“Making Sense of the Confusion of Tongues” (by Bertil Falk)

Bertil Falk is a Swedish newspaper and TV journalist, an author of mystery fiction, a translator, and a former editor of DAST magazine (a Swedish journal devoted to detective stories, science fiction, and fantasy). His first novel saw print when he was only twenty, but then forty years intervened when he was mostly engaged in journalism and other nonfiction projects. The latest of his nonfiction titles is 2016s Feroze, the Fogotten Gandhi, which has been described as a necessary book about a neglected man. Bertils  short fiction appeared in EQMM in 2004 (self-translated from the Swedish) and he was the translator for the Ulf Durling story Windfall, which appeared in last years November EQMM.  With so many parts of the world within his ken, and so much personal experience of translation, he is the perfect person to talk about how different languages may be employed in works of fiction. —Janet Hutchings

I have always been interested in language and what we can do with it. For sure, things have been done—and there are extremes: Just take a look at language teacher James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, where he breaks every conceivable linguistic law, using words from every language he knew (and they were not few).

At the end of 2016, the TV series Midnightsun (French title: Jour Polaire)—a coproduction between French Canal+ and Swedish public television—was shown in France and Sweden. The story takes place in Paris and the Swedish province of Lappland, which provides viewers with awe-inspiring landscapes.

The story begins with BANG: A man tied to the rotating rotor of a helicopter; the rotor rotates faster and faster; it is like giving the beginning the form of an O. Henry ending. The man is screaming for help in French and English. Not surprising, the people behind the story have not been able to match the beginning with a similar BANG at the end of the series. The series was a success and reviewers praised it. But that is not the point here.

In this mystery with gory murders, at least five or six languages are spoken: French, Swedish, Lappish (or Sami language), Finnish, and above all, English.

Does it sound messy?

It is not.

Thanks to subtitling instead of dubbing, it worked very well. People speaking different languages gave the story a certain touch of authenticity. That is the way it works in the living life of the real world. So why scrap it from our efforts to describe what happens in that world of ours?

Anyway, a French citizen has been murdered in northern Sweden. A French police officer from a minority group in France travels to the mining town of Kiruna, where she confronts her Swedish counterpart, who is a gay man (with a teenage daughter) from the Sami indigenous population. She on her part has a traumatic relationship with a teenage son. The Swedish police officer can’t speak French. The two must speak English, but her English is not very good.

Kahina Zadi (played by Leïla Bekhti) is the French homicide investigator and Rutger Burlin (Peter Stormare) is the Swedish investigator. Leïla Bekhti had to pick up English in a painstaking way within four months and Peter Stormare had an even more difficult task, since he not only had to pick up the particular dialect of Swedish spoken in Lappland, but he also had to learn the Sami language, which unlike English, French, and Swedish is not even an Indo-European language, but belongs to the Uralic language family.

One of the reasons that young Scandivian people are good at English is the fact that movies and TV productions are subtitled. Anyone who has been in Germany and seen, not to mention heard, Humphrey Bogart speaking German knows that dubbing is a disaster. Bogart’s voice is simply a part of his personality. Similarly, with dubbing, a Japanese movie is sort of stripped of its soul. As a Chinese proverb says: Every language you pick up gives you an extra soul.

Will Midnightsun set a trend? Why not? Or is it, rather, the symptom of a trend? Perhaps. There is more and more cooperation over the borders between TV companies. Globalisation has created new ways of producing things and that affects even the production of movies and TV. And as Midnightsun shows, or perhaps proves, it also points at a healthy way of considering the standing of languages in the 21st century.

Posted in Editing, Fiction, Genre, Guest, International, Magazine, Passport, Thrillers, Writers, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Clive Cussler and the RTS Zavala: Cheers to a Real Life Captain of Adventure” (by William Dylan Powell)

William Dylan Powells first fiction, the comic Evening Gold, appeared in EQMMs Department of First Stories in November 2006, and went on to win that years Robert L. Fish Memorial Award. Prior to his fiction debut, he had already begun to publish nonfiction, primarily about Texas history, something he continues to this day.  One of his recent book projects fuses his love of history, humor, and mystery; its Untimely Demise: A Miscellany of Murder, a darkly humorous presentation of 365 deadly deeds.In recent years the author (who is, by day, the head of an advertising agency) has been contributing stories in a series starring unlicensed P.I. Billy Raskolnikov and his monkey Ringo to EQMM. The latest of those stories draws on some fascinating aspects of Texas history, as described in this post; it appears in our March/April issue (in stores 2/21).—Janet Hutchings 

People have been building model ships since 3,000 BC. In ancient Greece, Egypt, and Phoenicia, model ships were used as household decorations, sacrifices, toys, and even burial offerings. Archeologists have learned a lot about how real-life ancient sailing vessels used to look and work from remnants of these artifacts, and it’s an art form that continues to this day—even as modern-day naval ships have become marvels of modern technology.

In my short story “The Model Citizen,” which appears in this year’s March/April EQMM, I wanted to write about a stolen model ship. My own real-life attempts to build a model anything usually turn out looking like an MK Ultra LSD experiment that was damaged in shipping. But some people build amazing, true-to-life model ships that are beautiful and inspiring; I wanted to write about those kinds of models; the kind that, like many hobbies, can be an incredibly personal obsession.

The story is part of my Redfish Bay series, set on the Texas coast in the 1980s, so I also wanted the specific model ship I showcased to reflect Texas’ little-known naval heritage. When Texas was its own independent nation (1836-1845) it had its own modest naval fleet. So I chose a real-life ship from that Republic of Texas Navy called the Zavala as the story’s featured model. Named after the first Vice President of the Republic of Texas, Lorenzo de Zavala, the 201-foot steam-powered schooner sported riverboat-like paddlewheels and four 12-pound guns.

Doing a little due diligence on the real-life ship behind the model in my story, I stumbled upon an unexpected backstory about how the Zavala made waves almost 150 years after it last took to Gulf waters. And you know who the hero was? New York Times Best Selling author Clive Cussler.

I don’t know how I never knew about this, but apparently Cussler doesn’t just write amazing naval adventures—he lives them too. And has now for decades.

Cussler was in the navy. After a period spent as an advertising copywriter and creative director (it happens to the best of us), he went on to write more than 70 action-packed novels. Many were maritime thrillers with titles such as Deep Six, Atlantis Found and Poseidon’s Arrow, sporting historic twists and making use of both his naval experiences and his talent for writing switchback tales of adventure.

Already a legend in the 1980s, he had also successfully turned an organization that was once a fictional part of his novels—the National Underwater and Marine Agency—into a real-life not-for-profit that finds, surveys, and conserves shipwreck artifacts. One day, in recognition for his efforts, the governor of Texas at the time awarded Cussler the honorary title of Admiral of the Texas Navy (honorary because there no longer is one). Cussler joked that since he was an admiral now, all he needed was a ship.

And putting his skills to good use, he found one.

He determined that the RTS Zavala was the Republic of Texas shipwreck that would be the most findable (the others having been sunk, lost in storms, and the like). The vessel had been grounded in 1842 at the port of Galveston in a place called Bean’s Wharf. The ship was gutted a few years later, its engines sold. And year after year it slowly sank into the murk as the city grew around it and all who knew her firsthand were lost in the sands of time.

Conducting and analyzing historical research—going over surveys and charts and maps spanning over 150 years of Galveston’s history—Cussler pinpointed the location he believed the Zavala wreckage to sit undisturbed. Bean’s Wharf was long gone, and the location today is a parking lot next to a grain elevator.

Cussler and his team performed studies with a magnetic locator—which indicated large targets in the area. Then he hired a drilling crew to draw core samples from the location. The cores revealed coal (as you’d find in a ship’s boiler) and a big thick patch of wood plated with copper (as was the ship’s hull). He then rented a backhoe and dug carefully on the spot—hitting what he thought to be a ship’s boiler at a depth of about 12 feet.

After all those years, Cussler had truly unearthed a treasure of Texas naval history. Not only was it a really neat thing to do, but it was also a big deal in terms of Texas and American naval history. There were only around a dozen ships in the Texas Navy during its various Republic Era iterations; and here was one that could potentially be excavated.

In the movies, when a find like this occurs, experts swoop in and begin an immediate Indiana Jones style operation. In real life, after a discovery like this, everybody asks: “Who’s going to pay for everything?” So while Cussler had made an amazing discovery, big bucks would be needed to move from discovery to recovery. Cussler’s find went mostly unappreciated by state leaders in Austin.

If you’re a lover of lost treasures, check out accounts of not only the Zavala find but also other real-life shipwreck-finding adventures in The Sea Hunters and Sea Hunters II, both by Clive Cussler and Craig Dirgo. These nonfiction accounts detail Cussler’s hunt for famous shipwrecks worldwide. You can even watch two seasons of the Sea Hunters video series staring Clive Cussler on Amazon Prime (each installment showcases the hunt for a different ship).

The thing about real estate is they’re not making any more of it. In 2015, the Port of Galveston made plans to develop the area, hiring archeologists to review the Zavala find. The Port of Galveston disagreed with the claim that Cussler had found the Zavala and offered the opinion that what he had found was an old railcar or engine. A port spokesperson told the Houston Chronicle in 2015 that the ship could be there, just not “in the area where we are interested in doing our building.”

The port continues its plans to develop the area, but whatever Cussler uncovered remains underground (his team is still confident they found the Zavala on the site). Google Earth shows the area as still a parking lot although I’m not sure if they’ve actually built over it yet or not.

But one thing is certain—Cussler’s discovery of what may be the Republic of Texas’ only recoverable ship not only generated excitement in the Texas and naval history communities, but also helped prove that you don’t need fancy PhDs and big research grants to hunt down some of history’s most intriguing treasures. Sometimes all you need is a little passion for the mysteries of the deep—and a lot of patience.

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“Mystery and Suspense in Poetry” (by Jackie Sherbow)

There isnt an author for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine or Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine who has not corresponded, at some point, with the magazines associate editor, Jackie Sherbow. For the past six years, she has been an integral part of the Dell mystery magazines team, brightening every day for the rest of the staff with her cheerfulness, energy, and capable handling of all that finds its way to her desk. What most of those who know her are probably unaware of, though, is that these are not the only magazines to which Jackie has a connection. In her free time, she volunteers her talents as associate editor for Newtown Literary Journal. EQMM has had many assistant, associate, and managing editors who were also writers (most famously, novelist and magician Clayton Rawson), but we have never before had someone in the position whose primary field is poetry. What makes this even more remarkable is that Jackies current counterpart with the Dell science fiction magazines, Emily Hockaday, is also a published poet, a fact that highlights a kinship between the short story and the poem. Weve explored before on this site the affinity between poetry and mystery, and in this post Jackie illuminates it with compelling examples. Readers whod like to sample Jackies own poetry should go to: Go Places (Issues 5 and 6), Bluestockings Magazine, and The Opiate.—Janet Hutchings

“Thanks for the tree between me and a sniper’s bullet.”

These are the two opening lines of the poem “Thanks” by American poet Yusef Komunyakaa—but I think they’d make an enticing hook for a mystery story. As a poet, a mystery-fiction editor, and a reader of both genres and forms, I’ve often been struck by the relationship between poetry and mystery fiction, particularly when it comes to a poem’s language and structure.

Poetry has an important connection to the American mystery genre—and particularly the short-story side of it, as Edgar Allan Poe is considered by many to have written the first mystery short story. EQMM specifically has a noteworthy history with poetry. Frederic Dannay had a bond with the form, which you can read more about in Janet Hutchings’ post from June 2015. Furthermore, the magazine publishes poetry; many readers will remember the “Detectiverses” and “Criminalimericks” that were at a time found often in EQMM’s pages: short, rhyming verses, usually including a puzzle or a punch-line. And verse by EQMM authors such as William Bankier, John Dobbyn, and Donald Yates has appeared over the years.

Last year, in the March/April 2016 issue, we published a handful of Clerihews by Richard Stout, along with a bit of history by him about “the only poetic form created by a writer of detective fiction.” Along similar lines, in 1955 Frederick Dannay included a prose poem by Norman MacLeod titled “Twelve Knives” accompanied by an explanation by the author analyzing and annotating the poem. Poetry was even included in the Department of First Stories in 1969: “Acrostecs” by Laurel Anne McVicker. In his introduction, editor Dannay said, “Yes, it is stretching the form to call these three sonnets a ‘first story’—but as the first-published work of a new writer they are much too good to be passed by because of a technicality of definition . . .” So it seems that the magazine’s goal of providing a diverse collection of writing in each issue spreads across form. The magazine has a history of providing a dynamic reading experience by giving space to the criticism, history, and analysis of poetry as well as the lines of poetry themselves.

The characters that inhabit mystery stories inhabit poems, too; in poetry contemporary to classical, we find gamblers, drug dealers, money, violence, jilted lovers, and plenty of weaponry. Thematically, the heart of a poem often resides where the heart of a mystery story does. How do we handle tense situations, relationships gone wrong, frustrated hopes, and genuine or perceived injustice? What do we do with strong emotion, external pressures, and struggles with physical and mental health? Mystery writers are testing the boundaries of the self, digging for the darkness and the truth about what resides inside all of us. Poets are excavating the same thing.

But the connection that interests me most is that of the language itself. While many stories include poetic language, plenty of contemporary poetry rings with the tense and the mysterious. Many poems are full of suspense, and poets achieve this in many ways:

Pacing and Repetition

Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” is one of my favorites, largely because of the turn in the final stanza and the slowly paced build to it. The first three stanzas are carefully constructed description and consideration, unfolding as measuredly and quietly as the scene described. The tone in the final stanza is a shift, and the repetition of the final line—and the fact that it’s the first instance of repetition in the poem—gives those lines and the “promises” the poet references a deep sense of gravity. The quiet deepens and, somehow, the dark becomes darker. It’s so simple, but chill inducing.

Anne Carson’s “Thunderstorm Stack” uses short lines and tight sentences pushed through by repetition to create a quick pace in another evocation of a dark and stormy night. Her piece opens:

A bird flashed by as if mistaken then it
starts. . . .

Meter and Rhythm

Meter specifically is something that most fiction writers aren’t privy to in their prose toolbox (although I’m sure there’s someone out there who can prove that wrong). Some meters, the ones beginning with trochaic feet, are designed to start with a stressed syllable—a punch. Since most traditional English verse is iambic (and begins with an unstressed syllable), it can throw the reader off kilter from the outset, a goal achieved by many mystery writers too. Shakespeare utilized this: In Macbeth, the witches speak in an altered form of trochaic tetrameter, and in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the fairies. Poe, too, often started lines with trochees.

And what can be more jarring than interrupted meter? In “In a Station of the Metro,” a short poem by Ezra Pound, the title and first line establish an imprecise, rhythmic meter that carries onto the third line, just for the final three words to branch from it in three subsequent stresses. To me, it has a nice disruptive effect.

In a Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Line Breaks and Page Structure

Another power that prose doesn’t exactly share is the line break—something that can work as a built-in cliffhanger. The end of a line or stanza and a phrase’s enjambment onto the next creates an immediate moment of tension, often emphasizing the relationship between the connecting words, or giving multiple meanings to them. Kimiko Hahn’s poem “Alarm” is a good example of this. In the first stanza, “vanity” takes on several meanings:

In her dark she surveys empty: the vanity
from the in-law’s Bronx apartment,

And between the third and fourth stanza, a break creates suspense after the world “alarm”:

the husband’s profile, an alarm

for news and forecast. . . .

Poets can also play with how and where words appear on their pages. The end of Victor Hernández Cruz’s poem “Latin & Soul” reads:



It’s interesting to think about how a short-story writer would describe a similar scene, and create similar geography, tension, and emotion through entirely different techniques.

I’ll leave you with the final stanza of Emily Dickinson’s “Love, Part 4: Suspense”, which reads:

What fortitude the soul contains,
That it can so endure
The accent of a coming foot,
The opening of a door!

Once you’re looking for them, the connections don’t stop. Poet Stephen Dobyns has a poem dedicated to Stephen King (see “Lullaby”). “Feeling frightened? / Are you scared?” he asks. Nabokov’s 1962 novel Pale Fire is a mysterious, haunting approach to both poetry and fiction.

What are your favorites? I’d love to hear.

Many writers are quick to point out there’s “no market” for short stories or for poetry—and many readers are quick to casually stuff mystery writers and poets in their own boxes (artistically, socially, historically, and otherwise). It is hard to ignore the shuttering of small-fiction presses and literary journals, and the proliferation of nonpaying markets for poetry. I’m optimistic enough to think, though, that neither form is in danger—as I’m lucky enough to be connected to both communities, and fond enough of both to seek them out whenever I can. Whether I’m reading poetry or mystery fiction, I’m always searching for the tension between the light of day and whatever element is lurking below the surface.

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“I Know Words, the Best Words” (by Harley Mazuk)

Harley Mazuk has contributed four stories in the classical private-eye tradition to EQMM, beginning with his very first professional fiction publication, which appeared in the January 2011 issue of EQMM. Three of the stories, including the first, belong to a series starring P.I. Frank Swiver. Now, the Ohio-born author has completed his first novel, also featuring Swiver. Entitled White with Fish, Red with Murder, it will be released on February 28 by Driven Press, a new imprint based in Brisbane, Australia. In this post, Harley reflects further on a topic we reintroduced on this site a couple of weeks ago.—Janet Hutchings

Janet Hutchings’s post, “What’s in a Word” from January 11, set my thoughts wandering through the vocabulary that mystery writers use.

I’ve been taking classes through a program for retired folks at Johns Hopkins called Osher. I call it “College for Old Farts.” I mean no disrespect there; we are just old. There are more walkers than backpacks. They interrupted one class to bring in a birthday cake for Julius, a fellow student. Julius was 100 that day, and the candles set off the sprinkler system before he blew them out.

Last semester I took “International Detective Fiction.” We started out with Georges Simenon’s Inspector Cadaver. How many of you have read Simenon? Any Maigret fans? Let’s see your hands. Ah, good. Most of you are familiar with the prolific French author. How many of you have read Simenon’s Dirty Snow? Fewer hands now, I see. No matter.

According to Paul Bailey, who wrote the introduction to the 2003 Penguin edition of Inspector Cadaver, “Simenon limited himself to a vocabulary of 2,000 words, acting on the advice of Colette, who warned him against writing ‘beautiful sentences’.” Scholars with digital texts and the right software tell us now Simenon probably never wrote a book with as few as 2,000 words; the Maigret novels fall between 3,000 and 4,000. Patrick Marnham, in The Man Who Wasn’t Maigret, writes Simenon “had employed a vocabulary of 2,000 words, while admitting that he knew more for his personal use.”

I’ve been taking Shakespeare classes too. He may not have written detective stories, but he was a noir fellow (in tights). Some scholars believe William Shakespeare had a remarkably large vocabulary. I found two sites that agree that he used 31,534 different words in his collected works, and estimate “there were approximately 35,000 words that he knew but didn’t use.”

That’s like me. I know many words, some that play every day, and others that ride the bench. You can try an online test at http://testyourvocab.com/ to get an idea of the size of your vocabulary.

My vocabulary, since I started writing private-eye fiction, has leaned heavily on “Twists, Slugs, and Roscoes” compiled by William Denton. This slang glossary defines terms used by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, with a little David Goodis and James M. Cain thrown in for good measure. While I trust the authenticity of Hammett’s slang, Chandler’s is a bit suspect. He wrote in a letter in 1949 there were “only two kinds [of slang] that are any good: slang that has established itself in the language and slang that you make up yourself.” Thus, if the word didn’t exist in American slang usage, he coined it, like “loogan,” which Marlowe defined as “a guy with a gun.”

Of course, because I set my stories in the mid-twentieth century, any increases to my vocabulary from the ’40s and ’50s are matched by the subtractions of words that did not exist then, such as bromance, cyberstalking, staycation, or . . . blog.

The last book we read in International Detective Fiction was Michael Dibdin’s Dead Lagoon, in the Aurelio Zen series. I have been trying to read mysteries carefully now that I play at writing them and I sat there with highlighter in hand, determined to keep straight in my mind clues, little details, and the Chandleresque plot. But I soon found myself highlighting words—wonderful unfamiliar words that Dibdin dropped into the Venetian canal of his narrative: caul, thole, plashing, wherry, niffy. I wondered if Shakespeare used those words. Some of them sound right out of Macbeth.

I tried a fancy word in my first novel, White with Fish, Red with Murder. My femme fatale Cicilia Ricci has green eyes that are irresistible to private eye Frank Swiver. I called them “smaragdine” eyes. I cannot recall where I first encountered smaragdine, an adjective form of the noun “smaragd,” a middle English word from the Latin “smaragdus”, from the Greek “smaragdos,” meaning emerald. But “emerald eyes” sounded a bit tired to me, and Cici’s were not tired eyes. They have considerable power over a down-at-the-heels private dick. I needed something a little more potent, so:

A short black dress, low cut, raven-dark hair, smaragdine eyes that almost glowed, over robust cheekbones—it was Cicilia Ricci, girl of my dreams.

This sailed along fine until my “substantive edit,” this summer, in which my editor wrote: “Many readers will not know what ‘smaragdine’ is, so best to use something that people will understand. Also it’s not a nice sounding word.”

I wondered if Dibdin worried that I might not know a thole if it bit me on the butt, or that caul is not a nice-sounding word. But I appreciated the editor’s efforts, and Cici now has emerald eyes.

This brings my meandering thoughts full circle to Janet Hutchings’s post, in which she writes, “ . . . over the past fifty years most Americans have become more sensitive about the use of words that could insult or offend.” During the last ten years of my illustrious government career I was a writer, a content provider for our web sites, and along the way, an editor. People who reviewed my work often called me to their management cubicles, in the early stages of some paroxysm or another, to say, “You can’t write that! Someone will be offended.”

Ah, but having left the yoke of the Treasury Department, I felt liberated, like Hawthorne, perhaps, stepping out of the Salem Custom House to write The Scarlet Letter. I no longer worried about offending words. I would write in a vernacular that would be true to my characters and their times.

My first appearance in EQMM was my first published story. I called it, “The Tall Blonde with the Hot Boiler,” (a title I cobbled together from “Twists, Slugs, and Roscoes.”) No edits arrived by return e-mail, so when the publication arrived I was curious to see to what extent my work had been altered. I found only one word changed. My P.I./narrator goes to pick up his car.

“A black man named George was the porter in the garage,”

the story in EQMM, (Jan. 2011) reads. But I remembered my manuscript clearly:

“A colored man named George was the porter in the garage.”

“Colored man” seemed to me to be an acceptable way of referring to a black man with no ill will in 1948 when the story took place. I, as writer, hadn’t intended to insult—neither had my character, as narrator, intended to. But I have seen how language can have unintended hurtful results, and I for one am happy to accept edits rather than hurt or offend anyone. As Ms. Hutchings wrote, “Words matter.”

