“Frederic Dannay Revisited” (by Francis M. Nevins)

Earlier this year, on this site, Laird Blackwell talked about the inspiration for his latest scholarly work, Frederic Dannay, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and the Art of the Detective Short Story. This week, mystery-fiction scholar Francis M. Nevins reviews the book. The author of six mystery novels and about forty published short stories, Francis M. Nevins (whom we know as “Mike”) has won two Edgars for his critical work in our field (Royal Bloodline: Ellery Queen, Author and Detective and Cornell Woolrich: First You Dream, Then You Die). He knew Frederic Dannay personally and has approached Laird Blackwell’s work focused on the magazine Dannay founded from the viewpoint of a devoted fan.—Janet Hutchings

In recent years—no, make that recent decades—it seems that I’ve either written or edited or had some connection with just about every book having to do with Ellery Queen. This is no longer the case, thanks to Laird R. Blackwell’s Frederic Dannay, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and the Art of the Detective Short Story (McFarland, 2019), a title so unwieldy it won’t all fit on the book’s spine, which omits THE ART OF. Blackwell aims to encompass in a relatively short book “the true impact of Ellery Queen on the detective-crime short-story genre.” By Ellery Queen of course he means Frederic Dannay, the scholarly-bibliophilic-editorial half of the Queen partnership, who as founding editor of EQMM labored feverishly, between the magazine’s birth late in 1941 and shortly before his death in 1982, both to revive the best short stories of the distant and recent past and to encourage the creation of equally fine stories in the present and future. Blackwell knows the 40-odd Dannay years of EQMM backward and forward and writes insightfully of the milestone authors and stories that Fred had a hand in developing or preserving. We traverse the entire range of the genre from Poe through Conan Doyle and Chesterton to then-newcomers like Stanley Ellin and Edward D. Hoch (who wound up having more than 500 stories published in the magazine) to a few like Jon L. Breen and Josh Pachter and myself who began appearing in EQMM when we were young and Fred was well along in his editorial career and who carry on today like old warhorses continuing, perhaps more gently, to smite the earth.

If I had had a hand in the book I would have pushed for Blackwell to include the birth and death years of the dozens of authors he covers, giving readers a more vivid sense of the scope and flow of detective-crime fiction in its short form. But I would have fought much more loudly for the removal of the superabundant typos which pockmark the book. So many authors’ names are given incorrectly, including luminaries like “Cornel” Woolrich and “George” Simenon and even that old standby Edgar “Allen” Poe. So many story titles get the same treatment, such as “The Adventure of the Blue Carbunkle” which will lift every Sherlockian’s eyebrows to the sky. Book titles fare no better, as witness 101 Midnights, which eliminates a whopping 900 witching hours. A number of significant dates are also off, for example the death of Ed Hoch, which occurred in 2008, not 2018. (If only Ed had enjoyed the extra ten years of life with which Blackwell gifts him!) And more than one protagonist of a single story is listed as a series character. But all these gaffes—which, if I had a magic wand, I’d erase forever—don’t seriously detract from what Blackwell has accomplished in this book. With these reservations, I recommend it.

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“Shared Death” (by R.T. Raichev)

Raicho Raichev is not only a fan of Golden Age Mysteries, hes a scholar of the genre. He’s written previous articles for this site about some of the key figures in the field. This time he focuses on the murder method in many Golden Age whodunits: poison. Raicho is one of the best current writers of the classical mystery. His series starring mystery writer Antonia Darcy and her husband, Major Payne, has more than half a dozen critically acclaimed novel-length entries as well as many short story cases, most of them published in EQMM. We have a new Antonia Darcy story coming up early next year.—Janet Hutchings

P.D. James, in her Introduction to the 1998 Folio edition of Dorothy L. Sayers’s Strong Poison, writes that the novel has “a particularly original and ingenious method of murder and one, which, as far as I remember, has never been used by another crime writer.” The method in question involves the introduction of arsenic (via a tiny funnel) into a deliberately cracked egg that is subsequently used for the making of a sweet omelette which is shared by the killer with his victim. The reason the killer remains unaffected is that he has been carefully building up his own immunity to arsenic by taking small doses over a period of time. As murderous modi operandi go, this one is so elaborate, dangerous, and risky as to be wildly improbable, though of course it is typical of the Golden Age (of the English detective story) during which the book was written. In fact the shared-death method might have been devised by the novel’s heroine Harriet Vane herself—a detective story writer and, as is widely assumed, an idealized self-portrait of Dorothy L. Sayers. In an entertaining metafictional touch Harriet—who stands accused of the murder of her lover—tells Lord Peter that it all feels like one of her own novels, “. . . in which I invented such a perfectly watertight crime that I couldn’t devise any way for my detective to prove it . . .”

Strong Poison was published in 1930 and is the fourth in the series featuring Sayers’s sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey. For most Sayers aficionados* the novel’s real distinction lies in the extraordinary transformation—some may call it “humanization”—of Lord Peter who, beneath his Bertie-Wooster exterior and silly-ass manner, is revealed as harboring passions worthy of a Mr Darcy. One cannot imagine a less auspicious occasion for a man to succumb to a coup de foudre than a murder trial, but that is what happens to Lord Peter Wimsey. He falls in love with the woman in the dock while listening to the judge sum up the damning evidence against her. He is convinced—absolutely, unshakably, unconditionally—that Harriet Vane is innocent. At that point Lord Peter hasn’t any proof that that might be so, apart from what his heart tells him and the fact that his mother, the Duchess of Denver, agrees—as he informs Harriet at their first meeting. (“Oh my mother’s the only one that counts, and she likes you very much from what she’s seen of you.”) We learn that when Harriet “smiled at him, his heart turned to water.”  Henceforward he devotes all his time and energy—as well as every advantage his status as a peer of the realm affords him—to saving her from the hangman’s noose. In the course of his investigation he offers her marriage.

But Baroness James seemed to have remembered wrongly. Ten years after Sayers, another crime writer—Agatha Christie, no less—employed the shared-death method in her novel Sad Cypress. Although a meticulously clued Poirot case, this 1940 offering is not a typical Christie. For one thing, the identity of the killer is fairly obvious at an early stage, which for an Agatha Christie novel written in her floruit period is very unusual. Crime critic Robert Barnard describes Sad Cypress as “elegiac, more emotionally involving than is usual in Christie.” The killer—Nurse Hopkins—puts morphine into a pot of freshly brewed tea which she then shares  with her victim. Her way of staying alive is by means of an apomorphine injection she gives herself moments after imbibing the poison. (Apomorphine is a powerful emetic and it causes her to vomit the morphine.)

Apart from the murder method, there are a number of other striking similarities between Strong Poisonand Sad Cypress. Both novels open with a tense courtroom scene. Both feature an attractive, sympathetically presented woman who is wrongly accused of murder. The murder motive in both novels is money though the murderer’s right to inheritance is carefully veiled. Both Sayers and Christie use the very first impression their murderers make in such a way as to prepare the reader for the eventual revelation of their guilt. Norman Urquhart’s face strikes Lord Peter as “pale and curiously clear”—the denouement reveals that luminous clarity is characteristic of the skin of a habitual arsenic eater. Nurse Hopkins is introduced through the eyes of her scapegoat, a delirious Elinor Carlisle, who sees Hopkins as “smug—smug and implacable”—note the cunning repetition of “smug”—Agatha Christie as good as tells the reader, this is a woman who believes she’s got away with murder. Both murderers are easy to spot since the circle of suspects in the two novels is so very narrow, therefore the question that tantalizes the reader is How?** rather than Who?

Did Agatha Christie appropriate some of Dorothy Sayers’s ideas after reading Strong Poison? Or was it a case of what is known as “parallel thinking”? While extraordinary coincidences are known to happen there is one singular detail in Sad Cypress which suggests that Christie was not only familiar with that particular Sayers but that she might be paying some kind of droll homage to her sister in crime. In Strong Poison, it is Lord Peter who gets the girl in the end, or rather starts romancing Harriet Vane.*** In Sad Cypress, the young man who is paired off with Elinor Carlisle after her release is a friend of Hercule Poirot called—now pay close attention—Peter Lord.

Or was Agatha Christie’s subconscious playing her tricks?

* Most but not all. Apparently there are GA purists who regard Harriet Vane as a Wallis Simpson kind of figure who lured Lord Peter away from the path of pure detection.

** Sayers much more often than Christie devised bizarre, if not exactly practicable, murder methods. In her Busman’s Honeymoon the killer sets a booby trap with a weighted cactus pot on a chain, which is triggered by the victim’s opening a radio cabinet; the murder in Unnatural Death is brought about by the injecting of a lethal air-bubble into the victim’s vein, etc.

*** Lord Peter’s proposal is finally accepted by Harriet Vane in Gaudy Night (1935) and in Busman’s Honeymoon (1937) we see them married.


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“The Secret Lagoon” (by Josh Pachter)

Josh Pachter’s story “The Secret Lagoon” appears in EQMM’s current issue (September/October 2019). Readers are often curious not only about where authors get their ideas but about how a story comes together. In this post, we get a look at how Josh’s new story formed in his mind. The name Josh Pachter will be very familiar to most of our readers. He is the author of about a hundred published short stories, many of them in EQMM, and has been translating for EQMM, from several languages, for many years. Last year he celebrated his fiftieth anniversary as a published writer, and it all began in the pages of EQMM.—Janet Hutchings

All photos courtesy of Josh Pachter.

The Secret Lagoon is a real place.

When we booked a trip to Holland and Belgium in May of 2017, my wife Laurie and I decided to take advantage of our airline’s offer of a free stopover in Iceland, a country neither of us had previously visited. Laurie is the family researcher, and she created a fabulous itinerary for us: the geysers at Gullfoss, Thingvellir National Park, the Skógafoss waterfall, the bright-blue glaciers and “diamond beach” at Jökulsárlón, the list goes on. One of the things we both wanted to experience was a geothermal lagoon, of which Iceland has many, most famously the Blue Lagoon, which is not far from the Keflavík International Airport. From its website and its TripAdvisor reviews, though, it looked to us like the Blue Lagoon would probably be mobbed, and neither of us is comfortable in crowds, especially at times that are by their very nature intended to be relaxing.

So I did a little poking around of my own and discovered Gamla Laugín, the Secret Lagoon, a natural hot spring in the village of Flúðir, about a two-hour drive east of Keflavík, and I booked us a visit for the morning of our arrival.

Our Icelandair flight landed at 6:30 AM local time, and we cleared through customs and picked up our rental car. Exhausted from the overnight travel and jetlagged from the six-hour time change, we endured the drive to Flúðir, stopping briefly in Selfoss to revive ourselves with coffee and pastries.

The Secret Lagoon is as I describe it in my story, down to the “wedding concierge” in his bushy beard and waxed mustache, incongruous tam o’shanter cap, and red bowtie. (I didn’t catch his name, but later selected Þorri from an Icelandic baby book I found on the Internet.)

Laurie and I had the place almost to ourselves that day. I don’t know what she was thinking as she let the geothermal heat soak away the fatigue of our long plane ride, but I remember what was going through my mind:

This would be a perfect setting for a crime story, I thought, floating in the hundred-degree water, my neck and feet supported by long fluorescent pool noodles.

But what would be the crime?

After a while, I found myself remembering a game I used to play with my friends and siblings, many years ago, a sort of you-be-the-detective game in which one of us would tell the bare bones of a puzzling story and the others, by asking a series of yes/no questions, would have to figure out the answer to the story’s riddle.

Here’s an example of the type of thing I’m talking about:

Billy is found dead, an apparent suicide, in the dining room of his small apartment. There is a carved wooden figure of a dog and a set of woodworking tools on the table, and one of the wooden chairs is tipped over. There is sawdust on the floor. Why did Billy kill himself?

Then the questioning would go like this:

Did Billy really commit suicide? Yes. Did he shoot himself? No. Did he take poison? No. Did he hang himself? Yes. Is his profession relevant? Yes. Was he a professional woodworker? No.

And so on. Ultimately, the questioners would either have to give up or figure out that Billy worked in the circus, where he was billed as “The Smallest Man in the World,” and the second smallest man, jealous of Billy’s—ahem—stature, was sneaking into his apartment every night and sanding down the legs of Billy’s dining-room table. Billy, terrified that he was growing taller, couldn’t stand the thought of losing his job and finally hanged himself.

You’ll have to trust me on this, but the game was more fun to play than it is to read about, and we had a great time playing it.

SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t yet read “The Secret Lagoon” in the September/October issue, you should stop reading this blog post now and not return until you’ve finished the story.

Okay, you’re back? And you’ve read “The Secret Lagoon”? Fine, I’ll take your word for it.

One of my favorite puzzles from this childhood game involved three main characters: Father Frank, Mayor Mike, and Officer Owen. It’s twenty years since Father Frank took over as the parish priest, and his congregation throws him a big party to celebrate the anniversary. A hundred of them gather at the church at the appointed day and time, but Father Frank is at the local hospital administering last rites to a dying parishioner and is delayed. To pass the time while they wait for the guest of honor to show up, Mayor Mike stands and improvises a speech. Finally, Father Frank arrives to great applause and launches into a speech of his own. A minute later, Officer Owen, who is one of the many people sitting in the pews, jumps to his feet, unholsters his gun, and fires a single bullet, which strikes and instantly kills . . . Mayor Mike.

And the question the listener needs to answer is this: Why did Officer Owen kill Mayor Mike?

The answer—you’re positive you’ve read “The Secret Lagoon,” right?—would take the uninitiated a long time to figure out, but is in retrospect pretty simple. When Mayor Mike got up to speak, he began by saying that it was logical for him to be the person speaking, not because he’s the mayor, but because, twenty years ago, on Father Frank’s first day in the parish, he—Mayor Mike—was the very first person to ask the new priest to take his confession. Then, when Father Frank arrives and launches into his own speech, he begins by saying that it’s certainly been an eventful twenty years. In fact, he says, his time in the parish got off to an unusual start when the very first confession he ever heard was a confession of murder.

Mayor Mike was married to Officer Owen’s sister, see, and Officer Owen’s sister was murdered long ago, apparently having surprised a burglar in the act of robbing her house. The murder was never solved, but now, two decades later, Owen puts two and two together and realizes at long last that it was his brother-in-law, not a burglar, who killed his sister, and he takes his long-delayed revenge.

That old puzzle became the jumping-off point for my Iceland story, in which a cocky killer revisits the scene of his long-ago crime, only to find that murder—which Chaucer warned us will out—does out, in this case with equally fatal consequences.

At the end of “The Secret Lagoon,” Emily Norton checks into the Hotel Skógar, within sight of the majestic Skógafoss waterfall. Laurie and I spent our own first night in Iceland there, although our room was on the other side of the building, so we didn’t get to see the falls until the following morning:

Unlike Emily, Laurie and I did go on to stay in Kirkjubæjarklaustur and Hveragerði, to walk on the black sand at Vík and marvel at the beauty of the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon and its diamond beach.

Oh, speaking of my story’s main character, I should mention that I often like to slip an Easter egg or two into my stories, and that there’s one built into her name.

In my day job, I teach communication studies and film appreciation at Northern Virginia Community College, and my film class focuses on Orson Welles’s classic Citizen Kane. In that film, Kane’s first wife—played by the lovely Ruth Warrick, who later spent thirty-five years as the obnoxious Phoebe Tyler Wallingford on the daytime soap All My Children— is Emily Monroe Norton, the niece of a former US president. And the protagonist of “The Secret Lagoon” is Emily Norton, nee Emily Monroe. I’ve been looking for a way to slip a Kane reference into one of my stories, and at last I found one!

I’m happy, too, to have found a way to set a story in Iceland, one of the most book-friendly countries in the world, where every December the citizenry celebrates Jolabokaflod,the “Christmas Book Flood.” On Christmas Eve, families give each other gaily-wrapped hard-covered books, then curl up in comfortable chairs and spend the rest of the evening reading.

Now that’s a tradition I can wholeheartedly endorse.

Gleðilegt lestur, allir!

Happy reading, one and all!

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“Too Good to Be True?” (by Anne van Doorn)

Last week, Mystery Scene magazine copublisher Brian Skupin did a post for this site about locked-room mysteries. In it, he mentioned a story in our current issue (September/October 2019) by Dutch writer Anne van Doorn entitled “The Poet Who Locked Himself In.”  This week, Anne van Doorn recalls how this very clever tale ended up in EQMM. Since Anne (a gender-neutral name in The Netherlands) recounts some of his publishing history in this post, I will only add that he has also served as book critic for the Dutch internet site Crimezone. We’re very glad that he has made his international debut with an appearance in our current issue! —Janet Hutchings

In July 2017 I was approached through e-mail by a person named Josh Pachter. Never heard of the fellow! He claimed to be a translator for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and that it had been suggested to him that my story “De Dichter Die Zichzelf Opsloot” might be a good prospect for the EQMM. For years I’ve been aware of the existence of EQMM, as I’m an avid short-fiction reader—every day a short story! However, as Pachter’s e-mail address didn’t end with @elleryqueenmysterymagazine.com I began suspecting someone was pulling my leg!

