Expecting the (Un)expected (by Janet Hutchings)

Ever since EQMM changed from monthly single issues to double bimonthly issues, a lot of my reading for the magazine has been concentrated in the “off” months, when there is no issue to release. This presents a challenge. No matter how much anyone enjoys reading—and I enjoy it a lot—when you read only fiction (indeed, only certain types of fiction) for many hours a day, day after day, it can be difficult to come to each new story unfatigued by what can come to feel like a sameness in themes, content, and styles. Fortunately, the crime-fiction field comprehends a vast literary space; the strength of the Dell mystery magazines, it seems to me, is precisely that there is so much variety in what we offer. But variety in the subgenres into which our submissions fall doesn’t necessarily result in a complete change of pace for us as we evaluate those submissions.

Even the most voracious readers have their favorite authors. I’m no exception. There are authors who brighten my day when their names appear in our submissions queue. Nevertheless, all authors have themes and types of characters and plot motifs that they revisit from story to story (or, for that matter, from book to book), albeit in ways that may not at first be apparent. When I am first becoming acquainted with an author’s work, it may take a while before I spot the elements that will be repeated in future submissions. It can be something as large as a type of plot—an author is irresistibly drawn to conspiracy stories, for example. Or it can be something as small as a descriptive element—such as always mentioning the specific height of each character (as one of our award-winning authors often does). In between those big and small preoccupations, there are innumerable ways in which the things that absorb a given writer shape the story. I recently listened to an audiobook by an author I’ve read before (and like) whose approach is mostly realistic, with the exception of a slight slant towards what seem to me to be unrealistically dark outcomes. 

There is nothing wrong with such preoccupations or predispositions. They’re necessary, I think: Good fiction derives from concerns that are deeply absorbing to the creator. But for a professional reader it can be a challenge to put expectations based on an author’s previous work aside and see each new submission in a fresh light. When I’m feeling a little daunted looking at a particularly long list of submissions, I’ll often start by reading those that come from authors whose names I don’t recognize. My hope, I suppose, is to encounter a new voice, and to see a plot unfold without any preconceptions on my part as to how it’s going to play out. If I find something new that’s right for us, it gives me energy to delve into more of the queue.

Of course, as just about any editor at any magazine will tell you, the majority of the good submissions we receive are from established authors, with whose work we are already familiar. A lot of anthologies in our field accept only blind submissions and require that authors not employ series characters who might be recognizable to the judges. I always felt that this would be an inadequate precaution against bias if I or any of my colleagues at the Dell mystery magazines were asked to serve as an anthology judge. I was pretty confident that I would recognize the work of many of EQMM’s regular contributors even with the names stripped from the manuscripts and no series characters appearing. Yesterday, however, a misclick on my computer resulted in the opening of a submission that I believed was by one of our regular authors (whom we’ll call Author A) when it was actually by someone else we often publish (Author B). I recall thinking, as I was reading the story, that it was something of a departure for Author A. However, I happened to know that Author A had an interest in the world in which this story was set and in the subgenre to which the story belonged, so I didn’t question that it was, in fact, by Author A. It was only when I returned to the submissions list that I saw my mistake. It occurred to me, then, that it might be more interesting to read submissions if one did not know who the author was. One would be reading from a fresher perspective. In this particular case, had I realized who the author really was, I might have seen where the story was headed—because I’d have remembered how other stories by Author B had unfolded. And as I mentioned above, all authors (at least all that I’m familiar with) repeat or reuse, consciously or unconsciously, some elements of their earlier fiction.

My point in sharing these reflections is, in part, to suggest a strategy to writers in making fiction submissions. EQMM allows multiple submissions, and we truly appreciate every author who thinks of EQMM as a potential market. We try to give careful consideration to everything submitted to us. But we receive a lot of stories, and if you want your work to be read with a fresh eye, it really is best to try to space your submissions out a bit. A number of unpublished authors make a new submission to EQMM every couple of weeks, and in such cases it is nearly impossible, after many have had to be turned down, to open the next submission with the anticipation of finding a story we can use. Even established authors risk having their submissions not stand out as much as they otherwise would when a large number of stories are submitted in a short period of time. It’s sort of like binge-watching a TV series. Do you remember each episode as clearly when you watch that way as you would if the episodes were spread out as originally aired? I don’t, and the same thing holds for me with multiple story submissions from a single author.

Of course, the problem from a writer’s perspective is that there are so few good markets for short stories. How can you avoid submitting too frequently to a given publication when there are so few alternatives? I don’t have a good answer to that. All of us in the mystery community need to figure out how to generate more readers of short crime fiction. If we could crack that tough nut, a proliferation of publications would likely follow. —Janet Hutchings

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Head Trips (by L.S. Kunz)

L.S. Kunz  has received awards for her short stories and middle-grade fiction, including the Bronze Typewriter from the League of Utah Writers, but her debut story in the Department of First Stories of EQMM’s March/April 2023 issue, “Midnight Run,” is her first professionally published work of adult fiction. It’s a heart-pounding thriller that you won’t want to miss. In this post, the author points to some things mystery fiction can teach us that pertain to real life.  —Janet Hutchings

A few years back, a good friend of mine gave me a copy of The Devil in the White City. I hadn’t read Erik Larson before, and I had almost no interest in the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Still, I trusted my friend, so I opened the book. That was Saturday morning. The laundry didn’t get done that weekend, but Erik Larson’s masterpiece did. I couldn’t put it down.

I had a similar experience reading John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, a love song to 1980s Savannah, with its mossy oaks, shady squares, and unforgettable residents. Both books are true crime where murder is an excuse to immerse you in a time and place as unique as the characters who live there.

In The Monster of Florence: A True Story, Douglas Preston, with the help of his friend and fellow investigator Mario Spezi, weaves a similar tale. A series of unsolved murders provide the backdrop to explore Florence’s cramped cobblestone streets and the sweeping Tuscan countryside.

With Preston for a guide, you bask in the glow of Florence’s Renaissance past and pick through the debris of history right up to the early 2000s when Preston fulfilled the dream of moving his family to Florence.

In the shadow of Michelangelo’s David and Giambologna’s Abduction of a Sabine Woman, Preston peels back Florence’s touristy sheen to reveal an underbelly every bit as violent as the statues lining its historic streets. He lays bare the corruption and incompetence, pride and panic, beauty and banality that make modern Florence a treasure and a trash heap.

Florence’s brilliant past doesn’t immunize it from modern decay. By the time the police drive Douglas Preston from Italy and arrest Mario Spezi, you are shocked but hardly surprised. Bad identifications, false confessions, tainted crime scenes, planted evidence, fear, ego, ineptitude. It’s all in Douglas Preston’s book.

But it isn’t confined to Preston’s book. Around the world, in locales sublime and humdrum, innocent people are in prison. Right now. Convicted based on mistaken identifications or coerced confessions, faulty forensics or bad investigations. As Saul Kassin explains in Duped: Why Innocent People Confess—and Why We Believe Their Confessions, these incarcerated innocents aren’t bad people who were leading bad lives and barreling toward trouble. They are regular people. Just like us. It’s the stuff of nightmares and fiction, but it’s real.

One of my favorite things about mystery fiction is being transported to far-flung destinations. In my earliest reading memories, Mary Downing Hahn guided me into a crumbling graveyard in the wooded countryside of Holwell, Maryland. There, I perched, breathless, on the edge of a tombstone as I waited for Helen to come. Barbara Brooks Wallace tucked me behind the curtains in dreary Sugar Hill Hall, where I could sneak peeks at the forbidding Mrs. Meeching and the forbidden bowl of peppermints. Agatha Christie captained me up the Nile. Daphne du Maurier abandoned me on the windswept Cornish coast. And Mary Stewart sent me scrambling down scree and over cascading waterfalls in the French Pyrenees.  

Today, I revisit these old haunts like old friends, and seek out new mysteries set in exciting new places. But my literary journeys haven’t just transported me to new viewpoints. Without my realizing, they’ve transported me to new points of view as well. Subtly, step by step, my favorite mystery writers have taught me to look beyond the obvious. To spy the shortcuts my mind creates and reject them. To search for truth.

Books like Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman, and Rationality, by Steven Pinker, teach us that our brains naturally—and without our conscious input—simplify the world. To handle life’s complexities, our brains create shortcuts. If we want something to be true, it feels true. Even if it’s not. The more we hear something, the truer it feels. And once we’ve decided something is true, our brains filter the evidence to fit that belief.

But truth is nuanced, and justice often lies somewhere in the gray. Mystery fiction won’t let us be complacent. It teaches us to look beyond the narrative that feels true to find the real truth. The obvious suspect might be the culprit, sure. But the investigation never stops there.

As Maria Konnikova explains in The Confidence Game, “When we’re immersed in a story, we let down our guard” and “we may absorb things under the radar, so to speak.” “We may even find ourselves, later, thinking that some idea or concept is coming from within our own brilliant, fertile minds, when really it was planted there by the story we just heard or read.”

Admittedly, Konnikova was talking about con artists—how they use narrative to trick us into doing their bidding. But influence doesn’t have to be a grift. Stories turn us into better people—better citizens—even as they transport us.

Recently, Tana French’s The Searcher sent me tramping through western Ireland, across checkerboard fields, over “sprawling hedges” and “dry-stone walls,” in air as “rich as fruitcake.” I confess, when I first saw the bucolic village of Ardnakelty, I expected more of a ramble—a buddy story sprawling across the dappled countryside. Gruff but good ex-cop and grubby but guileless little girl bond while they solve the mystery of the girl’s missing brother.

But Tana French was never going to let my feet or my mind off so easy. As the sheen of the village tarnishes, so do its inhabitants. The ex-cop isn’t as gruff but good as he thinks he is. He wasn’t above the brutality he saw during his career. He was part of it. Complicit.

And the villagers aren’t as innocent as they appear. Except for the child caught in the middle, no one is spotless. Fear, cowardice, greed, bias, anger. None of it is visible from the country roads, but it’s there, lurking behind tweed caps and curtained windows, driving secrets deeper into the dark, protecting its own.

By the time “[t]he land has left its luring autumn self behind” and its “greens and golds have thinned to watercolor,” the ex-cop has changed too. The mountains have “burrowed deep inside him.” The only way he will solve the mystery is to acknowledge the bad in himself and accept that the answer to every problem isn’t a badge. Right and wrong are rarely as simple as we want them to be. Sometimes, the solution isn’t to seek revenge but to sit down and listen.

Mystery fiction has taught me to assess the real world with a reader’s eye. Sherlock Holmes taught me never to be deceived by the “obvious fact.” Doyle, Arthur Conan, “The Boscombe Valley Mystery,” The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Miss Marple taught me to reserve judgment till I have enough “definite knowledge” to make “definite assertions.” Christie, Agatha, Nemesis. And to act on behalf of others. Even if it’s dangerous. After all, “we are not put into this world, Mr. Burton, to avoid danger when an innocent fellow-creature’s life is at stake.” Christie, Agatha, The Moving Finger. And Mrs. Pollifax taught me that “small rebellions” can change the world. Gilman, Dorothy, The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax.

Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi could have cowered in the face of pressure and threats. They could have stopped investigating. But they didn’t, and the world is better for it. Only by calling out unfairness can we hope to change society for the better.  

The best mystery fiction and true crime makes us better citizens of our communities and of the world. It sheds light on injustice and forces us to face our own ignorance. And it does it all while immersing us in the spellbinding sights and sounds and smells of distant destinations we may never get to visit in real life but can’t get enough of.

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Out of One, Many (by Mike McHone)

Detroit freelance journalist Mike McHone started writing short stories in the mid 2000s, but it was only in 2018, after picking up his first copy of EQMM, that he decided to switch the focus of his writing to crime fiction. His work has since appeared in EQMM, AHMM, the Anthony Award-nominated anthology Under the Thumb: Stories of Police Oppression edited by S.A. Cosby, and in a number of other publications. He was the 2020 recipient of the Mystery Writers of America Midwest Chapter’s Hugh Holton Award for his soon-to-be-published debut novel You Make Yourselves Another. His new story in the March/April 2023 issue of EQMM, “Carver (and) [Company],” has a most unusual cast of characters. In this post he gives us a glimpse of what inspired him to create them. —Janet Hutchings

If a writer is lucky enough to hang around long enough to see at least a few of their stories wind up in print, it’s inevitable someone will ask where they get their ideas. After my story “Carver (and) [Company]” appeared in the March/April 2023 issue of Ellery Queen, I had three people ask me how I came up with the main character and the plot. Since I barely know what I’m doing (with writing, editing, dressing myself, life in general), I’ll try my best to answer.

First and foremost, if you haven’t read the story, well, shame on you. What the hell are you waiting on? I demand you buy five copies of the magazine to atone for your sins. Secondly, I’ll put the plot on a bumper sticker for you, as my hero Kinky Friedman would say. Josephine Carver is a private investigator and like most P.I.s she’s in need of a case to get some money in her pocket. The case she decides to take on involves infidelity. A wife suspects her husband of cheating, so she goes to Jo Carver for help. Jo takes the case and along the way discovers the “cheating” husband is not who he appears to be.

So far, there’s nothing new. Infidelity’s been done a million times in P.I. yarns, and if I had a nickel for every time a cheating case took a weird turn in a detective story, I’d have enough cash to buy a carton of eggs. However, from the outset (and by that I mean the very first line), we see something a little different concerning Jo Carver. She has assistants who help her piece together clues and ultimately solve the case, except her assistants live inside her head.

Yes, dear reader, Jo Carver hears voices.

No, she’s not insane, hasn’t suffered any traumatic event, doesn’t have a split personality, borderline disorder, or any form of psychosis. Her brain, as she says, is just wired a little differently, and because of this, she communicates with two very distinct voices that have been there since she was a child. The first voice is stern, by-the-book, critical, and sounds exactly like her grandmother Gertrude, hence her calling the voice Gertie. The other voice has a laid back, take-it-as-it-comes vibe whose tone reminds Jo of a fat, lazy cat, which is why she calls it Eddie, the name of her grandmother’s tabby.

Even though the voices are foils and the banter between them can be humorous, there was one important aspect that I made sure to implement when fleshing out the details of this story. This piece may be categorized as a comedy, but Jo would never be the butt of a joke. We can laugh at the circumstances she gets herself into, some of the things she says, or the replies from Eddie or Gertie, but we’ll never laugh at her for who she is. That would be cruel, and frankly there’s enough of that nonsense in the world as it is.

When I originally started this story, the main character was completely different. It was a person suffering from PTSD and the voices were quite nasty, but I quickly jettisoned that because I didn’t want to get too dour. However, I found the idea of intrusive narration by way of character interjections interesting to work with, and truth be told, I find the study of auditory hallucinations and disembodied voices fascinating. Historical figures like Sigmund Freud, Martin Luther King, Carl Jung, and Joan of Arc all claimed to hear inner voices. Sometimes, like Joan of Arc, the voices acted as a spiritual guide. Sometimes they were, as in Jo Carver’s case, voices of a relative that could be critical but helpful. According to some of the source material I poured through,  many people are in the same situation that Jo’s in. No trauma, no psychosis, just little voices popping up every so often to share thoughts. 

Although psychological communities around the world are still gaining perspective on auditory hallucinations, there have been a number of studies and articles done in recent years, some of which can be found here, and I hope you find them as interesting as I did:



Why Might People Hear Voices?


So, delving into an unordinary psychological character trait was one reason I developed this character, but the other was to try something I’d never attempted. Basically, I wanted to write a wholesome, good-hearted character who could go an entire story without saying fuck every two seconds. I did it and I now await my Edgar, Anthony, Pulitzer, or Nobel nomination, please and goddamn thank you.

I’ve written my fair share of neo-noir stories and tales that involve killers, betrayers, backstabbers, liars, and warped protagonists with enough baggage to make JFK International jealous. This time around, I wanted to take it in a different direction because, let’s face it, the world of mystery and crime fiction is filled to the brim with hardboiled characters and dicks (pun intended?) who can outshoot or out-think anyone. It’s chock-full of beautiful geniuses with square jaws and barrel chests with wits sharp enough that the Gillette corporation could package them up and send them out to market. They can kick ass, take names, are the smartest smartasses in the room, and look good while doing so.    

Jo Carver? She’s not a genius. She’s intelligent, but her cases are solved through hard work, experience, and maybe a little luck but not ungodly brilliance. She’s polite, not sarcastic. She’s ex-military and knows how to handle firearms, but she doesn’t get into shootouts willy-nilly. Taking all of this into consideration reveals the truly odd and sublimely weird aspect of this character that sets her apart from most fictional P.I.’s, detectives, or crime fighters.

She’s a nice person without any emotional baggage who just wants to help people.

Wacky, eh?

In today’s society, where it’s commonplace to argue on social media about quite literally anything from whether or not Coke is better than Pepsi (it isn’t), up to and including if COVID-19 is real (it is) and whether or not the Earth is flat (it’s not, and, please, stop entertaining this bullshit), where shootings in the U.S. are as much a natural, everyday occurrence as wind and sunlight, where self-righteousness drowns reason, where empathy is the most precious of all gifts due in part to its rarity, it’s nice to think that a good person is out there helping people, even if that person is fictional. Yeah, shootouts are cool, car chases are neat, punching a bad guy is badass, but being nice and lending a helping hand in this day and age?

Well, that is strange, isn’t it?

But, sadly, it shouldn’t be.

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Two Mysteries (Only One of Which Was Ever Solved) by Michael Kardos

Michael Kardos is the author of the story collection One Last Good Time and three novels, the most recent of which is Bluff (Mysterious Press). His short stories have appeared in many magazines and anthologies and have twice won the Pushcart Prize. He co-directs the creative-writing program at Mississippi State University. Michael’s first story for EQMM, “What You Know, What I Know,” appears in our current issue (March/April 2023). In this post he talks about two real-life mysteries—and what fiction can do that real life often cannot. —Janet Hutchings

The first mystery:

When my sister Julie and I were kids, my parents would host dinner parties for their friends. Sometimes Julie and I ate ahead of time; other times we were allowed to eat with the grown-ups. At some point in the evening, once the eating slowed down and wine glasses had been refilled a couple of times, the grown-ups sitting around the table would begin to tell jokes. My parents loved joke-telling. They especially loved jokes with long set-ups. “I can never remember jokes,” people have told me my whole life. My parents remembered them. Or at least my mother did. My father was—is—someone who wants to believe he’s a good joke-teller. In practice, he’s the guy who gets almost to a punchline before frowning and saying something like, “Wait—did I mention he had a wooden leg? Well, he has a wooden leg. That’s important.”

Usually, the jokes at these parties were clean, or clean-ish. But one joke was not clean. It was so not clean that my parents always made Julie and me leave the room ahead of time. All we ever learned was the punchline: “If I were a rich man.”

But we never learned the joke leading up to it. For years, we wondered: what could possibly be the very dirty set-up to a lyric from Fiddler on the Roof?

The second mystery:

My mother was a high school English Teacher in Brooklyn. Early in her career—this would’ve been in the late 1960s—her school sponsored a poetry-writing contest for which she was the judge. The winning poem came from a student she never liked, a student whom she believed could never write a poem like the one he submitted. I say submitted, rather than “wrote,” because that’s precisely the point. She believed he plagiarized the poem. But this was decades before the internet, and despite my mother’s vast knowledge of poetry, this poem wasn’t familiar to her. It simply struck her as something a high-school student—and particularly this high-school student—wouldn’t have written. Without evidence of plagiarism, though, she had no choice but to go ahead and select the poem as the winner. It was, after all, the best poem.

Growing up, I heard the story about this so-called poet several times. Even decades after the fact, the whole episode still nagged at her, so much so that she still remembered a couple of the lines from the poem. Had he written it? Had she failed, as a teacher, by assuming, without any evidence, the worst about this young man?

No. There’s no way he could’ve written it.

Unless, of course, he did.

One day, about ten years ago, my own family happened to be visiting my parents back in New Jersey, and the subject of the old high-school poetry contest came up. My mother recited a line from the poem, and my wife asked, “Why don’t you just Google the line?”

And for the first time, she did. Seconds later, she was staring at the answer to a fifty-year-old mystery. I don’t recall the poem—it’s been ten years, and my mother is no longer alive to ask. But suffice it to say, the kid had, in fact, half a century earlier, plagiarized the poem to win his high-school writing contest. The mystery had finally been solved; my mother was right to have been suspicious all along.

But she didn’t feel vindicated. She just felt sad, and she later confided that she would’ve been happier not to know—to keep alive the smallest hope that this unexceptional student, for one particular moment on one particular day, had risen above the limits of her expectations.

The problem with my mother’s situation was that either her former student had plagiarized, or he hadn’t. One or the other. And because of my mother’s limited understanding of this student, the answer reduced him to one sort of kid or another.

But what if she—and we—knew more? What if, yeah, the student had plagiarized the poem, but here’s how it went down: The kid (we’ll call him Ben) was well aware of his lousy reputation. He could do no right at school or at home. He kept getting in trouble. So one Mother’s Day, he finds some nice poem in a book and copies it onto a piece of paper and gives it to his mother, who loves it so much. “Did you write this, Ben?” she asks. And because of the look in his mother’s eyes, and because what could be the harm, he shrugs and mutters, “Sure, I did.” Unbeknownst to Ben, his mother enters the poem in the school-wide contest. (She knows Ben would never stoop to entering a writing contest himself.) Ben has no idea the poem’s been entered, but then he wins. And so now he’s terrified of being exposed. But the teacher, a nice young lady, Mrs. Kardos, she seems content with giving him the prize even though he’s getting a D in her class, and surely she must know he couldn’t have written the poem. Days and weeks and years pass. And although he always feels a twinge of guilt about it, there’s no denying the much-needed lift it gave to his mother all those years ago. And not just then. For decades. Even now, when she’s in her 80s and he’s approaching 60, she’ll sometimes refer to him as “my poet.”

That’s not what happened. But it’s what fiction can make happen.

In the realm of fiction, mysteries exist to get solved. But the solution itself isn’t enough, and sometimes isn’t even the point. What fiction can do—and what “real life” often fails to—is to bring a story to its conclusion, to solve the mystery, in a way that enlarges our sense of wonder and possibility.

Which brings us back to that long-ago joke my sister and I were never allowed to hear. Many years later, I said to my parents, “Remember that dirty joke you always kicked me and Julie out of the room for with the punchline ‘If I were a rich man’? What was the joke?”

My parents looked at each other. They vaguely remembered the punchline. Neither one remembered the joke.

“You’ve gotta be kidding me,” I said.

I’ll admit, after that I looked online for the joke a few times, to no avail. But this incident wasn’t so long after the plagiarism mystery got solved, and pretty quickly I stopped searching, deciding it was better not to know. Maybe one day I’ll change my mind. For now, though, I prefer to imagine my parents and their friends young and red-faced and doubled over in laughter after hearing the best, dirtiest joke there ever was, a joke that will always live tantalizingly just out of reach.

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Hardboiled Poetry (by Michael Wiley)

A Shamus Award winner and college professor Michael Wiley is one of the most innovative crime writers we’ve come across. He always seems to be trying something new, whether it be with his P.I. Sam Kelson, a character who cannot keep his thoughts to himself due to a brain injury, or his latest character Franky Dast, hero of The Long Way Out, an exonerated ex-con who investigates a series of murders in Northeast Florida. Michael has also written well-received series featuring P.I. Joe Kozmarski and homicide detective Daniel Turner, but his new story for EQMM, “Bad Boy,” featured in our current issue (March/April 2023) is perhaps his most original work in the field. It’s a full-length noir tale told entirely in verse, and it’s got several sequels (which we expect will eventually be published in book form) that, taken together, form something very like a whodunit mystery. He talks about what led him to write the story and its sequels in this post.  —Janet Hutchings

I fell in love with hardboiled crime fiction for its poetry. As a kid, when I read Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely and met Moose Malloy—a man “as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food”—I became hungry for metaphor. When Frank and Cora drew blood in a violent kiss in James Cain’s Postman Always Rings Twice and their kissing “was like being in church,” I realized that plain words can knock a reader out too. By the time I saw David Goodis create sparks by making words and whole sentences turn on each other in Nightfall—“The trouble with people is they don’t understand people”—I was a goner. I thought, who needs Wordsworth’s daffodils?

I went to college in Chicago planning to become a professional writer. I took all the classes I could find to prepare myself, and I burst from graduation ready to get started.

Then, like a lot of young writers, I ran into walls. Thick, high walls. Most of them of my own making. I wrote stories that mimicked the voices of the writers I loved and that were populated by unoriginal characters acting in plots we’d seen before. For four years, I survived by writing articles for small magazines, speeches for a Chicago politician, and industrial video scripts for every company that would write me a check. Anything to pay the rent. When I looked toward the future and saw only more walls, I did what I already knew how to do. I went back to school, this time in New York.

As a graduate student, I studied poetry and learned three things: (1) New York pizza gives Chicago pizza a run for the money, (2) I didn’t know how to write, and (3) I needed Wordsworth’s daffodils.

Not only needed. I learned to love his poetry so much I wrote a dissertation on it. Wordsworth isn’t hardboiled. Ever. But he uses plain speech, which he calls “the real language of men.” And when he isn’t tiptoeing through the tulips, he’s digging deep into criminal psychology and clashing morality—in a man who’s more blameworthy than the woman he catches stealing from him, in a town’s response to a woman who might have killed her baby, in an ex-con who, though free from jail, can’t shake off the mental chains of his own guilt.

I also realized that much of what gets called our greatest poetry revolves around crime stories, the darker the better. Shakespeare famously deals with blood and violent death, and as I read and re-read him, I saw how much he meant to writers like Chandler, whose Detective Marlowe channels Hamlet and other tragic heroes.

If Hamlet often acts like a detective, the first major literary PI—Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin—knows that the poetic imagination is a key to good investigative work and is himself “guilty of [writing] doggerel.” Of course, Poe too, when he wasn’t busy solving blackmail cases and murders in the Rue Morgue, wrote rhymes about birds.

Then, there’s the hardest boiled poet of all—that badass Emily Dickinson, who opens poems with lines like

I heard a fly buzz—when I died.

My life had stood—a loaded gun.

Because I could not stop for death—he kindly stopped for me.

These are little words. Hard words. Every one of them with enough punch to break a rib. Every one capable of knocking down a reader. “None stir the second time—on whom I lay a yellow eye,” she says. Take that, Mickey Spillane.

A few years after finishing grad school, when I started writing stories again, I wanted to make every word count the way that Poe and Dickinson do and the way Chandler, Cain, Goodis, and many other great crime writers, past and present, do too.

I’ve written eleven mysteries and thrillers now, some stronger than others. If my books haven’t “stood—a loaded gun”—I’ve done my best to make them shoot straight and hit their targets.

In doing so, I’ve also wondered how a crime story might work if boiled all the way down to essentials—the compact muscles, vital organs, blood, and bones of poetry.

When I read Robin Robertson’s The Long Take­, a two-hundred-page noir poem set in post-World War Two America, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, I realized what such a story might do. Robertson’s book is a mashup of the kind of tough fiction I’ve always loved to read and write and the powerful poetics I’ve admired. I saw in it rhythms, tones, and style choices I hadn’t thought through before.

So I fell to temptation.

“Bad Boy”—in the March/April issue of EQMM—is the result.

It’s an experiment to see how well, by using the stuff of poetry, I can tell a story that gives the pleasures of hardboiled fiction. The narrator—Bad Boy himself—speaks in deliberate cadences. I mean these cadences and occasional off- or internal rhymes to add to the atmosphere and mood, while staying true to his voice. He talks about his gritty life in the little town of Hollow Rock (aka “Nowhere Tennessee”)—about what’s missing and what he’s willing to do, mostly on the wrong side of the law, to fill the holes he feels. Every word counts. Take out a line or two and the thing would collapse like a skeleton missing a femur. His silences count as much as what he says.

Some of us find joy on mean streets and in midnight alleys. In “Eating Poetry,” Mark Strand says he “romp[s] with joy in the bookish dark.” I romped a little while writing “Bad Boy.” The dark story has brought me joy. I hope it brings you some too.

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Why Agatha Christie Remains the Queen of Mystery (by Autumn Doerr)

This week we have a post from a reader of this blog who was inspired to submit an essay to us by some earlier posts on this site. She’s a mystery writer as well as a reader. We’re pleased to introduce you to Autumn Doerr, who has some worthwhile reminders of what mystery writers owe to Agatha Christie.  —Janet Hutchings

Why is Agatha Christie the best-selling author of all time (if you don’t count the Bible)? Copious amounts of ink have been spilled answering that question. With your indulgence, I will add some digital words to the topic, from the perspective of a mystery reader and writer.

Christie’s genius was to advance her stories through misdirection, the foundation of a good mystery. For her, this foundation stone included: sleuths who are often underestimated and even dismissed; the weaving in of crimes other than the murder in order to distract from the truth; including messages both written and verbal that can have more than one meaning and can be (and are often) misinterpreted; and perhaps most importantly, giving her characters secrets that drive their behavior.

These are all familiar strategies used by mystery writers, but Christie was the virtuoso when employing them in her work. When I start to write a new mystery, I revisit each form of misdirection as a reminder of how to get the reader to “look over there.”

All of the forms of misdirection I’ve mentioned are used in most of Christie’s books. I’ll give some examples of each.

Let’s begin with Christie’s crime fighters, particularly Miss Jane Marple. She is often ignored, underestimated, misjudged, and even dismissed, which fools characters trying desperately to hide malfeasance. Miss Marple is so well drawn a character—an outwardly harmless old lady with her heart-shaped spyglass and knitting needles—that her mild-mannered countenance leads others to miss that she’s as sharp as a tack. So adept are her detecting skills that in The Murder at the Vicarage she’s able to solve the murder while nursing a sprained ankle and without leaving the confines of her cozy home in St. Mary Mead. Overlook this old lady at your peril. Her entire character is an elaborate case of misdirection through underestimation.

Another of the tricks Christie used to deceive was to include among the suspects criminals who are thieves, adulterers, blackmailers, embezzlers, or drug addicts. This is a clever ways to bury information and hide the identity of the killer, because stacking up what turn out to be unrelated crimes obfuscates the true motive of the killer. The characters in Christie’s stories are fully fleshed out and explored to the point that many could have a novel of their own. An example of Christie’s use of completely unrelated criminal activity to throw us off the scent is in the book At Bertram’s Hotel. There are thieves with elaborate schemes, a priest and his doppelganger, and a will reading that bring suspects to the hotel. None of these distractions has anything to do with the murder of Mickey Gorman. Christie’s use of multiple motives, misdirection, and the development of each of the characters and their secrets is so satisfying that when the killer is revealed it takes some time to process who has done what to whom. When Miss Marple eliminates all of the distracting storylines and cuts through the misdirection, the murderer is identified but the killer is just one piece of an elaborate puzzle.

We find another clever form of misdirection in Christie novels when characters misinterpret a written message that leads to a misunderstanding. One example is the phrase, “I can’t go on . . .” in The Moving Finger. This device is also used in the Tommy and Tuppence mystery By the Pricking of My Thumbs. A note reads, “Mrs. Lancaster is not safe.” In each case, the message is plausibly misunderstood. Similarly, one of the witnesses to a shooting in A Murder is Announced says, “She wasn’t there.” The inflection and which “she” is being referred to are only later revealed to be crucial clues.

As stated above, probably the most effective way to keep a story moving using misdirection is to provide characters with the need to protect a secret. Since nearly all of Christie’s characters have secrets to keep, the motives behind their secrets become part of the misdirection and take our attention away from the murder at the heart of the story. When all of the misdirection, in the form of characters with secrets to keep, common misunderstandings, and criminal behavior, is ultimately stripped away, a killer is revealed. In The Moving Finger and other novels, Miss Marple observes that the only relevant fact when you strip away the interesting yet irrelevant side stories is that there has been a murder. She says that all that matters is “that Mrs. Symmington died.”

Part of the pleasure of reading Agatha Christie, for me, as a mystery writer, is dissecting how a master such as Christie does it. I’m not just reading to discover whodunit but observing how they planned and executed the crime, and, in the end, get caught, all while throwing us off track. This is at the heart of a satisfying mystery. When I get stuck with my own mystery writing, I always go back to the basics. It was Agatha Christie who turned those basics into an art form.

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The Mystery of Writing Mysteries (by Terena Elizabeth Bell)

Terena Elizabeth Bell’s work has appeared in The Atlantic, Playboy, The Yale Review, Juked, and other literary magazines, and she’s won grants from the Kentucky Foundation for Women and the New York Foundation for the Arts. She is making a departure from the usual placement of her work with her debut in EQMM’s March/April 2023 issue with the story “Meth.” In this post she talks about what is attractive to her about mystery and crime fiction—and what is not. If you like her story “Meth” (in our issue that goes on sale next week) make sure not to miss her recently published debut short story collection, Tell Me What You See.

I didn’t think of myself as a mystery writer until last year, but maybe I just didn’t know what a mystery was. I certainly grew up reading enough Nancy Drew and watching “Murder, She Wrote” to have some idea, but that idea was not for me. Mysteries were for people in far away places: Nancy in California with her housekeeper Mrs. Gruen, Jessica Fletcher in Cabot Cove. Even Sherlock Holmes was across an ocean, but let’s face it: I found him perceptibly clever when I was eight years old but around college he began to bore me. Sherlock is a one-trick pony: a horribly rude man who points out he’s smarter than everyone else, and when you’re an intelligent child this is admirable, but as an adult it wears on you.

In other words, save these characters’ intelligence, none of them were much like me. I wrote—and still write—about the people of Kentucky, the place I’m originally from, and Louisville-native Sue Grafton excepted, you don’t see many mystery writers from there. (Even Grafton’s books were set in California.)

As a young writer, this made it difficult for me to identify with the genre. That doesn’t mean the commonwealth was not a mysterious place: When I was eight, my cousin Bubba died in a car accident my grandmother swore was murder. The sheriff’s office did not investigate, which she said proved they were in on it. She went to the scene, drove the curve, looked down in the valley where the car caught on fire. I was in my 20’s when I found out no one else believed this—no one but my grandma and me.

Bubba’s death was the traditional mystery, my grandmother a Southern Fletcher. But at the end of the case, she did not ride on the sand to chirpy music upon her bicycle. She mourned. She grieved for my cousin the rest of her days, a long 22 years after.

I’ve never written about this before, which is odd since I write about everything else. I also say I never thought of my stories as mysteries before, but to prove that, we’d have to examine what a mystery means: Does labeling a story as the genre mean that the problem is solved, or are some cases never finished?

If a story is a mystery, does it even have to have a problem or can it simply dwell in the mysterious? As a Christian, I believe in the mystery of faith: man’s inability to fully comprehend salvation. But I’d never call the Bible a mystery.

Merriam-Webster defines the word as “something that is difficult or impossible to understand or explain”—something that, to me, could define anything.

Back in Kentucky when I was in school, we learned about Edgar Cayce, a 1920’s clairvoyant from my hometown and one of the greatest mysteries of the 20th century. Known as the Sleeping Prophet, he went into trances and, in those trances, spoke solutions: medical diagnoses, financial warnings, the location of Atlantis. He got these gifts from an angel, he claimed, who descended when he was a boy. The figure then asked what he wanted in life and Cayce said to help others. One of my uncles by marriage was a relative of his and, as a child, his parents told him, “Stay away from your crazy cousin Edgar,” each year at the family reunion.  In 1991, he was featured on “Unsolved Mysteries;” yet, he was no mystery to us back home. We didn’t wonder where he got those gifts. We knew he was a wacko nut job.

The crazy is common in Southern gothic, which is the genre I labeled my writing before. I like the unusual. I enjoy the off-beat. I would rather write about my grandmother than about who killed my cousin. The stories I write focus on the uncommon, my people and settings are always tilted. There is no whodunnit, my stories do not care; the mystery comes from context and character.

If I’d been 18—not 8—when my cousin died, would I have so readily seen it as murder? Or would I have seen it as the case of a woman who loved him, unable to come to terms with his death?

None of us were there, we don’t know what happened. He was in the passenger seat with no other body.

I write mysteries that are unsolved because in real life, there often are no answers. Life is not clean, it is not cozy. Life has mysterious faith of its own.

No. I do not write about California or New England. Instead of asking who, I ask why—a question all authors must ask themselves: Why do we write what we write? Why do we label as “genre”? Why focus on who when we could write about how? Or even where or why?

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What the Mystery Genre Gets Right by W.W. Mauck

W.W. Mauck made his fiction debut in the Department of First Stories of EQMM’s November/December 2022 issue with the story “A Ghost for Marcy’s Garden.” In case you missed the story when the issue came out, the author recorded it for our November 1, 2022 podcast, which you can find here: link. In this post, he talks about what attracted him to the mystery genre. To illustrate his interesting observations about the form, he discusses Anne Swardson’s story “Uncaged,” from EQMM’s September/October 2022 issue. If you have not yet had a chance to read that story, we’d like to warn you to stop reading this post when you reach the point at which the story is introduced. Full plot details are revealed! —Janet Hutchings

I admit, the Mystery Genre wasn’t my first love. Like a lot of people, I grew up reading what interested me, and as a ten-year-old boy whose favorite cartoon was The Hobbit, I was naturally interested in fantasy and science fiction. Give me Lord of the Rings, the Ender’s Game saga, anything Harry Potter, and I was a happy kid.

Full stop.

Then I got older, grew some atrociously large, red sideburns, and my tastes became more complicated. Not to undermine the complexities hidden in fantasy and science fiction—there are plenty, obviously—but what I’m really talking about here is the satisfaction you have when your expectations are at once subverted and satisfied.

A number of devices fall into this category—twists, reversals, all forms irony, Chekhov’s gun and its many variations.

Yet only one word captures everything, and that word is the “reveal.”

Like in a mystery (or thriller, depending on the context):

Killer gets a call. It’s the police. He expects the call has something to do with his missing co-worker, as his co-worker’s body is lying on the garage table in front of him. Instead, the police tell him it’s about the stolen car he never reported. They towed it last Friday, the same day the co-worker was seen getting snatched outside her apartment. Since the co-worker’s residence and the tow-site are on opposite sides of town, the killer’s situation has now improved. He can make up any semi-plausible excuse, then use that excuse as his alibi, which will keep him off the police’s radar.

Naturally, further implications can be explored here, such as the next reveal, when, say, one of Chicago’s most intrepid police officers discovers the hoodlums responsible for stealing the car. But I think you get the point.

A suggested cause and effect. Behind the effect is a suggested cause that leads the killer and/or the audience to believe the police have found him out. The information that is then revealed at once subverts that expectation and satisfies the chain of events in a clear and logical way. Not to mention the irony, which is in itself a form of revelation, as the audience is brought in on the more-or-less ominous joke—to the killer, at least—that the police are speaking to the killer and yet are so very, very far away from understanding he is, in fact, the killer.

So, that’s one example. Situational irony, with the reveal nested in the information flow given to the characters and the audience.

(On a meta note, another reveal could be where I now reveal the name of the story/and or movie from which I’m pulling this example; that’d be cool, but I’m afraid it’s just whole-cloth).

Reveals aren’t only in mysteries; they’re in everything.

You see it in the unmasking of character motivation, character identity—think Star Wars, Darth Vader, and you’re on the right track—and especially in world-building.

But here’s what I’m getting at.

Having a good reveal is an important part of storytelling that often goes overlooked, in everything but mysteries.

In mysteries, stories live and die by reveals. The set-up can start anywhere, while the plot generally follows the same line: a question is raised, usually about a crime or a body—whodunit, howdunit, your typical suspects—and at the end the answer is revealed.

One might even call this event The Big Reveal.

And I love it, because there’s just no compromise.

While fantasy and science fiction can often get away with having poor reveals and remain solid stories, mysteries seldom can, which in my opinion makes for a better experience.

Think back to the last five books or short stories you’ve read and ask yourself which ones left you feeling most fulfilled. Then, afterward, if they were mysteries, ask yourself if they subverted your expectations in some way, gave you what you wanted, but differently.

I’d bet my bottom-dollar bill that they all did, because chances are, you wouldn’t have recalled those stories if they didn’t in the first place.

Still don’t believe me?

Check out the September-October issue of EQMM. (Spoiler Alert.)

In it, you’ll find the compelling story “Uncaged” by Anne Swardson. The premise is simple. As Leo Tolstoy once said, “All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.” In “Uncaged” it’s the second: set in Paris, just after the Occupation, a Henri Racine moves next door to the POV character, a twelve-year-old girl, and her family. At first, he seems a little creepy, licking his lips as he privately agrees to the twelve-year-old’s proposed tour-slash-jaunt into town. And never mind that he never asks her for her name, but merely refers to her as mademoiselle, which is in fact the only name we, the audience, are given.

But Mr. Racine’s ostensible creepiness is just a red herring. He travels with a canary, locked up in a small bird cage, and when young mademoiselle asks why, we learn some about his job and motivation.

“I find bad people,” he says. So obviously he can’t be all that creepy.

But here’s the rub. Mr. Racine is meeting in secret with the family housekeeper, Simone, who had a son, about mademoiselle’s age, whom the Nazis murdered during the Occupation. After being questioned, Simone tells the young mademoiselle that it was mademoiselle’s father who was responsible for her son’s death. There’s even a picture of the father in uniform, with his Nazi buddies. Proof. So now the full truth of Mr. Racine’s visit is revealed: He’s a Nazi hunter, and the Nazi he’s hunting is the young girl’s father.


We might have put that together when the girl’s mother suggested Mr. Racine might be a “Jew”—or perhaps when we learn that Mr. Racine finds bad people—but now the situation is unequivocal.

And it comes just in time for the final scene, when, after secretly freeing the canary, the young mademoiselle lures Mr. Racine to the balcony, and like she did with the bird, sets him free (metaphorically, one might add, from his obsession to hunt Nazis). And there we have it—the Big reveal, whereupon we discover that this seemingly innocent child is just as ruthless and evil as her father, even if her motivations are somewhat lightened by her desire to protect her family.


Reveal-on-top-of-reveal, and that’s discounting the constant question-and-answer juggling that Anne Swardson so artfully performs throughout the story.

Could we have seen any of this coming? Maybe, but I definitely didn’t.

The point is, the most-obvious ending, where the Nazi hunter wins, is subverted in a rather ironic—there’s that word, again—way, which satisfies the reader’s desire for a logical conclusion. Because, unfortunately, the good guys don’t always win, and sometimes the greatest threat to a person really is a child’s ignorance (or in mademoiselle’s case, undeveloped empathy).

This is what the mystery genre gets right. And that’s why you’ll be hard-pressed to find a single popular mystery story that doesn’t involve some kind of reveal, where the writer turns the reader’s expectations upside-down.

Okay, okay, maybe I’m preaching to the choir here.

I’m just a guy with an undergraduate in English literature who reads and writes by day and does what amounts to data-entry by night.

I make no illusion that I’m the authority in this matter.

But it’s in this one concept that I’ve learned to love mysteries, and it’s how I’ve come to believe that reveals are the core element that makes a mystery worth reading.

And, if you’re reading this, chances are that you too have a taste for mystery, and if there’s one thing folks who love mystery don’t lack, it’s a strong understanding of twists and revelations. Because, again, it’s the lifeblood of the genre. Every story has some level of reveal in its telling—I would even argue that good reveals are essential to all good stories, from the development of the plot, all the way through to the climax—but mysteries make a point out of portraying them.

Without that unexpected answer to that single burning question, a question you may not have even known you were asking, a mystery story falls flat.

So, I haven’t lost my love for fantasy and science fiction, but I do find I’m much more inclined to pick one of those stories up if there’s a little bit of mystery involved.

Though I can’t place the quote right now, I once heard someone say mysteries are about looking forward and backward at the same time.

If that’s true, I believe it’s in the reveals, where this past and future converge, where the audience extracts the most meaning from a story. It’s also often where biases go to die, and where the writer attempts to lay bare a story’s most intriguing, entertaining secrets for all to see and, hopefully, to enjoy.

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The Short Story Then & Now (by Tom Tolnay)

Tom Tolnay is the author of dozens of published short stories, both literary and genre. He’s had two dozen stories published in EQMM over the years. One of his literary stories, “The Ghost of F. Scott Fitzgerald,” was a winner of the Literal Latte short story contest and was later made into a film that was shown at festivals in Hollywood, Toronto, Savannah, and Woodstock. He’s in a good position, since he straddles the literary-genre divide, to make some observations regarding it. His latest short story collection is the just-published Reading Old Books: A Farce in Two Novellas (from Atmosphere Press—Austin, Texas).  —Janet Hutchings

In his renowned 1846 essay, “The Philosophy of Composition,” Edgar Allan Poe declared: “There is a distinct limit . . . to all works of literary art—the limit of a single sitting.” If any written work is too long to be read at one sitting, he wrote, “we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression. . . . If two sittings be required, the affairs of the world interfere, and every thing like totality is at once destroyed. . . .” Poe went on to say he could find no advantage counterbalancing the loss of unity of impression.

Even before beginning to write a short story, Poe said, he knew the general route he would follow in its development, and even how the story would end. Many writers today might eschew such an operating principle. Thomas McGuane referred to how he gets to where he’s going in a story as his “long-way-around-the horn” approach. Louise Erdrich said her story “Shamengwa” circulated in her mind over several years, and that she’d lived with it so long that by the time it was published in The New Yorker she’d begun to believe it had actually happened. Regardless of how a writer gets to where she’s going in a story, not knowing initially how she will get there might be counted as one of the satisfactions of writing and reading a short story: the gradual discovery of where you’re being led as the words, like clusters of grapes, ferment and transform into wine. 

A short story defines itself anew each time one is written, even though it will share elements and attitudes with many other published stories, and even though each story is being funneled through the precincts of one class of story or another. In all genres of fiction, the opening paragraphs are merely the first steps in the writer’s journey to somewhere or other in the ever-expanding spectrum of experience, with various approaches to craft and artistic strategy employed along the way. Of course each of these environments—each genre of fiction—is capable of shaping, narrowing, broadening, or layering the experience of the story by surrounding it with the traditions, as well as the limitations, of the genre in which the writer happens to be working. 

In a mystery story, the reader can expect a crime to be committed, often but not always (some would say preferably) murder, frequently (though not always) with the official involvement of a police detective, private eye, insurance investigator, or talented amateur sleuth in pursuit of an erratic sociopath, a career criminal, or an ordinary citizen who, beneath a law-abiding facade, is capable of the most heinous atrocities. Of course there are numerous sub-genres in the mystery/crime realm and collectively these offshoots help to broaden this genre’s terrain while continuing to respect its fundamental attributes and satisfy readers’ expectations. This “comfort zone” that the roughly defined rules of each genre create might explain in part why some readers become fiercely loyal fans of a particular genre. 

Whether or not we are willing to accept the idea, the literary short story is yet another genre with its own particular dictates. But its abiding principles don’t seem to remain quite as locked in as some would say they are in other genres. In part that may be because literary stories are subject to academic fashions more than genre stories are. There are trends in the literary field that by all appearances are set in motion not by the tastes of the reading public so much as by the editors, critics, and scholars who shepherd this more rarified realm of fiction. Because of changes in attitudes over the decades, one suspects that some “serious” stories published in the last century would not be considered “literary” by today’s arbiters: They are silently accepted as such primarily because of their place in the history of literature.

Many editors of university literary periodicals state unequivocally in their calls for submissions that they do not want to see “genre fiction” surfacing in their submission systems. Few seem willing to accommodate the idea that literary fiction is a genre in its own right, and that it often intermingles with other styles of fiction. The fact is, though, that many of the world’s greatest literary figures—Jorges Luis Borges and William Faulkner among them—successfully wrote engagingly, and seriously, in genres other than literary. And of course, while Poe is revered as a world literary figure, he is credited with having invented the detective story via stories like “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.”

Because fashions in literary stories seem to fluctuate more over time than those within other genres, the components of their inner machinery are more difficult to nail down. Or so one might conclude from stories appearing in today’s literary magazines and the few mass-circulation magazines still publishing “serious” fiction. In his blog on writing, author Nathan Bransford asked this question: “What Makes Literary Fiction Literary?” The answer to that question seems to alter periodically, and often depends upon who is answering it. Bransford approached this conundrum by separating fiction into commercial and literary and focusing on “plot.” Notwithstanding the bias against plot among some editors in the realms of academically approved fiction these days, Bransford wrote that plot exists in literary as well as commercial fiction; the difference, he said, is that plot is more difficult to detect in “serious” fiction. In commercial fiction, he continued, plot tends to lie on the surface—how a character interacts with the world around him—while in literary fiction the plot tends to unfold beneath the surface and is often more concerned with what goes on in the minds of characters than in their observable actions. 

Late in the last century a host of literary editors championed a trend wherein stories which presented a clear ending were summarily rejected; their printed fictions were much more likely to trail off into a vaguely suggestive, sometimes baffling oblivion. Randall Jarrell notoriously observed that the short stories published in The New Yorker at that time didn’t end so much as stop. While some modern literary stories do end in a straightforward manner, others seem to avoid the taint of resolution as if it were a communicable disease. Why? To some degree, one suspects, it’s because resolution simply isn’t fashionable in literary short fiction even now. Of course in some way this is a reflection of every day in life—events occur and involve us without it ever being possible to tie a conclusive knot. Occasionally years may pass before we understand, if we ever do, the true “ending” of a particular experience we have lived through. So why not in fiction as well? Besides, a brush stroke of ambiguity toward the conclusion can certainly add energy and depth to a story. 

More than a few editors in the present literary realm also appear to admire stories in which time sequences are interrupted, where flashbacks are shuffled like a deck of cards, and multiple motivations are layered on top of existential debris. Protagonists surface at different ages, disappear for a time, and reappear at other points on the psychological as well as geographical map. This predisposition for the juggling of time, location, and situation—often irregardless of whether the majority of readers will be up to the task of making sense of these shifting elements—may be the result of the contemporary literary no-no of linear fiction. But surely there should remain sufficient elbow room in the broad spectrum of respectable, serious fiction to accept writers who relate stories that are insightful and beautiful in a sequential manner. After all, don’t human beings continue to live out their lives straight ahead, one incident after another, with a beginning, a middle, and an end?

What we call “short stories” today began in an oral tradition, of course, and it’s reasonable to believe that for the most part such storytellers told their tales in a sequential manner. Raymond Carver remains high on the list of modernist short fiction writers, with his minimalist approach to tale-telling. Nevertheless, Carver confessed he was drawn toward traditional methods of storytelling: “one layer of reality unfolding and giving way to another, perhaps even richer layer; the gradual accretion of meaningful detail; dialogue that not only reveals something about character but advances the story.” While Carver avoided making all of what was going on in his own stories observable on the surface—the Iceberg Theory of fiction, where ninety percent of the substance remains underwater—he professed an affinity for the straightforward narrative in short fiction: “If the reader loses his way and his interest, for whatever reason, the story suffers and usually dies . . .” 

Another pattern that continues to surface in some literary magazines is a preference for stories in which nothing much actually happens, in which there is little in the way of action or interaction between characters outside the mind and in which the introspective narrator squats within a psychological enclosure of his own construction. And then there is “experimental” writing—a barrier that sometimes seems to be have been consciously erected against readers not willing to work hard at deciphering a story. To certain editors, it appears that the more convoluted the sentences, the more arcane the word choices, the more worthy the story. To quote Carver again, these are the kinds of stories in which “method or technique is all.” Admittedly some of these experimentalists are capable of performing remarkable linguistic acrobatics, but too often the performance ultimately lies still-born on the page. “I believe in the efficacy of the concrete word, be it noun or verb, as opposed to the abstract or arbitrary or slippery word—or phrase, or sentence . . . words that seem to slide into one another and blur the meaning.” This again from Carver who, like Hemingway, revealed much of what was going on in his fiction through omission rather than the piling on of language. 

A variety of literary fashions have come and gone since the days when fiction writers were expected to create characters who come alive on the page. That paradigm went hand-in-hand with credibility: characters who readers believe (through an author’s creative artifice) are actually living the drama within a story. Too many of the characters on the page today—from the smallest literary magazines to the most widely circulated—come across as bloodless. Could this be one of the reasons the vast majority of literary short stories today are published in periodicals that have no more than a handful of readers? Duotrope, an online database of small literary publications, estimates at least 4,700 presses are bringing out digital and/or print periodicals, many of which include short fiction in annuals, semi-annuals, tri-quarterlies, quarterlies, and “occasional periodicals.” Selling so few copies, non-funded journals often don’t make it past the first couple of published issues. By contrast, some of the longest surviving magazines publishing short fiction (EQMM, AHMM, Analog, Asimov’s, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Weird Tales, for example) are those classed as “genre”—as opposed to “literary.”

That brings us back to Poe, who was not only the father of the mystery story but one of the most famous literary writers of his time. Could part of the reason that a number of the so-called genre magazines have survived while all but the most illustrious of the literary magazines continue to go under be that genre stories have retained their focus on the reader and on leaving the reader with the kind of “unity of impression” Poe thought so important?

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It Takes a (Chinese) Village (by SJ Rozan and John Shen Yen Nee)

EQMM’s current issue (January/February 2023) contains a collaboration between Edgar, Shamus, and Anthony Award-winning writer SJ Rozan, the author of eighteen novels and more than eighty short stories, and entrepreneur, producer, former Senior Vice President at DC Comics, and former Publisher at Marvel Comics John Shen Yen Nee. John was born in Knoxville, Tennessee to a Chinese father and a Scottish-American mother, an ancestry that probably had a role in his coming up with the concept for his collaboration with SJ. I will let them tell the story of the process by which their contribution to our current issue, “The Killing of Henry Davenport,” and the novel that will follow in 2024 came about. I feel certain you won’t want to miss this intriguing new series.  —Janet Hutchings

SJ: In Nov. 2020 I got a call from my agent, Josh Getzler. He’d just spent an hour on the phone with a man named John Shen Yen Nee, who was looking for a couple of writers for collaborative projects. One project sounded perfect for me; would I talk to John? Now, this was six months into the pandemic, quite awhile pre-vaccine. I was talking to the walls. A live person with a project? Of course I’d talk to him!

What John said, in a conversation that lasted more than an hour, changed my life. We started a collaboration, which has so far resulted in the short story “The Killing of Henry Davenport” in the January EQMM, and the novel The Murder of Mr. Ma, coming in spring 2024. There’ll be more of both. The essence of John’s idea is here, in John’s words (though the conversation, as you can imagine, was wild, circling, and far-reaching).

John: Chinese Americans can be faced with a cultural double life. Many learn the history of China through stories, people, myths, and anecdotes. But non-Chinese Americans often only know China as a rival power or as an exotic faraway land.

Encountering the unfamiliar, people can try to frame it in familiar references. In relation to Chinese culture, we hear “so and so is the (insert famous comparison) of China.” Naturally, then, the very real seventh century magistrate Di Ren Jie is known in the West—when he’s known at all(—as “the Sherlock Holmes of China.” Likewise, Chinese author Lao She emerges as “the Charles Dickens of China.”

These shorthand labels create immediate comprehension, but strip away cultural context and diminish their subjects. The individual is posited as a mere Chinese shadow of a luminary Westerner. There is even an implicit sense of derivation, despite the Chinese figure often predating the comparison by an era or three.

Both Lao She and Judge Dee were real people, who lived 1200 years apart. Each is worth engaging with as more than mirrored Westerners.

Judge Dee is based on Di Ren Jie, who lived from 630-700 CE—the early Tang Dynasty—and served as a magistrate. In the West, Judge Dee was popularized by Robert van Gulik, a Dutch sinologist and diplomat. He translated classic works about Judge Dee from Chinese, and expanded the canon of Judge Dee through a series of original novels in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Fans of the mystery genre are long familiar with van Gulik’s two dozen Judge Dee titles. Recently, Hong Kong director Tsui Hark rekindled interest in Judge Dee through his Detective Dee film series.

Lao She was the pen name of Shu Qing Chun, a Manchu Chinese intellectual who navigated wildly turbulent times. Born during the Boxer Rebellion, he died in the Cultural Revolution. He was an active member of the May Fourth movement (not the Star Wars meme, but the Chinese anti-imperialist, anti-colonial movement born on May 4, 1919). In 1924, Lao She was teaching in London when he wrote Mr. Ma and Son, the story of an immigrant father and son who, at every step, wrestle with an England simultaneously gripped by fascination with Chinese cultural artifacts, and fear of a yellow peril.

Despite living centuries apart, Judge Dee and Lao She arrived in Western literature within the same twenty years.

So let’s consider for a moment Sherlock Holmes as the Judge Dee of the West, and Dr. Watson as his Lao She, and turn our attention to the “originals.”

SJ: I mean, Wowee, right? Was there any possible way I could resist this? Or any reason to?

John’s thought was to co-write a novel—the start of a series—set in London in 1924. He’d provide plot and cultural context. I’d do the actual writing. Dee and Lao would investigate, eat, dash around London, meet all kinds of Britons, and do a lot of Kung Fu fighting. (Holmes and Watson, though they appear in “Henry Davenport,” have no part in The Murder or Mr. Ma.) I loved the thing. But—London, 1924? Luckily I knew my van Gulik, but Lao She, whom I’d heard of but never read, and in whose voice, as the chronicler, the book was to be written? Plus, John’s plot involved the Chinese Labour Corps in France during WWI. The what? And Bertrand Russell. And Ezra Pound. And opium. For me to get up to speed required huge amounts of research.

Good thing I love research.

And good thing my collaborator knew just what I needed. A flood of books poured in, sent by John. History, novels, biography. A few of Lao She’s books, not easy to find in translation these days. I read like crazy.

I also told a couple of people what I was doing and they had help to offer. My cousin Dick, with his encyclopedic film knowledge, made me a list of London-set sound and silent British films of the twenties and thirties. I streamed them all. Laurie King sent a box of maps and photo books. Another friend suggested reproductions of old Sears catalogs for furniture and clothes, so I ordered some. And all on my own I discovered coloring books. Rabbit holes presented themselves right and left, and I went down all of them. I watched Season 3 of “Peaky Blinders,” and all seasons of “Frankie Drake,” and the Downton Abbey movie, for the cars and clothes.

We also needed a Kung Fu consultant. Many readers know how I hate to write action scenes and how long each one takes me; but even someone who loves it would have a hard time with an art as specialized as Kung Fu. I was complaining about this shortcoming of mine at a party to a friend, and another friend said he didn’t mean to interrupt but he’d studied Kung Fu and he thought maybe his Master, Sifu Paul Koh, would be interested in the project. So I got in touch with Sifu Koh and boy, was he! He teaches here in NYC Chinatown, and he got what we were trying to do right away. He choreographed some wonderful fights.

If we hadn’t been in the middle of a pandemic I’d have zipped off to London. But you know, it might be better that I didn’t. What’s left from 1924 is something here, another thing there, and a few more in other places—buildings and streets embedded in a changed landscape. The Depression, the Blitz, post-war redevelopment, the more recent real estate scramble . . .

The 1924 London of Dee and Lao is a London of the mind.

My mind, and John Shen Yen Nee’s.

And the minds of everyone in the village.

Thank you all.

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