“Military Veterans in Crime Fiction” (by Stacy Woodson)

Stacy Woodson’s professional fiction debut, the story “Duty, Honor, Hammett,” appears in EQMM’s current issue, November/December 2018—which just went on sale yesterday! Further stories will appear in EQMM (sometime in 2019), in the Malice Domestic anthology Mystery Most Edible (also in 2019), and in Chesapeake Crimes: Invitation to Murder (2020). In 2017, she won the Daphne du Maurier Award for best romantic suspense, in the single-title, unpublished category, and she was a finalist for the 2016 Killer Nashville Claymore Award for unpublished novel. The author is a U.S. Army veteran and she tells EQMM that memories of her time in the military are a source of inspiration for her stories. She takes up that topic in this post. When she’s not writing fiction, Stacy contributes to DIY MFA and reviews for Publishers Weekly.—Janet Hutchings

I served in Army Special Operations units, deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and survived the Pentagon (which is a combat tour of another kind). It’s been years since I hung up my uniform and transitioned to the private sector, but it’s still the military voices I hear when I write. I’m sure my background is part of the reason. Most of my life I’ve been surrounded by the military—as a soldier, in my job as a civilian, as a military spouse. These experiences have shaped my worldview, and this is my comfort zone. But there is also a part of me that believes there exists a depth and a richness to post-9/11 veteran characters that hasn’t been fully explored in crime fiction.

Female Characters

The post 9/11 generation has a perspective on war that’s different from others. Our country has been fighting for almost two decades, and there are more female combat veterans than in any other conflict. Women have deployed with Special Forces units, flown combat missions, patrolled the streets of Iraq and Afghanistan. And for the first time since World War II, two women are Silver Star Medal recipients—the third highest combat decoration for valor.

Arduous military schools, once exclusive to men, are now open to women. Ranger School, a combat leadership course on small-unit tactics—notorious for their high attrition rate—recently had its first group of female graduates.

Both Army Special Forces and Navy Sea, Air, and Land teams (SEALs) have opened billets to women. And combat branches, once closed to women, are open to all qualified service members.

Now, more than ever, there is space in crime fiction for female characters with warrior skill sets traditionally seen in male characters.

But what’s even more interesting to explore is how experiences like these shape a female character’s point of view—how they see their environment, relate to their family and friends, process love and loss. And how they bring their unique skill set and perspective to postmilitary occupations in law enforcement, in the private sector, or as criminals.


Transition to the civilian world affects veterans differently. Many are able to assimilate, find civilian jobs, and move forward with their lives in a productive and meaningful way. For others, it’s more difficult. Substance abuse, unemployment, and mental-health issues often lead to petty crimes and other criminal activities. Unfortunately, domestic violence can also be a byproduct of war. And still others choose to use skills they attained in the military for criminal endeavors. Sadly for our veterans, the news is filled with examples. But for crime-fiction writers these examples also provide some interesting character studies.

Like the four Army Rangers who robbed a Bank of America in Tacoma, Washington. One intended to use money from the bank robberies to start an outlaw motorcycle gang and take over control of drug trafficking in his area.

Or the three former U.S. Army soldiers who were convicted in a contract killing ordered by an international crime boss.

And then there was the disgruntled soldier separated from his family who wanted to leave the Army and tried to fake his own death by slashing the throat of a man who looked like him and setting his house on fire.

What drives veterans to make these decisions? Is it disillusionment, despair, greed? Any and all of these reasons may apply. I’m sure there are others, too. Crime fiction offers a platform to explore these choices and mindsets through flawed and complex characters.


Veterans are prey for criminals as well, their benefits often a favorite target.

Veterans, especially the disabled, rely on their benefits as a large portion of their income, and con artists target veterans for bank-account information. The criminal pretends to represent a veteran’s organization and claims the victim’s benefit deposit must be “re-verified” following suspicious activity. The veteran provides the information. The criminal steals the veteran’s identity, changes the direct deposit information, and redirects money.

Data breaches of organizations that hold veteran information are prevalent as well. Recently, the Pentagon had a breach that compromised travel records of civilian and military staff—this included personal information and credit-card data. Data like this is often sold on the black market and used by criminals to make transactions and create fake identities.

On a larger scale, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), the human resource arm of the federal government, was hacked—a breach that had massive counterintelligence consequences. Security-clearance files for current, former, and prospective federal employees—many military veterans—were compromised. Information included interviews with a subject’s neighbors, employers, educators, references, and spouses. Record checks with local law enforcement and vulnerability assessments for foreign influence and exploitation were also included.

Crime fiction gives us a platform to explore these issues and vulnerabilities.

More than darkness

More exists in veterans’ lives than the dark trappings of war. There are lighter moments, too. When I’m asked about my military service, the deployments, the military training aren’t what immediately come to mind. It’s the lifelong friendships I’ve forged along the way, and the wacky moments we’ve experienced together.

Like the night a fellow Army officer and I returned from her baby shower and realized we both could field strip an M16 rifle, but assembling a bassinet wasn’t in our wheelhouse.

Or the practical jokes, like one that was played on a soldier in my unit. He was notorious for falling asleep in his car before formation. One morning, his platoon members saran-wrapped the car doors shut, trapping him inside.

And the Halloween deployment to Egypt when one of my soldiers wrapped himself in toilet paper and worked his shift dressed as a mummy.

Stories like these go beyond the trigger-pulling, door-kicking military characters that we often see. They offer insightful (and sometimes humorous) resting moments in crime-fiction stories that may otherwise be dark.

The post 9/11 generation of veterans is diverse—some may argue the most diverse in history. People with different backgrounds, nationalities, education levels, and skill sets have served our country. Their experiences and worldview are unique and pave the way for some interesting fictional characters. I look forward to seeing more post 9/11 veterans in crime-fiction stories.

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“The Writers Are Watching” (by Anna Scotti)

Anna Scotti is a writer who teaches middle-school English at a French international school. Her work has appeared in literary magazines such as The New Yorker, The New Guard Literary Review, and The Los Angeles Review. She has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize and  has received the AROHO prize for short fiction as well as several poetry prizes. Her first story for EQMM, “Krikon the Ghoul Hunter,” appears in our November/December issue (on sale October 23), and we’ve got several more of her stories coming up in 2019. Here she addresses the eternal question put to writers—Where do you get your ideas?— in an unusual way!—Janet Hutchings

Of course you’ve read the disclaimers: “This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.” Well, as Colonel Mustard might have proclaimed from the library with a megaphone, Bunk. Writers write what they know, and what they know is their daily lives. And that’s no coincidence.

It might surprise you to know that most writers aren’t rich. Those stories you admire so much in literary magazines? They pay, for the most part, in bragging rights and a couple of free copies. Twenty bucks a page is a nice bonus—for weeks or months of work. Some commercial magazines—those few still in the fiction game—pay a few hundred a pop, but others pay nothing at all. (And yet most writers would give an eye tooth, a right arm, and a month of Sundays to publish within the hallowed pages of a nationally circulated commercial journal, because doing so can make a new writer’s name.) Nope, most writers—and editors, too—are in it for the love of the art, not for the payday.

Sure, Mary Higgins Clark can probably manage a week or two off in the summer, with an astonishing fifty-one bestsellers to her name, and Where Are the Children? now in its seventy-fifth printing. Steven King and Dennis Lehane may well be driving Lamborghinis, or sipping ambrosia in Tahiti, or doing whatever the gods fantasize about up on Mount Olympus. But the average currently publishing writer earns $61,000 a year. That beats slinging hash at the Hilton, pay-wise, but it doesn’t go far in cities like Los Angeles or New York, where one-bedroom apartments are snapped up at $2500 a month. And that “average” income factors in the Kings and the Clarks, so your typical working writer is making a whole lot less.

And that’s just the typical working writer. The average writer’s income is zero. That’s right. Nothing. Because the average writer isn’t working—at least not as a writer. Even those of us lucky enough to publish a story here and there are mostly employed elsewhere, writing our poems or articles or novel chapters or short stories in a cold kitchen before the alarm goes off on weekdays, or on a legal pad in the parking lot while the kids are at soccer practice, or on our phones while we’re on break from shifts at Big Lots or Applebee’s. Some of us are teachers—and there’s a career that supports the writing life, with short days and plenty of breaks—although you won’t be teaching writing at the university level until you’ve got a couple of books under your belt. Some of us work in offices or wait tables—though as Justin Kramon points out, in his blog post for Gotham Writers, “free alcohol” is one of the negatives of restaurant life. And then there’s dog walker, short-order cook, library assistant, nanny, basketball coach . . . you name it, there’s a writer doing it to make ends meet. Surely you’ve heard of Caitriona Lally, the Irish janitor who just won a prestigious writing prize from the university whose exalted halls she cleans. (She’s keeping her day job.) William S. Burroughs worked as an exterminator (and yes, he wrote short stories based on his experiences). Sue Grafton did her time as a medical secretary, and Gillian Flynn paid the rent as a TV critic, then a journalist. J.D. Salinger directed the fun on a cruise-ship line! Janet Evanovich was a homemaker for ten years before she tried her hand at writing romance. (Twelve books later, she reinvented herself again with lingerie buyer cum bounty hunter Stephanie Plum.)

Once we finally begin to publish, the question novelists and short story writers hear most often is, “Where do you get your ideas?” Well, seriously, where do you think we get them? We get them from you. We get them from our daily interactions with you in line for a coffee, while rushing for a seat on the bus, while pinching avocados at the market, or mid-argument about the C-minus that you see as unjust and I believe to be charity. We listen to your whispers in the library, your shouts in the parking lot, your moans of passion from the apartment upstairs, your cries of alarm when you turn and find your child missing at the park, your exclamations of love and anger when you find her a moment later. We watch you when you stoop to pet the homeless man’s dog, or when you throw change out the window at him and it scatters on the sidewalk. We see you steal a lemon from your neighbor’s tree, and we see you walk very slowly when you’re crossing the street and there’s a blind man making his way across, unaware that you are holding back a line of cars with just the flat of your hand and a threatening expression. We listen as you say hello to the children who cross your intersection every morning, some returning your greeting, others oblivious. We smell the aroma of lasagna from your open kitchen window, we hear the crash of a wineglass against your wall late on a Friday night, and we see the tenderness in your face as you kneel to button your small son’s jacket.

That’s where we get our ideas. From our lives. From the people we know and the people we don’t know, from a glimpse, or a glance, or a snatch of sound. It’s the small stuff that makes fiction immediate and real, and we glean that from our everyday lives, our everyday “pay the rent” jobs. So watch yourself. Be on your best behavior. You may come across a barely-disguised version of yourself in the pages of a novel, or in your favorite mystery magazine, disclaimers be damned. And whether you will like what you will see is largely within your control.

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A company picnic and an issue due for release have brought me into closer contact than usual with work colleagues over the past two weeks. And that has me thinking about a topic I addressed on the old Readers Forum of our website a number of years ago. Technology has made it possible for me, like people in many other businesses, to work primarily from a remote location rather than in the office. This is a wonderful advance, but with so many businesses now encouraging, or even requiring, work-at-home time, it seems to me that the office as a setting for the murder mystery may be on its way out. I once read an article intended for aspiring mystery writers that identified the office as the perfect environment for a “cozy.” And it’s true, for an office provides a closed circle of suspects, all of whom know each other and likely have built up a grievance with at least one other person on staff.

Often a place of rivalries, jealousies, and sexual attractions (I’m not talking about our office, of course!), the workplace provides just the kind of potentially deadly mix of passions that could lead to murder. It’s also an ideal place for a Poirot-style detective to exercise his skills in observation and deduction on a limited group of potential killers. But all of this presupposes the pressure cooker of daily interaction. Send people home to work two or three days a week and it’s like loosening the valve on the cooker. No malice, no murder.

It’ll be a shame if that happens—at least fictionally speaking. Office-based mysteries are not very common at novel length, but we used to receive a lot of good short stories on the subject. (One that has stayed in my mind over many years is Meredith Anthony’s satirical “Murder at an Ad Agency,” from our March/April 2013 issue. She really nails those petty, competitive impulses and grudges!)

One of the classic sources of strife in the workplace used to be the “window office,” or, at higher, corporate levels, “the corner office”—the ultimate symbol of status and power. Nowadays—when there’s hardly anyone around to impress—who cares? Today’s office-space conflict is more likely to turn on who gets a seat at one of the limited number of desks available in the pared-down space on any given day of the week. And that usually generates minor squabbles at most; it’s not something people get into a lather about.

Speaking for myself, I’m too glad to see my colleagues on the few occasions I’m in the office with them these days to care about space issues. I suspect that a few years from now, many businesses won’t have offices at all, and for magazines such as ours that could present some serious difficulties. For one thing, what would happen to the archives, files, and memorabilia of decades?

I count it as one of the downsides of the work-at-home arrangements of earlier decades that neither the files nor copies of the files of either of the magazine’s previous editors, Frederic Dannay and Eleanor Sullivan, are housed with EQMM. In the former case, most of these papers were preserved and are now housed at Columbia University along with Dannay’s other papers. In the case of Editor Sullivan, however, they have simply been lost or destroyed. Virtually nothing remains. Both Dannay and Sullivan worked at home in an era when such arrangements were rare, but most of the magazine’s support staff at the time worked from the office, and since most author correspondence traveled through the office on its way to the editors, we have author files going back decades. I’d be sorry to lose access to them were we ever to transition entirely to home offices or to a virtual office.

I don’t know whether there’s a bit of nostalgia in my feeling this way, but I also worry about what the lack of a common daily work space may mean for young people coming into a business such as publishing. For all that a workplace can be a cauldron of simmering tensions (and I vividly recall voices raised periodically in shouted argument at my first job—a setting for a murder mystery indeed!), it is also a place where the fast friendships of decades are formed, and where a great deal of learning can occur simply by osmosis. Can as much be absorbed through electronic communication? I guess we’ll find out in the years to come. And no doubt new motives for fictional murder will arise in the wake of these new arrangements too. Maybe virtual office arrangements, many of which are already bringing people from different types of businesses together in transitory shared physical workspaces, will even give the workplace mystery a new twist. Let’s hope so.

Meanwhile, I’m thankful that the staff at EQMM still has available a fixed address where our paths may cross, by arrangement or serendipity. Below is a photo of three important people I ran into at our recent company picnic, and whom I often see in the office. On the left is Mark Lagasse, an editor from our puzzle division who has done several brilliant readings for EQMM’s podcast series (episodes 26, 30, 32, 68, 79, and 89). If you haven’t yet heard them, check them out! Center stage is Ché Ryback, who handles all technical matters for the New York staff, and is the photographer and videographer for such EQMM events as the 2016 EQMM 75th Anniversary Symposium at Columbia University (still available on YouTube, if you haven’t seen it). On the right is someone who hardly needs introduction to followers of EQMM, our talented associate editor, Jackie Sherbow. Fictional scenarios aside, there’s no murderous intent lurking in this merry group of office mates—as I’m sure you can see!—Janet Hutchings

Mark Lagasse, Ché Ryback, Jackie Sherbow. Photo by Janet Hutchings.


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“Hard Target: The Unexpected Perk Offered by the Mystery/Crime Genre” (by Jennifer Soosar)

Jennifer Soosar’s first fiction appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine’s Department of First Stories in 2016, representing Canada in our special “All Nations” anniversary celebration. Since then she’s had a book published—the psychological suspense novel Parent Teacher Association—and is currently at work on another. As a child, Jennifer watched a lot of America’s Most Wanted, which gave her insight into shady characters from a young age. In this post she talks about how fiction can make us all more aware of how the criminal mind works.—Janet Hutchings

A police detective enters a crime scene. The place has been ransacked—drawers dumped, lamp knocked over, knickknacks smashed—and a woman is dead on the floor. There’s been a violent home invasion, or so says the husband who called 911. A cursory look at the scene tells the detective the story is total nonsense. He’s seen hundreds of crime scenes over his career and knows what the aftermath of a real intrusion looks like. This scene stinks; an amateur’s version of how it’s “supposed” to look. Little doubt exists in the detective’s mind that the husband is involved.

Criminals often have a hard time fooling the police. From the textbook to the bizarre, cops have seen it all in terms of human behavior, motive, and physical evidence. Cops have a firm grasp on—let’s call it a “range of normal.” Authentic crime unfolds in a random, yet recognizable pattern. A staged crime scene, on the other hand, looks theatrical in its contrivance.

A cop’s instinct for crime and deception is a tool honed through training and field experience. It is a tool they are fortunate to carry whether on or off-duty. No con man collecting money door-to-door for a phoney charity will get a dime from a police officer’s house.

Are readers of mystery and crime fiction developing a similar tool as they read for pleasure? It’s a casual theory of mine, a happy side effect of the entertainment and mental stimulation offered by the genre. I can’t prove anything, but I would bet that we mystery /crime fans are harder targets of crime than the general population. Just like the cop who’s seen it all, we’ve read about it all.

And more than just read—we’ve loitered inside the heads of some seriously twisted people. Characters like Mr. Hyde (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), Amy Dunne (Gone Girl), Professor Moriarty (Sherlock Holmes), Hannibal Lecter (Silence of the Lambs), Mrs. Danvers (Rebecca), and Tom Ripley (The Talented Mr. Ripley).

Spending hours of time with these characters has given us intimate knowledge into the calculating way they think, their techniques of deception, and how they justify their actions to themselves. When we’re not inside their brains, we are flies on the wall, bearing witness to their wicked deeds. We’ve invaded their privacy and seen behind the masks worn to fool unsuspecting others. They have educated us on everything from the fine art of poisons to the finer points of stalking. The coldness of their blood has given us a chill, and their creepiness has shrivelled our skin.

Authors have done us a service in crafting villains that elicit empathy as well as revulsion (Francis Dolarhyde in Red Dragon). Through careful character development, the dangerous personality has been dissected and exposed down to the finest nuances, allowing for an understanding of the criminal mind that, I argue, is advantageous in real life.

I’m confident most of us believe the world is a decent place and that people are good. But, I don’t think we readers of mystery and crime are deluding ourselves about any of that either. Our doors are bolted at night (Faceless Killers) and we’re careful about the information we share online (The Broken Window). We appreciate proper shoes—flats, or ones with a low heel—in case we need to run for our lives (any Nancy Drew novel). If we keep valuables at home, or cash in a safe, we don’t advertise it to the landscapers, lest it become a prison rumor (In Cold Blood).

We’re careful about strangers. New suitors need to be checked out (A Kiss Before Dying) and small-talk conversations are ended the moment they go sideways, otherwise we might find ourselves roped into a murder scheme (Strangers on a Train). We know that simple plans are not always simple (A Simple Plan) and that it’s important to do our own due diligence (Fletch) instead of naively believing another person’s word for things.

In business dealings, we mystery/crime readers approach matters with, perhaps, an extra degree of caution (A is for Alibi). And we’re not necessarily fooled by a respectable-looking, professional appearance either. We know that a top CEO can be a crook, killer, or rapist just as easily as a lowly bureaucrat can (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo).

None of this means we’re paranoid, of course. Not really. While we do find the dark side of human nature entertaining, we mystery readers can never forget one fundamentally important point; truth is stranger than fiction. That means whatever can happen in a novel can happen in real life too—only the circumstances will be weirder (read true crime to confirm).

As a result, I believe a higher value is put on our personal safety and security. We like sensible things like insurance—but not if a loved one urges us to take out a policy (Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice). That might make us think twice.

It’s not that we don’t trust normal, everyday people, like friends and family. We’re just aware that normal, everyday people can be driven to heinous acts through jealousy (Presumed Innocent), the desire for revenge (Murder on the Orient Express), greed (The Maltese Falcon), and the effort to keep a secret hidden (The Talented Mr. Ripley). We keep that tidbit tucked in the back of our minds.

Villains haven’t been our only teachers. The amateur sleuths and seasoned detectives we’ve followed over countless investigations have taught us how to be hyper-observant, how to deconstruct events logically rather than emotionally, how to recognize the body language of deception. And when the final confrontation occurs between hero and villain, we’ve learned that we need to fight to the death.

Yes indeed. Mystery, suspense and crime fiction has provided us readers with a bloody, well-rounded, and violent education in psychopaths, sociopaths, and garden variety criminals. We know what they want and their methods to get it.

All that aside, readers of the mystery genre are some of the nicest people out there. Go to any Bouchercon conference or ThrillerFest in New York City and I’m sure you’ll agree. While we are an unassuming bunch, I’ll remind those with bad intentions—don’t try and pull any fast ones. We’re nice, but not gullible. If we’re ever walking in a parking lot and a guy with a leg cast begs our help to move a mattress into his van (Silence of the Lambs), I guarantee you we’ll be running away screaming on our flat shoes.

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“Noir Is for Losers” (by Jeremy Herbert)

Jeremy Herbert got his start in the entertainment field as a movie maker—as you’ll see from this post. By day, he currently works as an AV technician, while writing, directing, and editing movies in his free time. Many of those films belong to the horror genre, and he also writes about horror and horror movies for a number of websites, including Crooked Marquee, Bloody Digusting, and PopHorror. His short film The Childish Thing will make its international debut at the Glasgow Horror Festival next month; his feature-length script, Another Harpersville Massacre, cowritten with Wolf Stahl, has been making the rounds of film festivals and has been a finalist at every one. Jeremy debuts as a fiction writer in our current issue (in the Department of First Stories), with the noir tale “Palmetto Springs.” He knows a thing or two about noir too!—Janet Hutchings

All film students have heard its siren song. Seen that publicity still from The Maltese Falcon, of Bogart holding the cursed prize and smoking a cigarette like he invented the practice, as they thumbed through a textbook about “reading” movies that they’d never open again. The caption would say something about “film noir,” so seductive, so French, and its hard shadows. Its unmistakable style.

What every film student loses sleep over—style. Nevermind the basics—that’s what those books nobody reads are for. Style is something else. Something greater. Means you’ve Made It. Pointed the camera the right way, convinced the right friends to stand in front of it, and found the right royalty-free music, called something like “Back Alley Blues” or “Jazz 3.” And what better style to steal than noir?

Hard shadows? Fewer lights to rent. Trench coats and threadbare ties? The very cornerstones of any thrift store worth its salt. A tough guy with a square jaw—probably Mitch, because he grows the darkest stubble—and a femme fatale with a look that kills and a .25 Auto on her thigh that could also do the trick—the only girl in class, who wants to direct her own project, but the guys don’t really want to grip so she ends up helping out on everyone else’s for the sake of not failing; and it’s a hard NO on the thigh thing.

Throw in someone’s period-inaccurate Airsoft gun, desaturate it into that murky world of grays, and congratulations—a stylish student film. A solid B in the making. B+ if you remembered to cut out that shot where you can hear the end of someone shouting “Action!” A- if there’s a complicated and showy dolly shot that took a significant majority of the shooting schedule to pull off. A+ if there was a shooting schedule.

To the lowly film student, noir is a shortcut to legitimacy. A shortcut to earn that most elusive of adjectives: cool.

I know the siren song of film noir because once, more recently than I remember and not long enough ago as I’d like, I, too, was a film student. Or at least an Electronic Media Production major, but who’s counting? The sum total was the same—a lot of filmmakers-in-the-making daydreaming of Steadicams, unnecessary neon lighting and how they could shoot their silent film project in the three hours before class, with little introspection as to why.

Why do you want to tell stories? I’ll ignore the means for now, but rest assured I’ll tackle it, considering this is a blog about writing, and so far I’ve only spilled scarcely related beans. And I don’t mean this as a savage assassination of those monsters, film students, who go into untold debt chasing a statistically impossible dream. I do suspect, though, that noir is still neck-and-neck with romantic-dramedy-about-going-home-for-the-first-summer-after-Janine-left-them-because-nobody-gets-exactly-how-that-felt in the film school genre races.

What I mean is that it took me a while to notice the gap between my love of reading noir and my antsy urge to make a cool film noir.

Because noir is for losers.

The overall effect might be cool. Cigarette smoke like sinners’ fog. Pinched-tip fedoras worn at the proper improper tilt, giving shifty eyes a murky place to hide. Gratuitous saxophone. But the nuts and bolts of noir, its very soul, belongs to the losers.

Strivers. Strugglers. Good people gone bad and bad people caught in the headlights, wondering if they were ever good. It’s no mean feat to count off too many noir heroes that don’t toe the line one way or the other. It may be just one flavor of mystery, but it’s exactly what carried me away in the genre.

Take Ernest “Stick” Stickley, the put-upon protagonist of Elmore Leonard’s Swag and Stick.

The following few paragraphs will contain absolutely careless spoilers for those books. If you’re allergic to them, please continue with caution. But Elmore Leonard is so good that it never matters if you know how his stories end, because you’ll be just as delighted spotting the snags in the weave that inevitably unravel someone’s Best-Laid Plans.

And if anyone’s readying a well-worded and researched argument for Leonard not writing noir, I applaud your dedication. Maybe you’re right. But he’s always read that way to me, whether the ill-fated action was in hardboiled Detroit or sunburned Florida.

And Stickley’s saga bridged the criminal underworlds of Elmore Leonard perfectly. Started out stealing cars right off the lot in 1970s Detroit. Then a blackmailer-turned-partner-turned-friend sells him on a lucrative new career in armed robbery. Ironclad, unimpeachable rules for Not Getting Caught Or Killed are hashed out on the most sacred of noir parchments—the cocktail napkin. Everything works perfectly until it doesn’t. They ignore the rules. They pay the price.

Stick takes his parole as a chance to reconnect with his estranged daughter in Florida. Almost immediately, he trips into the crosshairs of a Cuban gang, a killer in a cowboy hat, and a whacked-out wannabe kingpin. He hides in plain sight as a chauffeur until he sets up the Perfect Scam to fix everyone’s respective wagons at the same time. He even beds three women in the same night. Well. Two-and-a-half, until his natural limitations get the best of him in what may be one of the strangest omens in mystery fiction. He almost pulls it off, but falls flat on his ass within swearing distance of the finish line. Stick walks away with exactly enough money to lose in unpaid child support to his embittered ex-wife. The last line might as well be a mission statement.

There you are, Stick thought.

For all the schemes and double-crosses and back-alley meetings in the empty hours of night, he was always the same loser. And his stories were cool. No Leonard story isn’t. Swag saw him living the sweet life in a high-rise apartment. Stick followed his daily route through the Gold Coast elite’s favorite country clubs.

But despite himself, Stick was never cool. He tried. He failed. Maybe he proved something to himself, though someone like Stick would never admit it. But he’s that shadow in the dark, waiting for someone dirtier to come home, to walk into his trap. Because he’s got it all Figured Out.

The angles. The moves. The baser motivations of Mafia and men.

Got it all Figured Out, until someone else thinks the same and, funniest thing, their answers don’t match at all.

I couldn’t see it at first. Too busy imagining a woefully generic film noir and wondering which basements I could stage the chair-tied interrogation in. I would impress my peers. It would be so stylish without having to worry about my own pesky creative input. It would be so cool. I was too busy missing the forest for the trees, and worried about faking the Big City with so many of the damn, green things around. But then I’d sweat away ten pounds making it, only for the rest of the class to make something just shy of identical, depending on how much stubble their lead could muster. A hollow victory, if a victory at all, but at least I learned something the hardest way possible.

But I couldn’t see it because I had it all Figured Out.

Noir is for losers. And that’s why I love it.

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“The Ultimate Career Killer” (by John Gregory Betancourt)

Writer John Gregory Betancourt has an especially demanding day job: Hes the publisher of Wildside Press. Among Wildsides many fine recent releases is The Misadventures of Ellery Queen, an anthology of Ellery Queen pastiches and parodies, edited by Josh Pachter and Dale C. Andrews (available in paperback, hardcover, and e-book formats). Bringing back or keeping alive the work of past authors in the fields of mystery and science fiction has become a mission for John and his press. He is himself an award-winning author of both mystery and science fiction and will be known to many readers of this blog as a past winner of the Black Orchid Novella Award, cosponsored by Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and The Wolfe Pack. John has very little time for writing these days, however, and this post about his work at Wildside reveals why.—Janet Hutchings

When Janet Hutchings asked me to be a guest blogger and write about Wildside Press (following a conversation at our dealer’s table at the Malice Domestic mystery convention), she wanted me to talk a bit about what we are doing with the estates of mystery writers. I think the background subject—what happens to authors’ works after their passing—is the place to begin.

Most authors are not best sellers with legions of fans who keep their work in print for generations. For every Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie, and Rex Stout, there is a Jacob Hay, James Holding, and Fletcher Flora—a counterpart who immediately vanishes into the mists of obscurity the moment they stop writing. A well-known literary agent in the science fiction field put it, “Nothing kills a career like death.” Too true. For authors who specialized in short stories (or mostly short stories) and published in ephemeral places such as magazines or anthologies, their fate is pretty much sealed: gone and forgotten. Despite long and distinguished careers, the most these authors’ estates can hope for now is the occasional anthology reprint.

If the anthologist can find them.

Believe it or not, the largest barrier to any old author being reprinted is often finding his or her heirs. I tracked down one mystery author’s family, who promptly referred me to an agent—who had died 15 years before. (His agency had gone out of business without them realizing it.) Another author’s son argued that he didn’t have the rights to anything, since nothing about writing had been mentioned in his mother’s will. (Definitely wrong: Copyright inheres in the creator. Unless the rights to a given work are specifically signed away, copyrights—like any other property—are inherited.) One Western author died childless and intestate, and none of his seven nephews or nieces wanted to take the responsibility of claiming the estate and accepting money. (At least they did discuss it among themselves. Not worth their time, I guess. I moved on; so did they—and this particular author will remain in publishing limbo until his work enters the public domain, somewhere around the year 2055.)

Let’s assume the best-case scenario. A hobbyist author of 100 mystery short stories died in 1990, and his daughter is still alive. She knows all about his work, has a website online that mentions him prominently, and she has paperwork to prove she is sole heir and owner, so she is confident in her position. She has been available to sign reprint contracts for decades. She goes to mystery conventions. She’s easy to find and familiar enough with publishing contracts that she feels comfortable signing them without a lawyer or agent.

Unfortunately, the anthology reprint market had pretty much disappeared by the year 2000. Television and movies? Highly unlikely. New collections by authors who are (essentially) unknown today? Impossible from any major publishing company. So this daughter has effectively held the rights to 100 short stories with one reprint sale in the last fifteen years.

Enter Wildside Press and the burgeoning e-book market. In 2011, I put together a 99-cent reprint anthology of science-fiction stories called The Science Fiction MEGAPACK. It consisted of twenty-five short science-fiction stories, mostly public-domain works written in the 1950s and 1960s, plus a few modern stories from estates I had inherited. (A pair of authors appreciated my sometimes decades-long interest in their work and careers enough to leave me their copyrights when they died, since they had no immediate family.) To date, The Science Fiction MEGAPACK® has sold more than a million copies. I trademarked the MEGAPACK® name in 2013 and began publishing more reprint volumes—a lot more—and not just science fiction, but mysteries, romance, Westerns, pulp fiction, etc.

Most volumes in the MEGAPACK® series contain between fifteen and forty short stories. Wildside Press is, I believe, one of the largest publishers of old short stories in the world right now—I haven’t bothered to count the number, but it’s certainly over 6,000 stories and probably closer to 7,000, spread over about 400 collections.

When our e-book sales dropped as a dozen other e-book publishers copied the MEGAPACK® publishing strategy and flooded the market, I began looking for cost-effective ways to replace or supplement the public-domain content we had been using with unique (to us), in-copyright material. I asked friends who are writers for old stories to reprint. I tracked down the authors of stories I remembered reading years ago and purchased reprint rights. But it still wasn’t enough. (Remember, the MEGAPACK® line uses thousands of stories, not dozens.)

I had to broaden my search. In the mystery field, the best sources of mystery short stories have always been Ellery Queens Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcocks Mystery Magazine, so their back issues seemed the place to start when I wanted a lot of mysteries. I began going through indexes, looking for authors and stories I recognized.

What a treasure trove those old magazines turned out to be! So many great, forgotten authors. So many series characters (who often only appeared only in the magazines).

Unfortunately, with my very slender budget (about $10 per story), spending hours tracking down estates and offering a tiny fee to reprint one story at a time by Aunt Clarissa or Grandpa Joe wasn’t going to be cost-effective. Instead, I began adding up the number of short stories and novels an author had published, then purchasing exclusive reprint rights to all of them. It seemed like a winning strategy for everyone: I could offer larger payments while getting access to a huge quantity of high-quality fiction. Some authors whose families I tracked down, such as Talmage Powell, had published upwards of 500 short stories. Writers learned to write fast in the days of the pulps.

But then something happened along the way: I became a fan of many of these old writers. Instead of putting everything into MEGAPACK® anthologies, I began looking for the best way to resurrect these authors’ works for the largest possible audience. Sometimes it’s single-author collections from Wildside Press. Sometimes it’s from other publishers. Every time I put a new book together, I stop and ask myself, “What’s the best way to present this particular author to new readers?”

Remember the three names I mentioned at the start (Jacob Hay, James Holding, and Fletcher Flora)? I purchased their copyrights from their families. (Talmage Powell’s, too, for that matter. He was another great who is now sadly forgotten.)

Jacob Hay was an excellent writer who published a handful of mainstream novels, plus forty-nine short stories—fifteen of them mysteries in EQMM, but spread over a fourteen-year period (1962-1976). He published most of his stories, many mystery or suspense, in big-budget magazines like The Saturday Evening Post (twenty-five there alone!), Playboy, Argosy, and Colliers. He didn’t have a series character, and he published so infrequently in any given market that he made no lasting impression on readers, despite consistently high-quality work. I have been sprinkling his stories into themed e-book anthologies. There doesn’t seem to be a specific hook to use to market his work—or if there is, I haven’t found it yet.

In addition to a dozen children’s books, James Holding published 207 short stories, primarily in EQMM and AHMM. He loved series characters, and it turns out long-time magazine readers still remember some of them quite favorably . . . the Photographer, the Library Fuzz, and most especially the “Leroy King” series of Ellery Queen tribute stories. I was fortunate enough to secure a reprint collection of his complete “Leroy King” series (The Zanzibar Shirt Mystery and Other Stories) with Crippen & Landru (publisher Doug Greene was also a big “Leroy King” fan) as part of their “Lost Classics” series, and I persuaded Linda Landrigan, editor of Alfred Hitchcocks Mystery Magazine, to run the first story as a classic reprint. I even wrote a new “Leroy King” story, “The Jamaican Ice Mystery,” for the Malice Domestic convention book. I’m planning e-book collections of James Holding’s other series characters to publish myself—and continuing to sprinkle nonseries stories into other e-book anthologies. I’m delighted to say Holding is well off to a mini-revival!

Fletcher Flora was a staple in mysteries magazines from the early 1950s until his death in 1968. He published about 130 mystery stories and twenty novels (three pseudonymously under the “Ellery Queen” byline, plus he completed Stuart Palmer’s final Hildegarde Withers novel after Palmer’s death). Some of his novels are trashy pulp fiction; others are traditional mysteries. We licensed his mystery novels to Prologue Books (now Simon & Schuster) as part of their classic crime e-book program, and have been releasing Fletcher Flora MEGAPACK®s containing the others. Eventually we will have everything he wrote in print again. Not bad, for a forgotten author!

Sometimes families have an emotional attachment to the work and don’t want to sell the rights to everythings, but still want to have stories by their famous relative available in print. I often offer to manage these literary estates, bringing as much as possible back into print and sharing the revenues. It doesn’t always make financial sense, but I really enjoy it—and I’ve made a lot of new friends this way. I hear regularly from author Richard Deming’s granddaughter, who sold her home and is now traveling the American highways with her husband in an RV, working on a documentary movie on RV life to be called RV Nomads. I’ve helped the family of science-fiction author John W. Campbell, Jr. recover $30,000 in royalties from an agent who had licensed editions of his books without telling (or paying) them. Now I’m writing a sequel to Campbell’s classic story “Who Goes There?” (filmed by John Carpenter as The Thing) while helping them with stuff like game and movie licensing. Campbell’s grandson just sent me one of the “Who Goes There?” medallions a gaming company sent him.

Cool stuff, all.

For more information on Wildside Press, check out wildsidepress.com.

For more info on John Betancourt, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Gregory_Betancourt

You can contact John through the Wildside Press website.

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“Daneel Olivaw & Me” (by Jan Grape)

When I and my colleagues at the Dell Mystery Magazines, Linda Landrigan and Jackie Sherbow, were interviewed on the blog SleuthSayers back in June, a corresponding invitation went out to members of SleuthSayers to blog for this site. Award-winning author Jan Grape is one of those who accepted the invitation. A native of the hill country of Texas, Jan is an Anthony Award winner for best short story and has produced over fifty short stories and three novels, the latter featuring Austin, Texas policewoman Zoe Barrow. Many know Jan as an active member of the mystery community.  She has coedited both nonfiction and fiction anthologies, including Murder Past, Murder Present, and Murder Here, Murder There (with coeditor R. Barri Flowers), and she’s a founding member of the HOT chapter of Sisters in Crime in Austin. This post takes us back to the beginning of Jan’s love affair with mystery fiction (and science fiction!). It focuses on an important writer for EQMM, Isaac Asimov, whose Black Widower stories appeared in EQMM from the early 1970s to the early 1990s.—Janet Hutchings

Jan Grape and Isaac Asimov at the Edgar Awards in NYC, April 1988. (Photo courtesy of Jan Grape.)

Maybe my love for and fascination with robots began because I was a bit of a nerd. I took classes in art and “expression” (public speaking with emotion). I was a romantic. I was also thirteen years old.

My parents were divorced, so I lived with my mother and stepdad in Post, Texas, about forty miles from the “big city” of Lubbock. My father and stepmother lived in Fort Worth. When I visited Fort Worth during the summer, I entertained myself with television and books while they were at work. My dad liked reading mysteries, mostly private-eye stories, so he first handed me books by Mickey Spillane, Richard S. Prather, and Erle Stanley Gardner. Once I had finished those he gave me science fiction by Isaac Asimov. I’ve always thought that I read The Naked Sun first, but after checking it out and learning that it wasn’t published until 1956, I’m now thinking that the first Asimov book I read was The Caves of Steel, which was the first book in the Robot Series. My memories of that story are nonexistent. The second book in the Robot Series, The Naked Sun, is the book I strongly remember, primarily because of the robot, Daneel Olivaw.

Asimov decided to combine mystery and sci fi, a play-fair novel in his mind. He wrote The Caves of Steel, which was a huge success. The premise of the second book, The Naked Sun, involves a New York City detective named Elijah Baley and a robot, R. Daneel Olivaw, who travel to a planet called Solaria to solve a murder. The setting is a sparsely populated planet with something like only twenty thousand people. There are around fifty other planets occupied by the very few people who are adventurous and strong enough to make a go of it on barely inhabitable planets. Robots are needed to help the humans make the planet livable. The people on Solaria have many robots that cook, clean, provide security, and tend to practically every need of the humans. In fact, the Solarians depend so much on the robots that they seldom see each other in person. They view each other with devices called “Viewers,” and, more often than not, they encounter a holographic image rather than a real person.

Most of the robots are worker robots that look like many of our robots today. Daneel was the only robot that had been created to look and sound human. The professor who created Daneel was the only roboticist to have developed the positronic brain. Daneel looked so much like a human that other robots thought he was a man. His skin tone was perfect. Each hair on his head was placed just so. Elijah Bailey could almost feel a friendship akin to love, until he remembered Daneel was a robot, not a man.

So, on Solaria, a wealthy man turns up bludgeoned to death. There can be no suspects other than his wife, Gladia, who is rarely in his presence (Solarians can barely stand to touch each other), or one of the robots.

In the story, all robots are made to follow the Three Laws of Robotics. First Law: A robot may not harm or cause harm to a human being. Second Law: A robot must obey a human’s orders. Third Law: A robot must protect itself, as long as it does not violate the First or Second Laws. To my thirteen-year-old heart, this sounded like the perfect situation! A handsome robot that would wait on me hand and foot and protect me at all costs? What nerdy, teenage, romantic girl would NOT fall in love with that?

Asimov didn’t write gory mysteries. In fact, he thought the blood and guts should be offstage, and that’s how he wrote his books. He wrote mainly in the classic style—or the Agatha Christie style. He enjoyed writing a puzzle story, and his favorite mystery was one in which the reader could figure out the solution if they paid attention to the clues. Asimov’s mysteries were of the puzzler-type in what were known as The Black Widower series. In these, a group of intellectuals would meet at a men’s club for dinner. Usually, one member would bring a guest who, after dinner, would present a problem that the others would try to solve. Each of the very educated gentlemen would try to present a solution to the puzzle. However, Henry, the club waiter, was invariably the one to come up with the solution. It was pretty much the same with the Union Club stories that Asimov wrote. A small group would sit around, and someone would present a problem. One of the older gentlemen, Griswold, sitting half asleep with his drink in his hand, would suddenly awaken and solve the puzzle.

Asimov could write these stories in his sleep, because they were pretty much the same each time: a bit of a puzzle, and then one person speaks up to do what the reader has been trying to do for thirty minutes.

To me, Mr. Asimov’s science fiction was his strong point and, probably, the rest of the world agrees. I think he absorbed scientific and mathematical things going on around him and then tried the writer’s idea of “Imagine that . . .” or “What if . . . ?” His imagination traveled light-years away. He himself said in his autobiography that he wrote every day. He never even took time off for any holiday.

Asimov was born in Russia, but his parents came to America when he was three. After a series of menial sales jobs, his father bought a candy store and his parents spent all of their time working it. His parents never learned to read or write or even speak English very well, just enough to get by. His father had been educated in Russia, but his mother had not. Asimov’s parents never taught him Russian. They would speak to each other in Russian when they didn’t want the children to know what they were talking about. I’m surprised he never taught himself!

He began going to the library when he was nine years old, and he read everything from Shakespeare to Dickens to The Iliad to Greek mythology. He read the Bible, mostly the Old Testament, but Christianity never took hold in his mind. (His family was Jewish, but they never practiced Judaism.) He called himself a “humanist.” As a writer he also wrote nonfiction about understanding the Bible and other great literature, and just about any subject you could think of, including some children’s stories.

Given his penchant for science and mathematics, it was natural for Asimov to imagine a future world with robots and other technology such as moving sidewalks that operated at different speeds to move twenty billion people around NYC, like he describes in his 1953 book The Caves of Steel. He imagined worlds where people “viewed” each other rather than existed in each other’s actual presence. I have to say, it reminds me of our world today, with people interacting via texts, photos, and Skype. We also have many robots in our present-day world, although for the most part they don’t yet resemble humans. So far, our robots are used for things like bomb detection, search and rescue, or assembly-line work.

For all of my thirteen-year-old longings for a dreamy robot boyfriend who would drive me around in his fancy robocar and make me one of the coolest girls in junior high school, Mr. Asimov’s books were without romance. Quite understandable, I suppose. Most popular fiction of the mystery and sci-fi genre in the 1950s was geared towards men. The books my father had that I was reading were certainly devoid of romance. Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer had a lovely secretary, and although he might have lusted after a dame, it was for sex only. Dashiell Hammett was in the same milieu. Dames were either gangster molls and evil, secretaries and helpless, or somewhat undesirable—like Gardner’s Bertha Cool, who was smart but overweight and a woman who never thought of herself as sexy or lovable. When Asimov wrote The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun, detective Elijah Baley’s wife and son were almost an afterthought, although Baley did have a strong desire for his son to migrate to another planet, since Earth would not be able to sustain enough food or room for the growing population.

Male writers in the 20s, 30s, and even into the 50s had grown up in a time when romance and sex weren’t discussed in polite company. I’m sure Asimov’s Russian parents were too busy trying to make a living running their candy store to have a moment to think about love and romance.

However, Asimov threw a new element into the mix. Lovely Gladia, the woman accused of killing her husband, does not want even to shake hands with the Earthman, Baley. She, as well as all Solarians, knows that all Earthlings are thoroughly sanitized on the spaceship during the trip to their planet, but Solarians have a constant fear and horror of contracting diseases from Earth. One does begin to get the idea that Gladia is somewhat fascinated by Elijah and he is equally fascinated by her. However, the closest brush with romance that they experience is when Gladia removes her latex glove to touch gently Elijah’s face before he leaves Solaria to go back to Earth.

Fast-forward twenty-seven years, to Asimov finally writing the third book in the Robot Series. In The Robots of Dawn, Elijah and Daneel are sent to Planet Aurora, to solve a case of roboticide. The main suspect is the gifted roboticist who had developed the positronic brain and is the only person who has the motive, means, and opportunity to kill the robot. The roboticist even admits that he is the prime suspect, but emphatically denies that he did it. However, the lovely Gladia is now residing on Aurora, almost totally ignored because Aurorans don’t care for Solarians, and she is ultimately accused of the murder of Jander. Jander is the second humaniform robot with a positronic brain and had looked and acted as human as Daneel.

Asimov finally gets to Gladia’s secret love life in this third book. The robot that has been killed had been Gladia’s lover! And, in her mind, Jander was her husband in every way. This, of course, excited my thirteen-year-old self! Yes, the robot lover! (I’m not sure I had consciously thought of the robot as a sexual partner, but perhaps my subconscious did.) Finally, Gladia has sex with Elijah Baley. She leads and he follows. What man wouldn’t?

This, from Mr. Isaac Asimov? WOW!

Posted in Books, Characters, Classic Mystery, Genre, Guest, History, Novels, Writers | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“Research on Research” (by Edwin Hill)

Edwin Hill debuted in EQMM’s Department of First Stories in this year’s January/February issue. Now his first novel, Little Comfort, is hot off the press (released by Kensington August 28). The author has found time to write a second book in the series Little Comfort begins and has a third under way—all while serving as vice president and editorial director for Bedford/St. Martin’s, a division of Macmillan. A Boston resident, Edwin has some of the world’s best libraries available for research for his novels; he talks about the challenges modern technology presents to librarians and researchers in this post.—Janet Hutchings

I’m hard at work on a proposal for a third book in my Hester Thursby series, which means I’m thinking about research. Not research for the story—that will come later, after I’ve made it through a draft or two and have figured out what I actually need to know—but research about research, especially now, in 2018 (or 2020, when the book actually publishes). How do we find and engage in information today, and how has that changed in the last decade?

The central character in the series is Hester Thursby, a librarian at Harvard’s Widener Library, who uses her research skills to find missing people. When I started writing this series in the dark ages of 2010, we were in another era of information, when Wikipedia was still relatively new, we hadn’t quite realized the dangers of big data, and some of us still weren’t attached to our phones twenty-four hours a day. Back then, I was inspired to create Hester by an actual visit to a library where I engaged with a research librarian about something I couldn’t solve on my own (alas, that conundrum is lost in my memory). Nowadays, it seems that information is at our fingertips all of the time, sometimes seemingly too much information.

Even as I drafted the first novel (it took me four years to write the first book in the series, Little Comfort, and then another two years to sell it, and another two years for the book to be published. See my other post for more on that), challenges developed. I had to adapt both the story and the way Hester solves problems for her clients. With each year that went by, more information became available. And by now, in 2018, anyone who truly wants to disappear really must work for it!

But I still like the challenge of writing about information, both for me as a storyteller and for Hester as an investigator. And as I speak to more librarians, I learn that these challenges mirror many of the changes that have happened in library science in the past twenty-five years: More information may be readily available, but navigating that information and evaluating its qualities remain valuable skills. One of the librarians I spoke to in the course of my investigation, Victoria Gilbert, happens also to be a mystery writer. She emphasized the need to ask questions as we wade through the vast amounts of information that hit us on a daily basis, and to build the skills we need to pick what’s right, what helps further our argument, what helps us make a point. It’s not unlike being faced with the many volumes held in a large library, one like Widener, and having to figure out which passages among many millions to cite, it’s just that the information now comes from many, many more sources.

So for this book I want to explore what that assault of information feels like on a daily basis. What are our known unknowns and our unknown unknowns, and how do we begin the process of finding those answers? What happens when the discovery takes us down the wrong path? What questions can that open up, and what missing people can be at the end of that journey? And what possible new developments in information science could there be in the next twenty-four months?

And, most importantly, how does that journey lead to murder?

Posted in Books, Editing, Fiction, Guest, History, research, Writers, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Mickey Spillane at 100” (by Max Allan Collins)

Thirteen years ago, when the centenary of Ellery Queen was celebrated with a symposium and exhibition at Columbia University, we were amazed at the outpouring of love and interest from fans and readers, since there had not been a new Ellery Queen novel in more than thirty years. This year the mystery world commemorates the centenary of the man author Max Allan Collins calls “the last major mystery writer of the twentieth century,” Mickey Spillane. Spillane’s many fans have not had to go without new fiction from their icon in the years since his death in the way that Ellery Queen fans have, however, and that’s thanks to Max Allan Collins, who has completed many unfinished Spillane manuscripts, including two that were held for this special centenary year. In addition to the year’s important book releases, which Max discusses in this post, Titan Comics has marked the occasion by releasing a new comics series starring P.I. Mike Hammer, Spillane’s most famous—and influential—creation. Mickey Spillane was never published in EQMM during his lifetime, but in the years since Max Allan Collins began to complete his many unfinished works, EQMM has had the pleasure of publishing him (with cowriter Max Allan Collins) twice, once about a decade ago, and now, in honor of the hundredth anniversary of his birth, in our current issue, September/October 2018. Max Allan Collins is also known to EQMM readers for his solo works for the magazine. He is a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America, a Shamus Award winner, an author whose work has inspired productions for both the big and small screens, and, currently, the coauthor with his wife Barbara Collins of the Trash ’n’ Treasures cozy mystery series. I’d like to urge all readers to take the occasional of the Spillane centenary to delve into the new Spillane fiction coming out this year.—Janet Hutchings

In July of 2006, the last major mystery writer of the twentieth century left the building. Only a handful of writers in the genre—Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, and Raymond Chandler, among them—achieved such superstar status.

Spillane’s position, however, is unique—reviled by many mainstream critics, despised and envied by a number of his contemporaries in the very field he revitalized, the creator of Mike Hammer had an impact not just on mystery and suspense fiction but popular culture in general.

The success of the reprint editions of his startlingly violent and sexy novels jump-started the paperback original, and his redefinition of the action hero as a tough guy who mercilessly executed villains and who slept with beautiful, willing women remains influential (Sin City is Frank Miller’s homage).

When Spillane published I, the Jury in 1947, he introduced in Mike Hammer, the most famous of all fictional private eyes. Hammer swears vengeance over the corpse of an army buddy who lost an arm in the Pacific, saving the detective’s life. No matter who the villain turns out to be, Hammer will not just find him, but execute him—even if it’s a her.

Revenge was a constant theme in Mike Hammer’s world—Vengeance Is Mine! among his titles—with the detective rarely taking a paying client. Getting even was the motivation for this detective.

This was something entirely new in mystery fiction, and Spillane quickly became the most popular—and controversial—mystery writer of the mid twentieth century. In addition to creating an eye-for-an-eye hero, the writer brought a new level of sex and violence to the genre. He was called a fascist by left-leaning critics and a libertine by right-leaning ones. In between were millions of readers who turned Spillane’s first six Hammer novels into the bestselling private eye novels of all time.

The controversial Hammer has been the subject of a radio show, comic strip, and several television series, starring Darren McGavin in the 1950s and Stacy Keach in the eighties and nineties. Numerous gritty movies have been made from Spillane novels, notably director Robert Aldrich’s seminal film noir, Kiss Me Deadly (1955).

As success raged around him, Mickey Spillane proved himself a showman and a marketing genius; he became as famous as his creation, appearing on book jackets with gun in hand and fedora on head. His image became synonymous with Hammer’s, more so even than any of the actors who portrayed the private eye, including McGavin and Keach.

For eighteen years, well past the peak of his publishing success, Spillane appeared as himself/Hammer in the wildly successful Miller Lite commercials, alongside his “doll” (Lee Meredith of Producers fame) and overshadowing countless former pro athletes.

Alone among mystery writers, he appeared as his own famous detective, in The Girl Hunters (1963). Critics at the time viewed his performance as Hammer favorably, and today many viewers of the quirky, made-in-England film still do. Virtually an amateur, Spillane is in nearly every frame, his natural charisma and wry humor holding him in good stead beside the professional likes of Lloyd Nolan (Michael Shayne of the 1940s Fox movie series) and Shirley Eaton (“golden girl” of Goldfinger).

The Girl Hunters wasn’t Spillane’s first feature film—it wasn’t even his first leading role in one. In 1954, John Wayne hired Spillane to star with Pat O’Brien and lion tamer Clyde Beatty in Ring of Fear, a film he coscripted without credit, receiving a white Jaguar as a gift from producer Wayne.

Mike Hammer paved the way for James Bond and every tough action P.I., cop, lone avenger, and government agent who followed, from Shaft to Billy Jack, from Dirty Harry to Jack Bauer. The latest Hammer-style heroes include an unlikely one—the vengeance-driven young woman of the Dragon Tattoo trilogy—as well as a more obvious descendent, Lee Child’s Jack Reacher.

In the final week of his life, Mike Hammer’s creator said to his wife Jane, “When I’m gone, there’ll be a treasure hunt around here. Take everything you find and give it to Max. He’ll know what to do.”

Mickey had already called me, a week before, asking me to finish the Mike Hammer novel, The Goliath Bone, if he was unable to.

I had been Mickey’s fan since the early sixties, when as an adolescent I’d discovered his fever-dream prose. I was led there by the Darren McGavin TV series (“Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer,” 1958-1960). The late fifties and early sixties saw a wave of private eye TV shows, with the Hammer imitation “Peter Gunn” leading the pack, its creator Blake Edwards having written and directed a failed “Hammer” pilot film.

I became a fanatic about Spillane, whose noir poetry mingled with a level of sex and violence unavailable in other mysteries of the day, exploding my thirteen-year-old skull into fragments as if by Hammer’s .45 automatic. Within a year I was writing Spillane-style stories and sending them (unsuccessfully) in the mail to publishers, none of whom seemed to be looking for teenaged mystery writers.

Because I’d written articles defending and praising Spillane, I was invited to be the liaison between him and the 1981 Bouchercon (the major mystery fan convention, named for New York Times critic Anthony Boucher, who was among the first wave of Spillane’s attackers). Held in Milwaukee, the con was tying into that city’s beer persona by having Spillane, then starring in the very clever TV commercials for Miller Lite, as a guest of honor.

I had written Mickey perhaps one hundred fan letters, but the only one he answered was in 1973, when I sent him my first published novel (Bait Money), and he welcomed me to the professional community of writers. So when I was introduced to Mickey, he said, “Oh, I know Max! We’ve been corresponding for years.” And I said, “That’s right, Mickey—one hundred letters from me, one letter from you.”

And we became fast friends.

This led to me visiting him, from time to time, in his Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, home. I was there when he met Jane Rogers, who would become his wife (well, he’d first known her when she was a little kid before she moved away). He accepted when I asked him to be my son Nathan’s godfather. We collaborated on numerous projects together, including anthologies, an early 1990s comic book series (MIKE DANGER, a science-fiction private eye), and a biographical documentary (Mike Hammer’s Mickey Spillane, 1999, featured on the Criterion DVD/Blu-ray of the great noir, Kiss Me Deadly).

On my visits to South Carolina, we would talk writing. He had many friends in that part of the world, but no writer friends. He liked to talk shop. Deep into the night, he would share with me his plans for various Mike Hammer novels, often acting out the wild endings that were his trademark. On one visit, he sent two 100-page-plus unfinished Hammer manuscripts home with me for safekeeping, as if prescient about Hurricane Hugo, which would soon destroy his home.

Why Mickey left behind so many unfinished works—particularly since his prose was so valuable commercially—cannot be answered simply. Part of it had to do with his religious conversion to the conservative Jehovah’s Witnesses, who at least twice disenfranchised him due to the level of sex and violence in his work. In other words, Mickey Spillane’s church told him to quit writing like Mickey Spillane. They did not, however, ask him to quit tithing.

But there were other factors. Mickey often had more than one novel going—he would get “stuck” on one, and turn to another. Also, he loved doing beginnings and endings—and no one in the genre was ever better at either—but sometimes got bored in the middle. His favorite form was the 20,000-word novelette, and he spent almost a decade at the height of his fame writing them for low-end men’s magazines that paid him a pittance. His fertile imagination sometimes worked against him—he’d get a new idea, and set aside a manuscript to pursue it.

On my visits to his Murrells Inlet home, late at night, we would repair to his third-floor office—he had two others on the now-rebuilt property—and we would talk writing. In particular, he would regale me with ideas he had for future Mike Hammer novels. The subdued lighting invoked both the beachfront campfires where young lifeguard Frank Morrison Spillane would “scare hell out” of his friends with spooky stories, but that lighting also had an appropriately noir flavor.

After all, we were talking Mike Hammer.

It was in that office, during one bull session, that he shared with me the endings for King of the Weeds, The Big Bang and Kiss Her Goodbye—novels in progress that I would have been astonished to learn would eventually be completed by me . . . including putting Mickey’s mesmerizing endings into prose.

On one such occasion, he withdrew from somewhere—like Bugs Bunny summoning a carrot or a machine gun—a browning, crumble-edged, fairly lengthy manuscript. It ran about thirty dense single-spaced pages, the equivalent of sixty-some double-spaced pages. I began reading.

“You wrote this a long time ago,” I said.

He had pulled up a chair, turned it backward and sat, studying me, wearing a devilish, little-kid smile that threatened to turn to laughter at any moment. He nodded.

I kept reading. “This is good.”

Soft chuckle. “I know.” That laugh-threatening smile.

“Is this what I think it is?”

A sly nod. The smile continued.

For half an hour, he sat enjoying me enjoy what was clearly an early appearance of Mike Hammer. But it was different from anything else about Hammer I’d read—he was even more of a lone wolf. Velda wasn’t his secretary yet. He was doing an undercover job in a small corrupt town. Some of the flavor of the famous early non-Hammer, The Long Wait, permeated the ancient pages.

“This is terrific,” I said, when I’d breathlessly raced through the chapters. “Where does it go from here?”

He shrugged, collected the pages, stowed them somewhere, and we moved onto other subjects.

A month or so before his passing in the summer of 2006, Mickey had sent me The Last Stand. As it happened, what would be Mickey’s last completed novel was not a typical work—for one thing, it was a modern-day Western that didn’t feature Hammer at all.

We spoke on the phone and I told him what a kick I’d gotten out of it. He was happy with the book—happy to have finished it, under the circumstances of his failing health, but overall pleased, though he told me of a few things he’d like to touch up “if he had the time.” He then turned his attention to his final Hammer novel-in-progress, The Goliath Bone, calling me days before his death and asking me to complete it for him, if necessary.

Around this time, he also told his wife Jane that there would be a “treasure hunt” after he was gone, and to “give everything to Max—he’ll know what to do.” Jane reminded him that I was not a Jehovah’s Witness, and Mickey said he understood—I would not be bound to leave out things that might displease his church.

My wife Barb (with whom I write the Antiques mystery series) and I joined Jane in the treasure hunt that took us to all three of Mickey’s offices in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina. The files were extensive, as I’ve indicated. We sat in the Spillane dining room with a feast of manuscripts before us, each of us combing through our stacks of pages, occasionally one of us crying out, “Here’s a Hammer!”

Unlike Agatha Christie, Rex Stout and Erle Stanley Gardner—his contemporaries—Mickey did not write scores of novels about his famous character. There are around one-hundred Perry Mason novels, but Mickey published only thirteen Mike Hammer novels. This made the half-dozen significant Hammer manuscripts—again, usually in the 100-page range—such an exhilarating find.

One particularly brittle, discolored manuscript in the treasure hunt Jane, Barb, and I conducted (beautiful women are always around when Mike Hammer is involved) stirred my memory. Mickey had shown this one to me! It had been special to him. This represented the beginnings of Mike Hammer.

The Last Stand was a rare unpublished complete work. After much thought, and some input from Hard Case Crime editor Charles Ardai, I decided to put it aside. My immediate priority was to get the unpublished Mike Hammer material out there as well as the two other substantial unfinished crime novels, Dead Street and The Consummata, both in the familiar Spillane first-person style.

The Last Stand represents the culmination of the final phase of Mickey’s writing life, in which he was more interested in adventure than mystery—although from the beginning, Spillane heroes had been two-fisted adventurers, and all of his work contains elements of mystery and crime fiction. His two published books for preadolescents—The Day the Sea Rolled Back (1979) and The Ship That Never Was (1982)reflect that bent toward adventure and his love of the sea. His final published novel, Something’s Down There (2003), similarly reflects his enthusiasm for boating and deep-sea fishing, with Mike Hammer replaced by the evocatively (and similarly) named Mako Hooker.

Mickey’s final novel provides a coda to his larger body of work, and is at once atypical and typical. His hero, Joe Gillian (named for satellite writer, Joe Gill) is a tough, confident man, very much in the tradition of Hammer, Tiger Mann, and other Spillane protagonists. His story, however, is told in the third person, where the Hammer canon (and the vast majority of the writer’s fiction) is in vivid first person. Here the prose is spare but occasionally poetic, and dialogue drives the narrative.

In The Last Stand, Spillane returns to his recurring themes of male friendship and male/female companionship. It is easy (as someone once said) to see Hammer’s friend Pat Chambers in Gillian’s friend Pete, and Hammer’s life partner Velda in the lovely Running Fox. The bad rap Spillane gets as a supposed misogynist overlooks the obvious: The women in his fiction are usually strong, powerful and smart, every bit the hero’s equal.

That Joe Gillian bonds easily with the Indians of an unspecified “rez” is no surprise, either, as Mike Hammer’s friends were often among the outsiders of society. Nor is the modern-day Western aspect of the novel inconsistent with Mickey’s view of Mike Hammer as an urban gunslinger. The Mick’s interest in Westerns is also evident in the unproduced screenplay he wrote for his friend John Wayne, which has led to the posthumous novel, The Legend of Caleb York (Kensington Books, 2015) and several sequels.

Also present, not surprisingly, is the dominant theme of Spillane’s fiction—vengeance. But in The Last Stand, it’s the brute called One Arms who craves revenge, not hero Gillian, who is a man of a certain age at peace with himself, looking neither for trouble nor riches, though the love of a good woman does hold appeal. Crime-fighting and mystery seem almost to have to seek Gillian out, though seek him out they do.

Gillian’s very masculine but nonaggressive view on life reflects Spillane in his final years. The Hammer of Black Alley (1996) is definitely a laid-back version of the character, which pleases readers who have followed Hammer’s journey over the decades, but can confuse those who only know the hate-filled young investigator. Like Black Alley, The Last Stand is a barely concealed rumination on coming to terms with aging.

Not long after his home was destroyed by Hurricane Hugo in 1989, Mickey and I sat one evening in the makeshift Tiki Bar he’d built in his backyard. Mickey spoke of his anger at those who had looted his home in the aftermath of the storm. I saw in his eyes the burning rage of Mike Hammer and he held his hands in front of him, squeezing them into fists. He told me what he would like to do the thieves, then his fists became fingers again, and he said, “But I’m not like that anymore. I don’t do that now.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, when I spoke to him about The Last Stand on the phone, he said to me, “You know, I really like that Big Arms.” If a voice can have a twinkle in it, his did. With that big-kid quality he often got, when he spoke of work he’d done that had pleased him, he said, “I really like that character.” Not Joe Gillian, but Big Arms, who haunts the good-natured pages of The Last Stand like Mike Hammer’s ghost.

The unfinished first Mike Hammer manuscript—amounting to a fairly substantial 60 double-spaced pages—also explored Spillane’s familiar themes, with an emphasis on the returning combat veteran’s loyalty to his buddies in battle. But there is also a strong female with whom Hammer bonds, and a corrupt town ruled by one wealthy man, as well as police force marbled with corruption. The pace Spillane establishes is break-neck, with a naked woman on page one and bent cops waiting in the wings to beat Hammer half to death. In its way, this was first (if unfinished) Hammer novel was as important as Mickey’s final, non-Hammer yarn. Likely begun in 1945, the novel I’ve called Killing Town is one of the most purely noir in the Hammer canon.

What to do with these two very special works?

That’s when it occurred to me that saving both of them for the centenary of Mickey’s 1918 birth would be perfect timing. Fortunately, Titan Books agreed with me. They, and their associate publisher, Hard Case Crime, were keen to celebrate Mickey’s day (a day of the guns, as it were) with the publication of the last solo Spillane novel, The Last Stand (which also includes a previously unpublished vintage Spillane novella, A Bullet for Satisfaction), and the very first Mike Hammer story, Killing Town.

It may be Spillane’s birthday year, but readers are getting the gifts.

Copyright 2018, Mickey Spillane Publishing, LLC.

Posted in Books, Characters, Fiction, Genre, Guest, History, Noir, Pop Culture, Private Eye, Western, Writers | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“And They Wrote Happily Ever After” (by De Paepe & Depuydt)

Both from Ghent, Belgium, Herbert De Paepe and Els Depuydt have cowritten four highly acclaimed thrillers. They’ve been nominated for both Belgium’s Diamond Bullet Award and Holland’s Golden Noose Award. Their work first appeared in EQMM in May 2016, in translation from the Flemish by Josh Pachter. Their latest story in translation, “End of the Line,” appears in the Passport to Crime Department of EQMM’s current issue (September/October 2018). De Paepe and Depuydt have come to be among the mystery field’s notable collaborators, and in this post they talk about some of the circumstances that make their collaboration unique.—Janet Hutchings

When we began writing together in 2005, we embarked on a tremendous adventure. We had already been a couple for thirteen years, and we had both always written, but we’d never published—Herbert due to a lack of discipline and Els to a lack of self-confidence. One warm summer evening in our garden, over a bottle of red wine and a good dinner, we decided to try writing together, and that’s when the magic happened.

We had no children, two incomes, and not a care in the world, so we traveled a lot in those days, long journeys to faraway countries: Brazil, Ecuador, South Africa, China, Egypt, New Zealand, and Australia, to name only a few. We dove into the histories of ancient cultures, met people with strange customs and of all colors, walked on mountain paths and among wild animals.

So international thrillers seemed an obvious genre choice for us. We both loved to read, but we read different types of books. Herbert is a comics and science-fiction fan, Els prefers classical literature. In thrillers, our tastes met. We also loved television series like Lost, Deadwood, and Prison Break, Scandinavian crime series, and movies with strong plots. We agreed that our thrillers should be exotic, overwhelming reading experiences, filled to the brim with suspense. We wanted to create a villain who was more evil than Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, and so Andries Swartwater was born. Our debut novel was a mixture of our travel experiences in Africa, the history of southern Africa, and a huge amount of devious imagination.

We spent great evenings composing the story, creating characters—sometimes based on people we’d actually met—and deciding what twists and turns the story should take and which character should be the next victim of our vengeful serial killer.

The book—Mensenvlees (Human Flesh)—was a success. Two more thrillers followed, both with Andries Swartwater returning as the principal villain. We seemed to have a unique voice. We didn’t write standard whodunits, with a corpse in the woods and a detective with marital problems and a drinking habit. Instead, our novels are rollercoasters of action, emotion, and suspense. Readers praise our sense of place, and tell us that reading our books almost feels like watching a movie.

Over time, we grew more experienced and developed a good routine for our writing. Weekends, we’d sit together over our bottle of wine and dinner and plot out our next story. With strict discipline, we assigned ourselves particular tasks for the coming week: write a scene, research background information, review each other’s drafts. Sure, sometimes we argued about the evolution of a character or the believability of a story turn, but overall we had a lot of fun. During the week, we worked independently. Then, the next weekend, we’d repeat our routine—again and agauin until we had a completed manuscript.

After finishing our 1,300-page Swartwater trilogy, the next highlight in our career was encountering Josh Pachter. Josh translated our short story “Garage 27,” which was published in the May 2016 issue of EQMM, introducing us to the U.S. audience. Josh has become a friend, and we look forward to working with him again in the near future.

Eventually, though, our personal relationship changed. The books had nothing to do with it. After twenty-two years as a couple, we broke up. Not with a smashing of doors, not with feelings of hatred or the wish never to see or hear from each other again, as you too often see when lovers end their romance, but with the sad realization that we simply couldn’t go on any longer as a couple. We made one last trip, a long-planned journey to our beloved city of Galway on the West Coast of Ireland, a place that has marked most of the major milestones in our lives: our first experience with living together, numerous writing trips, and, at last, the place where it all ended. We spent a week there, talking endlessly, trying to figure out if maybe there was some future left for us as a couple . . . but the outcome, unfortunately, was negative. Sometimes, you have to make painful decisions, and this was one of those times. We knew that, in the long run, it would be better for both of us to split up, while maintaining an everlasting friendship and wishing each other nothing but true happiness again.

Those were difficult times, but the urge to write and the passion for literature didn’t leave us. We never stopped writing, not even in the early painful days after that final trip. Our fourth thriller, Highway 245, was entirely written post-breakup. It is situated in present-day California, with flashbacks to Northern Ireland during the bloody era of conflict known as “The Troubles.” Ever since we wrote it, we have referred to our own relationship problems as “The Troubles.”

We haven’t changed our modus operandi. There is still wine, and there are still dinners. The only thing that has changed is that we need to check our calendars now; getting together has become more like a business appointment.

And, yes, we both have found new loves: patient, understanding partners who know that writing as a duo will always be part of our lives.

We are working on our fifth thriller as we speak. Els published a solo novel (Mia) last year and is working on a second one, and our personal story has served her as inspiration.

Life isn’t a fairy tale, so our story does not end with “And they lived happily ever after.”

But one thing we know for sure is that we will continue to write together happily ever after.

Posted in Books, Fiction, Genre, Guest, International, Passport, Publishing, Setting, Story, Writers, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment