“Murder Inc: Dorothy L.Sayers and the Allure of Human Removals” (by R.T. Raichev)

In four previous posts for this site, R.T. (Raicho) Raichev, who did his doctoral dissertation on the literature of Britain’s Golden Age of mystery, has examined aspects of the work of P.D. James, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, and Sherlock Holmes. This time he turns his attention to Dorothy L. Sayers. His own fiction, most of which belongs to a series starring mystery writer Antonia Darcy and her husband, Major Payne, is in the tradition of the Golden Age, but has a very modern edge. The Darcy stories have been appearing in EQMM for several years, and we have one you won’t want to miss, “The Mysterious Affair at Osiris House,” coming up in our July/August issue. The author currently divides his time between Dubai, where he works as a teacher, and London.—Janet Hutchings

English novelist Dorothy L. Sayers (1893 – 1957) during a rehearsal for her play Christ’s Emperor at St Thomas’s Church, Regent Street, 25th January 1952. (Photo by Keystone Features/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

If there had been any would-be murderers present at the Foyles luncheon at Grosvenor House in London in July 1936, they might have been able to pick up some useful tips as to how to commit the perfect murder.* The theme of the luncheon party was crime, which was not surprising given that the majority of the invitees constituted the creme-de-la creme of the British detective story-writing fraternity—or perhaps sorority would be more exact—of the period. When asked by a journalist how to commit a murder that would remain undetected, Dorothy L. Sayers, creator of Lord Peter Wimsey, responded that all you had to do was make sure the murder was never thought of as murder and was thus police-proof.

* In 1929 a stockman called Snowy Rowles overheard Australian crime writer Robin Upfield discussing the body disposal technique he planned to use in his novel The Sands of Windee, and copied it to commit three murders of his own, leading to what was at the time a hugely famous trial. Upfield was called to give evidence at the trial.

Sayers was clearly fascinated by the idea of the perfect murder as is evident from the fact that she made it the nexus of several of her tales. Blood of the wrong group is deliberately used for transfusion in “Blood Sacrifice” resulting in the death of the injured man who receives it, injecting an air bubble into a vein with a hypodermic syringe produces the symptoms of heart failure in Unnatural Death**, while “The Leopard Lady” introduces a creepy cabal that specializes in human removals. This last, in my opinion, deserves special attention as it shows Sayers at her most outrageously inventive, most fantastical, and most suspenseful. Lord Peter doesn’t make an appearance, nor do the police; detection plays no part, and the murderer gets away with it. For a story by one of the Golden Age Big Four, it is also remarkable in that it involves the cold-blooded killing of a child.***

** According to one Sayers biographers, this was an ingenious but medically very doubtful murder method, suggested to her by her familiarity with motor engines, gained from an affair she had with a car mechanic and motorbike enthusiast.
*** No child is ever killed in any other Golden Age story, at least I fail to find any—not until 1956 when Agatha Christie has a Girl Guide called Marlene found strangled in Dead Man’s Folly.

“The Leopard Lady” was published in the 1939 collection In the Teeth of the Evidence, though Sayers’s biographer Barbara Reynolds dates it back to 1928. Apparently it was conceived as the first in a series and it is a great pity that the project failed to materialize. The story starts with a man called Tressider—a name redolent of stolid respectability—who hears a mysterious voice in his ear suggesting the liquidation of his young nephew. If the boy is in the way, ask at Rapallo’s for Smith & Smith. We soon learn that in the event of the nephew’s demise, Tressider stands to inherit a fabulous fortune. We are also told that Tressider secretly dreams about the boy’s death and is now wondering whether the message was not “his own subconscious wish that had externalized itself in this curious form.”

Tressider is at a railway station. He has bought the Strand with the intention of whiling away a tedious train journey. He is surrounded by “utter strangers”: an elderly gentleman with a crooked pince-nez, poring over Blackwood’s, a militant woman, a dejected little man. This is a very English galere of comic characters, none of whom conforms to Tressider’s concept of a professional assassin, yet it has to be one of them who delivered the message. Sayers creates an atmosphere of unsettling uncertainty worthy of Hitchcock. The choice of magazines on the other hand smacks of a postmodern joke, the author hinting slyly that the strange events about which we are reading resemble the kind of stories that used to appear in Blackwood’s and the Strand. It was in the Strand that Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes adventures were first published, and Sayers’s sinister syndicate of Smiths could be seen as a somewhat absurdist, though equally lethal, version of Professor Moriarty’s criminal gang.****

**** In “The Empty House” Sherlock Holmes tells us that it was Moriarty who commissioned the powerful air gun capable of firing revolver bullets at long range, which was used by his associate Colonel Moran to kill the Hon. Ronald Adair. Holmes describes Moriarty as “the greatest schemer of all time, the organizer of every devilry, the controlling brain of the underworld.”

Tressider, at once reluctant and eager, begins to follow a trail of clues that lead him to the principal Smith, the head of Removals Inc. Smith***** is another incongruous figure: “stoutish . . . middle-aged . . . with chubby features beneath an enormous expanse of polished and dome-like skull.” He smiles “pleasantly” and speaks in a “clear, soft voice with a fluting quality which made it very delightful to listen to.” He brings to mind Dickens’s Mr Pickwick—which makes it all the more shocking when he starts discussing terms for the “permanent removal” of six-year-old Cyril. Smith seems to know everything about Tressider and his nephew who is also his ward. It is evident that Smith & Smith choose their prospective clients, having done their comprehensive homework on them. . . .

***** The name “Smith,” which Sayers gives to her professional murderers, is the epitome of cliched anonymity. Smith used to be one of commonest surnames in the UK. Interestingly, it is the complete antithesis to “Freke,” the outlandishly memorable name Sayers chose for the murderer in her first novel Whose Body? Shows how unpredictable Sayers could be.

The story has a grim inevitability about it. Tressider—from whose viewpoint most of the events are related—provides Smith with a specific piece of information concerning Cyril’s habit of “romancing,” which in turn decides the manner of the boy’s disposal. “Accidents will naturally sometimes happen,” Smith tells Tressider. “No one can prevent it . . .” At one point Tressider is “unnerved” and starts feeling ill. Sayers imbues Tressider with enough humanity to show that he is not some completely heartless monster, nothing like the evil uncle of Gothic literature, neither an Uncle Silas nor a Count Olaf, but he is weak, greedy, and amoral. He, it is revealed, has lost money in unwise investments as well as on the turf. Despite his misgivings, he yields to the temptation of murder for gain, which is also murder by proxy.

Sayers effectively treads a tightrope between whimsy and horror. Smith’s associates are three men, called, respectively, Smythe, Smyth, and Schmidt. The last-named is “the giggling man with the scanty red beard and steel-rimmed spectacles”—clearly a German, very possibly Jewish. It also opens Sayers to accusations of anti-Semitism. The fourth associate is female: a girl with slanting yellow eyes, like a cat’s. She is introduced as Miss Smith and the reader may fleetingly wonder whether she is the top man’s daughter. It is Miss Smith who kills Tressider’s nephew by feeding him poisonous potato-apples.

The fee for poor Cyril’s removal is £1000 (about £69,000 in today’s money—about $86,657), which Tressider considers rather cheap. He is then instructed to establish an alibi for the day of the murder and Smith obligingly suggests Scotland: “There is salmon, there is trout, there’s grouse, there’s partridge—all agreeable creatures to kill.”

Smith refers to Cyril with callous irony as “the young gentleman of great expectations.” The boy’s penchant for making up fantastic tales is not unlike that of the romancing children that populate the stories of Saki. But unlike Saki’s juvenile fantasists who are survivors, he perishes. Cyril likes to pretend “he’s had all kinds of adventures with giants and fairies and tigers.” When eventually he is approached by a yellow-eyed woman who offers to play with him, he immediately dubs her a “real live fairy” and the “Leopard Lady.” He tells his aunt all about his feast with the Leopard Lady in the grotto on the deserted grounds of a nearby country house. The aunt of course refuses to believe the Leopard Lady exists. When Cyril complains of a tummy-ache and eventually dies, the contents of his stomach are found to contain solanine, a deadly alkaloid present in potato-apples. The theory formed by the doctor, which Cyril’s aunt never questions, is that the boy picked the apples and ate them as part of one of his make-believe games. . . .

It is well known that Sayers was extremely erudite and exceedingly well versed in classical culture. We can also assume that she believed in evil in its theological sense—after all, didn’t she abandon crime writing in order to be able to spend her time translating Dante’s Inferno into English and writing her own play about Jesus, The Man Born to be King? She was clearly interested, in a way that transcends detective stories, in the ethics and metaphysics of why people do terrible things. Therefore it may not be too fanciful to consider “The Leopard Lady” in that light.

Sayers tells us that the yellow-eyed young woman “should have been called Melusine.” Melusine is a shape-shifting character from European mythology sometimes depicted as a serpent from the waist down. So we have the Serpent and the Apple fed to an Innocent in a garden whose splendiferous perfection brings to mind the Garden of Eden, to a disastrous end. . . . A re-imagining of the Bible story masquerading as a perverse tale of suspense? Is Mr. Smith then the Devil? Or is that altogether too fanciful?

“The Leopard Lady” was adapted for television in 1950 and was broadcast as part of the series Lights Out.

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“Every Person Is a Mystery” (by Batya Swift Yasgur MA, LSW)

Batya Swift Yasgur’s first fiction, “Me and Mr. Harry,” appeared in EQMM’s Department of First Stories in Mid-December 1994. It won that year’s Robert L. Fish Memorial Award for best short story by a new American author. We’ve  published several more of her stories over the years, including “Poof,” which appears in our current issue, January/February 2019. Batya is a therapist and former social worker as well as a writer, and her writing includes books in the health field and articles and other materials for healthcare professionals. It’s her penetrating characterizations that set her fiction apart, and this post reveals how her perspective on life—and especially people—informs her writing.—Janet Hutchings

The real mystery isn’t whether the jealous wife poisoned her husband’s mistress or whether the greedy accountant embezzled his client’s money. The greater mystery is why they might have done so.

The answers, of course, might seem absurdly obvious to the extent of being the oldest clichés in the book. The jealous woman wants to do away with the competition, or perhaps get revenge. The accountant has a wicked gleam in his eye, sparked by the flash of gold in his client’s bank account. What more do we need to know?

Everything. We need to know everything else about the person—most of which is unknowable. Why does one woman murder her husband’s mistress, while another ends the marriage? Why does one accountant embezzle money while the other eschews thievery?

There may be simple answers, psychological explanations. But ultimately, there are things that are unknowable. Because every person is a mystery. And every person has a story.

Seeing everyone as a mystery, someone with a unique tale, a narrative of joy or woe, of trauma or transcendence, has had profound benefits for me—literary, professional, and spiritual.

For starters, it has enabled me to withhold judgment. How can I know what forces have shaped this person? What hidden characters lurk in the basement of her unconscious or run through the corridors of his heart?

I remember the secretary of the Near Eastern Languages department where I got my Master’s, who was a stout, bespectacled woman with a flat voice and a monotonous demeanor. One of my friends remarked that she was the dullest person he had ever met. “I’m sure she has a story and there’s a reason she has become this way,” I said. To which he responded, “Then it would be a very boring story.”

My first reaction was, “That depends on the writer.” Think of the excruciatingly boring Mr. Martin, the protagonist of James Thurber’s “The Catbird Seat,” and how droll, entertaining, and wonderful the story is, and what unexpected behavior emerged from under his dull exterior.

My next thought was, “No one is boring—not if you get to know them.” And I began wondering about her life—maybe she wanted to be an artist but was forced into secretarial school and survived only by shutting off any interesting or creative part of herself. Or maybe she had an abusive father and survived by tamping down any affect, smothering every spark or passion, hoping to slide through life, unnoticed and quotidian.

Or maybe she was one of the thirty-six hidden Righteous Ones talked about by the ancient Kabbalists—people of unparalleled sainthood who grace the earth every generation. Who knows?

I don’t remember if I ever turned the department secretary into a story. I don’t think I did. But many of my other early stories, puerile attempts at being an Author, were built around characters who were indeed consciously fashioned after people I knew.

Over time, however, I became uncomfortable with relating to actual living people as “fodder” for stories. I was once at a weekend workshop and met a very well known author, studded with awards and accolades of all kinds, widely anthologized and praised. A few people were sitting around after dinner, and the conversation turned to a bitter feud between two people I had never heard of, but apparently everyone else knew who they were. As I listened, I found the feud very sad. But the famous writer was gleeful. She leaned forward, her eyes bulging, salivating over every juicy tidbit of gossip.

“Tell me more,” she kept saying, her voice slightly breathless. “This is going to make an amazing story!”

(I should add that I was so turned off by this ostentatiously vulturistic attitude that I had no interest in following up and reading her subsequent writings to see if she had, indeed, turned the feud into a story).

My interest in each person’s story melded with my growing desire to become a therapist. I wanted to uncover the individual’s inner story, to accompany the client on a journey to discover his or her own unexplored depths, the unconscious motivations underlying behavior, and the deeper mystery of their humanity, their sorrows and their resiliencies—and mine.

But my interest in writing people’s stories never fully dissipated. It finally found its home in memoir writing. My first foray into telling the stories of others was America: A Freedom Country, written for the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Society in 2001 and—sadly—as relevant now as it was then. I had the honor of traveling around the country and interviewing asylum-seekers and refugees, both in and out of detention.

One of the interviewees was an Afghan woman who escaped the Taliban and arrived in the U.S. seeking asylum, only to be put into detention. She became the subject of the next book, Behind the Burqa  (published by John Wiley in 2002), which is her story and also the story of her older sister who escaped from the Communists in Afghanistan decades before the Taliban came to power. Through the lens of their stories, I told the larger story not only of the two sisters but also of their family, the broader society ravaged by war and foreign interference, and the story of America’s treatment of people seeking shelter from danger and torture.

Writing Behind the Burqa necessitated giving myself over wholly to the stories of these two amazing women, to the events and, even more deeply, to their “who-ness” as it flowed through me, organizing into words on a page. It meant getting out of the way so that I could be a channel, rather than a creator, of those words.

What I discovered in the process was that their story was mine as well. I am not Afghan, I didn’t flee the Communists or the Taliban. But I deeply connected with aspects of the older sister’s relationship with her father, for example and the role that poetry writing played in the younger sister’s incarceration. Their struggle against the restrictions and oppression of their society resonated with my own spiritual journey as well.

So seeing the story in every human being informs my relationship with my clients, as well as my passion for writing memoirs.

And it must have continued playing a role in fiction writing. How could it be otherwise? But, with the exception of the lead character in “Cat Medicine” (coauthored with Barry Malzberg), which appeared in Ellery Queen in 1998 and was consciously fashioned after a woman I know who loves cats more than people, I can say that there is no linear connection between the characters in my stories and the people in my “real life.” My stories seem to emerge from some large cauldron, brewing and percolating in the hinterland of my unconscious, where suddenly an event—a newspaper article, a noisy neighbor—will turn up the flame and some unexpected and hitherto unmet persona will burble to the surface and demand that his or her story be told. “Poof,” which appears in the January/February issue of EQMM, is an example of a story inspired by a short news article I read about bullies. But I see elements of my own childhood as someone who was bullied, and my own personal struggles with guilt (rational or otherwise).

Ultimately, it all melds together. In Sanskrit, this is expressed elegantly and concisely in the word “Namaste,” translated as “The divine in me greets the divine in you.” The mystery in myself seeks to join the mystery in everyone I meet, real or fictional. My mystery is their mystery, their mystery is my mystery. We are all interconnected, all part of the greater Mystery of creation itself, threads is the larger tapestry of the Universe and All There Is.

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“Seventh Sense” (by Doug Crandell)

Doug Crandell makes his first appearance in EQMM with the story “Shanty Falls,” in our current issue (January/February 2019). We have another of his stories coming up soon. He is the author of the 2007 Barnes & Noble Discover pick, The Flawless Skin of Ugly People, as well as three other novels and two memoirs, and he has received a number of endowments  for his fiction, including one from the Sherwood Anderson Foundation. He’s also distinguished in the field of short fiction, having recently won Glimmer Train’s Family Matters short-story contest. In this post he talks about one of the roots of his writing, and what led him to crime fiction. —Janet Hutchings

When I was a child, we knew our grandmother’s brother had been killed, but the details were mostly hushed and vague. The secrecy of that awful fact set my mind aglow with possible explanations. I suppose the varied ways I heard the story told, by different narrators, stirred in me a desire to understand not only what had happened to my great uncle, but storytelling itself, the way one storyteller would choose details versus another. It was thrilling to listen, to see the images in my mind that were created with the spoken word. Later, as I began choosing my own reading materials, I found myself intrigued with family crimes, with the ways in which love gets entangled with temper, distrust and hurt. I couldn’t have used the phrase “character motivation” at the time, but I sensed grownups rarely knew why they did the things they did, and that only upon closer inspection did those reasons become clearer.

As a writer, I found a book early on called Movies in the Mind: How to Build a Short Story by Colleen Mariah Rae which resonated with me. Her advice to short-story writers to “dig the clay” and “tap the well” made sense to me. I often found myself thinking about the secrets in my own family, not just the large ones, but the smaller ones too, the kind that percolate just under the surface in our own subconscious and lead us places that in the real world may be off limits, but when filtered through fiction not only form fertile ground, but become crucial to our own understanding of personal motivation.

Of course, like many writers, I don’t pretend to know all the reasons I enjoy writing, and reading, but I knew that my stories often held mysteries, crimes, thrilling revelations. Most of those were linked back to my great uncle’s death, which, in the end, was nothing less than a murder at the hands of a sheriff’s posse. At the age of seventeen, Leonard and a few unnamed others left a note on the porch of a former county commissioner named Thomas Modesitt, stating his home would be blown up within twenty-four hours unless five hundred dollars was left in a culvert south of Cory, Indiana, at 9 PM that Tuesday night. Modesitt went to Sheriff Roy Tipton, who instructed him to wrap a stack of blank paper in a package and deposit this decoy in the culvert. Sheriff Tipton assured Modesitt a posse would be formed to catch those responsible.

As mystified as I was as a child about the circumstances, I found as an adult writer that my work was almost always influenced by what had happened, and how the story was transmitted from one generation to the next. Some relatives saw the crime as shameful, something that brought disgrace to the family, while others set Great Uncle Leonard’s young death as a tragic hero’s story, and still others simply told the story, using colorful language, specific details, and a narrative arc to keep the listener’s attention. I liked all the POVs, but that last one, where words were used to cast settings, describe sounds, faces, smells, and colors made the hairs on my arms stand up.

I found this focus on details in Rae’s Movies in the Mind book. One exercise I continue to use is the Seventh Sense. Rae asks writers to attempt to physically inhabit a character’s body, to stand, eat, drink a beer, and describe a sound from their POV. At first, it seemed silly to me, but then, more than twenty years ago, I tried it with my Great Uncle Leonard. I’d not yet researched or written about this specific family crime, but something about imagining how my seventeen-year-old distant kin from the 1930s would’ve have walked, how he might have run into an Indiana cornfield before being shot from behind, unleashed the deeply set identification I’d harbored of him after all the decades of hearing the story. It was as if I’d found a way, with Rae’s help and my great uncle’s guidance, to write “inside” a character rather than just putting on his or her mask while at the computer composing. The writing didn’t magically become easier, nor did every piece feel fully preformed, but I could move from my great uncle to others, getting inside their bodies and minds to more fully create stories.

As I wrote more and published short stories and novels, the family crime was always with me—not that it figured into every plot or character, but as some elemental trace of loss that was in the background. Curious, I started to search out other writers who’d been similarly impacted, some I knew personally, others I’d only read about. Of course, James Ellroy’s mother’s murder when he was just ten was the most prominent and there were other infamous ones as well, but what I became interested in were the lesser known writers like me who also carried around family criminal secrets. Some writers told me about their father’s severe gambling addiction, another relayed how the disappearance of an aunt on his mother’s side was taboo to talk about. There were stories of laundering money, a connection with the mafia, and two writers who both had domestic violence in their past to such a degree that relocation was necessary for safety. The topic intrigued me and shocked me as well; so many people trying to take tragedy and turn it into something useful, maybe not spiritually meaningful, but narratively so, which, in a way, can shine light on what it means to be human and not, inhumane and afraid.

One version of the story about my great uncle was my favorite. We’d been on a rare family trip back to where my parents had grown up in southwestern Indiana. It was for the funeral of a second cousin I’d never known. On a relative’s farm, after the funeral service, the adults began crowding into the kitchen, eating and talking, but then a splinter group formed in an adjacent room. The man telling stories was not my kin, and I’d never seen him before. He brought up the story and the others nodded their heads, slowly eating apple pie with cheddar cheese wedges from small saucers. I stayed back in a little alcove and listened. I knew the story, and so did the storyteller, and all the others, so delivery and detail would have to hold our attention.

The man spent time describing the specific color of green in the first few rows of the cornfield where Great Uncle Leonard rushed to avoid the shotgun blast. The man stood up and walked slowly about the room as he continued the story, and I couldn’t take my eyes off him. At one point, he paused, right before announcing what was in the box. “All that was in that damn box was curlycue papers.”

That choice of word, while I’d heard it before from my mother, stayed with me, and whenever I thought about the story from then on, I pictured my great uncle, a teenager, lying beside the decoy box as he died, face to the ground, blood at the base of his neck, as the little spirals of newspaper lifted, then sailed upward, some catching on high corn tassels, others drifting on to distant fields, carried as far away as the rich river bottoms. That singular word choice, chosen by someone I didn’t know, made me understand, much later, the power of a storyteller to recall details, even the ones we think we know.

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“How to Create a Sidekick” (by R.J. Koreto)

R.J. Koreto’s first fiction publication was in EQMM’s Department of First Stories in December 2015. He has since created two turn-of-the-century mystery series at novel length, one featuring aristocratic suffragist Lady Frances Ffolkes and her maid, June Mallow, the other presidential daughter Alice Roosevelt and her bodyguard, ex–Rough Rider Joseph St. Clair. Richard’s latest novel-in-progress stars New York journalist Ted Jellinek and his not-quite-girlfriend, attorney Penelope Tolford, the pair from his debut EQMM story. In all of these series, a duo rather than a lone sleuth solves the crime. It’s that pairing, and the role of the sidekick in crime fiction, that is the subject of this post.—Janet Hutchings 

Watson & Holmes, 1893. 

The sidekick isn’t de rigueur in mystery fiction. After all, Miss Marple walked down those mean streets (okay—“country lanes”) all by herself. But I have a partiality for the sleuth-and-sidekick model, so when in my arrogance I decided I was going to write a mystery novel, I knew my sleuth would have a loyal assistant.

Creating an effective pair required more work than I realized at first. So, for the benefit of others, I’ve created some brief guidelines for the creation of the sidekick.

 

  1. How Are They Connected?

You have to create a plausible reason to get the pair together.

My first series features Lady Frances Ffolkes, a suffragist and a supporter of progressive causes in 1906 London. I decided her sidekick would be her lady’s maid, June Mallow. It wasn’t such a stretch: Wealthy women had personal maids to dress them, arrange their hair, and offer sympathy when a suitor or husband was being insufficiently attentive. It’s a short step to being an assistant sleuth. (Lord Peter Wimsey had his Bunter; the Toff had his Jolly.)

For my second series, though, I went in a different direction. This features Alice Roosevelt, oldest child of Theodore Roosevelt, who grew from being an unmanageable child to a wildly unconventional adult. Who would be a worthy sidekick? After all, even her father—a war hero—wasn’t able to control her.

I saddled Alice with the fictional Agent Joseph St. Clair, a former Western lawman and veteran of the Rough Riders. He’s as different from Alice as possible: a world-weary gunslinger who doesn’t see any problem wearing his long riding coat, cowboy boots, and Stetson hat on the streets of Gilded-Age Manhattan.

  1. What is the sidekick’s job?

The sidekick may be the junior partner, but they still have important tasks to do.

Mallow doesn’t forget that she is first and foremost a maid, and must force Lady Frances to sit still long enough to get her hair done and be put into a good dress for dinner with her fiancé. She is also the voice of common sense for her daring aristocratic mistress: When Lady Frances decides they have to seek witnesses in a rough London pub, it’s Mallow who brings along a rolling pin as a weapon. And when Lady Frances’s protective older brother questions Mallow about his sister’s detective adventures, Mallow looks him in the eye—and lies like a pro.

Agent St. Clair also has to keep Alice Roosevelt safe, and he can rely on his quick fists and his Colt revolver. But that’s just the beginning. He quickly finds that he has to run interference between Alice, whose antics have become legendary, and her equally strong-willed aunt, Mrs. Cowles, who raised her niece—Alice’s mother died two days after she was born. (“If Alice does something like that again, Mr. St. Clair, I will see you on the next train to San Francisco,” she warns him after Alice does something especially egregious.) When Alice boldly lies her way into New York’s exclusive and all-male University Club, St. Clair backs her play and pretends he’s a city health inspector. He can also pour oil on the water: When Alice tops that event by rifling through the files of a private detective, the outraged gumshoe demands St. Clair rein in his charge. “You’re a federal lawman. Can’t you stop her?” St. Clair shrugs. “Her father is the bravest and smartest man I know. He can’t control her. What chance do we have? Let her have her way and then we can all go home.”

St. Clair occasionally falls down on the job, however. After his fast draw saves a life at the end of one adventure, Alice decides she needs a drink and confiscates St. Clair’s flask. “Bourbon!” she says, spitting it out. “You’re charged with caring for the president’s daughter. Next time carry something civilized, like brandy.”

  1. The sidekick and the sleuth need a reason to stay together.

The sidekick’s job is not always an easy one, so they need strong bonds.

Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin (1938).

Sherlock Holmes dragging Watson away from his practice at all hours, Archie Goodwin trying to get Nero Wolfe’s mind away from his béchamel sauce and back to work. So why do they stay? Watson has some gratitude. After all, if he hadn’t helped Holmes in The Sign of the Four he never would’ve met his wife. Archie gets a steady job and three gourmet meals a day.

But there’s genuine friendship and affection aside from any other rewards, even if the relationship seems lopsided and perhaps even unequal at times. Holmes and Wolfe are not the most demonstrative of men, and only show their appreciation for their sidekicks on rare occasions. When they do, however, it’s genuine.

June Mallow has a pretty sweet gig as Lady Frances’s maid, by Edwardian standards: good wages, a private room, and a chance to meet a range of celebrities, from actresses like Mrs. Patrick Campbell to King Edward VII. Best of all are the rides on her mistress’s coattails: As a woman, and a servant, Mallow was at the bottom of the Edwardian class structure. But she’s intelligent, even shrewd, with plenty of ambition. And she enjoys it every time Lady Frances pokes a finger in society’s eye. What could be more fun than having her ladyship send her on a secret mission to get help—and returning with a detective inspector and squad of constables, to the astonishment of the culprit. How often does a maid get to send a gentleman to prison! Lady Frances then promises to take Mallow, an avid knitter, to a yarn shop where she’ll buy her all the skeins they can carry.

For Alice Roosevelt and Agent St. Clair, the bonds that hold them together are a little more subtle. St. Clair likes to complain about how what was supposed to be a cushy job turns into a nightmare protecting Alice from her own whims. And Alice throws a fit every time he tells her there is something she can’t do. But although St. Clair might like to say his Wild-West days are over, he admits to himself in quiet of the night that he misses the old days. He misses the adventures. Alice lets him find his way back.

And what about Alice? She keeps threatening to ask her father to give her a new bodyguard, but we know she won’t. Alice goes into a major sulk when her handsome and charming bodyguard shows an interest in a sharp-witted female reporter. You couldn’t torture her into admitting it, but she’s developed quite an infatuation for St. Clair. It’s a relationship that can never happen, but that doesn’t change her heart. There is more than one kind of bond between a sleuth and a sidekick.

So how can I apply these guidelines to my next novel?

My latest work-in-progress is a modern story, featuring reporter Ted Jellinek and his not-quite-girlfriend, attorney Penelope Tolford. (They were introduced in an EQMM story, in fact.) It’s once again a sleuth-and-sidekick story. But which is which? As they investigate a murder, Ted draws a conclusion, which Penelope disagrees with.

“You have another theory, my dear Watson?” he asks her.

Penelope just glares at him. “What the hell makes you think that I’m the Watson in our relationship?”

I’m going to have fun with this one.

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“Have Suitcase, Will Plot” (by Robert Lopresti)

With many readers just back from holiday travel, we thought this post by Robert Lopresti would start 2019 off just right. It complements his story “Please Do Not Disturb,” which appears in our current issue, January/February 2019. Rob is one of the genre’s best-known short-story writers; his many published tales have won three Derringer Awards and a Black Orchid Novella Award. He’s also the author of two novels, but the short story (of all lengths) is really his speciality. “Please Do Not Disturb” falls into the “short short” category, and it demonstrates the impact a few well-chosen words can have. Happy New Year!—Janet Hutchings

“A writer never takes a trip purely for pleasure.”
Fredfitch

Two years ago my wife and I took a tour of Scotland, and a lovely trip it was. One evening we were sitting in a hotel room in Stirling and I found myself contemplating the nature of hotel rooms. (It had been a long day.)

And suddenly I had an idea for a crime story, all about a hotel. I picked up the nearest piece of paper, which happened to be the itinerary for our trip. It was only five pages long, so I wound up writing a piece of flash fiction, less than a thousand words long. Who knows? If our trip had been longer, I might have wound up with a novella.

I bring this up for two reasons. First, because “Please Do Not Disturb” is gracing the pages of the January/February 2019 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and I am delighted about that. The second is to illustrate the point Fredfitch is making up above. (Fredfitch by the way, is the pseudonymous author of the website called The Westlake Review.)

An author may go on vacation, but the writing part of the brain never really goes off duty. You never know when some new sight or insight may lead to something wondrously publishable.

A decade ago we volunteered at an archaeological dig in Israel. One day on a break I was sitting under the semitropical sun and a story idea popped into my head. You might expect that I dreamed up something full of Middle Eastern intrigue, or at least a tale of archaeological mischief.

Alas, no. “Shanks’ Ghost Story” (which appears in Shanks on Crime) is a tale of writers up to no good, and is set in a Pennsylvania farmhouse at Christmastime.

You may wonder how that idea connects to the place where I dreamed it up. It doesn’t. That’s the sort of thing that happens when a writer goes on vacation and lets his mind go free-range.

Of course, it doesn’t always work like that. When we visited Barcelona, Spain, I thought of a story set in, wonder of wonders, Barcelona. “On The Ramblas” appeared in Murder Under the Oaks, the 2015 Bouchercon anthology (and I even managed to include a reference to Spanish oak trees).

So far I have talked about writers stealing time from their trip to write, but there is the other kind of vacation, when the author deliberately sets time aside for that purpose. Some of the best parts of Greenfellas, my novel about New Jersey mobsters, were written in a laundromat in Port Townsend, Washington, while my wife was attending a music camp there. (The camp was in Port Townsend, not in the laundromat. Stop being silly.)

And speaking of stopping, I am going to end this piece before it gets longer than the story that inspired it. I hope your vacations are crime-free, except for the fictional kind.

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HAPPY NEW YEAR FROM EQMM

With all our gratitude to our readers, authors, and friends: Here’s to a fantastic year of crime fiction, and to a 2019 full of mystery.

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HAPPY HOLIDAYS FROM EQMM

Wishing you the warmest of holiday happiness this year, from your friends at Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.

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MARY FRISQUE: UNSUNG WOMAN OF MYSTERY

Mary Frisque. Photo courtesy of Linda Kerslake.

On November 26, Mary Frisque, Executive Director of the International Association of Crime Writers, North America, died after a brief illness. My friendship with Mary goes back a couple of decades. I met her through Edward D. Hoch and his wife Patricia. As any regular reader of EQMM will know, Ed, a Grand Master of the MWA, was EQMM’s most prolific contributor, with a story in every issue of the magazine for over thirty years. Whenever Ed and Pat came to New York City from Rochester (as they did several times each year), they’d take me out to dinner. Mary was often another guest at those splendid meals, and soon Mary and I began meeting for dinner on other occasions, often at an Irish pub, or at Uncle Nick’s, near Penn Station. It saddens me that our last Uncle Nick’s dinner was nearly two years ago now. We hadn’t lost touch—it was just that something always came up that got in the way. And then, suddenly, Mary was gone.

Mary Frisque (L) and Pat Hoch (R). Photo courtesy of Steve Steinbock.

It doesn’t surprise me that Mary didn’t want people to know she was in hospital. I only learned of it through short-story writer Linda Kerslake, a relative of Mary’s by marriage. (An only child, Mary had no other relatives.) Mary was a true woman of mystery, in so many ways. She was brilliant and very well educated, but never tooted her own horn; as a result, she often didn’t get the notice she deserved. The International Association of Crime Writers was the perfect place for her; she had a graduate degree in Russian language and literature, and already knew a great deal about the literature of many parts of the world, but especially Russia and Eastern Europe. I’m not sure what piqued her interest in crime fiction. It could have been that when she first came to New York from her native Washington State, she found a job running the office of the Mystery Writers of America. That was in the late seventies or early eighties.

By the time I met Mary, she seemed to know just about everyone in the mystery community—which is one of the unfathomable things about her. She was essentially a loner, and abhorred parties or gatherings larger than a few close friends, but she managed to connect with everyone in some way, often by letter or card, later by e-mail. She loved jazz and she was a very good dancer. One of my best memories of Mary is the afternoon during one Edgars week when she lured me and John and Barbara Lutz and several other authors from out of town to the Roseland Ballroom to trip the light fantastic. It was a blast! Mary’s friend and fellow IACW member, Jim Weikart, reminded me of another of Mary’s hobbies. “She also liked to gamble,” he said, “a hobby (not an addiction) that we shared. I remember her telling me about a trip she and Doris Cassiday made up to Connecticut, I think to Foxwoods, and how much fun it was. I once knew someone who won Quartermania at a casino and Mary always joked about finding venues for our IACW meeting that would have Quartermania. At one Bouchercon, maybe Colorado, we skipped out for an afternoon and drove to a local casino where she played slots and I blackjack. She thought it was a hoot. I don’t think either of us came away winners. But it was a good time.”

L to R: Steve Steinbock, Deen Kogan, Mary Frisque, Linda Kerslake. Photo courtesy of Steve Steinbock.

Mary had a serious side too. Any job she undertook, she did well. She was an indefatigable and invaluable resource to EQMM. I can’t count the number of times she contacted me to let me know about something important that was going on in our field or to tell me about a wonderful new author she’d just read. I often followed up on her suggestions, especially when it came to writers from overseas. Mary was incredibly well read; I can’t recall ever mentioning an author whose work she didn’t know. And she had very distinct opinions about them all! I doubt that the launch of the Passport to Crime department in EQMM, in which we publish a story in translation every issue, would have been as successful as it was without Mary’s generous outpouring of help. It was she who put us in touch with her friend Mary Tannert, a translator from German who has worked with EQMM for years now, bringing us English versions of the yearly winners of Germany’s prestigious Glauser Prize.

I am not the only one in the mystery world who found Mary’s knowledge and dedication both inspiring and a great asset. An officer of the International Association of Crime Writers, Jim Weikart tells me, “Mary was the heart and soul of IACW and we are scrambling to replace her.”

Despite all that Mary contributed to our field, quietly and unobtrusively, she never had the kind of high-profile job in crime fiction that generally leads to receipt of the field’s top awards for publishing professionals. Nevertheless, I wish she would receive some kind of award, posthumously, in order to ensure that her contribution to the field is not forgotten.

Mary Frisque. Photo courtesy of Steve Steinbock.

This will be my last post until the new year. We lost some good friends of the magazine in 2018. I will be raising a glass in their memory at the new year. But I also want to reflect about the fabulous community of authors, readers, and people in the business with which we are still surrounded. Happy holidays to you all.—Janet Hutchings

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“Diatribes of the Diaphragm” (by Craig Faustus Buck)

Craig Faustus Buck is a Macavity Award winner and an Anthony Award nominee for his short fiction. In the issue of EQMM currently on sale (November/December), with the story “Race to Judgment,”  he makes his EQMM debut. In 2015, he became a published novelist when Brash Books brought out Go Down Hard, described by Booklist as “. . . a crime-novel dream. . . . There’s suspense and violence here . . .  as well as good writing, and . . . the many asides are often both delightful and quirky.” The California author is also a screenwriter, having written and/or produced network series, pilots, movies, and miniseries. All of this puts him in an especially good position to reflect on a hazard every writer faces.—Janet Hutchings

I recently found myself lying in a recovery room, exhausted after extensive surgery. Even worse, my body was wracked by hiccups, the uncontrollable sort that turn the simple task of breathing into Sisyphean torture. These disabling hiccups lasted for (get this) three weeks! Naturally, my thoughts turned to appropriating this interminable misery for my writing.

What’s the point of suffering if you can’t put it to use? Isn’t writing about transforming pain, pleasure, fear, love, hate, dreams, defeat, ecstasy, tragedy, doom and so on into a story? And so I took a deep dive into hiccups. The medical term for these involuntary spasms of the diaphragm is singultus, from the Latin word for “gasp” or “sob.” I considered this etymology ad infinitum—gasp-sob after gasp-sob after gasp-sob—as my hiccups waged a brutal, bitter attack on my equilibrium. I called them my diatribes of the diaphragm and became obsessed with translating them into a meaningful metaphor for this blog.

My first thought was to compare hiccups to plot holes. Hiccups, like plot holes, become increasingly problematic as their frequency grows. But then what? Cure plot holes by breathing into a paper bag or guzzling a glass of water? The plot holes analogy seemed to be leading me down a cul de sac. I tried “cliches” on for size. One can be forgivable, even amusing. Two or three (assuming they’re not clustered) become annoying. More than three are deadly. As with plot holes, cliches didn’t seem to offer much substance beyond the initial concept, like a one-joke comedy sketch. I tried adverbs, grammatical errors, and typos. All for naught. As Jack London once wrote, “You can’t wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club.” I was flailing for that club.

Upon reflection, it became clear that I’d fallen victim to a rookie mistake: the lure of a shiny object. In this case, it was a metaphor that didn’t deliver on its promise. The hiccups were a square peg that I was determined to pound into a round hole. I had fallen in love with a flawed idea and was trying to stretch and manipulate it to succeed where it was destined to fail. After forty years of writing, you’d think I’d know better. But this happens to me all the time. I never get the message until I’ve wasted inordinate chunks of time. It’s embarrassingly common for me to come up with what seems to be an original, clever, and apt metaphor, simile or analogy, and I spend hours trying out dozens of sentence variations in a vain attempt to make it work. In my defense, I’ve yet to meet a writer who doesn’t suffer the same curse.

This all cycles back to the old saw: “murder your darlings” or “kill your babies.” This sage advice has been attributed to a variety of esteemed authors over the decades, most notably William Faulkner, Oscar Wilde, Eudora Welty, G.K. Chesterton, and Anton Chekov. Stephen King wrote a memorable variation on the theme: “kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” The irony is, in this case, “darlings” is a metaphor that works.

Arthur Quiller-Couch (public domain)

The true origin of the phrase, as is so often the case, comes from a lesser-known writer. The first-known adaptation of the metaphor arose from Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, a Cornish writer at the beginning of the twentieth century who wrote under the pseudonym “Q.” In 1913-1914 he delivered a series of lectures at Cambridge entitled “On the Art of Writing.” In one of these lectures—“On Style”—he ranted about “extraneous ornament.” In his words, “If you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”

The fact that this phrase, or some variation thereof, has survived for more than a century and been attributed to so many great writers, bespeaks its wisdom and insight. And so, I took it to heart. It was with great sadness, and not a little regret, that I consigned my respiratory agony to my compost heap of misguided ideas. Those three weeks may have loomed large in my medical history, but in my literary journey, they turned out to be little more than a minor hiccup.

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“What’s in a Name?” (by Angela Crider Neary)

Angela Crider Neary is an attorney, an avid mystery reader, and a mystery writer. She has had short stories in anthologies and in EQMM, and in 2015 her first mystery novel, Li’l Tom and the Pussyfoot Detective Bureau: The Case of the Parrots Desaparecidos, was published. It was followed up this year with a second installment in the series: L’il Tom and the Pussyfoot Detective Bureau: The Case of the New Year Dragon. My guess is that this series attracted a lot of readers right off the bat with its clever and charmingly named detective agency. In this post, Angela reflects on the importance of names in fiction.—Janet Hutchings

“What’s in a name?” Shakespeare’s famous quote tells us that a name doesn’t matter—a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet. And, of course, love transcends the differences between the names of the Montagues and Capulets.

This concept may not be so true, however, for story-writing purposes. After all, a name is a unique identifier that sets a character apart from the ordinary, displays his or her personality, or offers a glimpse into the character’s . . . well, character. A character name in a series of books can become iconic and act as the descriptor for the series. For example, Michael Connelly’s Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch is a familiar name to many mystery lovers, with books in the series referred to as “Harry Bosch novels.”

A crucial part of any story is the names of the characters. Naming a character or characters is likely one of the first things many writers do when formulating a story. It would be cumbersome, as well as devoid of personalization, to begin writing a tale with something like, “Character 1 made her way through the dark tunnel, pistol drawn. She saw a movement in the corner of her eye, pointed the gun in that direction, and fired. She shone a flashlight at the fallen body and was startled to discover she was looking into the face of Character 2.” The writer must relate to the characters in order to make them come alive on the page. Character names, however, are subject to change during the writing process where characters often take on a life of their own and may eventually suggest a more suitable name.

A name makes a character more human. Names can put the reader in the proper mindset, affect what the reader feels and thinks about the characters, and even set the tone of the story. Which brings to mind the question, how does a writer go about naming characters? Setting, geography, time period, religion, and culture, are just a few examples of factors that might play a part in what characters are named. A character’s name can also shape a character’s personality, actions, and even fate (think, a boy named Sue).

There are a myriad of ways that work to name characters in different circumstances, and the process is unique to the writer and the situation. A writer might pull a simple name out of thin air to name a character. But even then, the writer may have some angle in mind, be it conscious or subconscious. Further, a plain name might have more complex implications or indicate irony.

A writer might even use his or her friends’ names as characters, have a contest where a character is named after the winner, or offer to name a character after the name of the highest bidder at a charitable auction. My father, Bill Crider, named a character in his Sheriff Dan Rhodes series after a good friend. An interesting twist was that the character took on the characteristics of that particular friend.

I have heard of some who use online character-name generators—enter a brief description of the character and voilà!—instant character name. Some writers say that their characters tell them their names. Another good fallback is names of relatives—especially old-fashioned ones if a writer is naming older or eccentric characters. And, of course, naming a villain or murder victim after an ex-spouse/boyfriend/girlfriend can be quite satisfying, at least that’s what I’ve heard. Another option a writer might choose is to use a descriptive name for a character. Mr. Gradgrind from Dickens’ Hard Times comes to mind, whose name referenced his physically rigid appearance as well as his utilitarian nature.

Some writers draw their characters’ names from famous literature and art. The aforementioned Detective Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch is named after a fifteenth-century Dutch painter whose depictions of hell, debauchery, and the temptations of evil often parallel what Harry has seen in his life as the orphan of a murdered prostitute and his work as a detective in Los Angeles. It is said that Raymond Chandler named his character Philip Marlowe after Marlowe House at Dulwich College where Chandler was educated and which was named after Christopher Marlowe, an Elizabethan writer. I followed this pattern, myself, in my whimsical Li’l Tom and the Pussyfoot Detective Bureau books, an example of which is a cat named Purrsby, whose name was inspired by Thursby in The Maltese Falcon.

There are also pitfalls to avoid in naming characters. It trips me up when I’m reading a book and there are a couple of characters with similar names, like Aubrey and Audrey, or Stan and Dan. Also, if a character’s name doesn’t fit the character’s personality, it can be distracting, unless there is some core reason for the disparity.

So how important is a character’s name? Maybe Shakespeare was right. If a character has enough personality and depth, their name may be irrelevant. How did he name his star-crossed lovers, and did it really matter what they were named? In retrospect, it did matter, because where would we be without Romeo and Juliet? And would Sam Spade by any other name be Sam Spade? Sometimes, only time can tell.

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