“The Thin Grey Line” (by Alexandria Blaelock)

Alexandria Blaelock is the author of several self-help books applying business techniques to personal matters (drawing from her career as a project manager) and short fiction that appears in Pulphouse Fiction as well as EQMM. Her debut professional fiction publication, “The Perfume of Peaches,” appears in our September/October 2020 issue’s Department of First Stories (on sale next week). As you’ll learn in this thought-provoking post, the author lives in Australia. We think this entry will help you remain intrigued by your everyday life and the mysteries therein!—Janet Hutchings

Life is a mystery.

I don’t mean that whole divine creation v random evolution thing. Though I suppose that influences your perceptions of good and evil.

I mean why you in particular, and why now?

Why you when so many of your proto-siblings didn’t survive gestation?

When you look back on your life, you can see how this seemingly random event links that happenstance, leading to the other incident.

A life-long chain of causality.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work the other way—you can’t see more than a step or two into the future.

Unless you’re a chess Grandmaster, and that’s only because everyone follows the rules.

And so it is for me, though when I look back, my path is knee-deep in mysterious circumstances.

Like what made my parents leave the U.K.? Why, of all places, did they choose Australia? Why not Canada or New Zealand? Though those countries were overrun with blood-kin of one kind or another, so that might be the solution of that particular mystery.

What about that time I really hated my mother, and showing an utter lack of imagination, went to bed wishing desperately to wake up as someone else’s daughter?

What if I really did? What if I did it so well, I have no recollection of not being the me I became? What happened to the me I replaced? Where did she end up?

And why for goodness sake the daughter? Why not the much-loved family dog who had her own furniture and toys and no one who ever stayed angry with her for days on end?

My childhood home was the kind where the TV didn’t go on until after dinner, until we children had washed and dried the dishes.

Quietly, if you please.

And then Dad would flick the switch. My brother and I would take our positions on the floor, chins cupped in our hands, eyes glued to the tiny screen.

Learning about good and evil while devouring Matlock Police (Jones & Stapleton, 1971-1976) and a year or two later, Cop Shop (Stapleton, 1977-1984).

Or episodes of Whodunnit: The Murder Mystery Game Show, (Reed et al. 1972-1978) of which I was very proud of being the first of the family and usually the panelists to figure it out.

Or as we grew older, videos of Taggart, (Chandler, 1983-2010) recorded on my aunt’s home TV and posted from Glasgow to give Dad a taste of his home turf.

A show so loved, that it continued for sixteen or so years after the lead actor (and title character) died.

For years we’d wait for it, then shout-along, “there’s been a murrrrrdah!”

And play spot the recurring actor (some the same character, some not)—a big well done to Alex Norton who topped the pack as an early suspect and a late DCI.

When Dad wasn’t home, and we weren’t allowed to watch tv, there were always books.

English classics like Enid Blyton’s Famous Five. Because who doesn’t want to spend the school holidays camping out in the countryside or the Cornish seaside having adventures and solving mysteries involving smugglers, kidnappers and robbers?

Certainly, I did. Enough to watch Marzuk’s 2018 Fünf Freunde und das Tal der Dinosaurier (The Famous Five and the Valley of Dinosaurs).

You might grow up, but you’re always a child at heart.

From there, growing into Blyton’s Secret Seven, term-time crime mysteries for older children; wrongful imprisonment, grand larceny, and stolen dogs!

Then taking up with Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys.

But the thing about these villains, is they’re all a bit dumb. And that’s another mystery.

How dumb do you have to be to get caught by a bunch of kids?

“Meddling kids,” according to another childhood staple.

Which brings us to yet another mystery. How is it possible that Casey Kasem, the smooth-tongued voice of American Top 40, was also the voice of “Shaggy” in Hanna-Barbera’s 1969 Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!.

And who’s the better Shaggy—him or Matthew Lillard?

I suppose another meddling kid was Wonder Woman (alter ego Diana Prince). Brought to life by William Marston through DC Comics to fight the Axis military powers during the Second World War. Though after a point, she lost her relevance and reality.

Then again, it is hard to take a crime-fighting woman in heeled boots and a bathing suit seriously. It’s no surprise she ended up making coffee and taking the minutes for the Justice Society of America.

Perhaps she would have been better off following Peter O’Donnell and Jim Holdaway’s 1963 Modesty Blaise into a life of crime, come espionage, come crime-fighting.

Warmer clothing would’ve been one benefit, along with a nice London pad and a villa in Morocco for vacations.

Aren’t the women who step outside societal norms so much more interesting than those who don’t?

I, for one, would rather be a nemesis than a superhero.

Though given we’re talking about fiction, I suppose I’d have to be a theoretically conquerable supervillain. Ultimately conquered by some chick in a bikini because I couldn’t conquer my ego.

Then again, why not a Machiavellian criminal mastermind like Moriarty? I could drag my Holmes down a waterfall and meet my doom theoretically unconquered.

And there’s another mystery—Sherlock’s Andrew Scott (Gatiss & Moffat, 2010-2017) or Elementary’s Natalie Dormer (Ferland et al. 2012-2019)?

But I wonder. Why should I dumb myself down to fit in, when I could use my insanity-inducing tragic childhood to stand out instead?

How odd is it that your life can change in an instant?

Like the time I hit my then-boyfriend over the head with a frypan?

Why did I lose control?

Why did he step into the blow instead of back and away?

Why didn’t he break up with me, let alone marry me?

And after surviving all that, why weren’t we enough for each other? Why did we let that marriage crawl whimpering away to die alone in a corner?

There’s an accidental death story there. A suicide. A cold-blooded murder. Twist the facts a little, and a jealous ex-lover exits as the poor faithful girlfriend enters to take the fall.

It’s all a matter of perspective. Of asking the right questions. And, to an extent, getting the wrong answers.

Toni Jordan (Australian fiction writer) once told me she likes to include sex in all her stories because sex is a meaningful driver of people’s lives. Something we all think about, something most of us do.

I like to add a little crime to mine because life is bittersweet. We all walk a thin line between good and evil—a thin grey line between the dark and the light.

We all do bad things with the best of intentions.

We lie and tell our friends they look beautiful (no, your bum does not look big in that dress).

And we do good things that turn out bad (we let our friends fall in love with people we know will probably hurt them).

And we never think of those tiny steps as criss-crossing the line.

Or what exactly these mysterious concepts of light and darkness really are.

Is it always right to save lives? Is it always wrong to take them?

Is more money always more important?

No, no, and no.

Sometimes, whether you’re a meddling kid or a dumb villain, nothing is the best thing to say or do.

And yet, in my writing, I’ve killed more people than I’ve saved, and each death brings a silver lining for someone. Even if that’s just you, dear reader.

Death is never far away, and you are someone’s nemesis whether you know it or not. Enjoy your beautiful clothes, try the exotic cocktails, and take glamorous vacations, because one day they, and you, will come to an end.

In the meantime, I have other, more important mysteries to solve. Like why my software isn’t doing what it’s supposed to.

And why my computer freezes when I’m writing/reading/watching the best bits.

And the ongoing mystery that still haunts me today—who the hell drank my Campari?

Posted in Guest, Novels, Police Procedurals, Pop Culture, Writers, Writing | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment


Here at EQMM, we’re grateful for the plethora of online programming that has taken place of late, but we miss seeing all our readers, contributors, and friends. We thought we’d take a day to reminisce about past conventions. Join us by clicking the links below and by letting us know some of your favorite convention memories—and what you’re looking forward to in gatherings to come when it’s safely possible. Stay well!—EQMM
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“The Page Where It Happens” (by Joseph S. Walker)

Joseph Walker’s short stories have appeared in our sister publication, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, and in various other periodicals and anthologies, including the MWA’s Life Is Short and Then You Die, edited by Kelley Armstrong. His story “The Last Man in Lafarge” won the first annual Bill Crider Prize for Short Fiction at the 2019 Bouchercon. It will appear in EQMM in early 2021. Coming up much sooner is his EQMM debut, “Chasing Diamonds,” in our September/October issue (on sale August 18). It’s a story set at  a baseball game, and it accomplishes what the author talks about in this post: It draws readers fully and authentically into its setting. Don’t miss it! —Janet Hutchings

How is it that one of the most satisfying moments I’ve had as a writer this year was finding a way to work powdered sugar scattered on the pavement into a story?  Bear with me.  The trail will take a couple of turns, but we’ll get there.

Like seemingly half the people in the (nominally) civilized world, I spent a very agreeable few hours over the recent Independence Day weekend escaping my pandemic woes by watching the newly available stream of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway blockbuster HamiltonHamilton is many things: an enthralling musical, a riveting piece of American history, a bold political statement about race and immigration and gender. It’s also, not incidentally, a crime story—a mirror image of Crime and Punishment. Dostoevsky’s great novel is about the psychological aftermath of a killing, and what it does to a person to carry the burden of ending a life. Hamilton is about the psychological prelude to a killing, and what brings a person to the point of taking that burden on—or choosing not to. Aaron Burr tells us in the musical’s first song that he will (spoiler alert!) shoot Alexander Hamilton. Given what we quickly learn of their characters, the reverse seems far more likely. Hamilton is brash and aggressive, relishing conflict and even violence; Burr is patient and cautious, preferring political gamesmanship.  Over the next two and a half hours, we follow the winding path each man takes to their duel.  We see how the events, ideas, hopes, and emotions of their lives lead Burr to shoot to kill, while Hamilton points his weapon to the sky, throwing away his shot.

I had listened to the album of the show’s songs many times, but never had a chance to see it before watching the stream.  It made for an oddly disjointed experience.  The show itself was, as advertised, terrific.  While we’re now seeing some elements of the inevitable backlash, Hamilton is a complex, stunning piece of work fully deserving of the considerable acclaim and success it has earned. It’s difficult to resist the sheer amount of energy and ambition which make the show so exuberant, so excessive in the pleasures it offers.  In particular, it is a privilege to see the original Broadway cast inhabiting the roles that made them famous, and it is a gift to future generations that this high-quality recording of their version of the show will always be available.

As much as I enjoyed it, however, I also had the sense of watching the show at a certain remove, experiencing it through a kind of distancing haze.  At moments, I wasn’t so much watching Hamilton as watching myself watch Hamilton.  When you spend four years hearing about how superlative a piece of art is, how it outdoes what was previously believed possible in the form, how simply being exposed to it is a transcendent, life-changing experience—well, there’s simply no way for the thing itself to live up to that kind of advance billing. It is a creation of mortal beings, not deities.  The expectations generated by hyperbole become a buffer between you and the actual experience, especially if you’ve learned so much about the thing (by, say, listening to an album setting out the entire story in detail) that very little about it can be surprising.  I found myself imagining an audience member a few days into the show’s run, settling into his seat with only a vague awareness that it’s a musical about the American revolution, unprepared for what’s about to unfold. I felt very jealous of this person I had conjured.

Then there’s the other, more obvious source of this sense of distance, this lack of immediacy: I wasn’t seeing the show live.  I wasn’t looking at actors on a set.  I was looking at a flat display of colored pixels, just another in the seemingly endless series of screens so many of us spend our lives staring at these days.  It was not an experience so much as a simulation of an experience.  I wasn’t breathing the same air as Daveed Diggs.  I wasn’t continually aware of the subtle shifts in attention and emotion in the audience members around me.  Watching Hamilton was fun, and certainly a worthwhile investment of my time, but it lacked that increasingly rare element we all need in our lives: authenticity. The felt experience of something genuine, something inescapably real.

