The Famous Five and the Valley of Dinosaurs).

You might grow up, but you’re always a child at heart.

From there, growing into Blyton’s Secret Seven, term-time crime mysteries for older children; wrongful imprisonment, grand larceny, and stolen dogs!

Then taking up with Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys.

But the thing about these villains, is they’re all a bit dumb. And that’s another mystery.

How dumb do you have to be to get caught by a bunch of kids?

“Meddling kids,” according to another childhood staple.

Which brings us to yet another mystery. How is it possible that Casey Kasem, the smooth-tongued voice of American Top 40, was also the voice of “Shaggy” in Hanna-Barbera’s 1969 Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!.

And who’s the better Shaggy—him or Matthew Lillard?

I suppose another meddling kid was Wonder Woman (alter ego Diana Prince). Brought to life by William Marston through DC Comics to fight the Axis military powers during the Second World War. Though after a point, she lost her relevance and reality.

Then again, it is hard to take a crime-fighting woman in heeled boots and a bathing suit seriously. It’s no surprise she ended up making coffee and taking the minutes for the Justice Society of America.

Perhaps she would have been better off following Peter O’Donnell and Jim Holdaway’s 1963 Modesty Blaise into a life of crime, come espionage, come crime-fighting.

Warmer clothing would’ve been one benefit, along with a nice London pad and a villa in Morocco for vacations.

Aren’t the women who step outside societal norms so much more interesting than those who don’t?

I, for one, would rather be a nemesis than a superhero.

Though given we’re talking about fiction, I suppose I’d have to be a theoretically conquerable supervillain. Ultimately conquered by some chick in a bikini because I couldn’t conquer my ego.

Then again, why not a Machiavellian criminal mastermind like Moriarty? I could drag my Holmes down a waterfall and meet my doom theoretically unconquered.

And there’s another mystery—Sherlock’s Andrew Scott (Gatiss & Moffat, 2010-2017) or Elementary’s Natalie Dormer (Ferland et al. 2012-2019)?

But I wonder. Why should I dumb myself down to fit in, when I could use my insanity-inducing tragic childhood to stand out instead?

How odd is it that your life can change in an instant?

Like the time I hit my then-boyfriend over the head with a frypan?

Why did I lose control?

Why did he step into the blow instead of back and away?

Why didn’t he break up with me, let alone marry me?

And after surviving all that, why weren’t we enough for each other? Why did we let that marriage crawl whimpering away to die alone in a corner?

There’s an accidental death story there. A suicide. A cold-blooded murder. Twist the facts a little, and a jealous ex-lover exits as the poor faithful girlfriend enters to take the fall.

It’s all a matter of perspective. Of asking the right questions. And, to an extent, getting the wrong answers.

Toni Jordan (Australian fiction writer) once told me she likes to include sex in all her stories because sex is a meaningful driver of people’s lives. Something we all think about, something most of us do.

I like to add a little crime to mine because life is bittersweet. We all walk a thin line between good and evil—a thin grey line between the dark and the light.

We all do bad things with the best of intentions.

We lie and tell our friends they look beautiful (no, your bum does not look big in that dress).

And we do good things that turn out bad (we let our friends fall in love with people we know will probably hurt them).

And we never think of those tiny steps as criss-crossing the line.

Or what exactly these mysterious concepts of light and darkness really are.

Is it always right to save lives? Is it always wrong to take them?

Is more money always more important?

No, no, and no.

Sometimes, whether you’re a meddling kid or a dumb villain, nothing is the best thing to say or do.

And yet, in my writing, I’ve killed more people than I’ve saved, and each death brings a silver lining for someone. Even if that’s just you, dear reader.

Death is never far away, and you are someone’s nemesis whether you know it or not. Enjoy your beautiful clothes, try the exotic cocktails, and take glamorous vacations, because one day they, and you, will come to an end.

In the meantime, I have other, more important mysteries to solve. Like why my software isn’t doing what it’s supposed to.

And why my computer freezes when I’m writing/reading/watching the best bits.

And the ongoing mystery that still haunts me today—who the hell drank my Campari?

