I Once Saw a Man (by Victor Kreuiter)

After making his debut as a writer in several literary magazines and Mike Shayne’s Mystery Magazine, there was a many-years-long hiatus before Victor Kreuiter finally turned again to fiction writing. He makes his return in EQMM’s current issue (November/December 2021), with “We’re in This Together, Aren’t We?”—a metafictional tale you won’t want to miss. During the long interval between his own fiction publications, he remained an avid reader, though, as is evident from this post.  —Janet Hutchings

I once saw a man get attacked by a coyote. He was a young, husky guy; the attack occurred on one of those rails-to-trails bicycle trails. He was cycling.

A coyote darted out of the treeline on his left, ran him down, lunged at him, knocked him off his bicycle and then – it was something to see, I promise you – that guy grabbed the coyote by the neck, held it down with one hand, kneeled over it, and punched it in the head over and over and over. To this day I can’t say whether the sounds that thing emitted were barks or groans or cries. It eventually managed to escape – it had had enough – and bolted off, lickety-split.

At home, later that same day, I checked out stats for the average coyote in Illinois, where I live and where the incident occurred. Male adult coyotes average twenty-five to forty pounds, are anywhere from three feet to four-and-a-half feet long, and are about two feet tall. Was this particular coyote an adult? I honestly don’t know, but adolescent or adult, that coyote learned a valuable lesson that day.

After the fight, I approached the victor to see if he was okay … he was huffing and puffing and obviously coming down from an intense adrenaline high … and he basically waved me off, saying he was okay. I asked if he wanted me to call police, he uttered a profanity, climbed back on his bicycle and pedaled off. I remember watching him ride away, thinking ‘What kind of guy decides – in a split second – to go ahead and fight a coyote … aggressively, vigorously … ferociously?’ What kind of person does that?

Well, I’ll tell you.

A fictional person does that … fictional, at least, in this instance. It was a fictional coyote. It was a fictional bike trail, too, as well as a fictional bike and multiple vigorous, ferocious fictional punches. The muttered profanity? Fictional. I made it all up. That’s the beauty of fiction … it’s all made up. Almost anything can happen in fiction, and what makes fiction so appealing – at least to me – is that things that are unlikely or impossible in the real world become more likely and absolutely possible in the world of fiction. When I read fiction, I’m going somewhere else, doing something else, being around someone else, and somehow, wonderful and fascinating things will happen. If not, if for some reason I find myself in a fictional world that is not wonderful, not fascinating … uninteresting or annoying or, for whatever reason, not to my liking … I can leave, no problem. I can leave and go looking for somewhere else … or for that matter … anywhere else.

Now … concerning mystery fiction … does mystery fiction differ from the other genres? Eh … I guess so. At least I think it’s supposed to. But mystery fiction must produce the exact same response from the reader as every other genre, and that response is this: the reader must continue to turn pages. That’s it. Pages must turn. Writing that (and, I suppose, reading it as well), it seems as if it’s not that big of a deal, but it is. It’s a Really Big Deal. Pages must turn.

While all genres use character, plot, and setting to entice the reader, mystery fiction has, baked in, a tool by which to hook the reader’s attention, and that tool is showcased in the genre’s name: mystery fiction!

A quick web search produced this definition for mystery:

something that baffles understanding and cannot be explained

I like it. It’s short and to the point. Let’s apply it to mystery fiction.

In mystery fiction people go missing, are attacked, are murdered, are targeted, duped, or victimized in some manner. Valuable things are stolen, frauds are committed, money is embezzled, money is extorted, money changes hand by blackmail, intimidation, bribery … what else am I leaving out here? … and there is collateral damage every step along the way.

Mystery fiction, then, must explain that which “cannot be explained.” Who is missing, attacked, murdered? Why? What’s been stolen? By whom? Again, why? Always, why?

Do awful things happen in other genres? Of course! That’s fiction. Anything can happen. Cowboys battle rustlers, space/time travelers encounter space/time danger, and we all know the second step, the one right after the first – after boy-meets-girl – is boy-loses girl.

It’s the puzzle at the center of every piece of mystery fiction that makes the genre what it is. At the outset, at the very beginning – first word, first paragraph – the reader knows there will be some thing, or things, unknown, and only by turning pages will the thing, or things, be known. The solution may be delivered by a single person, or a team, but it will be human inquiry and human ingenuity that solves the puzzle.

In no way am I bashing those other genres. I read them. I like them. Nor am I bashing the crème de la crème of genres, Literary Fiction. (Well … think back … back into your school days … and try to remember the title of every “important” novel you were assigned to read. Try to remember why it was important. Once you’re done remembering, determine how “important” that novel is to you … today. Write a short essay answering this question: what, exactly, did that teacher mean by using the word “important”?) I am in no way knocking what is referred to as “Literature,’ but in my experience, there are as many turkeys in that field as in any other. I read Literature, honestly, I do. I like it. But the same rule applies: pages must turn.

So when I crack open a piece of mystery fiction, it is under the exact same stress as any other fictional work I attempt to read. It has to induce me to turn pages. I’m willing – happy, even – to accept the one-off, ersatz, curious occurrence, but it must make sense in the fictional world in which it happens. To be honest, what I want more than anything is to be so caught up in the reading I don’t notice (or care about) that little plot glitch, or a character’s sudden out-of-character actions. Let me repeat why I’m reading at all … I want to be entertained.

At some point in human history, the “tale” was birthed. I doubt that boredom was involved, and I suspect entertainment was not the goal.  But tales have been with us ever since … for any number of reasons … and the bottom line is we’re better for it, we’re more human and perhaps even more humanistic and that’s a bonus … at least I think so … for the real world. Reading fiction, we learn things. We travel. We deduce. We meet people we’d never meet otherwise, visit cultures we’d never get to experience firsthand, face challenges that nudge us to examine creaky beliefs and create mental pictures of things that do and do not exist.

Bonus points: it’s fun!

So praise be to fiction. All of it. It broadens our imagination, tests our sympathy and empathy, relieves a bit of stress, engages our memory and provides an escape from that other world, the world where we live most of our lives, the world that regularly challenges our sympathy, empathy, imagination, and memory.

I once saw a man get attacked by a coyote. I’m absolutely certain I’m not the only one who has witnessed something like that.

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The Nun Who Read Mysteries (by William Boyle)

A native of Brooklyn, New York, William Boyle currently lives in Oxford, Mississippi. His novels have been nominated for the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière, the John Creasey New Blood Dagger, and the Hammett Prize. A Friend Is a Gift You Give Yourself was an Amazon Best Book of 2019 and City of Margins was a Washington Post Best Thriller of 2020. Just out this week is his novel Shoot the Moonlight Out (Pegasus Crime), which has received starred reviews from both Publishers Weekly and Booklist, with PW calling the novel “masterly literary noir.” William’s EQMM debut, “Jianjun Ling and the Sad Case of Sonny La Grassa,” appears in our current issue (November/December 2021). In a sense, that story shares a theme with this post—a childhood awakening to the power of reading and storytelling, and the mystery in particular —Janet Hutchings

Sister Agnes was my fourth grade teacher. Most of the other nuns at my school were battle-hardened women in their fifties and sixties, tough and mean. But Sister Agnes was young and sweet. She glowed incandescent with joy. One of those people who really believed in God and goodness and hadn’t been disenchanted by anything or had been and had gotten over it. She was like walking electricity. Joy in the hallways. Joy in the classroom. Joy in the schoolyard. Joy everywhere. We, her students—who, without exception, loved her unabashedly—thought she was an angel. Forget the wings. Forget whatever else people expected of angels. She was it, the real deal. We commiserated about her kindness and her grace, marveling at our luck to have her as a teacher at our small Catholic school in southern Brooklyn.

We studied her. I followed her up to the convent on the fifth floor one day and watched her disappear into the secret lair of the nuns where no kid had ever set foot as far as anybody knew. I saw her at the Ulmer Park library on a Wednesday afternoon after dismissal. She was a big reader. She had a stack of mystery novels, the Mylar wrapping sleek and shiny under her soft hands. I read the names on the spines: Agatha Christie, P.D. James, Daphne du Maurier, G.K. Chesterton. I didn’t know nuns read books other than the Bible. I was shocked and happy.

In school the next day, I brought a mystery novel that I’d gotten at the library. I read during lunch and even during class. I liked mysteries, but my goal was simply to get Sister Agnes to notice me in a new way. I wanted her to think I was a kindred spirit, another great lover of mysteries, not just any regular boy. It was an Agatha Christie book. The print was small.         

Sister Agnes finally saw that I wasn’t doing my schoolwork. She floated over and flashed her heavenly smile. “What are you reading?” she asked. The other nuns would’ve snatched my book away, made a spectacle of me, an example.

I held the book up.

“I love that one,” she said.

“Me too,” I said. My cheeks flushed. “Your name is close to her name. Agatha. Agnes.”

She nodded. She didn’t tell me to stop reading and focus on my schoolwork. An angel.

Later that week, she asked to see me after class. I was worried. Maybe she was secretly mad. Maybe she felt like I was taking advantage of her good nature. I approached her desk with my head down. “Yes, Sister Agnes?” I said.

“I have something for you,” she said. She opened her desk and took out a plastic grocery bag filled with books. “I get most of my books at the library, but Sister Ellen gave these to me years ago. I read most of them multiple times. I like to reread books. I thought you might be interested in taking them off my hands. I saw you reading, and it made me so happy. When I was a child, my aunt always gave me books. I wouldn’t be who I am if she hadn’t done that.”

I took the bag and looked through the books. They were all paperbacks. Mystery novels. I recognized some of the names. I touched the covers. “Thank you,” I said.

“Maybe we can have a little book club?” she said. “You know, talk about the books after you read them.”

My mind was on fire. My own private book club with Sister Agnes! I wondered where we would meet. Maybe out in the schoolyard, just leaning against the brick wall of the school. Or maybe on the church steps. I imagined this book club lasting for years. I imagined myself getting older and Sister Agnes staying the same age.

I went home after school and finished my library book and then picked one from the bag at random and started reading. It was small enough to fit in my back pocket. I brought it with me to school the next day. Sister Agnes smiled when she saw me reading during class.

We met after school the following week. She took me up to the convent. As far as I knew, I was the first kid who’d ever stepped foot in the place. The other nuns—even the meanest ones—greeted me like I as welcome there. It was a big apartment, really. Nothing special. Regular furniture and regular light and a calendar on the wall. Smelled a little different—holy or something—but that was the only thing that was off. They even had a TV and VCR. Stacks of VHS tapes, too. They had Rain Man and The Color of Money! Imagine a bunch of nuns watching those movies! 

We sat at a small table set up with two chairs against the wall just off the kitchen, an empty vase on a lace doily between us. I marveled at what was on the table: folded newspapers (the nuns read the Daily News!), lottery tickets, a hulking ring of keys, a magnifying glass, a scratchpad. Sister Agnes cleared most of it away and brought me a cup of tea. She said she didn’t take milk and sugar, but she asked me if I wanted some. I shook my head. I wanted her to think I wasn’t the milk-and-sugar type. She brought me tea in a fragile cup on a dainty saucer. I’d never seen such a thing. In my apartment, we had mugs and most of those mugs had busted handles repaired by my grandpa.   

She asked me what I thought about the book I was reading. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know how to talk about books. She took the pressure off and started talking about why she loved the book. She had a great memory. It’d been years since she last read it, but she remembered everything. I was in love with listening to her, swept up by her words, but I was also looking around at the convent, taking in small details. My pals would require me to give a full report in the schoolyard the next day.

She talked about why she liked mysteries so much. She said life was a mystery. She said God was a mystery. She said she liked wondering about all the possibilities. She said she liked feeling like a detective. Mysteries could be many things. They could be like puzzles or like confessions. I watched her hands, one resting on the table, the other lifting the teacup to her mouth. I didn’t say much. I didn’t know how. I answered questions, usually in a word or two, when she asked. I nodded. She probably thought I was uncomfortable, that I was having a terrible time or that it felt like detention or punishment. It was the best day of my life.

Sister Agnes disappeared a month later. Not disappeared in any scary sense. We didn’t know much. She just wasn’t around anymore. She was there and then she was gone. She didn’t say goodbye. When we asked, the other nuns said she went home to be with her family. We didn’t know where home was. I asked if there was an address where I could write to her. I wanted to tell her that I was still reading the books she’d given me. I knew she’d write me back. They said they didn’t have an address, but they promised to get it. No one ever found out anything. Or, if they did, they didn’t tell us. We were expected to forget Sister Agnes. I still don’t know what happened to her. I wondered if she stopped being a nun. I pictured her on a train somewhere, happy, reading. I hoped she was okay. I wanted to say thank you, but I never could. I still have the books she gave me. I even still have the plastic bag they came in, a white Waldbaum’s bag with green print; it’s in a crate in the attic at my mom’s house. Sister Agnes, wherever you are, thank you for teaching me to believe in mysteries.  

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A Crime and a Confession (by C.H. Hung)

                                                      

C.H. Hung writes primarily science fiction and fantasy, and her work has appeared in our sister publication Analog Science Fiction and Fact and other magazines. Her EQMM debut, the holiday story “The Debtor,” is featured in our current issue (November/December 2021). In this post she gives readers some insight into how she made the crossover from science fiction to mystery. —Janet Hutchings

I confess: I’m new to mystery.

That’s not to say I’ve never read stories in the genre—I grew up with Encyclopedia Brown, Nancy Drew, and the Hardy Boys, the same as everyone else in my generation (although I arrived late to them, just as I’m often late to parties such as these)—but other than a rather clumsy attempt at hacking a Brown-like mystery in the third grade, I’d never tried my hand at writing in the genre. And not to come across as a bandwagoner by any means, but it was Frank Herbert’s Dune that inspired me to become a writer. So I buried myself in Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics and, later, Butcher’s Dresden Files and Corey’s The Expanse. So you can see where my reading interests lay, and it was not with the mystery fiction genre.

Until one dark and stormy night, I met in my inbox an assignment to write a mystery short story, centered around the Thanksgiving-to-New-Year holiday season. (There were other assignments, too, due that same week, and much wailing and gnashing of teeth over the ubiquitous predicament of a writer forced out of her comfort zone. But that’s another story, for another genre.)

I’d read a few Sherlock Holmes stories since grade school (because my high school English classes required it), enjoyed an Agatha Christie or two, and dabbled in Kinsey Millhone and Kay Scarpetta (because a college literature class required it). But to actually sit down and deliberately, methodically, plot, and write a mystery story? That was much beyond my small capabilities, especially for someone who doesn’t specialize in red herrings (I prefer, in fact, no herrings at all, as they are a tad overwhelming for my taste), whodunnits (to me, I didn’t care about the butler or the lead pipe, I was that annoying kid who always asked why), or brooding private detectives with checkered pasts (as if checkered pasts were limited to only that particular character trope).

So I did what any writer facing a dreaded block does—that is, if one doesn’t take up drinking or smoking or recreational drug use—I went to a bookstore. I found several anthologies and collections of mystery stories of various flavors (including a big book of Christmas mysteries, edited and compiled by Otto Penzler—score one for a research motherlode!), and I sat down and browsed through them for hours. (Not all at once, mind you. Once you start approaching a certain age, losing yourself in a story is less about sitting still in one place for hours as it is about being able to mark your place in a book without damaging it before rushing for the nearest bathroom.)

And I discovered, much to my surprise and delight, that mystery wasn’t just about the hardboiled detective trying not to fall for the distressed femme or the closed room full of clues or the stuffy butler who may or may not have done it, but is definitely in on it. In one anthology of modern mystery stories, “Mika Model” by Paolo Bacigalupi was so riveting that when I ran across it later in another, unrelated anthology, I immediately recognized the story within the first couple of sentences. It opens, as one so often does in the genre, with a woman in distress walking into a police station asking for help. There has been a crime committed, with the inevitable discovery of a body as the result. And yet, because it is also science fiction, the woman is a robot, and the crime and its implications is not as easily resolved as in a traditional whodunnit. I loved this mash-up as dearly as I once loved R. Daneel Olivaw.

And once I’d made that connection, I made another—that, unbeknownst to me, I had been consuming mystery all along, in many of its various tropes and forms. Robots of Dawn, the third in its series, is a whodunnit clothed in far-future science fiction. The Dresden Files is firmly entrenched in urban fantasy’s hardboiled detective roots, right down to the brooding private detective with a checkered past literally cloaked in magic. And the first book in The Expanse series, Leviathan Wakes, is a detective mystery that features, as one of the two main protagonists, a jaded police detective whose beat just happens to be a space station on an asteroid in the Asteroid Belt, as he tries to solve the mystery of a missing woman. Classic mystery tropes, repurposed by other genres for their own (and often nefarious) purposes.

But when you think about it, why the hell not? Mystery is one of those threads of story that winds its way through every nook and genre in storytelling, if one were only to look hard enough. So many of its common, cherished tropes have found new twists in other genres. Readers who might’ve groaned at yet another Holmesian pastiche greedily gobbled up Enola Holmes with their kids when the Netflix movie adaptation brought to light that there were already six books in the delightful YA series. Romance adapted readily to the mystery genre ages ago, with Mary Stewart pioneering the romantic mystery subgenre and inspiring the birth of Nora Roberts’ J.D. Robb pseudonym in the ’90s, and with Robb’s success playing no small part in the prolific rise of the romantic suspense genre at the turn of the century. It is that sort of paving of the way that sets the stage for other authors, like paranormal romance author Nalini Singh, to successfully cross over into mystery with contemporary psychological thrillers like Quiet in Her Bones and A Madness of Sunshine.

Because we read, and read widely, and have decided that labels—helpful or not—will not dictate what we love to consume, we lovers of good stories have all, knowingly or not, interred the bones of what makes a good mystery in our understanding of what makes for good storytelling. And when needed, like ill luck nipping at the heels of a guilty perpetrator, those bones may surface, to be ground up and sprinkled across the fertile fields of our imaginations, where we can give new life to old tropes and bring the familiar eerily close to the unfamiliar.

So while I confess I’m new to mystery, the only crime that I plead guilty to is the crime of not giving mystery its due when it comes to how much it has influenced my own reading and writing. The punishment, obviously, is to read more—a sentence I am more than happy to continue serving, no matter how much time I owe.

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The Uses of Water in Fiction (by Sheila Kohler)

Here’s another insightful post by award-winning author and teacher of creative writing, Sheila Kohler. Her most recent novel is the thriller Open Secrets, published by Penguin in 2020. Publishers Weekly said of the book: “The plot moves swiftly amid luxurious settings to a closing twist . . .” One of Sheila’s recent short stories, “Miss Martin,” was selected for the 2020 volume of Best American Mystery Stories. As in last week’s post by Michael Cebula, the work of author Patricia Highsmith is examined here—a timely tribute as it is the centenary of Highsmith’s birth this year. —Janet Hutchings

As a symbol, water has many connotations. It is life giving, sustaining, and dangerous. It immediately creates suspense, and fear of death: plunged under water, bereft of air, one drowns. Water boarding is probably one of the most effective methods of torture, we are told. Yet we begin our lives in water or certainly liquid—in the amniotic fluid in the comfort and security of our mothers’ wombs.

Water, too, perhaps for this reason, is used in many religious ceremonies. John the Baptist baptized Jesus with water, and water is at the center of the Christian baptism, which is considered a new birth, a ceremony that brings the baby into the congregation, into the church, giving the child a name, an identity, as holy water is sprinkled on the head. Judaism too has a ceremony of purification with the immersion in water.

Thus water has a double symbolism, representing both renewal, life, and death.

It is not surprising then that it is used as a central image in so many books and stories, only a few of which I can mention here. One that comes to mind immediately is “Black Water,” a novella by Joyce Carol Oates. Here the young heroine, Kelly, leaves her friend’s party to accompany the famous “Senator” whom she admires, hoping for a love affair with the handsome older man. Instead of love she finds death, trapped in his car, which he carelessly drives off a bridge and into the watery marshlands in Maine. The heroine, abandoned by the Senator, who escapes the car, is flooded by memories, remembering her life, as the author’s language rushes at the reader and the water floods into the car. Eventually, bereft of the bubble of life-giving air, she drowns.

Here, too, in a literary baptismal service, the author renames the places and people involved in the Chappaquiddick incident, when Mary Jo Kopechne was abandoned by Edward Kennedy, who drove his car off the bridge and into the water.

In The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith, we know from the start that Tom Ripley fears water. His parents have drowned in Boston Harbor, leaving him—an orphan—to the tender mercies of his Aunt Dottie, who calls him a sissy and bullies him, making him run by the car to fetch water on a hot day in moving traffic. Yet it is on the water that Tom Ripley takes on a new identity. He kills Dickie Greenleaf, the boy he has been sent to bring home. In the motorboat with an oar, Tom bashes Dickie over the head and after a struggle—Tom, unable to swim, almost drowns as he tries to control the madly spinning boat—Tom acquires a new life. Eventually, dressed in his clothes and taking his place in society, Tom Ripley becomes Dickie Greenleaf. 

Water here is both dangerous, bringing death and violence, but also a new birth. Tom Ripley is reborn as the wealthy and enviable Dickie whose fortune he eventually inherits in a false will. Secretly, shamefully, we root for his success.

In my own “Open Secrets” I used many of these motifs: Alice’s husband, a Swiss banker and a good sailor, is last seen when he leaves in the boat which belongs to his bank, the Circe. He goes sailing with a Russian client in Beaulieu sur Mer. A body is eventually found in the sea, wearing Michel’s clothes and his gold watch. Michel is presumed dead. Alice and her daughter attend the funeral together in deep sorrow. In her search for the reasons for her husband’s death, Alice is lured to swim out across the sea and onto her husband’s boat, the Circe, where she discovers the reasons that explain both his life and the death of his Russian client.

In Alice Munro’s wonderful story “Child’s Play,” a woman remembers a moment from her childhood during a stay in a camp at the sea. In an act of retribution she pays for this joint crime committed in the water in her youth.

Water thus combines for us all our hope for a new life, for a rebirth, and our ancient ancestral despair. It enables the writer to portray our joy in the value of each and every life, and our deepest sorrow and fear in the knowledge of the dangers which lap around us at all moments, threatening what we know must come to all of us some day.

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CHALLENGE TO THE READER

As of today, our trivia contest has yet to be won, so we are extending the deadline until the end of the year. Brush up on your EQMM history and dive in; the first reader to respond with all the correct answers will win a choice of five EQMM anthologies from our archives. Runners-up will also receive prizes. See you in our inbox by December 31!

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The Terrapin and Ms. Highsmith (by Michael Cebula)

2021 is the centenary of the birth of Patricia Highsmith, one of the great masters of the psychological thriller. She’s best known for her novels, especially Strangers on a Train and The Talented  Mr. Ripley, but she also produced many iconic short stories, twenty-eight of which first appeared in EQMM, beginning in 1957 and ending in 1994. We believe her April 1994 story “Summer Doldrums” may have been her last published work. It is an earlier Highsmith story for EQMM that author Michael Cebula focuses on in this post, which looks back at the life of one of the brightest stars in the crime-fiction firmament.

Michael Cebula’s short story “Second Cousins” appeared in the September/October 2019 issue of EQMM and was subsequently chosen for The Best American Mystery Stories 2020. His work has also been featured in a variety of other magazines and anthologies, including Mystery Weekly. “Selfie of an Actress as a Young Woman,” his latest story, can be found in the anthology Die Laughing, edited by Kerry Carter.

 —Janet Hutchings

In 1962, Patricia Highsmith, one of a handful of people who could reasonably claim to be the greatest suspense writer ever, committed a very real and very bloody murder. Though she took care to hide her crime (more or less successfully), she also made sure that her victim knew exactly whose hand wielded the knife.

The site of the murder was well-chosen—the October 1962 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, which featured Highsmith’s short story, “The Terrapin.” In the story, an eleven-year-old boy named Victor is humiliated by the short pants that his mother insists he wears. His mother “wanted him to stay about six years old, forever, all his life.” When Victor complains to his mother, she teases him to the point of tears and continues to infantilize him, such as by asking him to recite the days of the week and referring to him as her baby.

One afternoon, Victor’s mother brings home a turtle—or what she insists Victor call a terrapin. He mistakenly believes that she bought the turtle to be his pet, and he plays with it and tries to feed it, but his mother soon enough tells him the turtle is no pet, but rather meat for a stew she is making. Shocked, Victor watches as she drops the turtle into a pot of boiling water:

Victor, open-mouthed, stared at the terrapin whose legs were now racing against the steep sides of the pot. The terrapin’s mouth opened, its eyes looked directly at Victor for an instant, its head arched back in torture, the open mouth sank beneath the seething water—and that was the end. Victor blinked. It was dead. He came closer, saw the four legs and the tail stretched out in the water, its head. He looked at his mother.

Victor begins to cry, imagining that the turtle had been screaming below the water. He is convinced that the turtle wanted Victor to rescue him but “he hadn’t moved to help him. His mother had tricked him, done it so fast, he couldn’t save him.” Irritated by Victor’s reaction, his mother slaps him. Victor leaves the kitchen and lies on the sofa, his mouth open against a pillow until he pictures the turtle screaming in a similar pose, and closes it. Then Victor returns to the kitchen, making himself watch what happens next. His mother, humming, continues to prepare the stew. The turtle is on the cutting board now. Still humming, his mother takes a knife and butchers it, a process that Highsmith slowly details. Victor forces himself to watch, even when “the terrapin’s insides were all exposed, red and white and greenish.” Victor’s mother finally stops humming and talks in a “gentle and soothing [voice], not at all like what she was doing.”

Later that night in bed, Victor imagines the turtle’s face “very large, its mouth open, its eyes wide and full of pain.” Victor wishes he “could walk out the window and float, go anywhere he wanted to, disappear, yet be everywhere.” But he imagines “his mother’s hands on his shoulders, jerking him back, if he tried to step out the window. He hated his mother.”

The story could end here. It would be a good literary story, one with no crime involved, about a child’s first encounter with death, living with a cruel and perhaps mentally ill mother, dreaming of escape, and knowing that escape is impossible.

But that is not what Highsmith had in mind.

Instead, Victor walks through the dark apartment into the kitchen. He feels “gently for the knife he wanted.” Then: “His mother’s cry was not silent, it seemed to tear his ears off. His second blow was in her body, and then he stabbed her throat again. Only tiredness made him stop.”

Again, the story could end here, with a great and chilling final line that perfectly conveys the depth of Victor’s brutal feelings for his mother. But instead, Highsmith continues for several more sentences. First, Victor hears people trying to break into the apartment. He unlocks the door and lets them in. Then, in the final paragraph, Victor is resting in a hospital. He “did everything he was asked to do, and answered the questions they put to him, but only those questions, and since they didn’t ask him anything about a terrapin, he did not bring it up.”

Highsmith, like many writers, hated to be asked how she came up with ideas for her stories. She typically told interviewers (after making clear just how much she hated the question) that she created stories “out of thin air.” But “The Terrapin” was one of the few times that Highsmith made an exception, and willingly offered a concrete explanation for a story’s origin.

According to Highsmith, an unnamed friend told her that she had heard of a woman who browbeat her son and forced him to wear clothes that were too young for him. Then, a year later, Highsmith saw a recipe for terrapin stew, and the story came together in her mind. “The Terrapin,” Highsmith claimed, had nothing to do with her own life or her own mother. And that, as far is it goes, sounds reasonable. After all, Highsmith wrote Strangers on a Train and no one suspects that she ever planned a double-murder with someone she had just met on a speeding locomotive.

Nevertheless, Highsmith’s claim that “The Terrapin” was inspired by a cocktail story and a stew recipe, and had nothing to do with her own life, was a lie. Consider:

  • Victor’s mother is a commercial artist of limited success. Highsmith’s mother, Mary, was a commercial artist of limited success.
  • Just as Highsmith did, Victor lives with his mother in a series of apartments in New York, first on the Upper West Side (where Highsmith first lived with her mother), then on Third Avenue (near where Mary later moved).
  • Victor’s mother is divorced and he has no relationship with his father. Highsmith’s mother was divorced and, as a child, Highsmith had no relationship with her father.
  • Victor quickly becomes attached to the turtle while Highsmith cared for turtles enough that, on at least one occasion, she brought a turtle to a literary party as her plus-one.
  • Victor reads Karl Menninger’s The Human Mind, a collection of psychiatric case studies, the same book Highsmith loved as a child and throughout her adulthood.
  • True, Victor is male, but in Highsmith’s private notebooks she described herself as a man trapped in a woman’s body and wondered whether she could change her sex.
  • Though Victor hates his clothes, he does like his masculine, thick-soled shoes, and is thankful that they fit. Similarly, Highsmith, who had unusually large feet, wore men’s shoes most of her life, and was so obsessed with a particular brand of men’s footwear (unavailable in Europe, where she spent her final few decades), that she directed her cousin to ship them to her overseas for years.
  • Victor’s mother forces him to wear clothes that he detests and tries to turn him into something he is not (a baby). Highsmith’s mother hated the masculine styles her daughter adopted and wanted Highsmith to be something she was not (heterosexual).
  • Victor’s mother repeatedly tells him he is “psychologically sick,” while Mary told Highsmith, both in writing and verbally, that Highsmith was “sick in the head.”

None of these similarities are necessary for the plot of “The Terrapin.” That is, the story would be unchanged if, say, Victor lived at a different address, his favorite book was something besides Menninger’s psychiatric case studies, his mother was not a struggling commercial artist, or her browbeatings did not include accusations of mental illness. These details serve no purpose except to tie Victor and his mother to Highsmith and her mother, to tell Mary: this story is about us, this story describes how I feel.

And Highsmith certainly had reason to hate her mother. Mary tried to abort Highsmith by drinking turpentine, then told Highsmith and her friends about the story for years, presenting it as an amusing anecdote, rather than a narrowly averted tragedy. Mary also enjoyed telling Highsmith of the bookstores she wandered through that contained none of Highsmith’s novels and the bookstore owners who had never heard Highsmith’s name. And, as noted, Mary made clear her disapproval of Highsmith’s homosexuality, sharply criticized her looks, and frequently claimed, to Highsmith and anyone who would listen, that Highsmith was mentally ill.

Not surprisingly, Mary’s actions profoundly affected her daughter. Once, upon learning that Mary was paying her an unexpected visit, Highsmith fainted. Mary’s highly critical letters often left Highsmith feeling “shattered” and unable to work for days. And, like many victims of a difficult childhood, Highsmith was anorexic and an alcoholic. Highsmith finally went so far as to disinherit herself from her mother’s estate, an unusual move for anyone, but especially for Highsmith, who had crippling anxieties about her own finances.

Yet, despite all of this, Highsmith never broke away from her mother entirely. Even when Highsmith moved to Europe permanently, and could have easily ceased contact with her mother, the two women continued to write each other constantly, in long, detailed, much worried-over letters. And they still visited one other and traveled Europe together. Highsmith killed her mother on the page, but made no meaningful attempt to live a life without her. Whether the obstacles were real or imagined, Highsmith could not escape.

Once, when an interviewer asked what attracted her to crime stories, Highsmith mentioned a short story she wrote at sixteen, about a girl who steals a book. The impetus for the story, Highsmith said, was the desperate desire she herself felt to steal a particular book from her own school’s library. Writing, it seems, was a remedy to her strongest wayward temptations, a way for Highsmith to do what she wanted, without the risk or consequences.

But if writing was a sort of release valve, it apparently offered only temporary relief. Years after “The Terrapin” appeared in Ellery Queen, Highsmith was still brainstorming a particular brand of murder in her private notebooks, including: “Replacing roller skates on stairs, once mother has removed it.” And when Mary died, some years after that (from natural causes, it perhaps should be noted), Highsmith did not attend the funeral.

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Remembering John Ball (by Kevin Mims)

Short story writer and essayist Kevin Mims contributes frequently to this site. In this post, he commemorates a great crime writer whose name one seldom hears these days. Thanks, Kevin, for bringing his work to our attention again! —Janet Hutchings

October 15, 2021 marks the thirty-third anniversary of the death of John Ball. Lovers of twentieth-century crime fiction are probably familiar with Ball, who created Virgil Tibbs, one of the most memorable detectives in the annals of American literature. But in a better world, many more people would be familiar with the name John Ball, because he was a truly remarkable man. He was born in Schenectady, NY, on July 8, 1911. He was raised in Milwaukie, WI, and graduated from Carroll College in Waukesha, WI. Perhaps the fact that the first three cities to play a role in his biography derived their names from Native American terms somehow inspired in Ball an interest in other cultures (Schenectady is a Mohawk word meaning “beyond the pines,” Milwaukie is from an Ojibwe word meaning “pleasant land,” and Waukesha is believed to be a corruption of an Ojibwe word meaning “foxes.” Put them all together and you get foxes in a pleasant land beyond the pines.)

After college he followed an eccentric and peripatetic career path. For a while he worked for Fortune magazine. Then he became the assistant curator of the Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Natural History in New York City (the current director of the Planetarium is Neil deGrasse Tyson). After that, according to his obituary in the New York Times, “He wrote liner notes for Columbia record albums, became a music critic for the Brooklyn Eagle in 1946, and left in 1951 to review records for the New York World-Telegram.” Somewhere along the way he acquired a commercial pilot’s license. During World War II he put his knowledge of airplanes to good use, serving as a navigator aboard various US Army planes. He was part of a crew whose job was to fly warplanes “over the hump” from India into China, where they would be used to fight the Japanese. The “hump” was Air Force jargon for the Himalayas, the most imposing mountain chain in the world, and the most treacherous to cross via airplane. He was in famous company. A Wikipedia page listing notable participants in the hump airlift includes such prominent figures as film producer Merian C. Cooper, who had co-directed the 1933 movie King Kong; Robert S. McNamara, who would become US Secretary of Defense in the 1960s; Ernest K. Gann, who would write many bestselling aviation-themed novels; Ted Stevens, who would become a long-serving US Senator from Alaska; Thomas Watson, who would succeed his father as the CEO of IBM; and movie star Gene Autry. Later in life, Ball served as a reserve deputy in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, and as a vice president of the Mystery Writers of America (as well as the president of its Los Angeles chapter). In 1960, he was admitted into the Baker Street Irregulars, the highly exclusive society of Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts. For what it’s worth, he was also a semi-professional magician and an ardent nudist. Few writers have ever had a resume as interesting as Ball’s.

His first novel, published in 1965, was In The Heat of the Night, and its cultural impact was enormous. It tells the story of Virgil Tibbs, an African American homicide detective who happens to be passing through a town in the Deep South when a murdered body turns up. Because Tibbs is Black and a stranger in town, the local cops jump quickly to the conclusion that he must be the murderer. They arrest him and throw him in jail. But when Virgil’s out-of-town boss calls up the small town police chief and assures him that Virgil doesn’t commit murders but rather solves them, the southern cops, very reluctantly, release him. Eventually, and very grudgingly, they allow Virgil to help investigate the murder. By the end of the book, Virgil, the dapper Black sophisticate, and Chief Bill Gillespie, a hot-tempered racist, have formed a bit of a bond. The book won an Edgar Award from the MWA for Best First Novel. Two years later, director Norman Jewison turned it into a film starring Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier. The film won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor (for Steiger). To this day the American Film Institute lists it among the 100 best American films of all time. The film inspired two sequels, They Call Me Mister Tibbs! (1970), and The Organization (1971). In the late 1980s, the characters were spun off into a TV series that ran for five seasons and 146 episodes.

Ball’s novel differs in many ways from the film of the same name. And his version of Virgil Tibbs also differs from the Tibbs created by Jewison, Poitier, and screenwriter Sterling Silliphant. One of the most important differences is Tibbs’s point of origin. In the film he is from Philadelphia, a northern town with a fairly large African-American population. In the novel, however, Virgil hails from Pasadena, California, an upscale suburb of Los Angeles with a relatively small minority population. This didn’t matter much back in 1967 because Philadelphia doesn’t really figure in the film and Pasadena doesn’t figure much in the original novel. But John Ball wrote six sequels to In The Heat of the Night (nine, if you count the three Virgil Tibbs stories published in EQMM in the late 1970s). And in those sequels Pasadena plays a large role.

Back in the mid-twentieth century, Pasadena was viewed as a sleepy bedroom community populated largely by wealthy widows—the stereotypical little old ladies from Pasadena, who were a cultural trope even before Jan and Dean memorialized them in a 1964 pop song. The best known fictional Pasadenan of the 1960s was probably Benjamin Braddock, the protagonist of Charles Webb’s 1963 novel The Graduate, which was the source of Mike Nichols’ much more famous 1967 film of the same name. Nichols’ film and Jewison’s film wound up competing against each other for many of the major movie awards of 1967. In the Heat of the Night and The Graduate were two of the most successful films of the era, and they were both based on novels about men from Pasadena. But Virgil Tibbs and Benjamin Braddock couldn’t have been more different. Braddock is the spoiled 21-year-old son of wealthy white parents. Tibbs is a 30-something Black man from the south who makes a modest living working for the Pasadena Police Department. Braddock is an entitled jerk who tells a girlfriend, “Ever since I’ve been out of school I’ve had this overwhelming urge to be rude all the time.” Tibbs knows that the slightest sign of rudeness is likely to get him labeled “uppity” or worse, which could get him killed in the Deep South and demoted or fired in Pasadena. Braddock, despite an elite college education, is lazy, unfocused, and not much interested in serving anyone but himself. Tibbs has a more modest education but is whip smart, a tireless public servant, and a true asset to the community. Hoffman’s portrayal of Braddock gave Americans the impression that the typical Pasadena male was a rich young white jerk. Sadly, Jewison and Silliphant, by altering Tibbs’ back story, robbed the city of Pasadena of a chance to offset Braddock’s callowness with Tibbs’ courage and community spirit.

A Caucasian, John Ball was keenly interested in people of other races, and not just African-Americans. His greatest passion, perhaps because of his wartime service, seems to have been for all things Asian. Although biographical details about Ball are hard to find online, it seems that he lived in Japan for a few years after the war, or at least visited it frequently. He was fluent in Japanese and held a black belt in the Japanese martial art of aikido. Ball frequently combined his love of Asia with his job as a crime writer. Rather improbably, Virgil Tibbs, while investigating a crime in Pasadena, would often find clues that sent him flying off to Asia for more information. Just the titles of some of the Tibbs sequels are a tipoff that the adventure will eventually lead to Asia: Five Pieces of Jade, The Eyes of Buddha, Singapore. None of the later Tibbs novels ever surpassed the brilliance of the original, but all of them are smart, entertaining, and well worth reading. My favorites of the sequels are Johnny, Get Your Gun (1969), a novel-cum-gun-control-argument partially inspired by the 1968 murders of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and The Eyes of Buddha (1976), partially inspired by the 1974 kidnapping of heiress Patty Hearst. They are both thoroughly entertaining and it is impressive how quickly Ball was able to turn headline-grabbing events into fodder for his thoughtful fiction.

According to his New York Times obit, Ball wrote a total of 35 books, on all variety of subjects. Even his non-Tibbs novels often deal head-on with the subject of race. His 1975 novel, The Winds of Mitamura, tells of two young American academics who travel to a small farming community in Japan in order to conduct an anthropological study on the people there. Peter Storm, one of the academics, is white, and Marjorie Saunders, his partner on the project, is African-American. Ball, who appears to have known Japanese culture almost as well as he knew his own, provides the reader with a fascinating exploration of how race plays out across the globe. The residents of the small community are honored to have a white American professor in their midst. But they are terrified of Marjorie Saunders. They have never seen a Black person before. They are highly superstitious and fear that she might be a devil whose presence will cause this year’s rice crop to be ruined. Marjorie, because she is the well-educated daughter of an upper-class family (her father is a surgeon), hasn’t experienced the worst of American racism, the kind reserved for the poor and underprivileged. Thus, her story, like Virgil’s in In The Heat of the Night, is a tale of a fish out of water, and dangerously so at that. Though it isn’t technically a crime novel, it often reads like one. In the forest at the edge of the farming community lives a hermit, a former resident of the community who lost his mind when his wife was raped and killed by an American serviceman stationed in Japan about a decade after WWII. Because the American serviceman was Black, the unhinged forest-dweller believes all Black people to be murderous devils. This creates a nightmarish scenario when, one day, Marjorie decides to wander off into the woods by herself.

My favorite of all the John Ball novels I’ve read is, hands-down, Miss One Thousand Spring Blossoms (1968). This, too, is a fish-out-of-water tale. It is the story of Richard Seaton, a thirtysomething engineer and mid-level executive at a conservative Massachusetts manufacturing company. One day, during a business trip to Tokyo, Dick will fall in love with a beautiful geisha, and this will unleash all sorts of disasters, both comic and tragic.

If all you know about John Ball is that he wrote In The Heat of the Night, I urge you to seek out more of his work. He was a writer who was unafraid to veer out of his own lane and explore the lives of others—people whose experiences of the world were vastly different from his own. He left behind a vast body of work, but if more readers don’t seek it out, it may end up being a dead body. And you don’t want to be one of the suspects in that homicide investigation.

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GENRE-FICTION MAGAZINES BRIDGE SOCIETAL DIVIDES

Beginning in June 2020, the New York Times ran a series entitled Why Does Art Matter?, in which more than a dozen artists, writers, and thinkers discussed the relevance of specific art forms and art in general to human life. The series inspired in me some thoughts about the artistic enterprise in which we are engaged.

Sometimes the most convincing proof of an art form’s relevance is that it has endured. Genre-fiction magazines have proved capable of holding their audiences for extraordinarily long periods of time. As our regular readers will know, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine will be concluding its eightieth year of continuous publication with the next issue to go on sale (November/December 2021). A somewhat longer unbroken run can be claimed by Analog Science Fiction and Fact, which is ninety-two, and our sister mystery publication, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, turned sixty-five this year, followed by Asimov’s Science Fiction, which is forty-four. Two titles older than any of these magazines, Weird Tales (1923) and Amazing Stories (1926), have been repeatedly revived. Those remarkable publishing records are evidence, I  think, that deeper cultural needs are being met by these magazines than simply fulfilling the public’s appetite for particular genres.

The earliest genre-fiction magazine, The Argosy (1888), presented varied types of stories to its readers, banking on good storytelling being a greater draw than a particular genre. Theirs was an era of increasing literacy in the U.S. and because their costs were low—partly due to printing on “pulp” paper—The Argosy and similar titles that soon joined it could be priced for a mass audience and thereby create large national readerships, bringing together geographically and culturally diverse segments of the country.

By the time EQMM came on the scene in 1941, the landscape had changed. During the 1920s and ’30s, the many new pulps that appeared were all for specialized audiences (Western, adventure, fantasy, science fiction, or hard-boiled detection). Quality was no longer the touchstone it had been, especially as demand grew and speed was required to fill pages. EQMM’s founding editor, Frederic Dannay (who cowrote the Ellery Queen novels and stories with his cousin Manfred B. Lee), decided that an entirely new type of genre-fiction magazine was needed, one that would put quality first, and whose range, although nominally limited to crime fiction, would be broader than that of any of the existing titles.

The best of the crime-fiction pulps, Black Mask, was primarily targeted at a male audience, with stories of unflagging action—although Fanny Ellsworth, its influential editor from 1936 to 1940, brought in masters of psychological suspense such as Cornell Woolrich. Nowhere in the pulp world, though, were traditional mysteries to be found. Only the glossy magazines occasionally published whodunits. Dannay’s idea—a revolutionary one—was to bring all of the different types of mystery story, from the whodunit to the mean-streets crime tale, from psychological suspense to the police procedural, together in one publication. Equally important was his quest to find and reprint a mystery by every great fiction writer in history—in order, I suppose, to demonstrate that mystery is at the heart of storytelling itself. If he could do that, he could help break down the barriers between “genre” and “literary” fiction, and, as he wrote, “raise the sights of mystery writers generally to a genuine literary form.”

Much ink has been spilled in recent decades over the breakdown of the boundaries between genre and literary fiction, but it’s rarely noted that this process began at least eighty years ago, when it served as a driving principle for EQMM. The original work of so many literary writers appeared in the magazine (William Faulkner and Jorge Luis Borges the best known) beside genre writers like Agatha Christie and Dashiell Hammett, that one modern scholar, Leah Pennywark, has credited EQMM with being a force in the development of postmodernism, through its interweaving of “high and popular culture.”*  Here we have an example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts: I’ve always felt that a fiction magazine, to be any good, must be more than a collection of stories. The juxtaposition of works, both in an individual issue and over time, has transformative potential, and it is transformative potential that makes any art form matter. If Pennywark is right, EQMM helped to transform American literary culture and, through it, our wider culture.

It isn’t only at the higher levels of culture that art needs to have an impact in order to matter, and to illustrate how not only EQMM but the other genre-fiction magazines have influenced our culture as a whole I’d like to resurrect a concept that went out of fashion a few decades ago: that of the “intelligent general reader.” I think of that person as someone who may shy away from certain forms of experimental or “literary” fiction (which, to many, seems accessible only to the initiated), but who nevertheless has an interest in stories that engage the mind and convey something about the human condition. This is the wider audience to which EQMM and most of the other genre fiction magazines address themselves.

Since all of the current magazines in the genre-fiction category, including EQMM, bear reference in their titles to one or more particular genre, that may seem an odd thing to say. Doesn’t the mystery concern itself with puzzles and crime, science fiction with scientific concepts, horror with supernatural objects of fear, and so on? And aren’t those special interests?

The answer to both questions is yes—and yet there’s a lot more to most genre fiction than those tags suggest. In an interview for The Paris Review’s Art of Ficton section (No. 221) Ursula K. LeGuin contrasted her work to “hard” science fiction, in which interest in a scientific concept predominates, by saying, “I try to hint at the complexity of the society I’m creating. . . . It’s helped to make my stuff more accessible to people who don’t, as they say, read science fiction.” In a similar way, through its exploration of human motivation, mystery fiction often appeals to readers who don’t self-identify as fans of the genre; the crime story, however focused on action, necessarily also shines a light on society, since crime is behavior aberrant to a society. Even the horror story, which may seem on the face of it the furthest removed from questions about the human condition, often touches on something larger than its fantastical elements: think of H.P. Lovecraft and the interest reflected in his fiction in humanity’s place in an uncaring universe.

If the concept of the “intelligent general reader” has fallen out of fashion in publishing, it’s largely because it’s more profitable to market to specialized audiences than to attempt a broad societal reach. We’re all enouraged, these days, by various forms of marketing, to self-identify in terms of specialized interests (even as pertains to the news we consume). The divide between the economic and educational opportunities and cultural interests of “elites” and “non-elites” has not been greater in recent memory. We all know from our recent national election, if from nothing else, that these many forms of division are a problem for our society, but have we considered how the breaking up of popular culture into ever narrower compartments may affect our ability to see the world from shared perspectives?

It wasn’t so long ago that what was striking at the level of popular culture was how common our interests were. The last episode of the network TV show M.A.S.H (1983) had 106 million viewers—an audience that obviously cut across social classes and ethnicities, since that was more than half the adult population of the country at the time. We don’t have anything that comes even close to that today; the last episode of the most popular recent TV show, Game of Thrones, had just over 16 million U.S. viewers, about twelve percent of American adults. Even delayed viewing doesn’t bring that show’s numbers close to the viewership peaks for shows like M.A.S.H. But it’s not just the numbers that matter; it’s the fact that there have come to be so few areas in which culture is shared across social classes at all today—literature not excluded.

If, for instance, one looks at the demographics of some of the best-known literary (as opposed to genre) magazines, one has to conclude that their readerships consist of the educational and economic elite. The Paris Review, for instance, shows more than half its readership as having traveled internationally, ninety-nine percent having recently visited a gallery or museum, more than three quarters placing restaurants high on their list of lifestyle spending. That is not rural or blue collar America or even the urban middle-middle class.

Content is not, I think, the primary reason such publications don’t appeal across more of the economic and social spectrum. As far as content goes, there’s significant overlap between the genre and literary magazines. EQMM’s current authors, for example, include two National Book Award winners, Joyce Carol Oates and Sigrid Nunez, and several others who are mainstays of various literary magazines. Conversely, many best-of-year anthologies in the mystery field contain stories drawn from the literary magazines. (They make up nearly half of 2019’s Best American Mystery Stories, edited by Jonathan Lethem.) What makes the literary magazines seem inaccessible to readers who don’t self-identify as part of the cultural elite is the perception (sometimes accurate) that they also contain cryptic content that may not repay the effort required to understand it. And then there’s the matter of cost. A single issue of The Paris Review is $20.00, compared to around $8.00 for a similar-length issue of any of the major genre-fiction magazines—a disparity justified by the high-quality paper and original art the literary magazines use, but which, nevertheless, may put them out of the reach of a large swath of the population.

Fiction magazines don’t simply find their audiences, they create them. They create a perception of themselves to which readers respond—or don’t. Literary magazines are mostly consciously targeted at an elite segment of society, and so people not belonging to that group often don’t even think of buying one. There was no certainty that Frederic Dannay could forge a common readership out of the disparate elements from which he was drawing back in 1941. In fact, it must have seemed quite a gamble. The classical whodunit (of the sort Agatha Christie wrote) usually turned around upper-class life—unsuprisingly, since it was most often written by those with privileged backgrounds and elite academic credentials, while the “hardboiled” story (popularized by authors such as Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler) was generally set in a world of violence and want, and written by those who’d had some experience of that sphere. There is no necessary correlation, of course, between the social stratum in which a work of fiction is set and the audience it ultimately commands, but previous magazines had targeted readerships more or less in line with the segments of society depicted. It took an editor like Dannay, willing to take risks himself, to draw readers out of their comfort zones and to forge an audience with a broad societal range.

It is, I think, a good thing that Dannay succeeded in his project of expanding and mainstreaming the crime-fiction genre, for it is often through shared stories (whether communicated via television or print or some other means) that we come to understand people unlike ourselves. Social class is not the only source of otherness, of course, but it is one of the sources that most bedevil us today. A publication that can reach across class and ethnic and geographic and gender lines and present a shared form of entertainment to an intelligent general readership has the potential to expand our understanding of one another, even if only in a small way. The genre-fiction magazines are among the few remaining publications that do this, and that is one answer to the question why they matter. —Janet Hutchings

Sources:

Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine: From Postpulp to Postmodern by Leah Pennywark, Journal of Modern Periodical Studies 9.2 (2018): 220-244

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From Cozy to Creepy, with Quirky, Nail-biting, and Scary Thrown in Along the Way (by Denis Johnston)

California resident Denis Johnston makes his debut as a professional writer in the Department of First Stories of our current issue (September/October 2021) with the story “Snail Mail.” Like this post, the story is infused with the author’s offbeat humor. Don’t miss it!  —Janet Hutchings

I own some responsibility for the worldwide COVID 19 pandemic. For Halloween 2019 I wore a medieval bird mask, a plague hat, and completed the costume with the tackiest polyester coat I could find. Turns out that mocking the universe with thrift shop bargains wasn’t a brilliant idea. 2020 made the academic words “pandemic,” “quarantine,” and “lockdown,” part of the world’s shared experience.

It’s a fair guess that most people figured to use lockdown to better themselves. Healthy eating and rigorous exercise were certainly going to improve my well-being. I live in Los Angeles, so kale and tofu scrambles are a requirement, but they only lasted until I heard the siren call of pizza. Sausage and two kinds of pepperoni didn’t up the good-for-me factor but, hey, I was on lockdown. The exercise program didn’t go much better—burpees only lasted two weeks and my walks got shorter every day, especially in the summer. (See Los Angeles above). Sheltering at home was restricting but fiction allowed me to hitch-hike and bee-bop across 1950s America, cheer on an awkward adolescent in his crusade against the phonies, and cry at an ex-slave’s haunted past. Most memorable was treading the deck of battered whaler into hell’s dark heart.

Most of what I read was every bit as engaging, entertaining, exciting, and simply incredible as their reputations proclaimed. Someday I’ll read them again. However, every now and then I needed to take breaks and turn to something I could start and finish in a single session. I started with dystopian fiction but that hit a bit too close to home. Horror, hard science fiction and space opera were welcome additions but fantasy hadn’t grabbed me since the dragons tore up my lawn and the unicorns stayed up all night partying. Don’t get me started about Pegasus—a herd of flying horses is enough of a toxic event to make staying inside a blessing. And as far as romance, well, I was already in lockdown, no need to make it hell.

I prefer mystery/crime fiction and hot damn am I lucky there’s so much excellent stuff available. Historical and modern; contemporary and classic; hilarious and tragic works deserve to be read. “Best of” summaries, themed anthologies, and single author collections had called me to bookstores in more social and less distanced times. So, at first, I braved the tedious task to mask up to leave the house—after ensuring the Pegasus herd was nowhere nearby. Even the dreadful inconvenience that the nearest shrine to the printed word controlled how many people entered and had closed off their coffee shop to browsers who chose a book from the shelf and gave it a quick glance while chugging a half-caf Americano with an extra hot, extra shot and double frothed skim foam topped by two shakes of fresh ground nutmeg didn’t stop me from making the pilgrimage.

Traveling became less feasible though, and that’s where the magazines the Post Office stuffed, jammed, or gently delivered to my mailbox became life savers. Some magazines only came every couple of months, which is nowhere near often enough, if you ask me—but all were welcome. (I’d be an ingratiating suck-up to callout EQMM and shamelessly tacky to plug my story (page 151) in the September/October issue. That’d be tempting the universe again so forget I wrote that.)

Every magazine was truly like a cardboard rectangle box confectionary Theobroma Cacao—the product of a small, tropical evergreen tree in the Malvaceae family—and contained a variety of tastes and textures. Mystery fiction has an immense variety of styles and stories. It’s only natural that different people prefer some genres over others, but it’s a big, wonderful arena where everybody can read everything. (Did I mention page 151?)

I can’t think of a subtype or genre that isn’t available at any time. I shouldn’t travel across town, much less the world, but I could go to exotic locations, meet fascinating people, and watch them bump each other off. I sipped tea with Lady Cholmendy Ffoukesworth Smythe-Smythe as she watched her husband flirt with both the upstairs maid and the butler before putting just a pinch more arsenic in his flummery. I shivered with Hardcase MacNab McDanger when he snapped his gat out and cursed the well-stacked dame who’d lured him onto the rain-drenched alleys of sunny Los Angeles. I warned Dr. Jon Dough not to miss his bus, not venture down the wrong street, and certainly not stumble into the seedy diner with the cracked and buzzing neon sign. I worried for Innocenta Newcop when she learned the corruption on the force included her seasoned partner and extended to highest intersection of religion, wealth, and politics. And I listened when a fledging journalist heard the truth about a 30-year-old murder while a farewell symphony faded into regrets and memory. Modern life was stressful, but mystery fiction took me from my limited world to mean streets, backwoods, deserts, swamps, casinos, glistening metropolises, dusty two horse towns, ships, planes, and cars. I met madmen, femmes fatales, and conflicted heroes; people living lives of quiet desperation and the morally ambiguous family next door. I heard the innocent and the guilty; the wrongly accused and the damned. I even visited the scariest place of all—the clean streets where petty grievances, jealousy, distrust caused the most dangerous animals to swear revenge.

Some went gentle into that good night, others raged against the dying of the light. Some of them pondered tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeping in its petty pace until simple resentment brought on the last syllable of recorded time.

No one’s life was especially comfortable during this time but I got to experience satisfaction knowing that some people got what was coming to them. Others engendered sympathy and empathy for being caught in webs no spider could ever master. Social distancing was necessary but the stories put me face to face with honest crooks and crooked politicians, sinning saints and saintly sinners, and the dateless, defiant, doomed, and desperate. 

I’ll be glad as anyone else when things start to lift and when masks are no longer needed. It’ll be interesting then to see how many of those smiling eyes and cheerful voices reveal the full range of characters. Who masked and masked and remained a villain? I don’t know what novel to read next. It’ll be hard to top treading the decks of the Pequod, but I don’t have to choose right away. The world will go on as it needs to but I’ll find short mystery fiction to keep me engaged and amazed (I did mention a page number someplace). My biggest concern then will be staying awake late because a story is so exciting, well-written and moving that the pages practically turn themselves. Then I’ll have to haul my bleary-eyed carcass out of bed to make sure the door’s locked because you just can’t mock the universe.

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“A Nice Girl Like You” (by Hilary Davidson)

In addition to being the award-winning author of two popular crime-fiction series—the Shadows of New York and travel-writer Lily Moore novels—Hilary Davidson has produced more than four dozen short stories in our genre. She’s received two Anthony awards, a Derringer Award, and several other crime-fiction honors. A lifelong fan of crime fiction, she only turned to writing it after she had established herself as a journalist.  In this post, the Toronto native talks about what drew her to our field when she decided to write fiction. Her latest short story, ”Weed Man,” appears in EQMM’s current issue (September/October 2021). “Her Last Breath,” her latest stand-alone novel, was named a summer 2021 reading pick by Entertainment Weekly, Parade Magazine, Travel & Leisure, and the Toronto Star. —Janet Hutchings

When I published my first short story in a crime journal called Thuglit, it got mixed reactions from my family. My proud parents were thrilled, and they sent my dark tale of a sadistic stalker to everyone at their church. Other responses were less positive. My father-in-law told me it had given him nightmares, and he didn’t want to read my fiction again. Still, the most striking reaction was my aunt’s; she was horrified and perplexed in equal measure. “I just don’t understand,” she said to me. “How could my sweet, lovely niece write that? How?”

To be fair, my writing up to that point hadn’t hinted at any inner darkness. For a decade, I was a freelance travel writer, producing guidebooks for Frommer’s and honeymoon columns for Martha Stewart Weddings. While I occasionally wrote newspaper pieces that were a little offbeat—about New Orleans’ cemeteries, for example, or the graphic brothel frescoes of Pompeii—they were focused on history. No one questioned my mental wellbeing until I started publishing dark stories that were entirely unlike anything I’d written before.

At first, I tried to deflect. “I’ve always loved mysteries,” I would insist, pointing to my childhood love of Nancy Drew books. More than once, I called them my gateway drug into the world of crime writing. It was certainly true that I loved the genre. I’d graduated from Nancy Drew to Agatha Christie as a tween, before discovering Sara Paretsky and Walter Mosley and a host of other crime writers that I still read today. But it wasn’t an honest answer. I wasn’t writing dark fiction because I admired other authors who did; I loved science fiction and historical novels as well, but I wasn’t interested in writing those. I was exploring crime fiction because I had no other place to put the dark thoughts running through my mind.

I don’t think I would have started writing thrillers if I hadn’t been the victim of a workplace violence attack at my first job out of college. At twenty-two, I worked in a government office that served veterans, and one very disturbed man decided that he wanted to kill his counselor and everyone else in the office. One morning he walked in, armed with a large plastic container. I heard him muttering as he walked past my cubicle, and I smelled the gasoline before I understood what he was doing. When I stood and went to my doorway, he was already at the end of the hall. In a smooth, swift motion, he flicked a lighter and threw it on the carpet. A wall of flame surged up, so tall it swept against the ceiling, so hot it seared my skin.          

I think I screamed. I know I ran. Later, I was given an award for getting people out of the office, but I don’t remember doing that. One moment, I was frozen, seeing the flames come toward me. The next, I was on the sidewalk, seven stories down, with the reek of gasoline still making me gag. The fire destroyed three floors of the building and injured several people, some so badly they never came back to work. The police arrested the arsonist before firefighters finished putting out the blaze, but the case never went to court. He was declared insane and locked away in a mental hospital.

“That was crazy, but it could have been so much worse. We were lucky,” I told my friends and family afterwards. I repeated that line like a mantra, especially after the police told me the arsonist had originally tried to get grenades. But I didn’t feel lucky. There were odd, dark thoughts clustering in my head. I wasn’t a fearful person by nature, but I remember being on the subway, seeing a man reach into a duffel bag, and panicking, as if he were about to attack. In retrospect, that was a clear sign of trauma, but at the time I worried that I’d be labeled crazy if I told anyone.

My coping mechanism was to read about crime. Maybe that sounds counterintuitive, but at the time I was convinced that if only I understood criminal psychology, I wouldn’t be a victim again. Looking back, I think about it differently: it was very lonely to be a victim. People who knew about it expected me to stop talking about it and move on; after all, no one wants to dwell on the darkness, do they?

It turned out, I did.

There had been other things that had happened over the years that I’d never really talked about, and they bubbled to the surface. When I wrote that first short story about that sadistic stalker, I was thinking back to when I was fourteen and being stalked by a man in his twenties. The chill I felt then, when the police told me that they couldn’t do anything unless he “did something” to me, still hits hard. I wrote it into fiction because I wanted other people to feel the fear I experienced.

It still makes me feel deeply vulnerable, connecting my own personal history with what I write, even though I don’t write directly about my experiences. It more about the emotion and the questions that perpetually swirl around my brain. Deep down, I still want to know what drives a person to seek vengeance, or to kill? And I can’t stop thinking about why society looks the other way when men show clear signs of being a threat. But there’s an incredible satisfaction into making other people think about them too. Most of all, I’m grateful that all of the dark, disturbing thoughts that live inside my brain have found a home. For the first time, I really do feel lucky.

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