“About a BROI” (by Kevin Mims)

The fiftieth anniversary of the horrific Manson Family murders is this week, on Friday. In the annals of true crime, the case will always loom large. But as Kevin Mims brings out in this post, the murders also had a profound effect on crime fiction, especially following the publication of Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry’s nonfiction book about the case, Helter Skelter.  A widely published essayist and a short-story writer for EQMM and AHMM, Kevin frequently contributes to this site. —Janet Hutchings

Most popular-fiction enthusiasts would probably agree that it was Thomas Harris who triggered the ongoing vogue for novels about serial killers. There were serial killers in fiction long before Harris published The Red Dragon in 1981, but none of them ever became the kind of cultural juggernaut that Hannibal Lecter has become, thanks both to The Red Dragon and to its immediate sequel, The Silence of the Lambs, and with a lot of help from their Hollywood incarnations. But this essay isn’t about Thomas Harris. It is about Shane Stevens, who began working in the serial-killer genre a few years before Harris did. He wrote several crime novels, but his masterpiece is probably By Reason of Insanity, a serial-killer thriller that arrived in bookstores forty years ago, in 1979, two years before The Red Dragon arrived in November of 1981.

By Reason of Insanity (hereinafter abbreviated as BROI) is a far more ambitious novel than The Red Dragon, which is itself a crazily ambitious novel. BROI covers about a 25-year time period, from the late 1940s to the mid 1970s. It has at least a dozen major characters and dozens of minor ones. Stevens’s two main characters, are Thomas Bishop, a deranged serial killer who manages to keep his identity concealed throughout much of his crime spree, and Adam Kenton, an investigative journalist who seeks to uncover the identity of said serial killer. Shane Stevens, as the saying goes, did his homework. The book is not a slapdash attempt to make easy money in the lucrative world of pop fiction. It begins with the execution of real-life San Quentin death-row inmate Caryl Chessman on May 2, 1960. The story then backtracks to give us a long explanation of how Chessman came to be on death row despite never having killed anyone (he was a rapist and a thief). His death sentence scandalized liberals not only throughout America but much of the world. Protests were held at U.S. embassies around the globe. At one point the Eisenhower administration is said to have asked California Governor Pat Brown to temporarily stay the execution so as to ease tensions during a presidential visit to South America. Stevens then takes us even further back, to when Chessman was still a free man, cruising the lovers lanes of southern California and looking for young couples he could rob and whose female members he could rape. One of Stevens’s cleverest conceits is that his villain, Thomas Bishop, is the illegitimate child of Chessman and one of his rape victims. This is one of many points in the book where Stevens demonstrates more interest in the ravages that crime can wreak upon the human psyche than any run-of-the-mill pop-fictioneer would ever likely evince. Stevens is interested not only in the ways that a crime can damage the lives and minds of its direct victims but also the lives and minds of their offspring as well. Sara Bishop, Chessman’s victim and Thomas’s mother, was a damaged woman long before being raped by Chessman. She was a victim of child sexual abuse, acquaintance rape, and domestic violence before she ever crossed paths with “the Red Light Bandit” as Chessman was popularly known (the nickname suggests that his property crimes were a greater outrage to polite society than his crimes against the female body). Stevens does an excellent job of showing how a woman like Sara might be sought out by the likes of Chessman. And why a woman who has been abused all her life might be more inclined to resign herself to one more sexual assault and to not report it to the police afterwards rather than to put up a fight and, when that fails, insist on getting some vindication from the legal system afterwards. Sara manages to convince her boyfriend (who was locked in the trunk of the car during the rape) that Chessman was impotent and failed to consummate his crime. She insists on making love with the boyfriend that very night so that, if she becomes pregnant, she can believably insist that he is the father. She does, indeed, become pregnant, and the boyfriend, Harry Owens, reluctantly marries her. Again, Stevens is good at showing how this marriage and pregnancy, both the fruit of a poisonous tree, are also victims of Chessman’s criminal behavior. The marriage soon falls apart and Sara, left to raise Thomas alone, takes out her anger at the entire male gender on him. When he becomes a man, he’ll repay the favor in spades by taking out his anger on his numerous female victims, all of whom serve as stand-ins for his mother (the first victim of his murderous spree). Before dumping Harry Owens, Sara tries to hurt him by telling him that Caryl Chessman is the true father of their son. Enraged by this, Harry Owens himself soon drifts into a life of crime and is eventually killed in a botched armored-car robbery. Stevens understands that crime and abuse are usually continuums, part of a repeating cycle, rather than random stand-alone events.

It may seem as though I have fatally spoiled the plot for you, but we’re barely past the prologue of this long novel (my mass-market paperback copy has nearly 600 pages of tiny print). It’s a commonplace of serial-killer novels to give the villain some sort of childhood trauma that explains his later conversion to a homicidal maniac. But Stevens doesn’t give Thomas Bishop a cursory backstory. He delves deeply not only into Bishop’s own background but also into the background of all three of his parents (Sara Bishop and the two men who may or may not have fathered her child). Stevens gives even many of his secondary characters moving backstories. Some of Bishop’s initial victims are lonely women of a certain age whose frustrated maternal longings make them susceptible to a man seeking to kill mother substitutes. Others are young women whose genteel upbringings make them entirely too trusting of earnest-seeming young men. Others still are women, like his own mother, so hard-used by life that they are willing to risk selling their bodies to strangers in order to keep a roof over their heads. At times, Stevens even delves into the lives of some of these victims’ surviving family members (one father is so distraught that he hires a mafia hit man to kill Bishop).

Even more impressive than these intimate close-ups is the way Stevens continually zooms out to show how various elements of American society—the press, politicians, government bureaucracies—hypocritically denounce crime and criminals while also symbiotically benefitting from the fear and hysteria they whip up. A state senator in Sacramento uses the public’s fear of Bishop (then believed to be an escaped criminal named Vincent Mungo, whose identity Bishop stole after killing him) to bolster his own anticrime, pro–capital-punishment bona fides. Although he denounces “Mungo” at every opportunity, Senator Stoner also hopes to harness the public’s fear of the serial killer and ride it all the way to Washington, D.C. He panics when he thinks Mungo might actually bring his crime spree to a voluntary close. Various journalistic venues use Mungo to increase their circulation and bump up their Nielsen ratings. A Berkeley professor who fancies himself an expert on the criminal mind hopes to ride the wave of Mungo hysteria to academic superstardom. He makes a few brilliant deductions about Mungo’s true identity, but he withholds them from the police because a premature end to the killing spree might weaken the book he plans to write.

Mungo/Bishop starts out as a purely California phenomenon. Stevens links him directly not only to Chessman but to Charles Manson (about whom, more later). After killing Mungo and taking his identity (warning: massive spoilers ahead) Bishop commits a few more killings in northern California before he heads for southern California and the land of his birth. Believing himself to be the son of Caryl Chessman, Bishop hopes to surpass his father’s criminal activities in La-La Land. He succeeds in short order and then lights out for Las Vegas, where his spree continues, and then on to Texas, to Chicago, and then finally to the American Mecca of New York City, where he hopes to make his name as the greatest American serial killer of all time.

For hundreds of pages Stevens manages to weave together tales of Bishop’s unfortunate and socially insignificant victims with tales of how the killing spree affects larger aspects of American society, from the Mafia to a logging conglomerate in the Pacific Northwest (I kid you not) to the White House. In fact, Richard Nixon eventually takes on a speaking role in the story. Embroiled in the Watergate scandal and desperate to discredit the press, Nixon urges his underlings to blame a hostile publication (Newstime, obviously meant to evoke both Newsweek and Time magazines) for the rise of Mungo/Bishop to folkloric status. Meanwhile, Nixon fears that the press, while researching Mungo/Bishop’s background, will learn of Nixon’s own connection to Chessman (Stevens’s theory is that Nixon was responsible for lobbying Pat Brown for a stay of Chessman’s execution on behalf of the Eisenhower administration; it’s a testament to Stevens’s gifts as a storyteller than I never doubted this theory) and try to embarrass him with it.

As I write this, the New York Times website is featuring a newly posted story about the sensational Central Park Five rape case headlined “How a City in Fear Brutalized the Central Park Five.” The story, about the way a lurid crime can cause an entire city to lose its collective mind, would have come as no surprise to Shane Stevens (who died in 2007). He brilliantly documented the phenomenon way back in 1979, a decade before the famous attack on a Central Park jogger.

One indication that this novel was written in the immediate aftermath of Watergate and the release of the film All The President’s Men is the fact that the hero of the novel isn’t a cop or an FBI man but Adam Kenton, a crusading investigative journalist for Newstime magazine. For a while, in the mid to late 1970s, journalists were actually widely respected as a stay against corrupt government officials. Eventually politicians would fight back and portray the press as “the enemy of the people.”

But though Adam Kenton isn’t an FBI profiler like Will Graham, the hero of Thomas Harris’s The Red Dragon, he possesses many of the same qualities. Wikipedia describes Graham thusly:

an intellectually-gifted and highly-esteemed former FBI profiler, who has an eidetic memory, genius-level intellect, and the ability to empathize with the mindset and mentality of both psychopaths and sociopaths, which adversely affects his own mental psyche.

In BROI, written approximately four years before The Red Dragon, Stevens writes this about Adam Kenton:

Of all the traits that combined in Adam Kenton to make him the best investigative reporter on the biggest newsmagazine staff in the country, traits that had in a brief decade brought him a certain measure of renown and respect . . . perhaps the most important was his ability to adapt himself to the roles of those from whom he sought information. In mannerisms and speech he seemed to blend into their public identities. His sympathetic understanding and acceptance almost invariably prompted a flow of confidences not normally given to reporters . . . This metaphoric quality was coupled with an intense concentration that often enabled him to think like his adversaries. He constantly asked himself the question: What would they do next? Or: Why did they do that? His guess was usually correct. Only it wasn’t ever just a guess but more of an instinctive leap into their minds. This mental bit of magic, grounded in voluminous information and a brilliant imagination, probably more than anything else had led to the name of Superman given him buy his peers, not without a strong touch of envy.

But, like Will Graham, Kenton pays a price for this supernatural gift of empathy. He’s a failure at personal relationships, especially with women. He has put himself into the minds of so many unsavory and unscrupulous people that he fears he has become one of them and is therefore unfit for decent company and loving relationships.

There are also parallels between BROI and Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs. The latter novel features a serial killer (nicknamed Buffalo Bill) whose born name is Jame Gumb (his alcoholic prostitute mother misspelled “James” on the birth certificate). Gumb was born in California on October 25, 1949. Thomas Bishop was born in California on April 30, 1948. Gumb’s first murder victims are the grandparents who raised him and whom he kills on a whim one day while still a child. Bishop’s first murder victim is the mother who raised him and whom he kills on a whim one day while still a child. Gumb murders women and dresses up in female skin suits made from their dead bodies. At one point, Thomas Bishop begins dressing as a female in order to make it easier for him to sneak up on women and murder them. Stupid coincidences abound in both books. Other commenters have noted the silly coincidence of Hannibal Lecter’s parents giving him the only name in the world that rhymes with “cannibal,” thus giving the character a media-ready nickname (“Hannibal the Cannibal”) when he begins eating people. Likewise, Thomas Bishop, who believes he is the son of Caryl Chessman, and who signs some of his murder scenes “Chess Man,” has a last name that is, lo and behold, the name of a chess piece.

This is not to suggest that Harris plagiarized Stevens. The Hannibal Lecter novels bear only superficial resemblances to BROI. As far as I can tell, not a single sentence of Stevens’s book appears in any of Harris’s Hannibal Lecter novels. There’s also no question that Harris is the better writer. But Stevens came so frustratingly close to writing the Great American Serial Killer Novel that I can only imagine he must have been jealous of the acclaim heaped upon The Red Dragon and, later, The Silence of the Lambs. So why didn’t Stevens win the same kind of acclaim? Several reasons come to mind, one of them already stated: he wasn’t as good a writer as Thomas Harris. Which is not to say that he’s an awful writer. Some of the book’s prose could have come straight from a Raymond Chandler novel:

February is a bad month in Los Angeles and gets worse towards the end. On this dark February morning the rain had been falling steadily since midnight. The sky was an angry gray and even the sun had trouble finding the city. In the business areas people stumbled into offices and stores soaked to the skin. Everywhere houses leaked, lawns drowned, and new foundations settled. It was February 22, 1952, the day six men had picked to rob Overland Pacific, the country’s biggest armored-car company, of a million dollars.

The problem with Stevens’s writing is that it is inconsistent. It runs the gamut from dull journalese, to comically lurid pulp, to subtle and surprisingly insightful. At times, he produces weird rhymes that I can only assume are accidental:

He had to be found. Alive or dead, the king of the jungle wanted his head.

The book contains one of my all-time favorite pieces of pulpy prose. Just two sentences long, it’s a masterpiece of Penthouse-style sex writing:

She had a roller-coaster body and he had his ticket right in his pants. He would ride her as long as the park was open.

Amazingly, that observation comes from the point of view of a major secondary character whose storyline I haven’t even mentioned before, a fifty-something criminal and ex-cellmate of Caryl Chessman’s as he contemplates a night of sex with a teenage girl. Which suggests another major problem with the novel. It’s just too damned ambitious. There are way too many secondary and tertiary characters (and whatever comes after tertiary). There are plots and subplots (and whatever comes after subplots). Also the body count is just too high to be believable. Sure, real-life serial killers have run up higher body counts, but Mungo/Bishop kills women with a knife, and he does them one at a time, usually after courting them for a few days. I doubt if Mick Jagger could have lured as many women into his home as Mungo/Bishop is able to lure into his various apartments over a single New York autumn. This becomes even less believable when just about everyone in the city becomes aware that their hometown is being terrorized by a crazed killer who preys on women. Do Mungo/Bishop’s victims never pick up a newspaper or turn on a TV?

Another problem is that Stevens often graphically describes the rape, torture, murder, and dismemberment of Mungo/Bishop’s victims. He does this ad nauseam. Thus he gets to play it both ways. His novel purports to abhor serial killers and the mistreatment of women but he also indulges the appetites of any readers who may get off on that kind of stuff.

Stevens’s story also has plot holes that beggar belief. For instance Vincent Mungo and Thomas Bishop meet in an asylum for the criminally insane where they are both serving time. And yet, unbelievably, neither of them has ever been fingerprinted. I realize that law-enforcement authorities back then didn’t have the kind of DNA-detecting equipment available to the authorities today, but certainly two murderers would have been fingerprinted at some point in their lives!

While still in the asylum Bishop plans to talk Mungo into joining him in his escape plan and then killing him after they get out and destroying the dead man’s face and putting his own watch and ring on the body so that the police will think the dead man is Bishop. But because Bishop has a distinctive scar on his shoulder it is important that, months before the escape attempt, he inflict the same kind of damage to Mungo’s shoulder, so that the shoulder will have scarred over in a similar fashion by the time they find Mungo’s body. Bishop somehow manages to talk Mungo into letting him cut his shoulder, feeding him some story about how it will make them blood brothers. Nothing about this rang true.

Stevens’s biggest mistake, in my opinion, is that he devotes so much of the novel to the attempts by various people and law enforcement agencies to ferret out the real identity of the killer who the press is calling Vincent Mungo. Because the reader knows from the start that Mungo is actually Bishop, it becomes tiresome to have so many characters constantly coming to the conclusion that Mungo can’t be the real killer. Several of these people have no difficulty entertaining the notion that Thomas Bishop, the convict who escaped the asylum with Mungo, is the real killer and that Mungo is the disfigured dead man who has been identified as Bishop. But then some inconvenient fact (the shoulder scar, for instance) will come along to derail them from this line of thinking. Several of them will return to this hypothesis again and again, only to reject it again and again, and it becomes tedious in the extreme. When at long last everyone finally accepts the fact that Mungo is actually Bishop, my feeling wasn’t exhilaration or excitement but merely relief that this most repetitious of plot threads had finally been concluded.

There is actually much to admire in BROI, and Stevens has at least one high-profile admirer. In an afterward to his novel The Dark Half, Stephen King acknowledges his debt to Stevens. He mentions three of Stevens’s novels—Rat Pack, The Anvil Chorus, and BROI—and says: “These works, where the so-called ‘criminal mind’ and a condition of irredeemable psychosis interweave to create their own closed system of perfect evil, are three of the finest novels ever written about the dark side of the American dream. They are, in their own way, as striking as Frank Norris’s McTeague or Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie. I recommend them unreservedly . . . but only readers with strong stomachs and stronger nerves need apply.”

In a March 24, 1991, overview of the hyper-violent horror subgenre known as “splatterpunk,” book critic Ken Tucker reserved his praise for only two authors:

But so far, only two writers have made literature out of this theme, neither of them splatterpunks. Thomas Harris spends as much time digging into the thoughts of horror’s victims as those of its perpetrators; in “The Silence of the Lambs,” Mr. Harris created a far more intricate hero in the Federal Bureau of Investigation agent Clarice Starling than the conventions of splatterpunk have yet generated. Less well-known is Shane Stevens, whose extraordinary 1979 novel, “By Reason of Insanity,” is a modulated, finely written tale that gets farther inside the mind of a serial killer than most of us may want to go. Both of these writers allow for something the splatterpunks do not: the portrayal of recognizable human beings—neither gonzo kill-freaks nor relentless revenge-robots—whose fear and vulnerability are rendered with sympathy, not contempt.

Unfortunately for Stevens, the praise from King and Tucker came more than ten years after the publication of BROI. At the time of its release, Kirkus Reviews called Stevens’s novel “an interminable kill-a-thon” and opined that it was “Bloody, vicious pulp–unredeemed by a few vivid scenes and some debates on capital punishment and journalism ethics, amateurishly plotted (gross coincidence abounding), and padded out to numbing, sickening length.”

I hate to be one of those journalists who splits the difference in every debate, believing that the truth always lies somewhere in the middle of two extremes, but in this case I think that’s a fair assessment. BROI has many virtues, but the equal of McTeague or Sister Carrie it is not. Yet I also think the Kirkus review is grossly unfair. It’s the kind of review you give to a derivative novel that appears to have been hacked out quickly in order to earn an easy buck. Say what you will about BROI, I don’t think any fair reader could come away from it believing that Stevens was after a quick paycheck. It is a long novel with dozens and dozens of characters, many of whom have complicated backstories, a canvas that stretches from Sacramento to Miami, a timeline that stretches from the Truman era to the Watergate era. To me it feels like a real passion project. Had it been as polished as The Red Dragon, it might have gotten a little more love from the press and a lot more love from the reading public. As it is, it’s a cult novel. These days, it’s available electronically but otherwise out of print. Despite that, it has eighty reader reviews at Amazon.com, eighty-five percent of which carry either five- or four-star ratings. Most of those reviewers seem to share Stephen King’s opinion of the book. At least one reader has compared it favorably with Crime and Punishment. Others call it among the scariest books they’ve ever read (easy to believe).

