Not many mystery writers can claim to have had Ellery Queen as their writing instructor, but Joan Richter was not only a student but a star pupil of Frederic Dannay (half the Ellery Queen team). He liked her work so much that he published two of her stories in a single issue for her EQMM debut. Joan’s stories in subsequent years often took place in foreign settings, and it’s easy to see why as she recounts her travel experiences here. In 2011, a collection of seventeen of her short stories, set in Asia, Africa, Europe, and the U.S., appeared under the title The Gambling Master of Shanghai and Other Tales of Suspense. Her latest story for EQMM will appear in our September/October 2014 double issue. —Janet Hutchings
With the recent anniversary of JFK’s death I was reminded of that fateful November 1963, the month that my family moved to Washington, D.C., from New York City where we had lived all our lives. My husband, Dick, who had been with CBS News as a writer for Walter Cronkite and other anchors, resigned to join the Peace Corps. He was to be an evaluator of their overseas programs. His first trip was to Somalia, a country not so well known then. He flew from Dulles airport to Nairobi with plans to continue to Mogadishu the following day. At midnight there was a knock on his door. Another American staying at the New Stanley Hotel had come to tell him that our president had been assassinated.
There were no cell phones in those days, so it was only after my husband’s return that we were able to talk about the tragedy that had affected so many. He stayed with the Peace Corps as an evaluator for two years, visiting eight other countries, among them Afghanistan and Kenya. During that time I took my first overseas trip and met him in Dakar, Senegal, flying from D.C. to London, Paris, Venice, and Rome and from there to Dakar. It was a heady, informative trip.
At the end of his two years, what we wanted most was to be together as a family. Since we were still captivated by the idea of the Peace Corps, we set out for Kenya where Dick was deputy director of the program for the next two years, 1965-67. Up until then my only publishing credits were two short stories I had written in a creative writing class in a New York City suburb, given by EQMM’s first editor, Frederic Dannay. They appeared in 1962 in the section of EQMM called the Department of First Stories.
During our time in Kenya, I wrote a novel, Dawn in Dakar, which never made it into print, but I gathered ideas for short stories, which I later wrote. Life was pleasant in Kenya. It was a safe and secure period, with the Mau Mau uprising a thing of the past, and the country eager to establish itself. We had a modest house in a suburb of Nairobi, with a large garden, abundant with flowers that were exotic to me then. There were bottle brush trees and jacarandas and bougainvillea of all colors cascading over stone walls. There was an avocado tree outside our kitchen door.
We had two servants. Stephan had worked for Europeans before, spoke English fairly well, also Swahili, and knew how to cook and take care of a house. Mosoto was of the same tribe as Stephan and worked in the garden. I had learned some Swahili and so with a little bit of patience we were able to communicate. I published two stories that were sparked by our time in that house.
We enrolled our boys in Hospital Hill School, a short drive from our house. It was formerly British, but when Kenya gained its independence from Britain in l963 it switched from admitting only Europeans to including African and Asian students. Our boys had friends of all nationalities and colors. Picking them up at the end of the school day, I often stopped at Westlands, a small shopping center that had a bakery that sold oatmeal cookies, samosas, and sausage rolls. There was also a barbershop where our boys got their haircuts. Long after we were gone, this tiny shopping area became a high-end mall, and in 2013 was the brutal target of Al Shabaab. Times have changed, in ways we could not have imagined.
We learned to drive on the left-hand side of the road and traveled throughout East Africa, which embraced Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. At that time the three countries shared the same currency, the same postal system, and the same airline. On weekends we went to a game park close to Nairobi, where herds of zebra roamed free, along with wildebeest, a variety of gazelles, giraffe, lion, and leopard. Longer journeys took us up-country to visit volunteers and to larger game parks where we found elephants and herds of Cape buffalo.
We had been in Kenya less than a month when a Peace Corps Volunteer was reported missing. He had come to Nairobi from his post far up country to have four wisdom teeth extracted. After recuperating for a few days he was to meet my husband at the airport and they were to fly to where the volunteer was stationed. The volunteer never showed up. A manhunt was organized. I was assigned to go with a volunteer who knew the area we were to search and we set out in a Land Rover, north towards Lake Nakuru, where thousands of pink flamingoes rimmed the shore. We followed a route the missing volunteer often frequented, checking likely stops along the way. We were gone most of the day, but returned with no news, as was the case with others involved in the search. Then two days later a scientist interested in the rock hyrax, a small animal the size of a guinea pig and related in some odd way to the elephant, had been searching a rocky wooded area and came upon torn pieces of clothing, a book by Ian Fleming, and the lower jaw of a human being. Because of the recent dentist visit, the remains were identified. The cause of his death remained a mystery, but the supposition was that he might have taken too many pain pills, passed out, and became the victim of jackals and hyenas.
Having had one experience with a volunteer’s death, it seemed unlikely that there would be another. Then out of the blue, the Peace Corps director of a neighboring country cabled a request for a coffin and the recommendation of a pathologist. What followed was a complicated trial, charging one volunteer with the murder of another. After many months of testimony and deliberation the verdict of not guilty was issued.
At the end of our two-year term, we returned home to suburban New York City, Dick to continue with his television career, our boys to reenter American schools. I began working as a writer, and in 1967 Intruder in the Maize, a short story set in Africa was published in EQMM. I became a stringer for the New York Times Metropolitan section, and wrote an occasional feature article, which led to a job at The Trib, a start-up newspaper in Manhattan, where I became the assistant Travel Editor. I was sent on a trip to Tunisia, where I met Jack Connors, the president of American Express Publishing and publisher of Travel & Leisure. He asked me why I had taken a job with a paper that was doomed to failure. My answer was that my sons were now in their teens and I was eager to go back to work. “Smart move,” he said and gave me his card, telling me to call him when The Trib folded, which turned out to be less than a month away.
I was with American Express for ten years. During that time I was Director of Public Affairs. One of my assignments was to work with the Africa Travel Association, which took me to Gabon, Gambia, Senegal, Togo, and Zambia. Gambia was the source for an op ed piece I wrote for the New York Times and a short story, The River’s Child, which appeared in EQMM in 1999. I represented the company at the United Nations World Tourism Organization and attended conferences in Manila, New Delhi, Spain, Bulgaria, Paris, London, and China. A special assignment sent me on a five-week trip through Asia, beginning with Australia, then on to Bali, Thailand, and Taiwan.
There is no question that our time with the Peace Corps had a major influence on our family. The years we spent in Africa opened the world to us, spurred us to travel further, and begin to think of ourselves as internationalists. Our older son, Dave, is fluent in Mandarin, lived in China for ten years, and continues to use his knowledge of Asia in his business. Our younger son, Rob, works in the creative arts field, travels to international festivals to find artists and arrange for them to come to the U. S. to perform.
In 1996 my husband was appointed president of Radio Free Asia, created by the U. S. Congress and charged with broadcasting to those countries in Asia which had no freedom of expression and no access to objective news about their own countries – Burma, Cambodia, China, Tibet, Laos, Vietnam, and North Korea. RFA opened up another part of the world to us and we traveled extensively throughout the region during the ten years he held that job.
In 2009 we left the East Coast and moved to a retirement community in Issaquah, a suburb of Seattle. We can see the snowcapped Cascade Mountains from our living room windows and at night often hear the high-pitched howls and yelps of coyotes. I hear this as a prompt for me to set a story in the wild Northwest.