This has become a particular problem in the blighted year of 2020.  Confined to our homes, denied many of the rituals and pleasures and indulgences we were accustomed to, we necessarily encounter almost all of the world through that matrix of pixels. We see our coworkers on Zoom, our friends and family on FaceTime, the musicians we had tickets for on YouTube.  We are, quite literally, being screened from the real world.  But the pandemic has really only accelerated what was already in motion.  If you’re like me, it’s been years since you could go anywhere without your phone and not feel that you were missing something as essential as your house keys and your wallet.  What’s happening on Twitter?  Has anyone commented on my most recent Facebook post?  Can I ever crack that level of Candy Crush?  Am I caught up on email?  Did I miss an important text?  Did I miss a completely trivial text that will nonetheless give me something to think about for five minutes?  We have become completely addicted to our phones, while almost never using them as phones.

Thinking about Hamilton and authenticity, I thought about Manhattan.  I’ve only been there twice in my adult life, both brief visits for professional conferences. The things I’ve done in Manhattan are, for the most part, the tourist things, the New York City clichés.  I’ve ridden the subway and seen rats on the tracks.  I’ve been to a Yankees game, back when they were still playing in the house that Ruth built.  I’ve gone to a couple of Broadway shows, walked through Times Square at night, and eaten thin slices of pizza folded in half after soaking some of the grease off the cheese with a napkin.  I have layered memories of these experiences; they feel real to me.

What feels even more real to me, though, is an experience I’ve never had in reality, an experience nobody has had in reality.  The location in Manhattan that feels the most authentic to me doesn’t exist. It’s the West 35th Street brownstone home of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, the detectives created by Rex Stout.

I believe I have read every Wolfe story and novel, many of them multiple times.  I own most of them in cheaply printed hardcover book club editions, usually without jackets, bought at used book shops over the decades since I first read The League of Frightened Men as a teenager.  The look and feel and scent of those books—the slightly musty odor, the yellowing pages, the indecipherable names of former owners scrawled inside the covers—is the first level of the authenticity I find in them. It is not, however, the most deeply experienced.  That’s reserved for the brownstone itself, the building I can enter only in my mind but seem to know as well as my own home.  The comfort of the red chair, reserved for clients and favored guests, with the little table alongside it to facilitate the writing of checks. The rich aromas of Fritz Brenner’s cooking. The hum of the elevator coming down from the plant rooms. The coat rack where Archie assesses visitors for possible threats, and the dining room where talk of business is strictly barred.  The bright yellow expanse of Wolfe’s pajamas.  The trick picture of the waterfall, concealing a peephole for spying on the office, and the big globe in the corner, for Wolfe to scowl at when he has no choice but to work.  I could give tours of the place, from the basement, where Wolfe throws darts for exercise, to the roof, with its ten thousand orchids.  How can I know so well a place that has never existed?

We conceive of reading and writing as abstracted mental exercises, interiorized activities disconnected from the “real” world of sensation and direct contact.  We don’t normally think of them as having physical dimensions, as incorporating the same kind of authentic, lived flavor as, say, actually watching a Broadway musical in person.  There are exceptions.  Harlan Ellison, the writer who made me want to be a writer (and who, despite normally being categorized as a fantasy or science fiction author, was an Edgar winner who started out writing about New York City street gangs), used to hold events where he would spend a day sitting in the front window of a bookstore, writing a short story based on a prompt provided to him in the morning.  As each page rolled out of his typewriter, it would be taped up in the window to allow people to read the story as it was actually being born into the world (a collection of these stories, Ellison Under Glass, was recently published by Charnel House). It occurs to me only now that at these events, Ellison must have been able to see people in the act of reading his story, just as they were able to see him in the act of writing it.  Two activities, normally conducted in isolation, were simultaneously transformed into complementary public performances.

In the normal course of events, though, reading and writing have only the authenticity, the sense of reality, that we can infuse them with in our minds.  We feel the brush of the wings as another world builds itself for us and takes flight. This isn’t confined to crime reading, of course.  I vividly remember reading the Dan Simmons novel The Terror, about a doomed Arctic expedition, and being so vicariously drawn in by the depictions of extreme cold that I was surprised, every time I put the book down, to discover myself back in a scorching Indiana summer. I’m sure any number of readers believe that they have walked the halls of Jay Gatsby’s mansion, or felt the Pequod roll beneath their feet. We mystery fans, though, have a particularly rich field of vividly convincing worlds to mentally visit. The series characters we spend years or decades following bring with them the spaces they inhabit, spaces which we come to treat as part of our own mental landscape. The sad little rented room where Matthew Scudder lived during the darkest years of his alcoholism.  Kinsey Milhone’s compact, shiplike apartment.  Travis McGee’s Busted Flush.

Screens, I’ve come to think, block us from the world, replacing it with windows into something that may be measureless in two dimensions but which can never have a third.  The page, instead, expands the world through a kind of magic trick, collapsing three dimensions and all the resources of our senses to a few lines of ink and then allowing them to unfold again, directly into our sense of reality.  Reading is spiritual origami, turning sheets of paper into pieces of our lived truth.

If this is true for reading, it’s equally true for writing. That brownstone couldn’t be so real to me if it weren’t first real to Stout himself.  As a writer, I haven’t yet created a series character who might come to seem like an old friend to my readers.  But I do take pleasure in trying to bring to my stories the kind of details and observations that, I hope, will spark this sense of reality, however briefly.  Writing about them does the same for me.  Of the pleasures writing offers, it’s the one that has become perhaps the most important to me in this odd, cramped, closed-down time.

Five years ago, on vacation in New Orleans, I bought a bag of beignets at the world-famous Café du Monde and carried them into Jackson Square, one of the most beautiful public spaces I’ve ever visited.  I remember many things from that morning: the soaring dignity of St. Louis Cathedral against a spotless blue sky, the wandering groups of tourists, the bursts of music that seemed to come from every direction.  For whatever reason, though, what sticks most vividly and most deeply in my mind is simply this: underneath every bench at the south end of the square, the pavement was marked with streaks of powdered sugar.  They marked the places where people had leaned forward to bite into the sweet, airy, warm beignets while trying, and mostly failing, to keep the sugar off their clothes.  When I think of New Orleans, those little piles of sugar are the first thing I think of, and they remain as convincingly real to me as the room I am sitting in now—or as Nero Wolfe’s office.

Last week, I wrote a story set in New Orleans and finally had a chance to use that image.  Writing it into the story was deeply satisfying. I would be still more satisfied to think that there might be at least one reader out there, perhaps as confined and as frustrated as I am by the way her world has shrunk in the last six months, who will read that image and find that, however briefly, it has expanded to include Jackson Square.

It may well be hubris to hope that anything I wrote could have such an impact, even fleetingly. Given everything that’s happened in the last six months, though, I’ll take hope where I can find it.  And I’ll hope, too, that the world brightens enough in the coming months that the 2021 Bouchercon, scheduled to take place in New Orleans, actually can happen, and that I’ll have a chance to go and see if the sugar is still on the pavement.  Perhaps I’ll see you there, with no pixels between us.

Posted in Books, Characters, Fiction, Genre, Setting, Story, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Creepers and a Lifelong Love” (by David Bridge)

I’m always interested to learn what childhood reading inspired the authors whose work I enjoy. In this post, David Bridge recalls how a young-adult novel changed his life. It’s a book I hadn’t heard of before, but I’m willing to bet many of our readers are familiar with it. David’s first professionally published story appears in our current issue (July/August 2020), in the Department of First Stories. It provides the most unconventional twist to the English country- house setting (so common in Golden Age mysteries) that I have seen in a long time. The author spent the best part of a decade in South America before returning home to the U.K. and beginning to devote more time to crime fiction. —Janet Hutchings

It’s difficult to remember childhood accurately—memory in general is a pretty flaky thing—but I’m fairly certain the first book I picked up to read on my own wasn’t just a story; it was a mystery story.

I was nine or ten years old when I ended up living with my family on Jersey, the largest of the Channel Islands, following one of our frequent moves throughout my childhood. Our house was located right next to a graveyard, perched atop a hill overlooking the Atlantic ocean. My bedroom window looked out across the graveyard itself and several ancient gravestones leaned up against my bedroom wall. The island itself is only five by ten miles so you were never far from the sea but at night it felt as though we were camped right on the shore. Storms would blow in off the Atlantic, the likes of which I’d never experienced back on mainland Britain. I can still hear the gale-force winds whistling through the rafters, the downpours hammering the roof tiles, and that dank, earthy smell of damp moss seeping through from the graveyard next door as the rainwater seeped into the soil.

If there was ever a perfect setting for tucking yourself up with warm blankets and a cup of hot chocolate with a tale of intrigue and suspense, or two, then this was it.

Something about crime is undeniably adult.

Unquestionably dangerous.

But there is also something supernatural . . . almost magical about it.

Especially when told through the eyes of a kid.

That’s a quality Keith Gray captured brilliantly in his 1996 young adult mystery Creepers.

At around age nine or ten I’d read books pretty begrudgingly, and almost exclusively because of school assignments. I’d always found myself one-degree removed from the words on the page, eyes mechanically skimming from one line to the next.

For me, though, that all changed when I read Creepers.

Young boys—or at least the young boys I associated with when I was a young boy—would often assert that reading isn’t cool. I was always suspicious of this although I never came out and challenged it out loud. I just sort of assumed that they were like me. That they were saving face in public but that in truth they were secret readers.

Sadly, more often than not, I don’t think this was the case. Every year we get these articles coming out decrying whatever thin slice of the population have read—or intend to read!—a book that year. I think at that early stage of life, or perhaps all stages of life, a large factor in determining interest or disinterest has to do with subject matter.

Or perhaps it has everything to do with it.

In Creepers, I was lucky enough to find something that chimed with me. And at the right time. Maybe if I’d never read that book I might never have had that “lightbulb” moment at all . . . when reading stopped being work and became fun.

What I loved about the book in particular was that it featured a narrator who was quite like me (although at fourteen years old a little older than I was at the time) doing things that I would never dare to do.

Dangerous things.

Illegal things.

After school, the narrator and his best friend—his “Buddie”—spend their evenings “Creeping.” Once it gets dark enough they run through their neighbours’ back gardens, vaulting fences, evading prickly hedges and snarling dogs, and doing their best to avoid being “Snared” by “Resies.” Although they’re trespassing (and in the course of trespassing damaging private property) the central motivation for Creeping is cachet at school rather than any material gain. And the biggest prize in Creeping is to complete a Dash through the back gardens of the twenty-five houses on Derwent Drive.

At its centre, Creepers is a story of friendship. And what most pushes the narrator to go through with these daring Creeping antics is his determination to impress his “Buddie” and establish him as his best friend. At a time of moving between different schools, changing homes, this was especially poignant for me.

What stood out for me most at the time about the book was the language used. Not just how the kids would swear—although as a nine- or ten-year-old reader this was certainly impressive—but how they’d sound just like the kids I was with every day at school. It was unlike the often stilted dialogue in the set school reading which incidentally or not featured heavily on magical beings and talking animals.

(Not that there’s anything wrong with magical beings or talking animals . . . funnily enough it was the next year when the first Harry Potter book was released and which subsequently sealed the deal on me being a lifelong reader).

It wasn’t just a lifelong love of reading, however (as if that wasn’t enough!). Ever since reading Creepers as a boy I started to think about what might lurk just below the surface of everyday experience. It made me think twice about that sly look the bus driver gave the old lady with her shopping or that suspicious car which pulled up at the curb every day at the same time every afternoon. In short, I started to imagine goings-on in the world around me.

That all was not quite as it seemed.

And once that had happened, it was difficult if not impossible to unsee.

I’m not quite convinced that anything—or anybody—was ever the same again.

I’m sure that everybody has a book which sets them on this path—the right book at the right time—but Creepers was the book that did it for me.

And it just so happened to be a mystery.

Posted in Adventure, Books, Genre, Guest, Readers, Story, Suspense | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Don Quixote as the First Crime Novel” (by Sheila Kohler)

Sheila Kohler, who has written two previous posts here, is an acclaimed novelist and winner of the O’Henry Prize, the Open Fiction Award, the Willa Cather Prize, and the Smart Family Foundation Prize. She is the author of over a dozen books; the most recent, out earlier this month from Penguin, is the thriller Open Secrets. On July 9 and 14, the author had two virtual discussions about the novel, the first for Princeton with Joyce Carol Oates and the second with the Center for Fiction and author Sheridan Hay. We think you’ll enjoy those conversations as well as the following essay, in which she frames and examines Don Quixote as the first crime novel.—Janet Hutchings

Though little is known for certain about his life, it is probable that Cervantes first conceived his novel (and here I will talk about the first volume of Don Quixote, published in 1605) in a prison cell. Cervantes seems to have been incarcerated several times, once for fighting a duel and on more than one occasion for irregularities with money as a tax collector, as was his father, a lawyer who also had money problems and was imprisoned before him. For five years Cervantes was held by the Ottomans as a slave in Algiers (as is the captive in his book) and some believe he actually converted and became a Muslim. His long years in captivity perhaps gave him an interest in madness which such lengthy periods of solitude may have induced. Despite the instant success of his great book, he had constant problems with money; he never became rich and died the same year as Shakespeare in 1617 but in Cervantes’s case, despite the success of his book, a poor man.

Perhaps then it is not surprising that the beloved hero of his book, Don Quixote, is both a mad hidalgo and a criminal. Don Quixote follows what he conceives of as the laws of chivalry and his own imagination, which lead him to a life of adventure where he feels obliged to commit one illegal act after another: he does not pay for his lodging at the inn (knights don’t pay for their lodging, in his mind); he attacks innocent people like the friars who dressed in black he takes for magicians and the Basque, who he believes are embarked on kidnapping a lady in a carriage; he steals a barber’s bowl that the barber has put on his head for protection and shines gold in the sunlight, which the Don thinks is Mambrino’s magic helmet; he liberates a boy, Andres, who is being beaten by his master, who has probably committed the theft his master accuses him of; he frees criminals from their heavy chains, including one who is an author, and all the king’s subjects who have been tried and convicted for various crimes and are being taken to row as galley slaves, so that he is followed by Spain’s Holy Brotherhood who have a warrant out against him.

As in any good crime novel, and we think of course of Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov or Highsmith’s Tom Ripley; we root for this clever criminal who is portrayed as a vulnerable man driven to his crimes at least partly by the harsh laws of the society in which he lives. Death hovers near all through the book: there is the dead man in his bier, and the lovesick Grisostomo who commits suicide, the husband Anselmo who drives himself and his best friend and wife to death, and at various points—one in a fight in the inn—the Don himself seems indeed to be dead. He is constantly endangering his life in order to kill what he takes for giants (the famous windmills) or sorcerers, guards, or nobles (Cardenio) who disagree with his interpretation of literature.

Thus we follow this crazy criminal, this man of fifty, the Knight of the Sorrowful Face, who has lost several teeth in one of his battles but rides on valiantly on his ancient nag, with his squire, Sancho Panza at his side. Sancho Panza, in contrast to his idealistic master, thinks mostly about the duchy he hopes to gain, the food in his saddlebags, and the wine he will imbibe at the inn. Money, food, and ambition are thus brought in to anchor the story in the real.

Like so many of us, the Don is moved to commit these acts of criminality in an effort to right the wrongs of the harsh and unjust world he lives in, Spain of the sixteenth century. He attempts to copy the deeds of the heroes in the many books of chivalry he has devoured with such passion, just as we are influenced surely by the characters in books we have loved. In his madness and his remarkably reasonable speeches on, for example, the advantages of a life of learning versus one given to political action, we often find much truth, and Cervantes uses this mad criminal to show up the madness and evil of the world around him, the lies and madness of others. The Don has many doppelgangers who are all almost equally mad: Cardenio, half-mad with love; Anselmo, driven by a perverse curiosity to find out if his wife is faithful to him; the inn keeper, who loves the books of chivalry too, and even the priest and the barber who lie baldly and trick the Don in order to cage him and take him home.

We are moved by this deluded man on his horse, Rocinante, who is made fun of by those around him, tricked by the women to put his hand into a slit of a window and tied there to hang for hours. With them we are both moved to laugh at the Don’s high-flown and ridiculous discourse, his archaic speech and actions which are contrasted so wonderfully with Sancho’s down-to-earth conversation and ideas, but at the same time we respond with sympathy to the Don’s good intentions, his desire to bring fame and glory to his lady love Dulcinea, his efforts to help the women, like Dorothea who he believes is the Princess Micomicoma, and anyone less fortunate then he. Because of his interest in the downtrodden—the criminals, the prostitutes, and the peasant women whom he sees as damsels in distress—we identify with his good heart, his attempts to bring peace to the weary, to free the enchained and to succor those who need the strength of his arm.

Thus this novel, published more than four hundred years ago, Don Quixote, seems to possess within its pages the two opposing poles of a good crime novel, verisimilitude, with the humor of the Don’s juxtaposition with his down-to-earth squire, who thinks of food and money and position; the precise historical details of the captive’s life in the prison in Algiers, based on Cervantes’s own; and simultaneously all the excitement and suspense of a novel of crime, all the forward movement of a glorious fairy tale, the mystery of the unidentified strangers, those masked or veiled, whom the Don meets on his way; the repetition and reversals of characters who come and go and tell their fascinating but oft-interrupted tales, and all their changes of fortune; the love affairs, which end well or badly—and at the same time a deeper emotional truth which is so brilliantly portrayed.

Posted in Adventure, Books, Characters, Fiction, Genre, Guest, History, International, Novels | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Forgotten Women” (by Kevin Mims)

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began keeping us inside, readers have been seeking alternatives to in-store browsing for their literary needs. Essayist, short-story writer, and prolific reader Kevin Mims (who has written for this blog many times on the subject of paperbacks and popular fiction) felt the lockdown restrictions particularly stifling to his book habits, as he routinely browses for “lost” or little-known books. In this post he talks about his solution for this and two works to which his search led.—Janet Hutchings

For years it has been my mission in life to seek out old mass-market paperbacks from roughly the 1960s to the 1990s in the hopes of discovering lost literary gems that deserve to be better known. I look for them at yard sales, garage sales, estate sales, and thrift stores. But mostly I seek them out at used-book stores. Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 and the state-mandated lockdowns that shuttered a lot of California businesses for three months forced me to find other ways of seeking out old books. Even during the pandemic, book lovers like me could still buy old paperbacks online at a variety of book-selling websites. But you can’t order a book online unless you are aware of its existence. And most online booksellers, like Amazon.com, don’t make any effort to promote old, out-of-print pop fictions.

So what’s an old paperback-fiction junkie like me supposed to do when the bookstores are all shut down? Happily, there is one really good source for those seeking the titles of old paperback novels that are unfamiliar to them. And that source is other old paperbacks. The front and back pages of many an old mass-market paperback are filled with lists that advertise other books by the same publisher. A while back, while researching an article I planned to write about automobiles in American popular fiction, I was reading (or, in some cases, re-reading) a bunch of pop fictions in which cars figured prominently, including such well-known titles as The Betsy by Harold Robbins, The Last Convertible by Anton Myrer, Dodsworth by Sinclair Lewis, and Christine by Stephen King. At the back of a mass-market edition of Jacqueline Briskin’s 1982 automotive-themed novel The Onyx, I found a few full-page ads for various other paperbacks put out by the same publisher. These included well-known titles such as John Jakes’s North and South, and David Niven’s three Hollywood memoirs (Bring on the Empty Horses, The Moon’s a Balloon, and Go Slowly, Come Back Quickly). But among these back pages I also found a full-page ad for a novel I’d never heard of, Kay McGrath’s The Seeds of Singing. The brief description of the book intrigued me. It was described as the story of two young explorers, Michael Stanford and Catherine Morgan, lost among the primitive tribes of New Guinea, in the years before, during, and after World War II. I love East-meets-West tales, such as James Clavell’s Shogun and Noel Barber’s Tanamera, and this sounded like something similar. I did my usual research, looking for reader reviews on Amazon.com and GoodReads. Like a lot of excellent but little-known novels, The Seeds of Singing had few online reviews, but those it did have were mostly ecstatic, written by people claiming it was “the best book ever” or “easily in my top ten of all-time list.” And so I ordered a copy of the book and, when it arrived, immediately began reading it. It was a fat paperback book, containing nearly seven hundred pages of fairly small type. The tiny type almost made me hope that the book wouldn’t be very good, so that I could abandon it after a few pages. But the book was good. In fact it was crazy good. I’m not saying that it compares favorably to, say, The Sound and the Fury, but as American popular fictions go, it was definitely a one-percenter.

After that, I began combing through the front and back endpapers of all the books in my massive collection of old paperbacks. Many of the books advertised there were well-known bestsellers at one time. I ignored these. I was seeking titles and authors I’d never heard of. From early March through early June of this year, I spent many an hour compiling lists of obscure book titles and their authors’ names. Then I would go online and see what information I could find about these books. The ones that intrigued me most were the ones I could find the least information about. How was it possible for a book to have received a widespread paperback release via a major publishing company such as Signet or Bantam or Fawcett Gold Medal and then vanish so completely from the public consciousness that even on the internet, a vast storehouse of nearly every fact of human existence, hardly any mention of it could be found?

I purchased 81 books from Amazon.com between March 1 and mid-June, most of them obscure old paperback novels. I purchased a few others from the American Book Exchange, which is also owned by Amazon.com. All of these were used books that sold for only a few dollars each. Alas, many of these books I was able to toss aside after reading the first 25 or 50 pages. It was clear that these books deserved their obscurity. Another dozen of the books I bought were good enough that I read them in their entirety and enjoyed them, but I wouldn’t call them lost classics. They were well-crafted works of popular fiction written by authors with a lot of talent but no real genius. Some of the books I ordered, I haven’t yet got around to reading. But a half dozen of the books I ordered struck me as being genuine lost classics, or at least near-classics of twentieth-century popular fiction. Most of these were historical novels, so I won’t bother describing them here. But two of them were mystery novels, involving murder and detection, as well as kidnapping, arson, and assorted other crimes. What’s more, the authors’ back stories are interesting, so a blog for mystery lovers seems like the perfect venue in which to celebrate them.

Both of these mystery novels were written by obscure female writers. Their names are Cecilia Sternberg and Jamey Cohen. These two authors are different from each other in many ways, but their writing careers share some eerie similarities. Each woman published only two books. Each woman’s entire literary oeuvre was published over a span of just a few short years. Sternberg’s first book, The Journey, was published in 1977. Her only other book, Masquerade, was published in 1979. Cohen’s first novel, Dmitri, was published in 1980, and her second, The Night Chasers, was published in 1981. Dmitri bears more than a passing resemblance to Josephine Tey’s masterpiece The Daughter of Time (voted the top crime novel of all time by the British Crime Writers Association and the forth greatest crime novel of all time by Mystery Writers of America). In Tey’s novel, a bedridden police inspector sets out to solve a historical mystery (whether or not Richard III murdered his two young nephews, the so-called “Princes in the Tower”). In Dmitri, several scholars at a California university (clearly meant to be Stanford but never identified) try to solve a different historical mystery: who murdered Dmitri of Uglich, the youngest son of Ivan the Terrible and thus an heir to the Russian throne. Cohen’s novel may not be on a par with The Daughter of Time, but it is exciting, crazily inventive, and very intelligent. According to the author’s blurb on my ratty old paperback, Cohen got the idea for the novel during her senior year at Stanford, during which she took classes in both Russian history and hypnosis. Early in the novel we meet fictional lovers Marina Kuryev and John Green, two college students who are both taking an elective course called The Psychology of Hypnosis. In class that day, Professor Sloane puts John into a hypnotic trance and then asks him to recall the day of his ninth birthday. John begins to speak to the class in the voice of a nine-year-old boy but, much to the dismay of the professor and the rest of the class, he does so in a language that is not English. Only Marina recognizes it as a somewhat archaic version of Russian. Which is a big surprise to Marina, because although she is a Russian Studies student and fluent in the language, John doesn’t speak anything but English. She informs the professor that John is speaking Russian, a language he doesn’t know. Eventually the professor lets Marina interrogate John, and she discovers that he has been regressed back, not to his own ninth birthday, but to May 10th in the year 7099. Naturally this confuses her, and Cohen ends the chapter with a sentence that sounds like one of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone introductions: “Without knowing it, she had advanced into the fourth dimension—time. Her destination: the year 7099. Her vehicle of transportation: a nine-year-old with a beguiling smile. Dmitri Ivanovich.”

Fairly quickly Marina realizes that John/Dmitri is using an old Russian calendar system to calculate the date, a system in which 7099 would translate into 1591 A.D. on the Gregorian calendar we use nowadays. Soon, via further hypnosis sessions with John, she learns that she is communicating with the real-life historical figure Dmitri of Uglich. The date is May 10, 1591, five days before Dmitri was actually murdered on May 15, 1591. Fairly quickly, Marina is able to convince Professor Sloane that John is actually in touch with this tragic figure. Over the next few days, they conduct several more hypnosis sessions with Dmitri/John, teasing out more details of Dmitri’s life. They hope to figure out who murdered him on May 15, so that they can warn him about it and possibly save his life (and perhaps dangerously alter the course of human history in the process). But the class is taught by two professors, Sloane and Zugelder. And Zugelder is one of the novel’s heavies. He believes (not without reason) that either John is a fraud, or else he is just channeling a story he was told long ago. Zugelder begins investigating John’s background (it turns out that John’s parents died when he was very young and he was put into the care of a Russian woman until he could be adopted by new parents). John, for his part, seems to be coming apart psychologically as the hypnosis sessions become longer and more intense. Professor Sloane wants to push ahead anyway in the interests of science. Professor Zugelder is concerned that the lurid nature of the experiment will cause the department head to take serious action against him and Sloane. He is furiously trying to discredit John’s performances under hypnosis. Marina, in love with John but also becoming more and more attached to Dmitri as the days go by, is torn. She wants to save Dmitri’s life but is fearful John’s mental and physical health might be seriously damaged if he is forced to continue undergoing hypnosis.

For a young author (she appears to have been born in 1957, making her just 23 when Dmitri was published), Cohen managed to write a novel that ticks an awful lot of pop-fiction boxes. Dmitri is a thriller, a mystery, a historical novel, a romance, and (quite possibly) a fantasy novel. It seems that the novel’s multiplicity of genres worked against it. What’s more, the publisher seems to have decided to market the book as a horror novel, one of the few genres to which it doesn’t really belong. The cover of my paperback copy features an ancient Russian sword dripping blood. Superimposed over the sword is the disembodied head of someone (presumably Dmitri but the picture makes the sex and age of the subject difficult to guess) wearing what looks like a cross between a crown and an army helmet. A blurb on the cover mentions “a young man caught up in the deadly grip of hypnotic possession . . . A novel of excruciating terror.” A blurb on the back calls the novel “a gripping, imaginative chiller.” The paperback was published by Signet, whose most profitable author at the time was young Stephen King. So it is understandable that Signet may have wanted to market every novel to King’s massive readership. Alas, it doesn’t appear to have worked. You won’t find a lot of reader reviews online at Amazon.com and GoodReads, but those you do find will be mostly ecstatic, and none of them refer to the book as a horror novel. One reviewer calls it “an unknown gem.” Another calls it “one of my favorite stories.” Several reviewers recall reading it when it was first published and being haunted by it ever since. I wouldn’t put it on a list of my 25 favorite pop fictions of all time, but I definitely enjoyed the ride. So much so, in fact, that after reading it I went online and ordered a copy of Cohen’s second novel, The Night Chasers. The Night Chasers has no reader reviews at GoodReads and only one at Amazon.com (“This book is my all-time favorite and I’m a fairly prolific reader. I wish this author had written more than two books.”). The Night Chasers deals with an American scientist who is researching gorillas in Africa and is able to communicate with them in American Sign Language. This was a fairly popular topic in the early 1980s. One year before The Night Chasers was published, Michael Crichton’s novel Congo, about an ape named Amy who could communicate via sign language, became a bestseller. The Night Chasers is an intelligent, ambitious, and well-written crime novel that involves terrorism and kidnapping and murder, but it unfolds at a slower pace than Dmitri. I prefer Dmitri, but both novels are worth seeking out. Who knows what other excellent thrillers Jamey Cohen might have produced if she had stuck with her writing career. Both of her novels reminded me of Crichton’s work. Dmitri prefigured Crichton’s 1999 bestseller Timeline, in which a group of contemporary academics find themselves transported to Europe during the Middle Ages. Alas, a few years after the publication of The Night Chasers, Cohen enrolled at Harvard Law School. According to an Internet search, she has worked for the past thirty years or so as an entertainment-industry attorney in southern California. The legal profession’s gain is a huge loss for those of us who love thrilling popular novels. But at least she is still alive and well and, if we’re lucky, perhaps she’ll return to writing fiction after she retires from the legal profession. We can only hope.

Alas, we cannot hope for any more novels from Cecilia Sternberg. She was born Augusta Cecilia von Reventlow Criminil, in 1908. Though born in England, she was raised in Switzerland. Her great-grandfather, Robert Whitehead, invented the Whitehead torpedo, the first truly effective modern torpedo. The invention made him rich and allowed his children to marry into some of Europe’s most aristocratic families. His great-granddaughter also married well. At the age of nineteen, Cecilia married Count Leopold von Sternberg, a Czech nobleman roughly two decades her senior who had served admirably in World War I. They split their time between a castle that he inherited in Czechoslovakia and a palace in Vienna. For ten years she lived a glamorous life of gala balls, weekend house-parties, and shooting parties, hobnobbing with some of Europe’s grandest grandees. Alas, a little something called World War II came along to disrupt this leisure-class idyll. The Count was anti-Nazi from the get-go, and his enmity towards Hitler increased when the Nazis seized his properties during their invasion of Czechoslovakia. He and his wife and children spent the war years living not very comfortably in an apartment in Prague. After the war the properties were briefly returned to the Count and his Countess, but in 1948 the Communists took over Czechoslovakia and it was time for the aristocratic Sternbergs, now virtually impoverished, to flee the country. Their journey took them to London, New York, and anywhere else where they could find an old friend or acquaintance willing to take them and their children in for a few days or weeks or months (they spent one whole summer at a Pennsylvania farm belonging to U.S. diplomat George Kennan). At their lowest ebb the Countess sold handmade jewelry on the waterfront in St. Petersburg, Florida, while the Count sat in his underwear on the porch of their nearby cottage, drinking wine and studying the Constitution of the United States. Eventually an Austrian friend found them a job managing a resort hotel in Jamaica, where they stayed for the rest of their lives. If all this strikes you as great material for a book, well, the Countess apparently thought so too. In 1977 she published an account of her fascinating life called The Journey. It garnered enthusiastic reviews but didn’t sell well. Reviewing the book for the London Times Literary Supplement, novelist Sybille Bedford wrote:

She is no research student, no outsider, she is eyewitness, observer (very noticing, never moralizing, judging seldom), participant—this is how it was, how we lived, this is what we were—the world she writes about, the world of the pre-1914 European upper aristocracy (die Hocharistokratie) and its survivors was simply that of her birth and workaday environment. The outcome is a curious and original book, very funny, a few times very sad. It is artless in a sense, unpretentious, a first book and evidently not by a professional writer and yet, I find, handmade by an artist. There is the transmutation of raw experience; the conjuring of flesh-and-blood people, often in a few lines; the coherent story (suspense story almost) and the construction, the sequence of events, is first-rate, professional—by instinct?

By this time, the Countess was approaching her seventieth birthday. You might think, having told the story of her fascinating life, Cecilia Sternberg would have nothing more of interest to say. But you’d be wrong. After writing an excellent but criminally underappreciated autobiography, she set about writing a thriller. And what a thriller it is (almost certainly it is the only crime novel in history written by someone whose last name at birth was Criminil).

The novel, published in 1979, is called Masquerade. I’ll try to avoid giving away too many spoilers, but I advise you to skip the rest of this review and just buy a copy of the book. You won’t be disappointed. The story opens in the summer of 1929. Eddie Livingston has graduated from Oxford and wants a career in Britain’s diplomatic corps. He has mastered several European languages but would like to improve his German. Alas, he’s too poor to go to Germany at the moment. His father was a historian who was working on a book about the Tsars and Empresses of Russia when he died. Eddie’s mother is trying to finish the book and get it published. While perusing the paper one day, Eddie sees a want ad seeking a British tutor for a fifteen-year-old student in Germany who needs to improve his English skills. The job pays nothing, but the tutor’s travel costs will be covered as will his room and board. The want ad was placed by the German boy’s English grandparents, a vicar and his wife. Eddie visits the vicar and learns of the boy’s odd history. His mother is the vicar’s beautiful daughter, thirty-five-year-old Elaine. Her husband was Paul Plevke, a German aristocrat of Russian heritage. After marrying Elaine he took her to live at Schwarzensee (“Black Lake”), his family’s Gothic castle near a small town in the German state of Schleswig-Holstein. Nine months later she gives birth to the couple’s only child, Alexander. World War I breaks out and Paul goes off to war with his faithful servant, a somewhat older man named Beck. Paul dies in the war’s early months, despite Beck’s heroic efforts to save his badly wounded master (at least, Beck claims to have made these efforts; later on we’ll have reason to suspect that Beck may have hastened Paul’s demise). Beck returns from the front with the news of Paul’s death. Paul’s mother, always referred to as the Tsarevna, because she is a distant relative of Catherine the Great of Russia, is despondent. She fears that Elaine will now want to return to England with Alexander (who was named after Catherine the Great’s grandson Tsar Alexander I). The Tsarevna conspires with Beck to keep Elaine and Alexander at Schwarzensee. She claims that Alexander will inherit all of the family’s wealth if he remains at Schwarzensee until he attains his majority. If he leaves before that, she will disinherit him. The vicar and his wife don’t actually know this last part of the story. They only know that they haven’t seen their daughter or their grandson in fourteen years. They want Eddie, under the guise of tutoring young Alexander, to try to convince Elaine to return to England with her son. This is a great setup and it covers only the first few pages of the book.

The novel is divided into two parts, each of which is roughly 150 pages long. The first half is reminiscent of a good Gothic-romance novel, but instead of an impoverished young woman who finds herself enmeshed in the ominous goings on in the creepy old isolated mansion where she has taken a job, we have a young man in that position. The novel also has echoes of the works of Graham Greene and Patricia Highsmith. Alexander Plevke turns out to be the most stunningly beautiful human being Eddie Livingston has ever seen, and he falls under his spell in a way similar to how Tom Ripley falls under Dickie Greenleaf’s spell in The Talented Mr. Ripley (like Eddie, Tom Ripley’s adventure begins when he is sent to Europe to try to convince a lost child to return home to his parents). Eddie also bears a resemblance to Henry Pulling, the narrator of Greene’s novel Travels With My Aunt. He is a somewhat shy and colorless English civil-service wannabe who finds himself being dragged across Europe by women much more adventurous and interesting than he is.

Schwarzansee turns out to be quite the house of secrets. The Tsarevna tries to order her life in the manner of her famous ancestor Catherine the Great. If, unlike me, you know a lot about Catherine the Great, you may be able to see some of the plot twists coming. Catherine often hinted that her oldest child, Paul I, was sired not by her husband, Peter III, but by her lover, Sergei Saltykov. Something similar seems to have led to the birth of the Tsarevna’s son, Paul. Peter III died mysteriously, and some believe his wife conspired to have him murdered. Something similar seems to have happened to the husband of the Tsarevna. When Eddie Livingston reveals this information to his mother back in England via a letter, she writes to him and tells him to look for a secret passageway into the Tsarevna’s bedroom. Eddie can’t understand why she thinks there might be one, but he investigates and, sure enough, finds one. When he asks his mother how she knew this, the mother (who is completing a book about Russian royalty, remember) informs him that Catherine the Great had a secret passageway that led from her bedroom to the quarters of her lover. Further complicating Eddie’s stay at Schwarzansee is the fact that he engages in a sexual liaison with Elaine, the woman he was sent to rescue. Fairly quickly, Eddie realizes he has made a mistake in coming to Germany and becoming enmeshed in the lives of the Plevkes. But he has a hard time extracting himself from it all. Elaine wants to marry him, the Tsarevna and Beck want him to help keep Alexander from leaving Germany, and Alexander wants Eddie to help him get to Oxford so that he can join the University’s famous Dramatic Society and achieve his dream of becoming a professional actor (his acting skills will be put to use frequently during the course of the novel). Eddie does eventually help Alexander get into Oxford, but only after becoming involved in a suspicious killing (the killer says it was self-defense but it looks like murder to Eddie) by placing the dead body in the driver’s seat of a vintage Mercedes Benz and pushing the vehicle off a cliff and into a nearby lake (the Black Lake that the castle is named for), where it disappears into the mud at the bottom (but will it stay there?). All this happens even before we reach the end of Part One.

Part Two opens about eight years later, in 1937. Eddie has achieved his goal and is now a diplomat assigned to the British embassy in Vienna. He is engaged in an affair with a lovely Austrian aristocrat named Princess Marie Therese. Alexander wrote Eddie frequently during his years at Oxford, but Eddie rarely responded. He is trying to forget the nightmare that was Schwarzansee. By 1937 Alexander is a renowned thespian. He has appeared in several Hollywood movies, but his true love is the European stage. One night, Alexander looks over the footlights and spies Eddie and his lover, Marie Therese, in the audience of a play he is performing in at a Viennese theater (Eddie had no desire to see it, but Marie Therese insisted). During an intermission, Alexander sends Eddie a note, requesting that he come backstage and visit him after the show. Eddie reluctantly does so, and once again Eddie finds his life unhappily entwined with Alexander. The Princess becomes infatuated with Alexander and hopes to make him her latest romantic conquest. Soon she and Alexander have gone off together to a grand chateau owned by the Princess and her husband, Prince Heinrich (the Prince knows all about her affairs and doesn’t care). Eddie is hurt by this but also relieved. Being in the company of either Alexander or Marie Therese exhausts him. Being in the company of both is damn near unbearable. Alas, Prince Heinrich (an aviator) flies his plane back to Austria a few days later and informs Eddie that a tragedy has occurred. A neighboring chateau caught fire a few nights ago and, in a failed effort to rescue the Jewish couple living in the chateau, Alexander was badly burned. His face has been horribly disfigured. The Princess is inconsolable but Prince Heinrich believes Eddie will have a better chance of soothing her than he himself does. So Eddie climbs into the Prince’s bi-plane and flies off to Czechoslovakia with him. There he finds that Marie Therese is literally out of her mind with grief. Her physician (a close relative of the Jews killed in the chateau fire) informs Eddie that he is going to tell the Princess that Alexander has died. He thinks it will be best for her if she doesn’t have to imagine him living on in agony, his face and his acting career in ruins. The physician assures Eddie that this is just a small lie, since Alexander is almost sure to die of his injuries sometime in the next few days or weeks.

But, of course, Alexander doesn’t die. In fact, Eddie has reason to question whether he was ever really injured in the fire at all. When Eddie finally sees him again, Alexander is so swaddled in bandages that Eddie can’t be sure what he looks like. What’s more, Eddie is told that Alexander’s vocal chords were so damaged by smoke that he can no longer speak. Eddie can talk to Alexander, but Alexander responds by spelling out his messages with Scrabble tiles, an amusing device that makes Alexander’s part of every conversation sound like text messages. But is that really Alexander under those bandages? And how did the chateau of the unfortunate Jewish couple really catch fire? Did someone deliberately set the fire in order to curry favor with the Nazis who are sure to be invading Czechoslovakia soon? And what about Alexander’s beautiful young nurse, Esther? She seems almost romantically devoted to him. Is it only because she is the daughter of the Jewish couple he tried to rescue, or is she also hiding some secret?

Cecilia Sternberg was a highly cultured woman. Her book is full of references—some implicit and some explicit—to various operas, poems, novels, stories, and myths. The fair Elaine, with her unrequited love for Eddie, is clearly based on Elaine the Fair, a maiden who falls in unrequited love with Sir Lancelot in Sir Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Arthurian tale The Lady of Shalott. There is also an amusing nod to the legend of how the famous Rabbi Loew of Prague created a Golem, a menacing mythological creature, said to haunt Prague to this very day. The Golem in Masquerade glows in the dark thanks to some phosphorescent paint that has been applied to his forehead, a touch reminiscent of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, wherein (spoiler alert) a large dog was covered with phosphorus to make him appear to be a supernatural devil dog. The book contains many references to Goethe’s Faust, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Mozart’sThe Magic Flute. Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence, and many other authors are mentioned by name. Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera is never mentioned by name, but it too seems to haunt Sternberg’s pages. It’s surprising that no one has ever made a film based on Sternberg’s novel, because nearly every page of it seems to call out for a cinematic or theatrical interpretation. Here is the narrator describing one of Princess Marie Therese’s grand balls:

I walked to the palace. Snow had begun to fall and it was very cold. Cars and taxis came and went incessantly as I approached. The enormous double doors—usually closed, only a small side entrance giving access to the courtyard—stood wide open. Through them the costumed and masked crowd flowed up the great stone staircase, carpeted in crimson for the occasion. In arched niches at intervals stood liveried footmen with powdered hair, holding aloft flaming torches. They stood as still as statues, while the gods and goddesses that ornamented the baroque balustrade seemed to move in the flickering light and to have come alive, the gray stone of their scantily draped bodies glowing pink like flesh, their welcoming outstretched arms seeming to tremble and stir as light and shade intermittently touched them. Somewhere in the distance an orchestra was playing from The Magic Flute.

On the first floor, where most of the big reception rooms were, all the paneled white and gold doors stood open so that there was an unobstructed view from one end of the palace to the other. One could see through a series of seemingly interminable of magnificent stuccoed rooms lit by thousands of candles in glittering chandeliers or silver candelabras. Their mellow light transformed the gaudy, tinseled costumes into beauty and authenticity . . . There was no end to the variety of costumes. Aidas and Tosca’s Butterflies, Lucias, Leonoras and Marguerites, fox-trotted, waltzed and tangoed with Toreadors, fur-draped Boris Godounovs, Don Giovannis and black-clad Mephistos . . . At midnight nearly everyone unmasked. Great steaming bowls of punch were served by the powdered footmen and the year 1938—that was to prove so fateful for Austria—was joyfully welcomed in.

You can almost feel the movie camera tracking Eddie as he glides through all that splendor.

Eventually Eddie will solve most of the novel’s primary mysteries. He will learn who really torched the chateau where the Jewish couple died and why they did it. He will find out who is masquerading as the Golem of Prague. He will learn who betrayed Marie Therese and her husband to the Nazis. Along the way, the reader will be treated to a variety of brilliant set pieces, including an attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler on Prague’s famous Karlsbruke, a bridge that is one of Europe’s architectural wonders. Somehow Sternberg, who had never before published a novel, managed to keep a plot that is as complex as the inner workings of a Patek Phillipe watch from veering off into utter chaos. She remained totally in control of her material right down to the delivery of the novel’s brilliant final line. Alas, she never produced another novel. She died on November 1, 1983, in Kingston, Jamaica, at the age of seventy-five.

Brilliant as it is, Masquerade is ranked number 3,072,279 on the Amazon bestsellers list. Mystery buff and writer J. Kingston Pierce maintains an excellent website devoted to crime fiction called The Rap Sheet. For years the website has run a series celebrating great but forgotten crime novels. I love the series, but I think it is quite a stretch to call many of its entries lost books. Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers, P.D. James’s An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, Elmore Leonard’s Swag, George V. Higgins’s The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Eric Ambler’s A Coffin for Dimitrios–as far as I can tell, none of these books has ever gone out of print, and all of them are easy to obtain. In fact, most of them are regarded as classics of the genre. Swag has been enshrined in a Library of America edition, which guarantees that it will never go out of print. The Friends of Eddie Coyle is at number 175 on Amazon’s list of the best-selling hardboiled mysteries, despite the fact that it’s also easily obtained in both new- and used- bookstores all across America. Masquerade, on the other hand, is a true lost book. And Jamey Cohen’s Dmitri, despite the fact that it has generated a handful of enthusiastic reviews at Amazon.com, ranks even lower than Masqueradeon the Amazon bestsellers list: 3,327,262. You can’t get much more lost than that.

The links between Cohen and Sternberg are curious. Cohen’s first novel and Sternberg’s only novel both deal with twentieth-century characters who are haunted by long-dead Russian royals. Hypnosis plays a big part in Cohen’s novel and a minor one in Sternberg’s. The protagonists of both novels attended elite universities and are multilingual. Sternberg’s two books were published during the final three years of the 1970s. Cohen’s two books were published during the first two years of the 1980s (technically, 1980 was the last year of the 1970s, but only pedants observe that technicality). Sternberg wrote her two books in the final years of her life. Cohen wrote hers in the first few years of her adult life. Both Dmitri and Masquerade languish way below the three-million mark on Amazon’s bestsellers list.

Neither of these forgotten women writers has ever gotten the attention they deserve. Their books remain out of print and largely unread. But if you love a mystery, you might want to seek out used copies of both Dmitri and Masquerade. They were written in an era when thrillers tended to be shorter and brainier than they are nowadays. Neither book has any graphic violence or sex, just good writing, devious plotting, and near-perfect pacing. If, as Josephine Tey insisted, “Truth is the daughter of Time,” perhaps there will come a day when these two books are finally recognized as the pop-fiction gems they really are.

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“Reading, Writing, and the Making of a Serial Killer” (by Jacqueline Freimor)

Jacqueline Freimor made a distinguished debut as a fiction writer in 1995 when she won the Mystery Writer’s of America’s Fiftieth Anniversary Short Short Story Contest in the new writers category. The story was subsequently published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. Twenty-five years later, in our current issue (July/August 2020), she is making her EQMM debut with the story “That Which Is True.” The intervening years saw stories of hers featured in a variety of publications, and she received two honorable mentions from Best American Mystery Stories for her work. In this post she answers indirectly—and very originally!— the question so often asked of writers: Where do you get your ideas? —Janet Hutchings

“A man becomes preeminent, he’s expected to have enthusiasms.” Thus speaks Al Capone, as portrayed by Robert DeNiro in one of my favorite movies of all time, The Untouchables, before he beats an associate to death with a baseball bat. That line is only one of many memorable lines in the film, but I hear it echoing in my head more often than the average person would think reasonable. I’m not sure why it keeps resonating with me. Maybe the reason is that although I’m not preeminent (or a man), I have a lot of what you might refer to as enthusiasms. And luckily, I get to explore them all as a writer of crime fiction.

Before I was a writer, I was a reader. I remember exactly when I learned to read, and when I say exactly, I mean the actual moment. It happened in first grade, in Mrs. Tannenbaum’s class, and we had been working our laborious way through the Dick and Jane primers—you know, “See Jane run! Run, Jane, run!”—when one day, just like that, the letters linked themselves up into words, and the words lined themselves up into sentences, and the sentences marched across the page into a story. I could read it. It made sense. The story wasn’t interesting—I knew that even then—but I didn’t care. I was beside myself with joy because I could read (“See Jackie read!”), and reading was the key that would unlock the mysteries of the world. Reading was the secret of life.

I became a voracious reader, insatiable, hoovering up every scrap of writing I saw. I wanted to know everything, even the stuff written on cereal boxes and street signs and clothing labels. I didn’t read for the usual know-it-all reasons, though, not to get good grades or to impress people at parties. In fact, as an introvert’s introvert, I would rather stick a fork in my eye than go to a gathering with more than four people. No, the reason I read everything, everywhere, all the time was that I wanted to know how it all worked, and why things happened, and whether anything made sense.

Spoiler alert: nothing made sense (and it still doesn’t, now more than ever). By the time I figured that out, though, I was an adult, and I had stopped envisioning life as a quest to complete a giant jigsaw puzzle and started thinking of it as a long (hopefully) walk through a seaside amusement park dotted with fascinating and diverting attractions. Pre-Internet, I read random entries in encyclopedias, which led me to other entries, which led me to others, ad infinitum, the information blossoming and spreading like ink spilled across a page. I read book indexes, too, for the unanticipated detours. For example, who wouldn’t travel to “Easter Island (Rapa Nui)” when they saw “creation myth chant,” “Pacific rat and,” and “sweet potatoes grown on,” as in the index to Christina Thompson’s Sea People? Then when the ultimate index, the Internet, did come along, I discovered that the intricately woven filaments of the World Wide Web could transport me from “funerary customs of ancient Egypt” to “The Battle of Bosworth” faster than you could say Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. The world, as they say, was my oyster. (And if you want to know who actually said that, Google it. Just kidding. It was Shakespeare.)

So I became a woman with enthusiasms. I’ve held a bunch of jobs—typist, typesetter, anthropology student, medical editor, music teacher—that have no obvious common thread other than providing me with an opportunity to collect interesting bits of information. These random factoids lie dormant in my psyche until new ones appear and glom onto them, and then, like molecules, the combinations keep forging and breaking bonds to create entirely new substances.

For example, a Marxist critique of class entwined itself with an entry in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders about erotomania, and then a checklist of the common characteristics of serial killers adhered to them, too, and voilà!—I had an idea for a story about an adolescent boy and how he found his sociopathic calling. I actually did write that story—my first—and sent it to one mystery magazine after another, but no one wanted it. Convinced that my enthusiasms had created a good story, though, and with nowhere else to submit it, in 1995 I entered it in the unpublished writers category of MWA’s 50th Anniversary Short Story competition—and it won first prize, which included publication in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. (This experience taught me an important lesson. It’s great to have enthusiasms, but enthusiasms alone are not enough. You also have to be stubborn as hell. But I digress.)

Since then, my stories have owed their lives to a number of different fixations. Cardiology, the death penalty, Holocaust survivors, the paintings of Edward Hopper, and the internal documents of the Brown and Williamson tobacco company are a few of my former obsessions that were transmogrified into stories. Three more recent interests—jury duty, the criminal potential of 3-D printing, and the “Queen Bee” syndrome in young girls—combined to create the story “That Which Is True,” which to my enormous delight has just been published in the current July/August issue of Ellery Queen.

I’m happy to report that I have only just begun to obsess. Right now, I’m writing a novella that explores stamp-collecting curiosities and the mechanics of nation-building as well as a novel that begins on New York’s Island of the Dead—all while plotting another novel that satirizes the cutthroat world of early childhood music education. Each project has nothing at all to do with the next, which is the way I like it. I get to indulge all of my enthusiasms, and I hope that readers will find them as fascinating as I do.

If not, there’s always that baseball bat.

Posted in Adventure, Books, Characters, Editing, Fiction, Genre, Guest, History, mystery fiction, Writers, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Keys to the Kingdom: Unlocking the Locked Room” (by Tom Mead)

British fiction writer and playwright Tom Mead has placed short stories with a variety of publications, including International Short Story Magazine, Lighthouse, Flame Tree Press, Mystery Weekly, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. He makes his EQMM debut in our current issue, with the story “The Indian Rope Trick.” Like much of the rest of his work, the story belongs to the “impossible crime” subgenre of crime fiction. A longtime fan of impossible crimes and especially of locked-room mysteries, Tom shares some of his favorite books and stories from that category with us in this post. We expect to have another post on this insufficiently discussed topic soon. —Janet Hutchings

It will come as no surprise that I’m here because I love mysteries. But more than that, my passion is impossibilities. There is something about a locked-room mystery that speaks to me in a way that no other genre does. It’s the intricacy of it; the meticulousness; the literary legerdemain. I tend to use “locked room” as an umbrella term for all impossible crime stories; stories where the question is not simply whodunit but how. (Not to be confused— though it often is—with a “closed circle” mystery such as Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express or the movie Knives Out, where only a handful of suspects could conceivably have committed the crime.)

A supposed failing of the Golden Age puzzle plot is its lack of psychological verisimilitude. For a good while it was fashionable for critics to disparage the old guard for a perceived lack of interest in their murderers’ inner lives. Critiquing any mystery on that basis misses the point entirely. While encountering a real life locked-room scenario is certainly fanciful (no more so than encountering a serial killer, of course), it is also a very potent piece of psychological symbolism. Perhaps that’s why some of the most remarkable poets of the twentieth century took an interest in the genre. I’m thinking in particular of Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis, who wrote mysteries—including impossible crimes—as “Nicholas Blake,” and Nobel Prize winner W.H. Auden, who was the first to point out the correlation between the archetypal Golden Age mystery and the Aristotelian concept of tragedy in his essay “The Guilty Vicarage.”

From the very beginning of a locked-room mystery, we are told that we are about to be tricked. And then we are tricked. It is a game or a challenge, but it is also an intimate psychological bond that can tell us a great deal about ourselves. It is similar to watching a horror movie: we do not want to be frightened, and yet, at the same time, we do.

But even this description is somewhat reductive. It is not simply the challenge that makes the subgenre great—otherwise a locked-room mystery novel would be no more engaging than a crossword or Sudoku puzzle. Another key component is atmosphere. At its best, the locked-room mystery entices the reader with its intrigue and unease—nothing is as it seems, after all. Often the works that I love the most are the ones that flirt with the uncanny or the supernatural. Mysteries which revel in the Gothic tradition. When done right, believe me, it is like magic.

In fact, there are plenty of correlations between constructing a fair-play puzzle plot and constructing a magic trick. That’s why I have made my own fictional detective a magician. In most respects he fits the Golden Age archetype. He is an aging retired conjuror with a knack for unravelling mysteries. A perfect foil for whatever weird and wonderful scenarios I can come up with!

It might seem like a paradox, but I think one of the best ways to gain an understanding of the human condition is by deceiving people. That’s why I love writing locked-room stories. You have to second and even third-guess your reader. You have to perceive your clues and suspects as your reader is going to perceive them. You have to lay traps. In essence, you need to get inside other people’s heads. That’s the challenge but also the thrill of crafting an impossible crime.

The pleasure also lies in coming up with new and startling impossible scenarios . . . then explaining them away. I have written a story where a woman appears to spontaneously combust while travelling alone in a cable car. One where a girl vanishes in broad daylight walking through a revolving door. One where a man is found decapitated in a locked tower room, lying on the bare floorboards in the centre of a pentagram. I hope that my own writing fits somewhere into the grand tradition I have described, but I freely acknowledge that it could not exist without the works and the authors I love.

Most readers with a superficial awareness of the subgenre know John Dickson Carr, the acknowledged maestro of the locked room. It’s fair to say that his body of work has influenced me more than anybody else’s. He is a virtuoso of misdirection, as well as an effortless conjuror of atmosphere. I don’t think it would be hyperbole to call him a genius. And there is a core crowd of EQMM favourites like Edward D. Hoch, Bill Pronzini and Clayton Rawson who have produced work of startling quality.

But as a student of the locked room, it has been a pleasure discovering how immensely diverse it is. There are hundreds of unsung heroes and heroines (past and present) whose work deserves attention. Matt Ingwalson’s hardboiled Owl & Raccoon novellas, for instance, or Hal White’s ingenious Reverend Dean mysteries; Gigi Pandian’s brilliant The Cambodian Curse, Orania Papazoglou’s Sweet, Savage Death or Barbara D’Amato’s seafaring Hard Tack. If you fancy heading back in time, there is Rupert Penny’s astonishing oeuvre waiting to delight you, or Clyde B. Clason’s, or Hake Talbot’s utterly remarkable Rim of the Pit. Then there are the scientific machinations of Arthur Porges or John Russell Fearn. Or French-language masterpieces like Pierre Boileau’s Six Crimes Sans Assassinand Stanislas-André Steeman’s L’Infaillible Silas Lord (which, incidentally, I am working to translate into English). Or the blood-spattered Daedalian tapestries of honkaku kings Soji Shimada and Seishi Yokomizo.

Looking at a list like that, it is almost hard to believe they all fit in such an apparently narrow subgenre. But they do. Though the tropes of the locked-room mystery are so well established, there is still plenty of scope for innovation. After all, the best are those which leave you breathless at their invention, but which also slot together so neatly that there could be no other conceivable solution. The only real “locked room” is a reader’s imagination. And ingenuity is the key.

If you are new to the subgenre and wondering where is best to begin, here are five titles I admire greatly to get you started. This is not a “top 5” by any means, just a selection of gems in dire need of mainstream rediscovery:

John Dickson Carr, He Who Whispers

He Who Whispers is the maestro at his most unabashedly gothic. A man found dead at the top of an inaccessible tower—could it be the work of a vampire?

John Dickson Carr, It Walks By Night

JDC’s early novels positively see the with malevolent atmosphere and this one, his very first in fact, borrows a particularly macabre motif from Edgar Allan Poe.

Paul Halter, The Picture From The Past

Paul Halter’s commitment to the traditional impossible-crime story is astonishing. He is certainly one of the most prolific contemporary authors in the subgenre, as well as one of the most creative. The John Pugmire translations from Locked Room International are a constant joy.

Helen McCloy, Through A Glass Darkly

This is a hauntingly surreal mystery with a neat and satisfying conclusion which, at the same time, does not quite dispel its atmosphere of creeping disquiet. McCloy had a fascination with uncanny doubles, and this novel is arguably her masterpiece.

Soji Shimada, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders

An utterly macabre triumph which defies description. It really must be read to be believed; fortunately, it is now readily available in English. Hopefully the first of many.

And since EQMM is a great bastion of short fiction, here are a few stories for good measure:

John Dickson Carr, “The Wrong Problem”

Carter Dickson (a.k.a. John Dickson Carr), “The House in Goblin Wood”

Paul Halter, “The Cleaver”

Edward D. Hoch, “The Problem of the Old Oak Tree”

Clayton Rawson, “From Another World” 

Happy reading, and welcome to the realm of the impossible.

Posted in Books, Characters, Classic Mystery, Fiction, Genre, Guest, Novels, Story, Writers | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Reader as ‘Murderer?’ Not Really.” (by Claire Ortalda)

A former journalist, editor, and teacher, Claire Ortalda has won various prizes and awards for her fiction, including the Georgia State University Fiction Prize. Her short story “Oglethorpe’s Camera” was included in the 2019 MWA anthology Odd Partners, edited by Anne Perry. The Psychopath Companion, her first novel, was short-listed for the Del Sol First Novel Prize. The California author has also written children’s fiction. With her writing experience (short fiction and long, adult and juvenile) covering so much of our genre, she’s the perfect writer to talk about some of the thorny issues surrounding violence in entertainment fiction. Don’t miss her first story for EQMM, “The Recipe Box,” either; it’s in our current issue, July/August 2020.—Janet Hutchings

We have all, recently, been witness to violent murder in the death of George Floyd. What implications does that tragic event have on our thoughts about one form of entertainment—the murder mystery?  What does it mean for readers and writers to repeatedly, enthusiastically, be “involved” in, to “witness” the violent taking of life?

I first began thinking along these lines months ago, when, for a novel-in-progress, I began research on support groups for families of victims of violence.  The websites for these groups are sobering and sad.  It was astonishing to me to see how many murders are unsolved. It was heart-rending to see the yearbook-style photos of the victims and to read the thumbnail sketches of the circumstances of their death.

Then I happened upon Murder Is Not Entertainment (MINE)SM , a program established in November 1993 by the National Organization of Parents Of Murdered Children, Inc. The tenets of this worthwhile group brought me up short because, indeed, as a mystery writer, I myself was writing about violent crime as entertainment, and as a mystery reader, consuming that kind of entertainment.

Certainly there has been a veritable explosion in the past few decades of reality-based crime shows.  A component in some of these is the participation of the victim’s families, who are, undoubtedly, so desperate for assistance in the apprehension of the murderer of their loved one, that they consent to this invasion of privacy, allowing, as well, a window into their grief.

I have watched many of these programs, putting myself into the detective’s shoes, as intrigued by the very puzzle-like nature of the investigation as I am by a well-crafted fictional mystery.  But is this exploitation?  Do we revel in the violence?  Why isn’t, for instance, a show or story about a clever fraud as fascinating as a murder?

Well, I think it can be, for those of us who like the puzzle aspect of mysteries, who have an unflagging interest in the psychology of the characters involved, who marvel at the confluence of decisions and events that bring people together in situations that become crimes.

Let’s take a typical Agatha Christie-type novel as an example, one with an aging or ailing patriarch or matriarch with sole control of the family money surrounded by potential heirs, all with varying reasons for needing their inheritance now.  Typically, the sequence goes thusly:  a murder is committed, then the sleuth interviews each of the suspects in turn. In these interviews, besides establishment of a real or fabricated alibi, the following may occur:

1) the character of the interviewee is illuminated to both reader and sleuth via the suspect’s appearance, mannerisms, and reactions to certain questions (nervousness, anger, dismissiveness, arrogance, prejudices);

2) the reader is “listening” and evaluating this suspect in light of what previous characters have said about this person (a complex assessment because the previous characters may have lied or been prejudiced against this person);

3) the interviewee may react guiltily or nervously as a result of the interview (immediately be seen calling somebody or leaving the house hurriedly, speaking sharply to someone, not allowing someone to speak, etc.) This usually occurs when the person thinks the sleuth is out of sight or earshot; and/or

4) both reader and sleuth may come to understand that the suspect is hiding another secret, unconnected to the murder, or is protecting someone else.

These are complex psychological analyses, often occurring in just a few pages.  No wonder mysteries are so endlessly compelling to the student of human nature, as so many mystery readers tend to be. Here, in fictional form, by the end of the book, the motivations and passions of the main characters are laid bare, something that very often does not occur in real life.  We are each a mystery to one another which is why this kind of probing and unmasking is so intriguing and, I would argue, the real impetus behind our fascination with murder mysteries. It’s not the blood that enthralls, it’s the mind behind the crime.  It’s the motivations and compulsions of diverse personalities.

I know. You are saying that these are examples of murder mysteries and yet I was arguing that any kind of crime compels interest.  One answer could be that murder, being the most extreme of crimes, serves almost as a metaphor for all crime.  Another answer is Aristotelian: tragedy is cathartic, purging the heart through pity and fear.

And now that we’re referencing the ancient Greeks, if we remember their original definition of comedy and tragedy, technically an Agatha Christie novel, for example, is . . . a comedy.

It’s a comedy by definition because it has a happy ending.   And it qualifies as having a happy ending because the good guy wins.  So despite the body count, truth (knowledge of who the killer is) and justice prevail at the end.  Just listen to the sprightly, upbeat music on the BBC version (Joan Hickson starring) of the Miss Marple books. It’s a cue to the viewer that all will turn out well.

Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, Sherlock Holmes, and others of their ilk are all examples of what mystery writer David Corbett, in his book The Compass of Character terms “traveling angels,”  which he defines as “A descendent of the knight errant [who] . . . roams from place to place . . . solving problems with a unique skill set, then moving on.”  And it’s another reason why mysteries in which justice is done, no matter how serious the book’s content, are comedies in the Greek sense.  This almost supernatural being, with few personal ties, enters the arena of tragedy, shrewdly untangles the web of deception, and brings that malefactor who would rend the fabric of society (the murderer) to justice, thus mending that society.  The “angel” then rides off into the sunset a là Shane.

In perhaps more realistic mysteries, especially the hardboiled novels of the 1920s and 1930s (more recently exemplified by the movie Chinatown), the traveling angel, the detective for hire, does not win against the forces of wealth and corruption.  But in Golden Age mysteries and most published today, justice is served, society is made whole, and that, I think, mitigates the fact that such a tragic act is consumed as . . . entertainment.

Finally, I don’t think we really have trouble discerning the fictional from the real. George Floyd was real.  And his death rallied the world against real-life problems in an effort to accomplish the same things most fictional mysteries do: make society whole.  And make it just.

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“Predicting a Pandemic” (by Kevin Mims)

Last week on this site I expressed the opinion that most readers are not yet ready to read stories about COVID-19 for entertainment. But as Kevin Mims notes in the following essay, a number of publications, including the New York Times, put out reading lists for the lockdown that consisted primarily of fiction turning around plagues of one sort or another. If you are in the mood to read about a pandemic, Kevin has unearthed an old thriller that sounds worth the excavation. Amazon appears to have a couple dozen used copies available, and I imagine there are a few around elsewhere too. Kevin Mims is a frequent contributor to this site who also writers short stories for EQMM and AHMM.—Janet Hutchings

Essays about what to read during this pandemic have proliferated online since COVID-19 seized control of our societies. On March 12, the New York Times published a listicle entitled “Your Quarantine Reader,” which recommended fictions such as Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain, David Koepp’s Cold Storage, Katie M. Flynn’s The Companions, Lawrence Wright’s The End of October, Justin Cronin’s The Passage, Stephen King’s The Stand, and of course Albert Camus’s The Plague. Among the titles recommended by Vulture were Daniel DeFoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider, Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.

Not all of these books parallel the current crisis especially well, but browsing through the titles reminded me of a political thriller/crime novel from 1977 that I did not see mentioned on any of these lists. I first read The Black Death years ago and had forgotten most of it. I picked it up again with the intention of writing a lightly comic essay about how poorly its authors had anticipated the effects of a pandemic on New York City. But I was taken aback by how much the story got right or nearly right. The book is a pot-boiler, of course, not an academic study, and so it is by no means accurate in every respect. For instance, in the novel, many of New York’s essential workers—cops, nurses, firemen, transit workers, sanitation workers—simply stage a sick-out rather than expose themselves to a deadly disease by performing their suddenly-more-dangerous jobs. In the current epidemic, as we know, the members of these professions have performed heroically. Nevertheless, I found it startlingly prescient in a number of important ways.

My dogeared copy includes no biographies of the novel’s two coauthors, Gwyneth Cravens and John S. Marr. I have since discovered from an internet search that Cravens is an experienced journalist whose work has appeared in Harpers, the New Yorker, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. In 2007, she wrote a nonfiction book entitled The Power to Save the World advocating the use of nuclear power as a solution to climate change. Dr. Marr, meanwhile, is a Harvard-trained epidemiologist who at one time served as director of the New York City Bureau of Communicable Diseases. In April, he appeared with Dr. Lloyd Novick on the podcast of the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice to discuss the COVID-19 epidemic. So, in retrospect, it is unsurprising that the authors brought a good deal of knowledge and sobriety to their joint literary venture. Alas, the U.S. paperback edition was given one of the more lurid covers of the era, featuring a giant rat baring its teeth and encircling Manhattan with its body and its tail. That artwork almost certainly deterred more serious-minded readers, but it has made the book a cult favorite among geeks like me who love twentieth-century pulp fiction. In any event, Cravens’s and Marr’s novel deserves to be read, not least because it offered an engrossing and well-informed picture of what would befall America (or, at least, New York City) were it to be caught unprepared during a lethal pandemic.

The story opens with young New York hippie Sarah Dobbs returning from a backpacking trip in California and discovering that she suffers from what she thinks at first might be a cold. As breathing becomes more difficult for her, she suspects she might have the flu. In fact, she is in the advanced stages of a pneumonia brought on by an as-yet-unidentified pathogen. The authors describe how the human body responds when it is invaded by a dangerous microorganism such as a virus or a bacterium:

She was already using a great deal of strength just to keep breathing. The air sacs of her lungs were brimming with the organism and the moist residue of her battle. Destroy, destroy, her body said, and tissues harboring the enemy were sloughed off and coughed up. Burn it out, burn it out, her body said, and her fever increased. Block it, seal it off, ordered the body, and capillaries began shutting down. The flow of blood through arteries now slowed, and her blood pressure dropped. She was starving for oxygen, and the tips of her fingers were turning blue.