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“Collaborative Sleuthing: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Stu Palmer’s and Craig Rice’s Withers/Malone Team-Ups in EQMM” (by Arthur Vidro)

Many EQMM readers will know Arthur Vidro as the contributor of two online stories: “The Ransom of EQMM #1” and “The Mistake on the Cover of EQMM #1.” The latter formed the basis for our 75th Anniversary Contest of 2016. Both stories, incidentally, are still available. The author is also a freelance fiction editor, who specializes in mysteries, and an expert on all things related to classical detective fiction (especially the works of Ellery Queen).  He publishes a thrice-yearly print journal devoted to the traditional mystery called (Give Me That) Old-Time Detection.  Some of the material that follows was first published there.Janet Hutchings  

Authors teaming up in the mystery world are few and far between. Sure, the Ellery Queen cousins (Fred Dannay and Manny Lee) teamed up in writing mysteries featuring sleuth Ellery, their joint creation. Likewise for Emma Lathen (Mary Latsis and Martha Henissart) and the sleuth they created, John Putnam Thatcher. Married couple Frances and Richard Lockridge teamed up to give us their married-couple sleuthing team of Mr. and Mrs. North.

Perhaps the collaborative duo with the most sleuths jointly created were Richard Levinson and William Link, who teamed up to create Columbo (now of Peter Falk fame) when they penned the stage play Prescription: Murder. They would go on to create other sleuths too, including Jessica Fletcher of Murder, She Wrote.

Far more rare, though, is when two writers with individual success and individual sleuths collaborate, allowing their sleuths to work together. The best example that comes to mind is Bill Pronzini and his Nameless Detective teaming up with Marcia Muller and her sleuth Sharon McCone. In their case, the teaming-up was logistically made easier by the authors being husband and wife.

Now imagine two successful mystery writers teaming up, each bringing their own sleuth to the table, in the days before the Internet, in the days when long-distance telephone calls were too expensive to allow for lengthy chats—and when one of them often had no phone at all. That was the situation when Stuart Palmer (and his sleuth Hildegarde Withers) teamed up with Craig Rice (and her sleuth John J. Malone).

In the words of mystery scholar Art Scott, “Withers and Malone proved a natural yin-yang pairing—boozy, skirt-chasing lawyer versus prim spinster—and the tales are great fun.”

The six Withers/Malone tales would be published as People vs. Withers & Malone (1963, Simon and Schuster); Ellery Queen wrote the book’s introduction, which stated:

“Once Upon a Train” was the first story in which the ever-battling Miss Withers and the ever-bibulous Mr. Malone appeared as a ’tec team, and also the first story, to the best of our recollection, in which two well-known mystery writers combined their chief characters—in this case, a dipsodetective and a spinstersleuth. . . . the great John J. Malone, a rowdy, raffish legal beagle with an irrepressible fondness for wine, women, and song, wiggles and wriggles himself into a seemingly impossible predicament, whereupon the prim and prudish super-duper snooper Hildegarde Withers extricates the perennially hungover John J.—with the extricating process always rife with risk and full o’ fun.

All six of the Withers/Malone stories were published originally in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. They were:

  1. “Once Upon a Train” (EQMM, October 1950)
  2. “Cherchez La Frame” (EQMM, June 1951)
  3. “Autopsy and Eva” (EQMM, August 1954)
  4. “Rift in the Loot” (EQMM, April 1955)
  5. “Withers and Malone, Brain-Stormers (EQMM, February 1959)
  6. “Withers and Malone, Crime-Busters” (EQMM, November 1963)

In the 1963 collection, the “Crime-Busters” tale would appear as “People vs. Withers & Malone,” the title it had when originally submitted to EQMM by Stu Palmer. The first two pair-ups were “by Craig Rice and Stuart Palmer.” But for the final four, the order of the authors in the byline was changed to “by Stuart Palmer and Craig Rice.” Read on and you’ll figure out why.

Whose idea was it to pair Withers and Malone? We don’t know. In the preface to People Vs. Withers & Malone, Stuart Palmer wrote that Rice believed it was Palmer’s idea, that editor Queen believed it was Rice’s idea, and that Palmer himself believed it was Queen’s idea.

He also wrote that Rice had written to him, in a letter he still possessed: “You know, Stu, if you weren’t so tall and if you had a law degree, you’d be Malone. You wear expensive suits and dribble cigar ashes over the lapels, you follow the races and sit up all night playing poker, your secretaries all adore you, you have Malone’s taste in women, and usually his bad luck with them, and when you get high you always try to form a barbershop quartet!”

Throughout the writing of the six stories, Stuart Palmer lived in Southern California. Craig Rice lived in Southern California some of the time, in New York some of the time, and had brief stints in Mexico and New Mexico.

The First Story

The first Withers/Malone story, “Once Upon a Train,” debuted in the October 1950 EQMM, which included Queen’s introduction stating: “For the first time in homicidal history two well-known mystery authors have combined their chief characters in a single story. . . . the bibulous John J. Malone meets the babbling Hildegarde Withers.”

The two characters meet while sitting across from each other on a train. Malone’s thoughts at the time:

Her face seemed faintly familiar, and Malone wondered if they’d met before. Then he decided that she reminded him of a three-year-old who had winked at him in the paddock at Washington Park one Saturday and then run out of the money.

The tale was one of seven Second Prize winners in EQMM’s Fifth Annual Detective Short Story contest. (“The Gentleman From Paris” by John Dickson Carr took top honors that year.) The deadline for submissions to that contest was October 20, 1949.

A little insight into the collaborative process is gleaned from this letter, dated October 9, 1949, from Palmer to Fred Dannay:

From Craig a special delivery package yesterday morning at the crack of dawn, containing a lot of contributions to our joint effort. After running it through the typewriter and following most of her cuts and putting in her dialogue, I honestly feel that “You May Have the Body” represents a true collaboration, in spite of the difficulties.

Hope you like it. Of course we’ll make any changes you suggest, as we both have the highest regard for your editorial ability and your perspective. All in all, this has been a lot of fun for us and Craig wants to try it again.

She has been kind enough to let me be the one to make final decisions. As I said before, if you don’t like the thing, blame me and if you do [like it] we’ll both take bows.

This story would be published as “Once Upon A Train.” So the authors met the contest deadline with about ten days to spare. I wonder if it’s significant that Palmer relays Rice’s eagerness to collaborate again but refrains from saying the same about himself.

Dannay liked the story enough to buy it and re-title it, writing “$350” on Palmer’s letter, which obviously accompanied the manuscript.

So this first pairing was a true collaboration. But a month later Rice would be hospitalized and her contributions would become much slighter.

The Second Story

Dannay probably responded with his own eagerness to see additional Malone/Withers pairings. But then Palmer, in a letter to Dannay dated November 14, 1949, flatly states that Rice “is in no shape to do any collaboration at the moment.”

That was a gentlemanly and polite understatement.

Palmer would get a bit more specific about Rice in a letter to Dannay dated April 10, 1950:

Bluntly, she [Rice] is now trying to break the dope habit which she picked up at Camarillo.

Palmer’s assessment of Rice’s condition is corroborated in Who Was That Lady? Craig Rice: The Queen of Screwball Mystery by Jeffrey Marks (2001, Delphi). This is as close as we’ll probably ever get to a biography of Rice, who did not leave much of a paper trail behind her and whose statements were often far from the truth. The book, alas, does not mention any of Palmer’s letters to Dannay.

Marks tells us, “In November 1949, Rice was committed to Camarillo State Hospital for chronic alcoholism. Rice wouldn’t go willingly. She had to be forced into a detox program there. Nancy Atwill [a daughter of Rice] had to petition the court to admit her mother for an indefinite period of time.”

In an undated letter, circa 1950, Palmer wrote to Dannay:

. . . spent three hours with Craig, and wrote you a long letter about it last night which I have torn up. I am much distressed, as the situation is very much worse than you or I or anyone imagined. We discussed “The Tie that Binds” and at Craig’s request I am going to complete it along the lines we worked out, as best I can. Then it’s up to you. She needs the money and more than that needs the buildup to her self-esteem of having a story bought and printed.

What an odd and dismaying world it is, sometimes.

I would wager “The Tie that Binds” saw light of print as “Cherchez La Frame,” which uses Malone’s necktie, lethally bound, as a murder weapon. The undated letter was probably from 1950. Early in 1949, Rice began a two-and-a-half-year drought in which her only new fiction that I can verify as having been published were the first two Withers/Malone team-ups, “Once Upon a Train” and “Cherchez La Frame.”

Rice’s life quickly deteriorated into something resembling a badly written soap opera. From a Stu Palmer letter to Dannay, dated 10 April 1950, while “Cherchez La Frame” was being written:

Craig expects to fly to Chihuahua whenever and if ever we get our MGM dough. Bishop expects to go along and marry her after she gets a quickie divorce from the current husband, but Craig plans or says she plans to ease him out of the picture.

As you know, I had not seen her in six years or more, and the change is devastating—though she has her hair a nice soft brown color instead of its original gray or the recent jet black. She is very thin, and that afternoon was so shaky she could not sign her name.

Within a year Rice would marry Paul Bishop.

By now Palmer knows enough to qualify Rice’s stated plans as just that—statements. He no longer assumes she will do what she says she will do.

The money from MGM was for Mrs. O’Malley and Mr. Malone, a 1950 film with James Whitmore as Malone and Marjorie Main as O’Malley (a renamed Hildegarde Withers). The flick was loosely based on “Once Upon A Train.” MGM had bought rights to adapt the story however they saw fit.

Another undated letter, circa 1950, from Palmer to Dannay, discussing “The Tie that Binds”:

Wrote Craig and asked her if she felt up to reading it and adding dialogue or anything, but haven’t heard from her and imagine she is off to Chihuahua with or without Mr. Bishop, who has a police record as long as your arm—and my arm too. Maybe someday the old girl will get back in the groove again but it won’t be in the immediate future, I’m afraid.

According to Marks: Paul Bishop met Rice in 1950 when both were patients at the same mental institution; they eloped to Chihuahua, Mexico, and married in 1950 or 1951; they parted ways, without divorcing, in 1951; Bishop was Rice’s fourth husband though Rice considered him her fifth.

In any case, “Cherchez La Frame” was sold to EQMM.

The Third Story

The time came to start work on a third Withers/Malone team-up. Palmer wrote to Dannay in a letter dated 15 November 1950:

Craig has a beginning, all by herself, which she is going to type up when she gets her typewriter out of hock. I take it from there.

CR is in a bad way. Her husband, who recently dislocated her hip and shoulder, is back with her and made her apply for dismissal of the legal incompetence order, just in time to delay the sale to Metro a few weeks. Otherwise he would not have, under California law, had his legal half of her share.

Yes, husband Bishop injured Rice, not himself. “Metro” is the first “M” in MGM, which purchased an option on “Cherchez La Frame” but never filmed it.

Don’t know if or when Rice recovered her typewriter, but nothing ever became of the story beginning that she claimed to have for Palmer.

Palmer’s comment about Rice’s typewriter being in hock was no exaggeration. Referring to 1951, Marks states: “By this time, Rice’s writing was virtually non-existent. Her frequent moves and itinerant lifestyle didn’t even allow her to carry a typewriter with her. When she did manage to have a typewriter, she frequently pawned it to buy booze or to pay her way out of a jam.”

In a letter dated March 16th of an unspecified year, Palmer wrote to Dannay:

Was up in LA for the meeting of MWA [Mystery Writers of America] and thought I might see Craig there, but she didn’t show. And neither her lawyer nor agent knew where she was. I got home and found a card from her saying that she was living in a shack on the beach—no address—but could receive mail general delivery Santa Monica.

Can you imagine trying to collaborate on a mystery story with someone who lacks a telephone and even a specific address?

An undated letter—which I estimate to be from early 1953—by Palmer to Dannay tells us:

What of Craig? I promised to send her a copy of any story with Malone in it, but she seems to have dropped out of sight. Last I heard she was engaged to a millionaire from Lichtenstein and needed a quick fifty which I didn’t have.

The “millionaire” is a reference to Henri Maliverni, who Marks tells us was an unemployed writer that Rice would introduce as a wealthy man from Lichtenstein (sometimes Luxembourg or Lithuania). Rice never did wed Maliverni but did pass him off as her husband.

Palmer realized that if another Withers/Malone story would be written, he’d have to start—and probably complete—the work by himself. So Palmer soldiered on without her. Palmer wrote to Dannay this note dated 2 March 1953:

I hear nothing from Craig, and that little bad. I guess I’ll really have to do the Malone-Withers story alone, and with it forward the release from Craig or else a photostat.

Without the need to work with Rice, Palmer wrote the story and submitted it two months later to EQMM, which purchased it for $400. For this and all the remaining Malone/Withers stories the byline was flipped so that Palmer’s name came first. The third team-up (“Autopsy and Eva”) was published in 1954.

Overlooked Evidence

Palmer clearly contributed the lion’s share to these collaborations. At any rate, that’s what various commentators have speculated. But there was never any tangible evidence. Until now.

Palmer wrote Dannay a letter dated May 10, 1953. Perhaps it accompanied the manuscript of “Autopsy and Eva.” Dannay—as was often his habit—scribbled some marginal notes on the letter. One note was a reminder to send payment of $400 to purchase a story (unspecified but obviously “Autopsy and Eva”), with $300 going to Palmer and $100 earmarked for Rice—so Palmer and Rice did not receive equal pay for this story. Conclusion? Theirs was not an equal partnership.

Even more telling is another jotting by Dannay on that letter, reminding himself not to send the money to Rice; instead the $100 should be deducted “from money owing.”

This shows that Rice borrowed from Dannay (or, less likely scenario, from EQMM) and hadn’t made repayment.

This propensity by Rice to borrow is corroborated in a Palmer letter to Dannay dated May 30, 1953:

Craig is back in town with a new husband and a burning desire for a quick hundred, but since she’s never repaid anything I’ve lent her I did a quick brush off. She never gets a husband with a dime in his pocket. She says she has been writing, which I doubt and hope.

The being “back in town” refers to Rice’s return to Southern California—where Palmer lived—after spending a little over a year in New York City.

The requests for money become persistent enough that, according to a Palmer letter to Dannay dated June 26, 1953: “I have trained Winifred to say I am out of town whenever she [Rice] calls.” Winifred was Palmer’s wife from 1952 to 1963.

Story #4

Malone/Withers #4, “Rift in the Loot,” was published in the April 1955 EQMM. On the Palmer letter that presumably accompanied the manuscript and which discussed the story, Dannay penciled a note of “$400” to authorize payment and added to it “$300 – SP” and “$100 – CR.” This maintained the payment breakdown that was put in place for “Autopsy and Eva,” for which Rice had made little if any contribution. Probably the same holds true for “Rift in the Loot.” There was no notation this time to apply Rice’s payment toward debt.

However, Dannay did make an “in contest” notation, to enter the tale in the magazine’s annual competition. “Rift in the Loot” would not be one of the eleven winning stories (top honors and $1,500 in prize money went to Stanley Ellin for “The Moment of Decision”) but was among the twenty-three stories named in the runners-up “Honor Roll.”

Stories 5 and 6

EQMM published the final two Withers/Malone tales in its February 1959 and November 1963 issues. Since Rice had died in 1957 (at age 49), experts have long assumed that Palmer wrote the final two tales all by himself.

As often happens, the experts were wrong.

The following excerpt is from a letter to Dannay that Palmer dated 21 January 1961:

At long last I am sending you “People vs. Malone and Withers” [which EQMM published as “Withers and Malone, Crime-Busters”], a screwball novelette which completes the Withers-Malone partnership. It will come to you through [literary agent Scott] Meredith, because he likes it that way.

This is actually a story in which Craig did some work—she did two pages of the hospital sequence. So you can honestly say it’s a collaboration.

The End

Stuart Palmer Letters Copyright (c) 2017 by Jennifer Venola.

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As we approach the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, with so much talk in the air of “political correctness,” I thought it timely to re-post a piece I put up on this site on January 22, 2014. —Janet Hutchings

This is my first post since the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, and that day always seems to bring to mind for me some of the ways that words, both in literature and ordinary life, can impact social change. In the 1990s, MWA, through the vote of its membership, compiled a list of the “Top 100 Mystery Novels of All Time.” Number sixty on the list was Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, a novel that belongs, of course, to the mainstream of American literature as well as to crime fiction. Although it proved to be one of the bestselling novels of all time, that book was banned from many schools and libraries as soon as it began to enter curriculums in the mid 1960s. Objections to the book ranged from its depiction of an interracial attraction to its racial slurs. And it certainly isn’t the only classic of American literature tugged at by such opposing forces for censorship. In 2010, Huckleberry Finn was reissued in an edition expurgating offensive racial terms, but when it was first published, it was its use of words perceived inappropriate to polite society, like “sweat,” that kept it off shelves.

Partly as a result of the Civil Rights Movement, over the past fifty years most Americans have become more sensitive about the use of words that could insult or offend. Speaking of her childhood reading of Huckleberry Finn and her encounter with its use of what is almost universally referred to now as the ‘N word,’ author Toni Morrison has said: “Embarrassing as it had been to hear the dread word spoken, and therefore sanctioned, in class, my experience of Jim’s epithet had little to do with my initial nervousness the book had caused.” She describes being at times “embarrassed, bored, and annoyed” by the word’s use, but never fazed by it. Children sometimes seem to grasp better than adults that the power of a word lies in its context and intention, and it seems to me that this is one of many arguments that could be put forth for leaving a masterpiece of children’s literature like Twain’s as written—especially since that particular book aimed to expose not sanction the racism of its day. We can understand, though, why adults would want to protect children from the impact of words with a long history of intent to wound, and for that reason I doubt this issue with regard to literature will ever be laid to rest. The fact that it has become entirely unacceptable throughout most of our society to use words that involve racial or ethnic slurs not only in business and government but in private discourse has probably helped to make our country more tolerant. But what do we say about a work of literature that seeks to represent society as it is, that aims to capture the way that people really speak? How does one balance the desire to deprive corrupting and offensive speech from having continued currency with the need to portray what is—or in the case of an historical work was—really there?

A number of years ago, I received a cancellation letter from a subscriber who was the mother of a deaf child. We had just published Florence Mayberry’s “The Secret,” a tale told from the point of view of a young girl. Speaking of neighbors for whom she clearly has affection, the child narrator says, “ . . . you had to look right at them and move your lips slow, or use deaf-and-dumb talk with your hands like Miss Abbie did.” Our subscriber wrote that she was reduced to tears on reading that expression “deaf-and-dumb talk” and others like it in the story. For fear that her daughter might pick up the issue and read it, she destroyed it and informed us she could no longer trust what we might send to their home.

It’s easy to forget how different the use of language pertaining to all sorts of minorities, not only racial and ethnic ones, was prior to the Civil Rights Movement—to forget that other groups, based on gender, disability, and sexual orientation, were inspired by the struggle for racial equality to demand not only changes in laws but in language. The word “dumb” (in the sense of “mute”) had so thoroughly disappeared from accepted usage by the 1990s, when this story was published, that I felt it necessary to point out, in my reply letter to our subscriber, that the story had a historical setting that dated back to a time when this was the widely accepted way of referring to someone without oral speech—and that it had not been intended, in most contexts, to insult. Certainly not in the way that racial epithets are intended to insult.

This was to me a clear-cut case of potentially hurtful language being necessary for the story—and it was a story I thought deserved to be published—to be believable. But that didn’t mean I didn’t sympathize with the reader or that I failed to take the implied point that there is a relationship of trust that must exist between the editor of a subscription-based magazine and his or her readership. Had Florence Mayberry’s story been published in a book rather than a magazine, the reader, if disturbed, could simply have taken the decision never to buy a book containing work by the offending author again. Readers of a subscription magazine, however, are not making their own buying decisions. They don’t know what’s going to be coming up in the next issue; they have to trust the buyer of the fiction that’s being delivered to their door—and that, of course, is the editor. I had violated this reader’s trust, and it was something that bothered me even though I thought I’d made the right decision in publishing the story. It’s possible that at the more “literary” end of the fiction spectrum, this sort of problem of balancing readers’ sensitivities and the artistic demands of the fiction itself occurs less frequently. With a broad-based popular-fiction magazine like EQMM, it comes up often, and it causes me to think that we may have become over-sensitized to the potential derogatory connotations of expressions that most often are actually used in a purely descriptive way.

Curiously, that hypersensitivity about the use of language in some areas of our culture coexists with what I find to be some very reckless and harmful uses of language in the current political realm. Think of the way the word “evil” has reemerged in the past couple of decades. Politicians have come to savor this word, using it in reference to one foreign regime after another, and to denounce those on the other side of all sorts of important issues (“evil Obamacare” and “evil cuts to unemployment benefits” are two instances I’ve seen recently). But it’s not just politicians and cable news commentators with whom that word is becoming more popular. It may seem odd for a mystery editor to object to careless use of that particular word. After all, crime fiction often turns on an uncompromising division of the world into good and evil. An article in the New Yorker a couple of years ago about Swedish crime writer Stieg Larsson speculated that one of the reasons for the phenomenal popularity of his books is precisely that, morally speaking, he acknowledges no shades of gray: “the truly innocent at the mercy of the truly evil . . . the absolutist morals of Larsson’s books . . . may be a powerful selling point,” the article’s author, Joan Acocella, remarked. But why, I wonder, is that kind of moral absolutism proving so popular in fiction now? Could it be that the kind of language that prevails in a culture solidifies a type of thinking? The belief that it does was, after all, the reason people fought so hard to change the way minorities were referred to.

I find moral absolutism, and therefore the kind of language that entrenches it, disturbing. Moral perspectives that admit no shades of gray take us further from King’s dream of transforming “the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood,” since absolutists obviously do not all agree on what is black and what is white. Words matter. Had Dr. King been less eloquent, less attuned to the many shades of meaning words carry, he might not have been able to transform our nation the way he did. If only more of our current public figures remembered that.—Janet Hutchings

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Linking the past and the present: That’s a theme you find in song (“Auld Lang Syne”) and in images and news stories relating to the new year, and hard as I try to tell myself that the turning of the calendar page to January is no more significant than the passage to any other month, there seems to be no escaping the reflections it brings. This year, the page-turning is especially poignant. EQMM has just spent an entire year looking back at its history and accomplishments, reuniting with old friends and supporters, and enjoying the celebration of its 75th anniversary at events sponsored by Columbia University.

In the course of the past year I’ve reflected often about the many people and experiences that have defined my own quarter century at EQMM, and I’ve found that my recollections sometimes differ slightly from those others have of the same events. I was struck by this as I listened to the panels at the EQMM 75th Anniversary Symposium this past September, and I think such differences in the shadings and interpretation of memory are what one should expect.

Memory may be the chain binding old and new, but it has many unreliable links, from a factual standpoint, and it’s probably a good thing it does, for it’s often memory’s creative distortions that provide the engine to drive us forward. As I look back over the past twenty-five years, certain events, both good and bad, loom larger than rationality dictates they should. I’m sure that if I were questioned about the details of these occurrences with the rigor of a good interrogator, my memory would prove to be fallible in significant respects. But I don’t always wish to put the picture in better perspective, because I think it’s sometimes memory’s impressionistic renderings that provide the best guide for where to head next. Where, for instance, would our culture be without the drive forged in so many people by exaggerated recollections from childhood?

If we all had perfectly accurate memories, without gaps or creative embellishments, mystery fiction too would, I think, be incalculably impoverished. Take away books that turn on the suppression by memory of harrowing acts like murder, and we’d lose such important parts of the crime canon as Agatha Christie’s last published novel, Sleeping Murder. Without memory’s ability to manufacture things that never happened at all, we’d be without novels like Sue Grafton’s U Is for Undertow. And many of the great interrogation scenes in courtroom mysteries would be rendered pretty lame if John Q. Witness were always found either correct or a liar—rather than misled, in details big and small, by his own memory.

There are a very small number of people who have what is called “superior autobiographical memory.” They have, apparently, perfect recall of every day of their lives, starting at varying points in childhood. One of the interesting things I’ve read about these extraordinary people is that they don’t simply remember facts—everything from the weather to current events to what everyone they encountered said and did on literally any given date—they also have complete recall of their emotions relative to those events. They describe their memories as like being there, living it all over again.

I wonder what the world would be like if everyone had the superior recall of these memory savants. Certainly human societies would have evolved very differently from the way they have; for one thing, maybe we’d have a more reliable justice system. The ordinary human memory is apparently so fallible that separate witnesses to the same event, questioned within minutes of the occurrence, frequently give conflicting accounts of what happened, and this is becoming a recognized problem with eyewitness testimony in the solution of crime. Some might consider this a problem of perception, but it seems to me that most perceptions we’ve had time to give voice to may already have been given a creative interpretation by memory.

One of the things that was so fascinating about the EQMM symposium at Columbia was that some of the impressionistic recollections of panel participants could be seen side by side, so to speak, with the factual record provided by documents in the EQMM exhibition we visited afterwards. Most often, the latter bore out the former, but with details that filled in the picture in interesting ways (especially as regards Fred Dannay’s correspondence with authors and some of his edited manuscripts). I came away feeling that we need both the factual record and the impressionistic one provided by human memory in order to form a vital image of the past.

As we look ahead to 2017 and beyond, it will be with some deep impressions left by our 75th anniversary retrospective fueling our forward impetus. We enter 2017 with a new format—six double issues per year—and this change presents both opportunities for innovation and challenges to retaining the character of a magazine that has been prized by its readers for so long. If we can start to meet that challenge in 2017 in a way that inspires the kind of energy amongst readers that we saw in 2016, it will be a happy new year for us indeed.

We wish all of you a productive, creative, and happy new year too!

—Janet Hutchings



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“Trust Me, I’m a Doctor” (by Manju Soni)

An eye surgeon turned author, Manju Soni has written nonfiction for the Apeiron Review and other journals. Her debut short story, “The Game,” appears in the current issue of EQMM (January/February), in the Department of First Stories. It’s a tale that combines psychological suspense with a keen awareness of the drama of nature. In this post the author talks a little about how her two careers converge.—Janet Hutchings

It was ten o’clock in the morning and the sun was shining over the hospital gardens. The neurologist, a tall man with a receding hairline and a kindly face, approached the elderly man’s bedside. The man was not his patient, he had been asked to give a second opinion on the patient by a colleague. The senior nurse in charge of the ward, a stolid bundle of efficiency, ordered her junior nurses to draw the curtains as she scrambled to keep up with him.

The patient’s eyes were closed and he looked as if he was asleep, but he was in fact almost unconscious. His face was covered in a prickly grey stubble. He mumbled incoherently as the neurologist tried to rouse him. After he had examined the patient, the neurologist examined the CT scan and then the MRI and then the X-rays and then the twenty or so blood tests that had been done.

While he was reviewing the HIV test results, he glanced up to see the patient’s wife walking in. She was tall and well built, about seventy, the neurologist guessed. She was pretty and the turquoise saree suited her rather fair complexion, as did the large, red bindi (dot) on her forehead.

“Good morning,” he nodded briefly.

“Good morning Doctor. How is he doing?”

“I’m not sure exactly, it’s the first time I’m seeing him.” Of course he could have just said something like, “Slightly better,” but that was not him, he couldn’t lie as easily as some of his colleagues.

“Did the test results show anything?”

“Only that he has large hemorrhages on both sides of his brain. We can’t understand why he has these matching lesions. Can you please tell me exactly what happened.”

He sat her down on a chair next to the bed and pulled one up for himself.

“Start at the beginning please.”

He listened carefully as she described her husband’s mild dizziness in the morning, two days before.

“I thought it was due to his low blood sugar. He hadn’t eaten much the night before, and he had taken his sugar pill, and his baby aspirin.”

The doctor nodded.

“And then when he tried to get out of bed, he fell,” she said.

“He fell? And did he hurt himself?”

“Not really. He knocked his head against the bedside cabinet, that’s all.”

And with that, the mystery of the cause of the bilateral parietal lobe hemorrhages my father-in-law had suffered, was solved. The mild head injury combined with being on low-dose aspirin had most likely caused his bleeds. Sadly he died a year later.

Every patient has a story to tell, and every doctor becomes a repository of these stories. Doctors are uniquely privileged to be both observers and participants at the frontline between life and death, a zone where some of the greatest dramas and mysteries of the human experience unfold and reveal themselves, often to young, impressionable minds. Sometimes these stories cannot be contained and find their way out into the world, through the pen or a keyboard.

Often the stories are no longer than flash-fiction pieces. Like the time I, as a medical intern, was trying to complete my course requirement of delivering at least twenty babies. I was gloved and examining a young woman in advanced labor. I tried to assess how far dilated she was, when I felt the baby suck on my fingers! I was so startled and in fact terrified that I pulled my fingers out at lightening speed and stared at them to see if they were still intact. The nurses around me had a good laugh. The baby was a face presentation. Luckily the birth was uneventful, except for the baby’s bright red face, which matched mine.

Sometimes the stories are tragic, like physician Anton Chekhov’s story “Sleepy” about an exhausted teenage nanny who falls into that twilight zone between sleep and wakefulness while tending to her master’s son. I have no doubt the story is drawn from Chekhov’s own experience of late nights and lack of sleep as a doctor.

Sometimes the stories are well researched and beautifully written musings about history, life, and death, like physician Siddhartha Mukherjee’s exquisite Pulitzer Prize-winning The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, or New Yorker writer and surgeon Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End.

And at other times they are the author warning us about the possibilities of the uncontrolled commercialization of science. A classic example is physician Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park about uncontrolled genetic engineering, made so much more compelling because we see how easily it could be true.

Of course sometimes the stories are good rollicking fun. The inimitable Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the uber-logical “consultant detective” Sherlock Holmes, ophthalmologist Robin Cook, the father of the medical-thriller genre, and physician Tess Gerritsen, one of the few women doctor-writers, are masters of the crime and suspense thriller, all of whom have delivered years of entertainment and vicarious fear to readers all over the world. Of course most of what they write would have Hippocrates turning in his grave.

I find myself writing not so much about my patients but about the brutal system of apartheid and its impact on them. Like my essay in TheEstablishment.com about a young patient who had visited a back-door abortionist, or the unpublished story about the elderly African man who had to travel hundreds of miles to have his cataract removed, and who was so happy to be able to see again he went home and returned with a cow as a gift for us. My other passion is psychological suspense, like my story, “The Game,” in the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, January 2017 issue, about a young woman who is pregnant with twins, trapped on an island during a storm.

But when all is said and done, what we doctors learn during our work is that when we humans are unclothed and dressed in those annoying butt-exposing hospital gowns, we are all, rich and poor, men and women, doctor and patient, the same. And this is often most poignantly captured by doctor-writers like neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi, who penned his beautiful memoir, When Breath Becomes Air, while being both a doctor and a patient undergoing chemotherapy for advanced lung cancer. He died at the age of thirty-seven. In an interview with NPR, his wife, Lucy, said, “He really returned to literature to cope.”

And, perhaps this is what so many of us do when we read.

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“Of Jigsaws, Roller Coasters, Crosswords, and Mazes” (by A.J. Wright)

Although his work appears in EQMM for the first time in our January/February 2017 issue, on sale December 20, A.J. Wright is a historical mystery novelist who already has three books to his credit, all belonging to a series set in his native Lancashire. The first book, 2010’s Act of Murder, won the Dundee International Book Prize. The second, Striking Murder, was shortlisted for the British Crime Writers’ Association’s award for best historical crime novel. A third book, Elementary Murder, is about to be released. In this post we get a glimpse of what led the former teacher to write fiction, and a hint of what we can expect to find in his novels and stories.—Janet Hutchings

We all love being fooled, hoodwinked, or deceived, but never lied to. I’m not talking about real life, of course, but in our reading of mystery stories and novels. It’s part of the unwritten agreement we have with our author when we turn to that first page, that sense of anticipation that sooner or later on our voyage through the pages we’ll be tricked in some way with a masterly stroke of misdirection.

Actually, the first time I met with misdirection was from something my mother used to say to me.

Constantinople is a very big word. Spell it.

As I struggled with the spelling of the “big word” she would laugh and point out that she had asked me to spell a very simple word—it—and I had failed.

Mind you, I was only 27 at the time.

But I reckon that’s what attracts us to mystery writing: the certain knowledge that the writer will try, and hopefully succeed, to misdirect our attention in some way. The greater the deception, the better we feel.

Lateral-thinking puzzles do it all the time. Legend tells us that the first example of lateral thinking came in ancient Greece, when the Sphinx, an evil monster, attacked and killed visitors to the city of Thebes where it stood guard. It asked them this riddle, and when they couldn’t answer, it savaged them to death:

What goes upon four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three legs at night?

Oedipus gave the right answer—Man in his progress through life—and the Sphinx stormed off in anger. (The four legs are a baby crawling; two legs, man walking in his prime; three legs point to his need in old age for a walking stick.)

Actually, that’s not a good example, is it? I mean, the ones who couldn’t answer the question didn’t say, Hey, what a cool riddle! It’s difficult to be positive when you’re a Sphinx’s dinner.

Seriously, though, mystery writers feed off (no pun intended) this basic human trait: the need to be faced with a problem, a puzzle, and then we can pit our wits in trying to solve it. Many of us enjoy jigsaw puzzles, where the task of piecing together all of the different sections is somehow calming and frustrating in equal measure. The similarities and differences with reading a mystery novel, especially my favourite, the whodunit—are obvious. A jigsaw puzzle gives us the answer to the puzzle—the whole picture—immediately. There’s no real mystery as we know what the end product will look like. That would be anathema to us readers if we were given all the answers in the prologue:

Colonel Theobald Fortescue will kill three people with a little-known poison, and it will take all the genius and clear thinking of Inspector Solomon to bring him to justice. It all started one evening . . .

And yet we spend days, even weeks, filling in our jigsaw to produce the picture we were presented with on the front of the box!

Still, completing them is a challenge, and we sometimes struggle to fit a piece into its rightful place. We have the visual clue as to where it should go, of course . . . and there’s that immense feeling of satisfaction in putting in that final piece and also closing that final page.

This voluntary need for confusion followed by revelation is what drives us on from one story or novel to the next. And while other genres do bring satisfaction when conflicts are resolved and relationships enhanced (or ruined), I think that the mystery novel fulfils our desire for puzzlement in a much more basic and satisfying way. Novels in other genres might occasionally balk at the structural importance of a beginning, a middle, and an end. I’ve read some novels—unnamed—where I’ve been left with a feeling very much of dissatisfaction, a sense that the author has not explained the ending with any coherence or consideration. Mind you, how many films have you watched and been left with that same What the . . . feeling?

I know the arguments that will be put forward:

But real life isn’t like that.

Novels surely need to reflect the real world where there is a sense of dissatisfaction or incompleteness . . .

Problems don’t always get solved.


True. But if I want the real world I can switch on the TV or walk down the street at midnight. When I pay good money to read a novel—a mystery novel, because that’s what I like and I know (hope) it will entertain me—I don’t want the real world—the real real world to intrude. I want to escape from the real world and enter a world where I can take up the author’s challenge, read the clues he/she presents and tries to hide in open view, and solve the mystery before those final revelatory pages.

That world bears a passing resemblance to the real world, of course—it has to do, to create that air of credibility—but we know that by the end, when the villain has been exposed, order will finally be restored.

I’ll hold my hand up and say, Yes, that’s escapism. Shoot me.

It’s also a matter of trust. We trust our author to play fair with us and lay down certain clues as to the identity of the murderer, but we also trust that he or she will plant those clues in such a deceitful way as to mislead us. But the key element here is trust.

In a way it’s that same feeling of trust that we place in the operator of a roller coaster. We know it’s going to be a thrilling journey with ups and downs and twists and turns and a slow pace and a frantic pace, but we have an abiding faith in the way the operator is controlling the pace of the thing, a firm belief in how the ride will end:

Safely, but with that sensation of Wow, let’s do that again!

But I’m a writer, too, and from a writer’s point of view, all of this places a great burden on my shoulders. I want to deceive honestly. So I’ll offer my reader the evidence he or she will need to solve the puzzle, but I’ll also throw metaphorical sand in their eyes to blind them.

Where else but in a mystery story would you trust someone more the more they deceived you?

Crossword compilers do this, don’t they? The cryptic ones, at any rate. They’ll offer you a clue but disguise it in such a way that you’ll either tear your hair out trying in vain to solve it, or jump three feet in the air when you get the answer! Here’s an easy clue I made earlier (but kindly refrain from looking down at the end of this blog. That’s cheating and comparable to glancing furtively at the last chapter of a whodunit when you’re only half way through!).

Golden Age writer’s story about lady on shore?*

Easy? Or frustrating? Remember, no peeking! And work it out without any indication as to number of letters. If I gave you that, you’d get the answer easily. So, tough!

Whether the story or novel is a cosy or hardboiled, historical or modern, there’s always that confidence (or should I say hope?) that the pace of the novel will match our expectations. Cosies, at one extreme, are more sedate and less shocking than noirs. A cosy is when you read a murder mystery in your own bedroom. A noir is when you read one in a motel (one of the Bates chain). When I’m reading a cosy, for example, I expect it to be like entering a maze, where I can walk through at a quite leisurely pace, follow the false trails until I get to the end, knowing that sometimes I’ll be helped by the maze attendant and sometimes I’ll make my own way out. Either way, it’s a delight to reach the end. An achievement.

It’s part of the human psyche then to relish the puzzle, whatever form it takes. When writing my mysteries, I’m in control (most of the time) and enjoy the laying of false trails and throwing that metaphorical sand in your eyes. Sometimes, though, I’m like the comic house painter who covers the floor with paint only to find he’s in a corner and can’t get to the exit. Going back and changing things is far less messy when you’re a writer, though—thanks to the Delete button, I leave no paint-stained footprints to highlight my foolishness!

Still, creating an intricate puzzle for readers to solve is a labour of love. Reading a puzzle so I can solve it is a love of labour (someone else’s!).

And finally, remember what the most famous detective of all, Sherlock Holmes, had to say about deception:

There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.

Keep your eyes peeled and well away from metaphorical sand. Happy reading!

* Answer to crossword clue: Dorothy L Sayers
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