“Showdown: Levin vs. Goldman” (by Kevin Mims)

This week we have another essay by short-story writer and popular-fiction fan Kevin Mims. In it he deals with two giants of our genre (and several other genres!) and sets up an interesting comparison.—Janet Hutchings

Back in the early 1990s, Budweiser’s advertising team produced an attention-getting TV commercial that featured a group of twenty-somethings (i.e., members of Generation X) making up a bunch of binary competitions between various pop-cultural icons of their youth and then voting on a winner. “Ginger or Mary Ann?” one Gen Xer says to his friends, presumably asking them to pick which one of these characters from the TV show Gilligan’s Island they like best. They debate briefly and decide on Mary Ann. The next question is, “Mary Ann or Jeannie?” Presumably the questioner wants to know which of these two TV characters is the most desirable. When I first saw the ad, my only reaction was to ask this rhetorical question: “Who the hell would pick a shipwrecked Kansas farm girl over a blonde bombshell who literally has the power to make all your dreams come true with the blink of an eye?” But something about these imaginary showdowns lodged itself in my brain, and so, to while away the time while I sit in the dentist’s waiting room or travel long distances in my car, I have been creating similar showdowns for myself for the last thirty years or so. Except, being fonder of pop fiction than I am of television, my imaginary showdowns generally involve two writers who, for whatever reason, I view as being in direct competition with each other: Helen MacInnes vs. Evelyn Anthony, Scott Turow vs. John Grisham, and so forth. Today, I am going to let you witness this process in action, as I compare and contrast two of my favorite pop-fiction writers of the 1960s and 70s, Ira Levin and William Goldman. 

WHY THEY DESERVE TO BE PAIRED WITH EACH OTHER:

For one thing, they were generational compatriots, Levin having been born in August of 1929 and Goldman in August of 1931. Both men showed a lot of early promise but didn’t acquire huge fame until the mid to late 1960s, during which time they rose to prominence largely due to a famous Hollywood film to which they were intimately connected. Both men wrote best-selling popular fiction and were generally ignored by the serious literary community. Goldman was a hugely successful Hollywood screenwriter who tried but largely failed as a Broadway playwright. Levin was a hugely successful Broadway playwright who tried but mostly failed as a Hollywood screenwriter. Both men specialized in the writing of suspense novels/thrillers. Both men wrote dreadful sequels to their best novels (Brothers, a sequel to Marathon Man, is abysmal; Levin’s Son of Rosemary is ten times worse). Both men saw their novels turned into hugely successful mainstream films. Each man won two Edgar Awards from the Mystery Writers of America, Levin for the novel A Kiss Before Dying and the play Deathtrap; Goldman for the screenplays to Harper and Magic. Goldman wrote the screenplay for The Stepford Wives, a film based on Levin’s novel of the same name. Both men have close ties to Stephen King. King has called Levin “the Swiss watchmaker” of suspense novelists. King, like many others, dates the origin of the contemporary American appetite for horror novels to the success of Levin’s 1967 bestseller Rosemary’s Baby. Goldman worked on the screenplays for four films made from Stephen King stories: Misery, Dolores Claiborne, Hearts in Atlantis, and Dreamcatcher.

If any two pop-fiction writers of the late twentieth century deserve to be compared and contrasted, it is these two men.

INFLUENCE ON POPULAR CULTURE:

Both men had an immense impact on the American popular culture of their time, an impact that continues to this day. As mentioned above, Rosemary’s Baby is widely credited with giving birth (no pun intended) to the craze for horror fiction that blossomed in the 1970s with the popularity of such novels as The Exorcist, The Other, Carrie, etc. and positively exploded in the 1980s as writers like Stephen King, Anne Rice, and Dean Koontz rode the wave to bestsellerdom. The term “Rosemary’s Baby” itself has become a sort of universal shorthand for any creation with a demonic genesis, just as “Frankenstein” is now a universally acknowledged reference to any creation that turns against its creator. And the expression “Stepford wife,” is now a widely used term employed to describe a certain sort of vacuous, upper-middle-class housewife. In fact, “Stepford” is now used as a stand-alone adjective to describe all sorts of vacuous or superficial types of people and things. You’ll occasionally even find attractive but empty-headed politicians referred to as Stepford candidates. Plenty of great writers have failed to add so much as a single new word or expression to the English language. Levin added at least two, and arguably more. “The Boys From Brazil” is sometimes used to refer to any sort of copies of an evil original. And the novel The Boys From Brazil helped move the word “clone” from the world of elite scientific exploration to the public domain. 

Goldman, too, added memorable words and phrases to the popular lexicon. His screenplay for the film All the President’s Men used a phrase (“Follow the money”) which can be found nowhere in the book on which the film is based. “Follow the money” has become a widely used expression in all sorts of contexts, but usually in reference to figuring out who is behind a particular crime, or political movement, or commercial trend. His screenplay for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid made cultural icons of those two bandits and also added several popular catchphrases to the American lexicon. But it was his screenplay for The Princess Bride (based on his own novel) that really altered the way pop-culturally savvy Americans speak: “Inconceivable!” “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” “You’re trying to kidnap what I’ve rightfully stolen.” —to give a few examples. Few screenplays in history have produced as many iconic lines as Goldman’s script for The Princess Bride

In this category, however, I am going to give the edge to Levin. This may have something to do with the fact that I am a book snob who prefers pop fiction to pop cinema (although I love both). The very titles of Levin’s two most popular novels, Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives, have entered the American idiom. Most of Goldman’s contributions entered the idiom via the medium of cinema. Point: Levin.

PROSE:

To be honest, neither man was a brilliant stylist. They were both capable of writing dazzling dialogue, Goldman more so than Levin, probably because of all his screen work. But Levin was no slouch at dialogue, as evidenced by his play Deathtrap, which still holds the record for the longest-running comedic thriller in Broadway history. Goldman was rather modest about his own writing skills. In the book William Goldman: The Reluctant Storyteller, Goldman tells author Sean Egan that he doesn’t much care for his own writing. He adds, “I wrote a movie called Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and I wrote a novel called The Princess Bride, and those are the only two things I’ve ever written, not that I’m proud of, but that I can look at without humiliation.”

Goldman had an unfortunate habit of bragging about how quickly he wrote and how little he edited. He told one interviewer that he wrote his second novel, Your Turn to Curtsey—My Turn to Bow, in ten days. At the end of his 400-page 1984 novel The Color of Light, he appends a note explaining that the book was written between February 21 and May 31, 1983, practically begging anyone who reviewed the book to comment on its slapdash character. 

Despite the speed with which it was written, The Color of Light remains, along with Marathon Man, one of my two favorite William Goldman novels. I’m a sucker for novels about novelists and the world of the New York publishing establishment, especially when they contain various juicy pop-fictional tropes such as murder, plagiarism, and adultery.

If Goldman was often guilty of writing too much and too fast, Levin was sometimes guilty of the opposite literary sin. Some of his lesser concoctions—Sliver, Son of Rosemary—and even the more famous The Stepford Wives read more like movie treatments at times than novels. Many of the sentences in Sliver are mere fragments, set off by ellipses that don’t seem to be eliding anything but rather breaking the descriptions into individual film shots. Here’s Levin describing attractive young Kay Norris taking a bath in her luxurious new apartment (she is being secretly watched by the building’s supervisor via hidden cameras):

Lifted her leg from the water, watching the tiny leg, foam sliding from her heel . . . Arched her foot . . . watching . . .

Touched her toe to the tip of the chrome Art Deco spout . . .

Slid low in the water, foam islands breaking . . .

And so forth. This type of prose-as-camera-direction style makes some sense, given that much of the novel consists of a psychopath watching people via hidden cameras. But it still gives the book an undernourished quality. Nonetheless, when he really applied himself to it, as he seems to have done with Rosemary’s Baby, Levin’s prose could be both spare and evocative, simple and straightforward but also capable of capturing every important detail.

When it came to writing prose, neither man was in the same league as F. Scott Fitzgerald or Flannery O’Connor, but Goldman’s lapses were mostly sins of commission (he put too much in) and Levin’s were sins of omission. Truman Capote, who was one of the finest prose writers of the generation that produced both Levin and Goldman, was a huge admirer of Rosemary’s Baby and even provided a blurb for the novel: “A darkly brilliant tale of modern deviltry that, like James’ TURN OF THE SCREW, induces the reader to believe the unbelievable. I believed it and was altogether enthralled.” Who am I to disagree with Truman Capote? Point: Levin.

PLOTTING:

Both Levin and Goldman were excellent at producing plot twists. The end of Rosemary’s Baby produced one of the most memorable plot twists in all of American popular fiction. Stephen King has noted that Levin’s first novel, the mystery A Kiss Before Dying, contains one of the greatest plot twists of all time, not at the end of the book but smack dab in the middle, a disclosure that makes the reader feel as if the solid ground she thought she was standing on has turned to quicksand.The Boys From Brazil and The Stepford Wives deliver knockout plot twists as well. And Deathtrap has so many unexpected reversals that it practically serves as a meta-commentary on the art of the plot twist. This category would appear to be a clear win for Levin. But don’t count Goldman out too soon.

Marathon Man delivers a powerful plot twist about a quarter of the way in. The book goes on to deliver more clever twists and turns. Goldman’s novel Magic has a doozy of a plot twist at the heart of its devious storyline. The Color of Light, Control, Heat—all of these novels deliver their share of gut punches to the reader. Goldman’s screenplays are also filled with daring twists and turns. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is one of the few commercial Hollywood films in which (spoiler alert) both heroes are killed in the final scene. And of course, The Princess Bride, both the novel and screenplay, are filled with lively reversals and twists of fate.

Conventional wisdom has it that Levin was, along with Richard Matheson, one of the twentieth century’s greatest masters of the clever pop-fiction plot twist. But I’m going to go against that wisdom—sort of. I’m declaring a tie in this category.

PRODUCTIVITY:

This category has a clear winner. Goldman wrote or contributed to thirty-three produced screenplays. Wikipedia credits him with at least eighteen more unproduced screenplays, as well as a handful of stage plays, both produced and unproduced. He also wrote sixteen novels, several memoirs, and assorted nonfiction books. 

Levin wrote seven novels and ten stage plays. Only two of his stage plays were hugely successful, Deathtrap and No Time For Sergeants. Few if any serious critics would rank Levin among the greatest American playwrights of the twentieth century, but plenty of critics would probably rank Goldman among the greatest screenwriters of the twentieth century.

Mere fecundity isn’t necessarily commendable in a writer. What’s impressive about Goldman’s career is how many of his projects have become iconic–Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Princess Bride, A Few Good Men, Marathon Man, Mercy, All the President’s Men—these are some of the best known intellectual properties of their era. Point: Goldman.

ORIGINALITY:

Of course, many of Goldman’s most iconic works are adaptations of the work of other writers, including a novel by Ira Levin. His filmography also includes adaptations of works by such estimable writers such as Aaron Sorkin, Stephen King, Ross Macdonald, Donald Westlake, John Grisham, and David Baldacci.

Levin’s fame rests almost entirely upon the products of his own devious imagination, although Roman Polanski’s film adaptation of Rosemary’sBaby has helped contribute to that particular property’s continuing popularity. Levin’s work is original in two senses. It is original in the legalistic sense, meaning that he wrote it all himself. But it is also original in the literal sense, meaning that nothing quite like it existed until he got around to creating it. Rosemary’s Baby was like no American pop fiction that preceded it. Cloning might have been dealt with in earlier books, but The Boys From Brazil was the novel that put it on the pop-fiction map. Cyborgs, automatons, robots, and so forth were around long before The Stepford Wives, but Levin’s cunning combination of high-tech animatronic humanoids with ordinary suburban American living inspired not only later science fiction products such as Michael Crichton’s Westworld and Jordan Peele’s Get Out, but was also a brilliant critique of American consumer culture. Of course, Levin wasn’t immune to the influence of other writers either. Plenty of critics have pointed out that his hit 1978 play Deathtrap bears more than a slight resemblance to Anthony Shaffer’s 1970 play Sleuth. Still, Levin was one of the most singular plot-spinners of his generation. Point: Levin.

RANGE:

Both writers had impressive range. Levin wrote straightforward crime fiction (A Kiss Before Dying), horror (Rosemary’s Baby), science fiction (The Boys From BrazilThis Perfect Day, The Stepford Wives), suspense thrillers (Sliver), and comedy whodunnits (Deathtrap). He even wrote the book and lyrics for a stage musical called Drat! The Cat!

Goldman wrote science fiction (Control), fantasy (The Princess Bride), thrillers (Marathon Man, Heat), horror (Magic), a novel about the movie business (Tinsel), a novel about the book business (The Color of Light), and a variety of character studies and coming-of-age tales (The Temple of Gold, Soldier in the Rain, Boys and Girls Together, Your Turn to Curtsey–My Turn to Bow). His screenplays were even more heterogeneous than his novels. He wrote Westerns (Butch Cassidy, Maverick), mystery (Harper), political drama (All the President’s Men), horror (Magic, the various King adaptations), historical dramas (The Great Waldo Pepper, A Bridge Too Far), fantasy (The Princess Bride, The Memoirs of an Invisible Man), and more.

Point: Goldman.

AND THE WINNER IS . . .

There are several ways of determining this. If the genie played by Barbara Eden in Dream of Jeannie came to me and offered to let me go back in time and enjoy the career of either Levin or Goldman, I’d probably choose Goldman. I’d do this because, for one thing, he lived nearly a decade longer than Levin did. Also, though I prioritize popular fiction over popular cinema, it would be nice to excel at writing both, something Goldman did but Levin didn’t. I’ve seen only one play on Broadway in my life, thus I don’t know enough about the medium to envy Levin his success there very much. Of course, this is a superficial way of determining the worth of a writer. Fitzgerald was fairly miserable for much of his life. I have no desire to go back and relive his life, and yet his worth as a writer probably exceeds all but a handful of the writers of his era.

A better way of deciding this matter is to simply look at the works of the two writers and then determine who made the most lasting contributions to American culture. Goldman’s contributions to American pop culture were huge. But for my money the best thing either of these men ever produced was the novel Rosemary’s Baby. Truman Capote was right when he ranked it alongside The Turn of the Screw as one of the best American chillers of all time. If Levin had produced nothing else, his name would live on. If I could go back in time and take credit for just one of the imaginative products of either Goldman or Levin, I wouldn’t hesitate to choose Rosemary’s Baby. It is the only novel in either man’s oeuvre that is a genuine masterpiece.

Game, set, and match: Ira Levin.

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“The One-Month Retirement” (by Nick Mamatas)

Nick Mamatas is the author of several novels, including Move Under Ground, I Am Providence, and The Second Shooter. His short fiction has appeared in Best American Mystery Stories, Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, and dozens of other venues. He has also edited or co-edited several anthologies, including Haunted Legends, The Future is Japanese, Mixed Up, and Wonder and Glory Forever. Nick’s fiction and editorial work has been variously nominated for the Hugo, World Fantasy, Bram Stoker, Locus, and Shirley Jackson awards. His tale “Pink Squirrel” appears in our current issue. Here, he offers some reflections on the intersections between speculative fiction and crime fiction—both the genres and the general community.—Janet Hutchings

As it says in the little author’s note atop my story “Pink Squirrel” in the Jan/Feb 2021 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, I am a “widely published author of science fiction and horror”—note that widely published is not the same as widely read!—who occasionally ventures into crime fiction. In fact, in January of 2013, fed up with the many issues that plague the field of speculative fiction, I declared my retirement from the lectern at KGB Bar in Manhattan’s East Village. No more SF/F/H, just crime fiction and experimental fiction from Nick from now on! Take that, science fiction.