She sets out from her New York apartment in search of the nearest hospital but falls unconscious in the street. Her doorman, an illegal immigrant named Domingo Ortiz, calls for an ambulance. She never regains consciousness and dies at the hospital. Because she was carrying no identification, and because she was a young hippie with weird scratches on her arms (another manifestation of the disease), she is initially assumed to be a drug addict who suffered an accidental overdose. It is not until the hospital lab returns the results of a sputum test (sputum is a combination of mucus and saliva found in diseased lungs) that the physicians in charge of the dead girl’s case realize that she didn’t die of an overdose but of a disease, and possibly a highly contagious and deadly one. Unlike COVID-19, which apparently originated in bats, the fictional disease that strikes New Yorkers in The BlackDeath originates in rodents (Sarah got it from a California ground squirrel, but rats are carriers too). But it is not the bubonic plague. Rather it is described as a “pneumonic plague,” because, like COVID-19, it attacks the respiratory system of its victims and suffocates them over the course of several days. Shortly after Sarah Dobbs drops dead, so too does a pimp named Flash, who accosted her at the Port Authority Bus Station when she arrived back in New York. Flash thought she might be a runaway and was hoping to enlist her in his stable of prostitutes. But Sarah (who, we eventually discover, is the teenage daughter of wealthy parents who live on Fifth Avenue) just brushes right past Flash, coughing in his face as she does so. Next to die is Domingo Ortiz, and then several of the doctors and nurses who treated Sarah when she was hospitalized. At about this time Dr. David Hart, the director of New York City’s Bureau of Preventable Diseases, takes charge of the investigation into just what it is that is killing off New Yorkers at an alarming rate. At this point the book becomes not just a thriller, but also a crime novel. It turns out that the disease didn’t arise accidentally but was developed by rogue elements in the government during the era of the Cuban Missile crisis. These rogues planned to work with the Mafia in south Florida in order to unleash the plague (Latin name Yersinia pestis) on Cuba in order to destabilize it and oust Fidel Castro. Here’s how one character describes the covert operation:

On November 2, 1963, a Mafia yacht dropped off two Cuban exiles on the Cuban coast near Havana. They were working for Executive Action, part of the AM/LASH CIA base in Florida, and they each carried two specially designed bulbs filled with the organism Yersinia pestis, or plague. They were to be picked up the following night, but they never reappeared. None of our assets in Havana ever learned what happened to them. The venture was known as Operation Visitation, and until tonight I had only heard stories about it—the records were supposedly destroyed. But now I am in a position to confirm that the action did take place and that those responsible are still highly placed in the government.

As you might expect, those highly placed U.S. government officials are eager to avoid being exposed as the original source of the current plague, which apparently made its way to America via Cuban exiles who were once CIA assets. And these officials will stop at nothing—including mass murder on an epic scale—to cover up their crimes.

As the virus spreads, the authors illustrate the ways in which epidemics strike various segments of society differently. The authors acknowledge that minority communities and neighborhoods are likely to be particularly affected because they are disproportionately poor, and that illegal immigrants might be reluctant to seek medical aid due to their undocumented status and fear of deportation. Page 39 of the paperback edition includes a chart of a hypothetical epidemic, which shows that men are more vulnerable than women and that the elderly are more vulnerable than the young, which seems to be the case with COVID-19 as well.

There has been some debate during the COVID-19 pandemic about the effectiveness of face masks and gloves, but the authors of The Black Death knew 43 years ago that those things are vital in fighting off disease. From page 44:

To a morgue attendant who waited in the doorway, Hart said, “Get the body to the Medical Examiner’s and make sure everyone who has anything to do with it wears masks and gloves.”

From page 54:

The two men looked at each other in silence. Then they went to a cabinet against the wall and took out rubber surgical gloves. They changed their masks . . . The attendant came back as they were finishing up. “That was fast, you guys. You usually take an hour.”

“Get the fuck out of here, Jerry,” Chakarian snapped.
. . . Put on a mask and gloves, you stupid bastard, and then come help us.”

Like the epidemiologists fighting COVID-19, the medical experts in The BlackDeath also understand the importance of tracking everyone who may have come in contact with a carrier of the disease. Dolores Rodriguez, an epidemiological nurse, tells her boss (and secret lover) Dr. Hart,

“I’ve been checking around the hospital. Counting the lab technicians exposed to the blood and sputum cultures, the stretcher attendants, the orderlies, the aides, the nurses, and the doctors, fifty-five people were exposed to Jane Doe [at this point Sarah Dobbs’s identity is still unknown] on Sunday. You can figure there were some people who rode up with her in the elevator from the emergency room—say three unidentified exposures there. Of all those exposed, I guess that at least twelve people had close exposure to the patient and thirteen had intimate exposure. On Monday, seventeen more were exposed, one closely and fourteen intimately. And then, after she died, five more had intimate exposure, including the morgue attendants. The grand total is about eighty-two, with seventy-seven identified.”

Hart thinks to himself: If those seventy-seven contacts Delores had identified had each made only one [additional] contact, that was one-hundred-and-fifty-four people exposed. And if each of those had made contacts . . . Oh, God. It spread so fast—in a breath, a touch, a sneeze, a handshake, a curse.

Also prescient was the authors’ understanding that, in an epidemic, ventilators would be in short supply.

Garson followed Hart as he moved swiftly through the corridor. “We don’t have enough personnel to handle all the cases that are coming in! Many of them need respirators and intensive care!”

Later an epidemiology nurse tells Hart, “They’re bringing in respirators from Queens, and they still don’t have enough to manage the intensive-care patients.” (Dictionary.com argues that respirators are face masks worn by medical professionals to protect them from diseases, whereas ventilators are devices that help patients breathe, but in 1977 it appears that “respirator” was the term for devices that help patients breathe—at least that is the term that Cravens and Dr. Marr use in the book.)

But perhaps most impressive is not what Cravens and Marr got right about the medical aspects of a highly infectious respiratory illness, but what they got right about how society—the media, politicians, and citizens—would respond to such a pandemic. At one point, Dr. Hart recalls an outbreak of smallpox back in 1948:

The city government ordered everyone in the five boroughs who had not had a recent immunization to have shots [and] everyone cooperated. President Truman had one before visiting the city. Over six million people vaccinated in two weeks. Now, Hart knew, there would be no return of the miracle of ’48. Decentralization, “community awareness,” an infectious distrust of government, and federal indifference would all work against any “war effort.” And the health department had been much bigger then . . . Now, thanks to successive budget cuts, the money and personnel to fight a major epidemic no longer existed.

Later in the book, Irving Kaprow, head of New York Mayor Syd Weinstein’s Task Force for Emergency Preparedness, tells Dr. Hart, “It’s about that statement of Imminent Peril. The Board of Health met and ratified it and passed it on to the Mayor. But now he’s changed his mind. He doesn’t want to deliver it. He’s afraid that if he asks people to avoid public transportation, there will be bad traffic tie-ups everywhere . . .  And he doesn’t want to say that it’s the plague or that we should be prepared for a serious epidemic. He thinks those are scare tactics.”

Shortly thereafter, Mayor Weinstein himself tells Dr. Hart,

“I don’t understand how this epidemic is a serious threat to the entire city when almost nobody is sick,” a reflexive response echoed in some quarters of social media even now. Weinstein is altogether more concerned about the devastating effects of the pandemic on the economy than its devastating effects on the human body. When Dr. Hart asks him to declare a State of Emergency, the Mayor replies: “I am extremely reluctant to do that on account of the fact that when a State of Emergency is declared, people get very excited. The law is that, in a State of Emergency, all insurance policies are automatically voided. The business community would go into a turmoil, which would have a ripple effect. The threat to property—”

At which point, Dr. Hart interjects:

“Goddamn it, your life is the best personal property you own! And the best way to protect it is to bring in the Guard, and even Army medical personnel, and solicit volunteer nurses and doctors. The resources of the Health Department have been exhausted. We are not sitting on our hands! We’ve been working day and night. The hospitals are barely able to manage, and the cases are still coming in. When I left Metropolitan Hospital a few minutes ago, there were sixty-two cases jammed into a small isolation ward. Many of them require intensive care, and special machinery that we’ll have to bring in from the other boroughs. And outside the hospital there’s a large worried crowd . . . Your Honor, I know that we can stop the epidemic right now, within the next few days, if we’re given enough help and cooperation. Politics has to be put aside; otherwise, more people will die in a mass panic—caused by conflicting reports and terrible rumors . . .”

The authors of The Black Death foresaw that a pandemic might create a rift between government officials and medical authorities and wove it into their plot, more than forty years before the current pandemic.The authors are also prescient about the unreliability of government statistics during the early days of a pandemic as health officials struggle to understand the behavior of this new pathogen. Fictional CIA Director Bryce Marks tells the men gathered at a security briefing:

“It’s difficult to determine true statistics during plague, because systems of reporting differ from country to country, and usually cases are underreported. This is partly because only confirmed cases are reported to the World Health Organization in most countries, and partly because many countries conceal cases for economic and political reasons. So we have no accurate picture of the extent of plague in the world, although WHO estimates that it is more prevalent by a factor of three than the figures show.”

At all levels of government, Cravens and Marr anticipated leadership more interested in restarting a frozen economy than in protecting lives. In one scene, the Secretary of the Treasury says, “I thought we had agreed that a stoppage of the financial and communications structure lasting beyond two weeks was unacceptable, given the economic disruption we’re currently experiencing.” In another scene, General Cosgrove, the President’s National Security Advisor, meets with his team and tells them:

“I have met with the President again today, and he has requested that we formulate specific response options to effect a speedy restoration of the critical financial, port-oriented, and general decision-making activities of New York City. The current disruption of the economy and world trade must end. We’re already under extreme pressure from all the nations in the free world, who are deeply concerned about their gold reserves—a total of eighteen billion dollars in gold bullion—in the Federal Reserve Bank in Manhattan . . . I suggest that we address ourselves to compiling action scenarios to present to the President.”

This excerpt also shows how deftly the authors were able to mimic the self-important jargon that marred so much of business and political communication in the 1970s (for instance, “address ourselves to compiling action scenarios” rather than “come up with a plan”) and which has only worsened in the years since. And just as some contemporary American pundits have insisted, despite a dearth of contrary evidence, that COVID-19 may have been developed as a bioweapon in a Chinese laboratory, the military personnel in The Black Death are determined to lay the blame on foreigners:

“I might add, sir,” Cosgrove went on, “that we can’t rule out the possibility that the New York outbreak represents the use of bacteriological warfare by a hostile power, and that further attacks are being contemplated.”

Later, CIA director Marks wants to play up this possibility in order to distract the public from the administration’s bungled response to the outbreak.

“Can we formulate a believable adversary action to help create an external focus of public outrage?” Marks asked.

“An overt statement on the part of the President suggesting that Cuba was responsible for the plague is a constructive possibility,” Cosgrove replied.

In speculating about how a dangerous epidemic might play out in New York City, Gwyneth Cravens and John S. Marr didn’t get everything right. But their forty-seven-year-old political thriller/crime novel was prescient on many levels. People who look down their noses at popular fictional genres—science fiction, mystery, thrillers, etc.—don’t realize that often times these books contain valuable insights into human nature and the ways that societies work (or fail to work). In times of crisis we’re often encouraged to turn to literary classics for guidance in how to behave and endure. But popular fiction can also fill this role. And sometimes it does so more accurately than even so-called “serious literature” does.

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