All the President’s Novelists (by Kevin Mims)

Times of political upheaval and intrigue often generate a wave of fictional portrayals of the period. As short story writer, essayist, and book reviewer Kevin Mims shows in this post, the Watergate era produced a remarkable number of thrillers that borrowed from real elements of the crisis. We’ll have to wait to see if our current era produces as many thrillers still worth talking about a half century hence.   —Janet Hutchings

Whenever an American presidential administration ends, books about it come flooding forth. Usually these are memoirs by people who served the administration in one capacity or another. I tend to ignore most of these. I’m a pop-fiction fan and prefer novels to nonfiction. And that is why I consider the Nixon administration to have been the best administration of my lifetime. Oh sure, it produced a bunch of scandals and ended with the president’s resignation, but it also included in its ranks the greatest number of pop-fictioneers ever to come out of an American presidential administration.

One of the first important members of the Nixon administration to depart in a cloud of criminal indictments was vice president Spiro Agnew. Although the Nixon administration will forever be remembered for the Watergate scandal, Agnew’s crimes had nothing to do with Watergate. He took kickbacks from contractors during his years as Governor of Maryland. By the time this behavior came to light he was Nixon’s vice president. He resigned after pleading guilty to a single count of tax evasion. Not only was Agnew ahead of the curve on Nixon administration criminal activity, he also got a jump on the others when it came to producing pop fiction. In May of 1976, Agnew published his first and only novel, a political fiction called The Canfield Decision, about a sitting U.S. vice president pondering his own run for the White House. The book was not a huge critical success, but it had its champions. Reviewing the book for the New York Times, John Kenneth Galbraith, who served as an advisor to four presidents, noted that Agnew flailed a bit in the opening chapters but, “As the book proceeds, one does have the feeling that Mr. Agnew struggles less and gets better.” At any rate, the novel, published by Playboy Press in hardback, sold well enough to dig Agnew out of the financial hole his legal troubles had created for him.

Next up was William Safire, a former speechwriter for both Nixon and Agnew. Safire was that rare Nixon White House employee who left office with his honor and dignity intact. He departed in 1973 to become a political columnist for the New York Times. In January of 1977, about seven months after the publication of Agnew’s novel, Safire’s first novel was published, a political thriller called Full Disclosure. Safire’s novel is a thriller about a U.S. President who is blinded in a botched assassination effort and then finds his own cabinet members trying to remove him from office via the 25th Amendment to the Constitution. Safire was a gifted writer and Full Disclosure is a much better literary product than The Canfield Decision. Safire would go on to write three more novels including Freedom (a massive Civil War novel), Sleeper Spy (an espionage novel) and Scandalmonger (about muckraking journalists in the age of Thomas Jefferson).

Agnew’s and Safire’s books may have started the trend of former Nixon aides writing novels, but it was the Watergate scandal that really intensified it. Nixon resigned from office in disgrace on August 9, 1974. Many of the most memorable books arising from the Watergate scandal were nonfiction works, memoirs written by Nixon administration insiders who served jail time such as John Dean, H.R. Haldeman, Charles W. Colson, Jeb Stuart Magruder, John Ehrlichman, and G. Gordon Liddy. Writing about the phenomenon in his own memoir, Another Life, longtime Simon & Schuster editor-in-chief Michael Korda noted that, “It was said that what you needed to survive in Washington in the early seventies was a good criminal lawyer and a book contract.” I’m sure those books were all very intelligent and sober, but I didn’t read many of them because, well, because they were serious and sober and I like pop fiction.

Fortunately for me, after the tsunami of nonfiction Watergate books came a much smaller (and less well-remembered) wave of Watergate fictions, which is to say novels written by Watergate-connected figures. These included two books by the wife of John Dean. Maureen Dean—often referred to by her nickname Mo – published her first book in 1975. Predictably, it was a memoir, called Mo: A Woman’s View of Watergate. Mo never committed any crimes nor went to prison, so she followed up her memoir with a couple of novels—Washington Wives (published in 1987 and widely believed to have been ghostwritten by literary agent Lucianne Goldberg) and Capitol Secrets (a crime novel about a murdered tabloid reporter that features a U.S. Congresswoman contemplating a bid for Speaker of the House). Capitol Secrets is the better of the two, which is surprising because I can’t find any evidence online that it was ghostwritten. Also on the list are two thrillers by G. Gordon Liddy: Out of Control (1979) and The Monkey Handlers (1990). The Monkey Handlers is the better of the two and somewhat of a surprise because, in it, Liddy, an arch-conservative, sympathetically portrays the members of a PETA-like group of animal-rights activists.

The best-known fiction writer associated with Watergate is probably former CIA agent E. Howard Hunt, who spent 33 months in jail for helping to plot the Watergate break-in with G. Gordon Liddy. He wrote 73 books during his lifetime, including many crime and spy novels, often using aliases such as Robert Dietrich, David St. John, Gordon Davis, and P.S. Donoghue. In 1946 he won a Guggenheim Fellowship for his writing. Although Hunt didn’t write any novels about Watergate, his publishers weren’t above using his connection with the scandal to sell books. The front cover of the paperback copy of his 1973 novel Lovers Are Losers identifies the author as “The Former CIA Agent and Watergate Conspirator.”

The first member of the Nixon White House to go to prison for his Watergate involvement was Charles Colson. Known as Nixon’s “hatchet man,” Colson was willing to do just about anything to keep Nixon’s enemies at bay. According to Wikipedia, Colson once proposed firebombing the Brookings Institute and then pillaging its files during the ensuing chaos. Colson also was the man behind Nixon’s infamous list of enemies, a list that included such terrifying figures as actors Paul Newman, Tony Randall, Barbra Streisand, and Carol Channing. By the time he emerged from prison, Colson had become an Evangelical Christian speaker and writer. He also produced one novel, a 1995 political thriller called Gideon’s Torch, co-written with Ellen Vaughn. It is the story of a fictional pro-choice Republican President who uses a spike in crime as a pretext for shutting down the pro-life movement. It is rife with murder, terrorism, political intrigue, and other elements of the contemporary thriller. Though it can be a bit preachy and cheesy at times, the book is mildly entertaining and not horribly written.

But is “mildly entertaining and not horribly written” as good as it gets with novels written by Watergate and Watergate-adjacent figures? After all, almost all of these books are now long out of print and largely forgotten. Are any of them still worth reading all these decades later? Happily, the answer to that question is an unqualified yes. There is one Watergate conspirator whose fiction you ought to seek out if you like intelligent thrillers.

John Ehrlichman, along with his former UCLA classmate, Bob Haldeman, helped run three political campaigns for Nixon. He was there in 1960 when Nixon narrowly lost the presidency to John F. Kennedy. Two years later he helped out when Nixon ran a losing campaign for Governor of California against Pat Brown. And he was there in 1968, when Nixon once again ran for president, this time successfully. Nixon rewarded Ehrlichman’s loyalty with a job in the administration, first as White House counsel and then as chief domestic-policy advisor.

I’ve always felt a great deal of fondness for Ehrlichman because, like me, he was born in the state of Washington, later moved with his family to California, and was a Boy Scout. Sadly, that’s where the similarities end. Ehrlichman was not only a Boy Scout, but an Eagle Scout as well, the highest rank in American Scouting. Ehrlichman won the Distinguished Flying Cross for participating in 26 bombing missions over Germany during the Second World War. He graduated from UCLA in 1948 with a degree in Political Science. A few years later he graduated from Stanford Law School. Ehrlichman began his law career at a firm in Seattle, where he specialized in land use and developed a reputation as a fighter for environmental causes. Alas, once he was ensconced in the White House, Ehrlichman seemed to lose his Eagle Scout sense of Honor, Duty, and Civic Responsibility. Like his boss, he became secretive, occasionally unscrupulous, and convinced that enemies in the press and the federal bureaucracy were eager to take the administration down. But even now, nearly fifty years after the famous Watergate break-in that eventually led to Nixon’s resignation, many questions remain about just how guilty men like Ehrlichman, Haldeman, and even Nixon really were. Even towards the ends of their lives, Ehrlichman and Haldeman were still insisting that the Watergate break-in was engineered not by the White House but by the Committee to Re-Elect the President and its chairman John Mitchell, Nixon’s former Attorney General. When Nixon found out about the crime, he actively participated in the cover-up, even instructing Ehrlichman to use money from an illegal slush fund to buy the silence of the Watergate burglars, which included Liddy and Hunt. Both Haldeman and Ehrlichman regretted their participation in the cover-up, which tarnished the final year of their service to the president, but in fairness to him, it should be noted that Ehrlichman did not spend his entire White House career breaking laws. In fact, as Nixon’s chief of domestic policy he fought for some important causes including workers’ rights, sovereignty for Native American tribes, and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency.

After the Watergate scandal broke, Ehrlichman was found guilty of obstruction of justice, perjury and various other crimes. He was sentenced to a jail term of up to eight years. While waiting for the appeals process to play out, and hoping for a pardon from Nixon, Ehrlichman left his wife and five children and moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he grew a bushy biker beard and set about writing a novel in the hopes of making enough money to offset the cost of his legal woes. To educate himself on the fine points of thriller writing, Ehrlichman told an interviewer for Esquire back in 1976, “I read every Travis McGee novel that John D. MacDonald ever wrote.” It seems to have paid dividends. The book Ehrlichman wrote, The Company, sold more than a million copies and was made into a twelve-and-a-half-hour, six-part ABC-TV miniseries called Washington: Behind Closed Doors. Eager to get on with his life and his new writing career, he decided to voluntarily enter prison while the appeals process was still ongoing. He served eighteen months at a low-security federal prison near Safford, Arizona. After leaving prison, Ehrlichman, now divorced, returned to Santa Fe, remarried, had a sixth child, and continued to pursue a career as a thriller writer.

While in prison, Ehrlichman began work on his second novel, The Whole Truth. This novel is, in many ways, simply a retelling of The Company. But The Whole Truth is magnitudes better than The Company. Ehrlichman clearly took his time with this book, and it shows. The characters are more fully developed, the dialog is better, and the plot is complex but still highly plausible. Ehrlichman also put his legal knowledge to use in The Whole Truth. The centerpiece of the book is a Senate hearing clearly modeled on the Watergate hearings. Presiding over the hearing is Harley Oates, a drawling Democratic Senator from the Deep South and obviously patterned after real-life Senator Sam Ervin, Jr., who presided over the Watergate hearings. The portrait is not meant to flatter Ervin. Oates is a preening phony, waxing poetic about the sanctity of the U.S. Constitution while secretly accepting bribes from the President and the Attorney General in exchange for steering the inquiry away from the White House. Ervin was indeed a Constitutional scholar. He also had a tendency to preen before the cameras. But Ervin was not a crook. And he appears to have been angered by Ehrlichman’s fictional portrait of him. Ehrlichman’s The Whole Truth was published in May of 1979. In December of 1980, Ervin came out with his own nonfiction account of Watergate and appended Ehrlichman’s title to it: The Whole Truth.

Though Ervin might not have liked it, critics mostly approved of Ehrlichman’s second novel. Kirkus Reviews’ unnamed reviewer wrote: “Ehrlichman has wrapped his basic narrative flair around scores of behind-the-scenes goodies and dozens of hints of further Nixon-era nastiness–a combination that’s likely to prove that The Company wasn’t just a first-time-lucky fluke.”

Ehrlichman’s next novel took years of research, as he traveled all across China and elsewhere to get the details right. Published in May of 1986, The China Card is Ehrlichman’s best and biggest book. It is a political thriller set against the backdrop of Nixon’s efforts to renew the American diplomatic ties to China that were terminated in 1949. This time, Ehrlichman doesn’t bother disguising his Nixon White House cronies behind aliases. Here Richard Nixon plays Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger plays Henry Kissinger and H.R. Haldeman plays H.R. Haldeman. Also appearing as themselves in this novel are Mao Tse-tung, Chou En-lai, and Soong Ching-Ling. Ehrlichman seems to be the only novelist who understood the grand operatic nature of Nixon’s historic 1972 visit to China. A year after The China Card was published, Nixon in China, an opera by composer John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman, made its debut at the Houston Grand Opera, validating Ehrlichman’s belief in the dramatic potential of the event. The opera is not based on Ehrlichman’s novel, but it covers much of the same ground. Neither the novel nor the opera was an immediate critical success. Though the opera is now considered a modern masterpiece, it received decidedly mixed reviews in its original run.

Ehrlichman’s book got the same kind of reception. Kirkus Reviews, which had enthusiastically reviewed his two earlier novels, called The China Card “padded and contrived . . . heavy with self-importance but light on originality.” Sadly, The China Card never got the kind of critical reassessment that has made a modern classic of Nixon in China.

In the 1970s, legions of young Americans were inspired by the exploits of Woodward and Bernstein to seek careers in journalism. By 1986, many of those young would-be Bernsteins and Woodwards were ensconced in the highest levels of American journalism, and they all seemed to share a contempt for Nixon and his cronies. Nicolas Kristof, of the New York Times, was one of those young journalists. At about the time that The China Card was published, Kristof wrote a piece for the Times called “The Success of the President’s Men,” which briefly reported on what the likes of Ehrlichman, Haldeman, Liddy, Hunt, Colson, and other Watergate felons were doing nearly a decade and a half after the break-in at the Democratic National Headquarters. Kristof seemed saddened to learn that, for the most part, all the president’s men were doing fine, thank you. They were writing books, running businesses, traveling the lecture circuit, appearing on TV news shows and on talk radio, and basically using their former notoriety to their advantage.

It is easy to understand why Americans were angry about the crimes these men committed. But it seems downright un-American to begrudge them the fact that, having served their time in prison and rehabilitated themselves, they were now thriving. Alas, The China Card seems to have suffered as a result of Nicolas Kristof Syndrome, the tendency to want to take swipes at the men who were brought low by the great Woodward and Bernstein.

What Ehrlichman’s harshest critics couldn’t see was that his books were an ongoing condemnation of his own behavior as a White House advisor. From his prison cell, Ehrlichman sent an audio-taped statement to the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., in which he said: “I abdicated my moral judgments and turned them over to somebody else. And if I had any advice for my kids, it would be never, ever defer your moral judgments to anybody. I’m paying the price for that lack of willpower.” This is a lesson that every one of his fictional counterparts ends up having to learn.

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Adding (Your) Life to Your Writing (by Sandra Murphy)

A freelance editor and a writer of both nonfiction and short stories, Sandra Murphy won a Derringer Award in 2020 for her short story “Lucy’s Tree.” A collection of her stories, From Hay to Eternity, was published in 2017 by Untreed Reads. The St. Louis author’s first story for EQMM, “Sit. Stay. Die.,” was coauthored with Michael Bracken and appears in our current issue (July/August 2022). As you’ll have deduced from that story’s title, it centers around a dog. The real dog who served as inspiration for the story is mentioned in this post—along with other colorful pets who have come into the author’s care. We have another of Sandra’s stories, “What’s the Holdup?”, coming up in 2023.

The real dog behind Finn in the story “Sit. Stay. Die.”  by Michael Bracken and Sandra Murphy.

Write what you know. It’s common advice for writers, but Taco Bell mild sauce has more spice than my life. Since my genre of choice is crime and mystery, I write about blackmail and bribery, capers and car chases, heists and hit men, larceny and lewdness, mayhem and murder.

To know more about crimes, I’d have to become a familiar face, seen in every crowd, the woman who hovers behind the yellow tape and ducks out of sight when a sharp-eyed cop looks her way. I’d soon find myself in an interrogation room, face to face with Good Cop and Bad Cop. “It’s research,” I’d say. “I’m a writer.” The conversation would further deteriorate when I segued into “How big would you say this room is? Is that two-way glass? What do you call this paint color, or should I say pea soup green?” I’d either be released or held for observation.

I found a better way to bring my stories to life than chasing crime scenes. It turns out, my life is spicier than I first thought. There’s that time I flashed a cop, for instance.

For a short time, I made flashy jewelry for stage actors whose performances changed faster than their costumes. It wasn’t a money maker, but it was fun and an educational look behind the scenes. One night, in lieu of an autograph, I talked dogs with Jimmy Vaughan after his concert. He had a Westie then. I have one now.

When Michael Bracken, my sometimes writing partner, emailed and said, “Here’s an idea, a pet sitter, female, is hired to stay at the house with a dog while his owner travels. When she arrives, she finds an envelope of money for her fee, but his suitcase is still by the door. She looks for him and finds a body. What do you think?”

I emailed back and said, “Do you know what I do when I’m not writing? I’m a pet sitter and have been for years.”

Michael’s reply was to the point. “That will save time on research.”

The result is “Sit. Stay. Die.”

Over the years, I’ve cared for dogs, cats, Guinea pigs, ferrets, chinchillas, a rat, turtle, bunnies, fish in a bowl, tank, or koi pond, and birds from parakeets to parrots. I’m known as the Sitter of the Last Resort. When other sitters say no way, I say sure, why not? Those jobs are the most fun as I find ways to work with bullies or the fearful.

One of the ferrets faked his own death. A coal black bunny would wait until the food dish was almost within reach, then would shriek, jump, and probably laugh at my reaction. I found if I lay on my side on the floor, Gizmo the chinchilla would sit on my hip and watch television with me.

I’ve met felines of all sizes, colors, and temperaments, from Evil Buster the Biting Cat to Rosie who meets me on the stairs with head butts.

It’s the dogs though who occupy the most space in my heart. Mixed breeds and purebreds, they’ve ranged from Chloe, a three-pound Pomeranian who had to be carried the three flights to and from the condo. Her little legs were too short to manage the marble stairs. At the other extreme was Oscar, a 225-pound Mastiff who lived with his brother, Ralph, who weighed 180, and little sister, Gracie, petite at 160. Over 500 pounds of dog in three bodies, all gentle, all slobbery.

Pet sitting isn’t without its hazards. After all, I am going into what I hope is a people-free house. Dates have been mixed up or owners left later, arrived home earlier, forgot to call. I’ve walked in on them in their jammies or in the middle of dinner. One client failed to mention a workman in the other side of her two-family house. She didn’t tell him about me either. I opened the front door to make my escape and almost walked into him, he with an open boxcutter in hand. No blood was spilled although panic levels were turned up to an eleven for both of us.

Owners have forgotten to mention they have an alarm, so when the blaring noise wakes the neighborhood, panics the dogs, and I have no code, the police are called. Although I generally wear black, I must not have the look of a cat burglar because they always believe me when I say I’m the pet sitter.

Our story’s dog character is based on Finn, a Border collie I pet sit. When I met the real live Finn, a liver and white Border collie, he was just a pup. He lived with two other dogs, Delphi, a medium-sized black mix, and Ari, a huge, white German shepherd. I tried to walk all three at once. Delphi walked dead ahead with the pull of a locomotive. Ari ambled. Finn, well, he had the energy and attention span of a hummingbird on Red Bull and meth. He zig-zagged in front of me, behind me, almost wrapped me in his leash. Arrival back at the house, still upright and alive, was cause to kiss the ground, but not where the dogs might have been.

In our story, Finn knows how to call 9-1-1, can help his person, Betty, if she’s hurt, and knows the names and colors of his toys, all things real dogs can do. This Finn is bilingual and understands basic commands in English and instant obedience commands in German, known as Shutzhund training.

Pets look forward to sitter visits and why not? With a sitter, they’re the center of attention. I know where the treats are and have time to play. I never force a pet to do something he’s hesitant about or refuses. We’ll find a solution. Because of that, I’ve never been bitten.

I’m told it’s weird when I talk to pets like I would talk to anyone, explain what I want them to do, tell them when I’ll be back. I was once told, “Dogs don’t know how to talk!” I replied, “They talk, you don’t know how to listen.”

The addition of a dog to your story, especially for a mystery, brings humor, suspense, and invests the reader into the tale. When it’s time for the main character to rehash the red herrings, alibis, and motives, a dog can be a sympathetic listener. It also eliminates the need for a human sidekick to be on hand, no matter the hour.

There are pet people and dog people. Pet people will enjoy the story and not sweat the details. Dog people will zero in on an error faster than a dog can spot a squirrel and will let you know you’ve barked up the wrong tree.

Write what you know, write what you can research, and write what you can imagine. Take a closer look at your life. It might be spicier than you first thought. Add a dog like Finn to your story. Finn is a Good Boy.

I have one rule I won’t break. I will put a dog in jeopardy, but he’ll never die. The humans? They’re on their own!

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In Memoriam: Douglas Dannay, 07/3/1933 – 06/17/2022

Some sad news reached EQMM recently: On June 17, 2022, Douglas Dannay died in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Born July 3, 1933, Doug was the eldest son of Frederic Dannay, who, together with his cousin Manfred B. Lee, wrote the Ellery Queen novels and stories and founded EQMM. I did not know Doug at all well, as he lived, until his retirement, in Merrick, Long Island, not in New York City where the magazine was based, and he was often unable to attend EQMM events. However, the limited contact I had with Doug left me with two strong impressions: that he was very intelligent and that he was extremely modest.

Doug’s connection to EQMM was not just a familial one. His own fiction, a story entitled “Tough Break,” published under the pseudonym Ryam Beck, appeared in EQMM’s Department of First Stories in October, 1956. Here’s how his father, Fred Dannay, introduced the story:

Ryam Beck’s “Tough Break” is the author’s first published story—that is, in a professional sense. Mr. Beck tells us that two of his stories have appeared in high school and college literary magazines, but “Tough Break” is the first story that has earned him even a modest chunk of coin of the realm. For a new writer Mr. Beck has a surprisingly firm grip on characterization—the people in his story come alive; and the narrative flow is both driving and disciplined.

“Tough Break” is the tale of a gambler who is unlucky in love—which, according to an old saying in the profession, is not the worst thing in the world that can happen to a gambler . . . But speaking of old sayings, we could paraphrase W.S. Gilbert (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame) by calling your attention to the fact that, taking one consideration with another, a gambler’s lot is not a happy one, and reminding you that there are times when the punishment should fit the crime . . .

We cannot tell you much about the author. He is 23, unmarried, was graduated from Haverford College where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and his ambition is to become a serious and successful writer.  As we have assured so many other beginners with talent, we of EQMM are always willing—nay, eager—to lend a helping hand.

Hallelujah, the young ones keep coming on . . .

I do not know for sure whether, when this submission first arrived at the EQMM offices,  Fred was aware that it was from his son, for it may have been submitted under a different pseudonym than Ryam Beck—a name Fred would likely have recognized as based on the name of his first wife (Doug’s mother), Mary Beck. But whether he realized the author was his son or not, there was absolutely no nepotism here. The story stands up well even after sixty-six years. I’d have bought it myself—and we’ll be reprinting it in our March/April 2023 issue, where you can see for yourselves.

Doug Dannay playing chess with his father, Frederic Dannay, with beloved stepmother “Bill” Hilda Wiesenthal looking on.

Twenty-three-year-olds can seldom see exactly where their ambitions will take them. I imagine that Doug may have begun a career in teaching as a path parallel to his aim of becoming a “serious and successful writer.” It is, after all, a frequent career choice for those seeking to write at night and on weekends. In Doug’s case, though, the teaching itself caught fire. He became a legendary middle-school teacher of English literature and poetry, earning this unsolicited praise from a former student who tracked down his brother Richard Dannay in 2019 in the hope of getting a thank-you message to Doug fifty years after taking his classes:

Douglas Dannay in the classroom, teaching

That message—the finest tribute one could imagine receiving—was read by Richard at Doug’s funeral. With such a rewarding career in teaching absorbing him every day, it’s not surprising that Doug never devoted as much time to his own writing as he’d anticipated when he debuted as a fiction writer in 1956. But he never abandoned the effort either. Even more attractive to him than novel or short story writing was the prospect of writing for the theater, and in 2010 I received an e-mail from him saying that he had completed a play—and did I know of an agent who represented playwrights to whom he might submit it. Unfortunately, I did not, and in future correspondence Doug never mentioned the play again. If it’s among his things, it’s my hope that something can be done with it. I expect it’s good; after all, Ellery Queen himself described this author as one with a “firm grip on characterization” and a “driving flow” to his way of unfolding a narrative.

Doug was far more than was comprised in his work as a teacher and writer, of course. He was, as his brother Richard said in his obituary, which appeared in the New York Times on June 22nd and 23rd, a beloved husband, son, father, brother, grandfather, uncle, and friend, and, not to be left out, “Pinter’s pal”—Pinter being Doug’s dog, named for the playwright Harold Pinter.

May Doug rest in peace after a life well lived.

—Janet Hutchings

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Remembering Harry Kemelman and the Rabbi (by Arthur Vidro)

An aficionado of traditional mysteries, Arthur Vidro publishes the thrice-yearly journal Old-Time Detection, which explores mystery fiction of the past. He has special expertise in the works of Ellery Queen, and was one of the winners of EQMM’s 80th Anniversary Trivia Contest. In this post, he discusses a contemporary of Ellery Queen who started his writing career late in life, Harry Kemelman. Kemelman made his fiction debut in EQMM’s Department of First Stories, so we consider him one of our own!  —Janet Hutchings

Do you remember the first mystery book you bought new?  I remember mine.

During my growing-up years, a local thrift shop always allowed little me to take whatever used books I wanted, for free.  But their selection was limited.

So was my income.  I never received an allowance and was never strong enough to mow lawns or shovel much snow.  Money was tight.  Eventually I took my savings (from occasionally baby sitting for a neighbor) to Macy’s—they had a book department then—and bought Wednesday the Rabbi Got Wet by Harry Kemelman.

My first purchase of a new book.

I had become a Kemelman fan about two years earlier, when my cousin Howie was discarding items from his bookshelf.  He needed the space for his college textbooks.

Though I was still a kid, I was beginning to read adult books and was the only mystery reader in the family.  So Howie offered me his two mystery books—Friday the Rabbi Slept Late and Saturday the Rabbi Went Hungry, both by Harry Kemelman.

I accepted the paperback books and read them.

That copy of Friday proudly proclaimed the book had won an Edgar award.  I had never heard of the Edgar awards.  Nor had I heard of Kemelman.

Harry Kemelman (born 1908) was a contemporary of the Ellery Queens (born 1905) and John Dickson Carr (born 1906).  But Kemelman was a late bloomer, his first book appearing when he was middle-aged.  He was still writing a full generation after the others had stopped.  His eleven best-selling murder mysteries starring Rabbi David Small began in 1964 and ended in 1996.

Kemelman entered the mystery world with his much praised and highly anthologized short story “The Nine Mile Walk,” which first appeared in the April 1947 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.  That tale starred Nicky Welt, a professor of English language and literature at a small New England college.  While planning to show how a string of inferences can be totally logical but still not be true, Professor Welt breaks down a sentence handed to him—“a nine mile walk is no joke, especially in the rain”—and draws inference upon inference until, lo and behold, a crime is solved even before it is discovered.

All the Nicky Welt stories were collected in book form in 1967 as The Nine-Mile Walk: The Nicky Welt Stories of Harry Kemelman.  In his lengthy introduction to that collection, Kemelman explained how his original Welt tale in EQMM led to the creation of his most famous character, the murder-solving Rabbi David Small.

Turns out, wrote Kemelman, that shortly after EQMM published “The Nine Mile Walk,” several publishers approached him, all interested in seeing a Nicky Welt mystery novel.  Kemelman’s response, according to that introduction:

“Naturally, I was flattered, but at the same time I felt I had to refuse.  I felt that the classic tale of detection was essentially a short story—the primary interest on the problem, with character and setting emerging as adjuncts.”

Years later, Kemelman produced a novel he titled The Building of a Temple.  It focused on the sociological situation of the Jew in suburbia.  Kemelman sent the fiction manuscript around to various editors, all of whom praised it while declining to publish it.  It didn’t have a large enough potential sales value.

Eventually, however, one editor—not identified by Kemelman in his Nine Mile Walk introduction—who was a fan of the Nicky Welt stories suggested Kemelman incorporate a detective story into his novel of the Jewish suburban community.

Kemelman liked the idea.  He knew that the traditional function of a rabbi, as opposed to a priest or minister, is as a judge, an interpreter of the Law, rather than as a religious leader.  This could be demonstrated by getting a rabbi involved in a murder mystery and having him work his way out of it.  (Rabbi David Small himself was one of the chief suspects in Kemelman’s first published novel.)

The idea had extra appeal to Kemelman because it provided a solution to the problem he saw in writing a full-length mystery novel.  In Kemelman’s words in that lengthy introduction to The Nine Mile Walk collection:

“The murder would provide only one thread, albeit an important one, of a larger narrative.  That would be the story of the entire community in which the murder occurs and which affects everyone involved.”

The result was the bestselling series of mystery novels featuring Rabbi David Small.

I suspect the editor who made the helpful suggestion was Arthur Fields, a publishing executive who formed his own imprint in 1972.  Fields was co-dedicatee in The Nine Mile Walk and the sole dedicatee in Wednesday the Rabbi Got WetTuesday the Rabbi Saw Red was published under the Fields imprint, which soon disappeared when the publisher died.  In his final novel, Kemelman revealed a bit more, dedicating the book “in memory of Arthur C. Fields, who started me off, and Scott Meredith, who brought me along.”

Kemelman’s Friday the Rabbi Slept Late (1964) won an Edgar for Best First Novel.  It was a surprise best-seller.

His mom was especially proud—even though she couldn’t read the book.  At least not at first.

Here is a little tidbit that probably appears nowhere else on the Internet.  (It comes from the rear dust jacket of the first edition of Kemelman’s Saturday the Rabbi Went Hungry.)

Harry Kemelman encountered only one frustration with his highly praised first novel.  Of the half-dozen translations of his book, none was in the only language his ninety-six-year-old mother reads: Yiddish.  All this time she has been carrying around her son’s novel backside front—where it shows his photograph.  Well, recently mother and son had their wish: the book is being serialized in a Yiddish newspaper, so now she can share the delight of thousands of readers.

Kemelman’s subsequent Rabbi novels were also hits and probably played especially well in Jewish suburbia (where I grew up).  The murder mystery was important, sure, but just as compelling were the other major plots of the books—would the Rabbi cave in to the temple’s board of directors and perform a marriage ceremony when one party was Jewish (and a rich benefactor of the temple) and the other party was Christian?  Would the board really fire him over it?  Will the board replace Rabbi Small with a younger, hipper, more gregarious (and less costly) newly ordained and upcoming rabbi who already has successfully substituted for him?

It’s true the murder mystery sometimes took a book seat to the other goings-on.  Heck, my favorite parts of the books were always the temple’s board meetings. Rabbi Small and the other characters in the New England town of Barnard’s Crossing aged at the same pace as their readers aged.  As the series progressed, the Rabbi and his wife, Miriam, went from young adults to late-middle age, and readers took in the births, growing up, and moving out of their two children.

Definitely an armchair detective, Rabbi Small always reached the solution via sound logic by exercising the talmudic realm of his little grey cells.  His input is often sought by Chief of Police Hugh Lanigan.  Of course, talmudic logic is hardly legal evidence, possibly by denying the truth some culprits might avoid punishment—but the Rabbi successfully thinks his way to the truth, as Professor Nicky Welt had done previously.

The Rabbi even made it to television. Starting in early 1977, “Lanigan’s Rabbi” was a monthly component in the prime time NBC Sunday Mystery Movie (taking its turn in the rotation with “Columbo,” “McCloud,” and “McMillan”).  Perhaps in a bid to gain audience size, the leading role was given to the Chief Lanigan character (played by Art Carney), while the Rabbi (played by Bruce Solomon) got second billing.  Janis Paige played Mrs. Lanigan, with Janet Margolin as Mrs. Small.  Only four episodes were produced.

While that series was on the air, I purchased that rabbi book at Macy’s.

In addition to those four episodes, the 1976 series pilot, based on Friday the Rabbi Slept Late, starred Stuart Margolin as Rabbi Small, teaming up with Carney’s Chief Lanigan.

In 1992, shortly after The Day the Rabbi Resigned was released, this reader wrote to Mr. Kemelman—the first time I ever wrote to an author—praising Kemelman’s body of work and thanking him for all the pleasure I had received from the books since I had begun reading them in the mid-1970s.

Kemelman wrote back.  At one point Kemelman and I discussed how computerization was leading to more errors creeping into published works.  As Kemelman put it:

In the old days when copy was set by linotype, publishers had proof-readers, and by the time galleys were sent me, there were only about half a dozen errors for me to correct.  In the page proof that followed, a single error was unusual.  Nowadays, when copy is done on word processors (sometimes I think by high-school dropouts), there are as many as ten or fifteen mistakes in the first dozen pages.

I am glad that you enjoyed the book and am highly appreciative of your kind offer to copy edit the next one.  I trust there will be a ‘next one.’  In fact, my contract with Random House calls for two more.  I am working on the next Rabbi book right now, but it takes me a couple of years to do one so don’t expect one in the immediate future.

All the best,

Harry Kemelman

There was indeed a “next one” — That Day the Rabbi Left Town, published in February 1996. 

Soon after that final book was published, I mailed Kemelman the April 1947 issue of EQMM, hoping he would sign it on the page where “The Nine Mile Walk” begins.  He kindly complied, 49 years after the story’s initial publication.

I do not know if Mr. Kemelman began work on the third Rabbi novel called for by his final book contract.  He died in December 1996 at age 88.

As for my cousin who placed those first two Rabbi books into my hands?  He became a rabbi himself.

A Harry Kemelman Checklist

Friday the Rabbi Slept Late (Crown, 1964; Hutchinson, 1965)

Saturday the Rabbi Went Hungry (Crown, 1966; Hutchinson, 1967)

The Nine Mile Walk: The Nicky Welt Stories of Harry Kemelman (Putnam, 1967; Hutchinson, 1968)

Sunday the Rabbi Stayed Home (Putnam, 1969; Hutchinson, 1969)

Common Sense in Education (Crown, 1970: non-fiction)

Monday the Rabbi Took Off (Putnam, 1972; Hutchinson 1972)

Tuesday the Rabbi Saw Red (Fields, 1973; Hutchinson 1974)

Wednesday the Rabbi Got Wet (Morrow, 1976; Hutchinson, 1976)

Thursday the Rabbi Walked Out (Morrow, 1978; Hutchinson, 1979)

Conversations With Rabbi Small (Morrow, 1981: fiction but not a mystery)

Someday the Rabbi Will Leave (Morrow, 1985; Hutchinson, 1985)

One Fine Day the Rabbi Bought a Cross (Morrow, 1987; Century, 1988)

The Day the Rabbi Resigned (Fawcett, 1992; Severn House, 1992)

That Day the Rabbi Left Town (Fawcett, 1996; Severn House, 1997)

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Freud as a Writer of Mysteries (by Sheila Kohler)

A multiple O. Henry Award winner and a Willa Cather Prize winner, Sheila Kohler writes both literary and crime fiction. She’s the author of eleven novels and three short-story collections. One of her novels, Dreaming for Freud, revolves around the historical figure who is the subject of this post. The author’s most recent story for EQMM, “A Secret Country,” appeared in our May/June 2022 issue.  —Janet Hutchings

Freud’s discovery of psychoanalysis may have become almost forgotten today or rarely practiced—too time consuming, too expensive, not sufficiently scientifically documented, but his skill as a writer is surely still there for us to emulate and enjoy. Not for nothing did he receive the Goethe prize. Particularly in his five famous case histories which read like mystery stories, we can admire this expertise. Perhaps the earliest of his case histories, published in 1905,  known as the Dora case,  is the best example. Dora, who was really Ida Bauer, after three months of treatment,  escaped,  which enabled Freud,  because of the case’s brevity, to write it up more easily.  Dora, in a sense,  by refusing treatment gave him the gift of the case history.     

From the first few lines of the case Freud immediately makes us aware of his control of the material, revealing the heart of the matter only gradually, letting the information emerge at just the precise moment when we are about to raise a question. The case-history starts at the end, or anyway, in the middle, with the patient and the mystery of her various symptoms: a cough, bodily pains, a suicide note, whose meaning is to be discovered by our Sherlock Homes, while the patient herself gives us our Watson.

Freud has a great sense of timing. Like Dostoevsky at the beginning of The Brothers Karamazov, when speaking of the father’s death “which I [i.e., the author] shall relate in its proper place,” Freud gradually leads us through the intricate unravelling of this tightly tied and complicated knot. Like Nabokov in the preface to his Lolita Freud captures our interest by telling us that “Sexual questions will be discussed with all possible frankness, the organs and functions of sexual life will be called by their proper names, and the pure-minded reader can convince himself from my description that I have not hesitated to converse upon such subjects in such language even with a young woman.” Who among us could resist such an invitation to read on?

Both Nabokov and Freud speak of the necessity of hiding the identity of their characters. Nabokov announces that “Save for the correction of obvious solecisms and a careful suppression of a few tenacious details that despite H[umbert]H[umbert]’s efforts still subsisted in his text as signposts and tombstones (indicative of places or persons that taste would conceal and compassion spare), this remarkable memoir is presented intact.” Freud tells us of his attempts to hide the identity of the real Dora. “I have picked out a person the scenes of whose life were laid not in Vienna but in a remote provincial town, and whose personal circumstances must therefore be practically unknown in Vienna.” Is the purpose of these statements only to respect privacy? Or is it also—primarily, even—to make us curious? How much truth do they hide? Regardless, mystery is created, and questions are aroused in our minds.

It is Freud’s ability to create mystery and, at the same time, to give us precise details which makes us see, hear, and understand Dora’s dilemma. We wonder from the start what is troubling this seventeen year old who Freud describes as “in the first bloom of youth” so deeply.

Freud chose here a high-stakes story. One might even equate it with a soap-opera quartet. Dora’s father who had been successfully treated by Freud for syphilis brings  his young daughter, an intelligent, lively girl telling him that his goal is to get her to be reasonable.  He maintains that she has been led astray by unsuitable reading. and adds that she has merely fancied a whole scene where a certain Herr K has attempted to seduce her.

Herr K, it turns out, is, in fact, the husband of the woman Dora’s father is having an affair with, and whom her father covers up for, along with, in effect, offering him his daughter, in compensation. Freud adds to the suspense maintaining, “ I had resolved from the first to suspend my judgement of the true state of affairs till I had heard the other side [i.e., Dora’s], as well.” We, too,  wish to hear the other side of course, identifying with the hapless girl.  

It is easy to put ourselves in the place of this girl between her sixteenth and eighteenth year.   We recognize at once that her situation was a desperate one. The three adults with whom she was closest, whom she loved the most in the world, were apparently conspiring—separately, in tandem, or in concert, to deny the reality of her experience. Freud, at least listens and makes us listen, too, to this high-stakes story, which remains shocking, even to us today. Who would not empathize with this vulnerable, young girl, treated as a pawn in her father’s adultery, part of a diabolical quid pro quo: “You take my daughter, and I’ll take your wife.”

Like many skilled mystery writers Freud often uses a binary structure with reiteration and reversals. We learn of two seduction scenes: the first, in Herr K’s office, when Dora is only 13, where he has proposed to meet her along with his wife. Instead, he comes alone and clasps her to him and begins forcibly to kiss her. Revolted, she wrenches herself away and flees, not mentioning the scene to anyone.

The second such scene takes place two years later, by a lake where the family has a house. Dora has previously learned from the governess to the K’s’ children that he, Herr K, while “ardently courting” the governess, had complained, “I get nothing out of my wife.” He uses the same sexual allusion with Dora in a similar overture of love. Insulted and traumatized by this crude approach, she slaps him in the face and flees and ultimately, this time tells her father of his behavior. That same afternoon, when she awakens from a nap, she finds Herr K again beside her, insisting that he can enter whenever it suits him. Yet the father denies the truth of Dora’s account, putting it down to her reading of unsuitable literature. Where we wonder does the truth lie in all of this? 

We are presented, too, with two dreams, around which the case history is organized, like any successful novella.

How wonderfully suggestive these dreams are, is reflected in the fact that they have been used again and again as inspiration by various writers, such as in D.M. Thomas’ “The White Hotel.”

Henry James once said, “Tell a dream, lose a reader.” But that is not what happens here. Who could forget Dora’s first dream of a burning house and the jewel-case that must be saved? Or her second one, which involves a train station, a letter, and the death of her father? These two dreams conjure up many mysterious dangers: of fire, of death, of voyages.

Freud also introduces mystery by using an obfuscating, third-person narrator. This device allows him to claim he is protecting confidentiality, but also frees him up to introduce arguments to  convince us of his opinion.

Mainly, Freud, like an unreliable narrator gives us his own version of what his patient has supposedly told him. Here, he describes Dora’s dragging her leg after that famous kiss: “That is how people walk when they have twisted a foot. So she had made a ‘false step,’ which was true indeed, if she could give birth to a child nine months after the scene at the lake.” One supposition , namely that pregnancy could result from a kiss, leads him to the next, namely “the false step.” Does Dora accept all of this? We have only what Freud’s third-person narrator tells us: “And Dora disputed the fact no longer.” Poor Dora!

Freud’s need to curtail and at the same time to select the essential in the exposition of his analysis is reinforced, he tells us, because of the patient’s “resistances and the forms in which they are expressed.” This resistance, of course, was useful to Freud as a mystery writer, although it might have made his task as a therapist more difficult. Resistance enables him to create conflict. For example, when he likens the jewel box in her dream to her vagina, Dora, in one of the few moments we are privileged to hear her voice directly, says “I knew you would say that!” We immediately agree with her because, indeed, what else would Freud have said!

Similarly, whatever “resistance” may mean clinically, it enables Freud to delay his revelations until the right moment not only for the patient but also for the reader. We are held in suspense and brought along gradually like Hansel and Gretel following the crumbs in the forest to accept as reality what might otherwise have seemed unbelievable.

Nor does he disappoint us: behind each revelation there is always an even deeper one. The fourth major character, in this quartet, we discover, after Dora, her father, and Herr K, is Herr K’s wife. All three of these adults betray Dora in varying and horrifying ways. We learn, early on, that Frau K has shared a bedroom with Dora, knowing that her husband is sleeping elsewhere. She has shared the secrets of her troubled marriage with Dora, who is taken with her “adorable white body.” As it turns out, Dora is in fact attracted to her rather than to her husband. Thus, Freud gives us a much more interesting and unusual triangle, surely a more believable one for such a young girl, cleverly divulging this at the right moment.  He thereby introduces the theme of bisexuality, much on his mind at that time, as revealed in the letters to Fliess, whom he himself may well have been in love with. 

As in a good mystery story, nothing is what it seems: behind every object, every gesture, every word, lies its opposite. Ultimately, Freud leads us on with reiteration and reversal like any wily mystery writer. What Dora feels as disgust, Freud assures us is desire. Love and hate are juxtaposed: this is the best and the worst at the same time, as in a Dickensian world. Truth remains elusive, but what matters here is the skill of the writer, our pleasure in this well-told tale and, above all, the deeper truths about human nature we find scattered here like gold, which are to be extracted by our unreliable narrator, Freud, himself.

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Feeding your TBR List (by Jill Vassilakos-Long)

A government information librarian and the Coordinator for Special Collections at California State University, San Bernadino, Jill Vassilakos-Long is the coauthor, with her colleague Michael Burgess, of the bibliography of historical crime fiction Murder in Retrospect. She debuts as a fiction writer (writing as Jill Vassilakos)  in our current issue, July/August 2022, with the historical mystery story “The Message of Amun-Re.” In this post, she provides some helpful tools for readers searching for good books in our genre.  —Janet Hutchings

I have to admit that my To Be Read list is already too long to get through in this lifetime. But there’s no law against looking, right?

I’ve been a librarian for a long time. How do my traditional tools stack up against newer websites and apps, when I’m looking for a good read? I asked around, to see what other readers are using today.

This is a rundown of what I found:

  • Amazon: other customers were interested in . . . stayed pretty much in series.
  • GoodReads: Historical mystery list was all right, I do like the book synopses.
  • Reddit: r/mysterybook, r/booksuggestions, and r/suggestmeabook, if you type historical mysteries in the blank next to the subreddit title in the blank at the top of the list, it brings up posts that include the phrase “historical mysteries.” The information is dated to the last active conversation on the list, but the conversations were informative.
  • What Should I Read Next? (;  I searched Ellis Peters (best known as the author of the Brother Cadfael series). I thought I might get ecclesiastical historical mysteries. I did not. I did get some historical mysteries: Rex Stout, Ngaio Marsh, Lindsey Davis, Ruth Downie, etc., but also many non-mysteries. Nothing set in medieval England. I’m baffled. I could not figure out the site logic well enough to use it intelligently.
  • Literature-Map ( was a little better. (Peter Tremayne was near Ellis Peters, which I thought was reasonable.) It did not help me find any new authors, but if someone was new to the genre, it could be useful.
  • WhichBook ( was fun, but didn’t let me search for mysteries.
  • WorldCat ( let me search, but the first screen of results was mostly reference books about historical mysteries, not historical mystery books.

The thing is, I’m a librarian. I know a tool, the Catalog of the Library of Congress, that I can use to find targeted lists. While it’s a professional tool, anyone can use it. But using it well takes some work. (

Why I like it:

It is, essentially, created through the work of tens of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands of Catalogers working in libraries. Have you ever seen a Cataloger create a record? It’s not a casual thing. They hold the book in their hands, they page through it, they read the Table of Contents, they look up information on the series… the mindset is “Every book has a reader who needs it. How would that person search for it? How can I make sure they find it?”

They don’t just add a couple subject tags to a title. They use MaRC (Machine Readable Catloging) records. MaRC records have over a thousand fields, every single one of them has its own usage rules. The MaRC field for form/genre is 655. To find books in a genre, that’s the field I need to search.

I think it’s useful enough that anyone who loves books should learn how to use it. I’ll walk you through the search process.

The first hurdle is that the Library of Congress has dumbed down the interface. Libraries all want to be Google, because Google is so successful. But the difference between a broad search that pulls in tons of records and a focused search that pulls in records that precisely meet my needs, is counted in my time. So, I went looking for a better search interface than the single blank that shows up on the main page. It turns out that under search options (to the right of the search blank) you can select Keyword Search, and then set the Keyword Search to “Expert” (just pull down the search menu under “ALL”).

The information you need:

Begin with experimentation, to try out the search syntax.

In Keyword Search, with the search type set to “expert”: I typed

  • KSFG “mystery and detective fiction”.

The search found 45 records. That can’t be right. It’s too few. One of the world’s best search skills is recognizing anomalous results. These tell you that there is a problem with the search. If the results look improbable, first check for typos in the search.

No, the search was typo-free; but something was clearly off. I looked at the subject heading again and saw that I got it backwards, it’s not “mystery and detective fiction” it’s “detective and mystery fiction.” When you’re asking a machine it doesn’t understand the question, it just performs a character matching search. So, the order matters.

  • KSFG “detective and mystery fiction” found 3,789 records. Still unbelievably low.

The next strategy for a failing search is to simplify the search.

  • KSFG “mystery fiction.”

The results hit the retrieval limit of 10,000, which was in line with my expectations. I checked a few of the records, and “mystery fiction” and “detective and mystery fiction” were both found in the Form/Genre heading. I’m not sure why. The policy to add form/genre headings is pretty new. One of the reasons that cataloging is not a rapidly-changing field is that going back and updating millions of records to bring them to current standards is pretty much impossible, or at the very least, unlikely to be funded, which amounts to the same thing. This means that records get updated piecemeal, as catalogers come across them and are moved to update them. In some systems, there is an attempt to automate some updating of older records. If “mystery fiction” is a term that was used in older records, maybe in a different MaRC field, it is possible that some sys admins automated moving that term to the new field. An examination of the records found shows that both terms are used, and that the “mystery fiction” search finds both, so it’s a good choice.

This is where things get fun. Students today learn about Boolean operators (AND, OR, NOT) when they learn about set theory – in grade school. Boolean operators are how computers search, they create sets by finding results sets for search terms, then they combine those sets depending on the Boolean operator used in the search.


The computer finds the set that matches your first criteria (in this case that the form/genre headings include “mystery fiction”). Then the computer finds the set that matches your second criteria, for instance that the form/genre headings include ‘historical fiction.” The computer looks at your search to figure out what you want done with the two sets, and if you have used the Boolean AND operator, it finds where those sets overlap. In other words, it creates a search result set of records that have BOTH “mystery fiction” AND “historical fiction” in the form/genre field.

It looks like this: KSFG “mystery fiction” AND KSFG “historical fiction”

”AND” finds the overlap in the sets – the records that have BOTH terms.

This search found 2,034 books. I go back to my search screen and add a limit for publication year 2022-2023. That takes the results list down to 6. (If I choose “past year” so that I get those published in 2021, it finds 61. There have certainly been more than 6 historical mysteries published in 2022, but it takes a while for books to get cataloged. Maybe there are 30 on a shelf waiting for cataloging!)

There are other searches I try as well. I can combine the genre search with a general subject search (the field tag is KSUB). Some examples are:

KSFG “mystery fiction” AND KSFG “historical fiction” AND KSUB England


or I could search KSFG “mystery fiction” AND KSFG “historical fiction” AND (KSUB “monks” OR KSUB “nuns”)

“OR” finds all the records that have EITHER of the search terms. If you are creating a complex search that has other elements besides those joined with OR, then use parentheses around the terms joined with “OR” to force the system to combine them into one set.

 KSFG “mystery fiction” AND KSFG “historical fiction” AND (KSUB “monks” OR KSUB “nuns”) found 48, and a lot of them are new to me!


The third Boolean operator is “NOT.” You use NOT in your search when you are getting a lot of noise in the results and you need the computer to winnow the list. These were actually pretty clean searches, but, to provide an example so that you have the syntax in case you need it:

KSFG “mystery fiction” AND (KSFG “science fiction” OR KSFG “fantasy fiction”) NOT KSUB “vampires”

So, a little playing around in the Catalog of the Library of Congress gave me targeted prospect list. I will probably check out some of the titles on GoodReads or look for reviews and decide what to add to my TBR list.

I hope you all find wonderful books and the time to read them.

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J.R. Moehringer’s Novel About Willie Sutton Deserves to be Better Known (by Kevin Mims)

Kevin Mims is a short story writer, essayist, and, often, a book reviewer for this site. This time he reviews a title that belongs to a category we don’t often see, the nonfiction novel. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood was the first well-known example of this type of book, in which novelistic techniques are used to convey a story about real people and events. It sounds, from Kevin’s assessment, as if the 2012 novel Sutton is one no fan of this genre should miss. See what you think.—Janet Hutchings

With true crime currently enjoying a wave of popularity, fictionalized accounts of true crimes may also be of increased interest to readers of this blog. One such book is J.R. Moehringer’s 2012 novel Sutton, a fictionalized account of the life and career of American bank robber Willie Sutton, who lived from 1901 until 1980. This novel is, essentially, a tale being told by Sutton himself on Christmas Day, 1969, to two New York journalists (a reporter and a photographer). Sutton had been incarcerated in a New York prison (Attica) for seventeen years at that point but, because he was believed to be in ill health, had been granted a Christmas Eve release by Governor Nelson Rockefeller. The next day, the two reporters pick up Sutton in a battered Dodge Polara. He has promised their newspaper an exclusive story in exchange for financial consideration. Sutton hands the two journalists a map of New York City on which he has circled roughly fifteen locations. These locations mark significant events in his life—banks and jewelry-store robberies he participated in, prison breakouts, romantic liaisons, brief stints of lawful employment, etc. He instructs the men to drive to each location and he will tell the story of his life while the photographer snaps photos of what the spot looks like now. This is a somewhat gimmicky narrative strategy, but it works.

Despite having little formal education, Willie Sutton was a rapacious reader and a decent writer. According to Moehringer, he spent many years working on a novel called The Statue in the Park, but was never able to get it published. He did publish two (highly inaccurate) memoirs in his lifetime. The first of these, Smooth and Deadly, appeared in 1953. The second, Where The Money Was, came out in 1976. They were written for a quick buck with the help of ghostwriters. After reading Sutton, I couldn’t help wondering how the book might have been treated—by reviewers and ordinary readers—if it actually had been written by Sutton and published some time in the 1970s. In my estimation, it would have competed with E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime and Judith Rossner’s Looking For Mr. Goodbar for the title of most-talked-about crime book of the decade. All three are set almost exclusively in and around New York City. All three incorporate a great deal of actual history in their narratives. Curiously, Sutton is probably the least violent of the three novels, because Willie Sutton deplored violence and never fired a gun during any of his robberies. J.R. Moehringer is a Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist and the author of a highly regarded memoir called The Tender Bar (George Clooney directed a 2021 film based on the memoir for Amazon Studios). Sutton was his first and, to date, only novel. And it is a surprisingly beautiful piece of work. It is filled with history, humor, hardship, and heartbreak. It contains scenes of great beauty and scenes of pure horror. An episode in which Sutton tries to swim his way to freedom through a prison sewer pipe was so disturbing that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get it out of my head. An interlude in which Sutton finds employment tending the gardens of a fabulously wealthy New Yorker is filled with descriptions of lush foliage and dazzling flowers that wouldn’t have been out of place in a love story (which Sutton, essentially, is).

Upon its publication in 2012, Moehringer’s novel received plenty of complimentary reviews. But I don’t think it got anywhere near the attention it deserved. In my estimation, Moehringer’s book is every bit as good a “true crime novel” as Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, which won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1980.

One of the most interesting sections of the book describes the time that Willie and several confederates escaped from Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. When the confederates need some sort of device to aid in their escape plan they always turn to a fellow convict named Kliney, who has a knack for acquiring the unobtainable. Willie notes that, “If you gave Kliney two weeks he could get you Ava Gardner.” This is almost certainly a nod to the Stephen King novella “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” whose narrator says, “Yeah, I’m a regular Nieman-Marcus. And so when Andy Dufresne came to me in 1949 and asked if I could smuggle Rita Hayworth into the prison for him, I said it would be no problem at all.”

Although Sutton is more of a crime novel than a mystery, there is at least one great mystery at the center of Moehringer’s novel. In February of 1952, Sutton was recognized on a New York City subway car by a fellow passenger, twenty-four-year-old Arnold Schuster. Sutton, having again escaped from jail, was in the midst of one of his robbery sprees and was listed among the FBI’s ten most wanted criminals. When Sutton got off the subway car, Schuster followed him. Eventually he was able to inform the police of Sutton’s whereabouts and Sutton was arrested and jailed for the final time. By this point Sutton was a folk hero. Even the cops who arrested him asked if they could pose for a photo with him. New Yorkers would stand outside the police station and chant Willie’s name. But when a local paper wrote an article publicizing Arnold Schuster’s role in Willie’s capture, tragedy soon ensued. Schuster was a likeable young man, part of a close-knit Jewish family in Brooklyn, and engaged to be married. But a few weeks after the newspaper story was published, Schuster was executed gangland style near his Brooklyn home one night. It was long assumed that Sutton must have put out a contract on Schuster as payback for turning him in to the police. From the very first pages of Moehringer’s novel, the two journalists are trying to get Sutton to talk about Schuster’s murder, but Sutton refuses to tell his story out of chronological order. We learn about Schuster’s death early on, and a get a few teasing references to it, but not until the end does Willie go into detail about it, finally wrapping up that particular mystery.

So there you have it, my assessment of an underappreciated 2012 crime novel that would probably by now have been deemed a classic had it been published in the nineteen seventies and written by the actual Willie Sutton. As it is, the book seems to be languishing in relative obscurity. Perhaps that is because, by the time it was published, few Americans even remembered the events it describes. Timing, they say, is everything. And nobody knew that better than Willie Sutton.

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What Literature Teaches us About Planning the Perfect Murder (by Sandeep Sandhu)

Sandeep Sandhu is a writer based in London who recently completed a Master’s in Creative Writing at the University of Edinburgh, where he was an editor for From Arthur’s Seat, an anthology of prose and poetry. He was long-listed for the Alpine Fellowship Fiction Prize 2021. In EQMM’s next issue, July/August 2022 (on sale June 14), Sandeep will debut as a professionally published fiction writer with the story “Servant of the Gentle,” in our Department of First Stories. This post should be of equal interest to readers and writers, since, as the author says, it’s likely that many readers as well as writers fancifully plan the perfect murder in their heads. —Janet Hutchings

To misquote Tolstoy, all imperfect murders are the same, but each perfect murder is perfect in its own way. That’s to say, killers are often caught for the same reasons: sloppiness, or the mental effects of guilt and remorse taking their toll. Those who get away with it—well, we don’t know, do we?

Like many writers (and even more non-writers) I’ve spent what might be considered a worrying amount of time planning murders I have no desire to commit. With the meteoric rise of true crime podcasts, the release of umpteen bingeable crimes series, and, of course, the everlasting popularity of crime and mystery books, I have no doubt this morbid pastime is increasingly common—even if most who do it don’t go to the length of storyboarding the entire thing as many authors do (it’s a common joke among writers that if anyone got our search history, we’d be in a lot of trouble).

Anybody who has given this more than a passing thought will know there’s no catch-all method to avoid detection; no standard best practice for murdering. This is especially true today, when we’re being watched in more ways that we can imagine. The sharpened icicle that melts away leaving no evidence might have done the job half a century ago, but when your phone confirms you were at the murder location at the time of the killing, it’s not quite so easy to play dumb. Like all of the most successful things in life, tailoring your murder to your circumstances is the only surefire way to give yourself a fighting chance of getting away with it.

Choosing a victim is paramount to the success of any perfect murder. While some would argue mysterious people make the best murder victims thanks to their lack of communication with others, it can also be argued that those who follow the same routines on a day-to-day basis are easier targets. In The Secret History by Donna Tartt, the murder is planned on the basis that the victim follows the same route every time he takes a walk. Yet, if your victim has slipped through society’s net so nobody knows their whereabouts on a day-to-day basis, like the homeless victims in Robert Swindells’s Stone Cold, that’s just as useful as any clockwork-like routine. This feels like quite a dialectical thing: the more extreme the potential victim is in terms of mystery or reliability, the more useful that particular habit is to the potential murderer.

It’s not just the victim’s habits you need to take into account either. Killing people is hard—even killing animals will likely take a toll on your psyche unless you’re built in the right way (a la Iain Banks’s The Wasp Factory). It’s a well known fact that armies have to propagandise soldiers to make them kill because most don’t want to—and that’s in a warzone situation, where their own lives are at stake. There’ a reason so many murders are crimes of passion, after all. Sometimes you can even have a completely willing victim and it’s still a struggle, like in Muriel Spark’s In the Driver’s Seat. Without a burst of emotion, or some kind of psychosis, it can be near impossible for most to murder. But that passion and change of mental state is also what leaves us clues.

Literature has taught us there are some must-dos if you want to escape detection. The one thing we learn from Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the other greats is the importance of motive. So, it follows you should pick someone you’re not connected to as your victim—or, like the characters in Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, find someone to do a murder swap with (that is, you kill their victim, and they yours). But that, of course, opens you up to another potential link. If you are the sort of person who can kill, as the last paragraph established you need to be, then murdering a stranger shouldn’t be too out of the question. But even if you psych yourself up for the task with all your might, you might find it’s still not enough.

In probably the most famous psychological crime novel of all time, Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, our protagonist Raskolnikov talks about wanting to murder someone who deserves it and being the right type of character to get away with it: a “Napoleon,” in his words.The perfect murder needs the killer to have that level of confidence, but without veering into arrogance. In the epilogue to Crime and Punishment, Dostoyevsky discusses those who have gotten away with much worse crimes than Raskolnikov, concluding: “. . . those people had the courage of their convictions, and so they were right.” And, despite convincing himself that his original victim deserved death, describing her as a parasite and louse who has personally made his life harder, Raskolnikov still couldn’t stomach the crime. There’s no doubt one of the best tools a detective has in solving a murder is something they have no control over: the murderer’s sense of guilt.

So, you’ve got your victim and you’re in the right headspace: now you need to come up with some ingenious way to kill them and leave no (or very little) evidence. Perhaps like the murderer in Christianna Brand’s Green for Danger you’ve managed to find a way to make the death look natural, or you’ve discovered a foolproof method of disposing of the body. Everything is planned out to a T – but more problems remain. For whatever reason—some cosmic connection with the universe, a primal sort of instinct—human beings can often have a sixth sense that something is awry. Bobby Rupp, the boyfriend of one of the victims of Truman Capote’s infamous In Cold Blood, claimed that when he left the victim’s house the evening of the murders he was sure the killers were nearby: “Only now when I think back, I think somebody must have been hiding there. Maybe down among the trees. Somebody just waiting for me to leave.”

The problem really is that murder itself doesn’t seem to be as easy as many think it is. Perhaps we’re obsessed with the perfect murder because Dostoyevsky was right: it’s a super power to be able to do exactly what you want and have no remorse, especially if that thing is breaking the most sacred of human bonds, and because being kind and caring for each other is such an intrinsic part of the human condition. That also explains why people love true crime in the way they adore high-level sportspeople doing their thing: we get to see someone do something almost superhuman, even if that something is truly horrific.

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Writing and Squirming (by W. Edward Blain)

W. Edward Blain is the author of two novels, the Edgar Allan Poe Award nominated Passion Play and Love Cools. At EQMM, we’re more apt to think of him as a nearly thirty-year veteran of the mystery short story; his work has been appearing in our pages since 1995. The latest of his stories, “The Secret Sharer,” is forthcoming in our July/August issue (on sale June 14). It’s set at a boarding school during the pandemic, when students were forced to stay at home and all classes had to be conducted by Zoom. Like his central character in that story, the author was, at the time it was written, still a teacher of high school English at such an institution. He retired in 2020, after 44 years teaching English, and now writes full time. In this post, he talks about the scary part of writing fiction. —Janet Hutchings

Decades ago a friend of mine, just out of college and uninsured, made what he thought was a mutually beneficial arrangement with a nearby medical school: he would get free health care in exchange for allowing any interested medical students to observe his examinations and treatments. All went well for a while, but then he developed a stubborn skin rash. The dermatology professor asked him to remove all his clothes and stand on a table in the center of an examination room. He complied, and soon he was stark naked, elevated well above the floor, when the door opened to admit a dozen or so medical students, male and female, who circled him and stared while he stood like a blushing Greek statue and his physician used a pointer to discuss his condition. When I heard that story, I immediately thought that it was a perfect metaphor for being a writer: You have to stand on the table and take off all your clothes.

That is, if you’re going to be a writer, you have to be willing to feel uncomfortable, perhaps even distressed, as you share the truth of both story and storyteller with your readers. Those readers expect you to take them to places where they’d never have access without you as their escort. When the Wizard of Oz orders Dorothy and her companions to pay no attention to that man behind the curtain, they ignore him because behind the curtain is the most interesting place to look. Readers enjoy touring backstage, slipping behind the velvet rope, entering the private areas off limits to tourists; such reading pleasures are easy enough for us writers to provide if we are discussing familiar locales. But sometimes a piece of writing calls for the kind of revelation that makes us squirm.

When I was teaching high school English, every writing assignment came with the same mantra:  Write something only you can write. As an example we’d look at the speech delivered at the University of North Carolina in 1996 by Seamus Heaney, the great Irish poet, who told the story of how, as a schoolboy, he dutifully wrote an essay called “A Day at the Beach,” which featured a colorful toy bucket and the miniature spade he used to scoop sand into it. Only later did he confess the truth:

[My mother] desperately wanted to do something for us, so off she went to a hardware store and bought not the conventional seaside gear that we desired but a consignment of down-to-earth farm equipment which she could utilize when she went home: instead of bucket and spade, she brought us a plain tin milkcan and a couple of wooden spoons, durable items indeed, useful enough in their own way, but wooden spoons for God’s sakes, totally destructive of all glamour and all magic. I hope it will be obvious why I tell you this: I want to avoid preaching at you but I do want to convince you that the true and durable path into and through experience involves being true to the actual givens of your lives. True to your own solitude, true to your own secret knowledge. Because oddly enough, it is that intimate, deeply personal knowledge that links us most vitally and keeps us most reliably connected to one another. Calling a spade a spade may be a bit reductive but calling a wooden spoon a wooden spoon is the beginning of wisdom.

Only as an adult did Heaney understand the depth of his dishonesty in that essay. He had not simply invented a toy bucket, but because he had been a self-conscious child who had feared humiliation, he had concealed the very essence of a lovely, heartbreaking story about an impoverished mother who wanted to give her children a day at the shore but who couldn’t waste her scant income on toys. There, he realized, was his essay, and he had betrayed it.

If you believe that writers of fiction need not observe this level of honesty in their works of the imagination, then you are quite mistaken. Fiction can be dishonest in many ways. It can force characters into improbable, illogical behavior for the sake of a plot twist demanded by the author. (People have been arguing since 1885 whether Mark Twain is guilty of such an infraction during the final “Evasion” sequence of Huckleberry Finn.) It can sell out for glib sentimentality rather than follow its way to tragic inevitability. (Compare O. Henry to, say, Flannery O’Connor.) It can pose as fact or autobiography. (Remember James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces?). It can pander to an audience for the sake of a sale or a vote. (See any transcript of a political speech.) When we write honest fiction, we struggle to present characters who are true—true to human behavior, true to their own personal histories, true to what William Faulkner called “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself.” When we write honest fiction, we must be willing to allow our characters to go where they want and to do as they must, even if we feel queasy at their decisions, even if we reveal ourselves to be ruthless. I still feel guilty over the fate of poor Penn Conrad, a character in a story I wrote ages ago, a character I liked a lot, but a character who ended up mortified and humiliated because that was how the story had to end.

Consider James Kestrel’s Five Decembers, the recent and greatly deserving winner of the Edgar Award for best novel of 2021. In this magisterial tale we readers accompany Joe McGrady, a detective attempting to solve a brutal double homicide, as he embarks on a harrowing adventure during World War II. Kestrel, the pseudonymous author, is far too young to have experienced that war, but every word in his novel rings true. Why? Partly because he did his homework with extensive research, but primarily because he allowed McGrady to be McGrady. It’s clear that Kestrel loves McGrady, a good, decent man trying to do right. But Kestrel puts this character through devastating experiences. The character feels the pain, and the reader feels the pain, and in order to render it so effectively, Kestrel had to feel the pain as well. I don’t know much about this writer, not even his real name.  But his novel reveals a creator with a profound sensibility, a writer of empathy who isn’t afraid to explore the dark places or to test his characters in fire.

Thomas Mann famously defined a writer as someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people. And of course he’s so right. If you’re a writer, you care desperately about getting exactly the proper word into exactly the correct spot. You strive to cut and to polish and to clarify. But you also struggle to discover the true version of your story. You explore numerous dead ends before you find the right passage to your destination. For the sake of the story, for the sake of connection, you unlock your secret garden and invite readers to roam there. And if you sense that you really are onto something, if your characters have heartbeats and want to set out on a path that you already know is going to be disastrous for them, you gulp and sigh and then, in preparation for the journey, you stand up on the table and begin to unbutton your shirt.

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Raise a Glass to the Bad Guys (by Derek Haas)

Derek Haas’s first story for EQMM, “Snitches Get Stitches,” is coming up in the Black Mask department of our next issue (July/August), on sale June 14. Its central character is an antihero with whom readers will nevertheless sympathize. It’s the challenges of creating this type of character that the author discusses in this post. He’s created another such character, a hit man called Columbus (whom the New York Times has called “devastatingly cool”) for his series of novels, the most recent of which is The Way I Die. The California-based author is also a screenwriter who co-wrote the screenplays for 3:10 to Yuma, Wanted, and The Double, and he’s the creator of the TV shows Chicago Fire and FBI: International. —Janet Hutchings

I prefer liars, killers, outcasts, outliers, orphans, and rough souls.  I like characters who suffocate federal judges with saran wrap; who step on a mark’s neck until his bones crack; who use bare hands to choke the life out of their unrepentant fathers. I like protagonists who tell the reader again and again “do not trust me, do not like me, I am not to be admired.” I like protagonists who are the antagonists of their own life stories. 

I wish they wouldn’t be. I’m glad they are.

I’ve always been drawn to literary bad boys. I loved Crime and Punishment and Eye of the Needle and The Ax and Fight Club and more recently The Force and Billy Summers. I followed Clarice Starling but I cheered for Hannibal. Milton had me rooting for Lucifer. (That’s an amazing trick when you think about it, getting a reader to root for the devil.) I appreciate novelists who treat villains with the same reverence they do their heroes. 

I don’t think I’m alone. 

In crime fiction, so many of the protagonists—even the anti-heroes—are inherently good guys. They might be flawed—the private investigator with the drinking problem, the cop who is always mixing it up with his sergeant—but when it comes to right and wrong, these detectives and Feds and agents and spies make the moral choice, solve the case, put the murderer away, catch the villain. They get the witty dialogue, they find the obscure clue, they make the logic leap that only a brilliant mind can make.

Yet, there are brilliant minds on the other side of the tracks, too. These hustlers play street chess, not the kind with pawns and rooks, but the kind with pimps and dealers and marks and traitors. They have to plan moves ahead, shuffle pieces around the board, give ground to gain loyalty. Their stakes are different, too:  not “Can we crack the case and put the perp away?” but “Can I stay out of jail and… alive?”

The stakes are different for the writer, too.  How can I get a reader to pull for a villain?  How can I flip her expectation, so she is rooting for the criminal to outsmart the detective?  So he is hoping the murderer gets away with it? 

There are a few weapons an author employs. One is to write the story in first person. If the reader is inside the head of the narrator, seeing the plot develop from his point of view, then the reader feels an automatic kinship with the protagonist. His problems are my problems. His anxieties are my anxieties.   The reader is walking the mile in his shoes, and tries to anticipate the dangers and obstacles lurking in every dark alley, every brush with the authorities. There’s a great line in season one of the show Narcos: “The bad guys need to get lucky every time. The good guys just need to get lucky once.”  Villain protagonists have to walk a higher tightrope, and first person can be quite effective at garnering sympathy toward a character quickly.  In a way, we need the protagonist to survive so we can find out how the story ends.  The plot is an existential threat to the story itself.

If the author chooses to go the third person route, it does not constrain him from getting inside the protagonist’s head.  Omniscient narrators know the thoughts of all the key players. The writer can drop a couple of lines of dialogue from an objective point of view, an exchange between a detective and a con man, say, but then push right inside the con man’s head and color our perception of the interview.  “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the con man might protest aloud. In the next line on the page, the author might write:  This bastard has me up against the wall.  I’m a dead man if I don’t give him something to chew on.  But what . . . what?  Immediately, the reader is right there with Jimmy, trying to figure out how to wriggle off the hook. We’re sweating under the fluorescents, just like Jimmy. He may be a bad guy, but he’s our bad guy. 

Of course, all humans are shades of gray, darkness and light battling for prominence.  Great protagonists —whichever side of the law they occupy—are the same. A thoughtful author will chart that struggle, so we’re pulling for the bad guy because we understand the depth of his conflict. Stephen King does this so well, in so many books. His most recent, Billy Summers, focuses on a hit man who is set up to take a fall.  And what does King do, halfway through the book? (Spoiler alert)  He gives the hit man an abused young lady to protect, who drops out of the sky (or is literally pushed out of a van) in the middle of Billy’s escape. It would be so much easier for Billy to walk away, duck out of there, get on with his exit strategy, but the reader is pulled to his side because Billy sacrifices his own safety for the protection and rehabilitation of Alice.  Putting others above oneself? What’s more heroic than that?

Another author trick is to reveal the principal’s past at a strategic point in the story. The protagonist may be a villain, but how’d he get there?  Did he overcome an abusive childhood, did someone hurt him, did he have his heart stepped on, or did someone set him on his fallen path when he was young and vulnerable?  The backstory is key to lining up the reader behind the hero.  We may not appreciate that he commits crimes in the present, but we understand them.  We expect them.  And we root for him to overcome the weights holding him down. Television series give writers an even greater sprawling canvas to build up sympathy. Over multiple seasons, we watched Breaking Bad’s Walter White transform from mild-mannered chemistry teacher into full Heisenberg, a ruthless meth-producing kingpin. By the time he was committing heartless murders to control his empire, we were pulling for him because we had witnessed his struggle to take care of himself and his family over hours and hours and years and years on our screens. The writers built up our affection for him from the pilot, and cast him as an underdog, so that by the time he was sitting on the throne, we were all on his side.  It’s a lot harder to do in a few pages of a short story, but I do love a challenge.

So here’s to the Tony Sopranos, and the Becky Sharps, and the Richard IIIs, and the Professor Moriartys, and the Anton Chigurhs and the Rodion Romanovichs. They committed unsympathetic acts but we rooted for them all the same.  And here’s to you, reader, if you ever attempt to put a villain at the center of your story.  You have to live longer inside that dark head than anyone, thinking about things sane people shouldn’t think about. 

Still, do it for your fiction, for your readers.  Just don’t get caught.

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