Andrew Riconda’s short fiction has appeared in a variety of literary journals and crime-fiction publications, including The Amherst Review, The William and Mary Review,Crimespree Magazine, Criminal Class Review, and Rio Grande Review. One of his stories was selected for The Best American Mystery Stories 2011. He’s a recipient of a Bronx Council on the Arts BRIO Award for 2021. In this post he discusses the inspiration for his debut story for EQMM, “If I Could Walk My Brother Into the Deep Woods,” which appears in EQMM’s current issue (November/December 2022), as well as other sources of inspiration that writers may want to try tapping. —Janet Hutchings
One of the most famous lines in The Catcher in the Rye is its first, the one about “all that David Copperfield kind of crap,” the personal stuff Holden is not willing to share much of with us because it would give his folks “two hemorrhages a piece” if he did.
My parents would’ve been solidly in the hemorrhaging camp.
Let me give you a little last week, late night autobiography:
On the eve of the publication of my first story for EQMM, I had this dream: I am at a place I used to write at in NYC, The Writers Room, but, of course, it’s not that place; it seems to be an airport hangar. I’m pushing my writer’s desk to a sunny spot on the floor amenable for great wordsmithing, but I push too hard and fast and the desk bumps into another writer’s desk, a pretty librarian type, and knocks the urn containing her father’s ashes to the ground. She’s angry, I apologize, and she says, “Now you’re standing in him!” I sheepishly start to pick up her dead dad’s particles, but then the ashes and the linoleum beneath become quicksand and my left foots begins to sink. I ask the writer if she wants me to continue to collect her dearly departed’s dust (I am often polite to a fault, that’s my way), and she says, “No, I’ll just sue you—and your family,” and points to my right where my late mother has materialized only to remain mute on the entire subject (and that was her way). At that point, the Executive Director of the Writers Room shows up (for the last thirty years, she has been the big sister Mom and Dad refused to give me), and, deus ex machina, proclaims, “She will not sue.” (It would’ve been better, of course, Donna, if you had said, “She shall not sue.”)
The dream should’ve ended there (there was something about me having to drive Diane Lane to her matinee performance of Annie; I assume she was playing Miss Hannigan), and I could’ve jotted off a snotty Thank You note to my psyche for allowing me to so blissfully enjoy publication day.
I do not think I have to invent a therapist of Dr. Melfian proportions to interpret. It goes without saying that I’m proud of the story’s inclusion in this venerated magazine, but I think it’s also clear I have some of the same misgivings about picking the delicate fruit from the family tree—even though Mom and Dad, and the brother and aunt depicted in the story are all deceased. (The aunt, it should be noted, was as quadruple-hemorrhage proponent, for years saying if I ever wrote about her she would haunt me from beyond the grave; this has not come to pass unless you consider me still receiving Verizon FiOS offers in her name the best she can muster from the Beyond.)
So what do you do if you want to (or, dear Lord, have to) borrow from your own life for the fictional ones you create? Well, first, you wait for all your closest relatives who will take issue to pass way. Done? Good!
But wait: Maybe you’re too impatient for that. Then what? Well, there are several approaches that have worked for me, some easier than others.
THE STALE BREAD APPROACH—
Stale bread doesn’t have to be just for the birds, it’s great for stuffing, too. An old anecdote from your father’s childhood, or his mother’s (like the one week she worked at Macy’s in Manhattan and got fired because two men walked right past her and out the door with a canoe they hadn’t paid for), can be a great place to start. You are such removed from the events, they may be more readily accessed with less fretting than the more personal stuff (like that sonuvabitch McDonald’s manager that made me count ice cubes in the freezer one night). I recently used my grandfather, whom I never had the pleasure to be acquainted with, in such a manner. He was a professional baseball player, and during a game he got into a spiking war with Ty Cobb and they both got kicked out of the game.
Perhaps getting your feet wet in this manner will allow a progression to it being almost all about you elsewhere:
THE MY BROTHER-IN-LAW IS AN IDIOT APPROACH—
Are you now ready to dip further into the autobio pool? I would suggest starting at the shallow end, the family members you hate. Your brother-in-law, he’s always been a bit of a jerk, right? Maybe he thinks boiled eggs should be broken at the big end rather than at the little end or he thinks Roger Moore was the better James Bond, whatever.
You can set off to capture the absolute scurrilous and contemptible with reckless abandon—enjoy! And perhaps you are secure in the knowledge that your subject is an illiterate and you know there’s no way he or she will ever encounter a New Yorker or Harper’s even in a doctor’s office, let alone some obscure literary journal you’ve warted with their, ah, wartiness.
And you may come out of your righteous rancor surprised. I workshopped a borderline sociopath of a brother-in-law story once, only to find my audience found him more sympathetic than the family he intends to kill over Thanksgiving dinner. That certainly wasn’t my intent; yet, the result was more satisfying. Again, it would seem I wasn’t really making it all about me.
Of course, the closer you get to home, the dicier this all gets. As the poet Hans Gruber said, “Sooner or later I might get to someone you do care about.”
And there are two approaches to try here: Be Honest. Or Lie Like Hell.
THE LIE LIKE HELL APPROACH—
This one is also called the “I always tell the truth, even when I lie,” per another poet, Tony Montana. Some of my first-draft readers have commented that the fathers I depict are a rather unsavory lot of cheats, liars, and scoundrels and I must’ve had a heck of a home life.
My Bad Dads are indeed based on my father, but in a very different way than conjectured. My dad was a wonderful, kind human being with heart bigger than all outdoors—and much of the indoors, too. (Mom, you were aces too, FYI). So, what do I do when I need an appalling pop on paper? I think what my father would do and say, and then I have the fictional louse do the exact opposite.
THE HONESTY IS THE BEST POLICY (BUT DON’T BEAT IT TO DEATH) APPROACH—
My EQMM story is a “brother’s keeper” story, a fictional distillation of many actual encounters I had with my eldest sibling, who battled with schizophrenia for many, many sad years. I was designated to be my brother’s keeper by my parents’ will (literally), but had been handling those duties for years anyway—it was expected of me from everyone, including myself. I often felt alone in this legal and moral conservatorship. But he was there, too, my brother, and a certain amount of resentfulness festers within the kept as well as the keeper. It’s that tension that I wanted to write about. But it was all so close, and so recent . . . and my brother may be gone, but I’m not. So, I opted for a sort of snatch and grab approach, get in and out, hoping concision wouldn’t derail feeling. Brevity is the soul of wit, but I hoped it could work for the somber stuff, too.
Onward and inward:
THE FUTURE IMPERFECT TENSE ME APPROACH—
I’m in the midst of a Love in the Age of Covid story right now, and the protagonist is a good-looking, witty fella named Andrew Riconda. Well, I thought he was the protagonist. After rereading the latest draft, I’m thinking he’s perhaps the antagonist. And a bit of a worm at that. But we’ll see how it goes: I hope at least his creator tries his best to be an honest worm in his rendering.
Perhaps all of these above were not so much approaches, perhaps they were more rungs of a ladder taking me closer and closer to something. I heard David Duchovny paraphrasing Neil Simon on Real Time with Bill Maher recently: It’s all autobiographical, even the stuff I make up. Maybe so, and maybe when you get to the last rung of the fictional ladder you’re face-to-face with nothing more than a mirror. So, is it ever really me, myself or I? I dunno. In the movies, when they still made movies about people, they used to say, “inspired by true events.” Inspired, that word gives us a lot of leeway for the truths and alt-truths we create about ourselves. So much so, it’s rather inspiring.
R. T. Raichev is an expert on Golden Age-style mysteries whose articles related to the genre have appeared on this site several times. This time, he turns his attention to the authors Edmund Crispin and P. D. James, discussing a stand-out story from each. A spoiler warning is in order here, as the plot of each story is discussed in detail. R. T Raichev’s own short stories appear in EQMM frequently. This year’s July/August issue contained his story “Sweet Death,” an entry in his series starring mystery writer Antonia Darcy and her husband, Major Payne, characters who have also been featured in several critically acclaimed novels. We have another story in the series coming up in 2023. —Janet Hutchings
One 19th century critic reviewing the Sherlock Holmes stories wrote, “In view of the difficulty of hitting on any fancies that are decently fresh, surely this sensational business must soon come to an end.” What the critic was prophesying was nothing less than the imminent demise of the mystery genre—despite the fact that the latter had only just evolved and was proving extremely popular with the public. Even more surprisingly, the critic seemed to regard the Sherlock Holmes stories—the very same stories that were causing copies of the Strand magazine to sell in record numbers—as the genre’s swan song.
It was a truly extraordinary prophecy, foolish and presumptuous and doomed to remain unfulfilled. More than 150 years have passed since the inception of “this sensational business,” i.e., of the mystery genre, and stories involving crime and detection are more popular than ever. There have been duds, inevitably, but the best examples of the genre have had the power to puzzle, bamboozle, charm, amuse, amaze, hold in suspense and provide intellectual stimulation to generations of readers—and they continue to do so.
The two short stories I have chosen to discuss have more than fifty-five years between them. They are both strikingly original, they stay in the mind and, considered as “fancies,” they remain more than “decently fresh.”
Edmund Crispin’s “Who Killed Baker?” was first published in London’s Evening Standard in 1950. It appeared in book form in 1979, in the collection Fen Country. While seeming to fit perfectly in the traditional whodunit mould, complete with clues, red herrings and some clever misdirection, it is also a trick story, an ingenious exercise in reader manipulation and a witty post-modern jeu d’esprit. It has been condemned by some as “gimmicky” and as an “anti-crime story”—charges which would have delighted its author who was famous for his mischievous sense of humor.
Edmund Crispin was the pseudonym of Robert Bruce Montgomery (1921-1978), an English crime writer of some note who was also a composer. Crispin took an academic interest in the genre and reviewed detective stories for the Sunday Times. His oeuvre encompassed nine novels and two collections of short stories, all of which he infused with his own brand of whimsical comedy and erudite literariness. He was, in the words of Julian Symons, one of the “farceurs.” The other farceur was Michael Innes—real name J.I.M. Stewart—whom Crispin’s greatly revered. Indeed “Edmund Crispin,” the pseudonym he chose for himself happens to be the name of a character in Innes’s 1936 novel Hamelt, Revenge. As we can see, meta playfulness has been one of the hallmarks of Crispin’s detective fiction from the very start of his writing career.
The story’s very title—”Who killed Baker?”—must be one of the most unusual strategies of deception in the history of detective fiction. What it does is plant the idea in the reader’s mind that they are reading an orthodox whodunit in which a character called Baker is killed and that the point of the story is to discover the identity of Baker’s killer. Up to a point this is true—but not entirely.
What we get is a story within the story which opens with a post-prandial gathering of academics, discussing—over walnuts and stuffed dates—the superiority or otherwise of philosophy over criminology. Professor Gervase Fen is one of those present. Fen is Crispin’s serial sleuth, though in this particular instance his role is confined to that of a raconteur. And it is a role he plays very cleverly indeed. How cleverly we only realize when we reach the denouement and it dawns on us that, had the story been told differently, had there been no emphasis on the question in the title and had the phrase “the body” been substituted with one containing more specific information about the victim’s identity—well, then there would have been no mystery at all.
But Fen plays it fair. He warns the company that “it’s a case in which the mode of telling is important—as important, probably, as the thing told.” He also says that “the situation which resulted in Baker’s death wasn’t in itself complicated or obscure.”
The dramatis personae are paraded for our inspection starting with the eponymous Baker who is paunchy, wears dandified clothes and has “black, heavily brilliantined hair”. He is the owner of a toy-making business; he is wealthy, self-important and something of a sadist. He doesn’t seem to have a single redeeming feature which, in keeping with the genre’s conventions, makes him the perfect whodunit victim.
Baker’s wife Mary is young and attractive, with a “Rubensish” figure and she is bullied by Baker. At the time of the murder she is having an affair with their chauffeur Snow. A reference is made to the 1935 cause celebre involving Alma Rattenbury, whose young lover killed her husband—and readers are left to wonder whether perhaps a similar fate awaits Baker.
The fourth person staying at the house is Baker’s business rival Eckerson. The reason for the latter’s visit is to discuss a possible merger of his business with Baker’s. We are told that Eckerson is obstinate but only in business matters—apart from that his personality is entirely colourless—which seems to be reflected in his physical appearance—he is an albino. We hear that Eckerson and Baker “antagonized each other from the start.” Thus Erickson is also added to the list of possible suspects.
The body is discovered by the Bakers’ cook Mrs Blaine who catches a glimpse of it through the drawing-room window, lying in the shadow of the fireplace. She immediately notices the dark, veinous blood streaking the hair. The murder weapon is later revealed as a kitchen knife, which was aimed at the jugular vein but is found to be “innocent of fingerprints.” A burglary has been staged, rather amateurishly, clearly in an an attempt at creating a smoke screen.
It is not a hard case to solve and within twenty-four hours the police have made an arrest. As for the question, Who killed Baker? the answer is: the public executioner. (This is 1950s England and capital punishment is still very much in evidence.) Baker was found guilty and subsequently hanged for the murder of Erickson, his business rival.
This denouement is met with a howl of rage from one of Fen’s companions. Fen admits that it is a trick story, though he points out that ample warning has been given. The story was told in a way which only suggested that Baker was the murder victim. Clues were provided, such as the cook seeing the dead body through a window and spotting blood on the hair—but Fen had made it clear that Baker’s hair was dark and heavily brilliantined—so no blood would have shown on it, certainly not when glimpsed from a distance—ergo the body couldn’t have been Baker’s. Erickson, on the other hand, was an albino and, as everybody knows, albinos’ hair is notoriously white . . .
“Who killed Baker?” revolves round one deceptively simple question on which the story depends for its ultimate effect. It is a bold experiment in story telling which manages to be at once devious and scrupulously fair. It is sui generis, one of its kind. It employs a single very specific and very ingenious idea as a fulcrum for its plot. It delivers its coup in a way that can’t be replicated in any subsequent performances.
* * * *
The characters in P.D.James’s “The Part-time Job’ also operate in the shadow of the hangman’s noose. The story is set in 1953, the year of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, though it was written in the new millennium and published in 2006 (in the anthology The Detection Collection ed. by Simon Brett). It is interesting to note that the characters are the same age as James who was born in 1920.
P.D. James needs no introduction. At the time of her death she was the doyenne of English crime fiction and was often referred to as the Queen of Crime. She penned nineteen novels, two collections of short stories (which I personally prefer to the novels) and three books of non-fiction. She must have been at least 85 when she wrote “The Part-time Job” and one can’t help admiring the clarity, incisiveness and general excellence of her prose in addition to the mesmerizing insights she provides into the troubled mind of the anonymous narrator.*
The story is an exquisitely composed, ghoulishly macabre, morally ambiguous account of a revenge served very cold. It is a first-person narrative that takes the form of a posthumous confession. The anonymous narrator informs us that by the time we read this, he will be dead. He then explains that he resolved to kill his tormentor, Keith Manston-Green, when he was 12 and that he managed to achieve his ambition at the age of 33. (Which happens to be Jesus’s age when he was crucified. One is left wondering whether this should be seen as an instance of James’s penchant for dark irony.)
We learn that the narrator and Manston-Green were at school together. Manston-Green was a bully who terrorized his victim mercilessly for years. As though in passing, we are also told that while working at the family locksmith business later in life, the narrator had a part-time job, the same part-time job as his late father’s. The revelation of what the part-time job involves is in fact the big surprise at the end of the story.
We become privy to the narrator’s thoughts and actions—to the meticulous planning that goes into committing the perfect crime and how he contrives to derive the the most visceral of satisfactions from it. (In this respect the story is similar to such classic tales of revenge as Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” and Maupassant’s “Vendetta.”) While we may sympathize with the narrator for the terrible bullying he suffered, we are also disturbed by the display of so much murderous hatred, the harboring of such long-term grievances and by the obsessive, single-minded, indeed manic, pursuit of revenge that involves the killing of an innocent person.**
The narrator carries out his plan patiently, systematically and with clockwork precision. He starts by sending anonymous messages to Manston-Green—each containing “the same insinuating poison”—taunting him over his young wife’s alleged infidelity. This leads to public rows between Manston-Green and his wife, which is as the narrator intended. He then bludgeons the wife to death with one of the bully’s golf club and makes it look as though it was Manston-Green who did it in a paroxysm of extreme jealousy.***
Some readers may ask, if he got away with the wife’s murder so effortlessly, why didn’t he just bludgeon the bully to death instead? Wouldn’t that have been more satisfying and more certain than going through the tremendous effort of setting up Manston-Green for murder—hoping without being sure that the jury would find him guilty and condemn him to death?
The answer is no. Simply eliminating his bully wouldn’t have done. Earlier in the story we are told that in 1939, at the start of the war, the narrator—only 19 at the time—feared that Manston-Green may be killed in action and that he may be remembered as a hero—an idea he found “intolerable.” His aim was to “make Manston-Green suffer over months of protracted agony”—while waiting for his execution—just as the bully had made him suffer for years.
In the last two pages of the story we finally learn that his part-time job, so far only enigmatically alluded to, is that of a public hangman. It is he—the narrator—who puts the rope round Manston-Green’s neck, thus fulfilling his ultimate goal, his lifetime ambition. He informs us that he is “a meticulous craftsman,” as was father before him, that he is “highly experienced.” What makes his joy complete is the certainty that Manston-Green has recognized him—he sees it in his eyes—in the one second before he slips the white hood over his head and pulls the lever.
The narrator’s anonymity adds a chilling undercurrent to our perception of him since it conjures up the idea of the dangerous, nameless stranger some of us fear. It also affords an opportunity for the reader to project themselves into the narrator’s shoes more effectively. Anyone who may have been bullied and may have wanted to exact revenge gets their chance to do so, vicariously, by reading this story.
*Compare to the sad muddle of “The Harlequin’s Tea-set,” the last short story Agatha Christie ever wrote when she was in her early 80s.
** This is not the first time P.D.James has written about a character’s obsession with revenge. Her novel Innocent Blood (1980) is about a father who plans to kill the woman who killed his young daughter. Her short story “The Victim” (1973) is concerned with a wronged husband who plots—“systematically and with dreadful pleasure”—the murder of the man who stole his young wife away from him.
*** The idea of a murder being committed for the sole purpose of implicating another person and making him suffer for it is not new. It was used at least twice by Agatha Christie, in her novels Murder is Easy (1939) and Towards Zero (1947). It is interesting to note that the cover of “The Part-time Job”—published as a separate booklet in 2020 to mark what would have been P.D.James’s 100th birthday—is similar to to the first-edition cover of Towards Zero, in which the murder weapon is also a golf club. Both covers show a stylized drawing of a golf club.
In EQMM’s current issue, author Charlotte Hinger returns after an absence of nearly thirty years. In the intervening time she’s had stories published in a number of anthologies, and she has just won the Gold Medallion at the Will Rogers Medallion Awards for her story “The Book Mama,” which was published in the Gale/Cengage (Five Star) anthology Librarians of the West. Her Christmas story “Lizzie Noel,” in EQMM November/December 2022, draws on knowledge she gained through her husband owning a livestock trucking business. The following post should be heartening to new and aspiring writers. —Janet Hutchings
I had a tremendous advantage when I began my writing career. I was dumb and isolated, living on the Western Kansas prairie married to a truck-driving husband (a bull hauler) who was gone a good deal of the time.
No one told me it was hard to get published and almost impossible to get an agent. No one told me it was hard to write a book and even harder to write a short story. I never had heard a discouraging word
I learned all about writing and the business of writing through Writer’s Digest and books borrowed from Interlibrary Loan. Even though I had no formal training and had never had a creative writing course, I had this insane desire to become a writer. Writer’s Digest, of course, was irrationally encouraging. It was how they sold magazines.
My initial experience with writing was harsh. When I was in the fifth grade I wrote my first short story. My teacher called my parents. My father lectured me about the sin of plagiarism. Despite being hurt and bewildered, my gut response was “gosh, I must be good,” because I certainly did write the story. That episode put the idea in my head that I could become a writer.
I had loved the journalism classes I took during my two years of college at Kansas State University. Nevertheless, becoming a fiction writer seemed as exotic as becoming a tight rope walker or a trapeze artist. It simply was out of the reach of mere mortals. There were no writers in Plainville, Kansas, nor did I know anyone who wanted to become a writer.
As is the case with most writers or wannabe writers, I was an avid reader. I read all of the time. Loving the written word is the most important foundation for publishing.
I picked up my first Writer’s Digest at the local public library. The articles therein assured me publishing was a snap. It was all a matter of perseverance. Then I discovered interlibrary loan and the plethora of books about writing. Through the magazine articles and books, I learned everything I needed to know about publishing and marketing books. The most valuable information was about submitting material.
The first short story I submitted, “Alone At Night” was accepted by Overdrive, a magazine for truckers who were owner-operators. They paid me $35.00. I will never ever forget the thrill of that first sale. The second story also was accepted.
However, the publisher called after receiving the first short story to make sure I had actually written it. This took place long before the internet existed and there was no way to easily determine if material had been copied. Somewhat miffed, and flashing back to the fifth grade, I assured him it was my own work. I enjoyed my fame in the trucking community and reveled in receiving substantial money for a story in published in Woman’s World.
Through the years, despite the demands of coping with three daughters while Don was on the road, slowly, tentatively, I tip-toed toward the possibility that I could write a book. Of course, you can Writer’s Digest assured me.
I developed a plan. I would write five pages a day, five days a week no matter what.
I finished that first novel. It was a semi-gothic and grounded in Kansas history. It wasn’t very good. Nevertheless, I finished it and by then I knew I didn’t want to write gothics, but historical novels. The process taught me a lot about constructing a book. Ironically, pathetic as that novel was, I received four responses from agents. Negative, but encouraging.
After twenty years of marriage, my husband bought the truckline. By that time I had finished a lengthy historical novel, Come Spring, and had published a number of historical articles and more short stories. I took the novel with me to Western Writers of America and was thrilled to meet professional writers for the first time. A wonderful lady, Jeanne Williams, recommended me to her agent, Claire Smith, with Harold Ober Associates, who agreed to represent me.
Claire sold Come Spring to Simon & Schuster. Subsequently, there was a paperback sale to Warner Books and it was a selection of the Reader’s Digest Book Club.
I ascended to another level of ignorance. I didn’t understand how the publishing world worked. I didn’t promote well. I learned that by the time one understands marketing processes it’s too late.
I certainly didn’t understand the importance of writing the next book immediately or that it was better to stick with a genre. Thrilled when Poisoned Pen Press began publishing the Lottie Albright series I ended up writing mysteries, historical novels, and academic articles, with a number of short stories mixed in.
Then to complicate matters, I fell in love with the African American town of Nicodemus, Kansas and decided to finish my college degree and then to pursue a masters so that I could write an academic book. As usual, I knew nothing about that process either. Nevertheless, my thesis committee was enthusiastic about my work, then Oklahoma University Press published my book about Nicodemus, and Five Star published a historical novel about the founding of that town.
Now I’m facing a new challenge that is shared by everyone in publishing. The volume of books published every year has skyrocketed. Marketing by any means is overwhelming. It can also be very expensive. Every week, writers’ conferences beckon.
Sadly, beginners no longer have the luxury of thoughtfully developing their craft in isolation. They are bombarded with excessive and ruinous information. There’s a plethora of writing groups and scalpers all too eager to offer advice.
Everyone will start smarter than I was. But the learning curve will be shorter and less painful.
I hope neophytes leave groups that make them ashamed of their writing but accept criticism that will strengthen their work. Most of all, I wish them the joy of becoming a writer.
Manju Soni, who writes under the pen name M. J. Soni, is a former eye surgeon turned author. Her debut nonfiction book, Defying Apartheid, captures her experiences as a young activist against apartheid. In recent years, she’s turned to fiction writing. Her short stories have appeared in Akashic Books anthologies, Apeiron Review, The Establishment, and EQMM. Don’t miss her story “Juvenility” in our current issue (November/December 2022)! Manju is a recipient of the Leon B. Burnstein/MWA-NY Scholarship and a 2020 runner up for the Eleanor Taylor Bland Crime Fiction Writers of Color Award. Her recently completed first novel, Precious Girls, is out on submission. She’s an active member of Sisters in Crime and Crime Writers of Color, and for this post she provides reviews of ten new books by crime writers of color that we think will pique your interest. —Janet Hutchings
Stories and storytelling have been part of human culture for as long as there have been humans.
Tales, fables, myths, and legends have been with us for so long we often take them for granted. We rarely ask, who are the storytellers, whose stories are heard, and whose are not, why do some stories become part of our popular culture and others don’t, and the most important question of all, what impact do these choices have on us as the human race.
Through millennia much of storytelling was oral, lessons passed down from one generation to the next, and the next, and the next. But these magnificent waterfalls of human stories all over the world were dealt a terrible blow by colonization. Western Europeans regarded people of color whose lands they conquered, as primitive, as savages. So, they set out to “civilize” these peoples by breaking up families and societies, tearing the bonds between generations and thus severing the continuity of the thread of storytelling that kept people together.
The author Doris Lessing talks of a Shona friend whose grandmother was the storyteller for her clan. But her friend knew not one story of his grandmother’s. “The Jesuits beat all that out of me,” he said. He was flogged, all the children were, for any hint of “backwardness.”
Slavery broke the bonds between the elder storytellers left behind in Africa, and the enslaved people brought to the Americas.
Today, only a few cultures in the world continue this tradition of oral storytelling. Amongst them are the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of Australia, widely regarded as the oldest living cultures outside of Africa. They call their stories Dreamings, and they are closely guarded “lessons” told only to a chosen few and repeated back for accuracy, in order to pass on important lessons on geography, on acquiring food and shelter, and of social norms.
In the modern world, the printing press became the main conduit of storytelling which meant only those storytellers with access to it were heard, and this often meant White people.
The publishing industry in the West has struggled to address this issue of systemic racism within it. In the past few years, and especially with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, we have seen a range of authors being published whose stories are as diverse as humans themselves.
Here are 10 exciting crime novels by authors of color that explore worlds often unseen. I hope you find them as fascinating as I did. And you can find more writers of color at the Crime Writers of Color website https://www.crimewritersofcolor.com/books. Founded by Walter Mosley, Kellye Garrett and Gigi Pandian, CWOC is a great resource for both authors and readers.
Her Name is Knight by Yasmin Angoe
“Echo cast one more look at herself, making sure the swim cap was securely on her head, the waterproof earpiece embedded in the diamond stud earrings she wore.”
Nena Knight, code name Echo, was trafficked as a child from her village in Ghana. Now, she’s an elite assassin who works for an international agency called the Tribe, a secret organization that ensures Africa’s interests are maintained on the world stage. Interweaving the story of her past with the present, we see Nena become Echo and take vengeance when she learns a new member of the Tribe is the man who murdered her family and sold her into captivity.
Runner (Cass Raines #4) by Tracy Clark
“I yanked the door open and all but flung my half-frozen self into the snug White Castle, the hawk clawing up the back of my neck, my lungs shocked rigid by the subzero wind chill.”
Cass Raines is a PI, and an ex-cop. When the desperate mother of a missing teen comes to her for help, she agrees to help. But the girl doesn’t want to be found, and as Cass digs further she realizes the breadth of the conspiracy that is keeping the girl and other kids on the street rather than at home.
But as Cass gets closer to the truth she and the girl are in an ever increasing danger.
Razorblade Tears by S.A. Cosby
“Ike tried to remember a time when men with badges coming to his door early in the morning brought anything other than heartache and misery, but try as he might, nothing came to mind.”
One of Barack Obama’s Recommended Reads for Summer, Razorblade Tears follows the story of two fathers, one White, one Black, whose gay sons are murdered leaving their baby girl fatherless. We see the men struggle to overcome their own prejudices in order to work together to find the truth and bring the murderers to justice. A poignant portrayal of grief and revenge.
Like a Sister by Kellye Garrett
“I found out my sister was back in New York from Instagram. I found out she’d died from the New York Daily News.”
In a family ravaged by tragedy, loss and the ego of their father, music mogul, Mel Pierce, half-sisters Lena and Desiree, haven’t spoken to each other for years. But when Desiree is found dead, of a suspected overdose, in a park in the Bronx, near the home Lena shares with her aunt, Lena is convinced Desiree was on her way to see her. Why? Did her sister need her?
Lena is a smart and determined protagonist, and like a magician, Garrett unspools the mystery, making everyone a suspect until the twisty end.
Clark and Division by Naomi Hirahara
“Rose was always there, even while I was being born.” Set in 1944, Naomi Hirahara’s story about two sisters, is narrated by Aki, the younger sister, who survives the Japanese internment only to lose her vibrant, beautiful, charming sister to murder in Chicago, on the corner of Clark and Division. It’s a chilling reminder of the impact of historical events on a Japanese-American family and the stoicism required to weather these events.
My Sweet Girl by Amanda Jayatissa
“There’s a special place in hell for incompetent customer service agents, and it’s right between monsters who stick their bare feet up on airplane seats and mansplainers.”
Paloma has lived a privileged life after being adopted from an orphanage in Sri Lanka. Now, at thirty, the man subletting her apartment discovers her secret, and is then found dead in a pool of blood.
On the run, with flashbacks to the harrowing time at the orphanage, we follow Paloma as she runs away from her past but never reaches a safe place.
Arsenic and Adobo by Mia P. Manansala
“My name is Lila Macapagal and my life became a rom-com cliché.”
In this cozy food-themed mystery, Lila, recovering from a bad breakup, moves back home to help her aunt run her restaurant. But when her vindictive ex, a food critic who gives the restaurant a bad review, dies in the restaurant, Lila becomes the main suspect. And so begins a mouth-watering romp to find the real murderer.
All Her Little Secrets by Wanda M. Morris
“The three of us—me, my brother, Sam, and Vera or Miss Vee as everyone in Chillicothe called her—looked like a little trio of vagabonds as we stood in the Greyhound Bus Station, which, in Chillicothe, meant a lean-to bus port in the parking lot of the Piggly Wiggly.”
Ellice Littlejohn is a top-notch lawyer at a firm to match. But when she finds her boss, and lover, shot dead in his office, she walks away, desperate to keep her past from destroying her present. Promoted to replace her boss, she soon realizes everyone has a hidden agenda, and she’s being set up to take the fall. But secrets will out.
Under Lock & Skeleton Key by Gigi Pandian
“Tempest Raj tested the smooth, hardwood floor once more.”
Tempest Raj is a stage magician who has returned home after being accused of a careless and risky magic accident, where she was “apparently” witnessed preparing for the unsafe stunt. She firmly believes her former stage double, Cassidy, was responsible for the accident.
But when Cassidy is found dead inside a wall of a building being constructed by Tempest’s parents’ company, called Secret Staircase Construction, she and her best friend Ivy, have to solve the murder before someone kills Tempest, or accuses her of it.
Diverse and quirky characters, like Tempest’s grandparents, Grandpa Ash who is of Indian ancestry, and Grandma Mor who is Scottish, together with their brilliant fusion recipes, and Tempest’s rabbit, Abracadabra, add a lot of fun in what is an intriguing mystery.
Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden
“I leaned back in the seat of my old Ford Pinto, listening to the sounds coming from the Depot, the reservation’s only tavern.”
In 1885, the murder of Chief Spotted Tail of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe resulted in the Major Crimes Act being passed by the federal government. The Act, still in effect today, ensures that a serious felony committed on a reservation by a Native person has to be referred to the FBI, but the FBI has a right to decline prosecuting if they deem fit. The result is many victims and their families are left without justice, in the gray area between the FBI and tribal police. This is when they turn to Virgil Wounded Horse, the protagonist of Winter Counts. A local enforcer on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota, Virgil is also a vigilante. Following the trail of a new drug cartel rapidly expanding its heroin dealings on the reservation, Virgil has to follow the trail to Denver. And things become personal when his nephew is caught in the crossfire.
Our blog post this week is by Russell Atwood, a former managing editor of EQMM whose first work of fiction appeared in EQMM’s Department of First Stories. He went on to write two novels starring P.I. Payton Sherwood and, most recently, the haunted-house novel Apartment Five Is Alive. The latter is perfect for this Halloween season and it’s now available as an audiobook narrated by Jack de Golia, available on iTunes and Audible.com. Bram Stoker Award-winning author Tom Deady says the book is “Full of compelling characters and genuinely creepy scenes . . . The climax is claustrophobic and ultimately stunning.” Russell is also the creator and writer of the comedy-horror-puppetshow The Bride of Pugsley on YouTube channel SidMartyLovecraft. His subject for this post is a writer whose work he would have come across often during his years at EQMM, the unforgettable Henry Slesar. —Janet Hutchings
One of the drives central to all writers is immortality. Whether they acknowledge it or not, at some point all writers look around and notice “Life is short” and many stories go untold and lives are forever forgotten. All writers attempt to create something that will weather through all ages, long after their passing. Henry Slesar can rest easy that he’s come closer than most.
Prolific in numerous fields of writing—sci-fi, pulp fiction, daytime soap operas, advertising copywriting, television and movie screenwriting, award-winning mystery novels—author Henry Slesar was born June 12, 1927 “Henry Schlosser” in Brooklyn, NY, his parents Jewish immigrants from Ukraine. He attended the School of Industrial Arts in Manhattan and soon found he had a knack for copywriting and design. At the age of 17 (right after his graduation), Slesar was hired by the NY advertising agency Young & Rubicam, launching his twenty-year career as an ad man in the era of Mad Men. He is credited for coining the term “coffee break” and a long-forgotten but hugely successful “The Man in the Chair” ad campaign for McGraw-Hill.
He published his first short story, “The Brat,” in 1955, in Imaginative Tales magazine. The 1950s saw an explosion of activity for Slesar, setting a pace he maintained throughout his career, turning out clean, quality prose in a variety of genres and mediums, though suspense was always his forte. In 1957 alone, Slesar published over forty short stories under his own name and various pseudonyms such as O. H. Leslie (the O.H. presumably a nod to author O. Henry, because many of Slesar’s stories climaxed in a twist ending). In 1960, he wrote his first original novel, The Gray Flannel Shroud, a mystery set in a big advertising agency (which the author had ample first-hand experience to draw from) where a murder is committed while the staff is in the middle of promoting a new baby food. It won the Edgar Award for Best First Mystery Novel from the Mystery Writers of America.
It was also around this time that Slesar opened his own advertising agency and began writing for television, igniting an extraordinarily long relationship with the CBS daytime soap opera The Edge of Night. In The Soap Opera Encyclopedia, writer Chris Schermerin comments that “Slesar proved a master of the serial format, creating a series of bizarre, intricate plots of offbeat characters.” He eventually became the head writer for this mystery-oriented serial from 1968 to 1980, leading TV Guide magazine to once refer to him as “The Writer with the Biggest Audience in America.” He won an Emmy in 1974 for his writing on the show, wrote an original novel based on the series (The Seventh Mask), and garnered numerous nominations and nods from the Writers Guild, and a second Edgar for best television script in 1977. He also wrote for other daytime and late-night serials such as One Life to Live, Somerset, Executive Suite, and Capitol. (Later, in 1998, Slesar would draw from his experience to write the mystery novel Murder at Heartbreak Hospital, about murders committed on the set of a daytime soap opera).
In 1960, director Alfred Hitchcock came across one of Slesar’s short stories, “M is for the Many,” in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and acquired it for an episode of his television series Alfred HitchcockPresents, retitling it “Heart of Gold.” This began a relationship between the two that led to twenty-one of Slesar’s tales being adapted for the show.
In the introduction to his short story collection Death on Television, Slesar wrote about where he and Hitchcock met creatively in relation to their love of the “twist ending”:
“For some people, irony may seem like a by-product of cynicism. Anatole France called it ‘the last phase of disillusion.’ But for Hitchcock . . . irony was the key ingredient of storytelling, along with its two components: humor and pity. “Let’s face it. There’s nothing intrinsically funny about crime…[Hitchock] made a conscious decision to put the story before the gory. He chose delight over fright.
“It wasn’t merely a cynical outlook on life that dictated the Hitchcock choices. It was an attitude that smiled, sometimes sadly, upon the frailties of the human personality. It was more than just a ‘sense of humor.’ The taste for irony, in the words of Jessamyn West, ‘has kept more hearts from breaking than a sense of humor—for it takes irony to appreciate the joke which is on oneself.’“
Slesar was a master of the twist ending, and often these types of stories are labeled gimmicky, but Slesar’s twists always grew out of the foibles of human beings.
In the 1970s, several of these stories were also used in the attempted rebirth of radio drama on American radio when Himan Brown (the creator of the old-time-radio show Inner Sanctum) started the CBS Radio Mystery Theatre. Brown chose one of Slesar’s stories, “The Old Ones Are Hard to Kill,” to launch the new series and during the decade-long run forty-three short stories of his were transmitted over the airwaves.
In 2001, I ran into Henry Slesar at a mystery writers reading in the East Village, and I told him how now over this new thing called “the Internet” I was able to listen to all the old broadcasts of CBSRMT. He chuckled and said, “Himan would be happy.” But I don’t think he quite believed me. And as fertile as his imagination was, I don’t think he could have imagined that today you could also watch old episodes of his series The Edge of Night, the tapes of which he thought were lost forever. But it turns out old fans recorded these shows on their VCRs while they were at work and now they are making them available to a whole new generation via the platform of YouTube.
This Halloween season I want to focus on five of Slesar’s stories that appeared on CBS Radio Mystery Theatre. They are guaranteed to leave you with a chill down your spine:
1) “Prisoner of the Machines” (01/16/1980), starring a young John Lithgow. A sci-fi tale that starts off with a classic premise and wrings every last futuristic nightmare out of it.
2) “Kitty” (04/09/1980) Suffer from Ailurophobia? The morbid fear of cats? Then you might want to pass on this horror story of an Egyptian mummified cat-queen living in 1970s Manhattan. It leaves marks.
3) “Murder Museum” (04/09/1974) A wax museum is the setting for a tale of a young artist tormented by his tragic family past, which becomes the newest exhibit in the Chamber of Horrors.
4) “Bargain in Blood” (06/10/1974) This creepy, fantastic tale might be familiar as it was filmed as an episode of the original Twilight Zone, about a young man who discovers he can “swap” anything his heart desires. But buyer (and seller) beware.
5)” The Last Escape” (10/17/1974) This story was filmed as an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and is about a second-rate escape artist and third-rate human being who decides to make a comeback recreating one of Houdini’s greatest escapes. But his downtrodden wife and assistant has an escape of her own in mind. This is to me a classic Slesar story, because break it down to simple facts and it would make a gory and dismal newspaper story, but in Slesar’s hands the shocking ending is a delight.
These radio shows can be listened to on numerous sites including YouTube, archive.org, and for great details on this whole series check out the CBS Radio Mystery Theatre page: CBSRMT.com
The advent of the Internet has given new life to these broadcasts, introducing them to a new generation of listeners, and for the writers maybe even a slice of immortality.
Henry Slesar died April 2, 2002 at the age of 74, but he is immortal.
Dr. Vikram Kapur, who has been shortlisted for many awards, including the British Commonwealth’s Short Story Prize, has a PhD. in creative and critical writing from the University of East Anglia. His short stories and essays appear or are forthcoming in places like The Hong Kong Review, Mekong Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Huffington Post, and he is the author of three novels. His evocative short story “10” appears in the November/December 2022 issue of EQMM. Here he talks about lessons he has learned from reading two influential texts.
I first encountered Hemingway’s “Hills like White Elephants” as an undergraduate in the early nineties. I don’t recall the year. What I do recall clearly is how much the story mystified me. It was the first story I’d ever read that was as much a mystery to me by the end as it was at the beginning. And it wasn’t even a mystery story. Well, not the way I saw mystery stories back then. There was no crime, no action, no detective, no great reveal . . . To tell the truth, it was unlike any story, mystery or otherwise, that I’d read until then. Growing up in India in the eighties and nineties meant growing up on a steady diet of maximalist movies and novels that told you exactly what you were supposed to think at any given moment. (If you’ve ever seen a Bollywood film or read a Salman Rushdie novel you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.) “Hills like White Elephants” was anything but maximalist. The description was minimal, the prose spare. The two people at the center of the story were not even named; they were merely identified as the American and the girl. All they did in the entire story was argue with each other at a bar in a railway station somewhere in Spain. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why they were arguing. Somewhere, an operation was mentioned. I had no idea what it entailed. I’d heard that Hemingway wrote about wars. But the operation didn’t seem to be a military operation. The argument appeared to resolve itself by the end of the story as the girl agreed to do what the American wanted. But she did so with a reluctance that made me pessimistic about the future of the relationship. What she agreed to, however, remained a mystery.
To be a good writer you have to be a good reader. Of your own work as well as the work of others. The first thing I learned while reading “Hills like White Elephants” was that I just wasn’t a good reader. I’d been spoon fed by writers for so long that I’d become lazy. I didn’t have the patience or insight to read between the lines, which made it impossible for me to read someone like Hemingway whose omissions are just as canny as anything he put in his stories. I read absinthe without thinking of its hallucinatory quality. Or white elephant without picking up on the various meanings behind the use of the word.
Ultimately, I was able to figure out the story with the help of my professor. (The operation actually referred to an abortion.) Once I did, I didn’t know what to marvel at more; my incompetence as a reader or Hemingway’s brilliance in packing so much in a short piece. I resolved to read far more closely from then on. I also took two important writerly lessons to heart. Until then, I’d believed that size mattered in writing. “Hills like White Elephants” put that idea away for good. The story was no more than a few pages long. Yet it packed more depth and complexity than stories five times its length. Several novels for that matter. Furthermore, I got to know how cageyness can be used in a story to intrigue the reader. Merely being cagey doesn’t work for a writer. But when cageyness is employed in a manner that makes the reader care enough about the story to want to unwrap its layers then it is worth its weight in gold.
A few years later I read Peter Hoeg’s Danish novel Smilla’s Sense of Snow in English translation. At the time, I knew nothing about Scandinavian fiction. It was just that the cover caught my eye one night at a Barnes and Noble store. The blurbs on the jacket told me that the novel had been heaped with critical acclaim. The synopsis on the back promised a beguiling mystery. I was intrigued enough to buy the book.
Until then, I’d only read straight-out mysteries—think Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. I thought all a mystery novel was supposed to do was set up a crime that sent the detective, and by extension the reader, down a twisting, turning path that eventually led to the criminal. The main thing was to keep the plot moving quickly and the surprises coming thick and fast. Everything led to the great reveal at the end which had to be the biggest surprise of all.
Smilla’s Sense of Snow quickly disabused me of such notions by turning everything I believed about the mystery novel on its head. The writing was poetic rather than functional. There were vivid descriptions of Copenhagen and Greenland. Snow was used as a motif right through the novel. And the most interesting part was not the way the novel solved the crime but how it examined identity by delving into what it is like to belong to two cultures that are incompatible with each other. (The central character, Smilla Jaspersen, is half-Danish and half-Greenlandic.)
Furthermore, Smilla was unlike any fictional detective I’d met. For starters, she wasn’t even a detective; she was a glaciologist. She was also rather hard to like. Her experience of life had left her bitter and unsentimental. She didn’t trust easily and reveled in being a loner. Her only redeeming feature, as far as I could see, was her commitment to getting justice for Isaiah, the six-year-old boy she had befriended, who dies at the beginning of the novel. And that was what made me care about what happened to her. As I read on, I found myself caring less about the mystery and more about what happened to Smilla. By the time I reached the end of the novel, I realized that was the author’s greatest accomplishment. He had got me to root for a deeply flawed character.
Over the years, the lessons I learned from “Hills like White Elephants” and Smilla’s Sense of Snow have found their way into everything I have written. The moment I find myself getting verbose, I think of “Hills like White Elephants” and see if I can’t say the same in fewer words. I work hard to make my prose lean and keep the action moving. But not at the cost of building character. It may not be possible to develop each and every character, but it is important that the main character is well-rounded. I guess it is possible to hook a reader simply through plot in really short stories. But, as the story gets longer, it is more likely that the reader will stay with it because she cares about the main character. For novels it is a no-brainer. I can’t see anyone investing the amount of time it takes to read a novel if they don’t fall in love with the characters.
The abiding lesson of Smilla’s Sense of Snow, however, goes far deeper than craft. As an Indian writing in English, I often find myself writing for an audience that is as unfamiliar with the world I’m writing about as I was about the world depicted in Smilla’s Sense of Snow. The memory of how the novel managed to immerse me, in spite of that, gives me confidence that I might be able to do the same while evoking India on the page.
Of all the many forms of mystery and crime story that EQMM has published over the past eighty-one years, the story in verse is the rarest. And it’s not because poets don’t write mystery stories (and vice versa). EQMM’s founder, Frederic Dannay (half of the Ellery Queen writing team) was profoundly interested in poetry: He wrote poetry and had an extensive poetry collection. And he was far from alone in being a mystery writer/poet. As I noted in a 2015 post for this site, Dannay compiled an anthology entitled Poetic Justice in which he included mystery or crime stories by famous poets such as Sir Walter Scott, Dylan Thomas, Ogden Nash, and Walt Whitman, to name a few. But to say that someone is a poet who also writes mysteries (or a mystery writer who also writes poetry) does not necessarily imply that such a writer has produced a mystery in verse form. Many poets don’t focus on long-form narrative poems at all, let alone narrative poems in which the story is a crime or mystery.
Fred Dannay never missed an opportunity to mention how many Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners EQMM had published (mostly reprinted, actually!). Neither do I. One of those Pulitzer Prize winners was Stephen Vincent Benét. Benét’s Pulitzer Prize was for poetry—for his book-length narrative poem John Brown’s Body. But even though Benét clearly had the skill and desire to tell complete stories in verse, as far as I’ve been able to determine, he never wrote a mystery story in verse. He did, of course, write prose short stories, most notably “The Devil and Daniel Webster.” He also wrote at least two short stories that fall squarely into the mystery genre, one a locked-room mystery entitled “The Amateur of Crime,” the other “Floor, Please,” one of his earliest stories, which found its way into a pulp magazine in 1924. Both stories were reprinted in EQMM in the 1940s. It’s a somewhat curious thing, to me, that Benét appears never to have combined his loves for narrative poetry and the mystery. But then, one can see that it might prove exceptionally difficult to tell a locked-room tale in verse, since there are many prosaic details about time, place, and the whereabouts of suspects that need to be worked into such a story.
At first glance at least, the crime subgenre of the mystery would seem to lend itself a little more readily to verse form. It’s not only that there is less need in most crime stories to establish to precision particulars of timing and the placement of persons and objects. It’s that the crime story often turns on the emotional impact of what occurs, and poetry can enhance the emotional impact of a narrative. However, in my brief search for crime or mystery novels in verse form, I came up with only one notable example, the 1997 Edgar nominated Who Killed Mr. Chippendale by Mel Glenn, and that book is a YA rather than an adult novel. I’m sure there must be many more examples, and perhaps readers of this blog will help me out by pointing me toward some.
When it comes to mystery short stories in verse, EQMM would expect to see a good portion of whatever is being written. And we don’t see many. Since 1979 John F. Dobbyn’s crime/adventure verse stories set in the Yukon have been featured intermittently in our pages, most recently in the September/October 2021 issue. And coming up in our March/April 2023 issue is a noir story in verse by Michael Wiley. The latter has been expanded into a five-story, fully developed mystery since the original tale was submitted to us and purchased (although the original story stands entirely on its own). EQMM would normally like to follow up with publication of the subsequent stories in a connected sequence that we’ve started, but the whole of this sequence has become too long for us. We have tight space constraints to begin with, and verse requires quite a bit more space than prose for an equivalent word count.
Which brings me to one of the reasons I had for taking up this topic today: to ask if any of our readers knows of a book or magazine publisher well suited to this area of the mystery. We like being able to present the occasional verse story in EQMM, but from a formatting as well as a space standpoint, we are not the ideal publication for the form. Our layout is basic and meant to maximize the use of space, whereas it often matters a great deal with poetry how it is laid out on the page—and what overall look is conveyed.
It seems to me that the mystery in verse could become a burgeoning area of our field if enough of the right publications existed—assuming, of course, that there’s an audience for such mysteries out there. I’m guessing there might be. Fred Dannay thought there was a natural affinity between what poets and mystery writers (or at least their fictional detectives) try to do, and that is to make order out of chaos. We live in confusing, disturbing, chaotic times. Times that seem just right for a powerful intertwining of the emotional impact of poetry and the clarity of the detective.
Michael Z. Lewin is the winner of the 2021 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Private Eye Writers of America, and he’s been writing private-eye novels and stories, as well as other types of crime fiction, since 1971. He’s known for two popular series, one starring Albert Samson and the other the Lunghi family of detectives. His most recent novels are Whatever It Takes and Men Like Us. Mike is also a prolific short story writer and a longtime contributor to both EQMM and our sister magazine, AHMM. You won’t want to miss his new story collection, Alien Quartet: Four Albert Samson Stories, or his story coming up in our next issue (November/December 2022), “Two, Four, Six, Eight.” It’s real crime, not fiction, that’s on the author’s mind in this moving post. —Janet Hutchings
I am too young, obviously, even to think about writing a memoir of my life and work for my children and grandchildren. But in not-thinking about such a thing it’s occurred to me that instead of describing, painstakingly, what has happened to me, it might be interesting to consider what might have happened to me instead.
I’m thinking first of a friend I made in the seventh grade (which made me 12, for those of you less familiar with US school sequencing.) I don’t, in fact, remember when I first met Jerry, or began to hang out with him, but in the eighth grade graduation picture he is there, taller than everyone else, smiling for the camera. In it he has a blunt face, like Roger Federer’s, and is not especially handsome (were any of us at thirteen?) But his appearance in the picture vividly connects for me with the ambitious, brave and inventive guy I knew him to be in high school and later.
Inventive? As a sixteen-year-old he wangled an arrangement with the local morning newspaper to bring local election results to them. This meant getting the voting results from polling stations’ machines, and driving downtown to the Star offices to turn them in.
There were too many polling stations for Jerry to cover quickly enough himself, so he recruited me to do a few—and perhaps other friends who could drive. We made a little money and saw the inside of a newspaper office . . . Not every high school kid gets to do that.
Brave? For reasons I never asked or knew, Jerry “collected” the license plates of police vehicles, with particular interest in those driven by plainclothes cops. (Are the motivations spurring any collector understandable to the rest of us?) This “hobby” even led him to sneak into the police parking lot beneath headquarters in downtown Indy to write down plate numbers.
I put such a collector into a book once, a kid being caught there. But without consequences: the appearance in my book just a gift to Jerry. Because as well as plate numbers he collected more general info about the city police, and later provided me with the floor plan of police HQ that I used when I began writing my Leroy Powder novels—Powder being an Indy cop.
And ambitious . . . Jerry did not aspire, as far as I know, to be a policeman. His longterm target was to become Governor of Indiana. And as part of that plan he resolved that I would become his campaign manager . . . Perhaps writing crime fiction gave me the requisite deviousness.
But while waiting to become thirty—the age of eligibility—he went to college in Indiana and then off to Detroit to work for General Motors. There, during the introductory training program, the head of the company came in to ask the new recruits how they were doing and whether anything could be improved.
Unlike the rest of his intake, Jerry wrote several pages spelling out what was working well and what wasn’t and submitted it. The result was that he leaped up the “freshman” corporate ladder to join the team that went to company branches assessing the efficiency of their performance.
By now I lived in England, and he came to visit us in the seventies at the end of a European vacation. He talked again of his plans to become Governor. I was still in the mix.
And that’s what I’m thinking about in this non-memoir episode.
Jerry was one of those guys whose ambition and charisma you believe in. So I figured he would become Governor—with or without my lack of experience in the political process. (Hey, perhaps I’d have learned quickly.)
But think about it. Maybe, under Governor Jerry, Indiana could have become a more socially empathetic State. Poor and disadvantaged people might have been given sympathetic and comprehensive help to find their way, or just to survive.
Because once upon a time Indiana was a leader in socially sympathetic legislation . . .
In 1799 the US government enacted a “poor relief” law requiring local counties and townships to care for people who couldn’t care for themselves, designated as “paupers.” These people were to be auctioned off. Members of their community bid for the paupers services by saying how little money they’d need from government to feed and clothe the pauper. Whoever bid the least won the pauper, and his or her labor—not exactly a recipe for good treatment. Paupers including children who’d lost their parents and had no relatives who’d take them in were subject to auction. This happened throughout the US and its territories.
In 1813—three years before statehood—the Indiana territory legislature did pass a law that required impartial justice to rich and poor, “regardless of race.”
But it wasn’t until 1834 that Indiana became the first State to ban the enslavement that resulted from the practice of pauper auctions.
Hoosier historians may be able to update me, but in years of writing books and stories set in Indiana, I can’t remember another genuinely caring piece of legislation that Indiana paved the way with. When I moved to Indy in 1948 there were still lines on the floors of busses to designate seating areas by color.
Just think what Governor Jerry and I could have done. If he was lucky and forceful enough to get himself elected despite my running his campaign, there would have been no limits.
Except it didn’t happen. And not because I refused to interrupt my writing career.
Jerry’s visit to England was the last time I ever saw him. He was murdered in Detroit in the mid-seventies. He was robbed and his body set alight in a vacant lot. The murder was never solved.
My point here is to underline that real crimes—as opposed to the fictional ones—affect real people. And murders affect more than just the victim.
These truths are explored in a lot of the darker crime fictions, while being skipped over in so many of the lighter forms of this genre. I don’t mind books and stories that don’t go all serious on us—there are many kinds of entertainment and education to be had in mystery fictions, even in mine. But please, don’t treat crime, real crime—including small crimes—casually.
Anyone whose home or even car has been broken into—whether anything was taken or not—knows that the disturbing effects of such things are real, and they last. And more “serious” crimes . . . Lordie. How does one get over them?
In response to Jerry’s murder I wrote a novel about a crime writer—not remotely me, of course—whose friend was murdered. This fictional and big-headed writer thinks his special understanding of crime ought to enable him to solve the murder. Even to do it better than the police, who strike him as incompetent and puzzlingly resistant to accepting his help. Spoiler alert: he can’t help and he doesn’t solve it.
I, at least, didn’t try flying to Detroit to “contribute.”
In my first crime novel, Ask the Right Question, my private eye has a best friend named Jerry Miller. That was the name of my real life friend. And in real life he ended up murdered. I’ve never used the whole real name of someone I knew in a book again.
In today’s post, Kevin Mims, a frequent contributor to this site, takes a stab at defining one of the broadest of entertainment genres—the thriller. Each year, when EQMM makes its submissions for the best-short-story award given by the International Thriller Writers, we have to make judgment calls as to what counts as a thriller and what does not. It never seems to get easier, but Kevin’s take on the subject is interesting. —Janet Hutchings
One of the most difficult popular fiction genres to define with any precision is the “thriller.” For the last half century or so, when publishers or p.r. reps or reviewers have applied the word “thriller” to a novel, it has usually been done to convey to potential purchasers that the book is fast-paced and suspenseful, a novel you “won’t be able to put down.” Such books are also sometimes called “page-turners” or, if they contain some aspect of supernatural horror, “chillers.”
On her self-titled blog, Savannah Gilbo, a so-called “book coach,” has compiled a helpful list of “Ten Things Every Thriller Novel Needs.” But even this list leaves room for some quibbles. For instance, Gilbo lists “a crime” as the first element that every thriller novel needs. I disagree with her. I consider Peter Benchley’s 1974 novel Jaws to be one of the greatest thrillers of the twentieth century, but it isn’t a crime novel. The villain of Jaws isn’t a criminal; it is a force of nature. Likewise, I consider Michael Crichton to be one of the preeminent thriller-writers of the last sixty years, but in many of his novels— Timeline, Jurassic Park, Sphere, The Lost World, Disclosure, The Terminal Man, The Andromeda Strain, etc.—crime is not a major part of the plot. The 1962 novel Fail-Safe, by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, is one of the greatest thrillers of the Cold War era but it isn’t a crime novel. It is about a series of technical and procedural failures that causes the U.S. to accidentally target the Soviet Union with warplanes carrying nuclear weapons that could wipe out all of Moscow and its environs. The 1958 airplane thriller Runway Zero-Eight, written by Arthur Hailey and John Castle, tells the nightmarish tale of what happens when the pilot and co-pilot of a passenger jet flying across Canada are stricken with a case of food-poisoning and can no longer fly the plane. Early on, foul play is eliminated as a cause of the food-poisoning. This is a thriller with no bad guys and no crime. But it is nonetheless riveting.
So, if a thriller isn’t necessarily a mystery or a crime novel, what is it? I would argue that, at the very least, all thrillers need a relatively brisk pace and a great deal of suspense. They also need relatively high stakes. Ira Levin’s 1967 novel, Rosemary’s Baby, is widely regarded as one of the best American thrillers of the twentieth century. The stakes are high: a young pregnant woman tries to prevent a satanic cult from sacrificing her unborn child to the devil. Levin does a good job of ratcheting up the suspense, so that the final one hundred pages or so of this relatively short (218 pages in paperback) novel fly by. The book has been justifiably described as a horror novel and a novel of psychological suspense. It is also a crime novel as well as a mystery. But, for me at least, the term “thriller” seems almost tailor-made for books like Rosemary’s Baby. This is clearly a book meant to be gobbled up in a sitting or two. Though it is a horror novel about Satanism, Levin doesn’t delve too deeply into the history of Satanism or its impact on world culture, the way that Anne Rice’s novels often stretch back centuries in order to explore vampirism or witchcraft.
Here are some of the other novels from the same approximate era that I would categorize as thrillers: William Goldman’s The Marathon Man (despite also being a crime novel) and Magic (despite also being a crime novel and a psychological – as opposed to a supernatural—horror novel), Ken Follett’s The Eye of the Needle (despite also being a spy novel, a war novel, and a historical novel), James Grady’s Six Days of the Condor (also a spy novel and a crime novel), Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives (also a sci-fi novel and a social satire), Stephen King’s Carrie (also a horror novel), John Farris’s When Michael Calls (also a crime novel), The Day of the Jackal (also a crime novel), Trevanian’s The Eiger Sanction (also a crime novel and an adventure novel), and Mary Higgins Clark’s Where Are the Children, A Stranger Is Watching, A Cry In the Night, and The Cradle Will Fall (all of which are also crime novels).
Do I have a foolproof formula by which I can separate the thrillers from the crime novels, or from the horror novels, or from the spy novels? No, not really. What Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said of pornography is true of me and the thriller novel, “I know it when I see it.” Or, perhaps more accurately, “I know it when I’ve read it.” Many fans of the genre say that a ticking clock (or a hard-and-fast deadline of some sort) is a necessity for a good thriller. I don’t think a ticking clock is an absolute must for a thriller, but I do prefer thrillers that take place over a relatively short period of time. Andrew Klavan’s 1995 novel True Crime (the source of the 1999 Clint Eastwood film) is a classic of the ticking-clock thriller genre. It is the tale of a crusading journalist who has just a few hours to find evidence that will prove the innocence of a man scheduled to die in the state’s gas chamber for a murder he didn’t commit. Many of Michael Crichton’s novels unspool over a short period of time. Rising Sun covers just three days. Congo unfolds over the course of thirteen days. The Andromeda Strain covers a span of just five days.
Are suspense novels and thrillers the same thing? I don’t think so. I think of Patricia Highsmith as a writer of suspense novels (which are usually also crime and/or mystery novels). Although her novels sometimes provide thrills, they are generally much more slowly paced than traditional thrillers. Graham Greene called her “a poet of apprehension.” Her novels are full of tension and unease, but they often move very slowly (by intention). Highsmith didn’t write “page-turners,” she wrote “slow burners.”
Although John D. MacDonald was capable of writing good thrillers—such as Cape Fear—his best-known works, the Travis McGee novels, are detective stories rather than thrillers. Thus I think of MacDonald as a crime writer or a detective novelist. The same is true of Ross Macdonald and his Lew Archer books. Crime writer (or mystery writer, or spy writer, etc.) is not a lesser designation than thriller writer; it is simply a different designation. I consider Lee Child and Harlan Coben to be thriller writers, even though crime and mystery permeate their works. I consider Thomas Harris to be a thriller writer, even though his books all deal with crime. Although her books contain plenty of crime and mystery, I consider Mary Higgins Clark to be a writer of thrillers. The same is true of Tess Gerritsen.
Now let’s talk a bit about the various subcategories of thrillers. Michael Crichton was said to specialize in techno-thrillers. The term seems fair to me, even though some of his thrillers (such as The Great Train Robbery and A Case of Need) contain nothing that would strike a contemporary reader as cutting-edge technology. Tom Clancy was a writer of political thrillers or military thrillers. Clive Cussler has been described as a writer of nautical thrillers (although that term doesn’t describe all of his books). Robin Cook is the master of the medical thriller. The Genesis Code, John Case’s 1997 novel of cloning and international adventure, has been described as a bio-medical thriller. That sounds about right to me.
And then of course there are Scott Turow and John Grisham and all of their fellow lawyers-turned-bestselling-authors. When Turow’s Presumed Innocent first hit the bookstores in 1987, the publisher could have promoted it as a “legal novel” or a “courtroom drama,” appellations that had been applied to earlier bestsellers such as The Caine Mutiny or The Anatomy of a Murder. But, by the 1980s, “thriller” was the term of choice for the kind of books that were known to keep pop-fiction junkies sitting up all night in their armchairs. And so the publicity department for Farrar Straus & Giroux promoted Presumed Innocent as a “legal thriller.” It might not have been the first use of the term, but it was the first time the term was applied to a cultural juggernaut, a book that, in its way, would become as seminal as Rosemary’s Baby or The Dayof the Jackal or Jaws. Four years later, when John Grisham, a lawyer like Turow, broke into the big time with his second novel, 1991’s The Firm, the appellation was just waiting there to be exploited. As it happened, Grisham would go on to be the most successful author of legal thrillers (as measured by book sales) of the twentieth century and (so far, at least) the twenty-first. Of all the subgenres of thriller, the legal thriller is probably America’s most popular, thanks in large part to Grisham.
I have written before about my prejudice in favor of short thrillers. If I were appointed America’s czar of popular fiction, I would decree that no book longer than 400 pages could be labeled a thriller. Sadly, I have no such authority. What’s more, I must concede that, over time, I have grudgingly begun to appreciate the long thriller. Stephen Hunter’s nearly 500-page novel Dirty White Boys is one of the most thrilling novels I have ever read. The Thomas Harris thrillers The Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs are both over 400 pages long and I wouldn’t want them even a sentence shorter. My admiration for these and a handful of other very long thrillers has convinced me that it would be foolish to impose an arbitrary limit on the length a thriller novel can run.
Let me close with a list of authors whom I believe deserve to be categorized as thriller writers. This list is purely subjective, obviously. For instance, it contains far more male writers than females ones. This isn’t because men write more thrillers than women. It’s because I read more thrillers by men then women. The authors on this list might just as easily be categorized as crime writers or horror writers or fantasy writers or science fiction writers or adventure writers. Few of them confined themselves to a single popular genre. But, if forced to categorize them, I’d place them in the thriller genre, as hard as that genre may be to define. Here we go:
Dean L. Koontz
Mary Higgins Clark
The writing team of Lincoln Child and Douglas Preston
F. Paul Wilson
Feel free to recommend other thriller writers in the comments below. The above list emphasizes authors who wrote multiple thriller novels. It doesn’t include authors such as Patrick Suskind, who wrote Perfume, one of the most unusual thrillers of the twentieth century, but no other true thrillers. James Dickey wrote two great thrillers—Deliverance and To the White Sea—but he’s better remembered as a poet than as a novelist, so I left him off the list. Walker Percy’s 1987 novel The Thanatos Syndrome is a bio-medical thriller, but all of his other novels are mainstream stories of life in the American south. Norman Mailer’s 1984 novel Tough Guys Don’t Dance is a great thriller. But it’s the only true thriller in his rather extensive bibliography. There are plenty of other one-off thrillers out there, books whose authors either produced only one thriller or, in some cases, only one really good one. Perhaps I’ll devote an entire essay to them at a later date. Until then, stay safe, keep reading, and have a thrilling time.