Passport to Crime Fiction (by Josh Pachter)

Over many decades, Josh Pachter has been an invaluable contributor to EQMM as a writer, anthology editor, translator, go-to person for information on EQMM’s history, and general friend of the magazine. When I heard that he would be traveling and teaching mystery and crime fiction courses in Europe this fall, I asked him to do a post for this site about his classes, his adventures, and the EQMM authors he visited. I’m sure you’ll enjoy this account of his past few weeks and the many photos of people whose work you’ve seen in EQMM.  And I raise my own glass to Josh’s toast at the end. —Janet Hutchings

(Laurie and I on the way Amsterdam)

Regular readers of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and “Something is Going to Happen” may remember that I’m a big fan of golden anniversaries. (If you don’t, see “Looking Back on a Half-Century Love Affair With EQMM” and “Fifty Years After the Fair.”)

Well, this August I completed my fiftieth year in what was when I began the education business but has over time devolved into the education business, and I celebrated by retiring from my faculty position at Northern Virginia Community College’s Loudoun Campus. I was worried about making the transition from full-time teaching to not teaching, though, so I decided to ease into my retirement . . . by looking for a one-semester half-time position somewhere in Dutch-speaking Europe.

In the 1980s, when I lived for several years in Amsterdam, I translated a couple of Janwillem van de Wetering’s Grijpstra and De Gier stories for EQMM. Twenty years later, when Janet Hutchings launched the magazine’s “Passport to Crime” department, she asked me to find and translate more stories by Dutch writers, and I was happy to introduce readers to Theo Capel, René Appel, Carla Vermaat, and Tessa de Loo. In 2011, I decided to branch out a bit and Googled my way to Bavo Dhooge, a Flemish writer who in the first ten years of his career produced over sixty novels—and has since added more than forty more! Flemish and Dutch are not the same language, but they’re very similar—and, since only about two million people can read Flemish while twenty-two million read Dutch, most Flemish authors write in Dutch.

Through Bavo, I met and subsequently translated more of Flanders’ crime writers—Bob Van Laerhoven, Hilde Vandermeeren, Bram Dehouck, De Paepe & Depuydt, Pieter Aspe, Dominique Biebau—and, when Laurie and I visited Bavo in Ghent in 2015, we fell in love with the city, which is almost as charming as the much better known (and therefore much more crowded) Bruges.

(With Bavo Dhooge in Ghent)

(With Herbert De Paepe and Christa Verspeeten in Ghent)

So when the University of Ghent invited me to spend the fall of this year teaching two courses (as opposed to my usual five), I jumped at the chance. They offered to cover my airfare, give me a furnished visiting-faculty apartment, and pay me enough of an honorarium to keep me in Trappist beer and fine chocolate for the length of my stay. In return for that, I would teach a masters-level course in “Writing Short Crime Fiction” on Monday afternoons and a bachelors-level course in “Reading Short Crime Fiction” on Tuesday mornings, with about twenty students in each group. That meant I’d have a five-and-a-half-day weekend every week, which would give me plenty of time to enjoy traveling around northern Europe.

I don’t usually teach either creative writing or literature. (To be honest, I’m not really sure it’s possible to “teach” creative writing.) For the last fifty years, I’ve taught a range of communication-studies classes, mostly interpersonal communication, public speaking, and film appreciation. So I spent most of the summer figuring out how the heck I might make courses in writing and reading short crime fiction worth my students’ while.

The writing class was the easier one to develop. A couple of years ago, Dutch author René Appel and I co-edited the Amsterdam Noir anthology for Akashic Books’ “City Noir” series. (I have, by the way, translated several of René’s stories for “Passport to Crime” and one for AHMM, and we collaborated on a story called “A Woman’s Place” for EQMM.) When I pitched the idea of a Ghent Noir volume to Johnny Temple, Akashic’s publisher, he agreed that he would in principle be interested in a Ghent addition to the series, so I structured my writing class around the idea that each of my twenty students would spend the semester writing a crime story set somewhere within the Ghent city limits, with the five best stories forming the core of Ghent Noir. And, if there turned out to be more than five worthy stories, I could propose the others to Janet as possibilities for “Passport.”

(The Begijnhof, the setting for “A Woman’s Place,” which Rene and I co-wrote [EQMM Sep/Oct 2017)

For the reading class, I put together a PDF file divided into ten chapters, one per week of the semester. Chapter topics included “The Origins of Short Crime Fiction” (Poe, Conan Doyle, Chesterton), “The Golden Age—The Ladies” (Christie, Sayers, Allingham), “The Golden Age—The Gentlemen” (Queen, Carr, Boucher), “Private Eyes” (Hammett, Chandler, Estleman), and so on. Many of the stories I included had to be typed from PDF sources, and I spent long days at my keyboard transcribing them and adding footnotes explaining unfamiliar Americanisms and Britishisms to the file’s more than nine hundred pages.

I should note that many of the authors I included are well known to the readers of EQMM, such as Stanley Ellin, Art Taylor, Brendan Dubois, Barb Goffman, and David Dean. Because the majority of my students would be Flemish, I also included a selection of my “Passport” translations. (I actually speak Dutch and offered to teach my courses in that language, but because UG also welcomes international students, I was asked to teach in English and to limit the readings to English-language material.)

So, Laurie and I flew to Amsterdam on September 8 and spent two weeks visiting some of our favorite places in The Netherlands (where we had breakfast with René Appel) and Belgium (where we met up with Herbert De Paepe, who has contributed two stories he co-wrote with Els Depuydt and one solo story to “Passport to Crime,” and his girlfriend Christina). On the 24th, we returned our rental car, Laurie flew back to the US, and I took a train south to Ghent to begin my fall semester.

(With René Appel in Amsterdam)

My first class session was on Monday afternoon, September 26, and when I walked into the classroom I found, to my horror, not the twenty creative-writing students I’d been told to expect but fifty-four of them! Then, the next morning, my twenty-student literature class turned out to have forty-four students enrolled.

(My “Writing Short Crime Fiction” class)

(My “Reading Short Crime Fiction” class)

There go my five-day weekends, I realized. Instead of tooling down to Paris and other fun destinations, I was going to be spending a lot more time grading short-story drafts from one enormous group of students and critical reviews from another almost-as-enormous group of students than I’d been led to expect.

I did, however, go back to Amsterdam for my first five-day weekend (since my apartment wasn’t going to be available until early October) and stay with the very talented Christine Otten and her family; Christine hasn’t written a story for “Passport to Crime” yet, but she had a chillingly dark one in Amsterdam Noir. And I was also able to meet two-time EQMM contributor Anne van Doorn for a couple of cappuccinos at a sunny café in Hilversum, a pleasant town half an hour from the city.

(With Christine Otten and her husband Hans Krikke in Amsterdam-North)

(With Anne van Doorn in Hilversum)

Even after the student assignments started coming in, I was able to have some fun during my three months in Belgium. Kurt Sercu (who runs the world’s most extensive website dedicated to Ellery Queen) invited me to spend a weekend at his and his wife Martine’s beautiful home in Sijsele, a village just a few miles from Bruges, and took me on a guided walking tour of that city’s less touristed neighborhoods. Several of my colleagues and I took a “field trip” across the Belgian/Dutch border to the little town of Philippine, which is (deservedly!) famous for its mussels. Laurie came to visit me in Ghent for a couple of days in November, and then the two of us took the Eurostar to London for a long weekend (at the end of which I had a delightful lunch with EQMM contributors Paul Charles and Tom Mead). “Passport to Crime” author Dominique Biebau showed me around the charming city of Leuven. And I did a Memory Lane weekend in Nürnberg, where I lived for eight years during the 1980s and where my daughter Rebecca K. Jones (herself an EQMM contributor and, earlier this year, debut novelist) was born.

(with Kurt Sercu in Bruges)

(With Kurt and Martine on the Belgian coast)

(By the giant mussel statue in Philippine with colleagues)

(Dominique Biebau in Leuven)

(With Paul Charles and Tom Mead in London)

(With Laurie in London)

Meanwhile, three of the Flemish authors I’ve translated for EQMM guest-lectured in my classes: Els Depuydt talked with my creative-writing students, Herbert De Paepe talked with my literature students, and Bavo Dhooge visited both classes. (And I had very pleasant dinners with each of them.)

(Interviewing Els Depuydt in my writing class)

(Herbert De Paepe talking to my Reading Short Crime Fiction class)

As if all that didn’t add enough EQ flavor to my overseas adventure, it was while I was in Ghent that Crippen & Landru published The Adventures of the Puzzle Club, which collected for the first time all five of Frederic Dannay’s and Manfred B. Lee’s Puzzle Club stories plus all five of the Puzzle Club pastiches I wrote over the past few years for EQMM. The book’s byline, “by Ellery Queen and Josh Pachter,” was a mic-drop moment for me, bringing me at age seventy-one all the way back to the teenager I was in 1966, when Mary Ryan, my ninth-grade English teacher, introduced me to the pleasures of what I have since come to think of as the EQniverse, a universe of which I have been a very happy citizen for fifty-six years . . . and counting!

Speaking of counting: it’s late November as I write this blog post, and I am counting down the days until I finish my semester at the University of Ghent and return to Virginia to begin my delayed retirement.

Although I won’t be teaching for pay any more, I intend to continue offering enrichment courses in crime fiction and film history as a volunteer for the Lifelong Learning Institute of Chesterfield County and the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Richmond.

I also intend to continue editing collections of short stories, translating Flemish and Dutch authors for “Passport to Crime,” and writing new stories of my own.

I figure I’ve probably got a few thousand miles left on my tires, and I plan to keep on driving as long as my engine holds out and the scenery remains interesting.

Happy holidays, everyone! If you’ve got a beverage close at hand, I hope you’ll raise a glass and join me in wishing for peace on Earth and good will towards all creatures great and small!

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6 Responses to Passport to Crime Fiction (by Josh Pachter)

  1. Barb Goffman says:

    It’s been a pleasure to be an armchair traveler with you at the helm, Josh. Welcome home.

  2. Josh, this was great and I love the photos you’ve been posting! You have more fun working than I do having fun.

  3. Ed Ridgley says:

    This is great! I would love to see the syllabus you created for the class if you’re willing to share it.

  4. Art Taylor says:

    Enjoyed reading more about this! And thanks again for including me and others on the syllabus!

  5. Mike Doran says:

    Josh Pachter is an American Hero.
    He represents the USA around the world as well as anybody I can think of … better than most.
    I hope that someday he puts out a coffee-table book, documenting in pictures and words his travels and friends all over the world …
    … it’ll look great on the shelf, alongside the books he’s written and edited over the years …
    Has Josh won some sort of Edgar for all of this – because he certainly should have by now!

    • Josh Pachter says:

      Wow! I would never ever put my name and the word “hero” in the same sentence, Mike, but many thanks for your kind comments. Back in the ’80s, a story I translated from the Dutch was a finalist for the Best Short Story Edgar, but that’s the closest I’ve come — so far! Hope springs eternal, though….

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