In the end, though, it wasn’t Shane Stevens or even Thomas Harris who initiated the golden age of the serial-killer thriller. I believe that honor belongs to a couple of men named Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry and a nonfiction book they collaborated on called Helter Skelter. The book, which recounts the Manson Family’s murders, the investigation into those murders, and the arrest and prosecution of the culprits, was published forty-five years ago, in 1974, and to this day it remains the best-selling true crime book of all time, outselling such masterpieces as In Cold Blood, The Onion Field, The Executioner’s Song, and Devil in the White City. The book won an Edgar Award in 1975. It has inspired several TV films. It has been updated and reprinted in a variety of new editions. Bugliosi was the prosecutor at Charles Manson’s trial and had access to all variety of materials that aren’t available to the average true-crime book writer. Bugliosi and Gentry, though not in the same league as Truman Capote and Norman Mailer, were nonetheless talented writers who knew how to tell a true story well. Helter Skelter had a galvanizing effect on writers of gritty crime fictions. No longer would it be enough for crime writers to employ nothing but their imaginations in the creation of gripping crime novels. Since the publication of Helter Skelter it has become commonplace for crime writers to join police officers in ride-alongs, to do research into forensics and DNA sequencing and blood-splatter patterns. Look at the acknowledgements of a gritty crime novel these days and you are likely to find the author thanking any number of law-enforcement experts. Bugliosi and Gentry made that happen. It’s probably no coincidence that my paperback edition of BROI carries a blurb from Curt Gentry on the back cover (“This is Shane Stevens’ masterpiece . . . the most suspenseful novel in years.”). Whether they acknowledged it or not, most of the authors writing serial-killer thrillers in the late 1970s and early 80s were in competition with Bugliosi and Gentry. They were trying to write fiction that was as gripping and authentic-seeming as Helter Skelter. They were unconsciously seeking the approval of Bugliosi and Gentry. And Stevens, at least, got it.

That the serial-killer novel trend was in full flower well before The Red Dragon came along is acknowledged in the opening line of Kirkus Reviews’ assessment of that novel:

It seems as if two out of every three suspense novels in recent years have featured psychopathic mass murderers—but Harris’ contribution to the genre stands well above the pulpy crowd.

The Manson Family’s Tate-LaBianca murders occurred on August 9, 1969 and you will probably be reading and hearing a lot about them this summer, as the fiftieth anniversary of the event approaches. One of this summer’s biggest box-office attractions is expected to be Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Scheduled for release in July, it’s a film in which Charles Manson and the Tate-LaBianca murders figure prominently in the plot (Margot Robbie plays murdered actress Sharon Tate).

In 1973, a year before Helter Skelter was published, best-selling crime writer Lawrence Sanders published The First Deadly Sin, a serial-killer novel that sold well (a selection of the Book of the Month Club, and a first printing of 100,000 hardback copies) and was made into a film starring Frank Sinatra and Faye Dunaway (curiously, Sharon Tate’s widower Roman Polanski was scheduled to direct the film before he opted to flee the country to avoid a jail sentence for raping a minor). I remember reading my mother’s copy at the time (I was fifteen years old) and thinking it was brilliant. But re-reading it recently was a disappointing experience. The book still has its virtues, but it’s a crime fiction that appears to have been inspired mostly by Hollywood crime films. It worked well for its time, but after Helter Skelter came out, readers began expecting more gritty realism for their serial-killer dollar. Indeed, the above-mentioned Kirkus review of The Red Dragon singles out Sanders’s bestseller as the kind of pre-Helter Skelter psycho-killer novel that just wouldn’t work any more:

Unlike Lawrence Sanders et al., Harris (Black Sunday) isn’t in the vulgar titillation business; his territory is evil, not just violence . . .

Bugliosi and Gentry taught America that some crimes are committed not in the heat of passion or for monetary gain but simply out of pure unadulterated evil. What made these crimes interesting wasn’t the motivations so much as the forensic work and psychological profiling necessary to solve them. Judging from the publication date of his book, I’d say the Shane Stevens must have begun work on BROI sometime around the publication of Helter Skelter. I don’t think a book as big and complex as his could have been written and brought into print in any less than three or four years. I have no proof that Stevens read or was influenced by Helter Skelter, but judging by BROI’s ambitious scope and the fact that Stevens (or someone acting in his behalf) must have sought out a blurb from Curty Gentry, I feel confident that he was trying to do in fiction what Gentry and Bugliosi had done in the realm of true crime. He came awful damn close to being the guy who wrote a fictional serial-killer novel that was every bit as gripping and terrifying and authentic-seeming as Helter Skelter. In the end, though, it was Thomas Harris who achieved that honor. But if you’re at all interested in the popular fiction of the 1970s (and I’m a fiend for it), serial-killer novels, or just compelling crime fiction in general, you ought to seek out a copy of By Reason of Insanity. For all its messiness and inconsistency (in fact, maybe even because of these things), it’s still a fascinating read.

Posted in Books, Characters, Genre, Guest, History, Novels, Politics, Pop Culture, Real Crime | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Stories from the Courthouse Where I Work” (by Kevin Egan)

Kevin Egan is the author of eight novels, including the legal thriller Midnight, a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2013. A number of his novels and short stories are set in the legal world, for he worked for many years as a law clerk in the New York County Courthouse—the setting he takes us to in this post. The author makes his EQMM debut in our September/October 2019 issue (on sale next month) with the story “The Visit,” and we have another stunning tale from him coming up shortly after that. Stay tuned!  —Janet Hutchings

The New York County Courthouse, my workplace for almost 30 years, has been a source of inspiration for much of my fiction writing. The building fascinates me. Its odd architecture of a hexagon surrounding a circle creates hidden spaces where mysterious events may occur. Its stratified culture, from judges to janitors, provides an array of characters with an endless variety of motivations. The courthouse was completed in 1927, but the court it houses—the institution, that is—dates back to 1691. Today, it draws approximately 5,000 people to its doors daily. Most are lawyers and litigants and citizens summoned for jury duty. Many are tourists who pose for photos and production companies that film scenes with the impressive courthouse portico as a backdrop. A dozen or more trials may be in session, from multi-million dollar commercial disputes, to serious personal injury claims, to bitter divorces. Of the many judges who have presided in the courthouse, the most famous was Joseph Crater, who walked out of his chambers on August 6, 1930, and into history as “the most missingest man in New York.” In short, the courthouse brims with story ideas, and I have had the good fortune to publish three novels and more than a dozen short stories set in the courthouse orbit. But what inspires a mystery writer may differ from what can inspire the casual visitor. Three such inspirational stories are memorialized at the courthouse.


The first is a bronze plaque that commemorates the 250th anniversary of the John Peter Zenger trial. The trial, in 1735, was a case of seditious libel brought by the colonial government against a newspaper for publishing articles critical of the governor. Zenger was neither an editor nor a writer. He was the newspaper’s printer, and since there were very few printers in the colonies at the time, jailing the printer effectively shut down the newspaper. The case went to trial, and unlike today’s settled law, the truth of an allegedly libelous statement was not a defense. Still, Zenger’s lawyer asked the jury to consider the truth of the articles printed in the newspaper, and the jury, despite the judge’s instructions that the truth was irrelevant, found Zenger not guilty. The case did not explicitly establish freedom of the press in the colonies, but it pointed directly to the rights and freedoms established in the U.S. Constitution.

The second is a marble bust of Thomas Emmet, an Irish barrister who was arrested and jailed for treason and conspiracy for helping to organize a failed uprising against British forces in Ireland. After several years in prison, Emmet was released on condition that he accept permanent exile in France. He stayed in France for awhile, but after the execution of his brother, Robert, for attempting a second uprising, he emigrated to the United States. He applied for admission to the New York bar, but the Federalists then in power denied the application on the ground that he was an alien subversive. Two years and a court case later, Emmet finally was admitted to the bar. He served as the state Attorney General and then, in private practice, became one of the leading lawyers in New York, arguing several cases before the United States Supreme Court. He died in 1827, after being stricken by a seizure while arguing a case in the United States Circuit Court of Appeals. The bust was commissioned by Emmet’s colleagues and was created by Ottaviano Giovannozzi, a Florentine sculptor who worked off drawings of Emmet. It was first installed in a wing of City Hall that served as the New York County Courthouse in 1828, then traveled as the court itself traveled from courthouse to courthouse. In 2014, the bust was rededicated and placed in the courthouse rotunda. Remarkably, the law firm that Thomas Emmet founded in 1805 is still in existence.

The third is a bas relief panel honoring Rebecca Salome Foster. Ms. Foster was a wealthy woman with a missionary’s zeal. Her ministry focused on the Tombs Prison, where inmates, both male and female, were housed in squalid conditions. In an era that predated probation officers and parole boards, she counseled the inmates, offered financial assistance to their families, and helped the inmates find work after their release. Known as the “Tombs Angel,” she earned the trust of the judges and the cooperation of the District Attorney’s Office. She essentially functioned as a one-woman social-services agency until her death in the Park Avenue Hotel fire in 1902.

The original Tombs Angel memorial consisted of a medallion likeness of Ms. Foster and a bas relief marble panel of an angel comforting a young man in distress, both set in an elaborate bronze frame. The sculptor was Karl Bitter, who achieved early fame by winning a competition for the design of the bronze doors at Trinity Church. The memorial stood in the lobby of the old Criminal Courts Building (a contemporary of the original Tombs Prison) from 1904 until the building’s demolition in 1940, when it was placed in storage and largely forgotten. When it was rediscovered many years later, the medallion and the frame were gone, and the relief panel was badly damaged. The panel was restored and now stands in the courthouse lobby.

A plaque commemorating a trial verdict that became a cornerstone of the First Amendment, a bust of a deported immigrant who became the pre-eminent lawyer of his era, and a relief panel rendering a wealthy woman with a social conscience. Just parts of the scenery for people who pass quickly through the New York County Courthouse with other things on their minds. But each represents a story worth hearing and worth remembering.

Posted in Courtroom Mysteries, Guest, History, Setting, Story | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

“The Unknowable and the Imagination” (by V.S. Kemanis)

V.S. Kemanis, author of the Dana Hargrove mystery novels, is also a short-story writer with work in EQMM and a number of literary magazines. Her latest story for EQMM, “Dzintra’s Tale,” in our current issue (July/August 2019), is generating a lot of reader interest, so we asked her to do a post for this site giving some of the background to the story. I think you’ll agree that the history (including the personal histories) behind the story is as moving as the fiction. —Janet Hutchings

You reach a certain age and realize it’s too late to accomplish things you wish you’d done. Some things might still be possible. Like learning another foreign language. Some are not impossible, but it wouldn’t be wise to attempt. Like learning how to surf. And some are, without question, impossible. Like getting the answers to questions you failed to ask your late relatives.

I’ve been trying to learn Latvian, a very difficult language, without getting very far. I’ve given up on the idea of learning how to surf. And I’m resigned to the fact that I cannot communicate with the dead.

This is not to say that I failed completely, but with every question that was answered, a dozen more come to mind about the lives of my father Gunars Kemanis and his sister, my Aunt Rita.

Milda, Rita, and Gunars Kemanis circa 1932

Since their deaths in 2001 and 2004, respectively, my curiosity has grown, sowing a fertile field for the imagination. A half dozen stories have come of this, and “Dzintra’s Tale” is one of them.

A few readers have asked if the story is true. Any fiction writer welcomes this question, an indication that the writing is emotionally engaging. Although “Dzintra’s Tale” is a product of my imagination, a few bits of family lore and artifacts inspired it. The historic record provides the setting. Thus, a story is crafted.

Janis and Milda Kemanis, and their children Gunars and Rita, were Latvian nationals driven from their home during the mass exodus of 1944. An estimated 200,000 Latvian “displaced persons” eventually resettled around the world. The Kemanis family lived in a DP camp in Germany for more than three years. In 1948, Aunt Rita emigrated to Canada, and my grandparents followed her in 1950. In “Dzintra’s Tale,” the character Ausma has a “Certificate of Identity in Lieu of Passport” like this one issued to my Aunt Rita.

Rita Kemanis Certificate of ID, 1948

My father received a scholarship to study in California. In 1949, he boarded a transport ship, the USS General LeRoy Eltinge. My mother, Katherine Trask, worked with the sponsor organization, Church World Service. She received this exciting telegram announcing his imminent arrival in New Orleans.

Telegram Announcing Arrival of Gunars Kemanis, 1949

You can guess what eventually happened. Katherine and Gunars fell in love and got married in 1951.

My father earned a PhD in engineering at UC Berkeley and designed communications satellites for Hughes Aircraft. Out of gratitude to this country, he embraced American culture completely, virtually to the point of erasing his roots. He did not speak Latvian at home and did not observe Latvian traditions or holidays. As an adult, I came to regret the lost opportunity to learn the language and the culture. My father did impart some family history, and I learned more from my aunt who, in 1996, agreed to a taped interview.

Latvia has a long history of foreign occupation. During WWII, it was a pawn in a power struggle between Germany and the USSR. William Burton McCormick, a frequent contributor to EQMM and AHMM, was so moved by the country’s tragic history that he lived and studied in Latvia for several years and incorporated this knowledge in his excellent historical novel, Lenin’s Harem. Click here for a book review and my Q & A with Bill.

Latvia’s official website provides a full history, but the part relevant to “Dzintra’s Tale” is this. In June 1940, the Soviets invaded Latvia and installed a puppet government. On June 14-15, 1941, in a single night of terror, Stalin carried out a mass deportation of an estimated 15,500 Latvians labeled “enemies of the people.” A week later, June 22, 1941, the Germans invaded and pushed the Soviets out. At first, Latvians regarded them as liberators from Soviet terror. Very soon, however, the Germans began their own campaign of mass extermination, exemplified most horrifically by the massacre of Jews at Rumbula. During the ensuing three-year occupation, the Germans killed approximately 70,000 Jewish people, 2,000 Romani people, and 18,000 other Latvians as political enemies. In October 1944, the Red Army pushed the Germans out, and Latvia was again under Soviet control. With memories of June 1941 and disappeared loved ones, many Latvians weren’t going to stick around to see what Stalin would do next.

At the start of the war, the Kemanis family had an apartment in Riga and a 300-acre farm outside the city. Janis Kemanis worked for the Latvian border guard, and Milda Kemanis was a math teacher. In 1940, the Soviets disbanded Janis’s agency and confiscated all but 30 acres of their farm; Milda continued to teach in Riga. On June 14, 1941, Rita and Gunars, then 14 and 13 respectively, were at the farm, and Janis and Milda were in Riga. A friend warned Rita that people were being arrested, and civil servants like Janis were likely to be swept up. Rita tried to call her parents, but the line was dead. Terrified, she rode her bicycle to a neighboring farm, only to witness Soviet officers arresting the entire family. She turned around quickly. By sheer luck, Janis and Milda evaded arrest and came to the farm. A week later, “Nobody even heard the Germans coming in,” said Rita about their life at the farm. “We woke up in the morning and there they were . . . settled in the yard, about fifty of them.”

The family struggled through three years of German occupation and fled when the Russians came back in 1944. Rita was nearly 18 and Gunars was 16. “The Russians were practically on our doorstep . . . The Germans were digging in in our garden and the Russians were a mile away when we got out.” In a panic, they loaded two horse-drawn wagons with household goods and joined the mass exodus. At the port, boats were leaving for Sweden or Germany. They abandoned everything, bringing only what they could carry in potato sacks, and got on the only available boat, headed to Germany.

1944 Latvian Evacuation

I now possess several family photos with little bits of paper stuck to them, obvious signs that they were ripped out of albums that couldn’t be taken along. I don’t know who these people are—questions I never asked—but can’t bring myself to throw the photos away.

Rita recalled this about the evacuation:

All the war time, there was only one thing that really, really impressed me, and I can still remember it. I mean nothing, no bombings no shootings, no . . . [voice breaking] We were in the middle of the highway. It was a paved highway, there were German tanks and trucks and army vehicles withdrawing. And on the shoulders—they were not paved, there was gravel—were refugees with wagons. On the side, there were a few people on horseback. I was driving one of the wagons and there was a huge horse and a boy, maybe seven or eight years old, riding bareback . . . The boy fell off the horse and the horse stepped on his leg, and I could hear the bones crunch. The kid screamed and nobody could stop. You couldn’t stop. You couldn’t do anything because the traffic was one by one.

This terrifying story, fictionalized, became part of the mystery in “Dzintra’s Tale.”

The Latvian SSR government remained in power until the fall of the Soviet Union. After Latvia regained its independence, my father and aunt did not return to visit. My father said he wanted to remember Latvia the way it was in his youth. His bitterness toward the Russians ran very deep.

My overwhelming curiosity, however, led me to visit. I chose 2013, a year when the country hosted the national Song and Dance Festival, an event that takes place every five years. The enormity, beauty, precision, and organization of this festival are mind-boggling. 15,000 people of all ages perform folk dances in intricate patterns at Daugava Stadium in Riga, and 20,000 people sing together in perfect harmony in the amphitheater at Mežaparks.

Latvian Song and Dance Festival, 2013

To give you an idea, click here for a lovely three-minute film.

Out of conflict and oppression, unity emerges, beauty endures. Seeing and hearing those 20,000 singers in national costume was a deeply moving experience I will never forget. Golden amber, Dzintra’s namesake, is fossilized tree resin with trapped bits of organic matter and insects—an apt metaphor for encapsulated time, a mysterious past.

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“The Man Who Invented a Crime Subgenre” (by Kevin Mims)

Following on his post this past May about Herman Wouk’s contributions to our genre, here again is Kevin Mims—award-nominated fiction writer and EQMM contributor—with a post that brings to the attention of mystery fans a writer I’m willing to bet most of us have not previously considered a crime writer. I, for one, will put this writer on my “to read” list. —Janet Hutchings

In my last contribution to this blog I evaluated the life and career of the late Herman Wouk and observed that his novel The Caine Mutiny was probably the greatest American legal thriller of the twentieth century. This time around I want to examine the work of a lesser-known author who actually invented a literary subgenre that is closely related to the legal thriller. In October of 1976, Charles Scribner’s Sons published a first novel by a retired Army colonel and historian named Douglas C. Jones. The book was titled The Court-Martial of George Armstrong Custer. It was a courtroom drama about a real event (the Battle of the Little Bighorn) and real persons, but the trial at the heart of the novel was wholly fictional. As anyone with even the slightest knowledge of American history knows, George Armstrong Custer did not survive the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Here’s how Wikipedia sums up the battle:

The fight was an overwhelming victory for the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho, who were led by several major war leaders, including Crazy Horse and Chief Gall, and had been inspired by the visions of Sitting Bull. The U.S. 7th Cavalry, a force of 700 men, suffered a major defeat while under the command of Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer (formerly a brevetted major general during the American Civil War). Five of the 7th Cavalry’s twelve companies were annihilated and Custer was killed, as were two of his brothers, a nephew and a brother-in-law. The total U.S. casualty count included 268 dead and 55 severely wounded (six died later from their wounds), including four Crow Indian scouts and at least two Arikara Indian scouts.

For decades afterwards armchair historians argued about what went wrong for the American Army at Little Big Horn. Was Custer totally at fault? Was there any way that his force of 700 men could possibly have defeated an Indian war party believed to comprise at least 2,500 men? Was it hubris that drove him to defeat? Were his orders faithfully carried out by his subordinates? If not, could that have affected the outcome of the disaster? Not until one hundred years after Custer’s Last Stand, however, did someone have the brilliant idea of actually putting Custer on trial and forcing him to account for his actions.

Jones’s novel was an immediate hit. A writer for the New York Times Book Review presciently observed: “We may have here the harbinger of a new fictional genre.” And indeed, two years after the publication of Jones’s novel, author Philippe Van Rjndt produced a novel called The Trial of Adolf Hitler, in which Hitler, 25 years after his presumed death, is found hiding out in South America and brought to trial for his crimes against humanity. Subsequent years brought us such books as The Secret Trial of Robert E. Lee by Thomas Fleming, The Court Martial of Robert E. Lee by Douglas Savage, The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln by Stephen L. Carter, The Trial and Execution of the Traitor George Washington by Charles Rosenberg, The Court-Martial of Benedict Arnold by Richard McMahon, The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald by Robert E. Thompson, Lee Harvey Oswald on Trial by Keith and Rebekka Pruitt, The Trial of Osama bin Laden by Jean Senat Fleury, and many others. Even nonfiction authors have gotten in on the act. The Trial of Henry Kissinger by Christopher Hitchens isn’t a novel but it uses the methods pioneered by Douglas C. Jones to present a case that Henry Kissinger is a war criminal and ought to be charged as such. Likewise, famed prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi used Jones’s methods in a nonfiction book called The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder, which argued that the ex-president knowingly took the U.S. to war in Iraq under false pretenses. Other lesser-known works make similar cases against the likes of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Marianne Moore described poems as “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” The genre Jones invented might be described as “imaginary trials with real defendants in them.” There is something very satisfying about the genre. In many cases it allows us a chance to go back and pursue courtroom justice against those who eluded it in life (although, in certain cases—Custer, Hitler, Oswald, etc.—it would be more accurate to say that they eluded it in death). There are plenty of other historical figures one might like to see brought to trial in a novel: Jim Jones of the People’s Temple, Captain Edward Smith of RMS Titanic fame (or infamy), Josef Stalin, John Wilkes Booth, Kim Philby, Jack the Ripper, etc.

There may have been alternate history trial novels published before The Court-Martial of George Armstrong Custer, but if so, neither I nor the aforementioned reviewer for the New York Times Book Review could find much evidence of them. If they do exist, they certainly didn’t exert the same influence as Jones’s book, which, as we’ve seen, spawned dozens of imitators. Jones was, among many other things (i.e. painter of western landscapes, jazz musician, military man, scholar, etc.) a serious historian and a fan of historical fiction. It is entirely possible that his Custer novel was influenced by The Court-Martial of Daniel Boone, a 1973 novel written by the prolific, brilliant, and somewhat controversial Allan W. Eckert (Kirkus Reviews said of one of his historical works: “in its interpretive zeal it strays from, or at least embellishes, the historical record to the point of being suspect.” Similar charges were made against many of his other historical novels.) Eckert’s novel isn’t actually an alternative history, because Daniel Boone really was court-martialed. But the official records of Boone’s court-martial had long since disappeared by the time Eckert got around to writing about it, so he pretty much had to invent the whole thing (albeit with the aid of a great deal of research into the events in question).

Jones’s novel was enthusiastically blurbed by Jessamyn West, and she too may have been an influence on it. In 1975 she published an excellent historical novel called The Massacre at Fall Creek, which was inspired by an actual incident in which white men were, for the first time in U.S. history, charged with murder for killing Native Americans. Though based on fact, West had to fictionalize her courtroom scenes, for no official record of the proceedings has survived. Jones’s novel, which is deeply researched, was probably begun well before 1975, but it is nonetheless possible that a reading of The Massacre at Fall Creek might have provided him with inspiration during the latter stages of his own project.

Sadly, Jones’s groundbreaking novel hasn’t enjoyed the kind of success that Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny has. The book remains in print but has garnered only 12 reader reviews at Amazon.com. Compare that with The Caine Mutiny, which has 353 reviews at Amazon. First editions of Wouk’s book sell for hundreds of dollars. At the American Book Exchange (ABE.com) signed first editions of The Caine Mutiny are listed for as high as $6,500. A couple of years ago I bought a first edition (second printing) of The Court-Martial of George Armstrong Custer from a reputable dealer on ABE.com. Not only was my copy signed and dated (“12/24/76 Fayetteville, Arkansas”) by the author but the sale included several of Charles Scribner’s Sons original promotional materials for the novel. I paid $8 for the book, which was 95 cents less than its original cover price.

As good as The Court-Martial of George Armstrong Custer is, it is nowhere near Jones’s best novel. In my opinion, his two best books (and I’ve read them all) are Winding Stair and The Search for Temperance Moon, both of which ought to be read by every crime-fiction fan in America. Both novels are loosely based on historical events. Winding Stair (published in 1979) was inspired by the murderous doings of a real-life band of outlaws known as the Rufus Buck Gang, which went on a killing and raping spree in the Indian Territory of the Arkansas-Oklahoma area back in the summer of 1895. Winding Stair is a novel that deftly satisfies the requirements of at least a half dozen literary genres. It is a historical novel, a Western, a romance (of a sort), a police procedural, a manhunt, a thriller, a mystery, and a courtroom drama. What’s more, it is beautifully written, with startling bits of descriptive prose on nearly every page. During a tense moment, when some U.S. Marshals are tending to a dying colleague on the floor of a darkened general store, Jones writes: “Someone kicked over a sack of dried beans in the darkness, and they rattled across the wooden floor like shod mice.” One critic called Winding Stair True Grit for adults,” which is an insult to Charles Portis’s brilliant novel (I’d hate to meet an adult reader who considered himself too mature for True Grit, one of the few masterpieces of American literature that can be appreciated by readers from fifteen to 95—or beyond). Nonetheless, that critic was on to something. Winding Stair has a strong kinship with Portis’s classic. Both are set in the Indian Territory of Arkansas and Oklahoma in the late nineteenth century and both concern the exploits of eccentric (to put it mildly, in the case of Rooster Cogburn) U.S. Marshals operating under Judge Isaac Parker’s jurisdiction. Portis’s book is funnier than Jones’s, although Jones’s is not without humor. Jones’s book is, ironically, grittier than Portis’s (with graphically depicted scenes of rape, torture, and murder), but Portis’s is still plenty gritty.

The title character in The Search for Temperance Moon (1991) is based upon the real-life outlaw Belle Starr, who was murdered in 1889. The novel follows the efforts of near-sighted, cocaine-using U.S. Marshal Oscar Schiller (also a major character in Winding Stair) to find the killer or killers. This novel too succeeds in a multitude of genres, but above all it is a great crime novel, the story of a relentless lawman’s pursuit of justice across a lawless territory. The New York Times called it “a big and beautiful western mystery.” Imagine Harry Bosch or Walt Longmire or Spenser transported back to the Old West in search of a dangerous criminal and you’ll get some idea of what waits for you in the pages of this excellent novel.

Douglas C. Jones is not an obscure novelist. He may not be as famous as Louis L’Amour, Zane Grey, or Larry McMurtry, but anyone who is at all passionate about Western novels has probably read one or more of his books. Like Elmer Kelton, Norman Zollinger, and Dorothy Johnson, he’s beloved by true connoisseurs of serious Western literature. Although all of his novels are historical novels, they are not all true Westerns. Some predate the cowboy era and concern themselves instead with the years just before and after America gained its independence from Britain. Weedy Rough is set in small-town America just after World War I. Some of his novels deal with the Civil War and its immediate aftermath. Jones was more concerned with history than with mystery, thus not all of his novels have enough criminous elements in them to qualify them as crime stories. But if all he ever did in the crime genre was invent the alternative-history trial novel, he would deserve to be held in high esteem by mystery fans, particularly those who love courtroom dramas. But Jones did more than that. He wrote two dead-solid-perfect historical crime thrillers—Winding Stair and The Search for Temperance Moon. If you are a mystery lover and haven’t read them yet, do yourself a favor and seek them out. You may have to do a little footwork in a few dozen used bookstores in order to track them down, but isn’t that the kind of thing that mystery readers love to do?

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“It Was A Wandering Daughter Job: The Coens, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and Dashiell Hammett” (by Adrian McKinty)

Winner of the 2017 Edgar Allan Poe Award for best paperback original for Rain Dogs, Northern Ireland’s Adrian McKinty has swept crime fiction’s top awards in other parts of the world as well. His honors include the Ned Kelly Award, the Barry, Audie, and Anthony awards, and nominations for the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger and the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière. He made his EQMM debut in our May/June 2019 issue with the timely and haunting story “From Hell.” His new novel, entitled The Chain, has been called “incredibly propulsive and original” by Stephen King. In this post, Adrian examines the influences behind the creations of two of the most acclaimed filmmakers working in our genre, the Coen brothers.—Janet Hutchings

Joel and Ethan Coen have said that the biggest literary influence on their cult stoner movie The Big Lebowski was Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. And from the title and structure of their film you can certainly see what they are talking about. Both works are classic visions of Los Angeles, and both films follow similar trajectories: a foil gets involved with a disabled rich man, the rich man’s daughter, and a runaway who gets mixed up in pornography. Joel Coen has also said that he was influenced by Robert Altman’s 1970s remake of Chandler’s The Long Goodbye which gave us a slightly baked version of Marlowe played by Elliot Gould. So the Chandler influences are real and obvious, but I want to argue that there’s a deeper structure to The Big Lebowski which comes not from Raymond Chandler but from Dashiell Hammett. I’d also like to argue that Hammett’s influence also runs through the FX TV series Fargo, which ostensibly is based on the Coen brothers film by the same name but which actually draws deep from the well of the entire Coen canon.

Let’s backtrack a little first. The Coen Brothers’ first foray into Hammett country came with Miller’s Crossing. This is a fairly explicit remake of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, which the Coens apparently became of aware through Kurosawa’s version Yojimbo (which later was remade by Sergio Leone as A Fistful of Dollars and again by Walter Hill as Last Man Standing). Miller’s Crossing (and Red Harvest and the others) is a classic story of an outsider playing off two rival gangs for his own benefit. However, the Coens not only appropriated Dashiell Hammett’s plotline but also his entire argot: “What’s the rumpus?” “She’s just a twist,” “The high hat,” “We’re not muscle, we don’t bump guys,” etc. The Coens don’t seem to have read Hammett as much as digested him, absorbing his street talk, his cadences, his slang, his American-tough-guy voice. (As an aside here, I actually think their use of “What’s the rumpus?” as “hello” in Miller’s Crossing is a misreading of Hammett’s use of the phrase in Red Harvest.) The Coens, of course, are suburban college boys with little experience of the actual “streets,” but Hammett is authenticity in spades and we can trust him regarding criminal argot; he was a Pinkerton Detective for nearly two decades, investigating murders, robberies, and insurance frauds with a little union busting thrown in for good measure.

The Coens love Hammett as a touchstone for Americana, and the more you read him the deeper you see his influence on their work. Blood Simple, Fargo, Miller’s Crossing, No Country For Old Men sometimes read like undiscovered Hammett screenplays, but also so do the comedies Raising Arizona and The Big Lebowski. Hammett and humor don’t seem to go together, but he could be very funny in both his private life and in his books: The Thin Man is as witty as any P.G. Wodehouse. And here’s an experiment: try rereading The Maltese Falcon as a black comedy, and you’ll get exactly what I’m talking about. Chandler has those great lines about a blonde so beautiful she would make a bishop kick in a window, but Hammett has those lines too, as well as a dark, satirical edge. It was Chandler and P.G. Wodehouse who were at the same school together, but it was Hammett that Wodehouse often read in his downtime.

Fargo the movie seems to be at least partly inspired by another classic 1940s writer, James M. Cain, in particular the movie version that was directed and written by Billy Wilder and cowritten by Raymond Chandler. Fargo is a very black black comedy that shades into pessimistic nihilism near the end. The TV series is inspired by the movie to some extent, but the writer and showrunner Noah Hawley isn’t merely delving into the Coen canon; he’s also having fun with Americana, noir, surrealism, and many other genres and tropes in an excellent series, now filming its fourth iteration. Fargo season one could be said to be a reworking again of Red Harvest, and you could even make that argument for season two. It’s season three, however, that I’d like to explore a little bit further here.

In the Fargo season three episode “Who Rules the Land of Denial?”, after a brilliant chase scene through the Minnesota woods, an injured Nikki and Mr. Wrench end up at a bowling alley. The bowling alley from the outside has the same star patterns as the bowling alley in The Big Lebowski, and just as in Lebowski, Nikki has a conversation with a mysterious stranger who is a kind of storyteller. In Lebowski, he’s a cowboy narrating the tale of The Dude and the kidnapping and the missing girl. In Fargo, he tells Nikki her story and places it in a broader context of good versus evil. Evil is manifested by the Cossacks and their anti-Semitic descendants. Nikki is given an escape route from the bowling alley (which is really, I think, a kind of Sheol or purgatory) while her Cossack pursuer is confronted and killed by his victims.

Space doesn’t allow me to unpack all of that here, but suffice to say we’re a million miles from Hammett here, yet still under Dashiell’s spell—even in such a fantastic spin away from the source material.

To sum up then, yes, the Coens used The Big Sleep as their skeleton for The Big Lebowski, but the irony comes from Hammett: Donny’s death, The Nihilists, The Porn King, The Malibu Sheriff—these seem straight out of Dashiell’s playbook, not Chandler’s. The eccentricity and odd digressions are more like Hammett, and, of course, the snap of the dialogue is more authentically Hammettian too.

I think subconsciously the Coens knew this, and they either gave us a Freudian hint or a deliberate clue late in the film when Jeff Bridges as The Dude encounters a private detective working for Bunny’s parents, the Knutsons. “What are you following me for?” The Dude asks. The Private Dick, played by Joe Polito (who also played one of the rival gang bosses in Miller’s Crossing), shrugs and explains: “It was a wandering daughter job.” And of course, if you know your Hammett, you’ll recognize that as the opening line of the great Continental Op short story “Fly Paper.” The Big Lebowski was a wandering daughter job all right, and ultimately the daughter stays lost, an innocent guy dies, and the bad guy keeps the money, but what else would you expect in Hammett’s bleak, entropic and blackly comic universe?

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“Every Picture Tells a Story” (by Marilyn Todd)

Marilyn Todd is best known for her mystery novels set in the worlds of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. Last month, Snap Shot, the first in her new series of Victorian mysteries, starring Julia McAllister, a murder suspect turned England’s first crime-scene photographer, was released, soon to be followed by two more titles. The British author is also a prolific and distinguished short-story writer who has been contributing to EQMM for many years and has won two EQMM Readers Award scrolls. She has a story in our current issue, July/August 2019, and another coming up in September/October. In this post she talks about one of the triggers for many of her stories and novels.—Janet Hutchings

You’re lucky. You probably didn’t spend most of your early childhood confined to bed. But for those of you who did, and like me were an only child, you’ll know that necessity becomes the mother of inventiveness.

Not being a girlie girl, dolls were off the list, I was too young to read, and there’s only so many teddies’ tea parties you can host. Oh, but pictures . . . ! Pictures fired my imagination like you can’t—well, imagine. For a start, cats and cream had nothing on me when it came to those Butterick patterns my mum used for making clothes.

I’d wonder who these women were, where were they going, who were they meeting, would they ever be in the same place at the same time? Questions, questions, questions, which soon evolved into stories, and the best bit? Those stories never stopped changing. The woman in black. She was obviously the victorious trophy wife, lording it over her rivals. The next day, she’d be the illustrator’s daughter given the limelight, and I’d be capturing the backlash among the rest of the models. The next day, it was obvious. They were five grifters, poised to pull off a scam at Monte Carlo (where else)?

Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t then, and never have been, lonely, and it wasn’t an unhappy childhood. Far from it. Unable to go out because of me, my mum took in whatever work was available to do at home, whether it was typing envelopes, sending out coupons or making jewellery boxes. We’d sing, we’d giggle, she’d read me stories, teach me all sorts of skills (I was a touch-typist at twelve, made my own clothes at fourteen, and it goes without saying that I was a precociously early reader). When Dad came home at night, after putting in overtime at the factory, he and Mum would sit at the kitchen table, stuffing cuddly toys or painting tiny toy figures, laughing, chatting, joking into the night.

But the bottom line was, I was still stuck in bed, where much of that time was just me and my imagination. I’d pore over the National Geographics that my grandad brought, whisking myself off on worldwide adventures, discovering lost tombs in the desert and diving shipwrecks in dangerous seas. And while the desire to take a camel across the Sahara and trek through jungles hosting mosquitos bigger than trucks soon wore off, the wanderlust lingers.

Plitvice Lakes in Croatia inspired my thriller Dark Horse. I actually ran out of nails to bite here.

While thrills of an altogether different kind from the Arizona mining town of Jerome inspired “The Wickedest Town in the West.” So much so, the story scooped an EQMM Readers Award.

Last, but not least though, were old photos. Even as a kid, one thing stood out: no one throws photos away. Leastways, not in our family! Both my grandmothers kept boxes (lots of boxes) bursting with pictures dating back to the dawn of photography, and quite honestly, if I’d found caveman paintings at the bottom, chiselled out of the rock, I would not have been remotely surprised. This, I realised later, is because photos are memories, and no one tosses memories out. Especially when two world wars are involved.

Reliving their back-stories, there was no need for fiction. Real life was spellbinding enough, and maybe it was just our lot, but who’d look at these curled, faded images, mostly black-and-white, but some sepia, and suspect they were hiding adultery, tragedy, triumph and pain?

So while I was content, knowing Great Aunt So-and-So didn’t smile in front of the camera in case her dentures fell out, that Grandad’s Auntie X was carrying on with Uncle Y, and so was Auntie Z, how Uncle Wotnot had to hide his homosexuality because it carried a prison sentence back then, and the bloke in the back row of that wedding photo killed a man with his bare hands, didn’t mean I wasn’t curious about other peoples’ pictures.

This one, for instance. Doesn’t she look happy!  Don’t they both! Bonnie & Clyde, if you didn’t already know. And so it went on, me looking for the stories behind the pictures, then, if I couldn’t find one, inventing one to fit.

Which was fine, until I visited the Klondike Museum in Seattle. It’s proper name, of course, is the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. You can see why I shortened it. But on the wall outside, the plaque reads “. . . adventure and hardship . . . dreams made . . . hopes shattered . . . lives changed . . . a city transformed.” Staring at the photos of the suffering, the challenges, the bones of the 3,000 pack animals who died on one trail alone and whose bones still lie there today, I knew, in that instant, that I had to write about someone who took images that would also change lives.

In 1895, there were no crime-scene photographers in England. The Parisian police were applying the concept with considerable success, but over here, the Home Office was barely getting to grips with mugshots, never mind fingerprints, footprint casts, or photographic records that captured a murder scene before evidence was trampled, contaminated or lost.

So was born Julia McAllister, a spunky young woman taking risqué pictures to survive, and who would have happily continued, had someone not started killing her models and framing her for their murders.

Who said you can’t rewrite history?

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“The Man With The Action-Packed Expense Account” (by Richard Helms)

Richard Helms is a retired forensic psychologist and college professor. A frequent contributor to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, he has nineteen novels (the most recent March 2019’s Paid in Spades) and numerous short stories in print, and has received multiple nominations for the Shamus, Derringer, Thriller, and Macavity Awards. He won the Derringer Award in two different categories in 2008 and in 2011 won the ITW Thriller Award for his EQMM short story “The Gods For Vengeance Cry.” In our July/August issue,—on sale now!—his story “The Cripplegate Apprehension” kicks off his new historical series starring thief-taker Vicar Brekonridge. In this post, the North Carolina author offers some thoughts on old-time radio and what can be learned by short-story writers from the concision of radio scripts. Some of our readers will remember not only the series this post focuses on, Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, but the slightly earlier The Adventures of Ellery Queen radio show, with scripts written first by Manfred B. Lee and Frederic Dannay and later by Lee and Anthony Boucher. A couple of Ellery Queen’s short stories have been dramatized for our podcast series (and are still available)—another example of the commonalities of the two forms of writing.—Janet Hutchings

I’ve spent a great deal of time recently listening to classic radio on Sirius XM, especially the crime dramas of the 1940s and 1950s.

One of my favorite shows ran mostly between 1949 and 1952, entitled Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. The pilot episode, recorded in 1948, initially starred Dick Powell, and was intended to be a typical private investigator show along the lines of Sam Spade or Boston Blackie. Dick Powell left after the audition episode to become Richard Diamond. For the rest of the first season, Johnny Dollar was played by Charles Russell. Over the next five years, Dollar would be portrayed by Edmond O’Brien, John Lund, and Gerald Mohr.

The name of the writer of the pilot episode is not readily available, but it was almost certainly written by Paul Dudley and Gil Doud, who wrote all the attributed shows in the first season. Dudley was quickly lured away by Hollywood, where he wrote for multiple television shows like Martin Kane, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and O.S.S..

Doud had worked in radio crime drama before World War II, joining the writing corps for Calling All Cars when he was only weeks out of college, and later took over for Richard Breen as the writer of Jack Webb’s One Out Of Seven and Pat Novak, Private Eye series. Doud remained in radio for many years, and until about 1955 was the primary writer for the Johnny Dollar series. By the middle 1950s—as he was in greater demand for other shows such as Sam Spade—he was joined by writers such as Blake Edwards, Kathleen Hito, E. Jack Neumann, Joel Murcott, Les Crutchfield, and Sidney Marshall.

By the end of the first season, Johnny Dollar had morphed from a traditional knuckles-and-know-how private eye into an insurance investigator and was touted as “The Man with the Action-Packed Expense Account.” Each scene in the drama, Dollar would open with a ledger entry in his expense book. “Item twenty-seven: a dollar forty cents for a crosstown cab ride. I arrived at the apartment of Phyllis Benchley…”

For most listeners, Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar reached its zenith during the period between 1955 and 1960. Bob Bailey took over the role on October 3, 1955 in an episode entitled “The Macormack Matter,” written by John Dawson, and over the next five years Bailey grew into the best-known and most popular Dollar.

By 1955, Gil Doud contributed only the most occasional script. The episodes during this best-known period of the series were penned by John Dawson (sometimes called “Jack,” because he was a pseudonym for E. Jack Neuman), Les Crutchfield, Robert Ryf, Robert Stanley, and Jack Johnstone. The show ran five nights a week, in fifteen-minute episodes with a five-day story arc. On each of the first four nights, Dollar would end the show in some horrible predicament or other, and on the fifth night he wrapped up the case.

Keep in mind that, during this period, these writers were also busy pounding out scripts for other shows as well. Joel Murcott sidelined writing episodes of Suspense. John “Jack” Dawson/Neuman also wrote for Have Gun Will Travel between 1958-1960; Les Crutchfield is best known as a contributor to Gunsmoke and continued to write for the show when it went to television, creating the character of Festus. Robert Ryf left radio to become a dean at Occidental College, where he wrote literary criticism. Blake Edwards left to write and produce Peter Gunn on radio and later TV and, of course, we all know how his career went.

Of all the writers on the Johnny Dollar program during the halcyon Bob Bailey period, Jack Johnstone might be the most enigmatic. He had worked in radio much longer than his fellow contributors (he wrote the Buck Rogers series in 1931). Born Earl Ransom Johnstone in New Jersey, he also wrote for the Superman radio show, along with Crime DoctorDark DestinyHollywood Star TimeOrson Welles’ AlmanacThe Prudential Family Hour of Stars,Richard Diamond, and Hollywood Star Playhouse. He penned several scripts for the Suspense radio show under the name “Jonathan Bundy.” Strangely, he apparently retired altogether after Johnny Dollar was canceled in 1962 and never wrote again, though he lived for almost another thirty years.

Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar was also the end of the road for the classic radio detective dramas. By 1962, when Mandel Kramer—the last Johnny Dollar—signed off after 809 episodes, television had taken over, and many of the radio writers for Johnny Dollar and other radio shows made the jump to the boob tube and never looked back.

The common element among all the scriptwriters for the daily radio dramas of the 1940s and 1950s was the need to write quickly and crisply. It was necessary to tell the entire story in ten pages of dialogue and sound effects. There wasn’t a great deal of time to belabor details. It has occurred to me that the writers of these shows mastered the short form, which shouldn’t be a surprise since so many of the early radio scriptwriters (Frank Kane, Walter B. Gibson, John Dickson Carr, Hugh Pentecost, Conrad Aiken, Gerald Noxon, S.S Van Dine, Robert Newman, Robert Arthur, Jr.) cut their literary teeth writing for pulps.

Even for those writers without extensive print experience, the bare-bones nature of radio required them to skip elaborate exposition and character development and dive right into the story. Many early radio crime dramas ran for only fifteen minutes—an extension of movie serials that were immensely popular during the 1940s—usually with a cliffhanger ending, so each episode was the equivalent of a short one-act play, or perhaps today’s flash fiction. It wasn’t unusual for a woman to meet a man on Page Three and fall wildly in love with him by Page Seven, only to be revealed as a femme fatale by Page Nine.

That was fine for ongoing series in which listeners had grown familiar with the recurring characters. Some of the best writing, however, was found in the anthology series such as Suspense, X Minus One, The Whistler, and The Chase, which might be narrated by a familiar voice, but otherwise featured a completely new story with new characters in each episode. With only fifteen pages or so to flesh out a story, these writers knew how to sketch a character and then leave the details to the listener’s imagination.

In much the same way, short-story writers today must learn to trust their readers to flesh out the details of their stories using their imaginations. In that sense, listening to old-time radio—and analyzing the tropes and flow of the writing on them—has made me more aware of the differences between writing novels and short stories, and I believe has made me a better short-story writer.

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“My Mount Rushmore, Hammett, Black Mask” (by Dave Zeltserman)

Dave Zeltserman is the award-winning author of over twenty crime, horror, and thriller novels, several named by the Washington Post, NPR, American Library Association;, or Booklist as best books of the year. His novel Small Crimes was made into a Netflix original film. Small Crimes belongs to a genre EQMM readers may not readily associate the name Zeltserman with—hardboiled crime fiction. For a number of years the Massachusetts author has been writing a series of classical whodunits for EQMM, inspired by Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe novels. I am referring, of course, to the Julius Katz and Archie series, which has won both Shamus and EQMM Readers Awards. Dave began his fiction-writing career on the hardboiled end of the mystery spectrum, however, and in this post he talks about the key writers who inspired him. His new book, Everybody Lies in Hell, is due out October 1.—Janet Hutchings

Positions two, three, and four on my personal Mount Rushmore of crime fiction writers would be occupied by Rex Stout, Donald Westlake, and Jim Thompson. I doubt it would surprise many EQMM readers following my Julius Katz mystery stories to learn that I’ve spent many enjoyable hours in the company of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. Whenever I pick up a Nero Wolfe book, I marvel at the cleverness and sly humor in Stout’s writing. Next up would be Donald Westlake, who in my opinion is the greatest crime fiction writer of the last fifty years. His prose is simply pitch-perfect. There never seems to an unnecessary word, and every word he uses just seems to be the right ones. His Dortmunder books are a lot of fun, his Parker books written as Richard Stark are among my favorite crime novels, as is his brilliant and mesmerizing novel The Ax. Jim Thompson would take the final position. His novels and short stories have had a profound effect on me as both a reader and writer. I didn’t know what to expect when I picked up my first Thompson novel, Hell of a Woman, and it turned out to be both an unnerving and exhilarating experience. Thompson suckered me into believing that his protagonist Frank “Dolly” Dillon was just a hard luck guy instead of what he turned out to ultimately be. Thompson opened my eyes to how a writer can break every rule as long as he or she can figure out how to make it work. His amusing Mitch Allison conman stories inspired my first EQMM story, Money Run, and his psycho noir novels had a strong influence on my first novel Fast Lane and a few reviewers claimed also on my third novel Small Crimes.

Stout, Westlake, Thompson, all great writers, but first and foremost on my personal Mount Rushmore would be Dashiell Hammett. No writer has had more of an impact on the crime fiction genre than Hammett. It can be argued that each of his five novels created a distinct crime fiction subgenre: with The Maltese Falcon, the search for the rare object, The Glass Key, the political crime novel, The Dain Curse, the supernatural crime novel, The Thin Man, bordering on screwball, the sophisticated married couple investigating a murder, and Red Harvest, a man riding into a corrupt town and cleaning it up. The Maltese Falcon had three film adaptations, a radio series, and it inspired a number of spoofs, including Black Bird and Beat the Devil (which also starred Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre). There were six Thin Man movies starring William Powell and Myrna Loy and a television series starring Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk. There was a film adaptation of The Glass Key and a surprisingly faithful three-part TV miniseries of the The Dain Curse given that the nameless op was replaced by a private eye named Hamilton Nash played by James Coburn, who is almost the exact opposite physically of how the op was written. While there might not have been an adaptation of Red Harvest, the novel, which made Time magazine’s all-time best one hundred English-language novels, inspired a number of films, including Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and the Coen brothers’ Miller’s Crossing.

As important as Hammett’s novels are to the genre, his twenty-eight Continental Op stories (all but two of which he wrote for Black Mask) might be his most important contribution. The nameless private eye who narrates these stories, as well as Red Harvest and The Dain Curse, is a short, stocky, and not particularly handsome man. Women sometimes show interest in him, but more times than not it’s because they have an agenda; not that the op is ever fooled by this. He’s nobody’s sucker! Smart, resourceful, tough, cynical, and as dogged as they come, he can’t be bribed because, as he explains in one of the stories, no amount of money is worth the satisfaction he gets from his job.

Hammett spent five years as a Pinkerton detective, and his experiences informed his writing, with the Continental Detective Agency a stand-in for Pinkerton and the op based on detectives he knew. Here’s Hammett on his nameless detective: “The ‘op’ I use is the typical sort of private detective that exists in our country today. I’ve worked with half a dozen men who might be he with few changes. Though he may be ‘different’ in fiction, he is almost pure ‘type’ in life.”

In The Dain Curse, the op saves his client, Gabrelle Leggett, several times. Hammett clues the reader in on the true nature of the op during this exchange near the end of the book between Gabrielle and the op:

“You came in just now, and then I saw—”

She stopped.


“A monster. A nice one, an especially nice one to have around when you’re in trouble, but a monster just the same, without any human foolishness like love in him, and—What’s the matter? Have I said something I shouldn’t?”

The Continental Op stories are such a joy to read not only because of the authenticity that Hammett brought to his writing, but because the op (in my opinion) has the best voice of any P.I ever written and that nobody was better at plotting these types of stories than Hammett. Each of them is a tightly written masterpiece.

Raymond Chandler sums up perfectly what makes Hammett so great: “Hammett was spare, hard-boiled, but he did over and over what only the best writers can ever do. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.”

Along with Hammett, Black Mask published other crime fiction greats, including Raymond Chandler, Erle Stanley Gardner, Raoul Whitfield, and Paul Cain. Brother’s Keeper, my eighteenth story published in EQMM, was published as a Black Mask story. I don’t take getting published by EQMM lightly. It’s the premiere crime fiction magazine with a storied past which, like Black Mask, has published more than its share of great crime and mystery writers. But because of Black Mask’s connection with Hammett and the op this story means something a little more special to me.

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“The True Story Behind The Writing of ‘The Duelist'” (by David Dean)

Over the nearly thirty years in which David Dean has been contributing stories to EQMM, he’s proved popular with the magazine’s readers. In 2007 he took first place for the EQMM Readers Award with “Ibrahim’s Eyes”; in 2012 he came in second for “Mariel”; and in 2018 he placed third for his haunting tale “Sofee”— which is also our most recent podcast episode. Through all of the years of excellent contributions from David, however, we’ve never before seen a reaction from readers as enthusiastic as that we are seeing now for his story “The Duelist,” in our current issue, May/June 2018. In view of the warm reception the story is getting, we thought readers would be interested in knowing how David came to write it.—Janet Hutchings

This past April my wife, Robin, “She Who Walks in Beauty,” and I were fortunate enough to attend the Dell Magazine Readers Award party. I’ve been a regular at this gathering for some years, but each and every time I arrive, I get a thrill looking around the crowded room and seeing all those writers whose stories I enjoy so much. I write too, but I don’t get the same kind of feeling about myself when I look in the mirror. I usually just think, “You look like you need some sleep.” Maybe it’s the thought of my own writing that does that.

So you can imagine my surprise at this year’s fete when I was approached by several authors that I admire wanting to talk about my tale “The Duelist.” Instead of warning me that I would be hearing from their attorneys over some minor plagiarism infringement (I’m so tired of that), it soon became apparent that they wanted to know what had driven me to write the story. I was terribly flattered and really wanted to launch into some scholarly dissertation on the crafting of a tale set in a different era, and how in doing so one must be aware of the mores, morals, and . . . blah, blah, blah. The truth was I really didn’t have an answer.

I think I said something like, “Umm . . . I’d been thinking about dueling (which is bizarre on the face of it and probably made people uncomfortable) and . . . umm . . . so thought I’d write about it . . . and then I did . . . write . . . about it.”

It may have been the excellent Dave Zeltserman who suffered through this explanation. As he walked away I pictured a thought balloon over his head reading, “Enough monkeys . . . enough typewriters. . . .”

I think I inflicted something similar on the talented Doug Allyn and his delightful wife, Eve. She forgave me, however, because she really liked the story and was also very excited that I had given the protagonist the surname LeClair, which is her family name.

Before the evening was over, I felt confident that no one knew why, or how, I had written “The Duelist” and were convinced that I didn’t, either. So when Janet Hutchings reached out to me to write something about this very same story, I thought, “Providence has intervened with a chance at redemption!”

I’d also had a lot of time to think up stuff.

In all truthfulness, I seldom give much thought as to why I write a particular story. I’m not out to accomplish anything other than entertaining the reader, which can be a tall order in of itself. I have no ideological subtext to sell beyond what I bring to the writing as the inevitable result of just being me, a composite of my own experiences. Which is true of all writers, I suspect, as well as artists, actors, cops, and plumbers. We can’t get away from ourselves. But I do try, which is why I write fiction and not autobiographies. Still.

“The Duelist” is what’s called historical fiction, and yes, I do get the irony. I haven’t written but a few, and I only wrote those because the stories would not have worked set in modern times. In fact, one of them, “Her Terrible Beauty,” also had a duel scene, but the plot was not built around it, and it was a knife fight—ugly affairs—not the classic back-to-back with pistols. Question: “Who’s the winner of a knife fight?” Answer: “The second man to die.” That’s my only knife fight joke. It may be the only one there is.

So also did “The Duelist” demand a historical context both because of its plot and its characters. But it was also because of the language. In many ways, the story is much more about language—what is being said, and how, as well as what is not said but lies beneath—than it is about the violence that serves to frame the story and provide its impetus.

Language was taken seriously in the 1840s when my tale is set. If you’ve read much in the way of speeches, stories, newspaper articles, etc., of early America, you probably know what I mean. It could be downright florid (think Poe at his most overwrought). It was not used simply to convey information or requests, but as a means of identifying oneself as a certain kind of person, whether you were that kind of person might be debatable.

Words used unwisely or intemperately could also get one killed. So too could being misunderstood. In a world where lawsuits and law enforcement were not quite so common a remedy to disputes, good manners could save your life. Unlike today, where it often seems we communicate in halting, broken sentences, and incomplete thoughts, eloquence was considered a distinct asset in the not-so-distant past.

My protagonist, Darius LeClair, is well aware of this and uses his talent for it like a rapier, never skewering his opponent but pricking him over and over. But to what purpose? If you haven’t read it, then I don’t want to spoil it for you. Suffice it to say that Darius is an onion-like character comprised of many layers, and therein lies the tale.

What I can state is that the story is one about deception and truth, vengeance and justice, bravery and cowardice, love and loss. But it’s mostly about bullying, and that’s why I wrote it, though I didn’t think of it at the time. It was only later that I recognized my motivation.

Most of us have experienced being bullied or made afraid by someone at some time in our lives. I am no exception. In fact, looking back on my life I suspect that it had something to do with me choosing to be a police officer for twenty-five years. I wanted to protect people. Well, that, and I didn’t want to end up in the slammer like Uncle Jimmy. I don’t like bullies. My guess is that you don’t either.

Growing up in a very blue-collar neighborhood (we didn’t use the term “working-class” in the 1950s and 60s—that was commie talk) I got into a lot of fights. Not because I wanted to, but because I couldn’t seem to get away from them. We had evolved beyond armed duels at this point, but not by much. Everybody fought—at least if you were a boy or man. It seemed we only resorted to verbal communication when all other means had been exhausted.

I was a small kid and a bit on the sensitive side. Okay, a lot on the sensitive side, and I liked to read. Guess what these characteristics got me? Yep, you guessed it. Sometimes I won, and a lot of times I didn’t, and I hated every fight I was in, and I was in a lot of them.

Like most kids, I could be quite ruthless when provoked or wronged, and I was not above the art of the ambush. If I had been bullied or beaten up by a bigger, older kid, which was more frequent than I liked, I got revenge . . . or was it justice? To children, they’re one and the same. It becomes more problematic as we mature, however, as our consciences develop, and we become more empathetic with our fellow humans. What remains, however, is our desire to have wrongs righted.

Maybe that’s why I wrote this story and why Darius was created. I got to even the score of long-ago wrongs . . . and then some. Perhaps that’s why “The Duelist” seems to have struck such a deep chord with readers as well—we all want a champion, we all wish to live without fear, and we all love someone. And aren’t those things worth a fight? I think so, I really do.

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