You’ll have to understand that in my country, The Netherlands, I’m a crime author of no importance at all. Although I debuted as M.P.O. Books in 2004, I’ve mostly been ignored by national newspapers and other media. My role in this small country—twice the size of New Jersey—has thus been marginal, perhaps due to the fact that my books are published through very small companies. This is my life as a writer . . . as usual.

To give my career a new impulse I adopted a second pen name in 2017. While as M.P.O. Books I wrote modern police procedurals, with the new pseudonym I decided to focus on my first love, the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, yet in a contemporary setting. I’m a huge fan of the short stories written by Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, and like them I wanted to write both novels as well as short fiction. As Anne van Doorn my first short detective stories had just been published when Josh Pachter dropped his e-mail in my box. It sounded too good to be true, of course. I had to investigate this fellow!

You don’t have to be a famous writer to receive weird requests. Sometimes these are fun. Like that teenage boy who asked me to help him get in touch with chief inspector Bram Petersen, one of my fictional series characters. The guy wanted to do an internship with the police, hanging out with Petersen and solving crimes! Sometimes the requests are not so innocent. There are always freaks and confused persons around. Here’s a sad example:

One day a friendly, old, but confused lady came to the door with her wheeled walker, asking for Simon Vestdijk, our local celebrity and writer of international repute, nine times on the long list for the Nobel Prize in Literature and Dutch translator of the Sherlock Holmes stories back in the 1940s. She wanted to meet him. I had to inform her Vestdijk had sadly passed away. Naturally she was shocked. In fact, she was so devastated by the news that I daren’t tell her he died decades ago. In fact, before I was even born!

Another example. A one-time literary author sent me a letter, flattering me with regard to my locked-room novel Een Afgesloten Huis, saying the book should have been awarded the Gouden Strop—the Golden Noose, the most important crime-fiction award in The Netherlands and Belgium. This flattery was only an introduction to his weird request. He wanted to write a novel wherein his main character could have sex with the female main character of Een Afgesloten Huis. This weirdo wrote similar letters to other authors of the same publisher. . . In fact, this person is notorious for having harassed female writers for years!

Now, fortunately enough, Josh Pachter didn’t strike me as either weird or confused. But was he a practical joker? Perhaps a fellow countryman posing as an American? His surname is obviously a Dutch one. Pachter is the Dutch word for tenant. After receiving his e-mail I decided to do a background check, discovering that this wasn’t a practical joke at all. Josh Pachter is a well-established author and translator in the U.S.A. And so, the ball started rolling . . .

Josh Pachter read my short story and said: “It’s very well written and would translate smoothly into English.” The latter he did, then offered it to EQMM editor Janet Hutchings for publication. She consented. And now “The Poet Who Locked Himself In” has been published and I’m thrilled! It’s a dream come true. It’s recognition from across the Atlantic Ocean. Recognition that may help me get a foothold in my home country. Incredible! Overjoyed, I took a two-year subscription to EQMM.

My Dutch publisher was smart enough to latch onto the U.S. publication as an opportunity to release a short-story collection entitled De Mysteries van Robbie Corbijn. On the cover is the blurb: “One of these mysteries will be published in the renowned Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine from America.” Review copies and press releases about my American debut were sent to all national newspapers. Perhaps you can predict the result? All of them ignored the book! No one gave me a call, there are no reviews, no interviews, no congratulations. Utter silence!

I guess this means my life goes on. . . as usual!

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“EQMM and the Locked Room Mystery” (by Brian Skupin)

Brian Skupin is Consulting Editor for the publishing company Locked Room International (founded by one of EQMM’s most prolific translators, John Pugmire!) and copublisher of Mystery Scene Magazine, for which he has won the Mystery Writers of America’s Ellery Queen Award, the Poirot Award from the Malice Domestic convention, and the Anthony Award from Bouchercon. He is also the editor of the forthcoming Locked Room Murders Supplement, a bibliography containing over 1,000 impossible crime stories. It shouldn’t have been a surprise to us that when invited to do a post for this site Brian chose locked-room mysteries as his subject, with an emphasis on those published in EQMM. It’s a topic we’re delighted to see addressed! Brian mentions several recent locked-room EQMM stories here, including one in the current issue (September/October 2019) by Dutch author Anne van Doorn. Readers will find yet another in our next issue (November/December) by Canadian author Elizabeth Elwood.—Janet Hutchings

Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine (EQMM) has been publishing short mystery fiction for nearly eighty years. In that time I daresay every kind of crime or detective story has appeared.

But everyone has their own favorite type of story, and mine is the locked-room mystery.

From the very first issue, all the way until the most recent issue, EQMM has recognized the special allure of the locked-room to those of us who come to mystery fiction in search of a puzzle: the crime that appears to be absolutely impossible. Only the locked-room, or more generally, the impossible crime, can satisfy the desire to know not only who, not only why, but how a crime was committed.

Frederic Dannay, cofounder of the magazine and its driving force for the first forty years, was no stranger to the impossible crime, having written, for example, the classic novel The King Is Dead. A man announces in advance that he will kill his brother at a particular time, and does so despite all precautions including his brother being protected inside a steel-lined vault.

The first ten issues of EQMM contained six impossible-crime stories. This pace could not be maintained, but impossible crimes continued to be a regular occurrence.

The eleventh issue (July 1943) was notable in that it contained the first story by James Yaffe, who premiered in the Department of First Stories, which showcases a writer’s first mystery fiction. Yaffe debuted with a classic problem: a man gets on an elevator alone, and when he arrives at his destination floor he is found stabbed to death.

That same issue also had the excellent “The Proverbial Murder” by all-time locked-room master John Dickson Carr, in which a man is shot in his locked study, and has a particularly unexpected villain.

Carr was inspired by the Father Brown stories of G.K. Chesterton, whose “Oracle of the Dog” had presented a new locked-room solution to death by stabbing in an inaccessible summer house and was reprinted in July 1950.

Carr in turn inspired many writers, among them Edmund Crispin, who belonged to a John Dickson Carr club. “The Name on the Window,” (February 1953) about a man found dead in a small cabin with only his own footprints in the dust leading inside, perfectly displays Crispin’s wit and ingenuity.

Is it possible for a witness to watch a man enter a telephone booth, but never come out? This is surely one of the best impossibility problems ever devised, and Clayton Rawson made it happen in September 1949 with “Off the Face of the Earth.”

In my opinion the two best locked-room short stories ever written appeared in EQMM. “The 51st Sealed Room” (October 1951) by Robert Arthur features a writer of locked-room mysteries who thinks up an original idea, only to have it used against him when he is found beheaded in a small cottage with the door nailed shut, with his head perched on the fireplace mantel. Stephen Barr was the writer of several books about logic and math puzzles, and applied his analytical talents to the problem of how a man can disappear from a locked house in “The Locked Room to End Locked Rooms” (August 1965).

Nearly all big-name writers attempt the locked-room at some point, and although I won’t list all of their stories many of those writers were given space by Dannay, including Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham, Dorothy Sayers, Christianna Brand, and Bill Pronzini.

Edward D. Hoch had by far the most locked-room stories published in EQMM, across five decades, several with original ideas. My favorite is “The Problem of the County Fair” (February 1978), which features the impossible appearance of a dead body in a sealed time capsule.

In addition to encouraging first-time writers, a tradition that Dannay started but that continues to be observed by current editor Janet Hutchings, EQMM has always sought out foreign authors. This is a trend that has accelerated in the past few years with translated stories coming from, among other places, Taiwan, Japan, and France.

Perhaps the biggest new name in impossible crimes is Paul Halter, a Frenchman with many novels and stories brimming with originality. In “Jacob’s Ladder” (February 2014), a man is found dead, and it appears he has fallen from a great height—but there are no high buildings or geographic features anywhere around.

In “Miracle on Christmas Eve” (May 2016), Szu-Yen Lin of Taiwan writes of a boy whose friends tell him there is no Santa Claus. The boy’s father invites them to spend Christmas Eve sleeping outside the only door of a locked room. On Christmas morning he opens the door to reveal that Santa has delivered a roomful of presents! A delightful story.

Last year in the May/June issue, Brazil’s Carlos Orsi gave us an impossible stabbing in a glass observation room in a casino. And right now in the current issue of EQMM we have the first locked-room appearance in English of  Dutch writer Anne van Doorn, with “The Poet Who Locked Who Locked Himself In,” about a poet found dead by rifle shot in his locked writing cabin.

Over nearly eighty years, there’s been no greater friend to the locked-room mystery than Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. For the best in new impossible crimes, make sure to subscribe.

And if you’re interested in finding sources for these and many other stories, look for the bibliography Locked Room Murders, with over 2,000 impossible crimes published through 1991, at https://www.mylri.com

A new supplement, edited by me, with over 1,000 additional stories is coming in September.

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A Conversation With the Center for Fiction’s Allison Escoto: Part 2

Earlier this year, The Center For Fiction moved from its Manhattan site to a new home in downtown Brooklyn. EQMM and AHMM managing editor Jackie Sherbow had a chance to speak with Allison Escoto, the Center’s head librarian, about the Center and its Raven Award winning mystery and detective fiction collection, her work and goals for the library, the organization’s history, and her thoughts on the mystery genre and other literature. Allison, a New Yorker by way of New Orleans, is a graduate of SUNY New Paltz and Queens College and has worked as a librarian for seventeen years. She is also a poet, copywriter, and the associate editor of Newtown Literary. Here is the second half of Jackie’s conversation with her; the first half appeared yesterday at TRACE EVIDENCE, the Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine blog.

Jackie Sherbow: What are your favorite mysteries—specific titles, authors, or subgenres?

Allison Escoto: I recently finished Attica Locke’s Bluebird, Bluebird and was hooked! Any mystery with a strong central character really appeals to me. I do enjoy delving into series with an historical bent and on the cozier side, like the Phryne Fisher series.

Photo by Jackie Sherbow

JS: What are your favorite genres and/or forms of books to read in general?

AE: I enjoy reading so much that it is hard to pin down my favorite genres but I suppose literary fiction, historical fiction, and poetry are what I read most frequently.

JS: Does your work at the library influence your own lifestyle as a reader?

AE: Only in that I get to be surrounded by fellow book lovers, always ready with recommendations. Also, publishers are very kind to librarians and I am always very lucky to get early access to new books. I’m very lucky!

JS: What about your writing career?

AE: The Center for Fiction has amazing programs for writers from workshops to boot camps to author talks. I feel fortunate to have access to these tools. Plus, all the reading I’m doing is having a huge influence on the way I look at writing.

Photo by Jackie Sherbow

JS: How does your work here compare to your work at other libraries?

AE: Working for a small non-profit is always a team effort and in this job, I am learning so much about how all the different departments work. Many of my previous positions were for much larger organizations with a clear delineation of departments and responsibilities. Here, there is almost always overlap and there is a real teamwork atmosphere that gives me insight into how each individual contributes to running the Center as a whole.

JS: What do you wish everyone would know about the Center for Fiction?

AE: That we are a true home for readers and writers!

JS: What do you wish everyone would know about libraries/library services in general?

AE: I feel completely privileged to have worked as a librarian for the last seventeen years, mostly because it has made me understand the wealth of vital services libraries provide to all kinds of organizations and communities. Whether it is public, academic, or a specialized library like the one at the Center for Fiction, libraries often fill a need that few other organizations can.

JS: What would be a “dream” acquisition of yours for the library, if you could pick any edition of any work?

AE: Considering we’ve been around since the 1820s, I would love it if we had some first edition, signed copies from those early decades. A first edition of Ivanhoe or A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass or Frankenstein.

One aisle of the Center’s extensive detective/suspense/mystery fiction collection. Photo by Jackie Sherbow.

JS: How can visitors interact with the collection at the Center’s library?

AE: Our library is available to members of the Center. It is one of the many, many perks to joining as a member!

Photo courtesy of the Center for Fiction’s Instagram account, @center4fiction

JS: What classes or other programs should we keep an eye out for?

AE: We have a great lineup of summer reading groups including N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Series, as well as Identity in Graphic Novels. We are also just about to open enrollment for our Literary Thrillers Reading Group with Crimereads editor Dwyer Murphy, which we are very excited about! Our inaugural season of programming has been wonderful and everyone should sign up for our newsletter for updates and information. Follow us on social media for information on upcoming programs.

Many thanks for joining us, Allison!

You can check out the Center for Fiction on their website, on Instagram and Twitter @center4fiction, on Facebook @thecenterforfiction, or by visiting them at 15 Lafayette Avenue, Brookly, New York. For a look at their upcoming classes and workshops, visit https://www.centerforfiction.org/events/ and https://www.centerforfiction.org/groups-workshops/.

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“The Mystery Writer’s Hidden Weapon” (by John F. Dobbyn)

John F. Dobbyn began his fiction-writing career with stories in verse, published in EQMM. His first prose fiction, published in our Department of First Stories in 1994, introduced Michael Knight and Lex Devlin, now the stars of a series of thriller novels. The series’ sixth book, High Stakes, is due out in October. The first, Neon Dragon, is in production for TV. John’s latest story for EQMM, “Torero,” is in our September/October 2019 issue (on sale now!). It’s a standalone thriller and in this post the author shares some insights about that form of crime fiction. —Janet Hutchings

Early in the course of writing a series of mystery/thriller novels, an idea evolved for harnessing an unwitting coauthor—the reader. This technique, heaven knows not exclusively mine, became one of my favorite tools of the trade—the selective use of silence.

Twenty years ago, I submitted my first mystery novel to the iconic editor of a major publisher. She returned it with the cryptic note, “This manuscript is 20,000 words too long—and I haven’t read a word of it.”

I spent the week-end pulling 20,000 of my favorite words out by the roots. It sold to the next publisher I sent it to.

I learned two things. One was that every word I typed thereafter would either carry its full weight in pushing the plot at ramming speed or suffer a strike of the “delete” key. The second was the positive value of selectively leaving much unsaid—constructive silence.

In terms of the setting, for example, every story I write begins and ends in my beloved Boston. Early on, I had the impulse to paint every street, alley, law office, park, and building in lengthy detail. My editor suggested that for any reader south of South Boston it was a numbing waste of time and eyesight, and for any Bostonian it was superfluous. I began cutting descriptions to the bone. A quick impressionistic sketch with a few prose brush-strokes now does it for settings like Irish or Puerto Rican neighborhoods, Public Garden, ocean drives, and a variety of ethnic bars and restaurants. This invites the reader to fill out the canvas from memory or personal imagination. Wittingly or not, the reader is now personally involved with me in telling the story.

It works for characters too. My main series character, Michael Knight, has been in the heads of my readers as first person narrator through five novels. I have never described Michael’s personal appearance. At most, I’ve suggested that he is six foot-one, about twenty-seven years old, and of half Irish, half Puerto Rican ancestry.

And yet, I’ve been amazed at how Michael’s features have become fleshed out in the imagination of readers. Different readers have told me with a certainty that his appearance is rugged, smooth, rough, delicate, dark, light. His hair is curly, wavy, straight, black, brown, and light. I.e., individual readers have occupied my “silence” and formulated their own personal Michael. They draw on his responses to the situations I place him in, as well as their own personal catalogue of acquaintances, to piece together a visual Michael—probably like unconsciously assembling a Mr. Potato Head. Their visions of Michael tend to be as different from those of each other as they are from my own.

I’ve been asked if Michael is, for me, a more idealized version of myself. I’m don’t know. Maybe. But if so, my silence has also let Michael become the idealized self-vision of every individual reader. The reader gets to live through the hell I frequently inflict on Michael in a very personal way, and always—so far—come out a winner.

The major limitation on the author’s ability to allow the reader this freedom occurs when the author is creating a character whose physical features relate to the plot of the story. The bulbous, outsized features of gourmand/detective, Nero Wolfe, had to be made visually clear to the reader by Rex Stout both to explain the immobility of the character and to provide a clear function for his “legs” in the form of Archie Goodwin.

There were plot reasons why George Chesbro had to provide us with a clear description of his inimitable detecting character, Robert Frederickson, billed by the fictional Statler Brothers Circus as the dwarf, Mongo the Magnificent.

Another unavoidable limitation of the reader’s personal visualization occurs when a novel character is portrayed on the television or motion picture screen by an actor who so completely appropriates the character that no other visual conception is possible. The characters who instantly pop to mind include Perry Mason (Raymond Burr), Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart), Rumpole of the Bailey (Leo McKern), and (Chief) Inspector Clouseau (Peter Sellers).

On the other hand, to draw on the medium of radio, Johnny Dollar, (Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar), could take on whatever physical features were suggested to the individual listener by the words of Jack Johnstone and the voice of Bob Bailey.

The most convenient use of silence for me, however, is in the area of plot. By way of personal preference, when violent things happen in my novels, they are never so explicitly spelled out as to step over a line I’ve drawn for myself. For example, in one scene in the fourth novel, Michael and his then comrade, a former IRA fighter, venture into a section of the city that will be predictably hostile. Michael needs a face-to-face confrontation with one of five thugs in a gang-dominated bar. That meant that four of the thugs had to be “neutralized”.

Rather than giving the reader a blooded description of the broken noses, fractured jaws, and dislocated limbs that would follow, I used “visual silence.” The IRA man has Michael (and the reader) wait outside the bar while he attends to business.

The brawl between the IRA man and four of the thugs occurs in the bar, but rather than painting the mayhem in living red, I merely describe the mixture of sounds—thuds, slams, breaking bottles, cries, and ultimately bodies hitting the floor—the sounds that Michael and the reader are hearing outside. Readers can fill in their own visual depiction of the scene in whatever detail suits their sensibilities.

There is an old saying, Chinese, I think, that I found valuable during my years of teaching at Villanova Law School:

“If you tell me, I’ll learn.

If you show me, I’ll remember.

If you involve me, I’ll understand.”

This method of applied silence can be an effective way of drawing the reader into the process of, in a small way, cowriting the novel as well as reading it. I can’t help but believe that that involvement increases the suspense, tension, understanding, and ultimately enjoyment of the novel.

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“Through a Child’s Eyes, In a Child’s Voice” (by Batya Swift Yasgur)

Batya Swift Yasgur’s first fiction, “Me and Mr. Harry,” appeared in EQMM’s Department of First Stories in Mid-December 1994, and went on to win that year’s Robert L. Fish Memorial Award for best short story by a new American author. Like her most recent tale for EQMM, “Poof” (January/February 2019), the story’s viewpoint character is a young child. It’s only rarely that we find in our submissions stories that ring true when told from this difficult viewpoint. It takes a writer who hasn’t lost touch with the distant world of childhood. In this post, Batya explains some of what moves her to write from a child’s perspective. —Janet Hutchings 

I am haunted by children who suffer. From within the print of newspapers and the screens of news feeds I see their eyes pleading or glaring, averted or staring, blank or tormented, moist with tears or resolutely dry, some oppressed by regimes, others bullied in their schools, others homeless in the streets.

Someone once pointed out to me that many of my short stories are told from the perspective of tormented children, in their words, through their eyes, in present tense—for example, “Me and Mister Harry,” which appeared in EQMM in 1995, “Poof,” which was published in the January/February 2019 issue of EQMM, or “Spearmint,” which was published in Science Fiction Age in the 1990s.

I realize that there have been some formative literary influences that propelled me in the direction of this type of writing.

Two classics that jump to mind are To Kill a Mockingbird—an iconic novel if ever there was one. The novel was told retrospectively—Scout is looking back at the events of her childhood, although effectively evoking the sense of being a child through her use of language and perspective and thereby bringing the reader into a child’s psyche.

Catcher in the Rye—also iconic, of course—was told in even more colloquial “slangy” language, exactly the sort a teenager would use—I guess I would say it was told more from within the mindset of the teenager he was rather than the adult looking back, almost as if you’re reading it in the present tense.

(I only recently realized, based on my clinical experience, that the entire book depicts a manic episode from within, right down to Holden’s hospitalization at the end. Realizing this gave me an entirely new angle on his story. But I digress.)

Flowers for Algernon also had an enormous impact on me, not only in its content but also in its style. The novel, which takes the form of diary entries, cuts between past and present tense as Charlie describes what he is feeling and experiencing now, in the present moment, while writing, but also what happened earlier in the day or yesterday or decades ago. Even his childhood memories cut between present-day style and past tense, in which Charlie is looking back and recounting some incident with his parents or sister.

Although Charlie is not chronologically a child when he writes his journals, the thread of childhood runs through Flowers, with the adult Charlie and the child Charlie simultaneously occupying the space of present and past, as Charlie moves into his glittering, tragic future.

So, as I think about it, there are two features that stand out from these novels: one is present-tense writing—that immediate, intimate, in-the-moment recounting that allows the reader to share the narrator’s experience in real time, while it is happening. The other is the voicing—the child’s voice being that of a child—spelling, diction, grammatical errors, idioms—rather than the voice of the adult retrospectively describing the events.

If I dig further, I realize that even a much older novel, which I read in high school, had moments of present-day writing. I loved David Copperfield, and reread it umpteen times, often seeing my teen crushes and disappointments through the eyes of David (another tormented child). I recall that the entire table of contents was written in the present tense, although this was not uncommon in that era. But in a moment of trauma (at his mother’s funeral), he slips into the present tense:

If the funeral had been yesterday, I could not recollect it better. The very air of the best parlour, when I went in at the door, the bright condition of the fire, the shining of the wine in the decanters, the patterns of the glasses and plates, the faint sweet smell of cake, the odour of Miss Murdstone’s dress, and our black clothes. Mr. Chillip is in the room, and comes to speak to me.

“And how is Master David?” he says, kindly.

I cannot tell him very well. I give him my hand, which he holds in his.

Considering how much I loved that novel, perhaps even small snippets like this might have become embedded in my mind, only to resurface later in my writing.

In the therapeutic and self-help world, the concept of the “inner child” or the “wounded child” has become a cliche. Despite its overuse, the concept is helpful, maybe even profound. Not that we have a little homunculus inside us, a miniature of our baby pictures (or whatever age we were when our traumas took place) but rather that our cells and nervous system retain the imprint, the memory of the trauma and, when evoked, our reactions can be as real and visceral as they would be if the trauma were happening now.

PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder) is a classic example. A soldier returns from war and when he hears a truck backfiring, he become terrified. The present-day noise evokes all the reactions he had hearing guns in the jungle.

Freud thought that free-associating would allow traumas buried in the unconscious to be brought to the surface, expressed, and (perhaps) discharged. More modern approaches are less verbal (and perhaps more optimistic about releasing trauma). Somatic experiencing, for example, is a body-based approach that seeks to release ancient (or recent) traumas that have become lodged and “stuck” in the nervous system.

Childhood trauma can take on a life of its own, reverberating through the adult corridors with echoes that can’t be silenced—at least not without an extensive healing journey. And the echoes can take unexpected forms, shape shifting, morphing into plot, dialogue, image, climax . . . and a story emerges.

That story, perhaps, is itself the healing journey.

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“About a BROI” (by Kevin Mims)

The fiftieth anniversary of the horrific Manson Family murders is this week, on Friday. In the annals of true crime, the case will always loom large. But as Kevin Mims brings out in this post, the murders also had a profound effect on crime fiction, especially following the publication of Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry’s nonfiction book about the case, Helter Skelter.  A widely published essayist and a short-story writer for EQMM and AHMM, Kevin frequently contributes to this site. —Janet Hutchings

Most popular-fiction enthusiasts would probably agree that it was Thomas Harris who triggered the ongoing vogue for novels about serial killers. There were serial killers in fiction long before Harris published The Red Dragon in 1981, but none of them ever became the kind of cultural juggernaut that Hannibal Lecter has become, thanks both to The Red Dragon and to its immediate sequel, The Silence of the Lambs, and with a lot of help from their Hollywood incarnations. But this essay isn’t about Thomas Harris. It is about Shane Stevens, who began working in the serial-killer genre a few years before Harris did. He wrote several crime novels, but his masterpiece is probably By Reason of Insanity, a serial-killer thriller that arrived in bookstores forty years ago, in 1979, two years before The Red Dragon arrived in November of 1981.

By Reason of Insanity (hereinafter abbreviated as BROI) is a far more ambitious novel than The Red Dragon, which is itself a crazily ambitious novel. BROI covers about a 25-year time period, from the late 1940s to the mid 1970s. It has at least a dozen major characters and dozens of minor ones. Stevens’s two main characters, are Thomas Bishop, a deranged serial killer who manages to keep his identity concealed throughout much of his crime spree, and Adam Kenton, an investigative journalist who seeks to uncover the identity of said serial killer. Shane Stevens, as the saying goes, did his homework. The book is not a slapdash attempt to make easy money in the lucrative world of pop fiction. It begins with the execution of real-life San Quentin death-row inmate Caryl Chessman on May 2, 1960. The story then backtracks to give us a long explanation of how Chessman came to be on death row despite never having killed anyone (he was a rapist and a thief). His death sentence scandalized liberals not only throughout America but much of the world. Protests were held at U.S. embassies around the globe. At one point the Eisenhower administration is said to have asked California Governor Pat Brown to temporarily stay the execution so as to ease tensions during a presidential visit to South America. Stevens then takes us even further back, to when Chessman was still a free man, cruising the lovers lanes of southern California and looking for young couples he could rob and whose female members he could rape. One of Stevens’s cleverest conceits is that his villain, Thomas Bishop, is the illegitimate child of Chessman and one of his rape victims. This is one of many points in the book where Stevens demonstrates more interest in the ravages that crime can wreak upon the human psyche than any run-of-the-mill pop-fictioneer would ever likely evince. Stevens is interested not only in the ways that a crime can damage the lives and minds of its direct victims but also the lives and minds of their offspring as well. Sara Bishop, Chessman’s victim and Thomas’s mother, was a damaged woman long before being raped by Chessman. She was a victim of child sexual abuse, acquaintance rape, and domestic violence before she ever crossed paths with “the Red Light Bandit” as Chessman was popularly known (the nickname suggests that his property crimes were a greater outrage to polite society than his crimes against the female body). Stevens does an excellent job of showing how a woman like Sara might be sought out by the likes of Chessman. And why a woman who has been abused all her life might be more inclined to resign herself to one more sexual assault and to not report it to the police afterwards rather than to put up a fight and, when that fails, insist on getting some vindication from the legal system afterwards. Sara manages to convince her boyfriend (who was locked in the trunk of the car during the rape) that Chessman was impotent and failed to consummate his crime. She insists on making love with the boyfriend that very night so that, if she becomes pregnant, she can believably insist that he is the father. She does, indeed, become pregnant, and the boyfriend, Harry Owens, reluctantly marries her. Again, Stevens is good at showing how this marriage and pregnancy, both the fruit of a poisonous tree, are also victims of Chessman’s criminal behavior. The marriage soon falls apart and Sara, left to raise Thomas alone, takes out her anger at the entire male gender on him. When he becomes a man, he’ll repay the favor in spades by taking out his anger on his numerous female victims, all of whom serve as stand-ins for his mother (the first victim of his murderous spree). Before dumping Harry Owens, Sara tries to hurt him by telling him that Caryl Chessman is the true father of their son. Enraged by this, Harry Owens himself soon drifts into a life of crime and is eventually killed in a botched armored-car robbery. Stevens understands that crime and abuse are usually continuums, part of a repeating cycle, rather than random stand-alone events.

It may seem as though I have fatally spoiled the plot for you, but we’re barely past the prologue of this long novel (my mass-market paperback copy has nearly 600 pages of tiny print). It’s a commonplace of serial-killer novels to give the villain some sort of childhood trauma that explains his later conversion to a homicidal maniac. But Stevens doesn’t give Thomas Bishop a cursory backstory. He delves deeply not only into Bishop’s own background but also into the background of all three of his parents (Sara Bishop and the two men who may or may not have fathered her child). Stevens gives even many of his secondary characters moving backstories. Some of Bishop’s initial victims are lonely women of a certain age whose frustrated maternal longings make them susceptible to a man seeking to kill mother substitutes. Others are young women whose genteel upbringings make them entirely too trusting of earnest-seeming young men. Others still are women, like his own mother, so hard-used by life that they are willing to risk selling their bodies to strangers in order to keep a roof over their heads. At times, Stevens even delves into the lives of some of these victims’ surviving family members (one father is so distraught that he hires a mafia hit man to kill Bishop).

Even more impressive than these intimate close-ups is the way Stevens continually zooms out to show how various elements of American society—the press, politicians, government bureaucracies—hypocritically denounce crime and criminals while also symbiotically benefitting from the fear and hysteria they whip up. A state senator in Sacramento uses the public’s fear of Bishop (then believed to be an escaped criminal named Vincent Mungo, whose identity Bishop stole after killing him) to bolster his own anticrime, pro–capital-punishment bona fides. Although he denounces “Mungo” at every opportunity, Senator Stoner also hopes to harness the public’s fear of the serial killer and ride it all the way to Washington, D.C. He panics when he thinks Mungo might actually bring his crime spree to a voluntary close. Various journalistic venues use Mungo to increase their circulation and bump up their Nielsen ratings. A Berkeley professor who fancies himself an expert on the criminal mind hopes to ride the wave of Mungo hysteria to academic superstardom. He makes a few brilliant deductions about Mungo’s true identity, but he withholds them from the police because a premature end to the killing spree might weaken the book he plans to write.

Mungo/Bishop starts out as a purely California phenomenon. Stevens links him directly not only to Chessman but to Charles Manson (about whom, more later). After killing Mungo and taking his identity (warning: massive spoilers ahead) Bishop commits a few more killings in northern California before he heads for southern California and the land of his birth. Believing himself to be the son of Caryl Chessman, Bishop hopes to surpass his father’s criminal activities in La-La Land. He succeeds in short order and then lights out for Las Vegas, where his spree continues, and then on to Texas, to Chicago, and then finally to the American Mecca of New York City, where he hopes to make his name as the greatest American serial killer of all time.

For hundreds of pages Stevens manages to weave together tales of Bishop’s unfortunate and socially insignificant victims with tales of how the killing spree affects larger aspects of American society, from the Mafia to a logging conglomerate in the Pacific Northwest (I kid you not) to the White House. In fact, Richard Nixon eventually takes on a speaking role in the story. Embroiled in the Watergate scandal and desperate to discredit the press, Nixon urges his underlings to blame a hostile publication (Newstime, obviously meant to evoke both Newsweek and Time magazines) for the rise of Mungo/Bishop to folkloric status. Meanwhile, Nixon fears that the press, while researching Mungo/Bishop’s background, will learn of Nixon’s own connection to Chessman (Stevens’s theory is that Nixon was responsible for lobbying Pat Brown for a stay of Chessman’s execution on behalf of the Eisenhower administration; it’s a testament to Stevens’s gifts as a storyteller than I never doubted this theory) and try to embarrass him with it.

As I write this, the New York Times website is featuring a newly posted story about the sensational Central Park Five rape case headlined “How a City in Fear Brutalized the Central Park Five.” The story, about the way a lurid crime can cause an entire city to lose its collective mind, would have come as no surprise to Shane Stevens (who died in 2007). He brilliantly documented the phenomenon way back in 1979, a decade before the famous attack on a Central Park jogger.

One indication that this novel was written in the immediate aftermath of Watergate and the release of the film All The President’s Men is the fact that the hero of the novel isn’t a cop or an FBI man but Adam Kenton, a crusading investigative journalist for Newstime magazine. For a while, in the mid to late 1970s, journalists were actually widely respected as a stay against corrupt government officials. Eventually politicians would fight back and portray the press as “the enemy of the people.”

But though Adam Kenton isn’t an FBI profiler like Will Graham, the hero of Thomas Harris’s The Red Dragon, he possesses many of the same qualities. Wikipedia describes Graham thusly:

an intellectually-gifted and highly-esteemed former FBI profiler, who has an eidetic memory, genius-level intellect, and the ability to empathize with the mindset and mentality of both psychopaths and sociopaths, which adversely affects his own mental psyche.

In BROI, written approximately four years before The Red Dragon, Stevens writes this about Adam Kenton:

Of all the traits that combined in Adam Kenton to make him the best investigative reporter on the biggest newsmagazine staff in the country, traits that had in a brief decade brought him a certain measure of renown and respect . . . perhaps the most important was his ability to adapt himself to the roles of those from whom he sought information. In mannerisms and speech he seemed to blend into their public identities. His sympathetic understanding and acceptance almost invariably prompted a flow of confidences not normally given to reporters . . . This metaphoric quality was coupled with an intense concentration that often enabled him to think like his adversaries. He constantly asked himself the question: What would they do next? Or: Why did they do that? His guess was usually correct. Only it wasn’t ever just a guess but more of an instinctive leap into their minds. This mental bit of magic, grounded in voluminous information and a brilliant imagination, probably more than anything else had led to the name of Superman given him buy his peers, not without a strong touch of envy.

But, like Will Graham, Kenton pays a price for this supernatural gift of empathy. He’s a failure at personal relationships, especially with women. He has put himself into the minds of so many unsavory and unscrupulous people that he fears he has become one of them and is therefore unfit for decent company and loving relationships.

There are also parallels between BROI and Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs. The latter novel features a serial killer (nicknamed Buffalo Bill) whose born name is Jame Gumb (his alcoholic prostitute mother misspelled “James” on the birth certificate). Gumb was born in California on October 25, 1949. Thomas Bishop was born in California on April 30, 1948. Gumb’s first murder victims are the grandparents who raised him and whom he kills on a whim one day while still a child. Bishop’s first murder victim is the mother who raised him and whom he kills on a whim one day while still a child. Gumb murders women and dresses up in female skin suits made from their dead bodies. At one point, Thomas Bishop begins dressing as a female in order to make it easier for him to sneak up on women and murder them. Stupid coincidences abound in both books. Other commenters have noted the silly coincidence of Hannibal Lecter’s parents giving him the only name in the world that rhymes with “cannibal,” thus giving the character a media-ready nickname (“Hannibal the Cannibal”) when he begins eating people. Likewise, Thomas Bishop, who believes he is the son of Caryl Chessman, and who signs some of his murder scenes “Chess Man,” has a last name that is, lo and behold, the name of a chess piece.

This is not to suggest that Harris plagiarized Stevens. The Hannibal Lecter novels bear only superficial resemblances to BROI. As far as I can tell, not a single sentence of Stevens’s book appears in any of Harris’s Hannibal Lecter novels. There’s also no question that Harris is the better writer. But Stevens came so frustratingly close to writing the Great American Serial Killer Novel that I can only imagine he must have been jealous of the acclaim heaped upon The Red Dragon and, later, The Silence of the Lambs. So why didn’t Stevens win the same kind of acclaim? Several reasons come to mind, one of them already stated: he wasn’t as good a writer as Thomas Harris. Which is not to say that he’s an awful writer. Some of the book’s prose could have come straight from a Raymond Chandler novel:

February is a bad month in Los Angeles and gets worse towards the end. On this dark February morning the rain had been falling steadily since midnight. The sky was an angry gray and even the sun had trouble finding the city. In the business areas people stumbled into offices and stores soaked to the skin. Everywhere houses leaked, lawns drowned, and new foundations settled. It was February 22, 1952, the day six men had picked to rob Overland Pacific, the country’s biggest armored-car company, of a million dollars.

The problem with Stevens’s writing is that it is inconsistent. It runs the gamut from dull journalese, to comically lurid pulp, to subtle and surprisingly insightful. At times, he produces weird rhymes that I can only assume are accidental:

He had to be found. Alive or dead, the king of the jungle wanted his head.

The book contains one of my all-time favorite pieces of pulpy prose. Just two sentences long, it’s a masterpiece of Penthouse-style sex writing:

She had a roller-coaster body and he had his ticket right in his pants. He would ride her as long as the park was open.

Amazingly, that observation comes from the point of view of a major secondary character whose storyline I haven’t even mentioned before, a fifty-something criminal and ex-cellmate of Caryl Chessman’s as he contemplates a night of sex with a teenage girl. Which suggests another major problem with the novel. It’s just too damned ambitious. There are way too many secondary and tertiary characters (and whatever comes after tertiary). There are plots and subplots (and whatever comes after subplots). Also the body count is just too high to be believable. Sure, real-life serial killers have run up higher body counts, but Mungo/Bishop kills women with a knife, and he does them one at a time, usually after courting them for a few days. I doubt if Mick Jagger could have lured as many women into his home as Mungo/Bishop is able to lure into his various apartments over a single New York autumn. This becomes even less believable when just about everyone in the city becomes aware that their hometown is being terrorized by a crazed killer who preys on women. Do Mungo/Bishop’s victims never pick up a newspaper or turn on a TV?

Another problem is that Stevens often graphically describes the rape, torture, murder, and dismemberment of Mungo/Bishop’s victims. He does this ad nauseam. Thus he gets to play it both ways. His novel purports to abhor serial killers and the mistreatment of women but he also indulges the appetites of any readers who may get off on that kind of stuff.

Stevens’s story also has plot holes that beggar belief. For instance Vincent Mungo and Thomas Bishop meet in an asylum for the criminally insane where they are both serving time. And yet, unbelievably, neither of them has ever been fingerprinted. I realize that law-enforcement authorities back then didn’t have the kind of DNA-detecting equipment available to the authorities today, but certainly two murderers would have been fingerprinted at some point in their lives!

While still in the asylum Bishop plans to talk Mungo into joining him in his escape plan and then killing him after they get out and destroying the dead man’s face and putting his own watch and ring on the body so that the police will think the dead man is Bishop. But because Bishop has a distinctive scar on his shoulder it is important that, months before the escape attempt, he inflict the same kind of damage to Mungo’s shoulder, so that the shoulder will have scarred over in a similar fashion by the time they find Mungo’s body. Bishop somehow manages to talk Mungo into letting him cut his shoulder, feeding him some story about how it will make them blood brothers. Nothing about this rang true.

Stevens’s biggest mistake, in my opinion, is that he devotes so much of the novel to the attempts by various people and law enforcement agencies to ferret out the real identity of the killer who the press is calling Vincent Mungo. Because the reader knows from the start that Mungo is actually Bishop, it becomes tiresome to have so many characters constantly coming to the conclusion that Mungo can’t be the real killer. Several of these people have no difficulty entertaining the notion that Thomas Bishop, the convict who escaped the asylum with Mungo, is the real killer and that Mungo is the disfigured dead man who has been identified as Bishop. But then some inconvenient fact (the shoulder scar, for instance) will come along to derail them from this line of thinking. Several of them will return to this hypothesis again and again, only to reject it again and again, and it becomes tedious in the extreme. When at long last everyone finally accepts the fact that Mungo is actually Bishop, my feeling wasn’t exhilaration or excitement but merely relief that this most repetitious of plot threads had finally been concluded.

There is actually much to admire in BROI, and Stevens has at least one high-profile admirer. In an afterward to his novel The Dark Half, Stephen King acknowledges his debt to Stevens. He mentions three of Stevens’s novels—Rat Pack, The Anvil Chorus, and BROI—and says: “These works, where the so-called ‘criminal mind’ and a condition of irredeemable psychosis interweave to create their own closed system of perfect evil, are three of the finest novels ever written about the dark side of the American dream. They are, in their own way, as striking as Frank Norris’s McTeague or Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie. I recommend them unreservedly . . . but only readers with strong stomachs and stronger nerves need apply.”

In a March 24, 1991, overview of the hyper-violent horror subgenre known as “splatterpunk,” book critic Ken Tucker reserved his praise for only two authors:

But so far, only two writers have made literature out of this theme, neither of them splatterpunks. Thomas Harris spends as much time digging into the thoughts of horror’s victims as those of its perpetrators; in “The Silence of the Lambs,” Mr. Harris created a far more intricate hero in the Federal Bureau of Investigation agent Clarice Starling than the conventions of splatterpunk have yet generated. Less well-known is Shane Stevens, whose extraordinary 1979 novel, “By Reason of Insanity,” is a modulated, finely written tale that gets farther inside the mind of a serial killer than most of us may want to go. Both of these writers allow for something the splatterpunks do not: the portrayal of recognizable human beings—neither gonzo kill-freaks nor relentless revenge-robots—whose fear and vulnerability are rendered with sympathy, not contempt.

Unfortunately for Stevens, the praise from King and Tucker came more than ten years after the publication of BROI. At the time of its release, Kirkus Reviews called Stevens’s novel “an interminable kill-a-thon” and opined that it was “Bloody, vicious pulp–unredeemed by a few vivid scenes and some debates on capital punishment and journalism ethics, amateurishly plotted (gross coincidence abounding), and padded out to numbing, sickening length.”

I hate to be one of those journalists who splits the difference in every debate, believing that the truth always lies somewhere in the middle of two extremes, but in this case I think that’s a fair assessment. BROI has many virtues, but the equal of McTeague or Sister Carrie it is not. Yet I also think the Kirkus review is grossly unfair. It’s the kind of review you give to a derivative novel that appears to have been hacked out quickly in order to earn an easy buck. Say what you will about BROI, I don’t think any fair reader could come away from it believing that Stevens was after a quick paycheck. It is a long novel with dozens and dozens of characters, many of whom have complicated backstories, a canvas that stretches from Sacramento to Miami, a timeline that stretches from the Truman era to the Watergate era. To me it feels like a real passion project. Had it been as polished as The Red Dragon, it might have gotten a little more love from the press and a lot more love from the reading public. As it is, it’s a cult novel. These days, it’s available electronically but otherwise out of print. Despite that, it has eighty reader reviews at Amazon.com, eighty-five percent of which carry either five- or four-star ratings. Most of those reviewers seem to share Stephen King’s opinion of the book. At least one reader has compared it favorably with Crime and Punishment. Others call it among the scariest books they’ve ever read (easy to believe).

In the end, though, it wasn’t Shane Stevens or even Thomas Harris who initiated the golden age of the serial-killer thriller. I believe that honor belongs to a couple of men named Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry and a nonfiction book they collaborated on called Helter Skelter. The book, which recounts the Manson Family’s murders, the investigation into those murders, and the arrest and prosecution of the culprits, was published forty-five years ago, in 1974, and to this day it remains the best-selling true crime book of all time, outselling such masterpieces as In Cold Blood, The Onion Field, The Executioner’s Song, and Devil in the White City. The book won an Edgar Award in 1975. It has inspired several TV films. It has been updated and reprinted in a variety of new editions. Bugliosi was the prosecutor at Charles Manson’s trial and had access to all variety of materials that aren’t available to the average true-crime book writer. Bugliosi and Gentry, though not in the same league as Truman Capote and Norman Mailer, were nonetheless talented writers who knew how to tell a true story well. Helter Skelter had a galvanizing effect on writers of gritty crime fictions. No longer would it be enough for crime writers to employ nothing but their imaginations in the creation of gripping crime novels. Since the publication of Helter Skelter it has become commonplace for crime writers to join police officers in ride-alongs, to do research into forensics and DNA sequencing and blood-splatter patterns. Look at the acknowledgements of a gritty crime novel these days and you are likely to find the author thanking any number of law-enforcement experts. Bugliosi and Gentry made that happen. It’s probably no coincidence that my paperback edition of BROI carries a blurb from Curt Gentry on the back cover (“This is Shane Stevens’ masterpiece . . . the most suspenseful novel in years.”). Whether they acknowledged it or not, most of the authors writing serial-killer thrillers in the late 1970s and early 80s were in competition with Bugliosi and Gentry. They were trying to write fiction that was as gripping and authentic-seeming as Helter Skelter. They were unconsciously seeking the approval of Bugliosi and Gentry. And Stevens, at least, got it.

That the serial-killer novel trend was in full flower well before The Red Dragon came along is acknowledged in the opening line of Kirkus Reviews’ assessment of that novel:

It seems as if two out of every three suspense novels in recent years have featured psychopathic mass murderers—but Harris’ contribution to the genre stands well above the pulpy crowd.

The Manson Family’s Tate-LaBianca murders occurred on August 9, 1969 and you will probably be reading and hearing a lot about them this summer, as the fiftieth anniversary of the event approaches. One of this summer’s biggest box-office attractions is expected to be Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Scheduled for release in July, it’s a film in which Charles Manson and the Tate-LaBianca murders figure prominently in the plot (Margot Robbie plays murdered actress Sharon Tate).

In 1973, a year before Helter Skelter was published, best-selling crime writer Lawrence Sanders published The First Deadly Sin, a serial-killer novel that sold well (a selection of the Book of the Month Club, and a first printing of 100,000 hardback copies) and was made into a film starring Frank Sinatra and Faye Dunaway (curiously, Sharon Tate’s widower Roman Polanski was scheduled to direct the film before he opted to flee the country to avoid a jail sentence for raping a minor). I remember reading my mother’s copy at the time (I was fifteen years old) and thinking it was brilliant. But re-reading it recently was a disappointing experience. The book still has its virtues, but it’s a crime fiction that appears to have been inspired mostly by Hollywood crime films. It worked well for its time, but after Helter Skelter came out, readers began expecting more gritty realism for their serial-killer dollar. Indeed, the above-mentioned Kirkus review of The Red Dragon singles out Sanders’s bestseller as the kind of pre-Helter Skelter psycho-killer novel that just wouldn’t work any more:

Unlike Lawrence Sanders et al., Harris (Black Sunday) isn’t in the vulgar titillation business; his territory is evil, not just violence . . .

Bugliosi and Gentry taught America that some crimes are committed not in the heat of passion or for monetary gain but simply out of pure unadulterated evil. What made these crimes interesting wasn’t the motivations so much as the forensic work and psychological profiling necessary to solve them. Judging from the publication date of his book, I’d say the Shane Stevens must have begun work on BROI sometime around the publication of Helter Skelter. I don’t think a book as big and complex as his could have been written and brought into print in any less than three or four years. I have no proof that Stevens read or was influenced by Helter Skelter, but judging by BROI’s ambitious scope and the fact that Stevens (or someone acting in his behalf) must have sought out a blurb from Curty Gentry, I feel confident that he was trying to do in fiction what Gentry and Bugliosi had done in the realm of true crime. He came awful damn close to being the guy who wrote a fictional serial-killer novel that was every bit as gripping and terrifying and authentic-seeming as Helter Skelter. In the end, though, it was Thomas Harris who achieved that honor. But if you’re at all interested in the popular fiction of the 1970s (and I’m a fiend for it), serial-killer novels, or just compelling crime fiction in general, you ought to seek out a copy of By Reason of Insanity. For all its messiness and inconsistency (in fact, maybe even because of these things), it’s still a fascinating read.

Posted in Books, Characters, Genre, Guest, History, Novels, Politics, Pop Culture, Real Crime | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Stories from the Courthouse Where I Work” (by Kevin Egan)

Kevin Egan is the author of eight novels, including the legal thriller Midnight, a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2013. A number of his novels and short stories are set in the legal world, for he worked for many years as a law clerk in the New York County Courthouse—the setting he takes us to in this post. The author makes his EQMM debut in our September/October 2019 issue (on sale next month) with the story “The Visit,” and we have another stunning tale from him coming up shortly after that. Stay tuned!  —Janet Hutchings

The New York County Courthouse, my workplace for almost 30 years, has been a source of inspiration for much of my fiction writing. The building fascinates me. Its odd architecture of a hexagon surrounding a circle creates hidden spaces where mysterious events may occur. Its stratified culture, from judges to janitors, provides an array of characters with an endless variety of motivations. The courthouse was completed in 1927, but the court it houses—the institution, that is—dates back to 1691. Today, it draws approximately 5,000 people to its doors daily. Most are lawyers and litigants and citizens summoned for jury duty. Many are tourists who pose for photos and production companies that film scenes with the impressive courthouse portico as a backdrop. A dozen or more trials may be in session, from multi-million dollar commercial disputes, to serious personal injury claims, to bitter divorces. Of the many judges who have presided in the courthouse, the most famous was Joseph Crater, who walked out of his chambers on August 6, 1930, and into history as “the most missingest man in New York.” In short, the courthouse brims with story ideas, and I have had the good fortune to publish three novels and more than a dozen short stories set in the courthouse orbit. But what inspires a mystery writer may differ from what can inspire the casual visitor. Three such inspirational stories are memorialized at the courthouse.


The first is a bronze plaque that commemorates the 250th anniversary of the John Peter Zenger trial. The trial, in 1735, was a case of seditious libel brought by the colonial government against a newspaper for publishing articles critical of the governor. Zenger was neither an editor nor a writer. He was the newspaper’s printer, and since there were very few printers in the colonies at the time, jailing the printer effectively shut down the newspaper. The case went to trial, and unlike today’s settled law, the truth of an allegedly libelous statement was not a defense. Still, Zenger’s lawyer asked the jury to consider the truth of the articles printed in the newspaper, and the jury, despite the judge’s instructions that the truth was irrelevant, found Zenger not guilty. The case did not explicitly establish freedom of the press in the colonies, but it pointed directly to the rights and freedoms established in the U.S. Constitution.

The second is a marble bust of Thomas Emmet, an Irish barrister who was arrested and jailed for treason and conspiracy for helping to organize a failed uprising against British forces in Ireland. After several years in prison, Emmet was released on condition that he accept permanent exile in France. He stayed in France for awhile, but after the execution of his brother, Robert, for attempting a second uprising, he emigrated to the United States. He applied for admission to the New York bar, but the Federalists then in power denied the application on the ground that he was an alien subversive. Two years and a court case later, Emmet finally was admitted to the bar. He served as the state Attorney General and then, in private practice, became one of the leading lawyers in New York, arguing several cases before the United States Supreme Court. He died in 1827, after being stricken by a seizure while arguing a case in the United States Circuit Court of Appeals. The bust was commissioned by Emmet’s colleagues and was created by Ottaviano Giovannozzi, a Florentine sculptor who worked off drawings of Emmet. It was first installed in a wing of City Hall that served as the New York County Courthouse in 1828, then traveled as the court itself traveled from courthouse to courthouse. In 2014, the bust was rededicated and placed in the courthouse rotunda. Remarkably, the law firm that Thomas Emmet founded in 1805 is still in existence.

The third is a bas relief panel honoring Rebecca Salome Foster. Ms. Foster was a wealthy woman with a missionary’s zeal. Her ministry focused on the Tombs Prison, where inmates, both male and female, were housed in squalid conditions. In an era that predated probation officers and parole boards, she counseled the inmates, offered financial assistance to their families, and helped the inmates find work after their release. Known as the “Tombs Angel,” she earned the trust of the judges and the cooperation of the District Attorney’s Office. She essentially functioned as a one-woman social-services agency until her death in the Park Avenue Hotel fire in 1902.

The original Tombs Angel memorial consisted of a medallion likeness of Ms. Foster and a bas relief marble panel of an angel comforting a young man in distress, both set in an elaborate bronze frame. The sculptor was Karl Bitter, who achieved early fame by winning a competition for the design of the bronze doors at Trinity Church. The memorial stood in the lobby of the old Criminal Courts Building (a contemporary of the original Tombs Prison) from 1904 until the building’s demolition in 1940, when it was placed in storage and largely forgotten. When it was rediscovered many years later, the medallion and the frame were gone, and the relief panel was badly damaged. The panel was restored and now stands in the courthouse lobby.

A plaque commemorating a trial verdict that became a cornerstone of the First Amendment, a bust of a deported immigrant who became the pre-eminent lawyer of his era, and a relief panel rendering a wealthy woman with a social conscience. Just parts of the scenery for people who pass quickly through the New York County Courthouse with other things on their minds. But each represents a story worth hearing and worth remembering.

Posted in Courtroom Mysteries, Guest, History, Setting, Story | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments