“My Mount Rushmore, Hammett, Black Mask” (by Dave Zeltserman)

Dave Zeltserman is the award-winning author of over twenty crime, horror, and thriller novels, several named by the Washington Post, NPR, American Library Association;, or Booklist as best books of the year. His novel Small Crimes was made into a Netflix original film. Small Crimes belongs to a genre EQMM readers may not readily associate the name Zeltserman with—hardboiled crime fiction. For a number of years the Massachusetts author has been writing a series of classical whodunits for EQMM, inspired by Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe novels. I am referring, of course, to the Julius Katz and Archie series, which has won both Shamus and EQMM Readers Awards. Dave began his fiction-writing career on the hardboiled end of the mystery spectrum, however, and in this post he talks about the key writers who inspired him. His new book, Everybody Lies in Hell, is due out October 1.—Janet Hutchings

Positions two, three, and four on my personal Mount Rushmore of crime fiction writers would be occupied by Rex Stout, Donald Westlake, and Jim Thompson. I doubt it would surprise many EQMM readers following my Julius Katz mystery stories to learn that I’ve spent many enjoyable hours in the company of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. Whenever I pick up a Nero Wolfe book, I marvel at the cleverness and sly humor in Stout’s writing. Next up would be Donald Westlake, who in my opinion is the greatest crime fiction writer of the last fifty years. His prose is simply pitch-perfect. There never seems to an unnecessary word, and every word he uses just seems to be the right ones. His Dortmunder books are a lot of fun, his Parker books written as Richard Stark are among my favorite crime novels, as is his brilliant and mesmerizing novel The Ax. Jim Thompson would take the final position. His novels and short stories have had a profound effect on me as both a reader and writer. I didn’t know what to expect when I picked up my first Thompson novel, Hell of a Woman, and it turned out to be both an unnerving and exhilarating experience. Thompson suckered me into believing that his protagonist Frank “Dolly” Dillon was just a hard luck guy instead of what he turned out to ultimately be. Thompson opened my eyes to how a writer can break every rule as long as he or she can figure out how to make it work. His amusing Mitch Allison conman stories inspired my first EQMM story, Money Run, and his psycho noir novels had a strong influence on my first novel Fast Lane and a few reviewers claimed also on my third novel Small Crimes.

Stout, Westlake, Thompson, all great writers, but first and foremost on my personal Mount Rushmore would be Dashiell Hammett. No writer has had more of an impact on the crime fiction genre than Hammett. It can be argued that each of his five novels created a distinct crime fiction subgenre: with The Maltese Falcon, the search for the rare object, The Glass Key, the political crime novel, The Dain Curse, the supernatural crime novel, The Thin Man, bordering on screwball, the sophisticated married couple investigating a murder, and Red Harvest, a man riding into a corrupt town and cleaning it up. The Maltese Falcon had three film adaptations, a radio series, and it inspired a number of spoofs, including Black Bird and Beat the Devil (which also starred Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre). There were six Thin Man movies starring William Powell and Myrna Loy and a television series starring Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk. There was a film adaptation of The Glass Key and a surprisingly faithful three-part TV miniseries of the The Dain Curse given that the nameless op was replaced by a private eye named Hamilton Nash played by James Coburn, who is almost the exact opposite physically of how the op was written. While there might not have been an adaptation of Red Harvest, the novel, which made Time magazine’s all-time best one hundred English-language novels, inspired a number of films, including Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and the Coen brothers’ Miller’s Crossing.

As important as Hammett’s novels are to the genre, his twenty-eight Continental Op stories (all but two of which he wrote for Black Mask) might be his most important contribution. The nameless private eye who narrates these stories, as well as Red Harvest and The Dain Curse, is a short, stocky, and not particularly handsome man. Women sometimes show interest in him, but more times than not it’s because they have an agenda; not that the op is ever fooled by this. He’s nobody’s sucker! Smart, resourceful, tough, cynical, and as dogged as they come, he can’t be bribed because, as he explains in one of the stories, no amount of money is worth the satisfaction he gets from his job.

Hammett spent five years as a Pinkerton detective, and his experiences informed his writing, with the Continental Detective Agency a stand-in for Pinkerton and the op based on detectives he knew. Here’s Hammett on his nameless detective: “The ‘op’ I use is the typical sort of private detective that exists in our country today. I’ve worked with half a dozen men who might be he with few changes. Though he may be ‘different’ in fiction, he is almost pure ‘type’ in life.”

In The Dain Curse, the op saves his client, Gabrelle Leggett, several times. Hammett clues the reader in on the true nature of the op during this exchange near the end of the book between Gabrielle and the op:

“You came in just now, and then I saw—”

She stopped.


“A monster. A nice one, an especially nice one to have around when you’re in trouble, but a monster just the same, without any human foolishness like love in him, and—What’s the matter? Have I said something I shouldn’t?”

The Continental Op stories are such a joy to read not only because of the authenticity that Hammett brought to his writing, but because the op (in my opinion) has the best voice of any P.I ever written and that nobody was better at plotting these types of stories than Hammett. Each of them is a tightly written masterpiece.

Raymond Chandler sums up perfectly what makes Hammett so great: “Hammett was spare, hard-boiled, but he did over and over what only the best writers can ever do. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.”

Along with Hammett, Black Mask published other crime fiction greats, including Raymond Chandler, Erle Stanley Gardner, Raoul Whitfield, and Paul Cain. Brother’s Keeper, my eighteenth story published in EQMM, was published as a Black Mask story. I don’t take getting published by EQMM lightly. It’s the premiere crime fiction magazine with a storied past which, like Black Mask, has published more than its share of great crime and mystery writers. But because of Black Mask’s connection with Hammett and the op this story means something a little more special to me.

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“The True Story Behind The Writing of ‘The Duelist'” (by David Dean)

Over the nearly thirty years in which David Dean has been contributing stories to EQMM, he’s proved popular with the magazine’s readers. In 2007 he took first place for the EQMM Readers Award with “Ibrahim’s Eyes”; in 2012 he came in second for “Mariel”; and in 2018 he placed third for his haunting tale “Sofee”— which is also our most recent podcast episode. Through all of the years of excellent contributions from David, however, we’ve never before seen a reaction from readers as enthusiastic as that we are seeing now for his story “The Duelist,” in our current issue, May/June 2018. In view of the warm reception the story is getting, we thought readers would be interested in knowing how David came to write it.—Janet Hutchings

This past April my wife, Robin, “She Who Walks in Beauty,” and I were fortunate enough to attend the Dell Magazine Readers Award party. I’ve been a regular at this gathering for some years, but each and every time I arrive, I get a thrill looking around the crowded room and seeing all those writers whose stories I enjoy so much. I write too, but I don’t get the same kind of feeling about myself when I look in the mirror. I usually just think, “You look like you need some sleep.” Maybe it’s the thought of my own writing that does that.

So you can imagine my surprise at this year’s fete when I was approached by several authors that I admire wanting to talk about my tale “The Duelist.” Instead of warning me that I would be hearing from their attorneys over some minor plagiarism infringement (I’m so tired of that), it soon became apparent that they wanted to know what had driven me to write the story. I was terribly flattered and really wanted to launch into some scholarly dissertation on the crafting of a tale set in a different era, and how in doing so one must be aware of the mores, morals, and . . . blah, blah, blah. The truth was I really didn’t have an answer.

I think I said something like, “Umm . . . I’d been thinking about dueling (which is bizarre on the face of it and probably made people uncomfortable) and . . . umm . . . so thought I’d write about it . . . and then I did . . . write . . . about it.”

It may have been the excellent Dave Zeltserman who suffered through this explanation. As he walked away I pictured a thought balloon over his head reading, “Enough monkeys . . . enough typewriters. . . .”

I think I inflicted something similar on the talented Doug Allyn and his delightful wife, Eve. She forgave me, however, because she really liked the story and was also very excited that I had given the protagonist the surname LeClair, which is her family name.

Before the evening was over, I felt confident that no one knew why, or how, I had written “The Duelist” and were convinced that I didn’t, either. So when Janet Hutchings reached out to me to write something about this very same story, I thought, “Providence has intervened with a chance at redemption!”

I’d also had a lot of time to think up stuff.

In all truthfulness, I seldom give much thought as to why I write a particular story. I’m not out to accomplish anything other than entertaining the reader, which can be a tall order in of itself. I have no ideological subtext to sell beyond what I bring to the writing as the inevitable result of just being me, a composite of my own experiences. Which is true of all writers, I suspect, as well as artists, actors, cops, and plumbers. We can’t get away from ourselves. But I do try, which is why I write fiction and not autobiographies. Still.

“The Duelist” is what’s called historical fiction, and yes, I do get the irony. I haven’t written but a few, and I only wrote those because the stories would not have worked set in modern times. In fact, one of them, “Her Terrible Beauty,” also had a duel scene, but the plot was not built around it, and it was a knife fight—ugly affairs—not the classic back-to-back with pistols. Question: “Who’s the winner of a knife fight?” Answer: “The second man to die.” That’s my only knife fight joke. It may be the only one there is.

So also did “The Duelist” demand a historical context both because of its plot and its characters. But it was also because of the language. In many ways, the story is much more about language—what is being said, and how, as well as what is not said but lies beneath—than it is about the violence that serves to frame the story and provide its impetus.

Language was taken seriously in the 1840s when my tale is set. If you’ve read much in the way of speeches, stories, newspaper articles, etc., of early America, you probably know what I mean. It could be downright florid (think Poe at his most overwrought). It was not used simply to convey information or requests, but as a means of identifying oneself as a certain kind of person, whether you were that kind of person might be debatable.

Words used unwisely or intemperately could also get one killed. So too could being misunderstood. In a world where lawsuits and law enforcement were not quite so common a remedy to disputes, good manners could save your life. Unlike today, where it often seems we communicate in halting, broken sentences, and incomplete thoughts, eloquence was considered a distinct asset in the not-so-distant past.

My protagonist, Darius LeClair, is well aware of this and uses his talent for it like a rapier, never skewering his opponent but pricking him over and over. But to what purpose? If you haven’t read it, then I don’t want to spoil it for you. Suffice it to say that Darius is an onion-like character comprised of many layers, and therein lies the tale.

What I can state is that the story is one about deception and truth, vengeance and justice, bravery and cowardice, love and loss. But it’s mostly about bullying, and that’s why I wrote it, though I didn’t think of it at the time. It was only later that I recognized my motivation.

Most of us have experienced being bullied or made afraid by someone at some time in our lives. I am no exception. In fact, looking back on my life I suspect that it had something to do with me choosing to be a police officer for twenty-five years. I wanted to protect people. Well, that, and I didn’t want to end up in the slammer like Uncle Jimmy. I don’t like bullies. My guess is that you don’t either.

Growing up in a very blue-collar neighborhood (we didn’t use the term “working-class” in the 1950s and 60s—that was commie talk) I got into a lot of fights. Not because I wanted to, but because I couldn’t seem to get away from them. We had evolved beyond armed duels at this point, but not by much. Everybody fought—at least if you were a boy or man. It seemed we only resorted to verbal communication when all other means had been exhausted.

I was a small kid and a bit on the sensitive side. Okay, a lot on the sensitive side, and I liked to read. Guess what these characteristics got me? Yep, you guessed it. Sometimes I won, and a lot of times I didn’t, and I hated every fight I was in, and I was in a lot of them.

Like most kids, I could be quite ruthless when provoked or wronged, and I was not above the art of the ambush. If I had been bullied or beaten up by a bigger, older kid, which was more frequent than I liked, I got revenge . . . or was it justice? To children, they’re one and the same. It becomes more problematic as we mature, however, as our consciences develop, and we become more empathetic with our fellow humans. What remains, however, is our desire to have wrongs righted.

Maybe that’s why I wrote this story and why Darius was created. I got to even the score of long-ago wrongs . . . and then some. Perhaps that’s why “The Duelist” seems to have struck such a deep chord with readers as well—we all want a champion, we all wish to live without fear, and we all love someone. And aren’t those things worth a fight? I think so, I really do.

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“Through a Title, Darkly” (by Mark Stevens)

Mark Stevens is a former reporter and TV news producer who also spent many years in school public relations before starting his own communications firm. He’s the author of the Allison Coil mystery novels, set in the Colorado Rockies, and was named the 2016 Writer of the Year by the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. His Allison Coil series is now five novels strong, but he has so far written very little short fiction. His first short story for EQMM, “A Bitter Thing,” appears in our current issue, May/June 2019. In this post, the author reflects on a title we’ve all seen used to convey suspense.—Janet Hutchings

Head to that big online store and type in Through A Glass, Darkly.

Go ahead, I’ll wait here.

[Drums fingers . . . rearranges sock drawer . . . ]

See what I mean?

That is one popular title, applied to a wide variety of stories:

Through A Glass, Darkly by Thomas H. Meville: “. . . an Iowa farmer who returned from the Korean War to discover that farming no longer held much allure.”

Through A Glass, Darkly by Gilbert Morris: “Recovering from amnesia caused by severe trauma, a man searches for his identity by connecting with the mysterious people who surround him including a woman who triggers in him intense feelings of electricity.”

(Electricity . . . ? That’s a novel I must read.)

The phrase is old.

Really old.

In the Bible (King James Version), The Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”

Centuries earlier, the philosopher Plato told the last days of Socrates in Phaedo. In Plato’s version, Socrates talks about the dark realities that lie behind all that we see. He said we see true realities, “through a glass darkly.”

There’s some confusion about the literal translation from the Greek in both Plato’s version and the King James Version, but I’m steering clear of all the religious meanings, except to clarify that “glass” in this case means mirror.

I would also point out that there is ample online discussion on the importance and implications of a comma placed (or omitted) after the word “glass.”

I am lumping all titles together as one—comma variations and non-comma variations.

Again, all you Bible experts, help yourself with the religious gleanings. The theme is what’s unknowable—the mystery of faith and one’s self.  Um, maybe? The original full quote, like lots of the Bible to me, isn’t all that clear.

Mystery Writer Helen McCloy published a short story called “Through A Glass Darkly” in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in 1948. She later expanded it into a 1950 novel by the same name. (For a comparison of the two versions, head to the Bloody Murder website.)

Through A Glass, Darkly by Helen McCloy: “Gisela von Hohenems joins the teaching staff of an exclusive girls’ school in upstate New York, where she befriends fellow newcomer Faustina Coyle. But a climate of fear surrounds Faustina, and after several strange incidents that defy rational explanation, she is forced to resign.”

Faustina keeps thinking that people are encountering her doppelgänger.

In the novel, she describes this as:

You enter a room, a street, a country road. You see a figure ahead of you, solid, three-dimensional, brightly coloured. Moving and obeying all the laws of optics. Its clothing and posture is vaguely familiar. You hurry toward the figure for a closer view. It turns its head and—you are looking at yourself. Or rather a perfect mirror-image of yourself only—there is no mirror. So, you know it is your double. And that frightens you, for tradition tells you that he who sees his own double is about to die . . .

Mrs. Lightfoot, the headmistress who forces Faustina to resign, has her own theories:

I was born without faith in religion and I have lost my faith in science. I don’t understand the theories of Messrs Planck and Einstein. But I grasp enough to realize that the world of matter may be a world of appearances—not a world of reality. Everything we see and hear and touch may be as tricky an illusion as the reflection in a mirror or the mirage in a desert.

More mirrors, more reflections, more references about faith . . .

In 1959, the story was adapted into a teleplay as part of the Saturday Playhouse series.

Ingmar Bergman used the title “Through a Glass, Darkly” for a 1961 noir film involving schizophrenia and hearing the voice of God (there we go again). “The film tells the story of a young woman with schizophrenia spending time with her family on a remote island, and having delusions about meeting God, who appears to her in the form of a monstrous spider.” (That’s from Wikipedia.)

The Swedish title’s direction translation is “As In A Mirror.”

Prior to McCloy’s works, Agatha Christie used the variation In A Glass Darkly in a short story: “A man witnesses a murder of a young girl reflected in a bedroom mirror. Unsure whether it was real, he battles with himself about speaking out about this horrific crime. Will he be taken for a fool or save a life?”

Even General George S. Patton, Jr. got in on the act, writing a famous poem with the same title (I’ve seen it both with and without that key comma):

The key stanza:

So as through a glass and darkly
The age long strife I see
Where I fought in many guises,
Many names – but always me.

Patton’s long poem is about reincarnation. (To which I say, “good luck with that.”) Does Patton’s insertion of the word ‘and’ change the meaning? You be the judge.

Despite the earlier references, it seems fair to say it was Helen McCloy’s version that kick-started the trend.

Whether it was the Apostle Paul, Plato, or Helen McCloy herself, the whole through a glass, darkly phrase taps a dark theme about mirror images of oneself and the vast endless questions about all we don’t know about worlds we can’t see and the human behaviors we observe.

It’s tailor-made for crime fiction.

But one thing is for sure.

You never want to run into your doppelgänger—right?

Doing so is a harbinger of doom—right?

Then why is there a website that helps you find yours?

Yes, Twin Strangers.

The system uses facial recognition software.

So, go ahead, upload a photo.

See what pops up.

You might soon be looking through a glass (comma or not) darkly.

Note: Thanks to my mystery writer friend Z.J. Czupor for inspiring this topic. Z.J. presents regularly at chapter meetings of Rocky Mountain Mystery Writers, offering a “Mystery Minute,” exploration into crime-fiction history. In May, Z.J. focused on this title and on Helen McCloy, who also wrote as Helen Clarkson.

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“Herman Wouk and the Men Who Wrote the Seventies” (by Kevin Mims)

An award-nominated fiction writer and short-story contributor to EQMM, Kevin Mims is also well-known as an essayist. He has contributed several previous posts to this site, and today he offers some reflections in homage to Herman Wouk and the decade he helped to define. Herman Wouk died last week, on May 17th. —Janet Hutchings

Herman Wouk, who died on May 17, wasn’t a writer of crime or mystery novels, but his 1951 novel The Caine Mutiny was probably the greatest American legal thriller of the twentieth century, and so he deserves some mention here. The Caine Mutiny kicked off a vogue for serious, literary courtroom dramas and helped pave the way for such later titles as James Gould Cozzens’s By Love Possessed, Robert Traver’s Anatomy of a Murder, Meyer Levin’s Compulsion, and even Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, all of which were published in the decade following the appearance of The Caine Mutiny. Even the current best-selling novel in America, Delia Owens’s Where The Crawdads Sing, the climax of which includes a murder trial, is an heir of sorts to The Caine Mutiny—a serious literary novel enlivened by a thrilling courtroom drama.

As a writer, Wouk was many things, and it may take years for his measure to be properly taken. He was a bridge between the so-called “literary” fiction of a slightly earlier generation, a generation that included Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Steinbeck, and the more reader-friendly authors who would come to dominate the bestseller lists of the sixties and seventies, writers such as James Clavell, James Michener, Leon Uris, Arthur Hailey, and Irving Wallace. Wouk (like Michener) won a Pulitzer Prize early in his career but seemed to lose the love of the serious literary set as his work became increasingly popular. Wouk was a Jew, a first-generation American, a sailor, a World War II veteran, a member of the so-called Greatest Generation, a comic writer, a dramatic writer, a Pulitzer-winner, and an author of popular bestsellers. It is that last designation that we are concerned with here. He had a long and distinguished career, but the 1970s was almost certainly his most triumphant decade. It was the decade in which he produced probably his best work, a two-volume historical saga in which World War II is viewed through the eyes of a single American family, the Henrys. The first volume in the Henry family saga, TheWinds of War, was the seventh best-selling novel of 1971 and the sixth best-selling novel of 1972. Its follow-up, War and Remembrance, was the second bestselling novel of 1978. Herman Wouk was probably the greatest of a group of writers whom I like to refer to as The Men Who Wrote the Seventies, and his passing is as good an excuse as any for reviewing what made the bestseller lists of that era so special.

The decade of the 1970s was the Golden Age of popular fiction in America. If you doubt me, you have only to take a look at a list of the best-selling books of the era. It includes a far more diverse group of writers and settings than you would find on the bestseller lists of the last quarter century. In fact, since about 1980, popular fiction in America has been written by fewer and fewer writers, has included fewer non-American authors, and has featured fewer tales set in real countries outside of America.

Only once, during the thirty years that comprised the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, did one author manage to land two titles on Publishers Weekly’s annual list of the ten best-selling novels of the year. It happened in 1972 when Frederick Forsyth’s The Odessa File and The Day of Jackal were the third and fourth best-selling novels of the year, respectively. During the 1970s, the year-end lists of best-selling novels displayed a wide array of novelists, and the names could change entirely from one year to the next. For instance, none of the ten best-selling novelists of 1970 (Erich Segal, John Fowles, Ernest Hemingway, Mary Stewart, Taylor Caldwell, Leon Uris, Jimmy Breslin, Victoria Holt, Graham Greene, and Irwin Shaw) appeared on the 1971 list (Arthur Hailey, William Peter Blatty, Irving Stone, Frederick Forsyth, Harold Robbins, Helen MacInnes, Herman Wouk, James Michener, Thomas Tryon, and John Updike). Likewise, none of those 1970 top-ten novelists appeared on the year-end list of bestsellers in 1975, and only one of them (Mary Stewart) appeared on the decade’s final list, in 1979.

Compare that with the list for the year 2000. The best-selling novel of 2000 was John Grisham’s The Brethren. The year 2000 was the seventh consecutive year in which the top spot was held by a Grisham novel. The second and fourth best-selling novels were both produced by the writing team of Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye. The third bestselling novel of 2000 was Tom Clancy’s The Bear and the Dragon. It marked his tenth appearance on a year-end best-selling-novels list, going all the way back to the mid-1980s. Danielle Steele held both the sixth spot and the tenth spot on the list. James Patterson held the eighth and the ninth spot. The list for 2000 was typical except for the lack of a Stephen King title. In the 1980s, King missed the year-end list of best-selling novels only once. The same thing happened in the 1990s. But he made up for those omissions by frequently landing more than one title on the year-end list. In 1983 both Pet Semetary and Christine made the list. In 1987 The Tommyknockers, Misery, and The Eyes of the Dragon all made the list. In 1990 he landed two more books on the list. In 1992 he had the year’s number-one bestseller, Dolores Claiborne, and the year’s number-three bestseller, Gerald’s Game. The second best-selling book that year was John Grisham’s The Pelican Brief.

And then of course there is the phenomenon of Danielle Steele. She wrote two of the year’s top-ten bestsellers in 1985, 1987, 1989, 1991, 1992, 1995, and 1996. She landed three books on the top-ten lists of 1994, 1997, and 1998. I haven’t even mentioned the numerous years in which she made the list only once. In 1997 books by Steele and Patricia Cornwell accounted for half the titles on the year-end top-ten list. In 1992 Steele and King accounted for forty percent of the list. Throw in a few titles by Michael Crichton, Mary Higgins Clark, and Anne Rice, and you’ve got a good description of just about every year-end bestseller list of the 1990s. And the list has only gotten less diverse since then. Consider, for instance, the year 2012, when books by Suzanne Collins (The Hunger Games series) and E.L. James (The Fifty Shades series) held seven of the list’s ten spots.

Why has popular fiction become so much less diverse than it used to be? A few reasons stand out. It was in the 1980s that massive chain bookstores such as Borders, Barnes and Noble, and Tower Books began to dominate the bookselling market. In the 1970s, and in previous decades as well, most books were sold through independent bookstores rather than chains. And those bookstores were likely to reflect the personalities of their owners and their employees. Levinson’s bookstore in my hometown of Sacramento, California, probably pushed an entirely different list of books than the Argosy bookstore in San Francisco was pushing. But a Barnes and Noble bookstore in Sacramento promotes exactly the same writers as a Barnes and Noble bookstore in San Francisco, San Antonio, Minneapolis, Omaha, and every other city in the country. When Amazon.com came along, the monopolization of massive retailers only increased. It’s easier for a Barnes and Noble or an Amazon.com to stock up on books written by a handful of monster best-selling authors than to stock up on a wide array of books, by a wide array of authors.

The bestseller list of 1970 contained four British authors (Greene, Fowles, Stewart, and Holt) as well as an American (Caldwell) who was born in England and emigrated to America as a child. One of the ten novels (The French Lieutenant’s Woman) is set in the Lyme Regis area of England during the nineteenth century. Another (Hemingway’s Islands In The Stream) takes place in the Caribbean. Victoria Holt’s The Secret Woman begins in England and then moves to the South Pacific. Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave is an Arthurian fantasy. Caldwell’s Great Lion of God is about Saul of Tarsus. Leon Uris’ QB VII is a courtroom drama set mainly in England but which also concerns the Holocaust. Graham Greene’s Travels With My Aunt is about an Englishman who travels across Europe on the Orient Express and later winds up in South America. Thus seven of the year’s ten best-selling novels had absolutely nothing to do with the United States of America. Compare that with a typical year-end bestseller list of our day. The stories nowadays usually take place in a contemporary American setting or an entirely fantastic one (i.e.: Stephen King’s Dark Tower universe, which was inspired in part by America’s Old West, and Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games universe, which is a bleak dystopian vision of a future America). Even when a bestseller is set largely overseas, such as is the case with Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Codeand its sequels, the story is told through the eyes of an American character and is clearly directed at an American audience.

Here is the bestseller list for 2006:

  • For One More Day by Mitch Albom
  • Cross by James Patterson
  • Dear John by Nicholas Sparks
  • Next by Michael Crichton
  • Hannibal Rising by Thomas Harris
  • Lisey’s Story by Stephen King
  • Twelve Sharp by Janet Evanovich
  • Cell by Stephen King
  • Beach Road by James Patterson and Peter de Jonge
  • The Fifth Horseman by James Patterson and Maxine Paetro

The authors are all Americans, and the stories with one exception are set in America (Thomas Harris’s novel is about the early years of fictional American serial killer Hannibal Lecter, and takes place mostly in Europe). During the first decade of this century, the only foreign author to make it onto a year-end list was J.K. Rowling.

After 1981 the American bestseller list for fiction took a serious turn for the worse, epitomized by the fact that the best-selling novels in both 1982 (E.T., The Extraterrestrial, by William Kotzwinkle) and 1983 (Return of the Jedi, by James Kahn) were novelizations of blockbuster movies rather than original novels. The year-end top-ten list for 1979 has two Brits (Mary Stewart and Graham Greene) and an Australian (John Hackett) on it. After 1980, the few foreign writers who managed to land on the American year-end list were mostly writers like John le Carre, Frederick Forsyth, and Ken Follett who had made their names in earlier decades. Few new foreign writers would make the list after that. In 1983 the only new non-American on the list was romance writer Jackie Collins, and her book was the distinctly American tale Hollywood Wives. In 1985 the only foreigner on the list was again Jackie Collins, again with a novel, Lucky, that was a wholly American tale. Collins returned to the list in 1986 with Hollywood Husbands, which, needless to say, was an American tale. In 1987 no foreign writers made the list. In 1988 Barbara Taylor Bradford was the only non-American on the list and she had been living in the U.S. for years, was married to an American, and would shortly thereafter become a naturalized American citizen. In 1989 Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses would make the list, but that was a bit of a fluke. Hostility towards Rushdie by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini gave the book selling power that it almost certainly wouldn’t have possessed otherwise. Both le Carre and Follett also made the list that year, but they had been grandfathered in back in the 1960s and 70s respectively. In the decade of the 1990s only three foreign writers made the list: Rosamund Pilcher made it once, Laura Esquivel made it once, and Maeve Binchy made it once. Since the year 2000 the only non-Americans to crack the list have been J.K. Rowling and Steig Larsson (who had been dead for six years by the time he made his appearance there in 2010).

In the year 2014 three of the year’s ten best-selling novels were simply different editions of John Green’s young-adult novel The Fault In Our Stars. Three of the best-selling titles that year (Divergent, Allegiant, and Insurgent) were written by Veronica Roth. The three remaining books on the list were all, like the John Green title, propelled there by their film versions: Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and Frozen by Victoria Saxon (Bill O’Reilly’s book Killing Patton rounded out the ten-title list, but isn’t technically a work of fiction; Publishers Weekly seems to have categorized it as such simply because it was written by a faux newsman). These are not novels that crawled their way up the bestseller list on the strength of word-of-mouth recommendations from satisfied readers. No, these are books, mostly written for children, that became powerful literary brands thanks in large part to their Hollywood iterations. In previous decades Hollywood films often traveled to success while riding piggyback on a popular novel (Jaws, The Exorcist, Love Story, etc). Nowadays, the reverse is often true. A novel that wasn’t a huge bestseller becomes one only after Hollywood has adapted it for the screen.

In the 1970s, best-selling authors usually left the young-adult genre alone. There were no true young-adult novels on any of the Publishers Weekly lists of the year’s best-selling fiction back in the 1970s (although some books, such as Watership Down, were popular with both grown-up readers and young adults). Nowadays, authors who frequent the bestseller lists—writers such as John Grisham, Carl Hiaasen, and James Patterson—have also published numerous young adult novels. Even more “literary” writers, such as Jane Smiley and Alice Hoffman, have been branching out into young-adult territory lately, making the consolidation of the two genres almost complete.

Plenty of great popular novels were written prior to Rosemary’s Baby (1967), and plenty of good pop fiction has been written since. But the bestseller lists that predate Rosemary’s Baby tend to be filled with plodding religious uplift, thrillers that aren’t terribly thrilling by post–Rosemary’s Baby standards, and predictable romance novels. When we think of great mid-century pop fictions nowadays, we tend to think of the novels of writers like Jim Thompson, Patricia Highsmith, and Philip K. Dick, but those writers made it nowhere near the top of the bestseller list during their lifetimes. Among the best-selling novels of the 1940s were numerous religious titles, including The Song of Bernadette, by Franz Werfel, The Keys of the Kingdom, by A.J. Cronin, The Apostle and Mary, both by Sholem Asch, The Miracle of the Bells, by Russell Janney, The Big Fisherman, by Lloyd C. Douglas, and The Bishop’s Mantle, by Agnes Sligh Turnbull. Henry Morton Robinson’s novel The Cardinal appeared on two year-end lists in the 1950s (1950 and 51). The Foundling, by Francis Cardinal Spellman, also made the list in 1951. Thomas B. Costain’s The Silver Chalice, the best-selling novel of 1952, is a Biblical epic. Also on the list that year was Agnes Sligh Turnbull’s The Gown of Glory, another traditional novel with a religious subject. The Silver Chalice was the second best-selling title of 1953, behind only Lloyd C. Douglas’s The Robe, a novel about the crucifixion of Jesus (The Robe was also a number-one or -two best-selling novel in the years 1943, 1944, and 1945). Morris West’s The Shoes of the Fisherman, about Vatican politics, was the best-selling book of 1963. James Michener’s The Source, a novel about the history of the Jewish people, was the best-selling book of 1965. None of these religious tomes was the slightest bit irreverent or groundbreaking. Ira Levin was the first writer to make the bestseller list with a novel that portrayed religion (in this case Satanism) negatively. Later novels, like Stephen King’s Carrie and Irving Wallace’s The Word, would benefit from the path that Levin blazed.

The 1970s were the first decade in which heavy-handed Biblically inspired novels were not an important element of America’s best-selling fiction lists. Although The Exorcist is a deeply Catholic novel whose heroes are both Catholic priests, its violence, language, and intensity were enough to get the book and the film condemned by the Catholic Church. The best thrillers of the 1970s, books like The Exorcist, The Day of the Jackal, Jaws, The Dead Zone, The Great Train Robbery, The Seven-Percent Solution, The Eagle Has Landed, and Eye of the Needle, were a lot more exciting than any of the bestsellers of the 1950s. In fact, prior to Rosemary’s Baby it is difficult to find a novel on a year-end bestseller list that these days would even qualify as a thriller. Those that come closest, such as Daphne Du Maurier’s 1952 bestseller My Cousin Rachel, are somewhat staid historical dramas rather than genuine thrillers.

Even some of the dreckiest bestsellers of the 1970s aren’t quite as bad as you might remember them. Erich Segal’s Love Story, though no literary masterpiece, is short and eminently readable, with touches of humor that seem to have been inspired by J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories and Philip Roth’s Goodbye Columbus. Indeed, more interesting than the book’s central love story is the relationship between the narrator, Oliver Barrett IV, and his father, Oliver Barrett III. In that aspect, it could be read as a sort of prequel to Saul Bellow’s much better Seize the Day, which deals with a strained relationship between a well-off senior-citizen father and his less successful, middle-aged son. And though all of Love Story’s major characters are gentiles, the book still manages to include an effective critique of anti-Semitism in America. Oliver doesn’t graduate from Harvard Law at the top of his class, but he manages to land the best and best-paying job of anyone in his class, because the other top students in the class are all Jewish and therefore not as desirable in the legal job market. Though it is the quintessential early 1970s bestseller, the book is actually set in the early 1960s, long before the Summer of Love and the arrival of the Haight Ashbury scene, and this nostalgic aspect of the book may, in part, have accounted for its success.

Arthur Hailey’s novels of the 1960s and 1970s are not showcases for great prose, but they provide invaluable—and entertaining—glimpses into the ways various industries—the media, Big Pharma, hospitality, air travel, banking, electrical power—worked in the middle part of the American Century. Nowadays the topics covered by Arthur Hailey are more likely to be covered by nonfiction writers like Michael Lewis than by novelists, most of whom tend to look inward these days. Which is a shame. We could use a big fat panoramic novel about America’s healthcare woes or its infrastructural degradation or its military industrial complex.

In the 1970s Herman Wouk gave us those two big fat novels that explored almost every major theater of World War II: The Winds of War and War and Remembrance. Our fictions about more recent wars—Vietnam, the Gulf War, the Iraq War—tend to be more personal, focusing on the exploits of a single combatant or a single platoon. The big-picture approach to recent wars seems to be confined only to nonfiction books.

Novels such as Gore Vidal’s 1973 bestseller Burr seem to have given way these days to massive biographies like Ron Chernow’s Hamilton. And something is lost when great fiction writers cede the broad historical canvas to the nonfiction writer.

The fat historical romances of the 1970s, books such as James Clavell’s Shogun and Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds, were way too racy to have been published in a previous decade. And after the 1970s, their ilk was replaced on the bestseller lists by the far less ambitious romances of Danielle Steel, Jackie Collins, Barbara Taylor Bradford, and the like. For all their flaws, books like Shogun and The Thorn Birds were not cranked out in a hurry to meet the demands of a busy publishing schedule. They appear to be passion projects whose authors spent years toiling on them. Few pop romance/adventure novels give off any whiff of toil these days. In fact, many of them seem to have come off an assembly line.

McCullough was arguably the only female to publish a book in the 1970s that remains one of the defining bestsellers of the era. Most of the decade-defining bestsellers of the 70s—Love Story, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Jaws, The Day of the Jackal, The Winds of War, Rich Man Poor Man, My Name is Asher Lev, The Other, Rabbit Redux, Ragtime, Breakfast of Champions, Burr, Watership Down, The Silmarillion, The Honourable Schoolboy, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Centennial, August 1914, The Dead Zone, and so forth came from the pens of The Men Who Wrote the Seventies. Agatha Christie released a few bestsellers in the 1970s, the final decade of her life, but they had all been written decades earlier, in the 1940s. She wasn’t a hugely significant part of the zeitgeist of the 1970s and none of her books is set in that decade. Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt, and Taylor Caldwell released multiple bestsellers in the seventies, but the titles, for the most part, have not attached themselves permanently to the pop cultural memory of the era. Jacqueline Susann had some bestsellers in the 70s but she will always be best remembered for Valley of the Dolls, which was published in 1966. Things might have been different had she not died fairly young in 1974. As it is, Colleen McCullough is the only woman of the era to have written a monster bestseller that remains fixed in the minds of those who care about the 1970s as a cultural landmark. Helen MacInnes was a fine author but she’s never been a cultural icon.

Like Agatha Christie, a lot of prominent twentieth-century authors would make their last appearance on the year-end list in the 1970s. It would be the final decade in which any of the following played a significant role on a year-end list of best-selling novels in America: Ernest Hemingway, Irwin Shaw, Herman Wouk, Arthur Hailey, Irving Stone, Irving Wallace, Kurt Vonnegut, and Graham Greene. But it was also the first decade in which Stephen King and Ken Follett appeared on such a list, and they would go on to produce many more bestsellers. Indeed, both men are still very active as of this writing. Michael Crichton, who debuted on the list in the late 1960s, would continue to produce massive bestsellers into the current century. He died in 2008, but his publisher has brought out three more novels by him since then, and the popular HBO series Westworld is based on his work.

On today’s list of America’s best-selling novels there is no real equivalent of Graham Greene. In the Seventies, Greene made the list twice, with Travels With My Aunt (1970) and The Honorary Consul (1973). You could argue that Ian McEwan or Martin Amis or some other serious British literary author is today’s version of Greene, but their books are nowhere near as popular as Greene’s were in the 70s. Neither writer has made a year-end list of bestsellers in America. Greene was highly critical of America and famously said he’d rather live in the Soviet Union than the United States (in fact, he lived much of his adult life in the south of France). But American book buyers didn’t hold it against him. Americans bought his novels in large numbers. Perhaps today’s version of Greene is John Le Carre, another expat Brit who has been highly critical of America’s government. Le Carre is still a bestseller, but he hasn’t made a year-end list in decades. His brand of intelligent thriller has been crowded out of the list by the likes of The Da Vinci Code and the latest by-the-numbers thriller from James Patterson. He made the year-end list thrice in the sixties, thrice in the seventies, and thrice in the eighties, but he hasn’t returned to it since, despite being nearly as prolific today, in his late eighties, as he ever was.

Diversity and a spirit of internationalism were hallmarks of the year-end bestseller lists of the 1970s. Those qualities are sadly lacking from most of the year-end lists that Publishers Weekly has compiled since that decade ended.

If you really want to pin a date on the end of the Golden Era of American popular fiction that began with Rosemary’s Baby, you might place it sometime around 1985. That was the year that Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove was published. Lonesome Dove is, arguably, the last genuine pop fiction to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Every winner since then has been a work of “serious literature,” written mainly for MFA students and their ilk. Lonesome Dove is a genre novel that embraces many of the conventions of the traditional Western but still manages to be literary and intelligent. Plenty of Western novels were honored with Pulitzer Prizes in earlier decades, books such as A. B. Guthrie’s The Way West and The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters by Robert Lewis Taylor. But Lonesome Dove seems to be the last of that breed. It wasn’t quite popular enough to make a year-end list of the ten best-selling novels, but that’s because its hardback sales were split fairly evenly between two years, 1985 and 1986 (curiously, the best-selling Western of the 1980s was a 1983 novel by Louis L’Amour with a similar-sounding title, The Lonesome Gods, indicating that a certain wistfulness had settled upon the genre by then). Given that it contains much raw language and depictions of violence and sex, Lonesome Dove probably couldn’t have been published in America much earlier than 1970. And had it been published much later than 1985, it probably couldn’t have garnered a Pulitzer Prize, popularity seeming to be a disqualifying condition with today’s nominating committees. McMurtry’s masterpiece synthesized the large-scale storytelling of such 1970s icons as Michener, Wouk, Clavell, and McCullough, with the literary competence of Graham Greene, John Fowles and E.L. Doctorow. It’s the best example of a 1970s bestseller that wasn’t actually published in the 1970s. When Woodrow Call rode off into the sunset at the end of Lonesome Dove, he might as well have been carrying an entire mode of popular fiction with him. We haven’t seen its like since (although McMurtry has published plenty of Lonesome Dove spin-offs).

Excellent novels still get published in America, but the bestseller lists rarely reflect this excellence. Primarily they reflect the triumph of brand-name authors and aggressive marketing over the diversity and unpredictability that characterized the bestseller lists of the 1970s. In the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, the publishing industry offered primarily moral uplift and historical pageantry. These days it offers mainly by-the-numbers thrillers (missing girls, serial killers with rigidly thematic M.O.s, etc) and teenage dystopias, almost all of it coming from the pens of a few brand-name authors. But for one brief, shining decade or so, it offered up something different, something strange: a diverse mix of horror and history, fantasy and mystery, set in a wide array of locales and time periods, and written by authors who represented a variety of English-speaking nations and levels of literary artistry, and who rarely appeared on two consecutive year-end lists of best-selling novels. Many of the era’s bestsellers were written by authors (Hemingway, Jimmy Breslin, Harold Robbins, Victoria Holt, Agatha Christie, Taylor Caldwell, Sidney Sheldon, Leon Uris, James Jones, etc.) with little or no higher education. Many of the men and some of the women served in uniform during World War II. Few of the best-selling books of the era were installments in a series. Neither Hollywood nor the publishing industry seemed as interested in franchises back then. Nowadays nearly every best-selling novel represents a “branding opportunity” and is often spun off into a dozen or more sequels. Don’t even think of writing a standalone young-adult novel. If it isn’t the first installment of a series, the publishing industry isn’t likely to be much interested in it.

It was different once, but only for about a decade.

RIP Herman Wouk.

Posted in Books, Courtroom Mysteries, Fiction, Guest, History, Memorial, Publishing, Readers | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“On Sara Gran’s Claire DeWitt and the Nature of Truth in Detective Fiction” (by Chad Baker)

In the days when EQMM had a Department of Second Stories, legal-aid attorney Chad Baker would have qualified. He makes his EQMM debut in our current issue, May/June 2019, with the story “The Smoking Bandit of Lakeside Terrace.” Previously, he had a paid fiction publication in the literary journal From the Depths. He’s also written several plays that have been performed at theater companies around the country and had a creative nonfiction piece published in the literary journal Lunch Ticket. Currently a Chicago-area resident, Chad is using his free time to pursue an M.A. in writing and publishing. It’s evident from this post that he has extensive knowledge of the crime-fiction genre, past and present. —Janet Hutchings

Above all, the inner knowing of the detective trumps every piece of evidence, every clue, every rational assumption. If we do not put it first and foremost, always, there is no point in carrying on, in detection or in life.

This admonition comes from Détection by Jacques Silette, a book that joins a grand tradition of fascinating texts-within-texts, volumes that you long to pluck from some dusty shelf and peruse but cannot. The book doesn’t exist. At least, not in our world. The book serves as something between a field manual and a spiritual text for Claire DeWitt, the PI created by author Sara Gran. The most recent Claire DeWitt novel, The Infinite Blacktop, came out last year, preceded by Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway (2013) and Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead (2011).

These character-centered mysteries feature some of the most engrossing, evocative prose I’ve read in contemporary mystery fiction, but my purpose here isn’t simply to recommend them (though I do), but rather to observe how the Claire DeWitt novels illuminate an important aspect of detective fiction: every detective story contains within it a theory of what truth is and how we can grasp it—or an “epistemology,” I’ll say, just to feel like I’m getting my money’s worth out of that liberal-arts degree. The epistemology we glimpse in mystery stories is one of the many reasons they are so culturally important.

Let’s start at the beginning. English-language detective fiction was born and raised in an increasingly scientific and rational age. Edgar Allan Poe’s creation C. Auguste Dupin, widely acknowledged to be fiction’s first detective, is the ultimate product of two centuries of Enlightenment-era love of reason. The method by which Dupin solves the crimes in his stories, which Poe called “ratiocination,” suggests that a sufficiently brilliant mind can get to the truth of any problem through a series of purely logical reasonings (whether that logic be deductive or inductive or abductive or superconductive or whatever). Poe’s master logician became the blueprint for every other classic or “cozy” detective written since, from Sherlock Holmes to Hercule Poirot to Lord Peter Wimsey.

In the epistemology of the classic murder mystery, the truth is a shining thing that lies at the center of a web of trivial details, waiting to be plucked by a hero with a keen eye and sharp mind. Once the detective learns that the butler is left-handed and what time the train to Hartford departed, he merely has to take a seat in the parlor, light his pipe, and puzzle it all out.

Then, in the interwar period, American authors like Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler took detective fiction in a gritty new direction. Chandler thought there was very little truth in the traditional “Golden Age” English detective story, and he said so in his famous 1944 (revised in 1950) essay “The Simple Art of Murder.” He describes the problems of logic and deduction in classic detective stories as “too contrived, and too little aware of what goes on in the world.” He praises Hammet for interjecting realism into the genre: “Hammet took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley.”

At the core of the obvious and well-known differences between the hardboiled style and the classical mystery is a difference of epistemology. The paths that Hammet’s Sam Spade or Chandler’s Philip Marlowe take toward the truth are fundamentally different from those of Dupin, Holmes, and their progeny. For the hardboiled gumshoe, truth is not a genteel parlor game; it can only be gleaned by slinking down the darkest streets, tussling with the toughest thugs, and drinking an awful lot of liquor. Philip Marlowe is depicted as a bright guy but not a preternatural genius. He is more likely to fumble his way toward the case’s solution through a series of violent, happenstantial encounters than through an astounding feat of logical gymnastics. The epistemology contained within this era of noir is chaotic and tactile: you won’t know the truth until it jumps out from the shadows and saps you on the head.

Nor does the hardboiled PI always arrive at a complete and tidy truth. We don’t know who killed the chauffeur in The Big Sleep, and neither did the author. Chandler and other writers of hardboiled noir were less concerned with the truth at the center of a formal logic problem and more concerned with other, abstracted truths about human behavior. Truths about what life looks and sounds and tastes like down the mean streets of urban America. Truths about power—who wields it and who gets squashed by it.

Chandler believed that his tribe of “realist” fiction writers, unlike the authors of classic detective stories, revealed the world as it actually is—a world, as he says in the essay, “where a judge with a cellar full of bootleg liquor can send a man to jail for having a pint in his pocket.” And what use is formalist logic in this kind of corrupt, violent world where nothing makes sense?

That brings us back to Sara Gran and her detective, Claire DeWitt. If we must situate Gran’s work in the family tree of detective fiction, it sprouts from the hardboiled branch; there are echoes of Chandler’s lean brutality and weaponized wit in her style, and she cites James Sallis’s series featuring PI Lew Griffin as an influence. On a surface level, the plots of the Claire DeWitt books follow a hardboiled noir formula: a tough, wised-up PI gets a case, tracks down leads, ingests a lot of alcohol and other substances, gets into some violent scrapes, and eventually gets her culprit.

But Gran’s books are less about the solution to any particular mystery and more about mystery itself, about mystery as an essential aspect of what it means to be human. In each book, as Claire tries to solve a murder case, she also wrestles with more difficult unanswered questions: What happened to the best friend from her teen detective years in Brooklyn, who vanished when they were fifteen? How can she keep going after the random and meaningless murder of her mentor? Why does she alienate nearly everyone in her life? Along the way, Gran presents her own distinctive epistemology that breaks the previous molds.

Claire, the self-proclaimed world’s greatest detective, is a member of a small, esoteric school of investigation founded on the teachings of Jacques Silette as recorded in his only book, Détection. Like other mid-twentieth-century renegade French thinkers named Jacques (I’m thinking of Derrida and Lacan), many people find Silette’s writing bizarre and impenetrable. As Claire says, “the book is notoriously difficult—sometimes nonsensical, always contradictory.” Here’s an example of one of Détection’s quasi-mystical aphorisms, which Gran sprinkles throughout the books:

There are no innocent victims. The victim selects his role as carefully and unconsciously as the policeman, the detective, the client, or the villain. Each chooses his role and then forgets this, sometimes for many lifetimes, until one comes along who can remind him.

Most people dismiss Silette as a crank or a fraud (despite his perfect solve rate), but for the select few “Silletian” detectives, like Claire DeWitt, their first encounter with Détection reveals to them their true calling. Claire says that the book saved her life and ruined it.

In many ways, Claire uses standard investigating procedures: she fingerprints the scene, sifts through financial records, interviews witnesses. But she also employs less conventional methods. She consults the I Ching. She examines fingerprints not only to place individuals at the scene but also to divine characteristics of the owner’s nature, examining their “Destiny Whorl” and “Arc of Compassion.” She lets herself be guided by visions from her dreams, and she’s more likely to ask a witness how a crime scene felt to them rather than what they saw. She has ventured far from the pure rationality of the English parlor. One suspects Lord Peter Wimsey would not approve.

Raymond Chandler might not approve either: he maintained that fiction should aspire to be, above all things, realistic. The Claire DeWitt books take a place in a world that is, as Gran stated in an interview, “just a little to the left of reality.” There’s an undertone of strangeness and surreality shot through the landscapes of these novels. Copies of Détection appear as if by magic to those who need to read it. Claire consults oracle-like figures such as her “poker chip man,” who can hold, sniff, and lick a poker chip and then enter a kind of trance state in which he discovers precisely which casino table the chip came from.

In the epistemology of the Claire DeWitt books, logic and deduction will not, by themselves, lead you to the truth. In a conversation that occurs in The Infinite Blacktop, Claire tries to explain this to an operative of a traditional private-eye firm, a firm with the motto: “Facts are king.” Claire leads him in a meditative exercise, placing her hand on his belly:

“You know something here,” I said. “Where your nadis cross at your spine. Where your kundalini sleeps. You know something here . . . There is a snake coiled at the base of your spine,” I whispered to Christopher, dragging my hand, the warmth I now shared with him, the pieces of him it carried, down to his lower belly. “And there is nothing that snake doesn’t know. You just have to let it speak.”

Claire’s approach to knowledge is more expansive than the Western rationality that reigns over traditional English-language detective fiction, and it includes ways of knowing that are much older than C. Auguste Dupin, older than science, older than the Age of Enlightenment, and probably older than language itself. In an interview, Gran remarked that “the linguistic and historic link between mystic and mystery is not to be underestimated.”

But the core belief of the Silletian school of detection, the core belief that guides Claire DeWitt, is not mysticism exactly, but rather the simple and dangerous idea that truth is a sacred thing. To obtain it requires great sacrifice. To speak it makes one unpopular. But the truth is worth it. It is the only real meaning we’re going to find on our long journey through guaranteed heartbreak. The truth is our most important obligation to each other.

Those ideas feel more necessary than ever in a world that is now, we are told, “post-truth.” A world where basic, verifiable facts are contested or ignored by those in power and large swaths of the population. A world of sound bites and skim-reading. A world that has determined that deep understanding and authenticity are not particularly good for the bottom line.

Every detective story contains within it a theory of what truth is and how we can grasp it, and therefore every detective story necessarily assumes that truth exists and is worth looking for in the first place. That, in itself, has become a radical proposition.

Posted in Books, Characters, Classic Mystery, Criticism, Fiction, Genre, hardboiled, mystery fiction, Noir, Writers | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


Spring of 2019 turned out to be a very special awards season for the Dell mystery magazines. Not only were our Readers Award winners all graduates of EQMM’s Department of First Stories, EQMM stories won both the Edgar Allan Poe Award for best short story and the Robert L. Fish Award for best short story by a new American writer. At the heart of the festivities was the selection of our colleague, Linda Landrigan, editor of our sister publication, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, for the Ellery Queen Award, given by the Mystery Writers of America to outstanding people in the mystery-publishing industry. We’ll let pictures tell most of the story, but I’d like to touch on a few of the highlights of my experiences this year.

BTW, readers who missed this year’s Readers Award–winning stories when they were published in the magazine should soon be able to find them (for listening) in our podcast series. Stacy Woodson’s first-place story, “Duty, Honor, Hammett,” is remarkable for being only the second First story ever to come first in Readers Award voting. Stacy is a military vet and often takes up military themes in her fiction. That was the case with “Duty, Honor, Hammett,” from our November/December 2018 issue. The story combines little-known military ritual with taut suspense and a bit of mystery-genre history that I had not previously known.

Josh Pachter’s debut in our Department of First Stories occurred exactly fifty years before publication (in our November/December 2018 issue) of the story that took second place for the Readers Award this year. At sixteen, Josh was the second youngest person ever to be published in EQMM. In celebration of the 50th anniversary of that extraordinary event, he wrote a story entitled “50,” which brought back the characters from his first story. In addition to the many memorable stories Josh has contributed to our magazine and to numerous anthologies (now numbering nearly one hundred) Josh has been invaluable to EQMM as a translator from Flemish and Dutch and other languages, and as an anthologist of EQMM material. It was therefore very satisfying to all of us to see him recognized by our readers!

David Dean, who debuted in our Department of First Stories in 1990, is a repeat Readers Award winner. In third place this year, he has previously come in first and second. In recent years, David has frequently taken up the theme of what he calls “feral children” in his fiction—that is, children left to fend for themselves in contemporary suburban America. His third-place story “Sofee” (from our March/April 2018 issue) belongs to that group of stories. It’s moving, sad, and terrifyingly suspenseful—and it provides some food for thought as well. As I mentioned, we hope to have all of these stories available on podcast soon, so stay tuned.

We had the good fortune this year to have all of our Readers Award winners present at our annual pre-Edgars party, where the Readers Awards are given. Many of the photos that follow are from that party, including some of each Readers Award winner. I made some new aquaintances at the party this year—people I’d only known through correspondence, including a few writers who will make their first appearance in EQMM in 2019 like Mark Stevens, Leslie Elman, Cecilia Fulton, and Jackie Freimor, and Laird Blackwell, whose latest book is one scholars and EQMM fans alike will want to read: Frederic Dannay, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and the Art of the Detective Story.

The culminating event of Edgars week, the Edgar Allan Poe Awards banquet, followed close on our party. Linda Landrigan’s eloquent acceptance of the Ellery Queen Award was one highlight of the night; another was Doug Allyn’s presentation of the Fish Award to Nancy Novick for her story “How Does He Die This Time?” (originally published in our September/October 2018 issue and currently available in our podcast series) and yet another (the first unknown, and quite a thrill!) the announcement that Art Taylor (who also got his start in EQMM’s Department of First Stories) had won the Edgar for “English 398: Fiction Workshop,” from the July/August 2018 EQMM and now in our podcast series. I blogged about Nancy’s and Art’s stories earlier on this site, so I’ll direct you there if you want a hint of what they’re about before listening to the podcasts.

A week after the Edgars, we were off to the Malice Domestic convention. There I met up with a lot of old friends, and again, made a few new aquaintances—notable among them Edith Maxwell, one of the convention’s Agatha Award nominees for best historical novel, who will have her first short story in EQMM soon. At the same afternoon event where I had the pleasure of chatting with Edith, I caught up with Edwin Hill, another EQMM Department of First Story-er, who was up for the Agatha for best first novel, and Barb Goffman, a multiple Agatha nominee and past Agatha winner who was up for the best short story Agatha for her EQMM (November/December 2018) debut “Bug Appétit”—one of the best holiday stories I have ever read (listen to her podcast of it!).

In one of the most suspenseful twists of the Malice Domestic convention, Art Taylor and his wife Tara Laskowski were both up for the Agatha Award for best short story, Art for his Edgar winning EQMM story “English 398: Fiction Workshop,” and Tara for her AHMM story “The Case of the Vanishing Professor” (AHMM May/June 2018). As it turned out, the voting resulted in a tie—the first ever!—though not between Tara and Art, between Tara and Leslie Budewitz, for the latter’s AHMM story “All God’s Sparrows (AHMM May/June 2018). Tara and Leslie are both also contributors to EQMM, Tara with a story coming up next month. What a delight to see them honored—and also for the first double short-story Agatha to go to AHMM in a year honoring the magazine’s editor, Linda Landrigan.

After a breakfast with close colleagues of the magazine—Doug Greene and Jeffrey Marks of Crippen & Landru, the most important publisher of single-author mystery short-story collections (often drawn from Dell Magazines’archives); EQMM’s book reviewer Steve Steinbock; our translator (and fiction contributor) Josh Pachter; one of the genre’s first short-story blog-site creators, James Lincoln Warren (also a fiction contributor), and my colleagues Linda Landrigan and the invaluable associate editor Jackie Sherbow (who, among many other things, recorded podcasts for us of Michael Bracken and Edith Maxwell at the convention), it was time to depart. Another April/May awards season over, but one we’ll remember!

All black and white photos are by Ché Ryback.

Richard Dannay

VP, Editorial, Penny Publications, Christine Begley

Associate Editor Jackie Sherbow, Contracts/Subrights Manager Carol Demont

Mark Stevens

Doug Allyn, Eve Allyn

Kate Stine, Brendan DuBois

Joe Goodrich, S.J. Rozan

Kevin Egan

Julia Metzger, Nancy Novick

Stacy Woodson, V.S. Kemanis, Nora McFarland

Art Taylor, Dave Zeltserman

Edwin Hill, Linda Landrigan

David Dean, Peter Kanter, Publisher

David Dean

Josh Pachter, Peter Kanter, Publisher

Josh Pachter

Stacy Woodson, Peter Kanter, Publisher

Stacy Woodson

David Dean, Janet Hutchings, Stacy Woodson, Josh Pachter

Russell Atwood, Janet Hutchings, David Dean, Robin Dean (photo courtesy Russell Atwood)

Art Taylor with his Edgar Award

Nancy Novick, Jackie Sherbow

The Agatha Best Short Story Panel: Moderator Michael Bracken, Leslie Budewitz, Susanna Calkins, Barb Goffman, Tara Laskowski, Art Taylor

Margaret Warren, James Lincoln Warren

James Lincoln Warren, Steve Steinbock, Janet Hutchings

Michael Bracken recording his story for our podcast series

Edit Maxwell recording her story for our podcast series

Tara Laskowski, Linda Landrigan

Tara Laskowski and Leslie Budewitz accept their Agatha Awards for Best Short Story

Posted in Awards, Conventions | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

“The Other Face” (by Pat Black)

Pat Black makes his EQMM debut in our current issue (May/June 2019) and we have more of his work coming up. His stories have also been published in a number of anthologies, including Northern Crime One. He was the runner-up in the Bloody Scotland short-story contest, and one of the winners in the Daily Telegraph’s ghost stories competition. He has also just made his debut as a novelist with the thriller The Family. By day, Pat is a journalist working in Yorkshire, but his native city is Glasgow, and he tells us he will always belong to that place. In this post, he talks about a characteristic identified with the Scottish psyche that also pertains to crime fiction. —Janet Hutchings

Caledonian antisyzygy—hard to type, harder to say. It’s like a country you could never find on a map, one which could do with an emergency aid drop of vowels.

The term was coined 100 years ago by the writer G. Gregory Smith, and expanded upon a few years later by the poet Hugh MacDiarmid. It refers to two polarities which coexist in the one entity within the Scottish psyche.

To put it another way: Our national identity has two faces.

This has a number of manifestations. Scots can present themselves as abstemious and bibulous; hard-working and feckless; dour and manic; blunt and garrulous; stingy and generous; qualities which could be observed in one single guest over the course of a wedding. Viewed as a country, we can be split into highlanders and lowlanders, Weegies and Edinburghers, British Loyalists and Rebellious Scots, Protestants and Catholics—dare I say it, Celtic and Rangers.

This double-edged quality is by no means unique to Scotland, but our fiction, and particularly our crime fiction, thrives upon it.

The starting point in our antisyzygian journey must be James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs And Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1821). This brutal dissection of Calvinist doctrine follows a religious zealot, convinced he is predestined for paradise, as he begins a murderous campaign to ruin the life of his happier, more attractive brother. The devil is present in the novel, or at the very least one of his lieutenants, goading, prodding, and challenging the pale-faced inadequate into foul deeds. Doubles and doppelgangers haunt the story, and this leads us to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde (1886).

This tale serves as the very definition of Caledonian antisyzygy, and requires no introduction. The good doctor’s split personality lends itself to lots of different interpretations, even as times and tolerances change. I tend to take a more literal reading of the text: we probably all know someone who becomes a completely different person after taking a drink.

Antisyzygy (I swear I will type this correctly, first time, just once) is the foundation stone of Tartan Noir, a genre which gave the world Ian Rankin, Denise Mina, Val McDermid, Christopher Brookmyre and many other writers, starting with William McIlvanney’s Glasgow detective Laidlaw. We punch well above our weight in this arena, for a small country.

Irvine Welsh might not be most readily associated with crime novels, but Caledonian antisyzygy flows in his stories’ well-tapped veins. As a heroin addict, Trainspotting’s hero Renton might be a lowlife—but he has a brain, and at one point in his past he even had prospects. He can mingle in different circles, speak in different tongues, and eventually escapes Leith and its self-destructive distractions. He can switch modes for different scenarios, but he belongs in none of them. A man in a mask.

The Marabou Stork Nightmares is a better example, its split narrative contrasting the comatose Roy Strang’s recollections of a traumatic Leith childhood with a bizarre fever dream in which he hunts down an avian monster in a fictionalised South Africa. Who is that monster, really? Silly question . . .

Edinburgh dominates Tartan Noir. Its Old Town and New Town provides a geographic illustration of antisyzygy—the poverty, danger and squalor of one side of Scotland’s capital contrasting with the other’s wealth, gentility and urbanity. And the real city even comes preloaded with a prototype Jekyll-and-Hyde figure in Deacon Brodie; bible-thumper by day, housebreaker and debaucher by night.

Glasgow has its own claims as a city with two faces. It’s a place of astonishing scientific and engineering breakthroughs and its own generous helping of writers, artists, comedians, and musicians—but a city all too readily associated with drink, violence, and sectarian conflict. The best and worst of humanity, living side by side.

It does seem egotistical for Scotland to claim any sort of controlling stake in duality. We invented a lot of things, but this quality is hardly a Scottish construct. But it’s telling that storytellers hailing from Scotland return to this theme so many times, particularly in crime fiction. The genre came under fire latterly, with some commentators including the comedian Doon Mackichan lamenting the fact that so many crime dramas on the screen or the printed page feature murdered women. There’s a suggestion here that such stories are predisposed towards misogyny.

I’d tend to go with Val McDermid’s doughty defence of the genre, in which she said that the beauty of crime stories is that we actually gain an insight into victims, and the aftermath of crimes, which might be otherwise lacking in sober coverage of true-life incidents. In uncovering humanity’s dark side—separate from outright exploitation, of course—we gain sympathy for the victims and their families, or we are at least provided with an insight into how they felt.

And there is also the idea of closure; that in crime fiction, foul deeds will be fully uncovered, and perhaps even punished. Vengeance is mine, saith the crime writer. Viewed from this perspective, crime fiction can have a resolution which might be painfully lacking in real life.

The explosion in true crime podcasts and TV series has run into similar critical opposition. Is it exploitative to have real-life events exposed to such forensic detail, while victims and their families are still alive and well? Yes, if the material is handled clumsily. But I’d argue that dense, detailed examinations of horrible crimes can help to demythologise them—to move murders away from the realms of folklore and infamy, removing something of the dark allure of notorious crimes, and dragging evil acts into the light of proper scrutiny.

A great recent example is Hallie Rubenhold’s recent The Five, an illustration of Jack the Ripper’s victims. This book humanises the tragic lives of women whose names might have been represented in the past as a tick on an obscene scorecard. It is also sprinkled with the gold dust of new theories and information about the ultimate cold case. To take one example, Rubenhold suggests that the victims were attacked while they were sleeping, challenging Ripperologist orthodoxy.

Whether crime books are true life or fictional, the impulse to read them and to write them is the same: to examine the darker parts of human nature. To be fascinated by horrific crimes is normal, precisely because they are abnormal. Per capita of the population, murders are still relatively uncommon, and it’s only natural that we should be curious about how and why they take place, from both a forensic and psychological viewpoint. When it comes to crime, shrugging one’s shoulders and turning away is one of the worst options available to us.

And so we return to antisyzygy, as we consider the mug shots we see in our news feeds; the talking-heads videos featuring shocked neighbours, contending that a serial killer seemed like such a normal, regular person who kept themselves to themselves.

Aside from the puzzle-solving element, perhaps this is why crime writing is so endlessly fascinating: the idea that behind a face you thought you knew, a monster lurks, obscene and unfathomable.

And perhaps even worse, there’s the suspicion that if you had been dealt a different hand in life, the face of Mr. Hyde might have been the one you see in the mirror.

Posted in Characters, crime, Fiction, Genre, Guest, International, Setting | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Me and Mister Sherlock” (by Batya Swift Yasgur, MA, LSW)

Batya Swift Yasgur has been contributing regularly to our blog this year. The award-winning author got her start as a fiction writer in the pages of EQMM, in our Department of First Stories. Her latest story for us is January/February 2019’s “Poof.” As she reveals here, like many crime and mystery authors—including Frederic Dannay (of the Ellery Queen writing team)!— it was discovering the Sherlock Holmes stories as a child that really piqued her interest in the mystery genre.  We’d love to hear from others who count the Sherlock Holmes stories as one of their inspirations.—Janet Hutchings

I have always been inordinately influenced by what I read. Perhaps it’s because I was a lonely child who didn’t fit in very well with my peers. My parents were both European and had no idea how to help me integrate with American kids (and my father, in particular, had no desire to see it happen). I had a British accent. My father, a brilliant rabbinic orator, never talked down to me, so my vocabulary was in the stratosphere, compared to that of my schoolmates. (What four-year-old apologizes to her teacher for “causing undue anxiety?”) I wasn’t allowed to watch television and had no idea who Superman was. I had never heard of peanut butter. I was also from a more Orthodox family than my peers, so my skirts were longer than everyone else’s.

Needless to say, the other kids teased me relentlessly and my life at school was unending torment. Books were my comfort and haven. Through books, I was introduced to worlds that became more real than the “real world” that I inhabited. My goals and thoughts were shaped by what I read.

So when I read the Doctor Doolittle series, I decided I wanted to become a veterinarian and learn animal language. I mastered a fairly authentic sounding bark—sufficiently doglike to cause a few heads (human and canine) to turn. But I wondered what I was saying in dog language. Perhaps it was rude?

My interest in veterinary medicine petered out when I encountered Sherlock Holmes.

I don’t know who first introduced me to Holmes. It may be that I happened upon one of the books during a foray into the library. I was about twelve or thirteen and as soon as I read the first story, I was hooked. Dr. Doolittle became . . . well . . . just so yesterday. I wanted to be a detective, and not just any old detective—I wanted to be Sherlock Holmes himself.

I got a magnifying glass and attempted to do some sleuthing, which I called “Sherlocking.” I tried to be very observant of details, which didn’t go well, as I wasn’t detail-oriented even then (and I’m notoriously poor with details now).

But what also shaped me was my hero worship of the persona of Holmes himself. He fascinated me. There was much that I didn’t understand—I didn’t know what Scotland Yard was, for example. I didn’t know what cocaine was. But the magnetic persona of Holmes captivated me.

I eventually left my detective ambitions behind after reading I Never Promised You a Rose Gardenby Hannah Green. I was inspired by Dr. Freed (the protagonist’s psychiatrist) to become a psychiatrist—a complex path that eventually led me to where I am now—a social worker with a counseling practice.

Today, with the benefit of my clinical training, I would say that Holmes could be diagnosed with bipolar disorder. When he was working on a case, he would go without sleep or food, driven by his creative, single-minded mania. After the case was solved, he would often crash into depression. He also had what clinicians would call substance-use disorder, since he turned to drugs—especially cocaine—in the absence of stimulating cases. Today, we would say he had a “dual diagnosis.”

Fortunately, I knew nothing about any of this when I was young and I was able to approach Holmes with an open mind and no preconceptions. There is a Zen saying that Holmes himself would have undoubtedly liked: “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind, there are few.”

The connection with Zen isn’t so far-fetched. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a mystic and his spiritual propensities must have influenced his depiction of Holmes. There is much to learn from Holmes about meditation and mindfulness—wholly giving oneself over to the moment, paying attention to every minute detail, every nuance, one-pointed concentration, and quieting the mind.

Often, Holmes would sit in silence, smoking his pipe. In the story “The Red-Headed League,” Holmes described the conundrum he was contemplating as “a three-pipe problem” and asked Watson not to disturb him for fifty minutes. Or in The Hound of the Baskervilles, Watson wrote: “I knew that seclusion and solitude were very necessary for my friend [Holmes] in those hours of intense mental concentration.”

In fact, Watson talked about Holmes as engaging in meditation. In one of the stories (I forget which), Watson wrote (about Holmes): “He sat in meditative silence.”

My spiritual teacher Adyashanti recounts that at the age of nineteen or so, he read the word “Enlightenment” in a book and was immediately seized with the passion to know what that was and devote himself to finding out. Looking back now, I realize that Watson’s mention of meditation had a profound impact on me. I don’t think I had ever heard the word “meditation” before. Prayer, yes—of course—but not meditation. Something about that word seized me. I knew I had to start doing meditation, whatever that was.

Meditation is now central to my spiritual path. I meditate to encounter that inner Silence. Solitude and seclusion are essential as well. So is curiosity, which is (in Adyashanti’s words), an essential asset in the spiritual path. Adyashanti also likes to emphasize that attention and time are our two most prized commodities in the spiritual endeavor—all of these being hallmarks of Holmes.

So Holmes continues to reverberate in subtle ways in my spiritual life, and my quintessential quest for Truth. In the story “The Blanched Soldier” he said, “When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” It reminds me of the immortal Indian sage, Sri Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950) who said: “Let come what comes, let go what goes, and see what remains.”

Truth remains. Truth does not, cannot,“come and go.”It is both the core and the container of our reality, the most profound and abiding Mystery of who we are, and of existence itself.



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“A Writing Career: What Does It Mean?” by Brendan DuBois

EQMM is very proud to say that Brendan DuBois debuted in our Department of First Stories. Usually, in introducing someone who has appeared in that department, I go on to say something about how their career has progressed. Brendan does that for us here, and the post should give encouragement to many beginning writers, since it doesn’t gloss over the difficult years nearly every writer will face. What Brendan left out of this account is that he is a two-time Shamus Award winner and three-time Edgar nominee for his short fiction! I’m sure that those honors, and many others, including an EQMM Readers Award, have lightened even the hardest parts of the journey.—Janet Hutchings

Prologue (Sweet Youth With Sweet Dreams)

When I started dreaming about being a published writer (or author, if we’re getting pretentious) I did a lot of writing, along with a lot of fantasizing.

In these pre-Internet days, I obsessively read copies of The Writer and Writer’s Digest magazine, along with the thick book Writer’s Guide to Markets, which came out every year. While I certainly read these magazines for writing tips and suggestions, I was also obsessed with what it was like to be a writer. I saw what it was like for my dad, uncles, aunts, and others to be fastened to a job with rotten bosses, poor pay, and bad hours.

Even before I was a teenager, I wanted more, and I loved the sense of freedom that came from successful authors. I read about writers who could set their own hours, traveled when they wanted, and who were only responsible to themselves and their agents, editors, and readers.

That was going to be life for me. That’s the career I wanted.

I imagined at some point later in my life, I would start off by selling short stories, which would lead to novels, and would leave to yearly or biyearly novels, having a career that would provide a comfortable and fulfilling life.

That was my plan.

Reality, Part One (Dreams Can Come True!)

I started writing and submitting short stories when I was twelve years old. I kept on doing this for a number of years. In my imagination, I thought being a writer of fiction like was attending the best party and celebration ever in a wonderful, multi-roomed mansion. At some point I was getting published as a journalist, but I wanted more. I wanted the satisfaction of seeing something I had created being published and paid for. In those long years, I felt like I was outside in a cold driving rain, peering in through the pantry door, whispering, “Let me in, let me in.”

Then the door did open for me, in 1985, when I sold my first short story, and then my second, and then my third, to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. God bless that magazine!

The door was finally opened, after 14 years (!) of trying.

My long-term career dream was about to take off.

Reality, Part Two (The World Is Wide Open)

I sold short stories, I got a couple of award nominations, and some of my stories were actually anthologized in “Year’s Best” anthologies. I went to my first Edgar Awards banquet. I went to my first post-Edgars party at Mary Higgins Clark’s luxurious apartment. It was time to start writing a novel (still using a typewriter, honest to God).

I wrote the novel. I spent a summer rewriting it, and sent it off to an agent. He sat on it for months. Then one night, when I was watching the movie In The Heat of the Night with my wife, the agent called from Florida. He loved the book, and wanted to represent me. He promised a quick sale.

My career seemed right on track.

Reality, Part Three (The Cruel Times)

The novel didn’t sell. My second novel didn’t sell. I got divorced. A third novel died aborning on my first Mac computer.

The sale of my short stories dropped off.

One miserable year, I didn’t publish a single short story.

My career seemed still-born.

I was working in corporate communications and was miserable.

It seemed like I had fallen into the trap that I thought I would always be available to avoid.

My writing career, dead before it could take off.

Reality, Part Four (The Bounce Back And Big Break)

I wrote my fourth novel, a first-person traditional detective novel.

My agent loved it

He sold it within three weeks of receiving it, and actually got a two-book deal out of it.

My short-story sales started to come around.

I got happily married for the second time.

There were bumps along the way (my first novel’s publication was delayed for two long, miserable, and disheartening years), but I felt my career was back on track. I didn’t make enough from the first two novels to quit my day job, but maybe by books number three or four . . .

I wrote the third novel in my mystery series, and then my publisher went out of business.

I was marooned.

What to do?

I decided to take a gamble, and I wrote an alternative history novel, called Resurrection Day.

Lightning struck.

The book went to auction. It was sold to nearly a dozen overseas publishers, and there was movie and TV interest.

Best of all, I had enough in the bank and in future income to quit my job in corporate communications, and become the full-time writer I always dreamed of.

My career had arrived!

Reality, Part Five (Reality Strikes Back)

Resurrection Day got great reviews, the best of my life, including a gushing starred review from Publisher’s Weekly. There was even TV and movie interest.

What it didn’t get were great sales.

It tanked.

The Hollywood promises faded away like morning frost in March.

My publisher and every other American publisher turned down my next standalone thriller. Only my U.K. publisher took it on, for which I’m eternally grateful.

My career seemed shattered right after it had such a promising start.

My bank account started to drain.

I wrote furiously.

Short story sales here and there.

My detective series got picked up by St. Martin’s Press.

I also sold some standalone thrillers.

But things were grim. My advances dropped dramatically. Only through the support of my wife could I afford to keep on writing full-time.

Yet my career was miserable. I had to fire my agent when I learned that, for a year, he hadn’t submitted a novel to an editor when he had indicated otherwise. Agents came and went. My last one told me that my two most recent novels were unpublishable.

And on one special occasion, having cake and coffee with my book editor, I was told that my publisher would no longer publish my traditional detective series.

Career? What was that?

Reality, Part Six (Fifth Stage, Acceptance)

But I kept on writing.

I could not think of not writing.

My short-story sales continued (as of this writing, they stand at 176 . . . honest!) and I found another publisher for my detective series. I branched out into writing science fiction (my first true love back when I was young) and broke into the SF novel and short-story field.

Things had calmed down some.

My career . . . well, perhaps I was going to be destined to be one of those writers only recognized and getting great sales after my passing.

Once I was at an Edgar Awards ceremony with the incredibly talented S.J. Rozan, and there was a slide show of past award winners and nominees, and we both saw names of past writer friends who . . .

Who were gone.

No, not dead.

They had just stopped writing, for a variety of reasons.

Their writing careers were over.

Perhaps they had made the wiser choice.

Reality, Part Seven (Resurrection Day, for real this time)

Things were quiet, almost satisfying in my writing. I now had an income stream—all right, more of a trickle than a stream—but I was content. Scarred, a bit bitter, but I was still here, and I was still at the keyboard.

Then lightning struck.

A publishing friend of mine told me that James Patterson, the most popular author in the world, was starting up a new publishing line, called Bookshots—novellas of only 40,000 words—and was looking for coauthors. I wrote a try-out, succeeded, and over the next year and a half, wrote three Bookshots.

Things seemed great.

Then they were going to get better, much better.

I did an outline for a fourth Bookshot and my editor at Hachette said that James Patterson wanted to personally talk to me . . . a first!

I nervously got on the phone with him. He was direct and to the point.

He liked the outline for the fourth Bookshot. He liked it so much that he wanted to know if I was interested in coauthoring a full-length novel with him based on the outline.

I said “yes” so fast that I think the phone nearly melted.

I wrote that book, called The First Lady, and then wrote a second full-length novel with him, called The Cornwalls Are Gone. A third novel has been completed and is the pipeline, and I’m about halfway finished with my fourth coauthored novel with Patterson.

My short-story output continues, and I just submitted my twelfth detective novel to my publisher.

As of today, The Cornwalls Are Gone is #2 on the New York Times Hardcover Bestseller List, and The First Lady is #6 on the trade paperback bestseller list. These two books have also appeared on the USA Today, Wall Street Journal, and Publisher’s Weekly bestseller lists.

At last, I thought, at last and finally . . . I have a writing career.

But you know what?

I look back on everything that had happened since 1985, and my career has always been there, staring at me in the face.

I just had to be smart enough to recognize it.

And for those of you out there dreaming of a writing career, may your dreams come true as well.

Maybe with just a few less detours.

Posted in Books, Guest, Publishing, Writers, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

“The Legacy of Editor Queen” (by Laird Blackwell)

A professor emeritus at Sierra Nevada College, where he taught for over thirty years, and currently a teacher of  literature at Tahoe Expedition Academy, Laird Blackwell is an expert on detective fiction. His 2018 book The Metaphysical Mysteries of G.K. Chesterton: A Critical Study of the Father Brown Stories and Other Detective Fiction (McFarland Publishing) is currently nominated for the Edgar Allan Poe Award in the Best Critical/Biographical category (winner to be announced at the awards banquet on April 25!). His latest contribution to the genre is a book about Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and its profoundly influential founding editor, Frederic Dannay. Entitled Frederic Dannay, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and the Art of the Detective Short Story (McFarland Publishing), it charts the influence that EQMM and various Queen anthologies had on shaping and ensuring the survival of our genre. In this post, the dedicated fan of short mystery fiction talks about the inspiration for and evolution of his new book.—Janet Hutchings

Ellery Queen—two magic words for lovers of classic detective fiction. For me—an avid fan of the genre—despite Queen’s over thirty detective novels, numerous broadcast scripts, and scores of short stories (including the longish and magnificent “The Lamp of God”), the main impact Queen (mostly Frederic Dannay) had on the detective-fiction genre was as editor—of numerous acclaimed anthologies of short stories, and of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, which is still thriving over seventy-five years after its inception in 1941 and over thirty years after Dannay’s death in 1982. Most critics agree that Queen, as editor, was the single most significant factor in preserving and nurturing the detective short story through the “dark years” into the present. In the 1940s, when the popularity of the detective story was waning and the periodicals in England that published it (such as the Strand, Pearson’s, and Argosy) were closing up shop, “there was a gleam of light from across the Atlantic. The steady flame of Ellery Queen was alive” (Michael Gilbert, “EQMM” in The Tragedy of Errors)—and it burned especially bright in EQMM and the early anthologies.

For me personally, Queen’s anthologies, especially 101 Years’ Entertainment (judged by many to be the finest detective-crime short-story anthology ever produced) and its follow-up, To the Queen’s Taste, introduced me to the wider world of detective short stories, for my adolescence and early teenage years were pretty much limited to Sherlock Holmes, Father Brown, Hercule Poirot, and Uncle Abner—resplendent and thrilling literary detective companions indeed, but (as I discovered from the Queen anthologies) only the detectival tip of the iceberg. It was through 101 Years’ Entertainment that I “awakened” to such luminary sleuths as The Thinking Machine, The Old Man in the Corner, Arsene Lupin (burglar and detective), Dr. Thorndyke, Max Carrados, Susan Dare, Roger Sheringham, Professor Poggioli, Reggie Fortune, and Prince Zaleski. As the years passed, I discovered numerous other Queen anthologies, and finally, in the dusty stacks of a San Francisco used bookstore, I came across the treasure trove that was EQMM.

For so many readers like me, for detective-story authors, and for the entire detective-crime short-story genre, Queen (especially Dannay as editor of EQMM) was the champion, protector, promoter, preserver, and inspirer. In EQMM and the early anthologies, the works of the detective-story Masters were brought back to the public’s attention and affection (almost 700 stories published), while novice detective authors (over 550 of them) were provided a stage and an audience (to say nothing of a warmly supportive but serious critical voice). The genre survived and thrived because of Queen. So many authors were nourished and developed, and so many readers were cultivated and enthralled, not only by the selections in the anthologies and in EQMM but also by Dannay’s accompanying commentary—a veritable literary history on its own! A book of just the commentary in EQMM over the years would be a wonderful tribute to Dannay as well as a valuable and fascinating history of the detective short story genre.

And, of course, Queen is not a secret—the sales of his numerous novels, short-story collections, and anthologies has reached astronomical figures, and EQMM is still the most acclaimed and honored detective-story magazine under the editorship of Janet Hutchings. However, despite these sales, Nevins’s biography The Art of Detection, and some wonderful articles, blogs, and websites, some of which give detailed looks inside Dannay and Lee’s professional and personal lives, I didn’t think that Queen’s enormous contribution to the detective-crime short-story genre had ever been sufficiently acknowledged and documented, so this was the intention and motivation behind my monograph: Frederic Dannay, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and the Art of the Detective Story, which covers the years of Queen’s greatest influence from the first anthology in 1932 and the first edition of EQMM in 1941 until Dannay’s death in 1982.

In researching for this book, I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading my large collection of EQMM and Queen anthologies, following the threads of the enormous influence Queen had on the genre, its authors, and its readers. Dannay’s extensive commentary (especially in issues of EQMM in the 1940s and 1950s) was often at least as interesting as the stories it accompanied. I was amazed at the number of “Masters” he encouraged to write new stories (and sometimes even to create new detectives) and at the number of now-famous authors he “mid-wifed” and “baptized.” Writing this monograph involved me in a couple of years of unadulterated joy and admiration for Ellery Queen and his unrelenting passion for the detective-crime short story and his devotion to its survival and health. I hope that the joy and the admiration are evident in my book, for they both continue unabated and undiminished to this day and will accompany me as cherished friends into my old age.

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