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LOOKING AT GATHERINGS PAST

Here at EQMM, we’re grateful for the plethora of online programming that has taken place of late, but we miss seeing all our readers, contributors, and friends. We thought we’d take a day to reminisce about past conventions. Join us by clicking the links below and by letting us know some of your favorite convention memories—and what you’re looking forward to in gatherings to come when it’s safely possible. Stay well!—EQMM
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“The Page Where It Happens” (by Joseph S. Walker)

Joseph Walker’s short stories have appeared in our sister publication, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, and in various other periodicals and anthologies, including the MWA’s Life Is Short and Then You Die, edited by Kelley Armstrong. His story “The Last Man in Lafarge” won the first annual Bill Crider Prize for Short Fiction at the 2019 Bouchercon. It will appear in EQMM in early 2021. Coming up much sooner is his EQMM debut, “Chasing Diamonds,” in our September/October issue (on sale August 18). It’s a story set at  a baseball game, and it accomplishes what the author talks about in this post: It draws readers fully and authentically into its setting. Don’t miss it! —Janet Hutchings

How is it that one of the most satisfying moments I’ve had as a writer this year was finding a way to work powdered sugar scattered on the pavement into a story?  Bear with me.  The trail will take a couple of turns, but we’ll get there.

Like seemingly half the people in the (nominally) civilized world, I spent a very agreeable few hours over the recent Independence Day weekend escaping my pandemic woes by watching the newly available stream of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway blockbuster HamiltonHamilton is many things: an enthralling musical, a riveting piece of American history, a bold political statement about race and immigration and gender. It’s also, not incidentally, a crime story—a mirror image of Crime and Punishment. Dostoevsky’s great novel is about the psychological aftermath of a killing, and what it does to a person to carry the burden of ending a life. Hamilton is about the psychological prelude to a killing, and what brings a person to the point of taking that burden on—or choosing not to. Aaron Burr tells us in the musical’s first song that he will (spoiler alert!) shoot Alexander Hamilton. Given what we quickly learn of their characters, the reverse seems far more likely. Hamilton is brash and aggressive, relishing conflict and even violence; Burr is patient and cautious, preferring political gamesmanship.  Over the next two and a half hours, we follow the winding path each man takes to their duel.  We see how the events, ideas, hopes, and emotions of their lives lead Burr to shoot to kill, while Hamilton points his weapon to the sky, throwing away his shot.

I had listened to the album of the show’s songs many times, but never had a chance to see it before watching the stream.  It made for an oddly disjointed experience.  The show itself was, as advertised, terrific.  While we’re now seeing some elements of the inevitable backlash, Hamilton is a complex, stunning piece of work fully deserving of the considerable acclaim and success it has earned. It’s difficult to resist the sheer amount of energy and ambition which make the show so exuberant, so excessive in the pleasures it offers.  In particular, it is a privilege to see the original Broadway cast inhabiting the roles that made them famous, and it is a gift to future generations that this high-quality recording of their version of the show will always be available.

As much as I enjoyed it, however, I also had the sense of watching the show at a certain remove, experiencing it through a kind of distancing haze.  At moments, I wasn’t so much watching Hamilton as watching myself watch Hamilton.  When you spend four years hearing about how superlative a piece of art is, how it outdoes what was previously believed possible in the form, how simply being exposed to it is a transcendent, life-changing experience—well, there’s simply no way for the thing itself to live up to that kind of advance billing. It is a creation of mortal beings, not deities.  The expectations generated by hyperbole become a buffer between you and the actual experience, especially if you’ve learned so much about the thing (by, say, listening to an album setting out the entire story in detail) that very little about it can be surprising.  I found myself imagining an audience member a few days into the show’s run, settling into his seat with only a vague awareness that it’s a musical about the American revolution, unprepared for what’s about to unfold. I felt very jealous of this person I had conjured.

Then there’s the other, more obvious source of this sense of distance, this lack of immediacy: I wasn’t seeing the show live.  I wasn’t looking at actors on a set.  I was looking at a flat display of colored pixels, just another in the seemingly endless series of screens so many of us spend our lives staring at these days.  It was not an experience so much as a simulation of an experience.  I wasn’t breathing the same air as Daveed Diggs.  I wasn’t continually aware of the subtle shifts in attention and emotion in the audience members around me.  Watching Hamilton was fun, and certainly a worthwhile investment of my time, but it lacked that increasingly rare element we all need in our lives: authenticity. The felt experience of something genuine, something inescapably real.

This has become a particular problem in the blighted year of 2020.  Confined to our homes, denied many of the rituals and pleasures and indulgences we were accustomed to, we necessarily encounter almost all of the world through that matrix of pixels. We see our coworkers on Zoom, our friends and family on FaceTime, the musicians we had tickets for on YouTube.  We are, quite literally, being screened from the real world.  But the pandemic has really only accelerated what was already in motion.  If you’re like me, it’s been years since you could go anywhere without your phone and not feel that you were missing something as essential as your house keys and your wallet.  What’s happening on Twitter?  Has anyone commented on my most recent Facebook post?  Can I ever crack that level of Candy Crush?  Am I caught up on email?  Did I miss an important text?  Did I miss a completely trivial text that will nonetheless give me something to think about for five minutes?  We have become completely addicted to our phones, while almost never using them as phones.

Thinking about Hamilton and authenticity, I thought about Manhattan.  I’ve only been there twice in my adult life, both brief visits for professional conferences. The things I’ve done in Manhattan are, for the most part, the tourist things, the New York City clichés.  I’ve ridden the subway and seen rats on the tracks.  I’ve been to a Yankees game, back when they were still playing in the house that Ruth built.  I’ve gone to a couple of Broadway shows, walked through Times Square at night, and eaten thin slices of pizza folded in half after soaking some of the grease off the cheese with a napkin.  I have layered memories of these experiences; they feel real to me.

What feels even more real to me, though, is an experience I’ve never had in reality, an experience nobody has had in reality.  The location in Manhattan that feels the most authentic to me doesn’t exist. It’s the West 35th Street brownstone home of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, the detectives created by Rex Stout.

I believe I have read every Wolfe story and novel, many of them multiple times.  I own most of them in cheaply printed hardcover book club editions, usually without jackets, bought at used book shops over the decades since I first read The League of Frightened Men as a teenager.  The look and feel and scent of those books—the slightly musty odor, the yellowing pages, the indecipherable names of former owners scrawled inside the covers—is the first level of the authenticity I find in them. It is not, however, the most deeply experienced.  That’s reserved for the brownstone itself, the building I can enter only in my mind but seem to know as well as my own home.  The comfort of the red chair, reserved for clients and favored guests, with the little table alongside it to facilitate the writing of checks. The rich aromas of Fritz Brenner’s cooking. The hum of the elevator coming down from the plant rooms. The coat rack where Archie assesses visitors for possible threats, and the dining room where talk of business is strictly barred.  The bright yellow expanse of Wolfe’s pajamas.  The trick picture of the waterfall, concealing a peephole for spying on the office, and the big globe in the corner, for Wolfe to scowl at when he has no choice but to work.  I could give tours of the place, from the basement, where Wolfe throws darts for exercise, to the roof, with its ten thousand orchids.  How can I know so well a place that has never existed?

We conceive of reading and writing as abstracted mental exercises, interiorized activities disconnected from the “real” world of sensation and direct contact.  We don’t normally think of them as having physical dimensions, as incorporating the same kind of authentic, lived flavor as, say, actually watching a Broadway musical in person.  There are exceptions.  Harlan Ellison, the writer who made me want to be a writer (and who, despite normally being categorized as a fantasy or science fiction author, was an Edgar winner who started out writing about New York City street gangs), used to hold events where he would spend a day sitting in the front window of a bookstore, writing a short story based on a prompt provided to him in the morning.  As each page rolled out of his typewriter, it would be taped up in the window to allow people to read the story as it was actually being born into the world (a collection of these stories, Ellison Under Glass, was recently published by Charnel House). It occurs to me only now that at these events, Ellison must have been able to see people in the act of reading his story, just as they were able to see him in the act of writing it.  Two activities, normally conducted in isolation, were simultaneously transformed into complementary public performances.

In the normal course of events, though, reading and writing have only the authenticity, the sense of reality, that we can infuse them with in our minds.  We feel the brush of the wings as another world builds itself for us and takes flight. This isn’t confined to crime reading, of course.  I vividly remember reading the Dan Simmons novel The Terror, about a doomed Arctic expedition, and being so vicariously drawn in by the depictions of extreme cold that I was surprised, every time I put the book down, to discover myself back in a scorching Indiana summer. I’m sure any number of readers believe that they have walked the halls of Jay Gatsby’s mansion, or felt the Pequod roll beneath their feet. We mystery fans, though, have a particularly rich field of vividly convincing worlds to mentally visit. The series characters we spend years or decades following bring with them the spaces they inhabit, spaces which we come to treat as part of our own mental landscape. The sad little rented room where Matthew Scudder lived during the darkest years of his alcoholism.  Kinsey Milhone’s compact, shiplike apartment.  Travis McGee’s Busted Flush.

Screens, I’ve come to think, block us from the world, replacing it with windows into something that may be measureless in two dimensions but which can never have a third.  The page, instead, expands the world through a kind of magic trick, collapsing three dimensions and all the resources of our senses to a few lines of ink and then allowing them to unfold again, directly into our sense of reality.  Reading is spiritual origami, turning sheets of paper into pieces of our lived truth.

If this is true for reading, it’s equally true for writing. That brownstone couldn’t be so real to me if it weren’t first real to Stout himself.  As a writer, I haven’t yet created a series character who might come to seem like an old friend to my readers.  But I do take pleasure in trying to bring to my stories the kind of details and observations that, I hope, will spark this sense of reality, however briefly.  Writing about them does the same for me.  Of the pleasures writing offers, it’s the one that has become perhaps the most important to me in this odd, cramped, closed-down time.

Five years ago, on vacation in New Orleans, I bought a bag of beignets at the world-famous Café du Monde and carried them into Jackson Square, one of the most beautiful public spaces I’ve ever visited.  I remember many things from that morning: the soaring dignity of St. Louis Cathedral against a spotless blue sky, the wandering groups of tourists, the bursts of music that seemed to come from every direction.  For whatever reason, though, what sticks most vividly and most deeply in my mind is simply this: underneath every bench at the south end of the square, the pavement was marked with streaks of powdered sugar.  They marked the places where people had leaned forward to bite into the sweet, airy, warm beignets while trying, and mostly failing, to keep the sugar off their clothes.  When I think of New Orleans, those little piles of sugar are the first thing I think of, and they remain as convincingly real to me as the room I am sitting in now—or as Nero Wolfe’s office.

Last week, I wrote a story set in New Orleans and finally had a chance to use that image.  Writing it into the story was deeply satisfying. I would be still more satisfied to think that there might be at least one reader out there, perhaps as confined and as frustrated as I am by the way her world has shrunk in the last six months, who will read that image and find that, however briefly, it has expanded to include Jackson Square.

It may well be hubris to hope that anything I wrote could have such an impact, even fleetingly. Given everything that’s happened in the last six months, though, I’ll take hope where I can find it.  And I’ll hope, too, that the world brightens enough in the coming months that the 2021 Bouchercon, scheduled to take place in New Orleans, actually can happen, and that I’ll have a chance to go and see if the sugar is still on the pavement.  Perhaps I’ll see you there, with no pixels between us.

Posted in Books, Characters, Fiction, Genre, Setting, Story, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Creepers and a Lifelong Love” (by David Bridge)

I’m always interested to learn what childhood reading inspired the authors whose work I enjoy. In this post, David Bridge recalls how a young-adult novel changed his life. It’s a book I hadn’t heard of before, but I’m willing to bet many of our readers are familiar with it. David’s first professionally published story appears in our current issue (July/August 2020), in the Department of First Stories. It provides the most unconventional twist to the English country- house setting (so common in Golden Age mysteries) that I have seen in a long time. The author spent the best part of a decade in South America before returning home to the U.K. and beginning to devote more time to crime fiction. —Janet Hutchings

It’s difficult to remember childhood accurately—memory in general is a pretty flaky thing—but I’m fairly certain the first book I picked up to read on my own wasn’t just a story; it was a mystery story.

I was nine or ten years old when I ended up living with my family on Jersey, the largest of the Channel Islands, following one of our frequent moves throughout my childhood. Our house was located right next to a graveyard, perched atop a hill overlooking the Atlantic ocean. My bedroom window looked out across the graveyard itself and several ancient gravestones leaned up against my bedroom wall. The island itself is only five by ten miles so you were never far from the sea but at night it felt as though we were camped right on the shore. Storms would blow in off the Atlantic, the likes of which I’d never experienced back on mainland Britain. I can still hear the gale-force winds whistling through the rafters, the downpours hammering the roof tiles, and that dank, earthy smell of damp moss seeping through from the graveyard next door as the rainwater seeped into the soil.

If there was ever a perfect setting for tucking yourself up with warm blankets and a cup of hot chocolate with a tale of intrigue and suspense, or two, then this was it.

Something about crime is undeniably adult.

Unquestionably dangerous.

But there is also something supernatural . . . almost magical about it.

Especially when told through the eyes of a kid.

That’s a quality Keith Gray captured brilliantly in his 1996 young adult mystery Creepers.

At around age nine or ten I’d read books pretty begrudgingly, and almost exclusively because of school assignments. I’d always found myself one-degree removed from the words on the page, eyes mechanically skimming from one line to the next.

For me, though, that all changed when I read Creepers.

Young boys—or at least the young boys I associated with when I was a young boy—would often assert that reading isn’t cool. I was always suspicious of this although I never came out and challenged it out loud. I just sort of assumed that they were like me. That they were saving face in public but that in truth they were secret readers.

Sadly, more often than not, I don’t think this was the case. Every year we get these articles coming out decrying whatever thin slice of the population have read—or intend to read!—a book that year. I think at that early stage of life, or perhaps all stages of life, a large factor in determining interest or disinterest has to do with subject matter.

Or perhaps it has everything to do with it.

In Creepers, I was lucky enough to find something that chimed with me. And at the right time. Maybe if I’d never read that book I might never have had that “lightbulb” moment at all . . . when reading stopped being work and became fun.

What I loved about the book in particular was that it featured a narrator who was quite like me (although at fourteen years old a little older than I was at the time) doing things that I would never dare to do.

Dangerous things.

Illegal things.

After school, the narrator and his best friend—his “Buddie”—spend their evenings “Creeping.” Once it gets dark enough they run through their neighbours’ back gardens, vaulting fences, evading prickly hedges and snarling dogs, and doing their best to avoid being “Snared” by “Resies.” Although they’re trespassing (and in the course of trespassing damaging private property) the central motivation for Creeping is cachet at school rather than any material gain. And the biggest prize in Creeping is to complete a Dash through the back gardens of the twenty-five houses on Derwent Drive.

At its centre, Creepers is a story of friendship. And what most pushes the narrator to go through with these daring Creeping antics is his determination to impress his “Buddie” and establish him as his best friend. At a time of moving between different schools, changing homes, this was especially poignant for me.

What stood out for me most at the time about the book was the language used. Not just how the kids would swear—although as a nine- or ten-year-old reader this was certainly impressive—but how they’d sound just like the kids I was with every day at school. It was unlike the often stilted dialogue in the set school reading which incidentally or not featured heavily on magical beings and talking animals.

(Not that there’s anything wrong with magical beings or talking animals . . . funnily enough it was the next year when the first Harry Potter book was released and which subsequently sealed the deal on me being a lifelong reader).

It wasn’t just a lifelong love of reading, however (as if that wasn’t enough!). Ever since reading Creepers as a boy I started to think about what might lurk just below the surface of everyday experience. It made me think twice about that sly look the bus driver gave the old lady with her shopping or that suspicious car which pulled up at the curb every day at the same time every afternoon. In short, I started to imagine goings-on in the world around me.

That all was not quite as it seemed.

And once that had happened, it was difficult if not impossible to unsee.

I’m not quite convinced that anything—or anybody—was ever the same again.

I’m sure that everybody has a book which sets them on this path—the right book at the right time—but Creepers was the book that did it for me.

And it just so happened to be a mystery.

Posted in Adventure, Books, Genre, Guest, Readers, Story, Suspense | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment