WHAT’S IN A WORD?

As we approach the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, with so much talk in the air of “political correctness,” I thought it timely to re-post a piece I put up on this site on January 22, 2014. —Janet Hutchings

This is my first post since the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, and that day always seems to bring to mind for me some of the ways that words, both in literature and ordinary life, can impact social change. In the 1990s, MWA, through the vote of its membership, compiled a list of the “Top 100 Mystery Novels of All Time.” Number sixty on the list was Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, a novel that belongs, of course, to the mainstream of American literature as well as to crime fiction. Although it proved to be one of the bestselling novels of all time, that book was banned from many schools and libraries as soon as it began to enter curriculums in the mid 1960s. Objections to the book ranged from its depiction of an interracial attraction to its racial slurs. And it certainly isn’t the only classic of American literature tugged at by such opposing forces for censorship. In 2010, Huckleberry Finn was reissued in an edition expurgating offensive racial terms, but when it was first published, it was its use of words perceived inappropriate to polite society, like “sweat,” that kept it off shelves.

Partly as a result of the Civil Rights Movement, over the past fifty years most Americans have become more sensitive about the use of words that could insult or offend. Speaking of her childhood reading of Huckleberry Finn and her encounter with its use of what is almost universally referred to now as the ‘N word,’ author Toni Morrison has said: “Embarrassing as it had been to hear the dread word spoken, and therefore sanctioned, in class, my experience of Jim’s epithet had little to do with my initial nervousness the book had caused.” She describes being at times “embarrassed, bored, and annoyed” by the word’s use, but never fazed by it. Children sometimes seem to grasp better than adults that the power of a word lies in its context and intention, and it seems to me that this is one of many arguments that could be put forth for leaving a masterpiece of children’s literature like Twain’s as written—especially since that particular book aimed to expose not sanction the racism of its day. We can understand, though, why adults would want to protect children from the impact of words with a long history of intent to wound, and for that reason I doubt this issue with regard to literature will ever be laid to rest. The fact that it has become entirely unacceptable throughout most of our society to use words that involve racial or ethnic slurs not only in business and government but in private discourse has probably helped to make our country more tolerant. But what do we say about a work of literature that seeks to represent society as it is, that aims to capture the way that people really speak? How does one balance the desire to deprive corrupting and offensive speech from having continued currency with the need to portray what is—or in the case of an historical work was—really there?

A number of years ago, I received a cancellation letter from a subscriber who was the mother of a deaf child. We had just published Florence Mayberry’s “The Secret,” a tale told from the point of view of a young girl. Speaking of neighbors for whom she clearly has affection, the child narrator says, “ . . . you had to look right at them and move your lips slow, or use deaf-and-dumb talk with your hands like Miss Abbie did.” Our subscriber wrote that she was reduced to tears on reading that expression “deaf-and-dumb talk” and others like it in the story. For fear that her daughter might pick up the issue and read it, she destroyed it and informed us she could no longer trust what we might send to their home.

It’s easy to forget how different the use of language pertaining to all sorts of minorities, not only racial and ethnic ones, was prior to the Civil Rights Movement—to forget that other groups, based on gender, disability, and sexual orientation, were inspired by the struggle for racial equality to demand not only changes in laws but in language. The word “dumb” (in the sense of “mute”) had so thoroughly disappeared from accepted usage by the 1990s, when this story was published, that I felt it necessary to point out, in my reply letter to our subscriber, that the story had a historical setting that dated back to a time when this was the widely accepted way of referring to someone without oral speech—and that it had not been intended, in most contexts, to insult. Certainly not in the way that racial epithets are intended to insult.

This was to me a clear-cut case of potentially hurtful language being necessary for the story—and it was a story I thought deserved to be published—to be believable. But that didn’t mean I didn’t sympathize with the reader or that I failed to take the implied point that there is a relationship of trust that must exist between the editor of a subscription-based magazine and his or her readership. Had Florence Mayberry’s story been published in a book rather than a magazine, the reader, if disturbed, could simply have taken the decision never to buy a book containing work by the offending author again. Readers of a subscription magazine, however, are not making their own buying decisions. They don’t know what’s going to be coming up in the next issue; they have to trust the buyer of the fiction that’s being delivered to their door—and that, of course, is the editor. I had violated this reader’s trust, and it was something that bothered me even though I thought I’d made the right decision in publishing the story. It’s possible that at the more “literary” end of the fiction spectrum, this sort of problem of balancing readers’ sensitivities and the artistic demands of the fiction itself occurs less frequently. With a broad-based popular-fiction magazine like EQMM, it comes up often, and it causes me to think that we may have become over-sensitized to the potential derogatory connotations of expressions that most often are actually used in a purely descriptive way.

Curiously, that hypersensitivity about the use of language in some areas of our culture coexists with what I find to be some very reckless and harmful uses of language in the current political realm. Think of the way the word “evil” has reemerged in the past couple of decades. Politicians have come to savor this word, using it in reference to one foreign regime after another, and to denounce those on the other side of all sorts of important issues (“evil Obamacare” and “evil cuts to unemployment benefits” are two instances I’ve seen recently). But it’s not just politicians and cable news commentators with whom that word is becoming more popular. It may seem odd for a mystery editor to object to careless use of that particular word. After all, crime fiction often turns on an uncompromising division of the world into good and evil. An article in the New Yorker a couple of years ago about Swedish crime writer Stieg Larsson speculated that one of the reasons for the phenomenal popularity of his books is precisely that, morally speaking, he acknowledges no shades of gray: “the truly innocent at the mercy of the truly evil . . . the absolutist morals of Larsson’s books . . . may be a powerful selling point,” the article’s author, Joan Acocella, remarked. But why, I wonder, is that kind of moral absolutism proving so popular in fiction now? Could it be that the kind of language that prevails in a culture solidifies a type of thinking? The belief that it does was, after all, the reason people fought so hard to change the way minorities were referred to.

I find moral absolutism, and therefore the kind of language that entrenches it, disturbing. Moral perspectives that admit no shades of gray take us further from King’s dream of transforming “the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood,” since absolutists obviously do not all agree on what is black and what is white. Words matter. Had Dr. King been less eloquent, less attuned to the many shades of meaning words carry, he might not have been able to transform our nation the way he did. If only more of our current public figures remembered that.—Janet Hutchings

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HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Linking the past and the present: That’s a theme you find in song (“Auld Lang Syne”) and in images and news stories relating to the new year, and hard as I try to tell myself that the turning of the calendar page to January is no more significant than the passage to any other month, there seems to be no escaping the reflections it brings. This year, the page-turning is especially poignant. EQMM has just spent an entire year looking back at its history and accomplishments, reuniting with old friends and supporters, and enjoying the celebration of its 75th anniversary at events sponsored by Columbia University.

In the course of the past year I’ve reflected often about the many people and experiences that have defined my own quarter century at EQMM, and I’ve found that my recollections sometimes differ slightly from those others have of the same events. I was struck by this as I listened to the panels at the EQMM 75th Anniversary Symposium this past September, and I think such differences in the shadings and interpretation of memory are what one should expect.

Memory may be the chain binding old and new, but it has many unreliable links, from a factual standpoint, and it’s probably a good thing it does, for it’s often memory’s creative distortions that provide the engine to drive us forward. As I look back over the past twenty-five years, certain events, both good and bad, loom larger than rationality dictates they should. I’m sure that if I were questioned about the details of these occurrences with the rigor of a good interrogator, my memory would prove to be fallible in significant respects. But I don’t always wish to put the picture in better perspective, because I think it’s sometimes memory’s impressionistic renderings that provide the best guide for where to head next. Where, for instance, would our culture be without the drive forged in so many people by exaggerated recollections from childhood?

If we all had perfectly accurate memories, without gaps or creative embellishments, mystery fiction too would, I think, be incalculably impoverished. Take away books that turn on the suppression by memory of harrowing acts like murder, and we’d lose such important parts of the crime canon as Agatha Christie’s last published novel, Sleeping Murder. Without memory’s ability to manufacture things that never happened at all, we’d be without novels like Sue Grafton’s U Is for Undertow. And many of the great interrogation scenes in courtroom mysteries would be rendered pretty lame if John Q. Witness were always found either correct or a liar—rather than misled, in details big and small, by his own memory.

There are a very small number of people who have what is called “superior autobiographical memory.” They have, apparently, perfect recall of every day of their lives, starting at varying points in childhood. One of the interesting things I’ve read about these extraordinary people is that they don’t simply remember facts—everything from the weather to current events to what everyone they encountered said and did on literally any given date—they also have complete recall of their emotions relative to those events. They describe their memories as like being there, living it all over again.

I wonder what the world would be like if everyone had the superior recall of these memory savants. Certainly human societies would have evolved very differently from the way they have; for one thing, maybe we’d have a more reliable justice system. The ordinary human memory is apparently so fallible that separate witnesses to the same event, questioned within minutes of the occurrence, frequently give conflicting accounts of what happened, and this is becoming a recognized problem with eyewitness testimony in the solution of crime. Some might consider this a problem of perception, but it seems to me that most perceptions we’ve had time to give voice to may already have been given a creative interpretation by memory.

One of the things that was so fascinating about the EQMM symposium at Columbia was that some of the impressionistic recollections of panel participants could be seen side by side, so to speak, with the factual record provided by documents in the EQMM exhibition we visited afterwards. Most often, the latter bore out the former, but with details that filled in the picture in interesting ways (especially as regards Fred Dannay’s correspondence with authors and some of his edited manuscripts). I came away feeling that we need both the factual record and the impressionistic one provided by human memory in order to form a vital image of the past.

As we look ahead to 2017 and beyond, it will be with some deep impressions left by our 75th anniversary retrospective fueling our forward impetus. We enter 2017 with a new format—six double issues per year—and this change presents both opportunities for innovation and challenges to retaining the character of a magazine that has been prized by its readers for so long. If we can start to meet that challenge in 2017 in a way that inspires the kind of energy amongst readers that we saw in 2016, it will be a happy new year for us indeed.

We wish all of you a productive, creative, and happy new year too!

—Janet Hutchings
EQMM

 

 

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HAPPY HOLIDAYS AND NEW YEAR FROM EQMM!

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“Trust Me, I’m a Doctor” (by Manju Soni)

An eye surgeon turned author, Manju Soni has written nonfiction for the Apeiron Review and other journals. Her debut short story, “The Game,” appears in the current issue of EQMM (January/February), in the Department of First Stories. It’s a tale that combines psychological suspense with a keen awareness of the drama of nature. In this post the author talks a little about how her two careers converge.—Janet Hutchings

It was ten o’clock in the morning and the sun was shining over the hospital gardens. The neurologist, a tall man with a receding hairline and a kindly face, approached the elderly man’s bedside. The man was not his patient, he had been asked to give a second opinion on the patient by a colleague. The senior nurse in charge of the ward, a stolid bundle of efficiency, ordered her junior nurses to draw the curtains as she scrambled to keep up with him.

The patient’s eyes were closed and he looked as if he was asleep, but he was in fact almost unconscious. His face was covered in a prickly grey stubble. He mumbled incoherently as the neurologist tried to rouse him. After he had examined the patient, the neurologist examined the CT scan and then the MRI and then the X-rays and then the twenty or so blood tests that had been done.

While he was reviewing the HIV test results, he glanced up to see the patient’s wife walking in. She was tall and well built, about seventy, the neurologist guessed. She was pretty and the turquoise saree suited her rather fair complexion, as did the large, red bindi (dot) on her forehead.

“Good morning,” he nodded briefly.

“Good morning Doctor. How is he doing?”

“I’m not sure exactly, it’s the first time I’m seeing him.” Of course he could have just said something like, “Slightly better,” but that was not him, he couldn’t lie as easily as some of his colleagues.

“Did the test results show anything?”

“Only that he has large hemorrhages on both sides of his brain. We can’t understand why he has these matching lesions. Can you please tell me exactly what happened.”

He sat her down on a chair next to the bed and pulled one up for himself.

“Start at the beginning please.”

He listened carefully as she described her husband’s mild dizziness in the morning, two days before.

“I thought it was due to his low blood sugar. He hadn’t eaten much the night before, and he had taken his sugar pill, and his baby aspirin.”

The doctor nodded.

“And then when he tried to get out of bed, he fell,” she said.

“He fell? And did he hurt himself?”

“Not really. He knocked his head against the bedside cabinet, that’s all.”

And with that, the mystery of the cause of the bilateral parietal lobe hemorrhages my father-in-law had suffered, was solved. The mild head injury combined with being on low-dose aspirin had most likely caused his bleeds. Sadly he died a year later.

Every patient has a story to tell, and every doctor becomes a repository of these stories. Doctors are uniquely privileged to be both observers and participants at the frontline between life and death, a zone where some of the greatest dramas and mysteries of the human experience unfold and reveal themselves, often to young, impressionable minds. Sometimes these stories cannot be contained and find their way out into the world, through the pen or a keyboard.

Often the stories are no longer than flash-fiction pieces. Like the time I, as a medical intern, was trying to complete my course requirement of delivering at least twenty babies. I was gloved and examining a young woman in advanced labor. I tried to assess how far dilated she was, when I felt the baby suck on my fingers! I was so startled and in fact terrified that I pulled my fingers out at lightening speed and stared at them to see if they were still intact. The nurses around me had a good laugh. The baby was a face presentation. Luckily the birth was uneventful, except for the baby’s bright red face, which matched mine.

Sometimes the stories are tragic, like physician Anton Chekhov’s story “Sleepy” about an exhausted teenage nanny who falls into that twilight zone between sleep and wakefulness while tending to her master’s son. I have no doubt the story is drawn from Chekhov’s own experience of late nights and lack of sleep as a doctor.

Sometimes the stories are well researched and beautifully written musings about history, life, and death, like physician Siddhartha Mukherjee’s exquisite Pulitzer Prize-winning The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, or New Yorker writer and surgeon Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End.

And at other times they are the author warning us about the possibilities of the uncontrolled commercialization of science. A classic example is physician Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park about uncontrolled genetic engineering, made so much more compelling because we see how easily it could be true.

Of course sometimes the stories are good rollicking fun. The inimitable Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the uber-logical “consultant detective” Sherlock Holmes, ophthalmologist Robin Cook, the father of the medical-thriller genre, and physician Tess Gerritsen, one of the few women doctor-writers, are masters of the crime and suspense thriller, all of whom have delivered years of entertainment and vicarious fear to readers all over the world. Of course most of what they write would have Hippocrates turning in his grave.

I find myself writing not so much about my patients but about the brutal system of apartheid and its impact on them. Like my essay in TheEstablishment.com about a young patient who had visited a back-door abortionist, or the unpublished story about the elderly African man who had to travel hundreds of miles to have his cataract removed, and who was so happy to be able to see again he went home and returned with a cow as a gift for us. My other passion is psychological suspense, like my story, “The Game,” in the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, January 2017 issue, about a young woman who is pregnant with twins, trapped on an island during a storm.

But when all is said and done, what we doctors learn during our work is that when we humans are unclothed and dressed in those annoying butt-exposing hospital gowns, we are all, rich and poor, men and women, doctor and patient, the same. And this is often most poignantly captured by doctor-writers like neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi, who penned his beautiful memoir, When Breath Becomes Air, while being both a doctor and a patient undergoing chemotherapy for advanced lung cancer. He died at the age of thirty-seven. In an interview with NPR, his wife, Lucy, said, “He really returned to literature to cope.”

And, perhaps this is what so many of us do when we read.

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“Of Jigsaws, Roller Coasters, Crosswords, and Mazes” (by A.J. Wright)

Although his work appears in EQMM for the first time in our January/February 2017 issue, on sale December 20, A.J. Wright is a historical mystery novelist who already has three books to his credit, all belonging to a series set in his native Lancashire. The first book, 2010’s Act of Murder, won the Dundee International Book Prize. The second, Striking Murder, was shortlisted for the British Crime Writers’ Association’s award for best historical crime novel. A third book, Elementary Murder, is about to be released. In this post we get a glimpse of what led the former teacher to write fiction, and a hint of what we can expect to find in his novels and stories.—Janet Hutchings

We all love being fooled, hoodwinked, or deceived, but never lied to. I’m not talking about real life, of course, but in our reading of mystery stories and novels. It’s part of the unwritten agreement we have with our author when we turn to that first page, that sense of anticipation that sooner or later on our voyage through the pages we’ll be tricked in some way with a masterly stroke of misdirection.

Actually, the first time I met with misdirection was from something my mother used to say to me.

Constantinople is a very big word. Spell it.

As I struggled with the spelling of the “big word” she would laugh and point out that she had asked me to spell a very simple word—it—and I had failed.

Mind you, I was only 27 at the time.

But I reckon that’s what attracts us to mystery writing: the certain knowledge that the writer will try, and hopefully succeed, to misdirect our attention in some way. The greater the deception, the better we feel.

Lateral-thinking puzzles do it all the time. Legend tells us that the first example of lateral thinking came in ancient Greece, when the Sphinx, an evil monster, attacked and killed visitors to the city of Thebes where it stood guard. It asked them this riddle, and when they couldn’t answer, it savaged them to death:

What goes upon four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three legs at night?

Oedipus gave the right answer—Man in his progress through life—and the Sphinx stormed off in anger. (The four legs are a baby crawling; two legs, man walking in his prime; three legs point to his need in old age for a walking stick.)

Actually, that’s not a good example, is it? I mean, the ones who couldn’t answer the question didn’t say, Hey, what a cool riddle! It’s difficult to be positive when you’re a Sphinx’s dinner.

Seriously, though, mystery writers feed off (no pun intended) this basic human trait: the need to be faced with a problem, a puzzle, and then we can pit our wits in trying to solve it. Many of us enjoy jigsaw puzzles, where the task of piecing together all of the different sections is somehow calming and frustrating in equal measure. The similarities and differences with reading a mystery novel, especially my favourite, the whodunit—are obvious. A jigsaw puzzle gives us the answer to the puzzle—the whole picture—immediately. There’s no real mystery as we know what the end product will look like. That would be anathema to us readers if we were given all the answers in the prologue:

Colonel Theobald Fortescue will kill three people with a little-known poison, and it will take all the genius and clear thinking of Inspector Solomon to bring him to justice. It all started one evening . . .

And yet we spend days, even weeks, filling in our jigsaw to produce the picture we were presented with on the front of the box!

Still, completing them is a challenge, and we sometimes struggle to fit a piece into its rightful place. We have the visual clue as to where it should go, of course . . . and there’s that immense feeling of satisfaction in putting in that final piece and also closing that final page.

This voluntary need for confusion followed by revelation is what drives us on from one story or novel to the next. And while other genres do bring satisfaction when conflicts are resolved and relationships enhanced (or ruined), I think that the mystery novel fulfils our desire for puzzlement in a much more basic and satisfying way. Novels in other genres might occasionally balk at the structural importance of a beginning, a middle, and an end. I’ve read some novels—unnamed—where I’ve been left with a feeling very much of dissatisfaction, a sense that the author has not explained the ending with any coherence or consideration. Mind you, how many films have you watched and been left with that same What the . . . feeling?

I know the arguments that will be put forward:

But real life isn’t like that.

Novels surely need to reflect the real world where there is a sense of dissatisfaction or incompleteness . . .

Problems don’t always get solved.

Blah-de-blah.

True. But if I want the real world I can switch on the TV or walk down the street at midnight. When I pay good money to read a novel—a mystery novel, because that’s what I like and I know (hope) it will entertain me—I don’t want the real world—the real real world to intrude. I want to escape from the real world and enter a world where I can take up the author’s challenge, read the clues he/she presents and tries to hide in open view, and solve the mystery before those final revelatory pages.

That world bears a passing resemblance to the real world, of course—it has to do, to create that air of credibility—but we know that by the end, when the villain has been exposed, order will finally be restored.

I’ll hold my hand up and say, Yes, that’s escapism. Shoot me.

It’s also a matter of trust. We trust our author to play fair with us and lay down certain clues as to the identity of the murderer, but we also trust that he or she will plant those clues in such a deceitful way as to mislead us. But the key element here is trust.

In a way it’s that same feeling of trust that we place in the operator of a roller coaster. We know it’s going to be a thrilling journey with ups and downs and twists and turns and a slow pace and a frantic pace, but we have an abiding faith in the way the operator is controlling the pace of the thing, a firm belief in how the ride will end:

Safely, but with that sensation of Wow, let’s do that again!

But I’m a writer, too, and from a writer’s point of view, all of this places a great burden on my shoulders. I want to deceive honestly. So I’ll offer my reader the evidence he or she will need to solve the puzzle, but I’ll also throw metaphorical sand in their eyes to blind them.

Where else but in a mystery story would you trust someone more the more they deceived you?

Crossword compilers do this, don’t they? The cryptic ones, at any rate. They’ll offer you a clue but disguise it in such a way that you’ll either tear your hair out trying in vain to solve it, or jump three feet in the air when you get the answer! Here’s an easy clue I made earlier (but kindly refrain from looking down at the end of this blog. That’s cheating and comparable to glancing furtively at the last chapter of a whodunit when you’re only half way through!).

Golden Age writer’s story about lady on shore?*

Easy? Or frustrating? Remember, no peeking! And work it out without any indication as to number of letters. If I gave you that, you’d get the answer easily. So, tough!

Whether the story or novel is a cosy or hardboiled, historical or modern, there’s always that confidence (or should I say hope?) that the pace of the novel will match our expectations. Cosies, at one extreme, are more sedate and less shocking than noirs. A cosy is when you read a murder mystery in your own bedroom. A noir is when you read one in a motel (one of the Bates chain). When I’m reading a cosy, for example, I expect it to be like entering a maze, where I can walk through at a quite leisurely pace, follow the false trails until I get to the end, knowing that sometimes I’ll be helped by the maze attendant and sometimes I’ll make my own way out. Either way, it’s a delight to reach the end. An achievement.

It’s part of the human psyche then to relish the puzzle, whatever form it takes. When writing my mysteries, I’m in control (most of the time) and enjoy the laying of false trails and throwing that metaphorical sand in your eyes. Sometimes, though, I’m like the comic house painter who covers the floor with paint only to find he’s in a corner and can’t get to the exit. Going back and changing things is far less messy when you’re a writer, though—thanks to the Delete button, I leave no paint-stained footprints to highlight my foolishness!

Still, creating an intricate puzzle for readers to solve is a labour of love. Reading a puzzle so I can solve it is a love of labour (someone else’s!).

And finally, remember what the most famous detective of all, Sherlock Holmes, had to say about deception:

There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.

Keep your eyes peeled and well away from metaphorical sand. Happy reading!

* Answer to crossword clue: Dorothy L Sayers
Posted in Classic Mystery, Editing, Fiction, Genre, Guest, Readers, Story, Writers, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Every Customer Is a Story” (by Peter Sellers)

Peter Sellers is a noted short-story writer and the 2001 winner of EQMMs Readers Award for “Avenging Miriam” (December 2001). A few years ago, he expanded his range in the literary field by opening a second-hand bookshop in Toronto (something he talks about in this post). He is also the editor of a number of crime-fiction anthologies. It has been ten years since EQMM readers have had the pleasure of seeing a story by the Canadian author in our pages, but we expect to present a new Sellers story later this year.—Janet Hutchings

Around quarter to twelve a man came in, looked around, and asked me, “How long have you been open?”

“About forty-five minutes,” I said, not even trying to be smart.

“No. I mean how long has this store been open here?”

“About forty-five minutes,” I repeated. “Today’s our first day.”

“Ah,” he said, “I like bookstores.” Then he left.

The store is five years old now, and it almost earns me a living. I used to work in advertising, which made me a lot more money, but between the time I started, in 1980, and now, the business has degenerated. I had come to dislike everything about the ad business: the procedures, the meetings, and most of the people I worked with and for. Everything is run by money guys who know nothing about advertising, and all the creative people are kids who don’t want to work with old guys.

One of the things I learned early was that the people who come into bookstores are generally more interesting than the people who work at ad agencies.

The doorbell chimed, and a young woman approached the counter slowly. She looked nervous and excited at the same time. She leaned in close, her eyes bright and glittery. “I’m looking for a book,” she said.

“I have some of those, “ I told her.

“Do you have How to Kill a Mockingbird?”

Before I opened the store, I had three storage lockers full of books. They were costing me five hundred bucks a month, and I had to do something better with them. Opening a bookstore seemed like a good idea. I put a couple of hours into writing a business plan but got bored and stopped. After looking at four or five possible locations, I picked one in Toronto’s Little Italy. There are plenty of good restaurants in the area, a couple of appealing pubs, lots of private homes and rental units, and an abundance of people on the street almost all of the time. Some of them even come through my door. Oh, and the point of this is that, five years later and after thousands of books sold and thousands more bought, I still have three full storage lockers.

“What’s the most expensive book you have?”

I had been asked that question before, but never by a man holding a large teddy bear. Before I could answer, the man said, “I’m waiting for the clinic to open. It opens at noon. What time is it now?” Both man and bear were scruffy and looked as if they had been living rough. He was skittery and edgy and never stopped looking around.

“Eleven-forty.”

He nodded as if I had passed a test. “Do you buy books from people? If I brought some to you would you buy them?”

“That depends,” I said.

“What time is it?”

“Eleven-forty-one.”

He nodded again. “The clinic opens at noon. I have to go to the clinic to control my drug problem. If I don’t go to the clinic I’m in trouble.”

He did not explain the nature of the trouble, but I expected that it would not be something new to him.

“What’s the oldest book you have? Can I see it?’

“Well . . .”

He looked at the teddy bear and asked, “What time is it?”

The bear stayed mute so I supplied the answer. “Eleven forty-two.”

“I have to go to the clinic,” he said. “Maybe they’ll open up early. Nice talking to you.”

Sometimes talking to the customers provides me with important tools for getting through life.

“Do you know how stop a guy from shooting you with a revolver?”

I was hard pressed to imagine someone wanting to shoot me let alone knowing how to stop him.

“Do this,” he said, making a gun with his thumb and forefinger and pointing it at me. His eyes were maniacal, and I did as he asked.

“Try to pull the trigger,” he said. I must have looked puzzled because he said, “Drop your thumb.” He demonstrated.

As I tried to do so he drove his right hand forward with shocking quickness and my thumb came down on the side of his hand, on the fleshy part between his widespread thumb and fingers. “That’s what you do,” he said. “You slide your hand up against the hammer and hold it back. It hurts like a bitch, but he can’t shoot you.”

His name was Jason. He was short and wiry, with erratic teeth and glasses taped together. He cycled in all weather. He came to the store, he said, because it helped him stay calm. He had been in the Canadian navy, and he had been in prison.

“It was in the States,” he said. “I used to work for some people, collecting money. I was really good at it.”

He came into the store at least twice a week for more than a year. I hired him to do small chores such as shoveling the snow and cleaning up rubble from behind the store. He was punctual, and he worked hard. Then he vanished. He left town or went back to prison or died. I wonder about that, and I miss him.

There’s a man who explains to me repeatedly, and at great length, an idea for an elaborate, and totally incomprehensible virtual-reality game that is sure to make him a fortune. I was going to write about that, but even after having it explained in intense detail half a dozen times, I still can’t fathom what he imagines. My son was visiting me one day when this guy came in and went through his half-hour spiel. My son made polite noises and asked a few questions. When the guy had gone, though, my son turned to me and said, “Dad, what the hell was he talking about?”

The young man had been sitting in the leather club chair for some time before I spoke to him. He had come into the shop, glanced around briefly, and then taken a seat. The chair is comfortable and low and tucked behind some bookshelves, obscuring anyone sitting in it from immediate view of other customers.

“Don’t mind me saying this,” I said, “but you look like you’re trying to hide.”

Yes,” he replied.

“Do you mind if I ask from whom?”

“I’d rather not say.”

“Understood.” We both carried on in silence. It was a slow, quiet day.

“I don’t mind you sitting there as long as you want,” I said after a while, “on one condition.”

“What’s that?”

“Do you want a coffee?”

“Yes.”

“Here,” I handed him a five. “Get two. I take mine black.”

He brought the coffee back, and the right change, and we sat together, chatting about books. After another two hours, he rose and went to the door. “Thanks,” he said.

New stories walk into the shop every day. Financially, I’m less well off than I used to be, but my life is richer. I’ve learned that, almost as much as I like the books, I like the customers, and I have become more tolerant of their idiosyncrasies. They pop in to surprise me every day, usually in good ways and often in bizarre ones. I absolutely could not make this stuff up.

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HARRY KEMELMAN—EQMM PODCAST AND OPEN ROAD E-BOOK SALE

In EQMM’s April 1947 issue, Harry Kemelman, creator of the best-selling Rabbi David Small series, saw print for the first time as the winner of a special prize for best first story in EQMM’s second annual worldwide short-story contest. That first tale of his, “The Nine Mile Walk,” is featured in our podcast series this month, read by another author whose first story appeared in EQMM . . . our book reviewer Steve Steinbock.

If you can’t get enough Kemelman, you’re in luck: Open Road is featuring three of his works as e-books (The Nine Mile Walk: Eight Nicky Welt Stories; Friday the Rabbi Slept Late; Saturday the Rabbi Went Hungry) on sale for $1.99 each in the United States from December 1 to December 6. Visit Open Road, Amazon, BN.com, Kobo, Google Play, or Apple’s iBooks to take advantage of this deal and get started, if you haven’t already, with books one and two in the Rabbi Small series.

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“Ellery Queen—a Website on Deduction” (by Dale C. Andrews and Kurt Sercu)

Since readers will learn about the careers and literary work of Dale Andrews and Kurt Sercu in their own words in the following post, I will simply note that they are among the most dedicated and knowledgeable fans of Ellery Queen, and of EQMM, to be found anywhere in the world. All of us at EQMM salute them, for without such fans it is unimaginable that EQMM would be celebrating a 75th anniversary and looking to the future.—Janet Hutchings

The presidential election has been in the forefront of public discussions this month and it therefore seems apropos that this little article should begin with a political reference, in this case a paraphrase from an unsuccessful vice presidential candidate some years back: Who are we and why are we here?

The “who” part of the question can be answered pretty simply: We are Kurt Sercu, a resident of Sijsele, Belgium, which is near the picturesque city of Brugge, who is the head nurse at AZ Alma hospital in Sijsele, and Dale Andrews, a resident of Washington, D.C., a retired lawyer who was formerly a Deputy General Counsel at the United States Department of Transportation.

Why we are here is a bit more complicated.

It is tempting to answer that question in two words: “Ellery Queen.” It is an interest in the works of Queen that we share, and it is those works that formed the basis of our friendship, and occasional collaboration. Kurt is the proprietor and founder of the website Ellery Queen—a Website on Deduction, and Dale, a lifelong fan of Ellery, is the author of three Ellery Queen pastiches, one of which, “The Book Case,” (EQMM May, 2007) was written in collaboration with Kurt, and each of which has been published in the pages of EQMM. But as the reader may suspect, that simple answer is just shorthand for a story that is a bit more complex.

This story is largely Kurt’s, and so it is with him that we begin. Kurt is a self-styled computer nerd. He bought his first computer back in the 1990s and immersed himself in the then-burgeoning library of shareware programs freely available to those willing to try them. By the late 1990s, armed with what he had learned, Kurt began to think about designing his own website.

It would be tempting, and (again) a simpler story, if Kurt’s intention had always been that his website would be dedicated to the works of Ellery Queen. But such was not the case. In fact, Kurt’s first idea was to design a site focusing on the works of Tolkien. A search of the internet, however, led him to conclude that this subject was already well covered.

So—where else to look? Kurt has always loved mysteries and one might expect that, given his nationality, he might have next explored the possibility of a site dedicated to Agatha Christie’s Belgian hero Hercule Poirot, or perhaps a site exploring the works of Belgian mystery author Simenon. But those of us who frequent this blog can breathe a collective sigh of relief since Kurt, at an early age, discovered, and was entranced by, the mysteries of Ellery Queen.

The Queen mysteries spoke to him. They were structured around puzzles, and these puzzles often revolved around underlying themes—the Bible, Darwinian evolution, McCarthyism. And the books were themselves a puzzle: an author who was also the detective, and who therefore both wrote and confronted all of those baffling situations that were always, in the end, solvable through the application of rigorous logic; where all of the clues were known but where it took Ellery to see where, together, they pointed. Why not build a website dedicated to the works of Ellery Queen?

There were already Ellery Queen websites, but unlike Tolkien, there were few such sites. Also, the sites that already existed were in many cases no more than listings and brief discussions of the Ellery Queen novels. Kurt envisioned much more—an in-depth site that would explore all aspects of the Queen canon. The Queen library, together with various articles Kurt had collected concerning Ellery Queen, formed the early foundation for Ellery Queen—A Website on Deduction. What followed was research and the gathering of information, both pictorial and narrative, from which Kurt could begin to build the type of website he envisioned. This process, and its vision, is explained by Kurt on the website:

[At first I] tried to “cut and paste” my way through what grew into a large volume of information. Too few sites, in my opinion, do justice to [Queen], who started off in the late twenties and [continued to write] into the seventies. He made maximum use of the media at that time and is now, I feel, grossly neglected. I hoped the site [would] fire up more interest in the Ellery Queen stories.

Building the website was no easy task. What Kurt envisioned was a site that would immerse the reader in details and pictures. And like the Queen books themselves, there should be mysteries woven into the fabric of the website—clickable words and icons that whisk the reader to completely different sections of the site.

So the goal from the outset was that the website should be as intricate, as Byzantine, as the Ellery Queen mysteries which it honored. There the reader should find information concerning Ellery Queen—the lives of Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, who were Ellery Queen, the recurring characters, the novels themselves, the Ellery Queen movies and television shows, the comic books, even the board games. If it had to do with Ellery, well, it needed to be covered in depth by the website.

Early on Kurt decided to name the site Ellery Queen—a Website on Deduction as a tribute to the early Queen mysteries, which each contained the phrase “a problem in deduction” under the respective titles. Another early decision was that there would be two identical platforms for the site—one in Dutch and one in English. The Queen mysteries were, of course, written in English, so having an English-language site made a lot of sense. But building the English language site presented a challenge—Kurt’s native language is Dutch. Luckily, however, he is fluent in English, but still—writing extensively in one’s second language is a huge challenge.

And “extensive” is in all respects the proper word. Since its debut, on April 18, 1999, Ellery Queen—a Website on Deduction has grown to include approximately 237 pages of Queen-related information, or (collectively) 474 total pages when one includes both the English and Dutch language sites.

When the reader first enters the website it is obvious that it is in all respects an homage to Ellery Queen. And as such, it contains much information but also many surprises—lots of hidden clues that will propel the reader into different (and at times unsuspected) topics. Since our subject here is premised on the mysteries of Ellery Queen the last thing we want to do is offer up “spoilers.” That said, a “user’s guide” to the various sections contained in the site would look something like this:

List of Suspects” takes you to detailed essays on recurring characters in the Queen library—Ellery, the Inspector, Sergeant Velie and, among others, Ellery’s infrequent secretary and near, but not quite, love interest, Nikki Porter. The reader will also find essays on Djuna, a character in early Queen mysteries, and lesser luminaries—such as coroner Dr. Samuel Prouty.

QBI” unlocks sixteen pages in which every Ellery Queen novel and short story is discussed in detail. Kurt even provides the history of those infamous works that Dannay and Lee “farmed out” to other writers in a perhaps ill conceived attempt to keep the Queen name before the reading public. While perusing these essays be sure to click on the covers of the various volumes—this will take you to even more in-depth discussions of each work, and to the website’s ever-growing collection of international book covers.

Kill as Directed” contains essays on every Ellery Queen movie, comic book, board game and television series. Clicking through the list of episodes of the first EQ television series, which aired on the ancient and largely forgotten Dumont television network, will lead the reader to a select few episodes that Kurt has uncovered that are available online and that can be watched, in their entirety, through the website. The section also contains a detailed and affectionate guide to the 1975 NBC Ellery Queen series, the quintessential Ellery Queen series, which (thankfully!) is now available in a re-mastered DVD collection.

Whodunit” chronicles the lives of Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee. There the reader will also find shorter biographies of every other writer who ever authored a Queen work as a ghost writer. These comprise those farmed-out volumes, the Ellery Queen, Jr. juvenile mystery series, and some later Ellery works that, while outlined by Dannay, were written by others during the period in which Manfred B. Lee famously suffered from writer’s block. This section also contains information on authors who have written Ellery Queen pastiches.

The website has grown over the years, first with a section devoted to “J.J. McC,” the mysterious figure who provided the introductions to the early Queen mysteries, and more recently with the addition of the “West Eighty Seventh Street Irregulars” section, which contains essays by individuals who have been active in keeping alive the Queen name. There you will find Queen related musings by the likes of Arthur Vidro, author and publisher of the newsletter (Give me That) Old Time Detection, preeminent Queen scholar and author Professor Francis M. Nevins, Edgar-winning playwright Joseph Goodrich (author of the recent and award-winning theatrical production of Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town), critic and author Jon L. Breen, Editor Janet Hutchings (who needs no introduction), Professor Joe Christopher, and Dale Andrews.

Oh. That’s right. We should mention Dale at this stage.

Kurt and Dale met online in 2002 when Dale stumbled onto Kurt’s website. After three years of Queen-related emails between the two, Kurt and Dale finally met in 2005, when Kurt flew across the Atlantic for the first time to attend EQMM’s symposium saluting the centenary of the births of Dannay, Lee, and (consistent with the chronology set forth in Ellery’s The Finishing Stroke) Ellery himself.

And this leads us to one of the paradoxes of the internet and, by extension, Kurt’s website. Fans of Ellery Queen may be a narrow subset but they are also a deep one. They are everywhere, all over the world. But until there was a global way to reach out to each other, there was no way for any of those fans readily to connect. The virtual world Kurt has created in his website shatters that barrier. It allows Ellery Queen fans to find each other and to share their knowledge. Ellery Queen—a Website on Deduction, reflecting this, has grown, over the years, with input from interested readers all over the world.

But the internet does more than provide a basis for virtual friendships. It also sometimes provides the first stepping stone to move from the virtual to the real world. And this, in turn, can provide a catalyst for literary rebirth. The ability to download books has provided the onus for the reissuance of the Queen library by Otto Penzler. And, Kurt and Dale’s friendship, first virtual, then in the real world following the 2005 Ellery Queen Symposium, resulted in their collaboration in “The Book Case” (EQMM 2007), a pastiche that brings Ellery back, at the ripe old age of 102, for one more adventure. Kurt and Dale (we!) have also collaborated on analytic pieces available on Kurt’s website, and with this little article they (we, again!) are doing so once more.

Kurt’s website has also facilitated friendships among other fans of Ellery. Just this past September Kurt flew across the Atlantic and he and Dale attended the EQMM 75th Anniversary Symposium at Columbia University. Also attending were when four of those “West Eighty Seventh Street Irregulars,” as well as Jeffrey Marks, another virtual, and now real-world friend, who led a panel, and is the author of the upcoming biography of Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee. And Kurt finally had the opportunity to converse in Flemish with EQMM author and Queen fan Josh Pachter. So, in many respects, the fire is being rekindled, thanks to a virtual world that encourages those of similar interests in Ellery Queen to reach out and find each other.

At the close of that symposium, not ready, yet, to move on, Kurt, Dale and Joe Goodrich lit out together for dinner. What ensued was an evening of drinks, food, Queen-related trivia and merriment, including the travails involved when those three fans of Ellery’s adventures attempted, from memory, to list in chronological order all of the Ellery Queen books on the back of a napkin. (All of this after several Cosmopolitans had been imbibed!) We may not each remember all of the details of that evening, but we do remember enough to solemnly attest that, the value of the internet aside, that time our final list was created without resort to Google!

At the close of that wonderful evening Joe posed a question. If there were one thing out there, just one, involving Ellery that Kurt would like to have or see transpire, what would it be? Kurt had to think long and hard on this. But ultimately his answer was a pretty grand one—he wished there could be a museum, or at the least an extensive exhibition dedicated to the works of Dannay and Lee, a place where visitors could experience first hand all there is to know about the mysteries of Ellery Queen.

Dale’s response? In the real world that is simply too much to wish for. But not so in the virtual world. It’s already there. Just visit Ellery Queen—a Website on Deduction. And in the real world? Well, the closest thing you will find right now is the excellent Ellery Queen exhibit assembled in honor of the 75th Anniversary of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. It is open to the public at Columbia University’s Butler Library through December 23. Given that we are focused here on mysteries it only makes sense that it was the “Butler” that did it, right?

Posted in Characters, Conventions, Ellery Queen, Guest | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

HOLIDAY WISHES FROM EQMM

Happy Thanksgiving from our table to yours.

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REFLECTIONS FROM A READING WEEK

I’ve been immersed in submissions over the past week and it’s revived an old line of thought. . . .

Every editor receives a share of manuscripts from writers who’ve never had a word in print on which a copyright notice looms boldly at the top. This is almost always a bad sign: Most such manuscripts turn out not to be publishable. I’ve come to think that extreme authorial anxiety over the protection of content arises from a failure to notice that creativity mostly takes wing from a relatively small cluster of basic, and shared, ideas.

A decade ago, mystery writers Peter Lovesey, Liza Cody, and Michael Z. Lewin decided to test what would happen if they each wrote a story taking as a common point of departure the same newspaper account of a crime. There’s more than a thematic convergence to the tales they came up with, which were published in EQMM March/April 2007 and later became part of our podcast series, but you can read or listen to all three in the same afternoon and not get a sense of repetitiveness. The creativity there is all in the details: The characters and their social milieus, the different narrative voices, the insights and observations that come from each author, and the subtly different mood of each tale would each suffice alone to give the reader a sense of entering a different fictional world. Even the plots, in their concrete working out, turned out to diverge enough to keep the reader wondering.

Those three authors (all friends, incidentally) were inspired to perform this experiment by the question authors so often get asked: Where do you get your ideas? Most authors find that a hard question to answer: Many will tell you they don’t know, the ideas just come. I once heard a writer say, “Where do I get my ideas? They’re floating in the air.” From my perspective at EQMM that seems, metaphorically at least, a pretty good answer—because authors so frequently catch the same idea at the same time, almost as if an idea were an airborne virus. Stories with amazingly similar themes, plot lines, even character types appear on our desks all at once, then die out as mysteriously as they briefly proliferated. A couple of years ago I was so struck by the similarity of the plots and storylines of two first stories that came to us within a month (both publishable) that I wrote to the authors to ask if they could have shared a writing course; but there was no connection between them at all. Although we’ll sometimes have to choose, in such instances, which story we’ll buy and which we’ll have to send back, authors need not worry, when that happens, that they’ve been suspected of plagiarism. Ideas can’t be copyrighted for the very good reason that they’re so often picked up from no one knows quite where.

That’s not to say there are not cases of deliberate borrowing of ideas, and some such borrowings may be concerning. Writers of classical puzzle mysteries, especially those whose plots hinge on an unusual weapon, a clever contrivance, or an especially complex and clever plot, may have more legitimate proprietary concerns regarding their ideas (including their plots) than most other writers.

But most often, even when a writer consciously borrows an idea from another writer, it’s not a case of stealing. More often it would be better considered a sort of homage. Years ago, I received a wonderfully atmospheric story by a writer who’d never published in our genre before, which we proceeded to buy and publish. No sooner had the issue hit the newsstands, however, than we received an anxious and contrite letter from the author in which she revealed that she’d copied the structure of a story by one of our genre’s grand masters to help shape her own piece. My first thought was that it was a fine time to tell us. But I realized immediately that the story had been so thoroughly filtered through the author’s own viewpoint, characters, setting, and voice that, whatever its structural borrowings, it had become unique. (Besides, structure is a part of craft that nearly every writer learns from those who’ve gone before.)

Don’t get me wrong, we have no tolerance at all for plagiarism. But there’s a big difference between imitation and plagiary, and the things that can be easily imitated or borrowed are often not the things that are key to a story’s originality.

An awful lot has been written about what it is that makes a story original. The source I find most useful on this subject is Edgar Allan Poe. Here are a few lines from his essay “On the Aim and Technique of the Short Story.” He’s speaking of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s work. “Mr. Hawthorne’s distinctive trait is invention, creation, imagination, originality—a trait which, in the literature of fiction, is positively worth all the rest. But the nature of originality, so far as regards its manifestation in letters, is but imperfectly understood. The inventive or original mind as frequently displays itself in novelty of tone as in novelty of matter.”

For “matter” in that last line, let’s substitute “ideas” and then we can see that for Poe, novelty of tone—the voice each author brings uniquely to the work, the distinctive atmosphere he or she creates—is as important as original ideas. And it is a quality it would be very much harder for anyone to borrow or steal.   —Janet Hutchings

Posted in Characters, Editing, Fiction, Genre, Publishing, Story, Writers, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment