An Agatha Award winner and a multiple nominee for many other awards in the mystery field under her real name (mentioned in this post!), Leigh Perry makes her pseudonymous EQMM debut with the story “The Skeleton Rides a Horse” in our current issue (September/October 2022). Over the years, she has contributed a number of stories to EQMM that fit squarely within the genre, all under her real name; her mysteries under the byline Leigh Perry employ paranormal elements—perfect for our fall issue. I hadn’t realized until reading this post that a number of the author’s previous EQMM stories contain Easter Eggs. I’m looking forward to revisiting those stories to locate them. —Janet Hutchings
In reading over some of the recent entries here at Something Is Going to Happen, I noticed that quite a few EQMM contributors cite works of literature that inspired them: John Dziuban and Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, Mark Harrison and Nick Hornsby, Art Taylor and Chekhov, David Dean and Robert Louis Stevenson. And as it happens, I also drew inspiration for my recent EQMM story from a mystery novel.
In “The Skeleton Rides a Horse,” a murder investigation takes place at a convention for fans of the classic Western TV show Cowtown, but that show doesn’t exist outside the pages of Who Killed the Pinup Queen? by Toni L.P. Kelner. The character Ruben Timmons and his Cowtown Companion also show up in the Kelner book. There’s just one thing that keeps this story from being a legitimate literary homage: I myself am Toni L.P. Kelner. I wrote a number of books under that name before morphing to Leigh Perry for the Family Skeleton series. So I think that makes my use of Cowtown more of an Easter egg than anything literary.
To be clear, I’m not talking about dyed hard-boiled eggs or even the plastic kind with candy tucked inside. I’m going by the Wikipedia definition: “An Easter egg is a message, image, or feature hidden in software, a video game, a film, or another, usually electronic, medium.” In my case, it wasn’t so much a feature or message as it was a joke, but I didn’t really expect anybody to laugh at it other than me. In fact, many of my writing decisions are made to amuse myself. I hid a lot of Easter eggs in “The Skeleton Rides a Horse.”
The most obvious egg is the fact that there are three men named some variation of Mark, so they’re known as the Marks—a cheap reference to the Marx Brothers. Their descriptions are based on Groucho, Chico, and Harpo, too. Most of the character names in the story came from the Marx Brothers Western Go West,and the cranky horse my protagonist rides is named after the Marx Brothers’ mother. (Why did I pick on the Marx Brothers? My reasons are complicated, but they made sense at the time.)
This is, for better or worse, this is not the first time I’ve loaded a short story with Easter eggs. In “Skull & Cross-Examinations,” an EQMM story about a lawyer aboard a pirate ship, I named characters after real and fictional lawyers. I don’t know if my husband’s grandfather or Rex Stout would have appreciated the shout-outs, but they would probably have not found them actionable. In my carnival mystery “Sleeping With the Plush,” the characters are named for the authors of my favorite carnival memoirs. And to demonstrate that I have absolutely no shame, when I used a lingerie shop setting for “An Unmentionable Crime,” I named characters Frederick and Vicky for Frederick’s of Hollywood and Victoria’s Secret.
I do have an important rule for hiding Easter eggs, mind you. Finding an Easter egg or bit o’ trivia must not be necessary to the enjoyment of the story. You don’t have to recognize that Melody is a character in Go West to read “The Skeleton Rides a Horse” or know that pirate Nathaniel Parker is named for Nero Wolfe’s favorite lawyer to solve the mystery in “Skull & Cross-Examinations.” If a reader catches a reference, that’s lovely, but it isn’t important to anybody but me. Plus there’s a bonus. Planting Easter eggs actually helps me during the writing process.
You see, writing a piece of fiction requires me to make choices about the setting, character names, murder weapons, placement of clues, back stories, first person versus third person, ad infinitum. Using Easter eggs helps me make some of those choices. For instance, once I decided to use Cowtown references, I already had stuff I could use as background and plot points. The details of that imaginary show, the existence of the book Cowtown Companion, pompous sayings from the Cowtown code, and the idea of a TV-Western-themed dude ranch in Massachusetts all came from my book. Those were the bits and pieces I started with to create the rest of the story. References to the movie Go West gave me the idea of an IOU of some sort being involved, and established the Groucho-inspired character as not being entirely trustworthy.
Of course, in looking over my notes for the story, I’m reminded of lots of things I didn’t use. Go West had a romantic subplot I thought about emulating, I was originally going to use more characters from Who Killed the Pinup Queen?, and the Marks were going to be brothers at one point in the story’s genesis. I jettisoned all of that without prejudice. I mean, I love my Easter eggs, but Easter eggs that don’t serve the story are like the one my sister and I missed that one year and found in a hollow under a tree months later—they really stink!
So if you read any of my short stories, be aware there will likely be Easter eggs hidden among the pages, but unlike the hardboiled kind, missed Easter eggs won’t affect your reading of the story.