“Shelly Dickson Carr’s Bag of Tricks”

In the current issue of EQMM (May/June 2020) author Shelly Dickson Carr makes a very welcome EQMM debut! Shelly is the author of the novel Ripped, which won three Benjamin Franklin awards, and of a number of short stories, published in our sister magazine, AHMM, and elsewhere. What makes her EQMM debut particularly notable is that she belongs to the third generation of her family to contribute to EQMM. Sons and daughters have followed parents into print in our pages before, but I cannot recall a previous third-generation appearance. Shelly Dickson Carr is the granddaughter of the illustrious John Dickson Carr (dozens of whose tales appeared in EQMM), and the daughter of Julia McNiven, who had a story in EQMM in 1974. In this post she shares some writing tips, some gleaned from her grandfather and from another master of the genre, Colin Dexter, and some learned from personal experience. The writers among our readers should find them all useful.—Janet Hutchings

In this trying time of social distancing and scarcity and isolation and lack of direct contact with our loved ones during the coronavirus pandemic, it seems a bit odd to be talking about a bag-of-tricks. But so many writer friends have been reaching out, needing to stay connected, that when Janet Hutchings asked me to contribute to this blog, I thought I’d dig into my writer’s bag of tricks and share some tips. And because many of us are sheltering in place, here’s hoping this will be a bit of a distraction—it certainly is for me. Thanks, Janet.

As a starter, and because mystery writing is in my DNA, I shall share one of grandfather’s tricks and end with one that Colin Dexter shared with me in Oxford, England over tea at the Randolph Hotel.

 Bag of Tricks # 1—Blood on a Bandage: A John Dickson Carr Trick  

We all know that a detective story has red herrings and clues and must always play fair with the reader—all tropes familiar to crime writers. But have you ever heard of a BOB? A BOB is a trick my grandfather taught me: Blood On A Bandage. Simply put, if you plant a clue, especially an important one, it’s always best to have a visual image such as “red blood on a white bandage” immediately following the all-important clue. A BOB is a metaphor for something graphic or startling that will tug the reader’s mind away from the tip-off that you want the reader to forget. Nine times out of ten, the reader will remember the visual image of red blood splattered on a white gauzy bandage and forget the information proceeding it.

Next time you read a spy thriller, and a sudden bomb or startling explosion goes off,  reread the sentences or paragraphs right before the bomb exploded and you will likely find an important piece of information the author wanted to hide in plain sight.

Setting off a bomb is a wee bit heavy-handed in a short story where a visual but subtle image, given directly after a clue, is the best weapon in one’s arsenal of obfuscation. As an example, I randomly tugged out several old Ellery Queen Mystery Mags off my shelf and, thumbing through the top one, I’ve just found a short story by a favorite writer, Edward D. Hoch—missed by all who knew and loved him.

In Ed Hoch’s short story “The Theft of the Legal Eagle,” it is important that the protagonist/thief, Nick Velvet, remembers later in the story that a beautiful young woman named Silke has had an idyllic childhood, replete with midnight swimming and moonlight treasure hunts. Immediately after we learn about Silke’s treasure hunts, the author gives us: “She tossed her long silken hair, and he (Nick) wondered if her name or the hair had come first.” We are then given a sensual and visual image of Silke’s long, red-gold hair juxtaposed with her name. A subtle image to be sure. But our mind’s eye conjures up this beautiful young woman’s hair (as it relates to her name) and we forget about the treasure hunts of her youth—important to the conclusion of the mystery. Subtle, but in Hoch’s expert hands, pitch perfect.

The BOB trick is nothing more than a conjurer’s obfuscation, the legerdemain of a magician. Stock in trade for card sharks, con artists, and mystery writers everywhere. 

Bag of Tricks #2—Active Verbs

Always, always, always use active verbs. When I finish a manuscript, I check every page and substitute active verbs for inactive verbs. I also hunt out and eliminate every put, got, or was. He got into the car becomes: He climbed into the BMW; He slid behind the wheel of the Ford Truck; He lowered himself onto the front seat of the Jeep. Ditto every put. Sheput the key in the lock, becomes: She shoved the key in the lock; twisted the key in the lock; wriggled the key in the lock. The same goes for was and were. In short fiction, stagnant verbs must go. I keep an “active verb folder” with lists and lists of active verbs for those times when my mind gets stuck.

Settings are important in my stories, almost as important as my characters. If I don’t use active verbs my descriptions will ring flat. We are taught in MFA programs (at least I was) to eliminate or tighten our prose when writing settings because these descriptive paragraphs are what a reader will skip over. But if you read Delia Owens’s Where the Crawdads Sing or anything by Tana French or J.K. Rowling/Robert Galbraith you know how important descriptions are and how place and setting matters. How do these mega-talented writers make their settings jump off the page? A certain lyricism, to be sure, but also by using a plethora of active verbs.

When describing, let’s say, a wall in a room, inactive verbs will make that wall bland and boring, but active verbs will make that wall memorable. The use of active verbs such as: bracketed or wedged against the wall; dangling or expanding from the wall; partitioned by the wall; looping, skirting, anchored into the wall; perched upon a shelf on the wall; balancedfastened, set into, strewn against, flush to the wall. Looming large against the wall . . . stood a grandfather clock . . . or a towering statue of Aphrodite.

And if there are books on a shelf on that wall, make sure to have those books wedged, crammed, resting on the shelf. When a dish in that room falls to the floor, make sure the dish doesn’t just fall, but clatters, smashes or shatters against the floor; skitters across, clunks upon, crashes, thumps on that floor. And if your character puts a coffee mug on a table in that room, instead let him slam the coffee mug on the table or slide it across the table. Anything but put. Writers often feel hesitant about using active verbs, believing their prose will come across as forced, but trust me, the more active the verbs the more memorable the setting.

Bag of Tricks # 3—The Five Senses

This trick or technique is so simple, and yet we all forget to do it. I go over every page to see if I’ve used the five senses on every page. What my characters smell, taste, touch, see and hear grounds the reader in the all-important fictional reality.

The olfactory sense is my favorite because it packs the most punch. I know writers who try to have a sense of smell on every page. It’s difficult to do, but so important. The smell of mildew, laundry detergent, a wet dog, fresh paint, burnt popcorn; the taste of green apples, pumpkin pie, butterscotch toffee, dill pickles places the reader squarely in the fictional world we are building. I’ve had students ask me if I truly want them to go page by page and insert what their characters tasted, smelled, touched, and heard; and I say: yes, yes, and yes. It can’t be arbitrary, it has to be germane and organic to your story, but yes. She staggered into the haunted house and heard . . . a creaky floorboard, the yowl of a cat, the hiss of a radiator; and smelled mildew or cigarette smoke or . . . baby powder? Just remember there must be three out of the five senses on every page and lots of active verbs.

In a scene I was writing set in the nineteenth century, my first-person narrator is sitting on a train. It was a bland scene. However, an important clue needed to be presented in this train scene. I asked the same simple questions I ask my students when workshopping a piece: What is my character smelling? Tasting? Seeing? Touching? And how many inactive verbs can I substitute for active ones? Here’s what I struggled with, but finally came up with:

A sulfurous smell hangs in the air, and there’s a metallic taste in my mouth as if I’ve been sucking on copper pennies. Listening to the melodious chug of the train, feeling the bowstring vibration of its forward movement beneath my seat, the sun outside the train’s window hangs low across the horizon.

At the end of the page (I’ve italicized the active verbs) as my protagonist is glancing out the window: “A watermill flashes into view as the river snakes closer to the train. A deer jumps out of a thicket and scampers away at the blast from the train whistle. And there, swooping close to my window, a hawk hunts its prey in the scrubby brush next to the train.”

Active verbs: hangs, sucking, chug, vibration, flashes, snakes, jumps, scampers, blast, swooping, hunts.