Three weeks later, in February 2013, my wife had an announcement of her own: we were having a baby. So I quietly unretired, but still work on crime fiction and publish whenever I can, usually in anthologies.

I can pretty consistently publish 5-10 fantasy or horror stories a year, and while nobody can make a living writing short fiction in any genre, a half dozen stories can certainly buy some vaccinations, a breast pump, or a crib from IKEA. There are still a dozen “good” science fiction or horror magazines, mostly online, that pay a nickel or dime a word, and a similar number of anthologies published every year than often pay a little more than that, and even someone as unwidely read as I can, with some effort, get in to some of them. The state of short crime fiction publishing is sadly more dire. This isn’t because the fiction itself isn’t vital, but because crime fiction lacks the very large penumbra of organized fandom that surrounds the speculative genres. Most of the magazines in that field are started by fans who want their writer heroes to love them, and a great way to get love from a writer is to give them money. Try it sometime, you’ll see. (And of course, there is nothing worse than an embittered romantic, which is what causes so many of the perennial problems in fandom that sent me running back in 2013.)

I remain interested in crime fiction because it offers a particular aesthetic challenge that goes beyond those of fantasy or science fiction. Fantasy/horror is almost easy to write—set up a situation, have something happen in the middle that complicates the matter for your protagonist, and then for a climax just [INSERT NUMINOUS EVENT HERE]. It’s not a cheap trick; the numinous is remarkably difficult to describe in a compelling manner, and even if you do it right you can still fail very easily. Use a fantastical image that’s well-known, and you devolve into cliché. Use one that’s too personal, and your story is incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t dreamt your exact dreams. The poetics of the ἀποκάλυψις—meaning revelation, not world-goes-blooey, but there’s often some of that too—make or break the story, and if that numinous moment doesn’t nag at the reader for hours, days, or in the best fictions years after the reader first encounters it, the story is a failure. But once you’re good at communicating the ineffable, you’re golden. 

Science fiction requires some level of scientific rigor. Rigor isn’t the same as scientific accuracy, however. You can have galactic empires of humanlike aliens and faster-than-light travel and towheaded slaveboys building robots out of scrap and there still being a slave economy even after a thousand obedient robots start running around and doing the chores—but all the implications of the scientific innovations have to be reflected in the in the emotional journey of the characters; they must be tied together like two strands of a double helix. This makes even the most absurd feats of engineering and basic errors of math palatable to readers; it doesn’t matter if FTL is impossible if the crew of the ship experience the breaking of the laws of physics as something special or interesting. The everyday becomes the wondrous.

The aesthetic challenge of crime fiction, at least for me, is different. Like science fiction, crime fiction involves a kind of rigor, if not exactly accuracy. There can be pseudoscience, like bite-mark analysis or dubious psychological motivations for some murderer’s choice of target, and extremely far-fetched situations or baroque death traps, but so long as the writer treats these set-pieces with consistency and follows a certain internal logic from beginning to end, the story can work. Good ol’ “fair play.” 

But fair play is a necessary but not sufficient condition for crime fiction. Crime is necessarily about some kind of social trespass; we’re always in new territory outside of our quotidian existence. Most crime in the real world is fairly easy to solve, and most criminal acts are transparently motivated. We like our sleuths eccentric, our crimes puzzles, our villains almost superhuman, because we need fiction to be more than prettied up police reports. We need a poetics of transgression, just as we do in fantasy. And the logics of fair play and the poetics of transgression have to be bashed together, the famous thesis and infamous antithesis leading to the superlative synthesis. 

Crime fiction requires the mind of science fiction, and the spirit of fantasy/horror. When I put my fingers to the keyboard to write my first crime story, it was like I’d never retired from speculative fiction at all.

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“This Death Called Strangeness: Some Reflections on Cornell Woolrich” (by R.T. Raichev)

R.T. Raichev, mystery scholar and author of the Antonia Darcy and Major Payne series, has written previously on this site about Agatha Christie, P.D. James, Sherlock Holmes, and others. Here, he turns his attention Cornell Woolrich—continuing the theme of last week’s post and coinciding with the publication of a previously unpublished Woolrich tale in our current issue.—Janet Hutchings

It was Frederic Dannay, one of the two first editors of EQMM, who coined the phrase “the long march of implausibility” in connection with the stories of Cornell Woolrich. If he didn’t mean that as a compliment, Dannay didn’t seem to have intended it as withering criticism either. He rather liked, published and republished Woolrich’s stories, even his later weaker efforts. Dannay’s words should be taken as a mere statement of fact: the main feature of a typical Woolrich plot is its air of overwhelming strangeness which is almost invariably linked to death. 

Consider the premise of the 1948 novel I Married a Dead Man: on a train a pregnant woman meets another woman, also pregnant, who is traveling with her new husband to meet his parents for the first time; just as the two women have started a friendly chat and the first woman has been allowed to put the second woman’s wedding ring on her finger . . . the train crashes, killing the young bride and her husband . . . the survivor then is mistakenly identified as the dead woman and warmly embraced by the dead husband’s bereaved family. . . .

Or the chain of events set in motion in Into the Night, the last novel Woolrich left unfinished at his death in 1968, which was completed by Lawrence Block and published in 1987: an unhappy, lonely girl tries halfheartedly to commit suicide . . . to her relief the gun jams . . . she tosses it on a table, causing it to discharge a bullet that flies through her window, crosses the street and kills another girl, one rather like herself . . . the girl proceeds to investigate her victim’s past and when she discovers that the latter has been treated appallingly by her husband she determines to expiate her crime by plotting the destruction of the husband. . . .

What are the odds of any of that happening? Very low, to put it mildly. And the likelihood? Negligible. But while the two sequences thus described strain credulity considerably, they are not impossible. Such events could happen, under certain circumstances—in one of those million-to-one chances. We turn the pages of a Woolrich story and we read on, we race on, anxious to discover how the author manages to pull it off.

Cornell Woolrich—the author of twenty-two novels and more than 200 short stories—is a mesmerizing raconteur who has the power to hold and propel the reader’s attention by playing on their curiosity, imagination and sense of wonder. He achieves this in ways none of his noir confreres, such as Chandler or Hammett, ever considered attempting. As it happens, Chandler—a professed admirer—commented on Woolrich’s liking for “artificial trick plots” which are full of “excessive demands on Lady Chance.” In that respect, oddly enough, Woolrich has more in common with Agatha Christie than with Chandler—think of the baroque clockwork plotting of And Then There Were None and A Pocketful of Rye, in both of which a number of theatrically choreographed killings depends on exquisite timing and devilish precision—one false step and the whole meticulously constructed edifice falls apart.

And like in those two Agatha Christie novels, events in Woolrich’s world unfold with the logic and inevitability of a nightmare; the situations he creates are more often than not surreally outlandish and mind-bogglingly melodramatic. Woolrich’s characters, on the other hand, are the very antithesis of extraordinary. They are believably and sympathetically delineated people with whom the average reader has no difficulty identifying.

The typical Woolrich protagonist is usually a man, a solitary figure who finds himself trapped in some impossible predicament, a haunted individual who either hunts or is hunted—and in the case of Jeff in the short story “It Had to be Murder” (filmed by Hitchcock as Rear Window)—he is both. Woolrich’s biographer Francis M. Nevins praises his gift for generating suspense by calling him the “Hitchcock of the written word.” Cornell Woolrich’s fictions are indeed highly, excitingly cinematic. According to recent statistics, there have been 108 films and TV shows based on them, the earliest in 1928, the latest in 2002.

It goes without saying that Woolrich writes not for uncompromising realists but for romantics who relish an escape from the tedium of everyday life into a parallel kind of universe which looks but only looks like the real one. It is a predominantly urban world, dark and twisted and fraught with danger, treachery, and all manner of malignant scheming. Eleanor Sullivan—Dannay’s successor as EQMM editor—identified a “nightmare New York world” as one of the themes that tend to repeat themselves in Cornell Woolrsich’s oeuvre. It is a New York that has the forlorn, menacing anonymity of an Edward Hopper painting.

II.

One of my personal favorites, set in the fictional “Michianopolis,” is the short story “All at Once, No Alice,” first published in Argosy Magazine in March 1940 and reprinted in EQMM in November 1951. Its plot centers round the mysterious disappearance of an attractive young woman—a set-up for which Woolrich seemed to have had a particular penchant as he used it in at least two more stories (“Finger of Doom” and “You Will Never See Me Again”).

The narrator of the story is Jimmy Cannon, a store clerk, who elopes with Alice Brown, a girl whom he hardly knows but is very much in love with. The two marry in a rushed ceremony presided over by a roadside justice of the peace, after which they go in search of a hotel. The story’s early paragraphs are lighthearted enough, even slightly comical, with Jimmy forgetting to pay the roadside justice his fee—but soon a sense of dread starts creeping in. All the hotels are filled up and the reason given is that it is the “three-day convention of the Knights of Balboa.” Who or what the Knights of Balboa are we are never told, but somehow a bizarre note has been struck and the departure from reality subtly set in motion. 

The reader’s unease deepens when at the newlyweds’ fifth try, the Royal Hotel, Alice is allowed to spend the night in a claustrophobically tiny single room with a bed that is “little wider than a shelf”—while Jimmy is consigned to a room at the local YMCA. Their parting—just for the night, as they think—is poignantly described:

The last I saw of her that night she was sitting on the edge of that cot in there, her shoeless feet raised to it and partly tucked under her, like a little girl. She raised one hand, wriggled the fingers at me in goodnight as I reluctantly eased the door closed.

The next morning Jimmy returns to retrieve Alice only to find that she has vanished without a trace, not only from her room but from the hotel register as well. Although she did sign it, her name is not there and the hotel staff claim that no girl of her description ever stayed with them. Dazed, distraught, out of his mind with worry, Jimmy seeks help from the police. The roadside justice of the peace is questioned, but says he has never laid eyes on Jimmy and has most certainly not performed his marriage ceremony. The people at the big house in Lake City—the prominent, rich Beresfords—where Alice supposedly worked as a maid—also deny her existence. Since Jimmy is unable to produce any proof of Alice’s existence the police dismiss him as “some sort of crank.”

“All at Once, No Alice” is one of Cornell Woolrich’s “annihilation stories. (Annihilation in the sense of complete obliteration.) It is also an audacious example of the curious sub-genre known as “paranoid noir—whose invention is attributed to Woolrich, though its plot is a familiar variant on the Lady Vanishes theme (the 1936 novel by Ethel Lina White made famous by the 1938 Hitchcock film).* The story is charged with undercurrents of fear, guilt, despair, and the intimation that the world is controlled by malignant forces. The first-person narration effectively conveys Jimmy’s feelings of terrifying disorientation and loss, his total alienation from those around him—

. . . people were bustling back and forth, casually, normally, cheerily . . . something was already trying to make me feel a little cut off from them, a little set apart. As if a shadowy finger had drawn a ring around me where I stood, and mystic vapors were already beginning to rise from it, walling me off from my fellow men.

— while “shadowy finger” and “mystic vapors” conjure up the spirit of Edgar Allan Poe.

The tone then gets darker:

I fought against this other, lesser kind of death that was creeping over me—this death called strangeness, this snapping of all the customary little threads of cause and effect that are our moorings at other times.

And darker:

The invisible fumes from that necromancer’s ring, that seemed to cut me off from all the world, came swirling up thicker and thicker about me.

The reader is now firmly, poetically—one may say, extravagantly—plunged into Poe’s realm. (Who would have thought a store clerk capable of such Gothic flourishes?) Jimmy also compares himself to “. . . someone in a dark room, crying for a match . . . someone drowning, crying for a helping hand.” The tone of the story veers between the morbidly lyrical and the homely mundane and that is another of the story’s idiosyncratic features.

Just when Jimmy loses all hope and appears to suffer a nervous breakdown, just when he is on the verge of committing suicide, the investigating policeman discovers a handkerchief with Alice Brown’s initials on it. The search for the missing girl is resumed and, ultimately, at the eleventh hour, they find her—as she is about to be murdered by her relatives. 

It turns out she is no mere menial but the sole heiress to a vast fortune—“the richest gal in twenty-four states”—in fact she is one of the Beresfords—her real name is Alma Beresford. (The elusiveness of identity is another recurrent motif in Woolrich.) The poor rich girl had been trying to escape from her lonely, stifling, prison-like existence, hence the maid masquerade. 

Her disappearance was in fact a kidnapping orchestrated by her greedy relatives who bribed everybody who had been in contact with her into a far-reaching conspiracy of silence. Their intention was to prevent her from getting married. Alma’s guardian, described as “vicious-looking . . . in a brocade dressing-gown” and later as “that silver-haired devil”, had paid “all kinds of money to hush everyone up . . . and destroy the documents, so it wouldn’t be found out.” The devious—and frankly fantastical—scheme involved keeping Alma insensate by means of opiates and procuring the dead body of a girl of similar age to bury in her place, so that Alma could be quietly disposed of later on, “at leisure.” 

After what Ellery Queen calls a “whiplash of surprise” beside an open grave and a shattered coffin, the story ends happily with Alma and Jimmy embracing, after which Jimmy starts making plans for a second—proper—wedding. And he issues an invitation to the investigating policeman to act as best man! Such an outburst of high spirits tinged with drollery is rare in Woolrich—but it is similar to the joyous conclusion of Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes.

* The rather creepy plot idea goes back to the19th-century urban legend known variously as “The Vanishing Hotel Room” or “The Vanishing Lady,” which has proved so popular as to inspire a number of various fictional treatments: at least two short stories (Nancy Vincent McClelland’s 1897 “A Mystery of the Paris Exposition”, Sir Basil Thomson’s 1925 “The Vanishing of Mrs Fraser”), a radio play (Cabin-13 by John Dickson Carr, 1943), two films (So Long at the Fair, 1950and the A Treacherous Crossing, 1953) and an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (“Into Thin Air”, 1957).

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“First You Read, Then You Write” (by Francis M. Nevins)

One of the highlights with which EQMM begins 2021, our eightieth anniversary year, is the presentation, in our January/February issue, of a heretofore unknown story by the great Cornell Woolrich. Woolrich wrote twenty-seven novels and scores of stories and won one of EQMM‘s Worldwide Short Story Contests. Forty films were based on Woolrich works, most famously Rear Window. The award-winning author of the biography Cornell Woolrich: First You Dream, Then You Die, Francis M. Nevins discovered the manuscript for this neglected Woolrich story at Columbia University. But I’ll let him give you the full account of how it came into his hands. Francis (known to us all as Mike) is a novelist himself and the author of a number of stories for EQMM.—Janet Hutchings

In memory of Alex Trebek we begin with a Jeopardy!-style clue. This iconic suspense writer appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine seventy-plus times, and now more than half a century after his death he’s in the magazine again. The question of course is: Who is Cornell Woolrich? Beginning with Volume 1 Number 1 (Fall 1941) he had a total of seventy-five stories in EQMM (or, depending on whether you count once or twice the tale published in two parts in two consecutive issues, seventy-six). Recently, with the publication of the January-February 2021 issue, the number has risen to seventy-six (or seventy-seven). There’s a story behind how this new story was unearthed, and it falls to me to tell it here.

Woolrich was a native New Yorker, born in 1903, to parents whose marriage came apart soon after they moved to Mexico where his father lived. He grew up there with his father, Genaro Hopley-Woolrich (1878-1948), but after he reached high-school age and returned to Manhattan to live with his mother and maternal grandfather, he never saw Genaro again. His earliest novels and stories, beginning in 1926, were not in our genre but somewhat  closer (well, maybe not all that close) to the work of the young literary idol of the 1920s, F. Scott Fitzgerald. In 1934 he began a fifteen-year period of white-hot creativity as the master of suspense, the Hitchcock of the written word. During the middle 1950s, with those years behind him, he set out to return to mainstream fiction with a series of stories about the birth, adolescence, maturity, old age, and death of a New York hotel from its opening night in 1896 till the eve of its demolition in 1957. Before these tales were published in book form as Hotel Room (Random House, 1958), the editors decided that each chapter in the collection except the first and last, which constitute a framing story, should have some link with an historic event: the end of World War I, the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, the stock-market collapse. This decision required the removal of the tales without such a connection. One of these, “The Penny-a-Worder,” was bought by EQMM founding editor Fred Dannay and published in the magazine’s September 1958 issue, the first of a dozen Woolrich originals in the magazine between then and 1970, two years after Woolrich’s death. Were there other such stories? And if so, what happened to them?

Woolrich’s will left all his literary rights in trust to Columbia University, where he had gone as an undergraduate in the ’20s (although he quit in his junior year when his first novel sold), and Columbia is also the repository of his papers. In March 2019 I was invited to come east and give a talk at the university’s second annual Dr. Saul and Dorothy Kit Film Noir Festival, which was devoted to the many movies based on Woolrich.  (You can find my presentation on YouTube simply by typing “Francis M. Nevins”—making sure you use quote marks so as to avoid a bunch of items that have nothing to do with me.) During the several days of the program, the Columbia library presented an exhibit of Woolrich papers, of which I was treated to a private viewing while I was in New York. Most of what was on display I had seen before, but two manuscripts were new to me. As chance would have it, however, I remembered something about one of them. Several years ago, Otto Penzler told me that he’d been offered a heretofore unknown Woolrich story, apparently one intended for but excised from Hotel Room. He remembered its first words and quoted them to me: “She came to the hotel alone. . . .” He had not bought the document and didn’t know what had happened to it. Now, in 2019, I was staring at the typescript of a story with the exact same first words.

After returning to St. Louis I asked the professor who had invited me to Columbia if he could possibly arrange for me to be sent a copy of that story. He did, and I liked it very much. And, thanks to the evolution of our genre “from the detective story to the crime novel” over the sixty-odd years since Woolrich had written what I now held in my hands, I thought it might interest Janet Hutchings, the present editor of EQMM, and emailed her a copy made from mine. Learning that she too liked it very much, I put her in touch with the agent for the Woolrich estate and a deal was made. If you have the first issue of the magazine for this year, you have the story—not under Woolrich’s awkward original title, “The Fiancée Without a Future,” but as “The Dark Oblivion.” Quite an improvement, yes?

A question may have crossed your mind as you were reading the last paragraph: What about that other Woolrich story in the exhibit? Well, I managed to obtain a copy of that one too, but it was hardly worth the effort. “The Fault-Finder” is not only a poor story—one of many such dating from Woolrich’s last years—but it isn’t crime fiction even in the broadest sense of that term. Since no one is ever likely to see this thirteen-page story, I have no qualms about describing it. The year is 1915, and a husband and wife are in the St. Anselm Hotel, preparing to set out on a vacation cruise across the Atlantic. (Woolrich doesn’t bother to mention that in fact all Europe was at war that year.) The woman keeps insulting and belittling her poor henpecked husband. Finally he goes out to a tavern across the street to drown his sorrows and stays there too long so that their ship has already left New York Harbor by the time he returns to the hotel. Furiously she orders him to call up the steamship line and demand their money back. Klutz to the last, the husband can’t remember the name of the ship they were to sail on. His wife berates him as an incompetent imbecile and tells him that they were booked on—have you guessed it?—the Lusitania. End of story. It’s perfectly consistent with the central insight of noir—in Hammett’s words, that we live while blind chance spares us—but that doesn’t qualify it as crime fiction or improve it as a story.

Woolrich may have written these tales a little before the publication of Hotel Room, or he may have written them a few years later, in the very early 1960s. What suggests this second possibility is that, along with copies of the stories themselves, Columbia had sent me a sort of cover sheet in Woolrich’s handwriting, the table of contents for a new and expanded version of Hotel Room, with the title of the book changed to Nine Nights In a New York Hotel and each story in the 1958 version retitled also. The most fascinating aspect of this sheet of paper is at the top: Woolrich writes his own name as the author, just as it was in the 1958 version, then crosses it out and substitutes his well-known pseudonym William Irish! Why did he do that? I think I can explain. 

After the breakup of his marriage to Woolrich’s mother, Genaro Hopley-Woolrich had had liaisons with many women, the last and longest being with Esperanza Piñon Brangas. Their daughter Alma was born in Nogales, Sonora on 17 June 1938, and, as far as I know, is still alive. “I learned I had a brother who was a writer when I was fourteen,” Alma said in a telephone interview in Spanish with the Argentine author Juan José Delaney. In 1961 Alma came up from Oaxaca to New Jersey to visit her father’s half-nephew Carlos Burlingham (1925-2004) and his family, staying with them for more than a year. Carlos wrote to Woolrich via his publisher, expecting that the son of his Tio Genaro would want to meet the half-sister he’d never seen. He received in reply a telegram from Woolrich’s attorney, of which Carlos gave me a copy. “He flatly refused to accept the fact” that he had a half sister, Carlos told me, and the attorney insisted that Genaro had remained faithful to Woolrich’s mother throughout his life. Once settled in New Jersey, Alma crossed the Hudson to New York in hopes of meeting her famous half brother. “But he wouldn’t receive me. . . . I remember that he sent out his secretary saying that he didn’t want to see me.” Woolrich never had a secretary. Juan José Delaney told me that the word Alma had used in their phone interview was secretario. It was a man who had turned her away from Woolrich’s door. That man had to have been Woolrich himself. I can’t prove it, but I know it. How could anyone have resisted the temptation to sneak a peek at his only living relative without revealing himself? If he had died without a will, his half sister, who speaks little or no English, would have inherited all his copyrights by intestate succession. To me that explains why on 6 March 1961 he signed a document leaving his rights and everything else he owned in trust to Columbia University. It also explains why, later in 1961, he legally changed his name to William Irish: it was a way of spitting in the face of his long-dead father. The table of contents page for that anticipated new edition of Hotel Room, with its conspicuous name change at the top of the sheet, almost certainly dates from around this time. That new edition of course never materialized, and the tale he called “The Fiancée Without a Future” never saw print until the beginning of this year.

Now that you know the stories behind that story, I hope that, if you haven’t already read “The Dark Oblivion“ in the January/February EQMM, you soon will.  

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2021, TWELFTH NIGHT, AND 80 YEARS

I’d intended to start this post with best wishes for Twelfth Night, which I always thought of as falling on January 6. These days I find myself checking a lot of my assumptions, however, and on consulting Wikipedia I found that “in most Western ecclesiastical traditions, Christmas Day is considered the ‘First Day of Christmas’ and the Twelve Days are 25 December–5 January, inclusive, making Twelfth Night on 5 January, which is Epiphany Eve. In older customs, the Twelve Days of Christmas are counted from sundown on the evening of 25 December until the morning of 6 January, meaning that the Twelfth Night falls on the evening of 5 January and the Twelfth Day falls on 6 January. However, in some church traditions only full days are counted, so that 5 January is counted as the Eleventh Day, 6 January as the Twelfth Day, and the evening of 6 January is counted as the Twelfth Night.”

How’s that for settling the matter? For those who observe the Twelfth Night holiday—and observe it today (or maybe tonight), not yesterday (or maybe last night)!—here’s my virtual glass 🥂 raised along with yours. 

Twelfth Night (considered as falling on the 6th) has a connection to mystery fiction that regular readers of EQMM are probably already aware of, since we mention it most years in our first issue of the year, which celebrates Sherlock Holmes, and that connection is that dedicated Sherlockians believe January 6 to be the birthday of the great detective. I’d once assumed (again, until I checked) that the  selection of this day, which was never specifically mentioned in the original writings, was due to the nature of the Twelfth Night holiday, for in addition to special feasts and songs, Twelfth Night has traditionally been a time for masking, concealment, and role playing—a time when everything is to be turned topsy turvy. This, of course, is exemplified in Shakespeare’s play written to be performed on Twelfth Night, and so titled. 

Although Twelfth Night celebrations vary depending on the country of origin, one of the traditions apparently common to most is the “king cake,” a dessert into which are inserted a bean and a pea. If a man discovers a bean in his portion, he becomes “king” for the celebration, while a woman who finds a pea becomes “queen.” It’s a kind of role playing that upturns the natural order, just as in Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night Malvolio believes that he can be transformed into a nobelman. Since mystery fiction involves discovering what is concealed, finding the truth beneath the false roles people play, and bringing order out of disorder, January 6 always seemed to me an appropriate birthday for the world’s greatest ficitonal sleuth. But it turns out that there was also a textual reason for the choice, according to the Baker Street Irregulars, the world’s oldest Sherlockian organization. 

The date was chosen by Christopher Morley, one of the founding members of the BSI, partly, they say, because Shakespeare was the author most often quoted in the original Holmes stories and because two of those quotations were from Twelfth Night. If this seems a thin foundation for establishing the date of Holmes’s birth, the BSI have solidified it with eighty-six years of birthday parties—mostly black-tie banquets in New York City—and by propagating their assertion that the great detective remains alive and well, bee-tending in his retirement, at the age, this year, of 167. 

EQMM’s fouding editor, Frederic Dannay, was a lifelong Sherlockian and an early member of the BSI. It was he who started the tradition of EQMM donating special Sherlockian issues to attendees of the yearly birthday bash. This year, for the first time in many decades, there will be no issues of EQMM beside the plates of BSI members, since, due to COVID-19, the 2021 banquet will be virtual. This fact did not, however, prevent us from packing our January/February 2021 issue with Sherlockian treats, including another in the award-nominated series of Holmes parodies by Terence Faherty, a stunning new Holmes pastiche by Australian Mike Adamson, an Ellery Queen pastiche with a Sherlockian theme by Josh Pachter, the translation of a story by classic French author Marcel Aymé featuring his sleuth O’Dubois, whom some refer to as the French Sherlock Holmes, and another episode in the popular Holmes on the Range series by Steve Hockensmith. The issue also inaugurates EQMM’s 80th year of continuous publication, which gives us two more reasons to raise a glass on this holiday that marks the official end to the holiday season.

To a happy new year! And to many years ahead (at least another 80!) in which we are able to share with you, our readers, the treasure of short mystery fiction. Cheers! —Janet Hutchings

Posted in Characters, Classic Mystery, Conventions, Ellery Queen, Genre, History, Holmesian | 5 Comments

What Are Your 2021 Literary Resolutions?

It’s easy to get out of the habit of sitting down to read these days, no matter how much I want to do nothing else. To help counter this, I’ve begun setting a goal of how many books I want to read per year. This year, my goal was 41, and I’m just one book away—since I have some in progress, I think I’ll make it! It was a good year for staying home and reading, if nothing else.

I also track the books by genre, background of the author, topic, form, etc., to help me decide what I want to read next. And it seems that every time I read one of our book-review columns—either The Jury Box or the web installments of Stranger Than Fiction—I have another book to add to my to-read pile. (I currently have about fifteen books out from Queens Public Library, but who’s counting?)

It’s been an overwhelming year, and I’m grateful to look over my list and think about what I’ve learned and the characters I’ve met. Next year, I’d like to read more Golden Age mysteries, mixing them in with new releases from diverse authors.

What are your mystery reading and writing goals for 2021?—Jackie Sherbow

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HAPPY HOLIDAYS FROM EQMM!

Dear readers, we’re wishing you and yours a happy, restful, and healthy holiday.

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“When Hesitation Knocks” (by Karen Harrington)

Karen Harrington’s first adult novel, Janeology, came out in 2008. She has since won awards and praise for three novels from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. The latest of them, 2016’s Mayday, received starred reviews from both PW and Kirkus Reviews. A short-story writer too, she makes her EQMM debut in the issue that went on sale this week, January/February 2021. You won’t want to miss it: see “Boo Radley College Prep.” This post from the Texas author contains a good piece of writing advice. —Janet Hutchings

My mother was a belly dancer. Not a professional—that might have been cool. No, adding to my schoolgirl angst, she was an agoraphobic who decided to take belly dancing lessons. Sure, I’m a writer, but I’m not making this up. The house went from quiet afternoons to loud Egyptian music and the chime of finger cymbals. She’d usher us out the door, push back the furniture and dance.

Neighbor kids would ask, “What’s that weird music?”

“What? I don’t hear anything?”

“It’s coming from your house?”

“Nah, I think it’s the apartments over there.”

I still marvel at this. Every single time I’ve thought about spinning this particular life detail into a fictional yarn, I hesitate. It’s strange. It’s revealing. It’s a risk.

In other words, it’s the good stuff.

It took years for me to have faith in this truth. In fact, I still hesitate, marinate in doubt and overthink all the reasons not to write about certain subjects. What life has taught me, however, is to just get my overthinking done faster. How? I recall a touchstone experience that has informed my writing life ever since it happened.

The event took place several years ago. I was invited to be on an author panel at the Pulpwood Queen’s Book Club annual winter event in East Texas. I suspect this event is one of the hidden gems in the book world. Over the years, I was lucky enough to meet authors like John Berendt, Fannie Flagg, Jeannette Walls, and one of my literary heroes, Pat Conroy.

One of the great blessings of my life will always be the unexpected friendship I struck up with Pat. On the night before the author panels began, the host of the event invited all the book club attendees to a dinner. All of the attending authors served dinner to the guests. We dined earlier, family-style, in the kitchen space of the Excelsior Hotel in Jefferson, Texas. Pat entered the room and sat next to me. The fangirl inside me shouted, Oh my gosh, that’s Pat Conroy. Pat Conroy is sitting next to me. At our table.

I locked eyes with author Kathryn Casey, who was seated directly across from me.

“Hello all,” he said to our table. “Just want to say one thing. It never gets easier.”

We were in awe. Pat talked casually about writing and food, two of his great passions. When the evening was over, he inquired about buying our books. We all said, “No, no, have them as a gift.”

“Madame,” he said to me, grinning. “When someone offers to buy your book, you say Thank you.” He was as genuinely charming as you hope your literary hero will be.

Later, he said to call him anytime I wanted or needed a blurb. I learned that he extended this kindness to every single author at the event. When his first book was published, he couldn’t get anyone to blurb it. So, he vowed to be supportive of emerging writers. And he was.

Over the next year, he followed up on how I was doing. (I admit to photographing the Caller ID of his name on my phone in case I woke up the next day and thought I’d dreamed it all.) He critiqued one of my manuscripts. He even called with a suggestion for a story he thought I should write. Then, I got a contract for a new book. It came time to gather blurbs. I hesitated.

The previous manuscript I’d sent him was adult fiction about a preacher’s son. But this new work? It was a coming-of-age story about a young girl who writes letters to Atticus Finch. While I suspected Pat might enjoy the larger story about the influence of To Kill a Mockingbird, I shuddered to think about him reading the scenes in which the character got her period.

Quelle horreur!

My mental ping-pong match went on for days. To send or not to send.

Pat Conroy was a real “mean what you say, say what you mean” human being. If he made a generous offer to read a work, he meant it. I sent in the galley and waited.

And I waited.

One day, the phone rang.

“Karen, Pat Conroy. It’s blurb time!” His familiar South Carolinian accent made me smile and sit up straight.

“Hi, Pat.”

“But first I want to tell you about something in the book.”

From past experience, I prepared to hear a gentle critique.

“I want you to know that the book was special to me because it reminded me of a special day one summer with my young daughters. One of them said, Dad, I got my period.”

I took a deep breath as I reveled in the unexpected.

He went on to say they all went down to the local store, all deciding what to buy, what not to buy, for the occasion. He said they all still remembered that day, that summer. And my story had conjured those memories of a sweet time in his life. He thanked me.

The thing I’d feared most was the thing that resonated with Pat, briefly transporting him back in time.

That’s what we want fiction to do. We want it to invite the reader in and bring their own experiences to the story. Author Jacqueline Woodson says, “The more specific we are, the more universal something can become. Life is in the details. If you generalize, it doesn’t resonate. The specificity of it is what resonates.”

I’m grateful to the late, great Pat Conroy for myriad reasons. Not the least of which is how he shined as model of how to treat others in this formidable industry. To think I almost didn’t send the book for a blurb. What a missed opportunity that would have been!

I try to transfer that lesson to my writing choices, too. I try to be fearless. If I’m on the fence about putting a character in a situation, that’s a pretty good indication that I should do it.

After all, the great mystery of what’s on the other side of the door in your story—or someone’s response to the tale—may only be revealed by its opening. Don’t let fear cause you to miss out on the unexpected. Let the characters walk up the frightening path. Let them risk it all. For me, I find that’s where the good stuff happens in life, and on the page.

So, about that agoraphobic belly dancer . . .

Posted in Adventure, Books, Fiction, Genre, Publishing, Writers, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Crime Fiction and Twenty-First Century Policing” (by Jeff Soloway)

Jeff Soloway makes his EQMM debut with a story in the issue that goes on sale next Tuesday, January/February 2021. The story’s title is “The Interpreter and the Killer” and it stars a central character with a job we’re surprised we have not seen featured in crime stories submitted to EQMM before: a court translator. Jeff Soloway was the 2014 winner of the Robert L. Fish Award for best short story by a new American author, and he has since had stories published in AHMM, in two MWA anthologies, and elsewhere. He’s also the author of three novels in a series featuring travel writer Jacob Smalls. They are: The Travel Writer, The Last Descent, and The Ex-President. In this post Jeff takes up a subject that should interest every writer of crime stories—and readers of the genre too!—Janet Hutchings

My wife writes up cops for a living. For more than eighteen years, she’s worked for the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), New York City’s independent agency in charge of investigating citizen complaints of police misconduct. She began as a junior investigator and now manages a team of investigators, but the basics of her job remain the same. She and her team field complaints from New Yorkers, gather evidence from cops and witnesses, and report their findings. When she was hired in 2002, cell-phone videos were all but unknown, Rudy Giuliani had just finished up his run as mayor, and the city was still traumatized by the crime wave that had crested in the early 1990s. Since then, policing in the city has changed, in some ways dramatically, and so has my wife’s work. She’s now one of the longest-tenured investigators in the agency. Few people know more about the evolution of New York City policing in the new millennium. 

Like many devotees of crime fiction, I often find myself asking, after I’ve read (or written) a policing scene, how realistic it is. Unlike most, I can often get the answer from my spouse. Good police-procedural writers, and crime writers in general, tend to feel more of an obligation to reflect reality than other fiction writers. But reality is a moving target.

Richard Price’s excellent 2008 novel Lush Life begins with an unforgettable description of four plainclothes NYPD cops in an unmarked car, cruising the streets of the Lower East Side: “their mantra: Dope, guns, overtime; their motto: Everyone’s got something to lose.” They pull over cars for minor violations, but they’re really looking for an excuse to conduct a search and uncover drugs or, much better, illegal guns. In the novel, the team is called the Quality of Life Task Force, but in the real-life NYPD these roving plainclothes units were called, bluntly, anti-crime. 

These anti-crime units always generated civilian complaints. When my wife began her job, many anti-crime complaints came from encounters with pedestrians or street corner hangers-around. In later years, anti-crime units shifted tactics and those complaints dropped off. The predominant source of anti-crime complaints became the ever-popular car stop, as described in Price’s novel—an illegal left turn that leads to a full vehicular search and so on. But about four or five years ago, anti-crime tactics began to change yet again. A new kind of stop was generating complaints. When asked in CCRB interviews to justify a stop, officers might explain that the driver who had, say, failed to signal his lane change, was not simply a random young man who happened to be cruising through the neighborhood but was instead a man the police knew and were watching, someone who, for example, might recently been the victim of a stabbing and could well be out for revenge. The anti-crime teams had begun targeting specific people for pretextual stops rather than simply the general neighborhood population (though they continued to do that too). Today, any writer who cares about realism would have to avoid NYPD anti-crime entirely. This June, under pressure from activists and reformist politicians, the anti-crime units were disbanded completely. The opening of Lush Life was perfectly accurate when Price wrote it, but it was a snapshot in time, now no longer true to life. 

Narcotics units were another major driver of complaints in my wife’s early days. For many years, NYPD narcotics units depended on the buy-and-bust technique, in which plainclothes officers buy drugs from unsuspecting street sellers. In crime fiction and television shows, experienced locals can often smell undercover cops a mile away, but in real life, they’re not always so savvy, which is why buy and bust was so popular and also so dangerous. Surprise arrests of unsuspecting young men naturally lead to chaos, which leads to beatdowns. Complainants at the CCRB, many of whom were obviously drug dealers, would often tell some version of the same story: The complainant/dealer (almost always a man) would hand his goods over to some ordinary-looking buyer, who would then stroll away; some time later a different man, a plainclothes cop, would arrive and announce the dealer was under arrest. The dealer would have no idea he had just sold to undercover and often no idea why he was being arrested. He would think the arrest was a mistake, or an injustice, or was really for something other (maybe worse) than the obvious reason; and then he would run, forcing the cops to pursue. With adrenaline flowing on all sides, the dealer would get chased down and beat up, sometimes seriously—all for the crime of selling one small packet of drugs. Because these kinds of arrests are dangerous and exciting, they’ve been a staple of crime writing for years. But today my wife rarely gets these complaints. Buy and bust, in New York City at least, has been going the way of the phone book. Drug laws are changing, and the NYPD has evidently decided the arrests are not worth the violence.

But what has affected my wife’s job most dramatically is not tactics but technology, specifically, the rise of digital video—cell phone videos, security videos outside stores and apartment lobbies, and most recently, video from police body-worn cameras. All the encounters that my wife once had to recreate from testimony and imagination are now broadcast to her second by second, sometimes from multiple perspectives. 

It took the NYPD years to get used to widespread video. Initially, cops were often caught on cellphone videos insulting or cursing out civilians—minor but obvious violations of the rules—or manhandling them unnecessarily. Body-worn camera video caused even more embarrassment. When officers first started to wear cameras, they often forgot about them or forgot how they worked. NYPD body-worn cameras are always operating but are only officially recording when officers turn them on; however, when turned on they capture not only succeeding events but also 30 seconds of video from before activation. Many an officer behaving perfectly correctly after pressing the camera button was not quite so restrained in the prior half-minute. 

But today my wife fields fewer of those caught-on-camera discourtesies. Officers now understand they’re always potentially being recorded. In fact, they often behave with a politeness that would have been weird or even suspicious back in 2002. My wife has watched video of officers putting up with civilians shouting the foulest insults at them. Eighteen years ago, they might well have taken revenge.

This general change in attitude is what, in my opinion, has the profoundest implication for crime fiction. Crime writers often portray cops as citizens of their own nation, answerable only to their comrades on the force and their personal code of justice. But today cops know they can’t escape society’s judgment. Any interaction could become a viral video. Just as important, any interaction could later be thrown back in their faces. In my wife’s years on the job, only a handful of times has she seen officers break down and cry in the interview room, but those have almost always been just after they’ve been shown a video of their actions. Imagine being forced to watch the worst moment of your career or even your life on a screen and then having to explain it. To submit yourself to the judgment not just of a civilian oversight board (which, let’s face it, often has little real power to punish) but of the wider world, and yourself. Wouldn’t it change how you think about your job? 

I’m not sure crime fiction has yet reckoned with this change in policing. But it will have to.

Posted in Guest, Police Procedurals | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

“Dorothy L. Sayers Reviews the Early Ellery Queen” (by Joe R. Christopher)

Dr. Joe R. Christopher is an Emeritus Professor in the English Department of Tarleton State University in Texas. He’s written scholarly books (including C. S. Lewis: A Biography), essays, reviews, and short stories (in both the mystery and science-fiction genres). In this post he discusses the reviews Golden Age mystery writer Dorothy L. Sayers wrote of the books of one of her contemporaries: Ellery Queen. These should be of interest to Ellery Queen fans, and to those looking for some good reads over the holidays. Nearly all of the Ellery Queen novels are available in e-editions from Mysterious Press/Open Road.—Janet Hutchings

Dorothy L. Sayers reviewed mysteries on a weekly basis for The Sunday Times from 25 June 1933 through 18 August 1935. Although there was some variation, she normally wrote about four novels in each column. Her reviews were not just of “you will enjoy” sort; she was concerned with the authors’ writing skills. It is not known specifically why she started or stopped her reviews, but a few biographical details are suggestive.

At the end of 1929, she had enough money coming in from her mysteries that she gave up her full-time job in an advertising agency. This gave her more freedom in time to focus on her novels—and related activities. She was greatly involved in the development of The Detection Club (a dining club of authors who wrote puzzle-based mysteries); they collaborated on books to support the Club—the first was Behind the Screen, with Sayers one of the authors, broadcast in June and July 1930, and published as a book soon after. In these years, Sayers edited her three-volume anthology of short mysteries—Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery and Horror (called The Omnibus of Crime in America), 1928, 1931, and 1934. And she was publishing some of her best Lord Peter mysteries during these same years that she was reviewing: Murder Must Advertise, (1933), The NineTailors (1934), and Gaudy Night (1935). But her next Lord Peter mystery appeared first as a drama, Busman’s Honeymoon, in collaboration with Muriel St. Clare Byrne (1937). And soon Sayers was off to writing dramas and essays and eventually to translating Dante. She started another Lord Peter novel, but never finished it.

In Sayers’ second column, 2 July 1933, she starts with The American Gun Mystery with her subtitle of “An American Nut Worth Cracking.” She spends her first paragraph quoting seven excesses of Queen’s style. Her first sentence: “Mr. Ellery Queen is determined to be literary or die.” One of her examples: “he was in a chair, his incredible bulk quiescent as poured steel.” “Nevertheless,” she continues, the book has “a rattling good yarn with a well-constructed mystery.” She mentions the setting (the rodeo on Broadway) and some other details. (The cousins invented the Colosseum sports arena of the novel.) Sayers comments about the plot: “As to the mystery, I frankly confess that I only guessed about half of it, and on due and sour consideration I am reluctantly compelled to admit that the author was quite honourable and that the stupidity was mine.” (She mentions the five earlier mysteries by Queen in passing, at least three of which she indicates she had solved before the dénouements.)

On 3 December 1933, she reviewed Barnaby Ross’s Drury Lane’s Last Case, the last of the four mysteries by Queen about a different detective under a different authorial name. It is a mixed review. The “crime is all mixed up with Shakespeare and bibliophily; and this is the weakest part of the book. … Mr. Ross does not seem to me to quite know his Shakespeare.” (Francis M. Nevins, in Ellery Queen: The Art of Detection [2013], says that the climax of the novel depends on Shakespearean ‘facts’ that Fred Dannay and Manny Lee made up out of whole cloth.” Perhaps that was what bothered Sayers.) To continue with her review: “His central mystification has been used too often before. . . .” But she ends up with some praise for the “mysterious events [which] have a real atmosphere of oddity” and “ingenious detective work.”

Seven days later, Sayers reviewed Queen’s The Siamese Twin Mystery. “Mr. Queen is fantastic, involute, supersubtle, concerned with abnormal psychology and physiology, exaggerative, baroque, [with] a uniformity of tone which tends to monotony.” After several examples of style and content, she switches directions: “What saves Mr. Queen is the basis of really acute and ingenious detective work on which he founds his plot, so that one forgives his extravagance for the sake of his fundamental brain-work.” And she ends with a statement that must have meant much to the cousins if they saw their British reviews: “If only he [Queen] would master the ‘art of sinking’ in prose, he would take the rank to which his intellect entitles him, as one of the supreme masters of the detective story.”

On 7 January of the next year, Sayers has The Ellery Queen Omnibus as her fourth title. (She starts off with Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express.) The Omnibus contains The French Powder Mystery, The Dutch Shoe Mystery, and The Greek Coffin Mystery. Sayers calls these “three of their author’s best-known novels,” but does not discuss them further. She does present a short history of the development of the meaning of omnibus and lightly praises the quality of the paper used in the book. One suspects that Sayers was hurried, and she picked a book that she didn’t need to freshly read for her fourth spot.

About a half year later, on 1 July 1934, The Chinese Orange Mystery leads the three books being discussed. She titles her column “Criminals Who Are Too Ingenious” and says of the killer in Queen’s novel, “for perverted ingenuity this murderer takes the absolute bun. . . . A little careless simplicity would have served his turn better.” She turns to the basic plot in terms of three questions: “Who killed him [the man waiting for a business interview]? How was the room entered and left again after the murder? And why was everything put back to front. . . . Well—I was completely led up the garden by problem No. 3, but I guessed the other two. . . .” And she added this about the writing: “. . . Mr. Queen, the author, shows distinct improvement in the direction of simplicity: he has toned down the elaboration of his literary style.”

On 3 March 1935, Sayers titles her review “The Adventures of a Highbrow Detective” and she reviews first The Adventures of Ellery Queen—the first collection of Queen’s short stories. “I am not sure that I do not like him better when thus short-circuited [that is, in short fiction, not novels]; for the mechanical limitations of the medium force him to control his besetting sin of over-writing. . . . His characters take after him in [being very intelligent], and one sometimes feels that they are fortunate beyond all reasonable expectations in finding a detective clever enough to interpret the ingenious and picturesque false clues and dying messages they leave behind them.” And again, “All these strange fantasies of bearded ladies and glass-domed clocks would be wasted on a mere forthright police constable, who would neither interpret nor misinterpret, but probably merely ignore them.” She doesn’t offer any close discussion of specific short stories.

Her final review of a Queen novel is of The Spanish Cape Mystery, on 7 April 1935. Unfortunately, it is brief—only five sentences. (What upset the balance in the review was that Sayers began with G. K. Chesterton’s The Scandal of Father Brown, and she wrote a celebration not of the specific book but of his Father Brown stories and their serious treatment of religion in mysteries.) About Queen’s novel, she says, “Mr. Ellery Queen seems to me to be sobering down a little. Fantastic he still is . . . but he is far less extravagant in language and behaviour than in, for example, ‘The Siamese Twins’ or ‘The American Gun.’” It is clearer in the review than in this selection that Sayers knowingly moves from Queen as author to Queen the character. She goes on: Queen “is suaver and less hysterical, and he has the right way with servants (always a test of breeding). In fact, I am beginning to like the man.” On that friendly note, her discussions of Ellery Queen, as author and character, can conclude.

If any reader wants to see all of Sayers’ reviews—of Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, Erle Stanley Gardner, Margery Allingham (the latter with only one review), of some authors that were well-known at the time, and of a large number that are not familiar at all—the complete reviews have been published by the Dorothy L. Sayers Society: Taking Detective Stories Seriously: The Collected Reviews of Dorothy L. Sayers, Foreword by Simon Brett, edited, with an Introduction and a Commentary, by Martin Edwards (Pereth, Scotland: Tippermuir Books Ltd., 2017).

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