“Agatha Christie: Queen of Many Crimes” (by François Bloemhof)

South African thriller writer François Bloemhof’s prolific career, spanning more than twenty-five years, includes novels for adults, teenagers, and children, his most recent adult “noir” novels being 2016’s Double Echo and 2017’s Feeding Time. He has received numerous awards and is credited with several “firsts”: He wrote the first novel to be published with an original CD soundtrack composed by the author, the first book with its own computer game, and the first e-book in Afrikaans. His first short story for EQMM, “Proof,” appears in our July/August issue, on sale June 19. The tale was translated from Afrikaans by Josh Pachter, but François also writes in English, and as you’ll see from this post, he cut his teeth on British crime fiction, and particularly on the work of Agatha Christie. —Janet Hutchings

At an early age it became clear that I was bound to turn my talents to crime one day. While still at school, I shied away from our prescribed books to devour instead the Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazines as well as the novels of Agatha Christie.

I felt an instant connection with that author, and not only because we were born on the same day (though, I hasten to add, not in the same year). What I appreciated most about her approach to “puzzle writing” was a strong sense of logic combined with a playfulness, a craftiness, a darned delight in deception that was gratifying to recognize even when you had to admit she’d pulled the wool over your eyes once again. You may have been angry at yourself for being duped, but at the same time couldn’t help but applaud the sleight of hand by which it had been accomplished. But next time, with the next book, you’d swear, things would be different.

Granted, a few of the patterns she tended to fall back on grew familiar over time and she could on occasion be second-guessed. As I read more of the books that mostly starred her eccentric and egocentric mustached Belgian detective and that deceptively fragile, knitting spinster from St. Mary’s Mead, signs and signals accumulated that might lead to the correct conclusion before the detective arrived at it.

In any event, having received the best tuition possible for developing a criminal mindset, I decided to write crime rather than to practice it. However, the problem we crime writers are faced with time and again is that as soon as you think you’ve come up with a great twist  . . . it’s been done. Dame Agatha has been there decades ago and the most you can do is to modernize some of her examples. The wheel has been invented, and then she re-invented it a few times for good measure. Now you should just roll with it.

The answer to her puzzles often lay in the past; the more seemingly innocent the mention of something that happened a long time ago, the more bearing it had on the present. Those little references to events of yesteryear couldn’t possibly have something to do with the present investigation, could they? Of course they could, and they would.

Due to her knowledge of medicine, which she acquired while serving in a hospital during the First World War and working as a pharmacist’s assistant later on, Dame Agatha also loved administering various poisons to her fictional victims.

Apart from her “regular mysteries” in which the guilty party was unmasked after all the suspects had been interviewed twice and then grouped together in a drawing room like errant sheep, there were a few novels so audacious in their approach and ultimate solution that they would influence other detective stories for decades to come. She may not have invented all of these twists, but having perfected them and being the author they are associated with, she might as well have.

Major spoilers on the way. . . .

The narrator did it. If you’ve watched a few films recently, you will almost certainly have encountered this “surprise” element: The person you’re supposed to trust most is in fact the guilty party. Or (yawn) the victim and the perpetrator will actually be the same person. But when The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd was published in 1926, having the first-person narrator—our point of entry into the mystery—turn out to be the murderer was a spectacular conceit. Some critics complained about Christie having cheated by having the misdeeds take place “offstage” and Dr. James Sheppard simply not accounting for his whereabouts at the time, nor reflecting on his murderous actions. However, they were probably angrier at themselves for being caught out and not having thought of it themselves. In 2013 this book was voted the best crime novel ever by 600 fellow writers of the Crime Writers’ Association.

They all did it. Pertinent clues are provided in a very sporting way in Murder On The Orient Express. There are a certain number of stab wounds. There are a certain number of suspects, all behaving suspiciously enough that one character is led to exclaim after each of them has been interviewed: “He did it!” or “She did it!” Of course. Exactly. That will prove to be the case. He did it. And she did it. Along with all the others.

A dead person did it. Or, all right, the murderer wasn’t really dead, or at least wasn’t at the time he was assumed to be. And he had help. And the person who assisted him in his subterfuge was next to get the chop. And Then There Were None proved, just in case there was any doubt, that Dame Agatha could put aside those sly patterns she’d perfected for a while and think outside of the box. Way out of it; she ventured into territory beyond the realms of detective fiction. It was an audacious coup that would make this novel her best seller ever, having by now shipped 100 million copies and counting. It has been filmed a number of times, which had the side effect of Christie inventing and laying the ground rules for what would come to be known as the slasher movie—without the buckets of gore we nowadays expect from such films, and with characters that were rotten to the core. What she also created here was a detective story without a detective. And more yet: a crime story without a hero or heroine.

The supposed victim did it. In order to commit a crime, someone didn’t have to go so far as to fake his or her own death as in the above example—a presumed attack would do the trick, as when Magdala “Nick” Buckley is (we believe) almost shot dead at the start of Peril at End House. If someone indeed wanted to kill Nick, who would be the least suspicious candidate? The poor shot-at girl herself. That bullet hole in Nick’s sun hat is guaranteed to divert the reader’s suspicions and when she isn’t the one to die soon after, naturally we seek those guilty of that crime elsewhere.

Someone did it in foreign climes. The author travelled extensively with her archeologist second husband, Sir Max Mallowan. While he set about his kind of digging, she kept herself busy by unearthing plots brimming with malice and genteel mayhem. The countries in question, mostly in the Middle East, provided backdrops for dastardly doings that maybe at that point would have started to feel slightly run-of-the-mill in yet another English countryside setting. In an exotic milieu, they were fresh and new. Everywhere she travelled, Christie found Evil Under The Sun. In any country, she knew, the stage was already set for an Appointment With Death. A few other cases in point are Murder in Mesopotamia, They Came To Baghdad and Death On The Nile.

Someone did it centuries ago. Set in Thebes in 2000 BC, one can only imagine how much research must have gone into Death Comes as the End. Despite all the convincing details of daily household life in Egypt 4000 years ago, it never turns into a dry, informative read, rather veering towards a brutal entertainment, featuring so many deaths that it rivals And Then There Were None in that regard. Contributors to the market in historical thrillers may not even realize what a debt they owe Agatha Christie.

The Queen of Crime ruled more than OK, and still does. Not only will her clever puzzles continue to delight new generations of readers, but future mystery writers will also keep on paying homage—knowingly or unknowingly, whether they intend to or not.

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“The Changing Face of Mystery Fiction” (by Marvin Kaye)

Marvin Kaye’s long and distinguished career as a writer and editor encompasses the fields of fantasy, science fiction, horror, and mystery. He has served as editor-in-chief of three magazines: H.P. Lovecraft’s Magazine of Horror, Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, and Weird Tales. He has also authored more than a dozen novels and compiled dozens of anthologies, and as you’ll see from this post, he has taught creative writing. His new story for EQMM is a Nero Wolfe pastiche, one of a series he is currently writing. It will appear in our July/August issue (to be released on June 19).  The advice he gives here to writers of the classical whodunit should be helpful, coming from a writer who has tackled the challenges himself.—Janet Hutchings

For over twenty years I served as Adjunct Professor of Creative Writing at New York University, where I lectured on the construction of murder mysteries and other genres. I had an average of one student a year who sold a novel begun in our workshop, also one screenplay that was made into a well-done film starring Jodie Foster and Dennis Hopper.

In those days, the standard form of mysteries embraced reader-solvable puzzles, what John Dickson Carr called The Grandest Game. Soon after, when I became a member of the Steering Committee of The Wolfe Pack, the Nero Wolfe society, I was asked to head an annual judging committee for Nero Awards. The other judges were Barbara Stout, Rex’s daughter, who died recently, Robert Goldsborough, authorized writer of new Nero Wolfe novels, and a floating member from the Pack.

As I began reading the new output from various publishers, I was dismayed to discover that few of the books submitted were reader-solvable. Instead they were books about murder and other crimes, often with fascinating characters and interesting plots, but without the classic structure of clues and red herrings that led the Great Detective to an eleventh-hour showdown. As far as I can tell today, the situation remains that way.

What a loss! The market seems devoid of new Rex Stouts or Dorothy Sayers or Clayton Rawsons, et cetera. The only remedy I can see is to teach contemporary writers the nuts and bolts of well-crafted whodunits. I suspect, however, that many will not want to be bothered because, after all, writing a good reader-solvable mystery is a difficult affair.

One might be faithful to all the old rules and still fail. Analogically, it is possible for a musician to create a fugue for organ, say, that observes all the necessary requirements of that form so that the result is a well-crafted fugure that, however, makes for dreary listening.

Following are a few structural guidelines to think about en route to building a true ratiocinative challenge to the reader (a phrase often used by Ellery Queen).

1. The Detective. It should be obvious that your sleuth must have the intellectual capacity to process clues and winnow out the red herrings. He or she also should be interesting for his or her own sake.

2. The Franchise. There are, as I see it, three possible choices governing the detective’s ability to investigate crimes. If he is a policeman, it is his job, sanctioned by his local or state government. If he is a private detective, he is licensed to do the same, but usually within limitations that most private eyes bend or break from time to time, and that includes Sherlock Holmes. The third possibility is that the detective is an amateur who either likes criminal investigation or has an emotional interest in finding out the truth, often to vindicate some wrongly accused friend and/or relative. Her problem (it is often a woman, as, for instance, Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple) is that she has no legal standing to butt into police business. Sometimes this sleuth has a friend on the force who helps smooth the way.

Each of the above choices is valid; each has its strengths and difficulties. It is up to the author to select whichever variety of character they are most comfortable writing about.

3. Viewpointing. There have been mysteries written first-person from the detective’s point of view. The question it raises, of course, is why doesn’t the sleuth share all internal thoughts and speculations with the reader? There are strengths and weaknesses involved, though excellent novels have been written first-person. I suppose the safest way to go is third person, though it potentially may flatten the emotional impact of the tale. Personally I prefer first person by the detective’s faithful companion, the Dr. Watson or Archie Goodwin. Not only is the emotional impact guaranteed, the author may send the narrator on some important mission which keeps him or her away from the sleuth as he or she unravels the chain of circumstances leading to a solution.

Again, any such choice is valid; it depends on the kind of book you’d enjoy writing the most.

4. The M-O-M Chart. This is a tool I developed that students found helpful in plotting their stories. On a piece of paper, draw four separate vertical columns labeled Character, M (for Motive), O (for Opportunity) and M (for Method). Then draw as many horizontal intersecting lines as needed for the main characters of your novel.

Under character, put the names of the dramatis personae with the murderer occupying the top space. Enter the means, opportunity, and method in the appropriate places. The first horizontal row contains the clues necessary to solve the crime. Note that if you leave a space blank for any of the suspects, that personage will be eliminated as the killer. Of course that makes for a comparatively simple tale, but the more complete rows of red herrings you lay in complicates the situation and provides the detective with fallow investigating ground. A common device that authors employ is to make only one suspect (not the perpetrator) have all three M-O-M data. This character is ripe to become the second murder victim.

5. The Master Chart. This tool enables the writer to structure and keep a record of all the plotting data involved. It may be as simple or elaborate as desired. On a large piece of paper, create a series of vertical columns crossed by horizontal dividers. Label the columns as needed; A simple arrangement would be: Chapter Number, Setting, Characters, Clues, Red Herrings. I also had a Plot Points column because my settings tended to be colorful and I wanted to make sure I didn’t forget various interesting items along the way.

By now you will have drawn up a list of the essential necessary clues. Enter these in the appropriate spaces, as well as the other indicated data. Then begin to write. This chart is not a bible; as you proceed, you will surely find it necessary to omit or add information. If and when you do, adjust the Master Chart accordingly. As this involves a lot of erasing, a pencil should be used, not a pen.

6. The Clue Log. As you write your story, have a separate paper handy on which you should enter the occurrence of clues and the manuscript pages on which they appear. Thus when you reach the solution chapter, you won’t have to go paging back through all those papers to discover when the detective learned this and that.

The final step in the process is to vary the way clues are introduced and disguised throughout. This is a subject sufficiently complicated to require extensive explanation in a separate article.

Goodbye and happy sleuthing!

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The highlight of each April in the mystery-fiction community is a week of festivities and awards that begins as writers, fans, and publishers assemble in New York City in the lead-up to the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Allan Poe Awards banquet.

For Edgars-week Tuesday, EQMM and its sister publication, AHMM, traditionally invite the magazines’ Readers Award winners and Edgar nominees to a small gathering in our offices. This year we had the pleasure of hosting EQMM Edgar nominee (and MWA president) Jeffery Deaver; EQMM Readers Award winners Brendan DuBois and Doug Allyn, as well as Doug’s wife, Eve; AHMM Edgar nominee S.J. Rozan; and one of this year’s three MWA Grand Masters, Peter Lovesey. Most of us went directly from this small Dell-office tea party to the big annual cocktail party thrown by Otto Penzler’s Mysterious Bookshop—the perfect place to spot other authors newly arrived from out of town.

L to R: Jeffery Deaver, Doug Allyn, Eve Allyn at the Dell Magazines office. Photo by Jackie Sherbow.

L to R: S.J. Rozan, Janet Hutchings. Photo by Jackie Sherbow.

L to R: Peter Lovesey, Brendan DuBois, AHMM editor Linda Landrigan. Photo by Jackie Sherbow.

L to R: Eve Allyn, Peter Lovesey, Doug Allyn at the Mysterious Bookshop. Photo by Jackie Sherbow.

Wednesdays during Edgars week are usually marked by a day-long symposium with panels and interviews featuring the various Edgar Allan Poe Award nominees, the Grand Masters, and the Raven and Ellery Queen award winners. As in past years, associate editor Jackie Sherbow attended for the Dell Mystery Magazines.

Oline Cogdill with Peter Lovesey during his Grand Master interview at the MWA Edgar Awards Symposium.

Before we knew it, the big day—Thursday—had arrived. For thirty-three years, EQMM and AHMM have hosted a cocktail party prior to the Edgar Awards banquet. It’s here that the EQMM Readers Awards are presented annually. And it’s here that we have the best chance each year to catch up with some of our closest friends in the business, a number of whom are pictured below.

Richard Dannay. Photo by Ché Ryback.

L to R: Brendan DuBois, Otto Penzler. Photo by Ché Ryback.

L to R: Associate editor Jackie Sherbow, Hilary Davidson. Photo by Ché Ryback.

Nancy Novick. Photo by Ché Ryback.

Dave Zeltserman accepts his third-place EQMM Readers Award scroll, presented by Janet Hutchings (pictured) and Peter Kanter. Photo by Ché Ryback.

Doug Allyn accepts his second-place EQMM Readers Award scroll. Photo by Ché Ryback.

Brendan DuBois accepts the 2017 EQMM Readers Award. Photo by Ché Ryback.

L to R: Shelley Costa, Linda Landrigan, Angela Zeman, Barry Zeman. Photo by Ché Ryback.

L to R: Kevin EganAnalog and Asimov‘s associate editor Emily Hockaday. Photo by Ché Ryback.

Penny Publications/Dell Magazines publisher, Peter Kanter. Photo by Ché Ryback.

L to R: Kristopher Zgorski, Gregory Day, Lori Rader-Day. Photo by Ché Ryback.

L to R: Joseph Goodrich, Dale Andrews. Photo by Ché Ryback.

L to R: Michele Slung and Vicky Bijur. Photo by Ché Ryback.

L to R: Analog Science Fiction and Fact editor Trevor Quachri, Dell Magazines/Penny Publications vice president Christine Begley. Photo by Ché Ryback.

L to R: Jane Cleland, Hilary Davidson, Meredith Anthony. Photo by Ché Ryback.

L to R: James Lincoln Warren, Dale Andrews, Brian Skupin. Photo by Ché Ryback.

Dell Magazines editor Mark Lagasse. Photo by Ché Ryback.

L to R: Jim Weikart, Steve Steinbock. Photo by Ché Ryback.

L to R: Robin Dean, V.S. Kemanis, David Dean. Photo by Ché Ryback.

Kate Stine. Photo by Ché Ryback.

Dell Magazines systems/IT manager, photographer Ché Ryback. Photo by Jackie Sherbow.

EQMM was present at the very first Edgar Allan Poe Awards dinner, seventy-two years ago. Many of the banquets since then have had an extra dash of excitement for us as we awaited the results of the best short story award, for which we had nominees. This year was no exception. But what made the evening even more memorable was that two of the three writers named Grand Masters of the Mystery Writers of America had close connections to EQMM. William Link got his start in EQMM’s Department of First Stories in 1954, with a story cowritten with Richard Levinson. The pair went on to create several hugely popular crime TV shows, including Columbo and Murder, She Wrote. New Grand Master Peter Lovesey, who’s been writing regularly for EQMM since 1979, is a past winner of the EQMM Readers Award, among many other distinctions (including the Cartier Diamond Dagger for Lifetime Achievement). I had the great honor of presenting him with the Grand Master Edgar!

Janet Hutchings and Peter Lovesey with his Edgar Award.

Peter Lovesey and William Link at the Edgar Awards banquet.

Before the glitter and glamour of the black-tie Edgars seemed to have fully dissipated, many of us were on our way to the week’s next stop: North Bethesda, Maryland, for the annual Malice Domestic Convention. A convocation of fans and writers of the traditional mystery, Malice is scheduled immediately following the Edgars so that those traveling from abroad or from distant points in the U.S. can attend both sets of events.

For me, Malice began on Friday evening, with a dinner in the Pike & Rose development in North Bethesda, with authors Dana Cameron, Frankie Y. Bailey, Christine Poulson, Dale Andrews, and Josh and Laurie Pachter. At subsequent meals (one also pictured below), I had the pleasure of reconnecting with a number of the talented people who contribute fiction, reviews, and nonfiction to our pages, including Doug Greene, the founder of Crippen & Landru, the genre’s leading publisher of single-author short-story collections, and Jeffrey Marks, who has recently taken over as Crippen & Landru’s publisher.

Clockwise from L: Josh Pachter, Janet Hutchings, Dale Andrews, Dana Cameron, Frankie Y. Bailey, Laurie Pachter, Christine Poulson.

L to R: Jackie Sherbow, Steve Steinbock, Josh Pachter, Alan Orloff.

For me, one of Malice’s great highlights this year was the interview of Lifetime Achievement Award winner, Nancy Pickard. A writer who got her start in EQMM’s Department of First Stories and has won or been nominated for every major award in the field, Nancy had some fascinating things to say about the writing process and her own growth as a writer. A Sunday-morning breakfast with Nancy, Margaret and Joe Maron, Dorothy and Julian Cannell, and G. M. Malliet and her husband Bob Steventon nearly finished off the convention for me and associate editor Jackie Sherbow. The end of a memorable week—topped off by a train ride home on which I finished the Audible edition of Anthony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders. Highly recommended! —Janet Hutchings

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“Paths Crossing: Agatha Christie’s ‘Philomel Cottage’ and ‘Accident'” (by R.T. Raichev)

R. T. Raichev is best known for his crime novels and stories featuring mystery writer Antonia Darcy and her husband, Major Payne. There are nine highly acclaimed novels in the series and several short stories, most published in EQMM. The most recent story, “A Chronicle of Deaths Foretold,” appears in our current issue, May/June 2018. Library Journal has said of the series, “Mixes Henry James’s psychological insight with Agatha Christie’s whodunit plotting skills.” That reference to Agatha Christie is apt, for R. T. Raichev is not only a mystery author, he’s a scholar of the form; he wrote his university dissertation on British mystery fiction. An academic by day, he has posted scholarly articles on this site before (most recently a piece about the Sherlock Holmes stories). This time he talks about his two favorite Agatha Christie short stories. Please be aware, if you have not yet read these stories, that some of each story’s plot is revealed in the post.—Janet Hutchings

The short story is a sterner test of the detective writer than the full-grown novel. With ample space almost any practiced writer can pile complication on complication, just as any man could make a puzzling maze out of a ten-acre field. But to pack mystery, surprise and a solution into three or four thousand words is to achieve a feat.

In such glowing terms did an Observer reviewer write in 1924 of Poirot Investigates, Agatha Christie’s first published collection of short stories. A less enthusiastic opinion of Christie’s short fiction has been expressed by crime critic Robert Barnard in his study A Talent to Deceive. He points out—I paraphrase—that while the short format worked so brilliantly for Conan Doyle, the art of the novel somehow eluded him—with Agatha Christie the opposite was true: the full-length whodunit was her undisputed forte, a standard her short stories never quite managed to achieve. Barnard referred to them as “one-trick” stories.

The truth lies somewhere in between. There is no question of ignoring Agatha Christie’s short stories, which number 150. The majority are compulsively, addictively readable and they teem with original ideas—whatever weaknesses they may have, one only notices them after finishing reading.

As it happens, the gems among Christie’s contes are not whodunits but intricate tales of suspense. The most celebrated one of course is that masterpiece of double bluff and moral ambiguity “Witness for the Prosecution.” My own personal preference is for “Philomel Cottage” and “Accident,” which appear in the 1934 Christie collection The Listerdale Mystery. They show Agatha Christie not only at her cleverest but at her most unsettling.

“Philomel Cottage” was first published in Grand Magazine in 1923 and follows a path of sinister discovery as Alix, a young, recently married woman, slowly comes to the realization that her husband Gerald is planning to kill her. It all starts with a “twinge of anxiety” which “invades her perfect happiness.” (Robert Barnard, while praising “Philomel Cottage,” describes its style as somewhat “novelettish.”) Their gardener mentions the fact that she and Gerald are going to London on Wednesday—it was Gerald who told him—but Alix is not aware of any such plans having been made. Alix learns that their house—Philomel Cottage—cost £2000 and not £3000—it was Gerald who dealt with the transaction using Alix’s money. (Did Gerald—who had professed to be “violently in love with her”—keep £1000 for himself?) Alix then finds Gerald’s diary and she sees her name and a date penned in—the date is the Wednesday on which she is supposed to be going away. . . .

She manages to open a locked drawer in Gerald’s desk and finds old newspaper clippings concerning the trial and subsequent escape of a serial wife killer called Lemaitre (described as possessing “extraordinary powers over women”). In the photo accompanying the article Alix recognizes her husband. From this point on the story becomes a tense cat-and-mouse game between Alix and Gerald—a fight for survival, no less—which culminates in one of Agatha Christie’s most unusual shock endings.

Murder by suggestion is extremely difficult to bring off convincingly on the last page of a story, but Christie manages it superbly. It is a feat indeed, remarkable in its assured boldness, especially impressive given that in the 1920s she was still in the very early stages of her career. It rivals her other “outrageous” ploys—the Orient Express conspiracy, the unreliable first-person narration that covers Roger Ackroyd’s murder, and the ten people killed off according to the words of a macabre children’s poem. Incredibly, in the last mentioned, a novel written sixteen years after “Philomel,” Christie uses the idea again and even more startlingly. Though the circumstances couldn’t have been more different, what is Vera Claythorne’s suicide if not murder by suggestion? The careful staging of the suicide—the chair positioned under the noose hanging from a hook in the ceiling—later described in the killer’s confession as an “interesting psychological experiment”—will continue to send shivers down readers’ spines for generations to come.

It is worth noting that “Philomel Cottage” was written a couple of years after the trial in France of multiple murderer Landrou who used to prey on rich women. (Alix, we learn, has come into an inheritance.) Like Landrou, Lemaitre is a charming psychopath who is single-minded, ruthless, and deceitful. It is easy to imagine Agatha taking a vivid interest in Landrou’s trial and subsequent execution and storing away details for further use. In fictional terms, the origins of “Philomel Cottage” can be traced back to the gruesome French tale of Bluebeard. The forbidden chamber Bluebeard uses as storage for the bodies of the wives he has killed may be seen as paralleled by the forbidden desk drawer with its revelation of Gerald’s murderous true identity. On a more fanciful note, could the name “Gerald” have been inspired by that of the monstrous chevalier Gille de Rais, the real-life fifteenth-century serial killer who served as a model for Bluebeard?

The damsel-in-distress theme, central to “Philomel Cottage,” has always been a favorite with book readers, theatregoers, and film audiences. It is at the heart of Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1859), Patrick Hamilton’s Gaslight (1938), and Frederick Knott’s Dial M for Murder (1952). More recently and less successfully we find a modified version of it in Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train, which also happens to be the title of an Agatha Christie short story. In all of these, outwardly charming, seemingly respectable men manipulate and try to dispose of their wives.

“Accident” was originally published in 1929 in The Sunday Dispatch, under the title “The Uncrossed Path.” Its riveting opening lines are clearly designed to make the reader want to read on. “. . . I tell you this—it’s the same woman—not a doubt of it!” The woman in question has already committed two murders and managed to make them look like accidents. The speaker, a retired police inspector called Evans, is presented as overzealous, overconfident, and complacent, not a particularly sympathetic character. Evans has always believed that the Madonna-like Mrs. Anthony—Mrs. Merrowdene, as she has become—was guilty. As fate would have it, their paths have crossed in the little village where she now lives, married en secondes noces, to a mild-mannered ex–chemistry professor who works with poisons. After learning that she has persuaded her husband to take a life insurance, Evans becomes convinced that she is planning a third murder. . . .

Christie, the arch manipulator, makes us examine the situation from Evans’s point of view—but it is the wrong point of view. All along Evans has been looking at the situation the wrong way up—which, ironically, he realizes too late. This is the tale of a hunt that goes spectacularly wrong. As in “Philomel Cottage,” Agatha Christie manages to whip up tremendous tension that culminates in a confrontation between hunter and hunted—and then end it with a completely unpredictable, though entirely logical, death on the last page—a death that looks like an accident.*

Alfred Hitchcock had a penchant for charming psychopaths (vide Uncle Charlie in A Shadow of a Doubt, Bruno in Strangers on a Train, Bob Rusk in Frenzy), so it is a pity he never turned his attention to “Philomel Cottage.” We learn from Janet Morgan’s biography of Agatha Christie that Hitchcock considered adapting “Accident” as an episode for his famous Hour. It is not known why he didn’t do it as it has some of the ingredients he favored—a femme fatale accused of murder—ambiguities over her guilt—a love motive—and a hunt. Hitchcock clearly liked the story well enough as he included “Accident” in one of his earliest anthologies of Suspense Stories (1947), reprinted in 1963 as Alfred Hitchcock Presents: A Baker’s Dozen of Suspense Stories.

Even though “Philomel Cottage” failed to become a Hitchcock film, it has the distinction of being one of the most frequently adapted twentieth-century short stories—as a play (twice), for TV (three times), as a film (twice, as Love from a Stranger), and for radio (five times).

“Accident,” on the other hand, was transformed into a one-act play by Margery Vosper in 1939, under the title Tea for Three. Margery Vosper was the sister of Frank Vosper who was the man who adapted Philomel Cottage as a play.**

Talk about paths crossing.


* “Accident” is one of four Agatha Christie stories in which the killer is allowed to get away with it. Either because she felt sympathy for a woman who’s had to fight for her love—or else because it made such a damned effective ending.

** There also exists a never-performed adaptation of “Philomel Cottage” written by Christie herself.

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“Setting as Story” (by Sherry Lalonde)

Sherry Lalonde’s first published fiction, “Garden-Variety Criminal,” appears in EQMM’s current issue,  May/June 2018. It’s notable partly for its choice of setting, Canada’s Royal Botanical Gardens. In this post the author, an Ottawa librarian with a degree in horitculture, explores the use of setting in the works of some of our genre’s best-loved authors. —Janet Hutchings

For many writers, the germ of an idea begins with the characters. They see a face in a crowd and wonder what past history and complex set of traits makes a person act as they do. For others, the spark comes from a situation—a moral dilemma, a confrontation, or even a tragedy. For myself, it’s about setting. The setting is what’s clear to me even before the characters or the action. It might be a peaceful scene at first, but soon, very soon, something will happen to shatter the peace. Because setting itself can often provide conflict, the best settings are those that reflect aspects of character and motivation.

Setting is also used to create atmosphere, to help shape the mood, and mirror what characters are thinking and feeling. In Agatha Christie’s Nemesis, the decaying greenhouse and vine-covered garden evoke an eerie atmosphere and act as a metaphor for the smothering love of a woman who would sooner see her protégé dead than let her leave. Early mysteries such as Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles were masterful at manipulating the reader’s emotions and inspired modern-day authors such as Elizabeth Kostova and Carlos Ruiz Zafon.

Setting also helps define the scope of the story and grounds it in a place. It is the playground for the characters and what draws the reader into the manufactured world, giving it context. There are many familiar settings used in mysteries, chief among them are the “locked room,” the English country house (or village), the suburbs, and the city.

The timeless locked-room mystery is one of the earliest settings used. A crime, usually a murder, has happened in such a way as to make it seemingly impossible to solve. Although the actual physical location varies the concept is always the same. Whether on a desert island, a jail cell, a castle tower, or a submarine, it is logic, reason and method that will lead to the solution. The reader accepts the challenge and embarks on a journey with the author—who will get to the answer first? Some of the best known locked-room mysteries include John Dickson Carr’s The Hollow Man, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, and Ellery Queen’s The King Is Dead.

In the same genre of traditional mystery is the English country house or village setting. If you’ve seen the movie Gosford Park or read any Golden Age of detective fiction you’ll be familiar with this setting where the upper crust can be found clinking glasses in the dining room while the servants toil below stairs in a sweaty basement kitchen, each in their own sphere until tragedy strikes and they crash into each others’ worlds.

In such a cozy space crime is all the more shocking when it happens. This setting may be criticized as artificial but it allows readers to engage with murder and mayhem in a context that’s safe and reassuring. The contract with the reader is that eventually order will be restored and the guilty will be punished. Adding to the sense of foreshadowing is the building of the tension created by a group of unlikely suspects forced together until the murderer is revealed. The detective or amateur sleuth must deduce the guilty party before he or she strikes again.

This style of mystery was first crafted in the early twentieth century but is still well loved and reproduced today even if the relationship between the setting and the characters has changed. What was once an isolated country home owned by aristocrats is more likely now a boutique hotel and spa. It is the familiar setting that attracts readers; even though it has all been done before, the perspective is always unique. Famous authors of the cozy mystery include Margery Allingham, Agatha Christie, and Ngaio Marsh. There are many modern authors writing in this style, notably G.M. Malliet and Rhys Bowen among personal favourites.

To some extent the modernization of the “cozy” is the suburban mystery. The suburbs, once thought to be the pinnacle of the American dream, are now a place of disenchantment. The suburbs are becoming chilling milieus where the placid surface of tidy lawns, two-car garages, and family BBQs hide all the modern sins—drugs, illicit sex, obsession, jealousy, and more. When there is such obvious conflict between the setting and its characters we can easily fuel expectations for events to come. This type of mystery was best epitomized by the work of Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Rendell and today by bestselling authors Gillian Flynn and Paula Hawkins.

In many ways the city is the superlative setting for mystery and suspense. The implied threat and menace of the city arouse the fear of the unknown. In complete juxtaposition to the cozy setting the detective must have his or her finger on the pulse of the city and be willing to descend into the underground culture where truth lies buried. Readers living in these environments are drawn again and again to the urban mystery as they crave the reassurance that the city can be made safe. Urban settings in mystery and suspense fiction are particularly important because they continue to evolve and innovate as our cities do. This setting is exploited to its fullest extent by such authors as Ed McBain, Walter Mosley, and Sara Paretsky to name a few.

As we see, setting is not just the scene of the crime but also integral to the story and can mean the difference between an engaged and indifferent reader. A successful setting takes the story off the page and into real life to create a mystery that appeals to all the senses.

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“Cultivating Crime in the College Classroom” (by Hollis Seamon)

Hollis Seamon‘s first short story for EQMM appears in our current issue (May/June 2018). She is the author of two novels and two critically acclaimed short-story collections, and the 2009 winner of the Al Blanchard Award for best crime story. She has a second career as a college instructor and in this post she talks about the benefits of studying crime fiction.—Janet Hutchings

“An English literature course called ‘Detective Fiction’? Ha! What is that crap going to teach them?”

This remark was made by a particularly pompous professorial personage, in reaction to a new course that I had just invented and listed as an elective. I was stunned into silence. And so, of course, I’ve spent the last decade or so working on the snappy comebacks I should have delivered, speaking sharply into his smug mug.

Many years late, here is my comeback.

But first, some background. Some time ago, I introduced this new course, ENG 217 Detective Fiction, to the English department offerings at the College of Saint Rose where I taught literature and writing. My department colleagues—an enlightened bunch of fine professors—were all for it. Some even said they’d love to take the course, that they’d read detective fiction for years but never had a chance to study it. But some of the more dyed-in-the-wool, snooty academic types in other departments were less pleased and one was more than willing to tell me so.

Perhaps if that guy had read more detective fiction, he too would have been enlightened. Or at least aware of the longstanding love-hate relationship between academia and crime writers. If only he’d spent some time following Morse into the stuffy and often deadly lairs of Oxford dons. Listened to literary scholar Carolyn Heilbrun explain why she had to write her mystery novels under the pseudonym Amanda Cross and hide those works away until she’d achieved the haven of tenure, becoming the first female tenured English professor at Columbia University. If he’d read Dorothy Sayers’s masterpiece, Gaudy Night, where love of scholarly life vies with the deadly effects of living tooth-to-jowl with other academics. If he’d actually read the works, instead of dismissing them as crap, perhaps he might understand. Perhaps be better educated, all around? If he happens to be still teaching, I hope he’s discovered that, these days, the scholarly investigation of crime literature is a valid and valued field of study.

In any case, I hadn’t designed ENG 217 for professors. I wanted it to be a course that students from all majors could enjoy and in which, yes indeed, they might actually learn something. But, really, I invented it so I could teach some my favorite books and stories. Now, let’s say from the outset that teaching the works you love to students who don’t much give a hoot is not always a winning proposition. Usually, it’s hugely disappointing: They just don’t get excited about stories that have left you ablaze with admiration and totally smitten with their writers.

Imagine: You are excited to introduce your class to a book that always takes your breath away with its brilliance. You assign the reading; you bounce joyfully into the classroom and ask them what they thought. Total silence. No eye contact. Finally, a few hesitant hands go up. A few reluctant mouths utter opinions. “I didn’t understand it.” “The sentences are too long.” Then, eagerly, the real malcontents chime in. “Booooooring.” “It sucked.” And that can, quite simply, break your heart.

So I was aware of the dangers of setting out to teach my favorite crime writers. But, really, I figured, who wouldn’t love this stuff? Mystery fiction is the highest-selling genre of all time. It’s meant to entertain, to be accessible. To be (gasp) fun. I was sure students were going to love it. I designed my syllabus to give them what I hoped would be a good overview of the genre, beginning with Poe and winding up, four months and a century or so later, with Mark Haddon. The hundreds of wonderful books I had to leave off the list? Those choices were excruciating. But eventually I came up with a scheme that I thought might work. We would circle loosely around Sherlock Holmes, a figure many of the students already knew—or thought they knew—from films and television. We would read other works too, of course, but at the end of the semester, we’d come back to two wonderful Holmes pastiche novels: Haddon’s amazing The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and Michael Chabon’s heartbreaking and hilarious The Final Solution. There were many iterations of the course, which I taught up until my retirement in 2016, and I always varied the reading menu a bit while still staying within that overall plan.

And now, at last, I believe I can tell you—and the ghost of that sceptical professor—what the students learned, from some of the works they read.

From Poe, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”: They learned about the origins of detective fiction, about the trope of the brilliant detective whose triumphs are told by an admiring but always baffled sidekick. They learned, if nothing else, the meanings of the words “ingress” and “egress,” terms which not one student had ever heard before and which are, of course, the bedrock concepts behind every locked-room mystery. And, really, in life and literature, isn’t it always important to see a way in, as well as anticipate a way out?

From Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone: The longest and most complicated book most of these students had ever read, this taught them to admire audacious design and brilliant storytelling. They followed the story through its multiplicity of voices, learning to be patient, to enjoy putting the puzzle together from bits and pieces, to settle in for the long haul. They learned, too, I hope, something about the wrongs of British colonialism in India. They learned that one tiny lie, told by one very stubborn young woman, can set off a storm of events. And that, in the end, some wrongs can be made right.

From the Holmes canon: They learned how unexpectedly funny these stories are. And how frightening. How a band of ragged street boys can change the course of an investigation. How a gift for disguise and deception can serve justice. How to feel sympathy for anyone who is, like Watson, always ten steps behind. How a friendship between two such oddly matched partners might endure, based on unspoken but steadfast affection. And to admire The Woman who beats a genius at his own game.

From Penelope Evans, Freezing: They learned that a guy who seems like a total loser, a lowly mortuary photographer with a paralyzing stammer, may take the photo that changes everything. That, despite the capital L this guy seems to have emblazoned on his forehead, he can become a hero.

From Michael Chabon, The Final Solution: They learned some terrible truths about the Holocaust. And some uplifting truths about the quiet, anonymous code-breakers who played such a vital role in defeating Hitler. About the Enigma Machine (and the meaning of the word “enigma,” which, really, sums up mystery fiction.) About a retired detective who keeps bees and who, at the age of ninety, is still fierce, irascible and fascinated by the odd detail. About how a chance to solve one more crime can rejuvenate that very old man. About a mute boy and his parrot and how both learn to speak. And that clues may be woven into illustrations.

From Mark Haddon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time: They learned respect and admiration for a severely autistic boy who sets out to navigate the world on his own, with only his pet rat in his pocket. They learned how badly even well-meaning adults can screw up. And, eventually, they learned not only who skewered the poodle Wellington but how to forgive the killer.

From all of the books, put together: The students in ENG 217 learned the art of reading very closely. They learned that they could not skim. That the key clue could easily be missed, if they hurried over page 231 or 198 or 532, where a skillful writer had placed it so carefully. They learned not to be fooled by red herrings. Learned the joy of working something out; of following where sound, painstaking research leads; of separating facts from lies. Learned to recognize deceit and, despite all the deceptions put before them, discover, in the end, some kind of hard-won truth. They learned to pay attention. Learned to practice ratiocination: to think hard and critically and to make judgments based on evidence, not opinion or theory or someone spouting off on Twitter.

Aren’t those skills important in this world? Crucial, even?

That’s what I wish I had said to my pompous professorial challenger, all those years ago. But, of course, I couldn’t have said it then. Only now have I begun to understand what ENG 217 Detective Fiction taught me, after all. And how much I have yet to learn from and about this literature that I love so much.

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“Where the Wild Men Are” (by Steve Hockensmith)

One of our genre’s best humorists, but an author who is also capable of writing quite dark stories, Steve Hockensmith has been appearing in EQMM since 2001. His first series of novels, the Amlingmeyer Brothers Mysteries, had its genesis in a 2003 story for EQMM entitled “Dear Mr. Holmes,” and there have been subsequent short stories in that series as well as novels. More recent titles have included his Tarot Mystery series, written with Lisa Falco, and the New York Times bestseller Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls. Steve is a writer who enjoys the challenge of breaking new ground, and in this post he talks about the inspiration for his very original new story for EQMM, “Where the Strange Ones Go,” in our May/June issue, on sale next week.—Janet Hutchings

Hi, I’m Steve. I’m a writer by day and a wild man by night.

Actually, that’s not quite true. I am a writer by day, but I tend to be a sleeper by night. I think I’ve behaved in a way that qualified me as “a wild man by night” exactly once. I woke up on the floor the next morning with my head in a trash can and a hangover that lasted a week, so I never felt the need to get “wild” like that again.

But as personal mottos go, “I’m a [fill in the blank] by day and a wild man by night” ain’t bad. As long as you can live up to it and you don’t mind the hangovers and trash cans, I mean. I’m not sure if the guy who came up with the phrase was a true wild man or not, but I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Why? Well, just check out his shirt. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t start buttoning it until somewhere south of his navel.

You can see him here, 19 seconds into a compilation of highlights from 1980s dating service tapes: Watch, if you dare.

Even if you don’t dare, plenty of other people have. That video’s been viewed on YouTube 4.8 million times. It’s inspired a lot of laughter—and one piece of short fiction (that I know of).

My story “Where the Strange Ones Go” appears in EQMM’s May/June issue. I wrote it to challenge myself. I’d just written another short story in which the plot was advanced almost entirely through emails. (That story, “i,” appeared in AHMM last fall.) I wanted to try again to see if I could tell a story through excerpts from some other medium. But what?

I don’t remember how I hit upon the idea of dating videos as the backbone for a crime story. (Hey, cut me some slack—this was, like, a year and a half ago!) But I knew the compilation reel on YouTube well, having chuckled at it several times over the years. So I watched it again. I found a lot of fodder for humor, of course, as well as an idea for a plot. But I found something else, too. Something I wasn’t expecting.

I found a heart for the story.

It’s easy to laugh at Maurice, the video’s “executive by day, wild man by night.” Ditto the other wild men who recorded video profiles as part of their quest for Miss Right. A couple of them seem like real jerks. (I’m looking at you, “No fatties” dudes.) But watching the video again as a happily married man creeping up on fifty, I found less to laugh about and more to feel.

I’m lucky. I’m not lonely and I don’t need to go looking for love. Maurice and the other men in the video didn’t have it so good (at least circa 1988 or so). So they did something brave. They sat in front of a camera and talked about what they thought they needed to be happy. One of them even did it dressed as a Viking, which takes “brave” to a whole other level. (Yes, that other level of “brave” might be “crazy,” but still—I admire the guy.)

