“The Two Pittsburghs; or, the Birth of a Crime Writer” by Travis Kennedy

Maine writer Travis Kennedy‘s work has been recognized by Best American Mystery Stories and featured in McSweeney’sLevel Best Books’ Best New England Crime Stories anthologies, and Suspense Magazine (forthcoming). He is the author of the novel Booty, and his gritty tale “Duel of the Aces” appears in our current issue‘s Black Mask department. Here he discusses what got him into crime-writing: a societal duality that can be seen clearly in that story.—Janet Hutchings

Underworld: c. 1600, “the lower world, Hades, place of departed souls,” also “the earth, the world below the skies,” as distinguished from heaven. Similar formation in German unterwelt, Dutch onderwereld, Danish underverden. Meaning “lower level of society” is first recorded 1890; “criminals and organized crime collectively” is attested from 1900. (etymonline.com)

About fifteen years ago, I was in Pittsburgh for a friend’s wedding.

The day before the ceremony, a group of us were walking through the city, looking for a place to grab lunch. We were on a quiet road that ran alongside a row of tall, dilapidated warehouses. A steel door swung open with a loud bang down an alley and a guy came strolling out, wearing a crooked Steelers hat and sunglasses. He was around my age and height, and he even kind of looked like me. He popped a cigarette in his mouth and grinned like the whole game was rigged in his favor, and he strode off triumphantly in some other direction.

It only took me those three seconds to decide, with complete certainty, that he was UP TO SOMETHING. But I was also pretty confident that I’d never find out what it was. Whatever kind of extralegal shenanigans were in store for that young Pittsburgher, they would play out completely separate from me—even though we were both hanging out on the same city block.

This was a seemingly pointless instance. We didn’t interact. I don’t know if anyone else in my group even saw him. It was the kind of thing that could happen ten times in a single day on a busy city street. But as strange as it may sound, I think that was the very moment that I became a crime writer. Or at least, it was the moment when my philosophy for writing crime fiction clicked into focus.

Maybe it was the way the guy was grinning, like some master plan was about to go into motion. Maybe it was his confident swagger, like he was the king of this strange little part of the city that was completely foreign to me. Maybe it was because we were kind of bizarro mirror-images of each other, and I was seeing a version of myself from another dimension, our paths crossing by accident for a mere few seconds like the two Doc Browns in Back to the Future. Whatever it was, he was clearly deep in the middle of his own adventure—and I only got a glimpse of it for the briefest moment.

And since I like to believe that I have a rich and complex backstory that’s populated with fully realized characters and diverse settings, then this dude must have one, too. There were two separate worlds in that neighborhood—a rule-follower looking for lunch, and a Steelers fan looking for criminal mischief—that were running directly alongside each other, but rarely intersecting. So I started to wonder, what is that other world like? The one that I don’t see?

And a crime writer was born.

It’s that idea of an “underworld” that motivates my crime writing—a parallel world that has its own factions and societies and rules and dialect and leaders and followers, and has no interest in whatever the rest of us are up to. We’re sharing the same physical space with these scoundrels—but for the most part we agree to leave each other alone, with each side only occasionally noticing that the other one is there, and reacting with a mutual sense of mild disgust.

Since that day in Pittsburgh, I’ve been captivated by the idea that a complex underworld could be churning away right under our noses, and it’s populated by fascinating people that we don’t typically notice. That deals are made and broken and capers are planned and enemies are plotting against each other, maybe even scheming their misdeeds on the same park bench that I sat on an hour earlier on my lunch break. Or they’re planning a dangerous caper in that empty storefront that my wife and I walked past on our way to dinner.

We don’t notice them. They don’t care about us. And since we’ve agreed to stay out of each other’s way, telling their stories can be fun instead of tragic. Because when they exist on a whole different plane, we can feel a little less guilty about enjoying their antics. Or getting a sense of thrill from walking in their shoes. Or rooting for them, and even liking them quite a bit.

In the real world, of course, there are innocent victims. But by establishing a self-contained underworld, we don’t have to think about them too much. It’s why we grin through the adventures of Jack Foley or Mac and McCorkle. Why we root for that wily outlaw Omar on the Wire, who lives by a code that only allows him to steal from other criminals. It’s why John Wick’s insane body count is thrilling instead of horrifying. And why Travis McGee and Jack Reacher can break as many limbs as they want, with our cheering approval.

More often than not in an underworld, the victims have invited themselves into the Devil’s orbit. Someone has taken a loan from Tony Soprano, and then gambled it away. Someone has asked Don Corleone for a favor. If they had stayed on their own side of the line, they would have been just fine—but they chose to cross into that other world, and they paid for it. Greed and revenge serve as the portal between our space and theirs. But cross it at your own risk; because once you open that door, you might never be able to close it.

Whenever I’m out walking around in public, I l find myself daydreaming about the underworld that operates on a different frequency all around me—whether it’s an underground casino in an old warehouse, a bootlegging operation in the woods of rural Maine, or a dark alley in Pittsburgh. The stories just pour in, and we can all revel in spending some time there . . . through the pages of a book, from our side of the line.

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“The Scents of an Ending” (by Jehane Sharah)

Australian writer Jehane Sharah has worked as a journalist, a public-affairs officer, a copywriter, a speechwriter, and, since her move to the United States, as a graduate teaching assistant, first at the University of Maryland and currently at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where she is pursuing a PhD in English. Her fiction debut was in our November/December 2018 issue’s Department of First Stories. Her publications since then include the story “Words Don’t Kill,” featured in the EQMM issue now on sale, November/December 2020.  In this post she takes up the important—and difficult—topic of endings.—Janet Hutchings

There is a strange odor in the Art-Deco apartment I recently moved into. It hits me every time I walk through the door. It smells almost like vanilla, but is far too pungent to be considered pleasant. It’s as if something, somewhere is fermenting, although the scent also has an astringent quality to it, which makes me sure that it is derived from something chemical, man-made, although I can’t pinpoint its source. The trouble is, once I’m inside I become accustomed to it. I occasionally catch a trace of it as I’m going about my day, but then I lose it again. I have to step outside, then in again to fully sense the odor.

At first, I thought it might be related to the gas leak in the kitchen I discovered the first week I moved in. But even after airing the place out, the smell remained—the two air purifiers I bought didn’t make a difference either. I threw things out in the hope that one of them might be the culprit: an air mattress. A bottle of hand sanitizer that smelled like cheap tequila. Some cardboard boxes left over from the move. I kept the windows open for all of August. Placed bowls of vinegar and baking soda in every room. Bought candles and little bags of charcoal. But nothing seemed to work.

Then, over the Labor Day long weekend, the smell suddenly vanished. It was as if a miracle had occurred. How wonderful it was, to open the door and not be greeted by that strange, overwhelming scent–to smell clean, unblemished air instead.

This reprieve was fleeting though. The odor returned on Tuesday morning and has stuck around ever since, a mystery that continues to confound me.

I search online for answers. Mold? Formaldehyde in the paint? Rodents in the walls? The fact that the smell disappears from time to time, albeit fleetingly, makes me wonder if it is coming from a neighboring apartment. Has someone turned their living room into an artist’s studio? Is it an accumulation of cigarette smoke and incense that someone downstairs seems to burn around the clock? Or could there be a drug lab somewhere in the vicinity? Someone in a Zoom meeting suggests that maybe it’s a ghost.

My building manager—a kind and helpful man who is always responsive to my requests (and even gives me book recommendations from time to time, knowing of my love of literature)—drops by to check the odor out. But he can’t detect anything, politely adding that he has a terrible sense of smell.

I begin to wonder if I’m delusional, suffering from some kind of olfactory hallucination. And so I reach out to one of the previous tenants, whose name I see from time to time on the junk mail in my letterbox. I send them a message on social media, almost certain that they will ignore me. But they do reply, confirming that there was “a weird smell” when they lived here (a neighbor’s activities, in their opinion). It doesn’t solve the mystery, but I feel vindicated nonetheless, knowing that I’m not imagining it.

My friends tell me that I should write about the saga. The problem is, while I very much hope to get to the bottom of the mystery in real life, I can’t think of an ending that would satisfy a fictional retelling of it. Most of the possibilities seem mundane and anticlimactic. Others are too awful (I refuse to write about rodents in walls) or fantastic (do ghosts really smell and if so, do they take vacations on long weekends?).

I’m always curious to know how great writers approach endings. Toni Morrison once famously said, “I always know the ending; that’s where I start.” In contrast, apparently the only time Dennis Lehane knew the outcome of one of his stories in advance was with the brilliantly plotted Shutter Island.

I don’t necessarily have to know the outcome of a story before I begin, but if I can’t think of at least a few satisfying possibilities, then I find it difficult to embark on a project.

There is, of course an alternative to my dilemma: the ambiguous ending. But these require mastery.

When I taught creative writing at the University of Maryland, College Park, my undergraduate students would often end their stories ambiguously. When I asked them why they made that choice, they would usually say something along the lines of: “I couldn’t decide how to wrap things up, so I just decided to make it ambiguous.”

But when an ambiguous ending comes from a place of indecision, it tends to disappoint. When done well, it is haunting, unnerving. Some of my favorite stories leave me with a counterintuitive feeling of satisfaction, even when there is none. Perhaps there is something cathartic about an ambiguous ending—after all, our emotional highs and lows are often linked to not knowing, trying to find answers where there are none. Not knowing why someone has died, not knowing if the person we’re falling in love with feels the same way, not knowing if someone who disappeared from our lives will ever return. . . .

I first read Joan Lindsay’s Australian gothic classic Picnic at Hanging Rock as a schoolgirl and remember being enamored with the enduring mystery of what happened to Miranda, Marion, and Miss McCraw on the fateful day of the picnic. Later, when our teacher got us copies of the sequel, in which the author explained the disappearance in a definitive way, our class was disappointed (angry, even). We much preferred not knowing.

In Amparo Dávila’s brilliant short story “Moses and Gaspar,” not knowing is central to the story. The protagonist has been asked to care for his deceased brother’s pets, the increasingly disturbing Moses and Gaspar. But what exactly are they? Dávila demonstrates how frightening ambiguity can be when done deliberately and with precision.

Ambiguity is also a key part of the structure of Tim O’Brien’s novel In the Lake of the Woods. The narrator in the story’s footnotes describes it as “a love story,” but it reads like a mystery: a missing wife, a husband with PTSD. O’Brien presents a number of hypotheticals as the story progresses, building up to an even more uncertain ending. But it feels like the only choice–how can such devastating circumstances be explained in any concrete way?

Of course, some people see ambiguity where others don’t. I was genuinely surprised to learn that some people interpret Rosemary’s Baby as possibly being about mental illness, when I have always taken the supernatural elements of the story literally. I was delighted to discover this tidbit in Ira Levin’s notes that his family have published online, in which the author revealed his true intentions. Levin wrote:

I’ve gotten letters from psychiatrists and from doctors who say, This is such a wonderful picture of postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis. I’d say, no, no, she was absolutely right! They really were witches!

The Latin word ambiguus means doubtful, fickle and treacherous. And that’s how much of 2020 has felt–there has been too much uncertainty. Not knowing when the pandemic will end is a case in point–it has been excruciatingly difficult for everyone. Like most people, I have been spending more time at home than I would normally care to, and perhaps this is why I have been so caught up with the mystery scent.

I recently emailed the property management company about the matter. They sent a maintenance man to take a look around.

“I think it smells nice,” he said.

“But what is it?” I replied.

He put his hands in his pocket and shrugged.

Perhaps one day I will discover the ending–either in real life or my imagination. Until then, I will be left in this strange space of not knowing.

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“Memory and ‘What If . . . ?'” (by Edwin Hill)

Since his January/February 2018 debut in our Department of First Stories, Edwin Hill has had three critically acclaimed crime novels published—Little Comfort, The Missing Ones, and Watch Her—earning several award nominations. Mystery Scene has named him one of “Six Crime Writers to Watch.” Sometimes, when a scene in an author’s work is particularly vivid, I wonder whether its creator had a similar experience in real life. I found this post interesting in that regard. You may too if you have read, or plan to read, Edwin’s latest novel. —Janet Hutchings

My whole life, I’ve been blessed with really good recall. Or cursed, depending on the day. Sometimes, after all, it’s best to let a memory fade away.

Good recall can be freaky, too. Sometimes I’ll see someone I met years earlier and will know to stop myself before asking about their dog Cleopatra’s fondness for salmon. Don’t you remember, I might say. You told me about it over that dinner in San Antonio, the one on August 12, 2014, the one where the waiter spilled wine across the table, and even as the words fall from my mouth I’ll see that the person not only doesn’t remember the evening, they don’t remember me. The nerve of some people.

But memory plays tricks, too.

There was that time I attended a work conference in Montreal and jogged on the treadmill right next to Sylvester Stallone. The only problem with that memory is that it didn’t happen to me. It happened to my friend Tricia. I didn’t even attend that conference in Montreal, though I feel like I did because Tricia is a good storyteller, one who knows how to focus on the right details, and somehow I’ve heard the story enough times that it’s become mine. Oops.

My earliest memory, or at least I think it’s my earliest memory, is when I nearly drowned during a neighbor’s backyard barbecue. My mother claims it was the summer of my third birthday, but that seems like a stretch. Who remembers being two going on three? Maybe it was the summer of my fourth birthday, instead, the year Nixon resigned, which I also remember.

Of course the story’s been told a million times—my dad’s leap across a picnic table plays a prominent role in the retelling—but there are details about the event that I keep to myself, small, telling ones. I remember that the pool seemed enormous. I remember wading in the shallow end and watching as my mother taught the crawl to my six-year-old sister. Or maybe she was seven.

I remember the inciting incident.

A group of teenagers frolicked in the deep end. They seemed impossibly old and sophisticated. One of them was my babysitter, Kim, and I wanted more than anything to hang out with her and her friends, so I started walking toward her as the floor of the pool sloped down. I remember the muffled sounds of the others at the party after I slipped under the water and not quite understanding what had happened to everyone, why the world had disappeared. After my father’s heroic rescue—I hope he was drinking a can of Schlitz that tumbled to the ground in slow motion, it was the seventies, after all—I remember going inside the neighbor’s house with one of the teenage girls who lived there—one of Kim’s friends—who wrapped me in a green sweatshirt that was way too big.

Here’s the part that can only be mine.

I have no idea who that teenager was—that family moved away soon after this event, and I’ve never spoken to any of them since. The only member of the family whose name I remember is their fox terrier, Scruffy—but I do know that the teenager carried me into the kitchen, and we stood in front of their freezer and she asked if I wanted a popsicle or a fudgesicle. We were the only ones there. It was our moment, and ours alone. I chose a fudgesicle. I can still taste it to this day. In the end, it’s a good memory.

Here’s another one.

My very first piece of published fiction appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine’s Department of First Stories in the January/February 2018 issue. (Aside: doesn’t 2018 seem like a distant memory?) It’s a story called “White Tights and Mary Janes” and it’s about a friendship between two women and a long-held (and very dark) secret. The story evolved out of a subplot in my first novel that I wound up cutting, and I enjoyed spinning those cut pages into a finished story, which you can read about in my first post to this blog.

When it came time to write my third novel, Watch Her, I kept returning to the story and its characters, and ultimately decided to spin the story back up into a novel. I retained some of the plots, but as I expanded it, I saw a theme of memory emerging, the parts that you lay bare, the parts that you manipulate, and the parts that you hold close and keep for yourself. The bad and the good. I returned to my own experience as a three- or four-year-old, wondering how many of those memories of a near-death experience were real and how many were planted. I wondered how much of that day had been manipulated for me—had it really been as apocryphal as my family’s shared truth had become, or had my father’s guilt and his fear of the “what if” fueled an otherwise mundane event. I wondered if that teenage girl, the one who took me inside for a fudgesicle, had a single memory of that day. I wondered where she’d gone and what her name might be. I bought a box of fudgesicles to see if they tasted the way I remembered. They did.

I also wondered what would have happened if that shared truth had other parts to it, darker parts, ones that had been told to me. How would those details have changed the memory of that day? I started to manipulate the memory myself by adding in details that never actually occurred.

  • What if my parents had gotten into a fight before the party?
  • What if my father had been on his fifth can of Schlitz?
  • What if my mother had an affair?
  • What if someone had seen my head go under the water and chosen not to say anything?
  • What if Kim, my babysitter, had a secret, one she knew three-year-old me might reveal?
  • What if those mysterious neighbors had been Soviet spies?
  • What if Scruffy had rescued me instead of my father?
  • What if I’d chosen a popsicle instead of a fudgesicle?

And the list went on.

I took childhood memories, manipulating them, shaping them, using them as tools, turning them into weapons. And out of that list, and out of my own memory, a novel emerged.

There’s a clue to the ending to Watch Her in that list above. I won’t say much more, but I will tell you that if I’d opted for a popsicle, I’d have chosen grape.

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“Questions Asked of Writers” (by LaToya Jovena)

A wife and mother, LaToya Jovena lives in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. Her fiction has previously appeared in Litbreak magazine, but her first paid professional fiction publication is “The Winner,”  a story that will appear in the Department of First Stories of EQMM‘s November/December 2020 issue (don’t miss it!). The author describes herself as being obsessed with art, and you’ll see that in the way she answers the question so often put to writers: Where do you get your ideas? —Janet Hutchings

As a fairly new writer I am often asked questions about my career. 

How did I get started?

I had always liked reading, so one day I started writing and realized I liked it as well. 

How do I find the time to write? 

During my kids’ nap times, after their bedtimes, or my personal favorite, the few moments a day when they are clean, fed, and playing quietly to themselves. Also, they have a father.

But the question I am asked the most is: How do I come up with ideas to write about? This question is always the hardest for me to answer, because all I can think about is all the story ideas that present themselves to me on a daily basis. There are more story ideas to write about than time to write them.

The first thing to remember when presented with a story idea is, truth is stranger than fiction. You may often find yourself having to water the real story down in order to make it more believable to your readers. 

The people closest to us are living lives we know the most about. Those people are our families. Do you have a cousin who ran off on her fiancé because she found him to be too stable and boring, even though they had a child together? Readers may have trouble believing this, but what if you wrote about a woman lured away from her steady fiancé by a flaky artist, or a deadly cartel boss.

Is there a running joke about a sibling being a clone of one of your parents because they’re so much alike? What if they were clones? What if government officials mysteriously showed up and took them away in a dark van? There’s an entire mystery to be explored. What happened at their birth? What will happen next?

Next there are the people we don’t know so well, or sometimes the people we don’t know at all. I was once at a department store when I heard two employees discussing job opportunities.

“I could work at the hospital. My mom wants me to work at the hospital, but I said no.” The conversation continued as the employee named a series of job opportunities, and the people who offered them. Each time the employee stated they had declined the position. The person on the other end of this asked why for each refused job option, without ever being given a clear answer. 

This completely benign conversation lived in my head for days. Why were all of these jobs refused by someone who wasn’t happy with their current job? I mean, if they’re talking about other jobs at work, how happy could they be? Was the employee trying to escape an abusive situation and therefore cutting ties with everyone they knew? Was the employee some sort of mole for the company, tasked with finding out how dedicated other employees were? Was the employee simply lying, and if so, why? There’s a story behind every question just begging to be written.

We overhear hundreds of conversations in our lifetimes, how many of them could be the spark for a great story? Even a silent waiting room can hide a story idea. Did something on their phone catch your eye? Is something they’re wearing a bit out of the ordinary? The stories are there.

The workplace is also full of stories. Did you ever have two coworkers who hated each other? The reason behind this could be petty jealousy, but you can make up a better one to write about. Perhaps there’s a blood feud that started decades before either of them were born. Or maybe one is blaming the other for something that was actually done by a third party. Did the third party do it on purpose? If so, why? Coming up with a reason to explain their animosity could make a great plot.

Another place to look for story ideas is our own fears. I personally hate the dentist. Not a specific dentist, but the field of dentistry as whole. I can’t see what they’re doing with their weird little tools, and I hate the feeling of them poking around in my mouth. But what if my fear wasn’t so mundane? What if all dentists belonged to a secret society, where they get into all sorts of mischief? What if I went to dental school to expose them? 

What are your phobias? Could they make good plots?

Finally, it’s time to reveal the most abundant source of story ideas, true crime. Please beware these are the stories you will definitely have to water down. 

For example, we were all fascinated by the Fyre Festival documentaries. One of the reasons for this is it was clear from the very beginning that it was going to be a disaster. Yet with all the evidence staring them in the face, the event producers plunged forward. This is the sort of thing your editor would send back to you so full of red ink you’d suspect a murder occurred. (Side note: Another great story idea, murderous editors.)

But since we already know the Fyre Festival story is true, we can write a hypothetical story about what happens next. Perhaps revenge. Billy McFarland, Fyre Festival fraudster, made a lot of enemies, what if they all conspired to get back at him? How would they do it?

What if it wasn’t money stolen? What if it was priceless art? For example, decades ago a museum in Boston was robbed of 300 million dollars worth of art. The thieves were two men pretending to be police officers, who claimed they were responding to a call. How did they plan it? How did they get away with it? Better yet, where are they now? What would happen if an unsuspecting art-history major went to someone’s apartment and saw one of the masterpieces hanging on the wall? Would they plan to steal it? Or would they try to figure out how it got there, and get something better than money or priceless art, the notoriety of solving a thirty-year-old crime?  

If these examples are too exotic, then we can always fall back on one of the oldest crimes known to man, women murdered by their domestic partners. You can pick one to write a story about. Or you can write about one that’s unsolved, and the crooked detectives who helped to cover it up. Better still, you can write a story about the families of violent crime coming together to work through their grief, when the group takes a turn and decides to take justice into their own hands.

Stories are everywhere for a mystery writer. The world is full of people trying to hide things from others; sometimes they’re even trying to hide things from themselves. Sitting down to write the story is the hard part, but it’s worth it. Never mind that writing is the safest place for you to be. I mean, do you really want to take your chances, being out and about, where someone can just stumble along and write a story about you?

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This week, the first issue of 2021—EQMM’s eightieth anniversary year!—will be released to the printer. It looks as if the beginning of 2021 will find the world still under the cloud of the COVID-19 pandemic. Today’s perilous conditions have parallels to the world into which EQMM was born—when many countries across the globe were already at war, with the US soon to enter the conflict. 

I’ve been reflecting upon what EQMM editor Frederic Dannay must have felt after Pearl Harbor (in addition, of course, to sorrow over the appalling loss of life): whether he worried that his new publication would sink consequent to the attack, like the many ships lost that day, or whether he felt confident that there would be a demand for EQMM’s kind of entertainment even as people addressed pressing life-and-death concerns.

Such questions were unavoidable for us last spring when the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged the country and shutdowns made it uncertain, at first, whether we would be able to get our magazines printed and distributed. We were incredibly fortunate on that score, suffering no significant disruptions to our production or distribution processes—thanks, in part, to the stalwartness of our warehouse staff, who persevered through the many difficulties of socially distanced split shifts. The question whether people would still want to read EQMM, however, was another matter. At the beginning of the pandemic, fiction sales in general were down, but since most of our sales come through subscriptions (which typically run for periods of a year of more), we did not expect to see a big impact right away, and we didn’t.

A couple of months into the pandemic, the situation began to change. In a July 26 article in the Observer, Paul Bogaards, executive vice president of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, was quoted as saying that “As we got deeper into the pandemic, people started coming back to fiction. . . . But they were coming back to fiction they were familiar with. . . . In terms of hardcover fiction, familiar brands like John Grisham, James Patterson, Nicholas Sparks and Steven King . . . proved popular.” The article goes on to say that “Readers also favored backlist books (those titles published 12 months ago and more) rather than opting for newer releases. “Backlist books accounted for a higher percentage of sales than previous years, while new releases (front list titles) sales were roughly 1 percent to 20 percent lower than backlist sales,” Priya Doraswamy, a literary agent at Lotus Lane Lit, tells the Observer.”

It’s too early to know for sure how EQMM and the other Dell Magazines fiction publications will come through the pandemic. We’ll have a better idea by the end of the year. But I will go so far as to speculate that if at this moment in our history readers are interested in names they can trust and in a familiar type of content for fiction (as the Observerarticle suggests), we have a good chance of making it to the other end of this crisis intact. For while EQMM seeks always to remain on the cutting edge of developments in our genre, we are also anchored firmly in the best of crime-fiction tradition. Each of our issues, as regular readers will be aware, is a melding of the established with the new.

The first issue of our eightieth year is the perfect example of this, containing half a dozen authors entirely new to our pages alongside some remarkable selections linked to crime-fiction history. The most extraordinary entry from the latter category is a never-before-published story by Cornell Woolrich, discovered just a few months ago in the Woolrich archive at Columbia University by Woolrich biographer Francis M. Nevins. Originally intended for the novel-in-stories Hotel Room, which was published in 1958, it somehow escaped notice after it got cut from that book. Mike (Francis) Nevins tells EQMM that one other eliminated story subsequently appeared in our magazine, but this one seems to have lain entirely forgotten amongst Woolrich’s papers until now. Neither story was cut for lack of quality but, rather, due to not fitting the book’s theme. (For more on this you’ll have to wait to read Mike Nevins’s afterword to the story in the January/February issue!)

This “new” Woolrich story—which we’ve given the title “The Dark Oblivion” (the title on the typescript read “The Fiancée Without a Future”)—is far from being of interest only as a lost work by one of the most important crime writers of the twentieth century. On the contrary, it is, for me, a haunting tale that adds something of real interest to the Woolrich oeuvre. Thank you, Mike Nevins, for bringing your discovery to EQMM!

Another “new” work—new at least in being a first translation into English—that should interest crime-fiction classicists is January/February’s Marcel Aymé story “The Touffard Affair.” Aymé’s character O’Dubois, who appears in this story, was, some say, the French Sherlock Holmes. Aymé died in 1968, and the fact that this story has never before appeared in English was the discovery of translator Anne Bru. 

As our eightieth year progresses there will be other such discoveries (and rediscoveries). March/April, for instance, will see the first appearance ever of Mickey Spillane’s iconic character Mike Hammer in the pages of EQMM. Again, it’s a “new” work—turned by Max Allan Collins from a relatively obscure Mickey Spillane script for a film that never aired into a short story. As for the rest of the 2021 celebration, I’ll update you as we go along. 

I don’t mean to jump the gun here, as we have two more issues for 2020 to go (our current issue, September/October 2020, and our holiday issue, November/December 2020). I’m very pleased with both—and think you will be too! But I wanted to give you a heads-up as well about what’s ahead in 2021, and to say that I hope you’ll stay with us for the journey. In its nearly eighty years of publication, our magazine has navigated many difficult straits. The pandemic is not the first, and with your help, it won’t be the last.  —Janet Hutchings

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“Murderous Decoys—Philip MacDonald and ‘Love Lies Bleeding’” (by R.T. Raichev)

R. T. Raichev is a scholar of the mystery as well as a writer of mystery short stories and novels. His most recent story for EQMM, “The Other Imelda,” will appear in our next issue, November/December 2020, on sale October 20. The author’s scholarly articles regularly appear on this blog; earlier this year he examined two Agatha Christie stories in his May 13 post “The First and the Last: In the Shadow of the Uncanny.” In this post, he turns to a story that placed second in one of EQMM’s annual Worldwide Short Story Contests, “Love Lies Bleeding” by Philip MacDonald.  —Janet Hutchings

“Love Lies Bleeding” (not to be confused with Edmund Crispin’s 1948 novel of the same name) is a short story written by Philip MacDonald that won one of the seven second prizes in the Fifth Annual Detective Short Story Contest sponsored by Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.* It was published by Victor Gollancz in the UK in 1950 in the annual Queen’s Awards anthology. A tale of twisted psychological suspense and perverse morality, it is the most unusual and, to my way of thinking, the most interesting story in the collection. It is also fascinating in that it manages to broach a subject that was considered taboo at the time it was written (the late 1940s) by means of subtle innuendo, repetition, and oblique suggestion.

The story opens in the drawing room of theatre designer Astrid Halmar where we see celebrated playwright Cyprian Morse sitting in a state of languid self-satisfaction, a cup of after-dinner coffee in his hand. He is waiting for Astrid to change her dress as the two are going out to a party. Cyprian whiles away the time by regarding admiringly in a mirror his “graceful, high-shouldered slenderness . . . the fine-textured pallor of the odd, high-cheek-boned face with its heavy-lidded eyes and chiseled mouth . . . the long slim fingers of the hand which twisted with languid dexterity at the tie . . .” Our attention is then drawn to the lapis-lazuli ring Cyprian wears, which, we learn, is a present from “Charles.”

Up to that moment, readers may have wondered about the existence of a possible romance between Cyprian and Astrid, but any such impression is quickly dispelled by the multiple use of the name Charles within a single paragraph. (Nine times.) Indeed it is Charles, not Astrid, with whom Cyprian is romantically and, one imagines, somewhat obsessively involved. But Astrid is in love with Cyprian. When she interrupts his reverie with a passionate embrace, his reaction is one of unadulterated horror and revulsion.**

His flesh crept . . . he felt the hairs on his neck rising . . . He backed away. She mustn’t touch him, she mustn’t touch him.

When Astrid does touch him and he becomes aware of the “dreadful warmness of her,” he takes hold of the log-pick—the scene is enacting itself beside the fireplace—and strikes her “with more than all his force.” Moments later, reason returns, and he vomits. (We are now in the realm of hysterical melodrama.) Cyprian is seen rushing out of Astrid’s apartment with blood on his clothes, the police are called, and he is arrested. Although he insists that Astrid was killed by an intruder who climbed through a window, the police remain unconvinced, and he is put on trial. There is no doubt that he is the true culprit, and his defense lawyer fears he can’t do much to help. The newspapers meanwhile scream, FAMOUS PLAYWRIGHT ARRAIGNED FOR MURDER . . . PARK AVENUE LOVE FIEND MURDER . . . MORSE, BROADWAY FIGURE, JAILED.

The general assumption—though it is never spelled out—is that Cyprian committed a crime passionnel, that he killed Astrid in a fit of jealous rage. Surprisingly, the police never ask him about the exact nature of his relationship with Astrid. Cyprian’s thoughts turn to Charles, but Charles is away, in Venezuela. Cyprian sends a telegram—“in terrible trouble, need you desperately, please come.” A telegram comes back—“hospitalized bad kick-up malaria . . . flying back immediately releases maybe two weeks . . .” (We learn that Charless second name is de Lastro.)***

At this point we are nearly two-thirds’ way into the story. As we witness Cyprian’s growing mental anguish, we begin to marvel at what kind of crime story, exactly, we are reading. Cyprian Morse is an antihero, unsympathetic, devious and dangerous, a candidate for inclusion in von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis, hardly a character anyone would wish to identify with. Will the author allow him to get away with murder? If so, how? If he is punished, will it be the electric chair or prison? Or will he be declared insane and despatched for treatment at a psychiatric asylum? But wouldn’t that be too obvious? What about Charles de Lastro? Will Charles remain embedded in the background? The impossibility to predict what will happen next creates a sense of propulsive suspense, a quality lacking in most of the other stories in the collection. We read on, anxious for answers.

The trial moves forward with grim inevitability, a murder conviction seems to be a certainty, and Charles is still in Venezuela. Without doubt Cyprians predicament is as bad as bad can be. His appearances in court are compared to those of an “automaton” and “for unaccountable stages of distorted time his mind gazed into the pit.” But he sticks to the intruder story. Just then something startling and unexpected happens: two girls are murdered in quick succession in a manner that is identical to the brutal killing of Astrid Halmar. The newspapers now proclaim POLICE CLUELESS IN NEW SLAYINGS! MORSE RELEASE DEMANDED BY PUBLIC!

A maniac seems to be at work—a Jack the Ripper kind of figure. The police are forced to admit that all three deaths must be linked, that there is now serious doubt about Cyprian Morse’s guilt as he cannot be held responsible for the new outrages. Having reconsidered his statement about seeing an intruder in Astrid’s apartment, the police decide that he must have been telling the truth after all. (This is another, more serious, weakness of the story—why does no one raise the possibility of a copycat killer?) The district attorney withdraws the case against Cyprian Morse and he is released.

Returning home, Cyprian is astounded to discover Charles waiting for him. Charles has come back from Latin America without notifying him. From the questions Charles asks, Cyprian realizes it is Charles he needs to thank for his release. Charles only pretended to be ill. Charles had been back in New York for some time. Charles managed to get someone else to send the telegrams to Cyprian. Charles returned as soon as he read the details of Astrid’s murder—and he committed two identical murders, managing to convince everyone that there’s a serial killer at large. Charles tells Cyprian, “We sit tight—and live happily ever after . . .”

“Love Lies Bleeding” was one of Alfred Hitchcock’s choices for inclusion in his 1957 anthology Stories They Wouldn’t Let Me Do On TV. If the title speaks true—if indeed ‘they’ didn’t let him to film the story, the only possible reason must have been the nature of the relationship between Charles and Cyprian. Surprising if so, given that Hitchcock had already made Rope in 1948, which in turn was based on the eponymous Patrick Hamilton play of 1929. Both play and film deal with a similar couple and the pointless murder they commit. Indeed, the way Charles talks brings to mind the mannered callous flippancy of Brandon, the dominant partner in Rope.

A mention perhaps should be made of the story’s several dark little ironies as they more than make up for the story’s deficiencies. Shortly before Astrid makes her fatal mistake of trying to kiss Cyprian, he approvingly reflects that “Astrid wouldn’t make mistakes”—in her choice of liqueur flavors. Moments before the murder, Cyprian opens a newspaper and sees the headline CYPRIAN MORSE DOES IT AGAIN — he is being praised for his latest play. There is also the story title itself—one assumes that it refers to poor Astrid, struck down as she is about to declare her love for Cyprian, but it could also be Cyprian’s love for Charles that lies bleeding at the very end—when, rather than express his heartfelt gratitude, he accuses Charles of killing the two innocent girls “as though they were animals” and, sickened and horrified, breaks down crying, “Oh my God . . . oh my God”.

Philip MacDonald (1900-1980) is now largely forgotten, but in 1953 and 1957 he was recognized by the Mystery Writers of America and awarded the Edgar Allan Poe award for his short stories. A British author of some distinction, he wrote a number of detective novels featuring Colonel Gethryn, some of which (The Rasp, The Noose, The Maze) have been recently republished. His most famous novel is perhaps The List of Adrian Messenger which was made into a popular film by John Huston in 1963 and is still remembered for the heavily disguised all-Hollywood-star cameo performers that included Frank Sinatra, Burt Lancaster, Robert Mitchum, and Tony Curtis. As for the idea of the murderous decoy, it is still associated with—and unrivaled by?—Agatha Christie’s 1936 novel The ABC Murders.

* A single first prize went to John Dickson Carr’s “The Gentleman from Paris.”

** Cyprian’s reaction is not dissimilar to that of Mary Whittaker, the Sapphic antiheroine of Dorothy Sayers’ novel Unnatural Death, to Lord Peter Wimsey’s attempt to kiss her.

***One can’t help suspecting that the names of the two murderers, with their exotic, foreign tinge, were chosen carefully to suggest their “otherness.” Charles’s second name is de Lastro, while Cyprian happens to be the name of a martyred saint in the early Christian church, though the name’s Greek origin means a “lewd or licentious person, especially a prostitute.” (Another irony?)

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“The Man Who Would Be King (and Tevis and Kesey and Levin, Etc.” (by Kevin Mims)

These days, time certainly feels to be an uncertain entity. In this post, essayist, frequent contributor to EQMM and AHMM, and prolific reader Kevin Mims—who has written about popular fiction many times before on this site—takes a look at popular bestsellers of the 1960s and 70s from a unique viewpoint.—Janet Hutchings

Last year, Academy Award-winning director Danny Boyle released his fourteenth film, Yesterday, in which a young musician wakes up after being hit by a bus and discovers himself in a world where no one has ever heard of The Beatles, leaving him free to pass off all those great Lennon/McCartney songs as his own compositions. It’s a dream come true (until, of course, it turns into kind of a nightmare). For years, I’ve had a similar dream. As soon as I can complete the time machine I’ve been constructing in my garage for decades now, I plan to travel back to the late 1950s and make myself a pop-fiction icon by penning a handful of the best-selling books of the 1960s and 70s before their actual authors have a chance to do so. It won’t be easy, however, and so I have had to do a lot of planning.

Like the time-traveler in Audrey Niffenegger’s 2003 novel The Time Traveler’s Wife, I expect to arrive back in 1958 (the year of my birth, by the way) buck naked (which is how I arrived there the first time around). Nothing that isn’t a part of my body can travel with me (that just seems to be the rule in time travel). Thus, I won’t be able to carry with me a bunch of classic novels that haven’t been published yet and pass them off as my own. I suppose that, before traveling back in time, I could have some very short and successful pop fiction–Love Story, say, or Jonathan Livingston Seagull–tattooed in minuscule print across my chest or back. That way I wouldn’t have to recreate the whole thing from memory. But that would be incredibly painful, and I don’t handle pain well. And so I simply plan to reproduce a small handful of popular novels that I know well because I have read them several times and/or because I have watched their film incarnations many, many times.

My plan is to begin with Walter Tevis’s 1959 novel The Hustler. I’m a huge Tevis fan. His novels are generally slim and tight with no wasted words. The Man Who Fell To Earth, for example, runs to only 144 pages in paperback (it was never released in hardback). The Hustler is slightly longer, but I’ve read it three or four times and seen the film version many times. I don’t have the whole novel memorized, but I do have the entire plot memorized. All I have to do before taking off in my time machine for 1958 is memorize a few of Tevis’s most evocative passages, such as this one, which begins chapter 17:

He could feel the tension, the excitement of the place, even before he opened the door, could hear the heavy undercurrent of voices, the clickings of many balls, the soft cursing and dry laughter, the banging of cue sticks on the floor. And when he went in he could almost smell the action and the money. He could even feel them, down to his shoes. It was like a whorehouse Saturday night and payday in the mines; the day the war was over and Christmas. He could feel his palms sweating for the weight of his cue.

Of course, I’ll feel bad about stealing Tevis’s debut novel, but he should be okay. He was mentored by the great A.B. Guthrie, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Big Sky and The Way West. Even without The Hustler, Tevis should have a successful career as a writer. Besides, there’s a certain poetic justice in using a time machine to legally deprive the author of The Hustler of his material. It’s the ultimate hustle.

With the money I make from The Hustler, I’ll buy myself a peaceful cabin somewhere and spend a year or so writing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Ken Kesey published that novel in early 1962, which means I’m probably going to have to get my version copyrighted no later than 1960 if I want to beat Kesey to the punch. I’ve read the book a couple of times. I’ve seen the movie many times. I feel fairly confident I can reproduce it with a fair amount of accuracy, although my version isn’t likely to be as gonzo as Kesey’s. Again there is a bit of poetic justice in depriving Kesey of his first novel. The novel, after all, is about madness. And seeing his book in print with my name on it is likely to drive Kesey a bit mad, which may help him write future books on madness. Anyway, that’s my rationalization and I’m sticking to it.

After publishing Cuckoo’s Nest to rave reviews, I can relax and take my time typing up a copy of Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby from memory. Again we’re talking about a short novel that I’ve read several times and a film that I’ve probably watched half a dozen times. The book wasn’t published until 1967. So if my version of Cuckoo’s Nest comes out in, say, 1962, I’ll have plenty of time to get my Rosemary’s Baby into print by, say, 1965. Levin has written about cloning (The Boys From Brazil) and replacing originals with cheap substitutes (The Stepford Wives), so he should be sympathetic to my project. Besides, he made most of his money from the long-running Broadway play Deathtrap (about one writer stealing another’s work), so he won’t go hungry without Rosemary.

At this point, it would be nice to try to beat Mario Puzo to The Godfather, but it’s a massive novel with a complex plot and I just don’t think I can memorize enough of it to do it justice. Besides, it’s never a good idea to mess with the mafia. My favorite novel of the late 1960s is Charles Portis’s True Grit. I’ve read it countless times and could probably type it up from memory. Alas, all that rereading has made Marshall Rooster Cogburn, the legendary lawman at the heart of the novel, a living presence in my brain. Portis describes him as “a pitiless man, double-tough, and fear don’t enter into his thinking.” If I were to kidnap him from his true creator, I’m not sure I’d ever stop looking over my shoulder. I could steal Michael Crichton’s slim 1969 bestseller The Andromeda Strain, but my complete ignorance of all things scientific could make it difficult for me to bluff my way through all the expository material (and probably also explains why my time machine is still inoperable). Erich Segal’s Love Story was the top-selling novel of 1970. It’s short and would be easy to memorize. But I have no great fondness for it, so I’d just as soon give it a pass. No, I think it would make more sense to follow up a religious-themed horror novel like Rosemary’s Baby with another religious-themed horror novel, 1971’s The Exorcist. Of course, The Exorcist isn’t a short novel, but I’ve read it several times and seen the film. Also, William Peter Blatty’s prose is nothing special, so I don’t have to worry about doing much damage to it by simply substituting my own. I have no desire to write screenplays, so when selling the novel to Hollywood I’ll insist that Blatty be hired to write the screenplay. He will already have written several produced films by this time, so it won’t be an unreasonable stipulation and it will help balm my conscience a bit. After all, Tevis, Kesey, and Levin all went on to write other successful books. The Exorcist is pretty much all that Blatty is remembered for these days. I owe him the screenplay, and the Oscar he won for it.

The bestselling novel of both 1972 and 1973 was Richard Bach’s short Jonathan Livingston Seagull, but I don’t want that book anywhere near my stolen bibliography. I may be a thief but I have my preferences. Instead, I think I shall use the years immediately following the publication of The Exorcist creating my own version of Jaws. It’s a fairly short and simple novel. Plus, I’ve seen the Spielberg film more than a dozen times. I should have no trouble getting it into print by 1973, thus beating poor Peter Benchley by a full year. Benchley came from a wealthy and distinguished family. He was educated at Harvard and spent many of his formative years on Martha’s Vineyard, a playground for the rich and privileged. He should have no trouble surviving the loss of Jaws.

Next, I would love to steal Nicholas Meyer’s Sherlock Holmes pastiche The Seven-Percent Solution. It’s short, clever, and was a big bestseller. Alas, it was published in the same year as Jaws. I don’t think I’ll have the time or the energy to steal both Jaws and The Seven-Percent Solution. But since I am determined to add a Victorian crime novel to my oeuvre, my plan is to steal Michael Crichton’s The Great Train Robbery, which was the eighth bestselling novel of 1975. It’s my favorite Crichton novel and also his least typical book. He made his name writing futuristic thrillers. The Great Train Robbery, a historical novel, is so anomalous that I almost feel as if it deserves to be stolen from Crichton. Plus, he owes me a book, since I allowed him to keep The Andromeda Strain.

Some of the most successful pop-fictions of the era–Shogun, The Thorn Birds, Trinity, anything by Herman Wouk–are just too big to be stolen. Those authors are protected from my rapacity by the magnitude of their ambitions. Young Stephen King, however, is not. Before he produced massive tomes like It and Under The Domeand 11/22/63 he produced his swift little debut novel Carrie in 1974. I’d like to steal it from him, but I’ll be busy in the early 70s stealing from Peter Benchley and Michael Crichton. The first King novel I can reasonably be expected to publish before King has a chance to publish it himself is 1977’s Rage. This book was published under the pseudonym Richard Bachman, which suggests that even Stephen King doesn’t consider it a Stephen King novel. The book was not a big seller for King, so I won’t be depriving him of much money. But when it is published by the author of such classics as The Hustler, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Exorcist, and Jaws, I imagine Rage will sell a lot more copies than it did in its original incarnation as a Richard Bachman book. Just to demonstrate my panache, I may even seek a blurb from King for it.

At this point, I will be the author of seven classic novels of American popular fiction (six, if my name isn’t enough to propel Rage to classic status). I am not greedy. I don’t plan to steal any more books after that. Besides, most of the bestsellers of the 1980s are just too fat for me: It, Red Storm Rising, Whirlwind, The Little Drummer Girl, Gorky Park, Space, The Hotel New Hampshire, etc. And the ones that are short enough for me to memorize are movie novelizations: ET: The Extra-Terrestrial Storybook and Return of the Jedi Storybook. I may be a thief, but I certainly would never stoop to writing movie tie-ins.

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“The Moment Expectations Change” (by Zandra Renwick)

A dual U.S. and Canadian author, Zandra Renwick has had stories and poems published under several variations on her name (see also Alexandra Renwick, Alex C. Renwick, and Camille Alexa). She has over fifty short stories and thirty poems in print. Her latest story, “Killer Biznez,” appears in EQMMs current issue, September/October 2020, and another recent story, “The Dead Man’s Dog,” was nominated in the best-short-story category for the 2020 Arthur Ellis Awards, Canada’s equivalent of the U.S.’s Edgar Allan Poe Awards. Zandra’s fiction has been translated, podcasted, performed on stage, and developed for television. With her work having proved adaptable to so many formats, you might not expect there to be a single answer to the question potential readers often ask writers: What are your stories about? But as you’ll see, the author sees a common thread running through it all, and it’s one that is shared by much of suspense fiction.—Janet Hutchings

Short-fiction writers, of all genres, for any number of reasons, surely must universally dread the question: What are your stories about?

The smart thing to do (a path one sadly rarely chooses, amiright?) would be to not overthink the business and toss off a quick, “I tend to write crime fiction” (or “historical” or “westerns”—or even “historical crime westerns with hot time-traveling feminist werewolves”*). But such limited answers feel so ungenuine, so inadequate, so lacking the scope of what you write, right? What about themes of found family? Outsiderism? Misdirected love or hate? The ache of loss and grief? The fear and empathy and heroism, theatricism or stoicism, or whatever ragged emotion you channel to write the bloody stuff (crime pun!) in the first place? Try rambling down that path and just watch the stiffening politeness of your well-meaning interrogator’s glazing-over gaze as they increasingly regret having asked you the question at all.

I feel lucky to have had a good writer friend early in my authorial trajectory (hugs to all good writer friends everywhere) who, over too-expensive cocktails in a charmingly Portlandian hipster bar (an old repurposed bordello, lush with broken parasols and flocked wallpaper and dim red lanterns) asked, on the eve of the release of my short-fiction collection (the product of my first year’s-worth of crazy unclassifiable stories): What are your stories about? And I without hesitation spoke the answer that welled up unbidden: I write about the moment when expectations change.

If it hadn’t rung so true I probably would’ve forgotten it by now, alongside all the other barstool fiddlefaddle (or coffee-shop philosophizing, depending on your poison) one spouts in a lifetime of barstools (and baristas). Instead, I felt electrified. And I never forgot it. It eventually came to frame how I think not only of my own stories, but all stories.

Like many reading this, I’m a great fan of short fiction. I wasn’t always, but these years of writing (it’s hard! and exhilarating! and, frankly, wondrous!) have brought me deep appreciation for the immediacy, power, and intimacy of the shorter form. Unlike novels, where the story has hundreds of pages to unfold, short fiction needs to deliver this change of expectation in a matter of vastly fewer words. It has to hone in. It has to punch. What’s often thrilling about suspense and crime fiction is the sheer rapidity with which these expectations are forced to change. You (via the narrative) stumble over a dead body, hear a gunshot, see a neighbor bury something gory in his garden, get caught in bed with the wrong person or wake to find a scalpel pressed to your jugular . . . and you change your mind about what your options are, fast.

This whiplash effect might be a reason short stories and novellas can make such thrilling translations to screen. In the mystery, suspense, and crime arenas a few come readily to mind: Daphne du Maurier’s “The Birds” and Cornell Woolrich’s “It Had to Be Murder,” adapted for screen into Alfred Hitchcock’s cinematic masterpieces The Birds and Rear Window; Stephen King’s “Apt Pupil” and “The Body”; “The Third Man” by Graham Greene (who said, in the introduction of Viking’s The Portable Graham Greene,“To me it is almost impossible to write a film play without first writing a story. . .”); Ian Fleming’s collection For Your Eyes Only and the Perry Mason shorts by Erle Stanley Gardner; “Beware of the Dog” by Roald Dahl, which hit the big screen in 1965 as 36 Hours and littler ones in 1989 as the TV movie Breaking Point. Many more shorts-to-screen titles are easy find with a bit of digging, some I’ve seen, others I haven’t: Gun Crazy (1950); Blowup (1966); Bad Day at Black Rock (1955); Fallen Idol (1948); Crime Wave (1954); Double Indemnity (1944); Crack-Up (1946) Smooth Talk (1985). And where would modern mystery be without Sherlock Holmes and the powerful short-fiction delivery of his famous creator? My own household is presently engaged in a delightful pandemic lockdown binge of all 118 episodes of The Saint (Leslie Charteris’s alter-eponymous character of novel and short story after whom, my father informs me, my brother was named).

I’m thrilled to think of my own fiction in the process of making this page to screen leap; a short story of mine is currently in development for television—an endeavor like so many others affected by the rapidity with which the world is undergoing change at the moment, and the rapidity with which our expectations are changing in what we demand of it, what we hope for it. Now, here, writing from the Canadian side of the international border that separates my two homes, the creative meeting for which I last year flew to L.A. (the city of my birth) feels as if it took place in a previous century, a previous life. But a surprising thing has been happening lately: I’ve been making peace with letting go of previous expectations.

This doesn’t mean give up! It doesn’t mean buckle under or despair. But it does mean, at least for this writer, taking each thing as it comes right now without yearning too much for the way things were, or worrying too much over the unknowable way things will be. It’s advice I might give my characters, if they could ask me how to live through whatever about-face or adversity I’d sent their direction. And then, if they survived, I’d tell them to forgive themselves and each other afterward for any mistakes they may have made along the way.

*No story like this in the works. Sorry.

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“Mystery” (by Iris Hockaday)

A Maine native, Iris Hockaday has an Associate of Arts degree in graphic design and a B.A. in psychology.  She is a poet as well as a short-story writer, and her first professional fiction publication, “The Thunderstorm,” was in EQMM’s last issue (July/August 2020). In this post she reflects on the concept of mystery and the importance of credible motivation as it applies to our genre. —Janet Hutchings

I’ve got a secret. Do you want to know what it is? Of course you do. We want to know the unknowable. What do we want to know about a secret? If it is a good secret, everything. If we think it’s mundane, not so much. What is the hook? In a piece of fiction, when and where will this hidden knowledge be revealed? Does it clear up the mystery in an exciting or satisfactory way? Does it lend a twist to the story?

We are excited by the journey and the art of discovery. We are pulled into cleverness and the intelligent reasoning of The How when it comes to the genre of mystery fiction. The Why, the motivation behind the truth of the story, intrigues us even more. We are curious creatures by nature, which advances our self-preservation. And if we can read the minds of characters on a page, ascribe to them details and traits that matter in a story, we have the ultimate advantage—we can participate with nothing to lose but perhaps our time or some junk we would rather not have in our minds. The only work we really have to do is read and absorb the writer’s tale, intertwining our own ideas and emotions as we proceed.

Mystery fiction springs from the deepest, most ancient questions of all—Who am I? And Why am I here? Life’s mystery and the realization that we will all die at some point lead us necessarily to ask questions relevant to the unknowable. Everything in our future is basically a secret—a place always just out of reach. We yearn to unravel a mystery, to be in control of our destiny, which we can do only in a limited fashion. Our anxieties, our griefs, our joy and our pursuits all stem from the answers we tell ourselves about our little corner of the world, or our universe. And since we cannot control the way other people respond to life’s ups and downs, we come to different conclusions about whom we can trust, or not. Thus we have the perfect setup for writing mysteries. The reader must be given glimpses into the commons, where reader and characters meet. We share a space thus far unoccupied by us. The writer has created a world from nothing, but we must be able to plant our feet on the story’s ground, smell the sweat or lilac, taste salt on our tongues, have hair mussed by the wind, and either intrude our heart or mind or both inside the new home we have been given. We must be able to trust the writer, but not necessarily the narrator.

No matter how bizarre or eerie or crazy this literary space will be, we must be able to identify ourselves there. Somehow, there must be a connection for a reader to dip a toe into the virilium waters of the planet Creop, whose currents bounce like a spring and shift from liquid to solid silver whenever a magic acorn lands in the river. Why, I, as a reader, want to come along on this adventure, is a matter of taste and a willingness to follow the breadcrumbs wherever they lead.

The vicarious charm of being in control, while at the same time experiencing another person’s conundrum or reactionary foibles, gives rise to empathy or disdain, depending on how deeply we are drawn into the story. Through neglect or unpersuasive writing, not having us care at all about the protagonist, I think, is the greatest insult a writer can foster on their main character. That being said, some characterizations of the protagonist can appear shallow when the object of the story is more the adventure and thrill of the ride—overcoming obstacles, achieving or not achieving goals, stumbling around in the dark for answers crucial to the protagonist’s goals or life itself. But even then, we must care somewhat about the person who invites us to come along on this tour without knowing every childhood or adult memory that underlies present actions. If we don’t care, we might stop reading—causing the premature death of all the writer holds dear.

Reading a short story about a crime or a mystery, might at times, take us where we don’t necessarily want to go. There might be a horrendous murder, we might have queasy stomachs, but if the story takes us along a route we find intriguing, we will surrender our dislike or fears to see what happens next. But if we go along with it, read all the way to the end, and feel like we’ve been betrayed in some way, we will not be happy. And perhaps that writer has lost a fan.

I, myself, get peeved when a character commits an action where a strong motivation has not been established. It feels as though the writer has cheated me by allowing a poor excuse to pass as the reason for the crime, or the dots seem not to connect sensibly and rationally, even if insanity is involved as a basis for the plot. On the other hand, a well-crafted mystery leaves me in awe of the skill and imagination involved to pull it off. It is a wow moment.

The joy of reading a mystery lies in the revealing of the underbelly of the story, the invisible made visible . . . the whys and wherefores making sense at crunch time. Some endings call for a leap of the imagination or ends tied loosely enough that more than one interpretation might work. A satisfactory ending is one in which the reader feels satisfied with all elements of the story, the writing technique, dialog, characterizations, plot. Obviously. But is it so obvious? The skill should not be so obvious that it jars the reader from the fictional world back into their own world. A sentence can jump off the page like a flea jumping on the reader’s arm. This sentence cannot stand unless the writer is working some kind of spell they want broken for some reason. I would think this would take a master magician for this trick to work at all. Misdirection is used all the time in mysteries, but this is to cloak the visible for a big reveal down the road. Red herrings are akin to a maze with lots of dead ends. This works well in a novel, but a short story has its limitations.

To me, a good short mystery story carries me in its arms and either drops me on my butt or sets me down gently when its over. Either way, the need to know more and more and more as I was reading, to know where I was going and how I ended up there is paramount. Some invisible hand is tugging and pulling me along. Sometimes, I’m still enchanted or brightened by the tale days and weeks later, unwilling to leave that world behind. The story refuses to stay on the page, jumping into and taking up residence in my imagination. This is a successful story.

The question is always, What’s going to happen next? And, can I, by faith and the willingness to suspend my own reality for a time, be swept up in the story’s arms?

So much is subjective in life. One person can read a mystery and totally rave about it while another person gives it a ho-hum. We bring to the story our own set of baggage, expectations, and wonderment. All a writer can do is write from a place of honesty and as excellently as one can. When a line or a story feels false, one has to go with one’s gut and reject it. There is proof in the pudding. The joy, I believe, in creating a work of fiction, lies in having a bit of work that never existed before, come to life before our eyes. It is truly a gift of the trade that we get to craft beauty, or suspense, or crime that pulls together elements like water, wind, fire, metal, in an alchemy of words. And that the words form thoughts or descriptions or feelings in sentence logic. And the sentences form a story in a synergy so luminescent and energetic as to mimic life. But as writers, we cannot be so in love with our work as to pass over flaws or be blind to our momentary lunacy, when we have not really thought something through. We must constantly autopsy a draft until it cannot be picked apart any longer.

All artists get to participate in a transcendence from creativity, where we create something from nothing. Which brings us back to the beginning of mystery—there is always something mysterious to learn or ponder in this world, whether its quarks or galaxies far far away, or strange creatures in the depths of the black ocean, or a wellspring of faith and inspiration in the supernatural or the eternal God. We are blessed that there will always be mysteries, for without them we would be belly-button gazers, never pondering the outer banks of our imaginations. If we had no mysteries, would we be able to invent a mystery story? Would it entail a language we could not even conceive of? Would we even be able to grasp the fact that something invisible could be revealed? Would we even have survived as human beings on this planet?

It is the nature of past present and future to move us along, and move the story along—for us to judge what is worthy or unworthy about ourselves and our characters. A perfect word, a well-crafted sentence, an “aha” plot, that pushes us a bit past what we thought we were capable of, is very satisfying and spurs us on to more discoveries as a writer and as the reader. For we are the discoverers of new lands, steering our ships in rough waters, through terrible storms or placid seas, always hunting the white whale that lives invisibly below the surface, catching glimpses of the leviathan when we least expect it. We dream our dreams and write them down, as if harnessing and controlling a creature so daunting, we wonder how it can be possible we have dragged it to shore.

Writing to me is usually not easy. I am into precision and precision takes work. But it’s a navigation with sextant and compass and bold temerity to even lay fingers on the keyboard and peer into the white screen of invisibility that will allow letter by letter, word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, a prairie dog to come out of its hole.

Some days no words come. But the work in the mind continues consciously or unconsciously, jumping synapses into uncharted territory, mysteriously linking concepts, awaiting the perfect occasion to manifest itself as needed. Then the words do come, as if from nothing.

There is an ache in a writer. We are in love with words and we must prove our love by hugging them closely, giving voice to their strengths, printing them on canvases in our personal gallery of ideas.

We might avoid them at times, but we are truly writers, we will always come back to the beckoning of words that speak in our own mysterious code and language. We urge our perspective to become yours. Please enter into the mystery, wholeheartedly and with great expectations.

We will try to deliver.

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“How Anxiety Draws Me to Mystery” (by Violet Welles)

Violet Welles is a freelance writer and math tutor who lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, with her rescue cat and greyhound. Her first professionally published fiction, the short story “Round-Trip Runaways,” appears in EQMM’s current issue, September/October 2020. Two other (unpublished) stories of hers have received, respectively, honorable mention in the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future contest and posting on World Geekly News as a runner-up in their Horror Flash Fiction contest. In this post, the author provides an interesting answer to a question often asked and very pertinent to our genre: Why do people seek out, and enjoy, fiction that inspires fright?—Janet Hutchings

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had both an anxiety disorder and an affinity for mystery. Those may seem like two completely unrelated things to tell you about myself, but I don’t think they are.

At age five, I would watch Are You Afraid of the Dark? with my mom and older sister, eyes glued to the TV screen and a glass of chocolate milk clutched in my tiny hands. Are You Afraid of the Dark? was a nineties show about a group of kids who gathered deep in the woods to tell ghost stories, and I loved it. The stories were eerie and strange and mysterious, which was apparently just my style, even at five years of age. By age ten, I was already writing stories of kidnap and death, of monsters and suspense, and I stored them underneath my bed beside my collection of old clowns and cracked dolls. Needless to say, I was very cool and popular at my middle school.

Now, I’m not exactly sure when my anxiety started to get bad or if, in the words of Lady Gaga, I was just born this way. But at any given moment, there seems to be a mystery going on inside my mind. Let’s say I’m waiting for my best friend to meet me at our favorite Thai food restaurant (something we used to do in the good old days when it was acceptable to see each other without a wall of plastic separating us).

Maybe it’s ten minutes past our designated meeting time, and she’s still not there. Logically, I know she probably just got distracted watching her pet snails crawl along the side of her aquarium (not as uncommon an occurrence as you might think—she is obsessed with her snails). However, there’s another part of my brain—the one that’s utterly bored by such a rational solution and wants to add a little spice to my life. That’s the part that immediately starts spinning stories of all the different horrible things that could have happened to her. It goes a little something like this . . .

Anxiety: I wonder if she got into a car accident on the way?

Rational Brain (this voice sounds a lot like my therapist): Maybe she just forgot.

Anxiety: Or maybe she finally went mad in quarantine or maybe she got COVID and is stuck in an infinite coughing fit or maybe she died instantly on impact or . . .

Rational Brain: Dude, she probably just got distracted by her snails again.


My mind is always writing some kind of mystery story, whether I’m actively choosing to do so or my anxiety is just taking me for a fun little ride. She gets bored sometimes, and I’ll give her this, she can be very imaginative when she wants to be. See, she’s perfected the skill, having twenty-some odd years to run free in my brain.

So why would I choose to write and read and watch mystery when it’s the very thing causing me so much anxiety in my daily life? You would think I’d rather run from it all, to read light fantasy trilogies or cute romance novellas as an escape from my everyday thoughts. But on the contrary, it’s exactly mystery fiction which provides me that escape.

When I read mystery, I’m able to explore uncertainty in a world that’s completely separate from my own. By focusing on the mystery of that story, I spend less time focusing on the mysteries going on inside my own brain. Because if my mind is going to go to those dark places regardless, why not get ahead of it? Why not choose to go there in a more controlled environment, some place divorced from my own reality?

Writing mystery is even better. When I write, I get to explore my anxieties and fears in a land that is totally within my control. I get to do whatever I want. I don’t have to worry about whether or not my main character was kidnapped and murdered, because I’m the one who gets to decide her fate. I don’t have to worry about whether or not her pet snails broke loose from their aquarium, swallowed her whole, and are now ravaging their way through the city. Because if I ever chose to write that travesty of a story, I would know exactly what was coming. I would know all the whens, wheres, hows, and whys, and for someone who deals with such uncertainty on a regular basis, that knowledge is quite freeing.

Now, because my anxiety is a workaholic with a sick sense of humor, she doesn’t even slow down when I sleep. I have frequent nightmares. As I dream, she still spins her stories—there’s the woman who lives inside my chimney and builds fires at a quarter till midnight, the young girl stuck inside the old mansion whose walls shed wallpaper like snake skin, the monster who lives inside the light of the boy’s candle and tells him to do things he doesn’t want to do. I wake up shaken, and it takes me an hour and two cups of tea to feel normal again.

But I also wake up craving to write mystery.

Until I can learn to lucid dream, I can’t control my nightmares, just as I can’t control my anxiety. But what I can do is take the fear and uncertainty they instill in me and capture them on the page. There, they are immediately powerless. There, I control their fate. I can now choose to finish the story any way I want. I could wrap it up sweetly—maybe the protagonist wakes from a nightmare, hugs her cat close, and watches an episode of Parks & Recreation before drifting off to sleep once more. Or I could take it down an even darker path, stretching out the mystery and plunging the heroine into even more peril.

When it’s on the page, I am calm. That is, until it comes time to share my work with someone. Don’t even get me started on the anxiety that comes with that.

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