And here’s another example: A student was writing a mystery set in present day amongst the Gilded Age mansions of Newport, Rhode Island. He had his heroine “walk past a statue of Trident in a circular fountain.” The heroine had just had a shock, so simply walking past the fountain in front of Rosecliff Mansion made for a bland scene. What active verbs could this writer enlist? How many of the five senses? We brainstormed the scene and he came up with:

“Bailey’s flipflops crunched over pea-stone gravel as she approached the front courtyard where a statue of Trident rose out of a circular fountain. Water gushed from Trident’s marble head, splashed from his curved fish tail, and shot up in a high arc out of the conch shell he was trumpeting. The roaring, gurgling sounds of water gave Bailey goosebumps, bringing home once again the reality that her best friend had just drowned in the waves off Sashuest Beach.”

Now, admittedly, that may be a bit over the top. But when brainstorming or workshopping a piece, the more over the top the better. You then pull back and weave it into a tighter scene. The point is, Bailey walking past a statue of Trident needs to come alive. We hear the crunch of Bailey’s feet on the gravel; we hear water gush; see it splash; get a sense of Trident’s conch shell trumpeting, and we hear the roar and gurgle of the fountain. We feel Bailey’s goosebumps. The way to make writing come alive is through the use of active verbs and the five senses. Easy peasy. But we as writers often forget those all-important five senses, the ones our fifth-grade teachers drummed into our heads.

I have many trick’s in my writer’s hobo bag. But I’ll end by relaying a bit of sage advice given to me by Colin Dexter who was mentioned in a previous blog post here by Paul Charles.

Before embarking upon a research trip to Oxford, I asked Rebecca Eaton, producer of Masterpiece Mystery, to introduce me to Colin Dexter—one of my favorite writers and the creator of Inspector Morse. This was two years before he passed away. We had tea, along with my brother (also a rabid fan) at the Randolph hotel. The three of us had a delightful afternoon, made especially so as Colin Dexter loved our grandfather’s books and said they had inspired him to write his own. Dexter’s memorable advice to me on writing: “Love your people and then do devilishly nasty things to them.” To which he meant: Take your most beloved characters and throw your worst at them. Be mean to your most cherished characters.

In this unprecedented pandemic when kindness and compassion and empathy are needed most in the world, our outlet for sheltering in place can be this: we can be awful to our protagonists. And then we can be even more devilishly nasty. They and we will come out of it. We shall collectively survive. And just as I am now sending you virtual elbow bumps, you can, in good conscience, send virtual elbow blows to your characters. Be safe and well my friends.

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“Frogs, Castles and Crime Writers” (by Jim Weikart)

Longtime treasurer of the International Association of Crime Writers, Jim Weikart is as knowledgable as anyone about that organization’s history and function. In this post, he gives us a personal perspective on the organization and what it’s meant to his own writing. A novelist whose books feature a tax accountant (as Jim is himself!) as sleuth, Jim’s short stories have appeared not only in EQMM but in our sister publication, AHMM, and elsewhere. His most recent story, “The Frog,” is featured in our current issue (May/June 2020). After reading the story and this post, perhaps you’ll be inspired to join IACW—a good resource for readers and writers alike.—Janet Hutchings

IACW Prague Congress, October 2000. Jim Weikart is third from left in the second row. Photo courtesy of Jim Weikart.

On a cold, fog-misted night in October of 2000 I found myself with my friend Kristen Bachler—publisher of the Nevada Comstock Chronical—on the Charles Bridge in Prague.  The fog, the cold, the near-midnight hour deterred citizens and tourists alike, and we were alone.  And Prague became magical as time collapsed into the fifteenth century.

Image courtesy of Jim Weikart.

This journey started with the International Association of Crime Writers (IACW, aka Asociacón Internacional de Escritores Policíacos or AIEP) congress in Prague that year—thanks to host Czech mystery writer Jan Cimicky and his colleagues.  The congress was held at a reasonable side-street hotel—a hotel that American expat and mystery writer Robert Eversz described as a good Communist-era experience. As another president, Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, was being overthrown by street demonstrations in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, we elected American writer Jeremiah Healey the new president of the international IACW. We talked, drank, and visited Prague, a group of mystery-writing co-conspirators.  One night, Eversz led us to a celebratory dinner at the Knights Timplau, a restaurant that goes deep into the earth. So deep you better eat quick before the claustrophobia gets to you. When the congress ended, Kristen and I moved to the Three Ostriches Hotel—another Eversz recommendation—on the river’s castle side. It was from there that we got to the Charles Bridge alone and in the fifteenth century.

Sure, it was a fleeting moment. Remember in the book “Time and Again” when the main character Simon Morley sees the lights of New York’s Natural History Museum from the iconic Dakota apartment building? That tells him he’s moved back in time, because the intervening buildings are missing.  I didn’t have that sure physical tell, but I knew with as much certainty that  I was in the fifteenth century.

Prague’s time covers everything: magical pasts with castles, Kafka’s dead cockroachlike bug, a recent brush with a cold Communist state, an emergence into the modern world with the romanticized Velvet Revolution. How could I not attempt a character, a detective, from all these worlds? Meet Andre Havel—no relation to former Czech President Vaclav Havel—who transitioned from Communist cop to current homicide detective. Growing up during the Communist years, he went along to get along. Lucky for him, he kept his job after the Velvet Revolution toppled the Commies. He balances the cold logic and illogic of murder up against the magic of Prague. Andre is featured in my story “The Frog,” in the EQMM current issue (Does a detective turn into a prince if you kiss him?), and earlier in “The Samsa File,” AHMM, September 2013.

The IACW annual meetings moved on: Vienna, Barcelona, Daum (Germany), Amsterdam, Berlin, Reykjavik, Varna (Bulgaria), Bucharest, Oxford, Oklahoma City, Toronto, Frontenac (France), Frankfurt, Hillesheim (Germany), other places.  Formed in Havana in the eighties, IACW attempted to help crime writers bridge borders in a time of suppression. As the internet prospered, the first reason for being faded and it gradually has become an organization debating a purpose in the internet age. My own view is that an organization of international crime writers debating the purpose of their organization is reason enough. In this age of the decaying value of the written word, difficulties in finding publication in other languages,  the continued lack of recognition of women writers, and the closing of borders, there must be value in such an organization.

Oh, and there’s the other value of these meetings: one might end up on an ancient bridge on a cold, misty night, alone.  I promise you I will go back to the Charles Bridge where, like Simon Morley, I will truly find myself immersed deep in the past. I expect to encounter an aged Lancelot hopelessly questing for the Holy Grail after the death of Arthur and the loss of Guinevere. I also expect to find Detective Andre Havel trying to bring his logical perspective to pushing Lancelot off his horse and back into the past. I’ll keep you posted. Or let me know and I’ll meet you there.

The IACW website is crimewritersna.org.  North American writers, editors,  and journalists in crime writing are welcome to join.

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“Emil and the Detectives” (by Wynn Quon)

Making his debut in EQMM’s May/June 2020 issue (on sale yesterday!) with the story “Art in Pieces” is Canadian writer Wynn Quon, whose previous literary credits are for short film and theater. The Ottowa resident’s short stories have won the Audrey Jessup Crime Fiction Short Story Prize and the Wolfe Island Mystery Short Story Prize, but his current EQMM story (in our Department of First Stories) is his first paid professional fiction publication. In this post he pays loving tribute to a writer who inspired him at a very young age.—Janet Hutchings

When I was nine years old my family got on an Air Canada flight and we flew from Cardiff, Wales to Ottawa, Canada.  It was a big move. My father went from being an owner of a laundry to working as a waiter in a Chinese restaurant. We left a ramshackle house on a narrow commercial street (ironically named “Broadway”), for a red-brick low-rise apartment building in what looked like a boring neighborhood.  But I soon found out that the surrounding houses with their wooden verandas and dandelioned lawns were homes to a number of large Italian immigrant families.

Within days of arriving, I was running around with the kids from the block. Making friends is a childhood superpower. There was Nino, a skinny boy of seven with ears that stood out from his head.  Gino, a short urchin with a pudgy face who would punch you on the arm whenever he could. Italo who knew the multiplication table the best. Pina was the only girl; she was older with long brown hair and a high-pitched voice. That summer, our ragtag battalion rode bikes across those patchy lawns and made them even patchier.  We flew paper airplanes.  We set fire to newspapers with a magnifying glass. We yelled at the top of our lungs for no reason.  I loved it.

But then my parents added a tiny sidestep to our family journey.  We moved at the end of that year to another apartment, a mile away. Sadly, it was on a busy four-lane street, a route for commuters and little else.  There were no other children, no lawns to trample, no Italian families. I lost my troops.

One consolation was the public library. No doubt many of you share childhood memories of how magical libraries are.  I went the whole hog. The library was ten minutes away for a fast walker.  I made it in five. I borrowed books by the armfuls. My mother worried for my eyesight.  I smuggled books home under my coat. I read them by the pale light of the streetlamp outside my bedroom window when I was supposed to be sleeping.

It was in that frame of mind that I came across Emil and the Detectives.  The library copy was a worn paperback, with a mysterious canary-yellow cover featuring two boys shadowing an enigmatic man with a funny hat.

The story: Ten-year-old Emil Tischbein is sent to Berlin by train to visit his grandmother. He carries a goodly sum of money as a gift that his widowed mother, a hairdresser, had squirreled away for a year. Onboard, Emil meets a strange man who spins fantastical tales of the city. Emil falls asleep and when he awakens, the man is gone and so is the hard-earned money.  Emil spots the man in the crowd at the train station and follows him into Berlin.  There he recruits a gang of boys and together they ingeniously bring the thief to justice.

You can see why this story resonated with me.  The exciting universe of a new city.  The comforting camaraderie of a motley crew you called your own.  It reminded me of Nino, Gino, and the others. I wanted to be Emil so much, I ached.

Fast forward four decades, past school and university, past a career in technology, past relationships both bountiful and regretful, past all the murmurings and unpredictable upheavals in the world to the year 2018.  In that year I decided out of a middle-aged restlessness to travel. I ended up in Berlin for the first time but Emil was not on my mind at all. Although I remembered the book with great fondness, I had not re-read it in the four decades since.  But while on a guided tour of Bebelplatz, a public square in central Berlin, I came across the name of Erich Kastner.  It rang a bell and I quickly rediscovered that he was Emil Tischbein’s creator.

I did some casual research and was surprised to learn two things.  First, when I had read the book I imagined the author as someone in their twenties (a substantial and mature age from a child’s perspective). It turns out Emil and the Detectives was published in 1929.  It had been in print for nearly fifty years before I had picked it out from the well-stuffed shelves of paperbacks in the Ottawa Public Library.  The second thing was graver. Erich Kastner’s pre-WWII writing reflected a social democratic and pacifist philosophy.  Notable among his adult books was Fabian, a satire on the moral and financial malaise of 1920s Berlin.  It was unpopular with the far-right. On May 10, 1933, copies of Fabian along with twenty thousand other volumes by a score of other German authors were burned in the Bebelplatz square in an infamous rally led by Joseph Goebbels. Kastner was the only one of the authors who attended the burning, describing his books being burned “in dark festive splendor.”  The experience was made more harrowing when a Nazi sympathizer pointed Kastner out to the crowd. Luckily he managed to escape.  Kastner was to survive the war but he suffered interrogation by the Gestapo, and the incineration of his home city of Dresden.

Kastner’s fascinating back story made me want reread Emil and the Detectives. But I was a little nervous.  Would the book still captivate me? One good sign: It was still in print after ninety years and has been translated into sixty-odd languages.  On the other hand a quick quiz of my younger friends was discouraging.  Most hadn’t heard of the book.

I had forgotten all of the book’s plot details.  I remembered only the warm feelings I had on reading it.  I remembered taking the beloved book with me to bed and hiding it under my pillow. I now worried I might end up destroying those shining memories I had of it.  In the end, curiosity won.

The copy I managed to buy had the same delightful cover as the original. Here is how the book starts:

“Now, then,” said Frau Tischbein, “follow me with that pitcher of water.” She herself took up another pitcher and the little blue jug brimful of liquid chamomile soap and walked out of the kitchen into the living-room. Emil clutched hold of his pitcher and ran after his mother.

A woman with her head bent over the white basin sat in the living-room. Her flaxen hair was down and hung from her head like three pounds of wool. Emil’s mother poured the steaming shampoo over the woman’s hair. Then she began to wash this strange head until it foamed with soap-suds.

“Is it too hot?” she asked.

“No, it is all right,” the head answered.

Ah, I was won over right away. As an adult I often use the First Page Test. If a book doesn’t engage me right from the start I’m not going to stay for the finish. Life is short and getting shorter. (My immortal ten-year old self would have laughed at this).  Emil passed the test with ease.

I love the image —the woolly head that talks.  I don’t think I appreciated this on a conscious level when I was ten years old. Children are magnetically attracted to words that bring visuals, sounds, and all the other senses to life. Some among you will recognize this as one of the canonical “how-to-write-well” rules. (To write a classic means to write for the inner child in the reader?).

I ended up reading the book in one sitting. I did not expect to enjoy the book in the same way as I did a child. But I was charmed nevertheless. I especially enjoyed the quirky characters.  The villainous Herr Grundeis gets only one extended speech in the book where he tells Emil a tall tale of life in Berlin:

“. . . if one has no money one can go to a bank, get fifty pounds and leave one’s brain in exchange.  No human being can live longer than two days without a brain, and he can’t get it back from the bank unless he pays sixty pounds.”

The book ends on an uproarious note. The last chapter is entitled “Is there a moral to this story?” Emil and his beloved relatives tell us what they’ve learned.  But instead of the pious moralizing you see in those sad children’s books that try to “teach something,” the lessons they recite are completely off-the-wall and contradict everything that happened.  The real lesson is obvious in the uncompromising good-heartedness of Emil and his buddies. It was that goodheartedness that captured me years ago, when it helped a ten-year-old cope with the grey sadness of losing his playmates.

I am no Kastner, so I can’t avoid ending this little review on a moral note. On that wretched evening on May 10, 1933, when Goebbels raged and the fires consumed thousands of books, when the Nazis were just beginning their spiral downwards into the blackest abyss, they may have burned Fabian, but they did not dare to touch Emil and the Detectives.

I suspect they knew the little book had a heart of goodness that even they could not destroy.

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“Mysteries and Video Games” (by N.W. Barcus)

EQMM’s May/June 2020 issue, which goes on sale next week, contains the paid professional fiction debut of technical writer N.W. Barcus, whose articles and reviews have appeared in the Seattle Stranger, Seattle Weekly, LA Weekly, the Portland Oregonian, and the Tacoma News Tribune. In this post, the author’s knowledge of video games is combined with an appreciation of the world of mystery fiction to provide some great recommendations for entertainment during this period of social distancing and isolation. Give them a try—and don’t miss “The Workaholic,” N.W. Barcus’s May/June Department of First Stories tale.—Janet Hutchings

I like mysteries. I like video games. Controlling an avatar of Sam Spade or Miss Marple and solving a mystery face to face with suspects sweating and footsteps fading down an alleyway should be wonderful. So why don’t I find mystery video games more satisfying? They’re too slow! Games are all about finding clues and interrogating suspects. Your detective enters a room, and you slowly and meticulously sweep your cursor over every pixel, hoping for a discovery—a piece of mud on the carpet or a key on a desk. It’s like when P.D. James’s Dalgliesh enters a room and three pages cataloging the décor follow. Like that, times ten. And interrogation is worse. People can read twice as fast as they can talk. To interrogate a suspect in a game, you choose a question from a dialogue tree, your character speaks it, the suspect answers, you choose another question, wait for your character to speak it, wait for the suspect to speak and so on. Slow! The immersive element offered by ambient sound and detailed graphics (say, rust on the murder wrench or a bead of sweat on a suspect) do not make up for the slog of scanning a room with a mouse and clicking through dialogue choices. To me, a mystery game is not as satisfying as reading a mystery nor as satisfying as shooting bad guys in an action game.

However, in this time of coronavirus, many of us are doing things we previously scoffed at. People who never do jigsaws have completed three 1000-piece ones, and people who don’t crochet have eight new potholders. People who never had interest in video games might now be willing to give them a try. So, I give you a list of a few cozy, noir, and paranormal mystery games you may love or hate. Mystery games, like mystery books, are a matter of taste. All of the games described here are available for Windows and some are available for Mac. If you want to go full millennial you can even play some on your phone. You won’t have to go out and buy a PlayStation console. Many of them are available as digital downloads.

For cozy mystery fans, a good game choice is one of the thirty-three Nancy Drew games developed by HerInteractive, available on their website or online retailers. Some of the games are loosely based on Nancy Drew novels, but most are original stories. There are no paranormal elements and little violence. The crimes you investigate are motivated by greed and usually involve mild sabotage and chicanery. They are classic point-and-click games where you interrogate suspects and search rooms. Your cursor turns into a magnifying glass when you find a clue. Some clues require you to solve a puzzle, such as reassembling a torn-up note.

The puzzles can be tricky and imaginative, and the mysteries are sensible. These are good games if searching, questioning suspects, and solving puzzles at your own pace appeals to you. However, they are pretty linear, meaning if there’s a clue in the greenhouse you need to find the key to the greenhouse, and you can’t proceed without it. Luckily, there is online help if you tire of searching the same house for that damn key a hundred times. I once got Nancy Drew help from someone who signed herself “Katy Perry Fan in Kentucky” who was probably eleven years old.  Hey, no shame in getting help!

The first Nancy Drew game, Secrets Can Kill, had a murder, but there wasn’t another murder until game #27, The Deadly Device. Though the cartoonish Detective Grimoire: Secret of the Swamp starts with a murder, it proceeds humorously and benignly from there as you search for clues, speak to people, and solve puzzles. Benign and humorous do not describe the games below, which tend toward noir. Murders, disappearances and kidnappings take place in dark and seedy settings amongst corrupt and violent characters. Though they all involve finding clues and interrogation, some require quick responses to onscreen prompts and others require you to fight, so you’ll need both logic and reflexes.

LA Noire– You play as a police detective in 1940s Los Angeles investigating murder and arson while impeded by corrupt officials and businessmen, à la Chinatown. Though mostly hunting clues and interrogation, the game does have fistfights, shootouts, and car chases.

The Wolf Among Us– You play as Bigby Wolf (the Big Bad Wolf), a sheriff, who investigates a murder amongst incognito fairy-tale characters. Grim as well as Grimm, a forced-prostitution ring is at the heart of the story, and there are fights.

Heavy Rain– You play as three different characters tracking a serial child killer. In this dark and unsettling story, you race to save the latest victim before the next rain, using clues meted out by the murderer. There are fights. This is one of the few mystery games where your investigation can fail, the wrong person can be executed and the murderer left free to continue his crimes.

The next three mystery games involve the supernatural. After solving the mystery, you must defeat the evil entity behind it all through otherworldly means, not your usual detective work.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter– You play as a paranormal investigator looking for a missing boy and uncovering dark secrets about his family. This mystery involves murder, demonic possession, and many puzzles that require detailed observation of your surroundings to solve.

Alan Wake– You play as a crime-story writer whose wife disappears in a small northwestern town where violent and uncanny things start to happen. This game is an action game as much as a mystery. During the daytime you hunt clues, but at night you fight and evade possessed people and inanimate objects.

Murdered: Soul Suspect– You play as a policeman’s ghost, hunting the serial killer who killed you.  Though the supernatural element is pervasive (you are a ghost) and there is some fighting, most of the game involves searching for clues in different locales of modern Salem, Massachusetts, including a witch museum.

The games listed here range from a casual three hours to huge time sinkholes.  Depending on your taste and your leisure time (and thank you to all still working), they could provide a diverting way to stay inside and stay safe.

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“Not Just a Mystery” (by Judy Clemens)

Judy Clemens makes her first appearance in EQMM with the story “Safe,” in our May/June 2020 issue, which goes on sale in less than two weeks. She is already well known to many in the mystery world, however, as the author of the Agatha- and Anthony-nominated Stella Crown series, the Grim Reaper mysteries, the Agatha- and Anthony-nominated YA thriller Tag, You’re Dead (published as JC Lane), and the standalone novel Lost Sons. In addition to writing fiction, the Ohio author has recently begun teaching courses on crime fiction and creative writing, a job that inspired this post. Her most recent book project is a nonfiction work about peacemakers written for middle-school readers (see Making Waves: Fifty Stories about Sharing Love and Changing the World, October 2020). —Janet Hutchings

I’m doing something new this year, and as part of everything else good about it, I have been given an opportunity to share with young people what an important place crime fiction holds in our society and our collective world of popular culture.

Let me explain.

My change in life came about because of several factors:

I turned 50.

My son went to college.

My daughter will go to college this fall.

I hit what I suppose you would call a midlife crisis, but instead of buying a fancy car or getting plastic surgery I decided to do something completely different—I went back to school.

When I first began researching graduate programs, I looked at English departments because, well, I’m a writer. The problem was, the programs I researched all focused on literary fiction or poetry, and that’s really not my thing, being a mystery author. (The applications for such programs pointedly said genre fiction will not be accepted as a writing sample.) So I kept looking, because why pursue something which didn’t fit—or even allow—my particular interests?

And then I struck gold.

I am fortunate to live within commuting distance of Bowling Green State University (Ohio, not Kentucky), which was the first US graduate school to have a popular culture department, where students can earn an undergraduate or master’s degree in that field. Looking at this program’s academics and scholarship, I was pleased to see all kinds of interdisciplinary study, from genre fiction to movies to heavy metal to television to folklore. The point is to analyze these things and see what they say about our society, about us as people. Why do we read mystery fiction? Who are we if reality TV speaks to our souls? What does it mean that the same basic story shows up in historical cultures which had no opportunity for connection?

I wanted to know.

I applied and was accepted into the master’s program as a graduate teaching assistant. I began attending classes in fall of 2019, and experienced many almost out-of-body moments where I couldn’t believe my good fortune—day after day I was sitting around with other people talking about things that interested me and fed my soul. It was the best.*

Besides taking my own classes, my role as a TA makes me responsible for a section of an undergraduate class called Introduction to Popular Culture. As part of the course I have room to teach specifically about three different genres. I’m sure you will not be at all surprised to hear that one of my chosen genres is mystery. I’ve taught a lot of things in that class, but never have I felt so comfortable as when I stood in front of my students and told them about the history of crime fiction, its subgenres, the elements of what makes something a mystery, and what mysteries say about our society. We talked about Edgar Allan Poe and Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes and Jessica Fletcher, British detectives and American cop shows. We watched the trailer for Knives Out and discussed the meaning of red herrings and what it means if something is suspenseful. We talked about Charles Felix, who wrote what is most likely the first detective novel (Poe was first detective story), and all of the mystery subgenres we could come up with. The students dug into crime fiction, and it was fun to see the spark of interest in their eyes.

As part of the lesson, my friend Barb Goffman, another EQMM author, allowed me to have the class read one of her stories. She worked with me to find which of her arsenal would best show off the traditional mystery. We decided on “Till Murder Do Us Part” (originally published in Chesapeake Crimes: Fur, Feather, and Felonies), which has the traditional elements of victim, detective, suspects, and plot. The students read the story before coming to class, and on that Thursday, we divided into groups to outline the characters, setting, conflicts, plot, clues, suspense, and solution. The students were impressed I was friends with the author (it wasn’t until that day I revealed that I myself write mysteries!), and Barb texted with me in real time to give the students advice: “Writing can be fun. You won’t get to learn about exploding cows in a lot of other careers.” And “My favorite crime stories don’t just involve figuring out whodunit, but they involve getting a better understanding about life and what motivates people, what upsets them, invigorates them. Good crime stories can help you get a better understanding of the world around you.” Her words fit perfectly with the concept of why it is important to study popular culture, and thus, mysteries.

In their weekly responses, my students wrote about their conclusions from Barb’s story and our mystery lesson. It was fun and satisfying to see them learning new things and connecting the story to societal issues, as well as their own experiences. Here are some of the larger lessons they either took from the story or the mystery genre as a whole, when they realized this kind of fiction is not “just” a mystery:

  • The story had objectives or meanings beyond the narrative itself, such as discussions about sexism, family conflict, and the power of love.
  • Reading is not something they usually do for pleasure (nothing like a knife to the heart!) but they did enjoy this one, as well as the escape from scholarly articles.
  • It is enjoyable to discuss mysteries with other people who have also read them, and to analyze clues and meanings.
  • It is refreshing to have a female sheriff as the protagonist, although it took some by surprise. After many discussions in class about the role women play in popular culture, they noticed how women were forefront in this story.
  • Readers like knowing that at the end of a mystery there will be closure; there is a sense of control perhaps not always a part of real life.

Aren’t they smart?

This school year (now all online, of course!) has been a joyful re-evaluation of my goals and interests in my own studies, but one of the most educational aspects has been learning from my students. Their willingness and ability to look at aspects of popular culture—like crime fiction—and how they relate to our world have been eye-opening and heartening. I believe our world will be in good hands in the near future, when they are the ones in charge.

And you know what? That’s not a mystery.

* As a student at BGSU, I was also introduced to another very special aspect of the BGSU campus, which is the Ray and Pat Browne Popular Culture Library. https://www.bgsu.edu/library/pcl.html. The Pop Culture Library is a destination research spot for scholars from all over the world. As part of their collection the library owns the Arthur and Phyllis Rieser Mystery Collection, which includes first editions, early printings, and trade editions of mystery and suspense novels, including true and fictional crime from about 1880 to the present. This gem of a library is an amazing source for research. Right now there is a cart waiting for me to return (once this whole COVID craziness is over!) which holds materials for my master’s thesis. (How the character of Major Kira on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was created during the 1990s as a futuristic person, and how late twentieth-century decade shaped her. But that’s another subject for another time. . . .)
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“Your Happy Place” (by Pat Black)

A native of Glasgow, Scotland who currently works as a journalist in Yorkshire, England, Pat Black has had two stories published in EQMM (the most recent in our January/February 2020 issue), and there’s another coming up later this year. Prior to making his EQMM debut, the lifelong fan of crime fiction had stories included in a variety of anthologies and won the Daily Telegraph’s ghost stories competition. In May of 2019, his first crime novel, the psychological thriller The Family, was published, followed by The Beach House earlier this year. Like so many around the world, Pat is currently sheltering in place due to the COVID-19 crisis. Being at home got him thinking about the great homes of crime fiction—especially English country houses. He’s got me longing to find shelter in one of those classic books set in the closed circle of an isolated house—just the right type of entertainment and comfort at a time like this. We hope you’ll find it so too.—Janet Hutchings

We’ve had cause to consider our homes a little more closely than we’d like. Reading as an escape has become a requirement during an unprecedented, frighteningly fast-moving situation which even the most cynical could not have envisaged as recently as February.

It’s right that we should take refuge where we can; our happy place. Mine is in between the covers of a book.

Often, our great crime literature is focused upon a single house—the place where it happened. The scene of the crime. Imagine a murder mystery and you’ll most likely think of a country house, probably somewhere in the English home counties, probably in between the wars. Although there might be blood on the rug in the study, these places are cosy. This is a basic paradox that keeps us coming back to them, time and again. In drawing the curtains upon an uncertain world, let’s take a look at some of the more memorable country-house crime scenes.

Sherlock Holmes packed in several stories set in country houses—the crawling horror of “The Speckled Band” makes great use of the layout of the house as a device to be exploited by the wicked. And even though much of the action in The Hound Of The Baskervilles takes place away from Baskerville Hall, the novel’s central crime—wherein the cursed heir is frightened to death by the beast—makes great use of the setting.

But Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most interesting country-house mystery comes in the final full-length Holmes novel, The Valley Of Fear. In it, Holmes and Watson are called upon to examine the death of a country squire at his huge residence, Birlstone Manor. In order to get there, Holmes has to solve a cipher set up by Moriarty. Once that puzzle is disposed of, we are faced with a locked-room mystery to solve as well as suspects to prune from the household, the guests, and the staff. “Faced” is entirely the wrong word to use, given the fact that the murder victim, John Douglas, has lost his in a shotgun blast.

Unidentifiable victim? You’ll be suspicious. And rightly so.

Once Holmes unpicks all the threads—including a false line of inquiry laid around the moat, and the use of disguises—the book turns into an almost entirely different beast after it “explains” the reason behind the killing. Conan Doyle transplants the action to the United States for a prototypical gangland novel involving a corrupt secret society ruling a city by fear. Though readable enough, this second part doesn’t even mention Holmes until the very end. This is a shame, as the first section is classic Holmes and Watson as the great detective tries to find out who blew off the householder’s head, the secret of the tattoo/brand on the dead man’s forearm, while Scotland Yard’s top men hem, haw, and blow hard.

If Conan Doyle is the king of the crime novel, then perhaps we should open the door to the queen. The Mysterious Affair At Styles is Agatha Christie’s calling card. Her first ever crime novel introduces us to Poirot, his top man, Hastings, and introduces that classic setting of the grand dame’s output (already something of a cliche by the time she put pen to paper). The strychnine killing which piques our favourite Belgian’s little grey cells takes place within the walls of Styles Court, with the dapper little man selecting his killer from an expertly chosen field of suspects.

All the classic elements are there, but reading this one only recently, I was most struck by the lack of details Christie puts into the hall itself. People dress for dinner, and tea is taken on lawns, but Christie’s opening crime novel is commendably light on detail when it comes to setting. Similar to Soldier Island in And Then There Were None, Christie paints in broad strokes. It’s not so much about the fine grain of the architecture, but it is all about plot, character and motive. This saves us time; indeed, it’s welcome. It’s a big, grand country house, and most importantly, it’s isolated. That’s enough for us to work with.

There are only so many times you want to have a tapestry, balustrade or a candelabra described to you, after all. Not much can improve on the poetry of the words themselves.

And then there’s Manderley. Even the weaving path of its syllables has an irresistible pull. A name that demands to be whispered, or bellowed.

Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca is surely a crime novel. This dark, brooding masterpiece sees a guileless, naïve narrator spare us few details as she is brought back by her husband, Maxim de Winter, as the new mistress of Manderley, perched high up near the sea in Cornwall.

There’s a great big piece of this picture missing—de Winter’s first wife, the lady in the title, who vanished in dodgy circumstances. Although we never meet her directly, with her voice only rendered in echoes, and her form filled out by clothes left hanging in wardrobes, the first lady of Manderley is eerily present throughout the novel. She haunts the narrator, and us, though no ghost materialises.

The little details—particularly Rebecca’s preserved room and clothes, essentially a series of traps set up for the poor narrator by the diabolical housekeeper Mrs. Danvers—are exquisitely drawn. Here, detail is key. The book retains as powerful a hold on its readers to this very day as much as Rebecca’s ghastly fingers grip those cursed to live in her shadow.

One of my favourite country house mysteries is P.D. James’s first Adam Dalgliesh novel, Cover Her Face. In it, the tall, dark detective looks at the murder of a servant at a country residence who was strangled in the night.

The Maxie family and their lovers are all present and correct that night, allowing for a wide cast for Dalgliesh to choose his suspects from. To look at the main points, characters and plot beats of this story, you might think that James had written a pastiche of an Agatha Christie novel—it even has a church fete and a suspicious vicar, for god’s sake.

But Cover Her Face is meticulously plotted, and the house of the Maxies is key to solving the mystery. Despite all the subplots and red herrings, and even one daring section where two of the main suspects go off on an investigation of their own, the novel has none of the usual parlour-game twists or conjuror’s tricks we might expect from a detective novel. Once Dalgliesh names the killer, he explains that once we take into account times and exact locations in the house, pure logic dictates that only one person could have killed Sally Jupp.

You’ll get it, but only if you’ve been paying very close attention. . . .

We’d be foolish to go through this piece without mentioning Cluedo (or Clue, to give it its North American title). I’ve got great childhood memories of this game—playing it, right in the zone where I was starting to write detective stories, aged eleven, and even earlier than that, watching my elder siblings enviously as Professor Plum, Colonel Mustard, Miss Scarlett, and others made their suggestions.

I have a fantastic tactile memory of all the playing pieces—specifically, the murder weapons. The little pistol; the frayed ends of the rope; the dinky little candlestick. How intriguing to have a game where you nosey around in a big old house, playing detective. This is part of my crime-writing DNA—and perhaps the time is right, now some of us have a bit more down time than we’re used to, to dust off the box on its shelf in the garage?

The Ghost Castle game was another component of my childhood’s image of spooky houses where dastardly deeds might take place. I used the game board and some animal toys to pretend Scooby Doo was investigating a mystery along its secret passageways. Indeed, everyone’s favourite crime-fighting Great Dane being another gateway to the world of creepy castles, secret passageways and, of course, the ghosts and monsters that haunted them.

The world of horror is well off for creepy houses and castles, from The Castle Of Otranto to Mark Z. Danielewski’s House Of Leaves, all of it buttressed by the phantasmagorical glory of Castle Dracula. But perhaps that’s for another blog, or another mood.

It seems a touch insensitive, perhaps crass, to highlight something as ephemeral as entertainment at a time like this. But I hope these recollections and indeed the books themselves can provide some respite from tough times.

I hope this finds you well, and in comfort. Let’s look after each other and hope for a better world to come.

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“Top Eight Jazz Pianists in Film Noir” (by Preston Lang)

Preston Lang makes his EQMM debut in our current issue (March/April 2020). The New York City writer and teacher has three novels in print and is also the author of a number of well-received short stories and plays. His short fiction includes “Vacation Selfies,” which was selected by Jonathan Lethem to appear in Best American Mystery Stories 2019; his most recent novels are Sunk Costs and Price Hike (2018 and 2019). Something we did not know about Preston until he submitted this post is that “lounge pianist” is among the jobs he’s worked in addition to writing. He brings knowledge of his two arts (music and fiction) together in this piece about crime movies. —Janet Hutchings

Recently I started writing a noir novel, a 1950s period piece about one of New York’s worst jazz pianists. It got me to pay extra attention to all the piano players in classic movies. Unsurprisingly, Jazz is the soundtrack of noir. Sometimes the music is piped in over the deceit and the violence, but other times it’s part of the natural environment of the story, and what easier way to introduce music than from an old piano in some run-down saloon?

For this list, I’ve tried to concentrate on those who are part of the narrative. A number of great jazz artists played piano in film noirs in nonspeaking roles. They do a number as themselves (or as Nightclub Pianist) but don’t really exist as characters in the film.  Some of the best examples of these are Earl Hines with an all-star jazz band in the Vegas mob thriller The Strip, Hadda Brooks playing and singing in the Bogart classic A Lonely Place, and Matt Dennis performing his own composition “Angel Eyes” in Jennifer.

Both the terms noir and jazz will be used fairly loosely here. At the same time, there have to be some standards, so Liberace playing Chopin in South Seas Sinner doesn’t qualify. Though it does exemplify one of the most common types of jazzmen in these films: the American, playing familiar tunes far from home in a seedy bar during dangerous times.

Number 1: Sam, Casablanca (1942)

Played by Dooley Wilson, Sam is probably the most famous piano player in film history. Whenever his arms are in the shot, though, it’s pretty obvious that he’s not actually playing. Still, Sam is a compelling character. Right from the start, he has a loyalty to Rick that’s hard to square with the fact that Rick seems like an amoral bastard.  They were together in Paris, maybe a few other places, but clearly Sam doesn’t depend on Rick for his survival—he could make a lot more playing somewhere else. Some people find his deference to the white characters offensive. This is certainly fair, and I’d definitely be interested in a prequel more focused on Sam.

Number 2: Cricket, To Have and Have Not (1944)

Staying with Bogart films, we have another American expat in Vichy held territory—Martinique this time. The movie is very loosely based on a Hemingway novel. Then Faulkner worked on the screenplay. But Cricket is unaffected by the heavyweight literary pedigree. Like Sam, he’s just playing his songs while the world burns around him. Yet like Sam, you never really doubt his antifascist credentials. Unlike Sam, he really is playing the piano.

The actor here is Hoagy Carmichael, composer of songs like “Skylark,” “Stardust,” and “The Nearness of You.” Incidentally, in the first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, Bond is described as resembling Carmichael.  Here he plays a few originals and accompanies a teenaged Lauren Bacall. He doesn’t talk much, but he’s important enough that Bacall has to say goodbye to him before the film can end.

Number 3: Al Roberts, Detour (1945)

The first one on the list who’s the main character. The movie starts with Al, played by Tom Neal, on the run, listening to a song in a shabby bar in Nevada that reminds him of his life back in New York where he and his singer girlfriend gigged with a big band. When she leaves him to pursue her dreams in Hollywood, he follows and gets into a lot of trouble hitchhiking.

Like Sam, he likes to pat the piano with flat hands, pumping in a rhythmic right-left pattern. He also has dreams of playing Beethoven at Carnegie Hall. This is a fairly common trope in many of these films. Even though we see Al playing in some pretty upscale rooms, the implication is that he’s degrading himself by playing popular tunes and boogie-woogie. This feels more like a conceit of filmmakers rather than an attitude that was common among real jazz musicians of the time.

His dreams, of course, don’t come true, and he’s left waiting for his doom, listening to the song that reminds him of the woman who was the source of all the trouble.

Number 4: Martin Blair, Black Angel (1946)

Here the protagonist is also haunted by a leitmotif—the song “Heartbreaker,” a hit written by Martin when he was a brilliant young songwriter. When we first meet him, he’s playing in a low-end bar, holding it together until the end of the number when he crashes headfirst into the keys and has to be carried home by a friend.

When his ex is murdered, he teams up with the wife of the man accused of the crime. They go undercover as a musical act to try to get the dirt on a gangster nightclub owner played by Peter Lorre whom they believe is the real killer.

Martin is played by Dan Duryea who’s best known for portraying sleazy villains. Here he gets a chance at a more sympathetic character. He’s also an excellent fake piano player, and he manages to synchronize his touching of the keys with the sounds that come out of it.

Number 5: Danny Rice, Istanbul (1957)

Nat Cole appeared in many movies, generally doing a song or two as himself. In Istanbul, a remake of The Lady from Shanghai, he plays Danny Rice, singer and pianist, friend to a diamond smuggler played by Errol Flynn. Danny trades a few bland lines with Flynn’s character—good to see you again—and he pines for a woman back in New York.

It might not be worth including, but towards the end of the film for a brief moment it looks like Danny is going to get in on the action. There might be a free seat on a plane out of Turkey. Does he get to fly? Might Danny end up with the diamonds? No, doesn’t come through, and Danny calls his girlfriend long distance.

Number 6: Charlie, Shoot The Piano Player (1960)

Truffaut’s French new wave take on David Goodis’s classic Down There centers on a saloon pianist who calls himself Charlie. Real-life singer Charles Aznavour plays the role, and again, we’re dealing with a degraded classical prodigy, plinking out tunes in a shabby bar. A coworker says of him, “All we know is he’s the piano man . . . who minds his own business.” Which could sum up most of the people on the list. He’s hesitant, an observer, but when his criminal brother needs help, Charlie is dragged into the underworld.

Number 7: Aurelius Rex, All Night Long (1962)

A small independent film set in the London Jazz scene of the early 60s, All Night Long opens—as most films should—with a chummy conversation between Charles Mingus and Sir Richard Attenborough. Soon we meet Aurelius Rex, a pianist and bandleader. But he’s not down and out in the least; he’s a huge success, married to a wonderful woman. Unfortunately for him, he’s also in a retelling of Othello. The racial angle of the relationship is barely acknowledged, but the deception and the potential for violence are effectively wrought.  In addition, real-life pianist Dave Brubeck comes to the party as himself and sits in for a few songs.

Aurelius plays one Duke Ellington number with the band but spends the rest of the film listening before finally reacting.

Number 8: Jack Riley, The Long Goodbye (1973)

A lot of noir purists dismissed this film as mean-spirited parody, but it feels true to the spirit of Philip Marlowe adrift in an era of topless yoga and acid rock that clearly isn’t built for him.

Jack Riley is a minor character, popping up in a cheap bar where Marlowe goes to check his messages. He’s playing the title song that follows Marlow through the film, mutating from cool jazz to supermarket Muzak. The song was written and played (at least in Jack’s scene) by John Williams—yeah, the guy who wrote the themes to Jaws, Star Wars, and Harry Potter. Williams was an excellent bop pianist in his youth, and the song has a classic feel, reminiscent of “Angel Eyes.”

It’s clear Jack is barely making a living during this dark period for hep cats. “Cheap as I work, he can’t lose,” Jack says of his boss. The place is empty, and unlike most skid row movie pianos, this one is authentically out of tune.

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“Jumping Off a Diving Board—It’s Easier than You’d Think” (by Paul Charles)

Called “Agatha Christie for people who inhale” by the Times of London, Paul Charles has had several stories in EQMM, including “The Eleventh Commandment,” an impossible-crime story that leads our current issue (March/April 2020). The tale features Detective Inspector Christy Kennedy, who also stars in eleven novels (see Departing Shadows). In this post the Northern Irish author discusses a source of dread for many writers: the blank page. We think some will find that empty space a little less daunting after reading what Paul has to say. —Janet Hutchings

I remember early in my writing career I had a few very enjoyable conversations with Colin Dexter. He was a major inspiration to me and when I’d bump into him at various events and, in one instance, during an interview I conducted with him for Shots—a U.K. crime magazine—he was always very gracious with his time, humour, encouragement, and advice.

He explained that he could never understand the blank-page or the blank-screen syndrome.

His point was: It is always better to make a start rather than holding out for the best opening line ever written.

So, as the above title claims, jumping off a diving board is much easier than you might first think. Of course, you need to know how to swim and how to hold your breath. Well, maybe you also might have to add a little bit of courage to that mix.

It’s the same with jumping into writing your story, long or short.

As Colin Dexter suggested, there’s no point sitting around waiting for inspiration, or even divine intervention for that matter.

Here is a good way to start. Put two people in a room together. You’ll never have met them before, but you can, by their dress sense and their air, imagine what they are like. Think what the two people might say to each other.

For instance, imagine you’re actually in a room with these two people. It can be anywhere, as long as you can overhear them, without them knowing you can hear them. It’s important to keep yourself out of the story.

One of them might say something like:

“The first man who drove nails into his horse’s hooves in order to shoe the horse was probably considered cruel.”

The other person might reply:

“So, you’re suggesting what was once considered to be cruel, can no longer be considered cruel?”

Now, the first person might be a murderer who is trying to justify his deed. The second person might be a detective, trying to coax the murderer to offer up a full confession.

Equally they could be two people who’ve just enjoyed too liquid a lunch and they are now on the sherry.

But the important thing is they will have started a conversation. As they start to engage each other, they will imply something. The reply might reveal something else again and gradually you’ll develop the texture of the conversation. Maybe only one of them will talk. What does that say about the talker and, equally, what do we learn about the silent one?

The first thing you write might not be great. The reality is the less great it is, the easier the next step will be. So yes, it might not be great, it might even be total rubbish, but at least you will have made your start. The start will be your jumping off the diving board moment. Once you’re prepared to “jump” into your story it will be like diving into the pool of your imagination. The instant you’ve left your diving board, four things are guaranteed: 1) you can’t turn around midair and return to the haven of the diving board; 2) you’re going to get your hair wet; 3) your life will never be the same again and 4) you will have made a start.

At the very least, with your start, you will have something.

You will have something, no matter how vague or sketchy, you can go back to. Look at adding a word here, taking out a sentence there. Sadly, it will always seem like you are taking out more than you are putting in. But day by day, week by week, maybe even month by month, your paragraph will become better and lead you on to the next paragraph and on and on.

Never set out to write a 350-page book. Never even set out to write a page; a paragraph to start with will do quite nicely, thank you very much.

Never set yourself a minimum number of words per-day task. I know some authors, some phenomenally successful authors, do. I find that you might just slip into being more preoccupied with your word count than your story. You have to find a way to totally immerse yourself in your story. Get to know your characters in the same way you know your friends. Remember the adage— keep your friends close and your enemies even closer. The same applies to your characters.

There will be several roadblocks along the way, particularly if you take a break from writing your story. The longer a break you take the longer it will take you to get back into it. If you go to your story each and every day, the plot and the characters will be forefront in your mind. You’ll be living with them, so each day you’ll naturally pick up from where you left off the day before. Running a spell check doesn’t count as working on you story.

I find six o’clock to nine-thirty in the morning works best for me. The day is fresh; your head is clear and there will be fewer distractions.

Distractions to be avoided include: the phone; the internet; answering emails; coffee; tea; Paris Buns (an Ulster delight, please Google them); remastered Beatles albums, Michael Connelly books; Robert A. Caro’s audible books, and “Breakfast With Beatles” on Radio KLOS 95.5FM. It has to be said all the above are much easier to avoid at 6 o’clock in the morning

The important thing to remember . . . getting started is the vital bit. Same with diving. It’s no use spending ages sitting up on the diving board with set squares and a compass working out your routine. Just jump. Make your marker. Then once you’ve made one, start to consider how you can make it better.

You will serve your story best by keeping yourself out of it.

Dally with your characters for a while; surrender to their rhythm. Don’t fret over plot issues. If you have the courage to leave it to your characters, they’ll resolve the various story concerns for you. This way you’ll make your stories as real as a dream you’re in the middle of. Be prepared that some of those dreams may turn out to be nightmares. You’ll find your characters screaming at your conscience to let them be themselves, to let them lead you.

When you are gifted a line, a saying, or you observe a character trait, catch it while you can. It doesn’t matter the time or the place, it’s best to write them down immediately, because the next day, believe me, they will be gone. When these gems go, they will rarely return. Just like all the great fish that escape the fisherman’s bait, all the ideas you fail to catch (or write down) will, with hindsight, turn out to have been the gifted material . . . if only you could remember them.

I’d like to close with another piece of advice I received from Colin Dexter. He felt there was nothing as uninviting as dense pages of print.  He suggested not to be afraid to break up your writing with paragraphs and reported speech and sticking to short snappy chapters. Exactly, in fact, as he managed to do in his own fourteen classic D.I. Morse books (including one collection of short mysteries). He said his brother thought he was one of the best writers ever. Colin assured me this had little to do with brotherly love and more to do with the fact he had really short chapters in his books which meant his brother could get through one chapter each night before falling asleep.

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“The Chicken Salad Factory” (by Jack Bunker)

Jack Bunker is a lawyer turned short-story writer and mystery novelist, although in this post you will see that he has had other occupations that feed into his fiction writing. Jack makes his EQMM debut in our current issue (March/April 2020) with the story “Active Shooter.” His 2015 novel True Grift received two starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, one for the print edition (“ . . . a fun, fast read, kind of like Elmore Leonard meets Donald Westlake”), the other for the audiobook.  —Janet Hutchings

Any writer will tell you, when the kaleidoscope twists just right, there’s no better job in the world. Think of a career in which every crummy job, crappy apartment, or caustic relationship actually works for you. Imagine converting spilled oil into fertilizer or discarded beer bottles into stained glass windows. The only catch: A willingness to embrace the awful.

A few months back, while riding around town at night to pick up my teenage daughter, my own frustrations mounted as her ironclad itinerary now jiggled like aspic; our unbending rule about fully charged phone batteries now somehow . . . bent. I fumed conspicuously as I collected her from the IHOP, my impatience goosed by waiting on a tow truck to hook some slob who won’t ignore a “Towed at Owner’s Expense” posting again.

Only the next morning did I appreciate the gift of my daughter’s carelessness. Something had been missing from the book on which I was spinning my wheels. The fresh memory of the tow truck in the IHOP lot, however, dragged my story into an entirely different direction, and one offering dozens of possibilities.

Crime fiction thrives, I submit, not (just) because we share fantasies of murdering our neighbors, but because we relate to the story’s actors. It’s the little details, though, that propel us forward as readers. The suspension of disbelief required of science fiction diverges radically from crime fiction. Only a few hundred people have ever been to space. Everyone’s smelled a dumpster behind a restaurant on a hot summer night, bluish fluorescent streetlights reflected in shimmering puddles on the alley’s cracked asphalt.

Last summer, joined by those of my children not canny enough to fly with their mother, I drove from Montana to California, one of the centipede legs on a 10,000-mile road trip. Nearing day’s end, the towns seemed to grow farther and farther apart under the setting Oregon sun. Road weary, we settled on Redmond as a place to stop, and grabbed the first motel with a vacancy.

Bikers and camp followers, their hibachi braziers smoldering on the breezeway, gave us a flavor of what to expect. An emphysmatic night manager rustled us up a few gauzy towels and a tumbler of ice. What the hell, it was only a night.

If we survived.

From inside the room, a crack in the door had been hurriedly patched with some gooey off-white polymer. Scars in the fecal brown paint of the bathroom door evidenced either a bad acid trip, or, more likely, an abduction gone very wrong indeed.

The next day, as he parted the curtains to let in the welcome sight of another morning, my twelve-year-old son said, “Well, at least we didn’t get murdered.”

Yet, as gross and potentially lethal as the room had been, I knew that it was something I could use. Back near the close of Ronald Reagan’s first term, my roommate and I each ponied up $77.50 (ridiculously cheap even for that time) to rent a two-room cinderblock apartment without heat, a fully functioning toilet, or even a shower curtain. During the coldest Tallahassee winter in a hundred years, we played Nerf basketball at night to keep warm before jumping into polar sleeping bags, dreading the morning torture of bare feet on freezing terrazzo. My professor friend called the place “third world,” but when I need to describe squalor, that charmless hovel offers up a cheery dungeon of seamy memories.

Comic possibilities gush in inverse proportion to real-time misery. A case in point, one not especially funny at the time, might begin with the oft-forgotten admonition, “Be careful eating ceviche in Guatemala.” Emergency-room anecdotes? You say subdural hematoma, I say gold mine. The guy clipping his toenails across the aisle in coach? See you in the next novel.

The best part is that verisimilitude is enough. When the DMV mope sends you home for some wholly unnecessary chit, you don’t have to cleave his head with an axe. Just being able to recall how badly you wanted to lets the story to write itself. Any regrets from junior high? Polish them well. Someone will actually pay you money to weave them into a story about a good kid pushed past his or her tipping point.

Lousy times make for great writing. In the tapestry of America’s legends of the genre, the common thread will likely be dark. Poe, Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Stephen King, Truman Capote . . . in addition to boundless talent, discomfiting experiences (at some point whetted with whiskey), galvanized them to work their magic. Everyone has bad days. The great ones make something out of them.

The moral of this story then, kids, is when you find yourself changing a tire on an interstate shoulder, hang onto the sensation of gravel flying at your face from passing semis. When your dining companion says, unbidden, there won’t be a second date, don’t be bummed. File it away. When some jackass clips your side mirror and drives off, I’m not telling you to give up on voodoo. Just remember to jot down a couple of notes before you get out those needle-nose pliers. . . .

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“What Pantsers and Language Learners Have in Common” (by Edith Maxwell)

Linguist, novelist, short-story writer, and current Agatha Award nominee Edith Maxwell describes herself as a better-than-average language learner.  “One Too Many,” her first story for EQMM, featured in our current issue (March/April 2020), centers around a hyperpolyglot—someone with extraordinary language-learning ability. In this post, the author makes an interesting connection between the challenges of language learning and seat-of-the-pants fiction writing—that is, writing without an outline or guide. Earlier this week, EQMM posted a podcast episode of “One Too Many,” in which Edith reads her own story. We think you won’t want to miss it, especially after reading this post.—Janet Hutchings

When it comes to learning a new language, I’m better than the average bear. I managed to gain a reasonable facility with middle-school Spanish and high-school French and German even with the ridiculously ineffective book and translation-based methods in use in the 1960s.

At a young seventeen, I graduated from high school a semester early, and off I went to spend a year in southern Brazil as an exchange student. I spoke no Portuguese when I went and learned it as a much younger child would—by immersion. When I returned to the States, my English was rusty.

A few years later I hied off to Japan to live with an American boyfriend and teach English conversation. After two years, I came back relatively fluent in spoken Japanese (reading and writing are a different game entirely, but I did my best).

So I know what it’s like to live in a fog of words. In Brazil, only the father in the family spoke some English, but he didn’t use it with me. Based on the Spanish and French I knew, I figured ‘‘tudu bẽ’’ and ‘‘tudu bõ’’ meant “very well” and “very good.” I pretty quickly learned that what sounded like “komehkivai” meant “how are you?” But it took a couple of months before more words began to emerge from the fog. I’d arrived in January during their summer vacation and starting school (in essence repeating my senior year but not needing the credits) helped a lot.

After a while, I learned that the functional unit of “komehkivai” was four words—como é que vai?—but I’d had the meaning correct all along. And I realized “tudu bõ” was spelled tudo bom. By the time I’d been in the country for six months, I could say and understand what I needed to. After a year I’d gained enough native-speaker fluency that when I met Brazilians back in the States, they didn’t think I was an American. Score!

Still, I’m not a hyperpolyglot like the character I wrote about in my EQMM short story, “One Too Many.” I don’t go around picking up a new language in a couple of weeks for fun. But I used to live with such a person. My ex-husband leaves my language-learning skills in the dust. Many years ago, while we were still married and living in France, we visited my friend Amalia in Lisbon. She’s half British, but her husband, Zé Julio, didn’t speak any English. I was interpreting back and forth for John for the first couple of days. Then he said, “I know what he’s saying,” and proceeded to speak passable Portuguese to Zé. It’s kind of disgusting, but it’s John’s superpower. He speaks nearly twenty tongues, many of them African languages not related to European languages—or each other.

Two years ago, I read a New Yorker article about hyperpolyglots and realized that was what John was. As often happens, I played the “Suppose . . .” and “What if . . .” game. My mystery-author brain mused, “Huh. Suppose two people who speak an obscure language attend a big festival in the US. What if someone with hyperpolyglottism overhears a secret spoken in that language? What could happen then?” And I had a story.

But what, you ask, does any of this have to do with pantsing your way through a novel? Let me explain. Because I don’t plot, the only thing I know at the start of writing a book are small bits. My protagonist’s name and where she lives (I write three series, so after the first book certain parts of the book’s skeleton are already in place). The time of year. Maybe the murder weapon I want to use.

Sometimes that’s all I have. It’s the ‘‘komehkivai’’ of the book. As I sit, as I type, more becomes clear. I conjure up a victim. I invent three or four plausible suspects. I follow around my amateur sleuth—whether she’s the bike shop owner, the chef, or the 1889 midwife—and write down what she does as she tries to investigate. The plot emerges from the fog. Occasionally I get to laugh out loud when she or another character surprises me. As I remember I did when I learned ‘‘komehkivai’’ was four words.

After a while, my fluency in the book lets me plan out the next few scenes. I’ve now completed twenty-four novels (my twentieth releases at the end of this month). I know if I keep typing, I’ll learn what the book is really about. I’ll pick one of the suspects to be the villain, or the suspect will reveal themself. I’ll carry my sleuth through her crisis of the soul and keep her going toward her goal. Finally, I’ll reach full-blown book fluency and be able to type The End, usually in under two months (deadline panic is a great motivator . . .). The subsequent revisions, the edits, the polishing are like a language refresher course I might take, or a lesson on advanced verb tenses I never quite mastered in French.

I wouldn’t presume to say I’m better than the average bear at writing books, and each author does things differently. For me, finding my way through the fog to The End keeps it interesting—and so far, it’s working.

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