I realized that I didn’t want to write something that just ridicules people looking for a human connection. Which isn’t to say I wouldn’t have some fun with them. When you’ve got Maurice & Company as your inspiration, there’s going to be some humor. (The YouTube highlight reel wasn’t the only inspiration for the dating tape excerpts in my story, by the way. The guy who’s obsessed with Norman Bates-ish bodysnatcher Ed Gein is based on an ex-girlfriend of mine. And the woman who wishes she could date Jesus is a toned-down version of someone I sat next to on a long, long, long cross-country flight.)

I gave myself permission to be amusing, but not mean. “Mean” I would leave to the bad guys in the story. Which isn’t a bad way of looking at characterization in genre fiction in general, I think.

Have fun. Entertain. Give your characters foibles and flaws. But don’t forget that they have souls, too.

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In the September 1966 issue of EQMM, editor Frederic Dannay responded enthusiastically to a reader’s assertion that William Shakespeare, in his plays, anticipated the modern detective story. He included the letter in the magazine—along with his own notes—and reprinted 101 lines from Henry VI, Part II framed as “The Adventure of the Simpcox Miracle.” Take a peek inside the issue and enjoy this special feature!

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“Classic Murder Mystery Gets a Comic-Book Reboot” (by Maaja Wentz)

EQMM’s Department of First Stories has given a start to hundreds of authors, but in recent years, with developments in technology, what it means to give an author a start has changed. Some authors nowadays are able to get their fiction to an audience and establish a following without the help of a publisher. As self-publishing on various electronic platforms has grown, EQMM has decided to stick with its original criteria for inclusion in the Department of First Stories, which is that the story must be the author’s first paid professional publication. Canadian writer Maaja Wentz, who will debut in EQMM’s Department of First Stories in our next issue, with the story “Inside of a Dog,” qualifies under those rules. But Maaja has already serialized a novel, her supernatural thriller Feeding Frenzy, on Wattpad, generating over a hundred thousand reads. In this post, she discusses how her interests in the mystery and urban-fantasy genres have converged, as they have for many fans, and how this convergence is regenerating television mystery.—Janet Hutchings   

The noir detective story and police procedural are beloved classic genres. Both have translated well to the big and small screen, from classic movies such as The Maltese Falcon, The Third Man, Double Indemnity, and Chinatown (neo-noir) to TV series such as NYPD Blue, CSI, Columbo, The Wire, and Law and Order.

Whether your tastes run to cozies such as Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, Death in Paradise, and Murder, She Wrote, or you prefer something more realistic like The Wire, the short format and repetitive nature of old-school TV shows inevitably risk becoming formulaic. How often have you settled in to enjoy a mystery show only to realize after ten minutes that you have already guessed whodunit?

Do we need another gritty drama about a down-on-his-luck detective scraping by in a harsh and unfriendly world? How about a grizzled veteran cop with marriage trouble, mourning his dead partner? And don’t even talk to me about the alcoholism. Even when TV embraced female protagonists and more representative casts, the cliches remained. It was enough to send me back to the bookshelf until, in a flourish of ink, TV crime got redrawn.

Comic books have always featured crime fighters, from Superman and Batman to vigilantes like Black Lightning, the Arrow, or the Flash. Two current comics-inspired shows have become my favorites for the way they employ urban fantasy and science-fiction elements to reboot the TV mystery.

Stylishly comic iZombie transforms the police procedural with urban-fantasy tropes, while Jessica Jones features a noir detective with superpowers out of a sci-fi thriller.

In classic noir style, Jessica Jones is scraping by as a lonely, luckless P.I. who photographs cheating spouses for a living. As in noir film, Marvel’s Jessica Jones is shot against a dramatic visual palette, the cinematography and setting choices influenced by layouts from the original comic. Her office is dark and spare. The drama is comic-book extreme, with one-night stands, fist fights, explosions, and one memorable scene in which mind control forces an entire station of police officers to pull guns on each other. Settings are chosen for visual impact, such as the bloody season-two finale, shot at the top of the Playland Ferris wheel.

Based on the comic character created by writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Michael Gaydos, Jessica Jones soon turns out to be more than a stereotypical gumshoe. She isn’t a sucker getting beat down by the bad guys in a troubled world, destined to be seduced and set up by a femme fatale.

Jones can lift a refrigerator or kill a man with her bare hands. Restraining her temper is a bigger challenge. And when it comes to the femme-fatale trope, she is the beautiful but deadly woman herself. More than once she laments that everyone she loves dies.

The classic noir detective epitomized postwar ennui, but is there a modern equivalent? We are numbed by a media bombardment of tragedies close to and far from home. A more connected planet reveals the true complexity and magnitude of humanity’s problems until, desensitized and demoralized, we sometimes feel like the bad guys always win.

Like us, Jessica Jones doesn’t think she can save the world. Sometimes she hides in the bottle or seeks refuge in a meaningless fling. Sometimes, she saves a child or stops a robbery, but she can’t save society, her loved ones, or even herself. This new super strong yet powerless detective reflects our current era’s fatalism and escapism. We cheer and lose ourselves in the moments when she kicks the villains down, but in the end, the most powerful conspirators remain hidden in the city of grit and shadows.

If the stylish noir genre deserved a facelift, the police procedural is a ratings mainstay. As such, it has been nipped and tucked into every form from gritty realism to cozy historical to exotic escapism, until it seemed dead on the autopsy table.

In 2015, iZombie jolted the police procedural’s exhausted heart like an undead defibrillator. Episodes investigate murders in a comic-book world, based on iZOMBIE by Chris Roberson. There are interrogations, autopsies, a wisecracking coroner, and a suffering lead, but Liv Moore is no cliche grizzled veteran, gunning to avenge a fallen partner. She’s a young, high-achieving medical resident who lost her career and fiancé when she became a zombie, compelled to eat brains to survive.

This premise brims with grotesque situation comedy, like the perky montages of Liv whipping up brain recipes. When she eats their brains, Liv has visions of murder victims’ memories. Instead of time-consuming investigative techniques, Liv’s visions short-circuit the tiresome need for realistic information gathering so the plot can skip ahead to action scenes and confrontations. Liv’s special ability makes her better than a lie detector, and the brain she eats imbues her mood, abilities, values, accent, speech, and actions with the victim’s personality. Liv doesn’t just interrogate suspects on behalf of the deceased, she becomes the victim. What better advocate for justice in the interrogation room? It’s a showcase opportunity for actor Rose McIver, who helps detective Clive Babineaux (Malcolm Goodwin) solve murder cases.

The show gets its kick from Liv’s ability to vicariously experience multiple lives from all walks of life, male and female, old and young, innocent and criminal, sadistic and sweet. Added to the grotesque humor is the ongoing conspiracy-thriller plot surrounding the origins of the zombie virus and the eventual paramilitary zombie takeover of Seattle.

While fans of realism may not be tempted by Jessica Jones or iZombie, these shows mirror a larger trend in which young protagonists and fantasy tropes are transforming traditional programming, while putting a youthful spin on the mystery genre.

Posted in Adventure, Characters, Classic Mystery, Fiction, Genre, Noir, Police Procedurals, Pop Culture | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


In my first days as editor of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine I was fortunate to have the hand of friendship extended to me by some of the magazine’s earliest contributors—people whose connection to EQMM went back to founding editor Frederic Dannay. One of those people was Donald A. Yates, whom I met in the early 1990s, when he dropped by our offices to say hello and to peruse our archive of issues and anthologies. I immediately recognized in Don a quality I’d seen in other contributors from Editor Dannay’s time—an extraordinary ardentness when it came to everything related to Ellery Queen and, consequently, to EQMM.

Thirty years of attending conventions of mystery fans has given me ample opportunity to meet avid readers and scholars, and loyal devotees of particular authors. But I have not encountered in recent generations of fans anything quite equal to the passion displayed by those whose interest in mysteries was born in the early to mid years of the last century. As perfectly as anyone I’ve known, Donald Yates illustrated, with his life and career, the fervor of that generation of mystery fans.

The first time we met, Don told me the story of his first encounter with Frederic Dannay, who was, of course, not only the editor of EQMM but half of the two-person writing team behind the pseudonym Ellery Queen. Don was just a teenager then, but he’d become hooked on the novels of Ellery Queen, and on seeing Fred Dannay’s home address printed in classified ads he’d placed in EQMM seeking rare titles for his book collection, Don worked up the nerve to write to him—and got a reply. Think how extraordinary that would be in a modern context: Ellery Queen was already a best-selling novelist with a successful radio show and movie adaptations of his novels. Yet he felt comfortable releasing his home address in a magazine with a circulation of around a quarter million. As Don explained in a 2005 article for EQMM (“Remembering Fred Dannay”), after a further exchange of correspondence with his idol, he took things a step further, turning up unannounced on the doorstep of Fred’s house with a suitcase of books he wanted signed. Fred invited him in and spent several hours with him, showing him, Don said, “the highlights of his collection, chatting about mysteries, and, before I left, signing every one of the books I had brought along.”

It’s easy to see why an era with so few barriers between a celebrity author and his fans would foster a deep devotion in the latter. But I think other, more significant factors were at work in shaping fans such as Don. The mystery genre as we know it today was only just beginning to take shape at the time. The Mystery Writers of America was new on the scene, having been founded in 1945, and EQMM was changing perceptions of what belongs within the field by publishing between its covers a wide variety of different subgenres of crime fiction. Moreover, Fred Dannay always had an eye out for contributions to the genre in other countries, running a series of Worldwide Short Story Contests in the magazine and welcoming translations of detective stories from other languages.

Like Fred Dannay, Donald Yates had a particular interest in the detective subgenre of crime fiction—he and Fred were both fervent Sherlockians—and like Fred Dannay, he sought examples of it in other parts of the globe. What allowed Don to follow this particular road further than Fred had was that Don, by the time he was twenty-six, had become a professor of Spanish and Latin American Literature. He was fluent in Spanish, and soon began looking for Latin American detective and crime fiction worth translating for the American market. Although the first English translation of the great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, “The Garden of Forking Paths,” was done by Anthony Boucher, for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Don translated a number of other important Borges stories, including “Death and the Compass,” which was first published in the collection Labyrinths and reprinted in EQMM in 2008.

In 2003, when I decided to make translation a monthly feature of EQMM through creation of the Passport to Crime department (which still runs in each issue today), Don was one of the first people I contacted. He’d been translating for EQMM since 1962, and I knew he could steer us to the best crime writers in Latin America. He served as both scout and translator for Passport to Crime from then on. When he passed away in October of 2017, he had on his desk, for review, the translation of a story for us by Rodolfo Jorge Walsh that he had encouraged his friend John Dalbor to translate. Health problems prevented Don from finishing his vetting of that translation, but we hope to be able to present it to readers in 2019. According to Don, “Next to that of Borges, [Walsh’s] name is the most important one in the history of Argentine detective literature.” Don’s involvement in this final Walsh translation brought him full circle, in a way. A Rodolfo Jorge Walsh story was his first published translation, in 1954, for The Saint Detective Magazine.

As a translator, Don’s career spanned sixty-four years, and I could go on for several more paragraphs about the various authors and projects he brought to EQMM—my personal favorite being 2016’s double collaboration “For Strictly Literary Reasons” by Christian X. Ferdinandus, in which a story written in homage to Borges (EQMM’s most famous author in translation) and penned pseudonymously by a team of writers (in the Ellery Queen tradition) was translated by a team of translators (Don and John Dalbor). But I am not going to focus more here on the specific authors Don translated. Interested readers should have a look at Francis M. Nevins’s post for Mystery File, “First You Read, Then You Write,” for more on that topic. My intention here is to show how Don’s love for mystery and detective stories influenced the course of so much else in his life. He was a key figure in bringing Latin American literature to the attention of the American public, but it was through the lens of his interest in detective fiction that he did it, and Don himself was clear about the centrality of mystery fandom to his life.

In 2003, I received a letter from Don in which he forwarded some correspondence he’d had with a Bouchercon committee member he hoped was considering him for fan guest of honor. In that letter to Bouchercon he said: “You may not think of me primarily as a fan, but that’s how I think of myself. And after some fifty-five years of fandom, how can I be wrong?” By the end of his life, Don could have referred to seventy-plus years of fandom, and he was not wrong. The qualities he enumerated in that letter are the hallmarks of the committed fan.

Collecting was one of the characteristics Don thought distinguished the true fan. As must be evident from his first meeting with Ellery Queen, Don was a lifelong collector of mysteries, acquiring his first signed copy in 1944. He collected not only books but complete runs of the principal digest magazines, including seven complete runs of EQMM. He was also an anthologist, a critic, and a reviewer in the genre, with many publications in each capacity. He knew several of the great mystery writers of his time personally, including Jorge Luis Borges, Ellery Queen, Cornell Woolrich, Ross Macdonald, and Margaret Millar. He edited the first collection of Borges’s writings in English. He wrote poems about Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Cornell Woolrich, Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie, Anthony Boucher, and more—a number of which were published in EQMM. He was an active member of the Baker Street Irregulars from 1972 until his death, and he even authored a couple of mystery stories himself, including one that turns around the theme of mystery fandom, “A Study in Scarlatti” (EQMM February 2011). Add to this the way in which his professional career was influenced by his love of mystery fiction—Could he have played the pivotal role he did in bringing Latin American literature to light in the U.S. without that passion for mysteries?—and you have a fan of a sort we will probably not see again. Our contemporary world seems too diffuse—we have too many conflicting claims on our attention—to produce a fan of that order.

In life, Don received recognition for many of his accomplishments, but he was never honored as a fan. I hope one of our field’s conventions will honor him posthumously in that capacity. He deserves to be remembered for his lifetime of fidelity to the genre that was his first real love in literature.

Posted in Ellery Queen, History, International, Magazine, Memorial, Passport, Translation, Writers | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments