“Partners in Crime” (by Josh Pachter)

Josh Pachter hardly needs introduction to readers of this site. He has posted here several times, and his name is also seen frequently in the pages of EQMM, as both a translator for our Passport to Crime department and as an author of short stories (he has some four dozen stories in print). Today he talks about literary collaboration. EQMM has its roots in one of the most fruitful literary collaborations ever, that of Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, so the topic is right on target for us. As Josh mentions in his post, his most recent book-length collaboration is Styx with Bavo Dhooge, to be released by Simon & Schuster next week.—Janet Hutchings

November’s EQMM podcast will be me reading Bavo Dhooge’s “Stinking Plaster,” a story I translated for the Passport to Crime department of the magazine’s September/October 2011 issue. And on November 3—just in time to miss Halloween—Simon451 (a new speculative imprint of Simon & Schuster) will publish Styx, a zombie cop novel on which Bavo and I collaborated.

Regular EQMM readers may be aware that I’ve done quite a few translations of Belgian and Dutch stories for Passport to Crime, going back to Theo Capel’s “The Red Mercedes” in 2004—and in 1985, long before “Passport” became a regular feature of the magazine, I translated two of Janwillem van de Wetering’s Grijpstra and de Gier stories. (Just under two years ago, I contributed a post about translating to “Something Is Going to Happen.”)

Readers may also know that—in addition to my translations and solo stories—I’ve also written a number of collaborative stories for Ellery Queen (and other publications), and in conjunction with the “Stinking Plaster” podcast and the publication of Styx, Janet Hutchings has invited me this week to share some thoughts with you about my experiences with collaborative writing.

Thirty years ago, I came up with an idea for a short-story collection I wanted to call Partners in Crime. The concept was that the book would include some 15-20 stories, each written by two people working together, and that in each case I would be one of the two authors. To make things more challenging, I decided that the collaborative method would have to be different in each case. And to make things insanely challenging, I was living in Germany at the time, and this was pre-Internet . . . so all of the work would have to be done by exchange of transatlantic snail mail.

I approached a bunch of the writers I’d come to know through my membership in the Mystery Writers of America and attendance (in the ’70s, before I moved overseas) at various MWA cocktail parties and Edgar Awards dinners, and almost all of them agreed that the project sounded like fun. Sure enough, I wound up producing about 15 collaborative stories. At the time, the book never materialized, but most of the stories were published individually, three of them in EQMM.

The first Partners in Crime story to see the light of print was “The Spy and the Suicide Club,” which I wrote with the legendary Edward D. Hoch. When my first short story—written when I was 16 years old—appeared in EQMM’s “Department of First Stories” in 1968 and I was accepted for membership in the MWA, Ed and Pat Hoch took me under their wing, made sure I was seated with them at the Edgars, introduced me to dozens of established authors I was absolutely in awe of. Ed was the first person I approached about Partners, and he told me that he never wrote collaboratively but would make an exception for me, as long as I was willing to play by his rules. As it turned out, there was really only one rule: I would plot the story, and he would write it. He proposed that we use his Jeffery Rand character from the British Department of Concealed Communications and that the story have something to do with the existence of a Robert Louis Stevenson-like “suicide club.” I took it from there and plotted out a story, Ed used most of what I came up with, and the result was published in the January 1985 EQMM.

My second Partners story was written with another Ed—the unjustly not well enough remembered today Edward Wellen—and this one was the most fun of them all to create. In response to my invitation to work on a story collaboratively, Ed—who knew that before Germany I’d lived for several years in Amsterdam—sent me a two-line “filler” from a newspaper: European storks, according to the clipping, migrate back and forth between Holland and South Africa. Since diamonds are mined in South Africa and cut in Amsterdam, Ed proposed, perhaps our story could involve a migratory stork being used to smuggle diamonds from Africa to Europe. I wrote back to say that I loved the idea, and that, as it happens, one of my favorite Dutch words is ooievaar, which contains six vowels out of eight letters and means “stork.” What if, I suggested, I was to provide him with a list of my favorite Dutch words and their meanings, and he then crafted a plot for a story in which all of those words could be used? Ed loved wordplay and signed on eagerly, and I came up with a list that included such ridiculously unrelated terms as gaaieeieren (which has seven consecutive vowels and means “the eggs of a jay”), angstschreeuw (with its eight consecutive consonants, meaning “a cry of anguish”), zeeën (with a triple vowel, meaning “oceans”), Churchilllaan (with a triple consonant, the name of a street in Amsterdam), wolkenkrabber (literally “cloud scratcher” but the Dutch way of saying “skyscraper”), straaljager (literally “sunbeam chaser” but meaning “jet airplane”), stofzuiger (literally “dust sucker” but meaning “vacuum cleaner”) and on and on and on, some 30 of them in all. Ed wove the entire list into an outrageously complicated plot, I added a few additional wrinkles, we took turns writing alternating scenes, I came up with the groaner title “Stork Trek,” and Cathleen Jordan bought it for the July 1985 issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.

And so on. For EQMM, Stanley Cohen (who wrote Angel Face, one of the very best police procedurals ever penned by someone named neither Lawrence Treat nor Ed McBain) and I wrote a suspense story titled “Annika Andersson” (February 1993) and Jon L. Breen and I had fun with an Ellery Queen parody (featuring Celery Green and his father, Inspector Wretched Green), “The German Cologne Mystery” (September/October 2005).

Other stories appeared in other places. Michael Avallone, notorious as “The Fastest Typewriter in the East,” helped me write “Better Safe Than Sorry” (Hardboiled, Summer/Fall 1987). Joe L. Hensley and I sold “All That Mattered” to The Saint Mystery Magazine, which folded before it could run (or pay us for!) the story, but Joe later included it in his collection Robak’s Firm (Doubleday Crime Club, 1987). John Lutz and I introduced his series character Alo Nudger to my AHMM Zodiac Detectives Byrnes and Allen in “DDS 10752 Libra,” which was included in An Eye for Justice, the third Private Eye Writers of America anthology (Mysterious Press, 1988), and later reprinted in a high-school textbook, Detectives (Amsco School Publications, 2000). And Francis M. Nevins and I paired Byrnes and Allen with his series character Gene Holt for “Leo’s Den,” which Mike later adapted into a Dick Tracy story and sold (as “The Leo’s Den Affair”) to Max Allan Collins’ paperback original Dick Tracy: The Secret Files (Tor, 1990).

The one Partners story that involved some actual face-to-face time with my collaborator began when Dan J. Marlowe and I coincidentally wound up sitting side-by-side on a flight from New York to Detroit in the late ’70s. It shouldn’t surprise you that the two of us used our in-the-air time to plot out a short story—which, as our plane touched down, Dan extremely graciously told me I could have. I didn’t get around to writing it up at the time, but, when the Partners project materialized, I suggested we write it together, and we did. As “The Seven-Year Bitch,” it was published in the final issue of Hardboiled in 1990.

My only female partner in crime was the wonderful Patricia McGerr, winner of the French Grand Prix de Literature Policiere in 1952 and creator of the series character Selena Mead. Pat and I worked on two stories together, one a mystery and one a sort of science-fiction/fantasy—and both manuscripts were in her possession at the time she died in 1985. I contacted Pat’s sister, who was also her executor, and asked her to look for the stories and return them to me, but I never got them.

Decades later, I was absolutely thrilled when another wonderful woman—my daughter, Rebecca Kathleen Jones—asked me if I’d be interested in writing a story with her. Perhaps not surprisingly, I jumped at the chance. By this time, I was back in the US, living in Cleveland, OH, and Becca was an undergraduate at Middlebury College in Vermont. Working sometimes in person during her vacations home and sometimes by e-mail and phone, we passed ideas and eventually drafts back and forth and experimented with several different titles, beginning with “Somewhere Under the Rainbow,” switching to “Bearding the Lion,” and eventually settling on “History on the Bedroom Wall,” which is a quote from an Ani DiFranco song and the title under which the story was eventually published in EQMM’s “Department of First Stories” (September/October 2009)—making me the only person who’s ever been featured in that section of the magazine twice . . . 41 years apart!

Seeing my daughter’s name in print was certainly a high point of my half a century of writing crime fiction. The closest I’ve come to matching it was last month, when a story I wrote collaboratively with my wife Laurie Pachter appeared in the online edition of The Saturday Evening Post. Laurie writes nonfiction professionally and has long yearned to write fiction. The only problem, she’s always told me, is that she “doesn’t do plot.” I don’t know why it took me as long as it did to suggest that I plot a story and she write it, but that’s what finally happened. Laurie and I first “met” online, thanks to a well known dating website, and it was probably inevitable that our story, “Coffee Date,” is about a couple who also meet that way. (In our real-life experience, though, nobody at the coffee shop got murdered. . . .)

In December 2013, I got a phone call from American literary agent Peter Riva. Bavo Dhooge—whom, you’ll recall, I’d recently translated for Passport to Crime—was interested in the possibility of publishing his newest novel in the U.S. He’d sent it to Peter, who felt that this was a book that needed not just a translator but a collaborator. Peter sent me the manuscript, I read it and agreed that, though the story was fascinating and perfectly suited to the American market—a zombie cop tracking a serial killer, how much more high-concept than that can you get?—there were things about it which called for more active involvement on my part than simple translation. Peter and Bavo and I went back and forth for a while and came to an agreement about the business side of things, and then Bavo and I settled down to work.

Perhaps the most important way in which I served as Bavo’s collaborator has to do with Styx’s flow. Early reviewers have called the book “taut, atmospheric” (Library Journal) and noted that its “gritty, hard-boiled tone is spot-on” (Publishers Weekly). Translations often come across as antiseptic, sterile, and I think that’s because most translators are too caught up in the words and don’t pay enough attention to the feel of the source material. Given the liberty to collaborate on Styx, I used Bavo’s source text as more of a set of guidelines than a Bible, and I felt free to add elements of my own literary style to the creation of the English-language manuscript. Bavo gave me a pretty free hand, but we didn’t agree about everything—and the final vote was always his.

Bavo says, “Working with Josh is a very intense way of collaborating. Josh is not afraid to ask something, to put question marks, to try things out. He’s also very precise: Every word, every punctuation mark matters. Meanwhile, I’ve written 100 novels by myself, so, for me, this was a test in letting go. A writer is a control freak. When you’re writing a book, you have to be. But with Styx, Josh’s involvement gave the original novel something extra.”

Earlier this year, Wildside Press published The Tree of Life, which collected all ten of the Mahboob Chaudri stories I wrote (on my own!) back in the 1980s, most of which originally appeared in EQMM. Given the warm reception that volume has gotten and the good reviews Styx is getting, I’ve decided to resurrect my old Partners in Crime idea, and I’m working now on writing introductions to the various stories—and getting either my original partners (those who are still living) or an appropriate other person (such as Dan Marlowe’s biographer Charles Kelly and, for Ed Hoch, Janet Hutchings) to write afterwords to the stories.

I’ve also decided to produce a couple of new collaborations for the book, and I’m tossing around ideas with my dear old friend Les Roberts (who, since winning the first-ever St. Martin’s Press Best First Private Eye Novel contest in 1986 has produced an average of a book a year, mostly about Cleveland PI Milan Jacovich), my fellow Northern Virginia Community College teacher Kathryn O’Sullivan (who won the Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Novel award for Foal Play a couple of years ago and has followed up with two more books featuring Outer Banks fire chief Colleen McCabe) and the astounding Art Taylor (who lives about twenty minutes from me, and whose short fiction has won the Agatha, the Anthony, the Macavity, and three consecutive Derringer Awards).

The first of these new stories to be finished is “A Woman’s Place,” which I wrote with René Appel, the father of the Dutch psychological suspense novel. I’ve already translated four of René’s short stories (two of which appeared in EQMM and one in AHMM, plus one in a British anthology of international crime fiction) and one of his novels (The Lawyer, which an agent is currently shopping around to American publishers), but “A Woman’s Place” is very much a collaboration, not a translation.

About ten years ago, I decided to try my hand at writing a novel of my own. I set it in Amsterdam and called it Dutch T(h)reat, and I think it was a reasonably effective effort. I had no idea how to market a novel, though, and the manuscript has languished on my hard drive for a decade. When René and I agreed to write a story together, I dug out Dutch T(h)reat and sent it to him. “Do you think,” I asked, “this could be condensed into a short story?” Before I knew it, René had sent me a draft—in Dutch—from which he’d eliminated my first-person narrator and several other characters, cut out one of the two murders and the attempted murder (and the cat, and a lot of the scenes in which people are eating Indonesian food and drinking tea), and added in a brand-new clue which leads the police to the solution of the one remaining murder. We went back and forth about several new plot points I felt wouldn’t work for American readers and finally wound up with a draft that pleased both of us. That I translated back into English—and Janet has accepted “A Woman’s Place” for EQMM and will hopefully be able to publish it in time for me to reprint it in Partners in Crime.

So there you have it, the story of my life as a (writing, not Nazi) collaborator. I’m a pretty social person, so I actually enjoy collaborating more than working by myself, whether the process happens face-to-face or via email, snail mail, or smoke signals.

I expect there’ll be more solo stories to come, and I’m confident there’ll be more translations.

But I hope there’ll be more collaborations, because those are the stories which are the most fun for me to write!

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5 Responses to “Partners in Crime” (by Josh Pachter)

  1. Barb Goffman says:

    Wow. I’m tired just reading about your output, Josh.

  2. Dale Andrews says:

    Nice piece, Josh. I’ve got some reading to catch up on!

  3. An impressive list of collaborations, Josh! As my good friend Bavo mentioned: sometimes a writer has to learn to let go. Twenty-or-so years ago, I wrote a few television scripts. In the beginning, it was very hard for me as a novelist to drop control over the script, but I soon learned that collaboration with the director and other scenarists made the result better….And that, in the end, is what counts…Success!

  4. I am very impressed with your writing credentials, Josh! I believe any writer would be thrilled to collaborate with you. Congrats on all your successes.

  5. Olive-Ann Tynan says:

    Great post Josh, can’t wait to read “A Woman’s Place”.

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